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Jesus-Speak in the LXX

June 11, 2014

What was the language of Jesus in the LXX? According to his Greek-language translator, it was Ἑβραϊστί (or “hebraisti”). Well, that raises lots of questions, doesn’t it? Who is Jesus in the Septuagint? Who is his translator? And most importantly — given“The Latest Jesus-Speak” — what is “”hebraisti”? Is it Aramaic? Is it Hebrew?

We may recall how Seth Sanders argues that it’s “fascinatingly wrong” to refer to “hebraisti” as “Hebrew” since, Sanders explains, it has to “indicate ‘the speech of the Hebrews’” and since, Sanders insists, the speech of the Hebrews just has to be Aramaic. Here’s the quotation of Sanders again:

Few sacred texts confuse monolingual thinkers as badly as the Gospels, where Hebrew and Aramaic seem to be repeatedly confused. In John 20, Mary Magdalene is described as calling the resurrected Jesus “rabbuni,” which, every standard translation tells us, is Hebrew and means “teacher.” This is fascinatingly wrong. It’s actually the only time in the New Testament that an Aramaic form of the word is used; every other time Jesus is addressed with a similar term it’s the Hebrew “Rabbi.” Indeed, all the comprehensible words in John labeled “hebraisti” (translated “Hebrew”), like Golgotha, are Aramaic (the –tha ending—as in Mark’s famous talitha cumi, “rise (from the dead) o girl!”—is a giveaway).

The Greek writer of John was not using “Hebrew” (hebraisti) as a pure linguistic term, however, but as a cultural one to indicate “the speech of the Hebrews,” which points to an inextricably hybrid situation that baldly violates our later monoglot (and nationalist) ideals.

Again, we may note how he misses the fact that just as in John 20, in Mark 10 somebody is described as calling Jesus “rabbuni.” And Sanders misses this other user of  Ἑβραϊστί (or “hebraisti”) indicating “the speech of the Hebrews.” It’s that language of Jesus in the Septuagint which raises all those questions.

One of the Jesuses in the LXX is the writer of a treatise called Sirach, which is short for The Wisdom of Jesus, the Son of Sirach. The treatise is also known by a Greek name, Εκκλησιαστής (or “Ecclesiasticus”), indicating something like “Assembly Manual.” The translator of Jesus’s Wisdom is Jesus’s grandson, who writes, in his translator’s prologue, his own Greek, about how much forceful the language called  Ἑβραϊστί (or “hebraisti”). Here’s an English language translation of that Greek.

So, what is Ἑβραϊστί (or “hebraisti”)?

Well, to find answers we might look at Ιουδαιστί (or “Judaisti”) and at Ἀζωτιστὶ (or “Azotisti”) and at Χαλδαϊστὶ (or “Chaldaisti”) and at Συριστὶ (or “Syristi”) and what they indicate in their more than a dozen uses total elsewhere in the LXX. Don’t they seem to refer to Hebrew and to the language of Ashdod and to Chaldean language and to Syrian or Aramaic respectively?

Or we might look at even older Greek literary uses of words like Ἀνδριστί (or “Andristi”). Doesn’t this seem to indicate “the speech of the Men”?

At least for the Woman Praxagora, speaking to the other Women — in the play of Aristophanes called Ἐκκλησιάζουσαι (or “Ecclesiazusae”) to indicate something like “Assembly Women” — there’s this use of the word:

Quick then, take the chaplet; the time’s running short. Try to speak worthily, let your language be truly manly [ Ἀνδριστί (or “Andristi”)], and lean on your staff with dignity.

So it would seem in this small Greek body of literature that the suffix -ιστί (or “-isti”) indicates “-Speak” as in Hebrew-speak or Jewish-speak or Ashdod-speak or Chaldean-speak or Syrian-speak or Man-speak. And that would suggest, despite what Sanders argues and insists, that Jesus-speak in the LXX is written Hebrew translated into Greek by his grandson.

(One little parenthetical note is this. Those interested in studying this very question from real experts who disagree with Sanders’ argument might pick up a copy of Discovering the Language of Jesus by Douglas Hamp and/or by looking at Hamp’s website And online also there’s also Randall Buth’s and Chad Pierce’s excellent essay “Hebraisti in Ancient Texts: Does Ἑβραϊστί Ever Mean ‘Aramaic’.”)


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