Skip to content

Latin-Speaking Jesus

June 18, 2014

Jesus talked in Latin. At least the synoptic Greek gospels have him doing so rather clearly.

Before we get to that, let’s get to a letter in Latin written long before Jesus, a letter that uses one Roman military phrase that Jesus spoke and understood. Here’s the letter (translated into English by Evelyn S. Shuckburgh around one hundred years ago, with certain Roman-Latin phrases interpolated and put into bold font by me):

On the 15th of April, the day on which Pansa was to arrive at the camp of Hirtius, with the former of whom I was—for I had gone along the road a hundred miles to hasten his arrival-Antony brought out two legions [legiones], the second and the thirty-fifth, and two praetorian cohorts [cohortis praetorias], one his own and the other that of Silanus, and a party of reservists [vocatorum partem]. He confronted us with such a force because he thought that we had only four legions of recruits [legiones tironum]. But in the course of the night, in order to enable us to reach the camp in greater safety, Hirtius had sent us the Martian legion [legionem Martiam]—which I usually command—and two praetorian cohorts [cohortes praetoriae]. As soon as Antony’s horsemen [equites Antoni] came in sight, neither the Martian legion [legio Martia] nor the cavalry [cohortes praetoriae] could be held back. The rest of us were obliged to follow them, as we could not stop them. Antony was keeping his men [copias] under cover at Forum Gallorum, and did not wish it to be known that he had the legions [legiones]. He was allowing none but his cavalry [tantum equitatum] and light-armed men [levem armaturam] to be seen. When Pansa saw that the legion [legionem] was advancing in spite of him, he ordered two legions of recruits [legiones iussit tironum] to follow his lead. As soon as we had got past the narrow ground of marsh and forest, our line [acies] was drawn up, consisting of twelve cohorts [cohortium]. The two legions [legiones] had not yet come up. All on a sudden Antony brought his forces [copias] out of the village on to the field, and without waiting charged. At first the fighting was as keen as it was possible for it to be on both sides: although the right wing [dexterius cornu], on which I was with eight cohorts of the Martian legion [Martiae legionis cohortibus], had at the first brush put Antony’s thirty-fifth legion [legionem] to flight, so that it advanced more than five hundred paces beyond the line from its original ground. Accordingly, when the cavalry attempted to outflank our wing [cornu], I began to retire and to throw my light-armed troops [me coepi et levem armaturam] in the way of the Moorish cavalry [Maurorum equitibus], to prevent their charging my men in the rear. Meanwhile, I became conscious that I was between two bodies of Antony’s troops, and that Antony was himself some way on my rear. I at once galloped towards the legion of recruits [legionem tironum] that was on its way up from camp, with my shield slung behind my back. Antony’s men set off in pursuit of me; while our own menbegan pouring in a volley of pila. It was a stroke of good luck that I got safely out of it, for I was soon recognized by our men. On the Aemilian road itself, where Caesar’s praetorian cohort [cohors Caesaris praetoria] was stationed, the fight was protracted. The left wing [cornu sinisterius], being somewhat weak, consisting of two cohorts of the Martian legion [Martiae legionis duae cohortes] and a praetorian cohort [cohors praetoria], began to give ground, because it was in danger of being outflanked by the cavalry [equitatu], in which Antony is exceedingly strong. When all our lines had retired, I began retiring myself towards the camp on the extreme rear. Antony, regarding himself as having won the victory, thought that he could capture our camp. But when he reached it he lost a large number of men [compluris] without accomplishing anything. The news having reached Hirtius, he met Antony as he was returning to his own camp with twenty veteran cohorts [cohortibus xx veteranis], and destroyed or put to flight his whole force [copiasque], on the same ground as the battle had been fought, namely, at Forum Gallorum. Antony, with his cavalry [equitibus], reached his camp near Mutina at the fourth hour after sunset. Hirtius returned to the camp, from which Pansa had issued, where he had left the two legions [legiones] which had been assaulted by Antony. Thus Antony has lost the greater part of his veteran forces [maiorem suarum copiarum]. This, however, naturally could not be accomplished without some loss in our praetorian cohorts [cohortium praetoriarum] and the Martian legion [legionis Martiae]. Two eagles and sixty colours of Antony’s have been brought in. It is a great victory.
16 April, in camp.

Here is an encyclopedic entry on this letter by one George Edward Jeans, written twenty years earlier:

April 16, 711 A.v.c. (43 B.C.)

This letter gives an account of the battle of Forum Gallorum (a hamlet on the Aemilian road between Bologna and Modena, perhaps the place now called Castelfranco), or, as it is sometimes called, the first battle of Mutina. Victory on the whole declared for the consuls, but the rather indecisive success was more than counterbalanced by the mortal wound received by Pansa, of which he died within a fortnight. The date of the battle is fixed beyond question by this letter to the 15th, though Ovid (Fasti, iv. 625) assigns it to the 14th. On the receipt of the news it was proposed by Servilius to declare the state of siege ended, and to celebrate a public thanksgiving for the victory. On this occasion Cicero delivered his fourteenth and last Philippic, declaring the former part of the proposal premature, but warmly seconding the latter.

The letter is clear and soldier-like, reminding us, says Mr. Forsyth, of the Duke of Wellington’s famous despatch after Waterloo. The author, Servius Sulpicius Galba, was one of the less prominent of Caesar’s murderers, and was now in command of the Martian legion. He was great-grandfather of the Emperor Galba.

Now, here is Jesus talking in Latin, using one of the words written by Servius Sulpicus Galba to Marcus Tullius Cicero (translated into English from the Greek and the Greek transliterated Latin in the early 1920s by Edgar J. Goodspeed):

Then Jesus said to him,
“Put your sword back where it belongs! For all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you suppose I cannot appeal to my Father, and he would at once furnish me more than twelve legions [λεγιῶνας, legiones] of angels? But then how are the Scriptures to be fulfilled, which say this must happen?” [Matthew 26:52-54]


And Jesus asked him,
“What is your name?”
He said,
Legion! [Λεγιών, Legio]” For many demons had gone into him.
[Luke 8:30]


He asked him,
“What is your name?”
He said,
“My name is Legion [Λεγιών, Legio], for there are many of us.”
[Mark 5:9]


When they came to Jesus and found the demoniac sitting quietly with his clothes on and in his right mind
— the same man who had been possessed by Legion [Λεγιών, Legio]
they were frightened.
[Mark 5:15]

Now, to be clear, this last verse I’ve quoted — Mark 5:15 — is not Jesus talking in Latin but rather the writer writing in Greekified Latin. What Mark’s readers get is that this is a military term, an imperial Roman name.

If we English readers wanted to get really specific, then we might turn to the Latin dictionary of Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short. They write:

a Roman legion. It consisted of 10 cohorts of foot-soldiers and 300 cavalry, making together between 4200 and 6000 men. As a general rule, the legion was composed of Roman citizens; it was only on the most pressing occasions that slaves were taken into it. The standard was a silver eagle. The legions were usually designated by numerals, according to the order in which they were levied.

Now, if we go back and read the gospels in Greek, we see that there is also Latin. The Roman language is being played with for readers in the empire. The various texts, and the contexts, sharply and rather violently separate who Jesus is as a Jew from the goyim conquerers in Jerusalem and in the territory of pork eating un-clean-spirit-inhabited men, the Roman territory of the Gadarenes (χώρα τῶν Γαδαρηνῶν, chō̇ra tō̇n Gadarēnō̇n).

update: It might be useful to note other BLT posts related to Jesuses using various languages: here, here, and here.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 18, 2014 7:01 pm

    Fascinating! But wasn’t this loanword common in the Greek of the time anyway?

    The use of loan words in the ancient world is endlessly fascinating. The sixth (supplemental) volume of the second edition of Blackman’s highly capable translation of the Mishnah includes an extensive appendix on Greek loanwords appearing in the Mishnah, for example.

    See also this essay by Julia G. Krivoruchko (now on staff at the Taylor-Scechter Genizah Research Unit at Cambridge University — particularly of interest is her section two describing the technical and sociological difficulties associated with the study of Greek loanwords in Hebrew.

    Along similar lines, it has long been noted that not just Greek, but also Latin and Aramaic loanwords are used throughout the Mishnah — see for example this quote from Jewish Encylopedia:

    The Mishnah is written in a peculiar kind of Hebrew, which is far more different from the Hebrew of the earlier books of the Old Testament than from that of some of the later ones and which is, therefore, correctly designated as “Neo-Hebraic.” This language was spoken by the people of Palestine as late as the second century of the common era, but was cultivated especially by the scholars; so that it was called “leshon ḥakamim” = “the speech of the wise.” It contains many old Hebraic terms which were preserved in popular speech, although they are not found in the Bible, as well as numerous foreign elements, especially from Aramaic, Greek, and Latin; the scholars being forced to adopt these loanwords as terms for objects and concepts which were formerly unknown and for which there were no designations in the Hebrew vocabulary. Foreign words were especially used to designate implements borrowed from foreign peoples (comp. Weiss, “Mishpaṭ Leshon ha-Mishnah,” pp. 1-7; A. Geiger, “Lehrbuch zur Sprache der Mischna,” pp. 1-3); and these borrowed terms were so Hebraized as to be taken by many for native words.

    I find the last sentence of this quote to be particularly telling.

    Of course, it would arguably be more surprising that if an anti-Roman activist such as Jesus did not have a (highly negative term) to describe the basic military unit of oppressive forces that exercised direct military control over Palestine. Little wonder that under his persuasive rhetoric, the basic unit of the Roman army later became synonymous with masses of demons!

  2. June 18, 2014 11:41 pm

    @Theophrastus “Little wonder that under his persuasive rhetoric, the basic unit of the Roman army later became synonymous with masses of demons!” Tee hee!

    Kurk, I think you have made the case that Jesus uttered Latin, not that he spoke Latin. 😉

  3. June 19, 2014 8:19 am

    Yes, fascinating! And yes often loanwords really are so thoroughly borrowed that they seem like part and parcel of the new host language where they’re heard. When we consume a piece of pizza, a taco, some sushi or a latte, there’s no need to translate a thing. But in less happy contexts we might speak of the drug czar or of a gulag, or of a fatwa or jihad, or talk of “hari kari” (腹切り) or consider someone a shogun or geisha, and then we may have to explain ourselves if our listeners aren’t following why we’ve peppered our utterance with such a charged – foreign – phrase.

    Thanks for sharing Krivoruchko’s important work, The motivations are more important, it seems, than the actual choices achieved in the efforts to shape language. I love how she observes this:

    With the establishment of the state of Israel, the academic elite of the new nation was no less eager to project the image of the ‘European Israeli’ than their nineteenth-century predecessors that of the ‘European Jew’. The new round of emancipation resulted in equally apologetic scholarly motivation: the more Greek words can be found in Jewish sources, the more Hellenised and civilised ancient and medieval Israel was supposed to be.

    The creation of the LXX in Alexandria, Egypt – despite the legends and the lore – likely had similar motivations to project certain images with the cosmopolitan pressures.

    Much closer to home, on motivations, did you happen to read Noam Scheiber’s reasons for abandoning speaking Hebrew? Very personal stuff in his family here.

    As for your question, I really don’t think that “Legio” was a common loanword. I don’t see Chariton using it in his first-century Greek novel, and very surprisingly Titus Flavius Josephus doesn’t use the phrase, does he? Outside of the gospel uses I’ve noted in the post, nowhere else in the NT is the phrase used.

    Here’s a comprehensive list of Latin loanwords in the NT compiled by James Orr (Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. Entry for ‘Latin’. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. 1915.) –

    There are Latin words in the New Testament: In particular Latin proper names like Aquila, Cornelius, Claudia, Clemens, Crescens, Crispus, Fortunatus, Julia, Junia, etc., even among the Christians in the New Testament besides Agrippa, Augustus, Caesar, Claudius, Felix, Festus, Gallio, Julius, etc.

    Besides we find in the New Testament current Latin commercial, financial, and official terms like ἀσσάριον , assárion ( as ), δηνάριον , dēnárion ( denarius ), κεντυρίων , kenturı́ōn ( centurio ),κῆνσος , kḗnos ( census ), κοδράντης , kodrántēs ( quadrans ), κολωνία , kolōnı́a ( colonia ), κουστωδία , kōustōdia ( custodia ), λεγεών , legeṓn ( legio ), λίτρα , léntion ( linteum ), λιβερτῖνος, libertı́nos ( libertinus ), λίτρα , lı́tra ( litra ), μάκελλον , mákellon ( macellum ), μεμβράνα , membrána ( membrana ), ίλιον , mı́lion ( mille ), μόδιος , módios ( modius ), ξέτης , xéstēs ( sextarius), πραιτώριον , praitoriṓn ( praetorium ), σικάριος , sikários ( sicarius ), σιμικίθιον , simikı́nthion ( semicinctium ), σουδάριον , soudárion ( sudarium ), σπεκουλάτωρ , spekoulátōr ( speculator ),ταβέρνα , tabérna ( taberna ), τίτλος , tı́tlos ( titulus ), φελόνης , phelónēs ( paenula ), φόρον , phóron ( forum ), φραγέλλιο , phragéllion ( flagellum ), φραγελλόω , phragellóō ( flagello ), χάρτης, chártēs ( charta? ), χῶρος , chṓros ( chorus ).

    Then we meet such adjectives as Ἡρωδιανοί , Hērōdianoı́ , Φιλιππήσιοι , Philippḗsioi , Χριστιανοί , Christianoı́ , which are made after the Latin model. Mark’s Gospel shows more of these Latin words outside of proper names (compare Romans 16 ), as is natural if his Gospel were indeed written in Rome.

    What Orr stresses about the gospel of Mark is interesting. And yet I think the two uses of “Legio” there in the single context (and the use by Matthew then, and also the one by Luke) don’t suggest this is a common loanword.

  4. June 19, 2014 8:29 am

    You’re right, and I also think that the gospel writers have Jesus actually code switching. (And they’re getting readers also to code switch). He – Jesus – seems to be motivated by the third, fourth, or fifth reasons for code switching that one Matt Thompson identifies here:

    Another NPR article refers to a blog where bilingual mothers talk of codeswitching that their children do:

    Mark 5 has Jesus speaking to a girl he’s resurrecting, in the presence of the parents, and Mark switches Jesus into Aramaic, which wakes up the “sleeping” (dead) girl.

    It would seem that our personalities change depending on the language we speak or utter:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: