First-Century Language in
Palestine and the Roman Empire
With Addendum on New Testament Texts
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
An important factor in understanding the language situation in the first century of the Christian era is bilingualism of multilingualism. We would expect a large percentage of the population of various ethnic groups to by functional, if not fluent, in two or more languages. This is commonly the character of many areas of the world today.
Keeping in mind that Rome reconfigured its Provinces every few years for a variety of reasons, ethnic, political or religious, we look at the broad background of Palestine during Roman rule.
In the Roman province of Judea (Yehuda), Aramaic vied with Greek in various spheres of the multi-ethnic societies of Judea, Samaria, Galilee, and the surrounding territories. Historical records, as well as the Christian Gospels, provide a vivid picture of the multi- ethnicity of these areas in the Roman period, which began in 63 BCE, when the Roman general Pompey captured Jerusalem and annexed independent Judea and its territories.
Judea and these tributary territories were themselves reorganized several times under the new Emperor Augustus and his successor Tiberius in the first century BCE and CE. The city of Antioch, established by Seleucos I Nicator, one of Alexander's generals, for whom the Seleucid Macedonian (Greek) dynasty of the east was named. Antioch was the capital of Greek Syria.
After the Bar Kokhba rebellion in Judea in 135 CE, the former provinces of Judea and Syria were combined in to a new Province called Syria-Palestina. In historical references, this area is generally referred to as Palestine.
The first churches we know of that sprang up outside Jerusalem were in in Antioch of Syria, and Samaria, which were bilingual areas. Syria was in the area associated with the old Assyrian Empire. Semitic languages had been spoken across that whole area for centuries, if not millennia.
Aramaic had been the working language of the Assyrian Empire, and was retained by the Chaldeans when they overthrew the Assyrian Empire after their expanse from southeastern Mesopotamia near the mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates. Aramaic became the common language and in some cases supplanted local ethnic languages as the mother tongue.
The common language of the Jews who returned from Babylon under the rule of the Persians was Aramaic. It appears Hebrew was still in use, however, going by the records of later prophets like Habakkuk and Malachi. At least, the books reporting their ministries were written in Hebrew.
A New Empire
But about a century after the reestablishment of Jerusalem under the patronage of the Persian house, a new power entered the area from the west. The Macedonian armies of Alexander managed to conquer the Persian Empire in short order. Alexander was on his way to subdue India when he died. His empire was divided into segments by his Macedonian generals. Seleucos took the eastern section including Syria and Persia with its previous Imperial territories.
Greek became the overlay administrative language of the Macedonian, or Greek, empires. This was the situation in Judea in the last 300 years before Christ.
Greek was retained as the administrative language of the Jewish Hasmonean dynasty that wrested full independence from the faltering Seleucid Empire in 167 BCE. Aramaic continued to be a common language of the general populace. Greek continued to grow more important in commerce and diplomacy.
Long-Time Greek Use
By the time of Christ, Greek had been the administrative and cultural language for over 3 centuries, along with the local and ethnic languages. The Aramaic-speaking areas would have spoken Greek also as a working language, and a primary language in many cases.
What we know of that Greek and Hasmonean Judean era fits the pattern of bilingualism for the elite and business class, at least in most of the urban societies and those along the major trade routes. This situation is common all over the world today. Most peoples of today's world live in multi-ethnic and multi-lingual situations.
Aramaic was a major language and an interlanguage, and existed in several dialects by that time. But the Aramaic-speaking areas had been taken over by Alexander's forces and incorporated with much of Central Asia and the east, in the new Hellenic Persian Empire (the Seleucids). The Greek language was retained by Rome as the administrative language in the areas it absorbed from the three Hellenic empires. This would include Roman Syria.
Thus both Aramaic and Greek forms of language were in common use across the eastern Roman Empire.
A form of the Greek language had long been influential across the Aramaic language and culture mosaic, it appears. Even the Hasmonean Judean dynasty issued coins and decrees and some of the public inscriptions were in Greek. Specialists have details on these. A quick Internet search will turn up a long list of resources on this topic.
The Maccabean (Hasmonean) period is worth some attention to understand the context into which the Lord was born, after only a few decades of Roman Rule. In 63 BCE, the Roman Empire annexed Judea and its territories.
For details on the Hasmonean independence war, becoming independent from the Macedonian Seleucid Empire, see the Maccabees books of the Apocrypha in your Bible.
Jesus was born only shortly after Augustus had implemented his defacto Emperorship and the deification of the Julian ruling dynasty. As you read resources on this period, watch for allusions to all these cultural and political streams in the Gospels.
The immediate followers of the Lord were from Galilee, which was a mixed ethnic area, as we see even from the variety of characters in the Gospels, and their immediate environs east and west of the area, being Greek or non-Jewish in ethnicity.
Major Roman centers had been established in Galilee. A new capital of Tiberias, named for the new Emperor Tiberius, was established on the western side of Lake Galilee and the fishing industry was commercialized by the Roman administration as a source of income. A new name was even given, or developed in local usage, for the Lake. Both names are used in the Gospels. Tiberius was Emperor from 14 to 37 CE.
The characters we see in the stories of the Gospels and Acts reflect this international character of Galilee. We would expect locals to be functional in Aramaic as well as Greek, the normal situation in such international, multi-ethnic settings. The "simple fishermen" Jesus chose, for instance, among his followers, would have needed to know Greek to interact with the fishers from the other side of the lake, which was a Greek-settled territory, called the Decapolis (Ten cities), as well as the Roman military, legal and government officials.
We would expect these documents to use the common Aramaic terms in the Greek of their broader audiences in representing the area. This also is a common characteristic of multilingual international regions like the Mediterranean. Paul's letters, which were written first, would have to be written in Greek, as they were directed to Hellenic Jewish-Gentile churches in traditional Greek and other ethnic locations, beyond historical Aramaic influence.
Asia (now know to us as Asia Minor or Anatolia, the country of Turkey) was a critical area of Roman commerce and administration, and a center for many pagan religions. Jews had long lived all over the area. The Aramaic terms of the local setting and common teachings among the locals in Galilee and Judea would have quickly circulated. It is thought that Jesus' teachings initially circulated orally in Aramaic.
It would seem to me that the first Aramaic believers and followers of Jesus would have had a working acquaintance with Greek if not common fluency or bilingualism. Most areas of the world over history and today speak two or more languages to some degree as a matter of course in daily life.
The largely monolingual pattern of Anglo North America is an anomaly even in today's world. This situation is ill-fitted as a reference point for how language figures in historical events and social movements.
All indications are that the Aramaic-speaking areas had long been under Hellenic influence or domination, and business, social and political leaders would have been competent and functionally bilingual if not fully bilingual, in a form of Greek. The cultural portrait seems to indicate terms that developed in the connected fellowships from the time of Jerusalem through the earliest congregations.
In Jerusalem, for those from the breadth of the Empire and outside it, mentioned in the Day of Pentecost in Luke's account, the only language they would have likely had in common would have been Greek, while the locals and many others would also have known Greek. Those from Egypt or Africa (the southern Mediterranean coast of the continent we now know as Africa) would not have been familiar with Aramaic.
The Jews of Greek Alexandria had been using Greek translations of their Scriptures for possibly over 200 years by the time of Jesus' birth. The Greek texts are referred to as the Septuagint (LXX).
Greek has been the language of administrative since Alexander's time and a large, important Jewish population had lived in Alexandria since early days of its founding. Jews are also mentioned in the New Testament from Cyrene, an ancient Greek colony predating the Roman Republic expansion outside its north Italian origins. Greek had been spoken there for centuries.
One group mentioned on the Day of Pentecost in Acts was "Parthians." Parthians were a Persian ethnicity from the eastern area of Old Persia, who had taken back the Persians Empire from the crumbling Macedonia dynasty that had ruled the region since the time of Alexander the Great.
The Macedonians (commonly referred to in our time as the Greeks) had ruled the area, including Palestine and Judea. The Parthians had gradually taken over their territory in the last two centuries. They were pressing the Romans in the first century before and after Christ. They invaded Rome again in year 62 of the Christian era. Rome had taken part of Macedonian Syria and was pressed by the Parthians there.
Judea had become a client state of the Parthian Empire for the last part of the Hasmonean dynasty. They were rescued by the romans, regaining strength after a devastating three-part Civil War. Rome annexed Syria, a territory of the Arab Nabateans and client to the Parthians, in 64 BCE and too Jerusalem in 63 BCE.
Notice that all the descriptions of the peoples mentioned in the Pentecost story are places. The "Parthians" referred to in the Pentecost story in Acts would have been Jews living there, as with all the other nationalities mentioned with their various foreign languages. They were among those who had gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover and following Pentecost celebrations with other Jews from all over the Roman Empire. The language they all would have had in common would have been Greek.
Much of the common vocabulary, showing up also in local ethnic languages, would have come from Greek and other pagan religious, commercial and political administrative uses, from the time of the Seleucid Empire back to around 300 BC and Hasmoneans and Roman Empire eras in the use of Greek by Aramaic speaking ethnicities under their rule. This is the character of multi-cultural and multi-ethnic societies even as we known them today around the world.
This summary provides a simple overview of the linguistic state of Judea and the broader region in the first century BCE and CE.
Addendum on New Testament Texts
One of the topics I have discussed on this website is Aramaic Primacy, the claim that all the New Testament documents were written first in Aramaic, not Greek. I did not write to advocate any position in that controversy. In that article, I am writing as a historical linguist and cultural specialist, addressing the logical problems and factual obstacles I see in Aramaic Primacy.
This is stated in the sub-title: "Cultural Settings for Greek and Aramaic as Literary Languages in the First Century." So in that article I was not arguing as an advocate of Greek Primacy, but was addressing, as the title states, "Problems Facing Aramaic Primacy Claims."
Holding a position is not my goal or interest. I am uncomfortable with the reductionist rationalist approach used by both sides in the discussion, as they argue several abstraction levels away from the actual facts of the context, arguing over ideological conclusions from their particular starting points. In such a format, never shall the twain meet.
I am concerned to honor the integrity of the Scriptures and to try to hear what they say in their own context and their own way. Perspective is the key thing for me here.
My contribution on this topic is to help clarify the context and linguistic situation. Positions, once developed, must be defended. That approach is the enemy of the discovery or proclamation of Truth, I think.
The Low Road
I find that, unfortunately, Aramaic primacists tend to express themselves in derogatory, bitter and hateful comments about Greek primacists, making fun of those who believe the New Testament documents were written originally in Greek. The attitude expresses itself in in hurtful barbs and ad hominems. All this reflects badly and negatively, of course, on our Lord and the Good News. Ideological addiction can destroy our spiritual character and witness.
Some of the arguments reflect simplistic concepts of language and assume a simple monolingual format for composition. They reveal ignorance of linguistic characteristics and assume simplistic folk concepts of language. These illogical arguments ignore the multilingual characteristics of the region in the first century (and later).
Sadly, Aramaic primacists tend to have a very condescending, arrogant and hateful attitude that denies the ethos of God's kingdom as we see it in Jesus' life and teachings.
Enlightening Cultural Flavor
Despite these character deficiencies, however, the Aramaicists bring out much of the intended flavor of the Gospel teachings. They provide insights into how the social and linguistic factors in the texts would have been handled in Aramaic.
But these were likely long conveyed in oral form within the disciple community before being committed to writing. Paul was the first writer of any document that became part of the New Testament, and he wrote letters to new churches where some were not even Jews, and the context was neither Jewish nor Aramaic. In many areas Jews were a decided minority.
From the theoretical points of view being argued, it is not a matter of great import to me. But in addition to the internal evidence in the documents, in the modern analytical format, the linguistic and cultural setting indicates that most if not all the documents we now have in the New Testament were written first in Greek. But a major problem in all this is focusing almost exclusively on writing -- when the whole cultural setting and background was oral.
Orality and Modern Literacy
The question, as posed, hides a complexity of layering that is involved in the final forms we see now. There is a difference in how writing and documents were developed and viewed and the role they play now and played in concrete-relational cultures, in contrast to our recent modern linear-abstract analytical way of looking at things.
There are modern assumptions about writing and authorship and such that impose an alien context upon the ancient setting and the writers. I address aspects of this in various ways. You might check under the topic of Orality, if you have not seen that section of the website.
So, simplistic concepts and simplistic answers are part of the problem in the proposal the Aramaicists make. I find that their arguments usually reflect very simplistic concepts of composition. What we think of as authorship is very different from how primarily oral cultures develop important truths in stories, in a communal fashion. Likewise how they capture and convey these in writing and how the writings were/are presented, usually orally, then preserved. My family and I lived with that kind of oral- relational culture within the African and Middle Eastern context.
Aramaic Primacists even assume usually that every document of what came to be the New Testament was written in the particular form of Aramaic known as Peshitta, even though actual historic linguistic studies and related cultural and historical studies mitigate against such a claim. Similarly western concepts have colored how westerners and Greek-preferential views interpret things.
As an anthropological linguist and an avid student of first century BCE-CE language use, it seems clear to me on several kinds of evidence, internal and external, that all or most of the New Testament documents were written in Greek. As mentioned earlier, the primary testimony to this is the areas to which the letters of the New Testament were written. Areas where Aramaic was not even known and used, even by many of the Jews.
Greek Language Areas
The primary Jewish Scriptures outside Palestine were the Septuagint, the first Greek translation of Torah and other Jewish texts, translated for Jews who had lived in Greek areas of the region for centuries.
Specialists have written extensively on this in books and Internet sources. I won't try to recapitulate those analyses and arguments. A quick Internet search will yield a plethora of sources. See links at the end of this article for pertinent links to sources on the oral and written composition of the Gospels. A search on our site will yield many links on the topics.
It would make absolutely no sense for Paul to use Aramaic to write about the most important and intimate matters to a Greek-speaking multilingual community in Asia (Asia Minor, or Turkey in our reference) or Achaia, the home of the Greek language and culture, when even the Jews or many Aramaeans who lived in those areas no longer spoke Aramaic, but only Greek.
Gauls and Others
And of course we would expect, for instance, that the Gauls would retain their Gaulic speech as well as the Greek they had needed to participate in Roman forces where they served. The Lycaonians, similarly, and other local peoples may have retained their ethnic language during the Hellenic era also, but no details are available that I know of.
The Roman Province of Asia was the base of the old Hittite Empire, whose ethnic language was also Indo-European, related to the Greek, Latin, Persian and Sanskrit families, among others, but not mutually intelligible with Greek dialects across the bay in Achaia.
The whole world in that era was oriented to ethnicities, not "countries" or nation-states as we tend to think of our world today. There are hundreds of languages spoken in Europe even today, for instance, but people tend to think of one language in each country.
Links to other 1st Century language-culture articles:
Greek and Aramaic Among 1st Century Jews
Greek and Aramaic Among 1st Century Jews
Jesus' Knowledge of Greek: The Role of Language and Motif in the Fourth Gospel Narratives
Jesus and the Hebrew Language
Josephus and Aramaic Primacy: The Language and Literacy Culture of First Century AD
Languages Jesus Spoke
The Oral Greek Character of Paul's Writings
Oral-Relational Dynamics in Biblical Interpretation
Articles on Aramaic Primacy:
Josephus and Aramaic Primacy: The Language and Literacy Culture of First Century AD
Primacy and Possibility -- Problems Facing Aramaic Primacy Claims: Cultural Settings for Greek and Aramaic as Literary Languages in the First Century
Thoughts on Aramaic Primacy: Was the New Testament first Written in Aramaic?
Related on the Internet:
Links to Judea, Seleucids and Rome:
Pompey's Subjection of Judea
The Roman-Parthian Wars
The Seleucid Empire
Links to The Maccabees and the Hasmonean Jewish
The Books of the Maccabees
The Maccabees, Priestly Jewish Family
Links to Aramaic Languages and Gospel Traditions:
Aramaic Primacy - Confusion of Different Aramaics
The Myth of an Aramaic Original New Testament
Oral Aramaic storytelling Behind a Greek Composition
The Oral Gospel Tradition
Links to Galilee of the Gentiles:
The Decapolis and its Cities
Galilee of the Gentiles - 8th Century BC
Galilee of the Gentiles -- Historical Multiethnicity in Galilee
Links to Lake Tiberias:
Lake Kinneret or Gennessaret, a third name for Galilee
The Sea by Both Names
Tiberias, City and Lake
First written 5-6 November 2016 in a text messaging discussion with
Developed October and November 2017, January 2018
Article posted 20 January 2018
Last edited 5 March 2022
Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2018, 2022 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Please give credit and link back. Other rights reserved.