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That Abominable Greek?
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Josephus writes that it was an abomination for a Hebrew to write or learn Greek, and that even after doing it himself for 25 years, he hadn't mastered it.

Does he?  Are you sure you have the wording correct here?  And was it Josephus who said that?  While I am certainly not an authority on Josephus, I am not aware of such a claim.  A rather extensive search for that came up empty.

I have seen secondary references to an attitude by the Jewish "authorities" (a vague reference that leaves these "authorities" undefined religiously, socially or politically, nor with any time period) "forbade" the learning of Greek.

Who were these "authorities?"  At what level of authority or enforcement was such a prohibition issued?  What was the time period?  What social context are we considering?  The info is out there somewhere, but I keep missing it.

This is obviously not the rule, however official at some level, since the facts indicate the opposite.  I have not found any actual quote to place or clarify that in any way.

Of course, such a resentment of the language would be understandable, given over 250 years of domination by one Greek Empire or another, then a century of Hellenistic Jewish rule, followed by a century or more of Roman rule, using the same language of Gentile Empire.

But we should not make more than of that than it is, noting the context and the realities in operation.  The Pharisees and Sadducees were the primary "authorities" in the Roman era, and they certainly used Greek, since they or anyone cooperating with the Romans would have and are well-documented to have communicated constantly to the Romans.  Whether they liked the Romans or not.

Rabbinic Technique
There is no way they could have literally condemned and prohibited the use of Greek language!  Such a phrase does, however, sound like a common example of emotional exaggeration, a common technique in the teaching of Rabbis, including Jesus.  Humor and satire are powerful point-makers!

This does not tell us much if anything about the need or choice of a language in the various levels of communication with Gentiles at large.

Practical Realities
Let's keep things in perspective, in the context of that dynamic and multi-cultural setting.  Other evidence from the Empire society of the period clearly indicates that Greek was the common language, and as we see was the language used in communication with groups of individuals in the Syrian and northern Mediterranean areas of the Empire.

And do we have any information about any prohibition by Hellenistic Jewish "authorities" against speaking Greek in the Greek areas where the majority of Jews lived in the Roman Empire?  Jews had Greek names, were married to Greek (or other Gentile) spouses, lived in Greek-speaking (and/or other "Gentile" language) areas of the Empire.

Of course they spoke Greek, and outside Judea, there is no pattern of resentment or rejection I have seen evidence of.  On the contrary, even the book of Acts reports that Jews from all over the Empire are known by and personally comment on their speaking the tongues of the Empire as native languages.  They comment that they have heard the words of these messianic believers praising God in each of their languages from their home area of the Empire.

Acts mentions some specific instances of different language being used.  Paul is reported as speaking Greek to Greek-speaking groups (the Roman authorities) and Aramaic to others.  So Paul obviously did not think Greek was an abomination, albeit he was a Pharisee and an aristocrat.  We have every reason to think Greek was his native tongue, given his place of birth and family background.

Paul, like Josephus, cited the Greek version of the Bible, as indeed it appears did most of the Jewish writers of New Testament documents.  If he wanted to communicate with the new churches in the Gentile cities where he worked he had to speak and write in Greek.  Aramaic would have been useless in Achaia and Cilicia or Galatia.

Difficulty Learning
What I recall is that, as in the second part of your statement, Josephus spoke of his own difficulty in mastering the Greek language.  This claim about reading and writing Greek being an abomination for a Jew does not sound authentic.

Josephus was writing in Greek!  He worked with and wrote for Roman Emperors and other Imperial officials.  In light of the practical historical realities, such a claim sounds ridiculous if taken literally.

By that standard the whole Hasmonean Jewish dynasty, which ruled Judea for about a century before the Roman era, was abominable.  They printed their coins in Greek.  They engraved their monuments in Greek.

An Abominable 25 Years
If it was, in fact, an abomination "for a Hebrew to write or learn Greek," then why was a son of a priest spending 25 years of his life in committing that abomination!?  His difficulty in learning it did not limit him using it, writing everything, except perhaps one work, in Greek.  Check out the historians and other specialists for these details.

"The works of Josephus were all composed in the Greek language, with the exception of his first draft of the "Jewish War," which was in Aramaic. His principal purpose was to communicate to the Greco-Roman world the knowledge of the history of his people, whom he defends and glorifies in every possible way. ... Josephus draws almost exclusively from the Bible in the Septuagint version...."

Pronunciation Problems
Josephus seems to be speaking of his own difficulty with foreign languages, though he himself was writing (or dictating) in Greek, so it did not seem all that bad for him, despite his claim that he never mastered it.  In another place Josephus indicates his problem was pronunciation.

In Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus speaks of his poor accent in Greek, despite his success in mastering the language and the learning of the Greeks:

...I have also taken a great deal of pains to obtain the learning of the Greeks, and understand the elements of the Greek language, although I have so long accustomed myself to speak our own tongue, that I cannot pronounce Greek with sufficient exactness; for our nation does not encourage those that learn the languages of many nations....
            Antiquities of the Jews 20,11.2

For Josephus Greek may have been an abominable language, though I have not seen a phrase stating that.  That is very different from your wording above.  Remember he was a Judean, and of the associated with the Sadducees, as the son of a priest and descendant of the Hasmonean Judean Kings, though formally a member of the Pharisee party.  He used the Greek version of the Bible (the Septuagint).

Not Reliable
At any rate, you will hear various scholars of the era warn us that Josephus is not a reliable witness on such cultural things.  But I defer to those who are specialists in this area.  Josephus is NOT representative of the Jewish milieu.  If Josephus made any strange comment like this, his seems to be a lone voice in that regard.

Most important, note that Josephus was NOT a Galilean, but a Judean.  I discuss elsewhere the difference between the cultural and linguistic character of Judea and Galilee.

He was of priestly background, so his perspective is very different from that of anyone we see involved in the early Christian movement.  He was writing from within a Roman environment for a Roman environment.  He moved to Rome after joining the Roman side in the Judean rebellion.  He has a spotty history.

Read some of Josephus' references to some people and events from Hebrew scripture and tradition.  Scholars comment that he got a lot of things wrong or purposefully adjusted them for his audience.  His reference to characters and situations out of the Greek version of the Hebrew scriptures seems to represent an alternative version.

The following source comments that Josephus drew upon popular legends and folk versions to fill out some of the scriptural stories.  He also depended upon Greek writers, even for late Jewish history.  Greek was not an abomination for Josephus.  It was his lifeline.

"Josephus draws almost exclusively from the Bible in the Septuagint version, but he modifies the Biblical story and supplements it by legends, following current traditions. Here and there he seems to have employed also Hellenistic compilations of Biblical history, especially those of Demetrius and Artapanus. Finally, he inserted notices from Greek writers of profane history when he dealt, for instance, with the flood, with primitive man, with Phoenician history, and the like. ... [For] the period from Alexander the Great to the time of the Maccabees, filling the gap with an extensive extract from Pseudo-Aristeas (see ARISTEAS) on the origin of the Greek translation of the Bible. For the history of the Maccabees (175-135 B.C.) he had an excellent source in I Maccabees (see APOCRYPRA, A, IV., 9), which he supplemented from the works of Polybius. The later history of the Hasmoneans seems to depend upon the more general works of Strabo and Nicolas of Damascus. The main source for the history of Herod (books XV.-XVII.) was Nicolaus Damascenus, who, as an intimate councilor of Herod, was acquainted with the internal history of the court and described in great detail the history of his land. ... For the last decades Josephus was able to draw from oral information or from his own experience. He inserted a number of documents--decrees of the Roman senate, letters of Roman magistrates, decrees of cities of Asia Minor under Roman influence, and the like--the majority of these dating from the time of Caesar and Augustus and having high value. The genuineness of the passage on Jesus Christ (XVIII., iii. 3) is generally given up."

I'd suggest you look further into Josephus' background.

Positive Testimonies
A claim that Greek was an abomination is further contradicted enormously in Jewish testimony. Just the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek long before the time of Jesus belies this claim.  Most of the quotes from the Hebrew Scriptures in the New Testament are directly from the Greek Septuagint, which certainly does not say it was "an abomination" to read or write in Greek!

And what about the outstanding counter-examples in Roman and Greek history.  Zeno was a Jew from Cyprus, like Paul's companion Barnabas.  Zeno, like Barnabas, was definitely literate and definitely an expert in Greek, his native language!

Zeno was the founder of the Stoic philosophical school.  Their preaching methods were very similar to what we see used by the apostles in the book of Acts.

Similarly the Jewish neo-Platonic philosopher Philo, an Alexandrian Jew.  As far as we know, Philo was a native speaker of Greek, as was the case in this Greek city and other the north African cities.  His philosophy provided the major foundation of western European thinking at the formal level in early Roman Europe and later in the scholastic period of the middle ages.

Philo, generally contemporary with Jesus and Paul (20 BC - 50 AD, was a noted philosopher among the Greeks, and a critical figure in history and modern philosophy.  Philo drew upon Plato's thought, becoming known as the founder of neo-Platonism, and related these Platonic concepts to the concepts of the Jewish traditions.

We would expect Philo, being an Alexandrian, to be a Greek speaker and as a philosopher, a high adept in the language and logic of Greek.  It is uncertain he even knew Hebrew.

"Philo read the Jewish Scriptures chiefly in the Septuagint Greek translation.  His knowledge of Hebrew has been a matter of scholarly dispute, with most scholars arguing that he did not read the language.  One piece of evidence that supports that hypothesis is Philo's creative (often fanciful) use of etymologies.  His knowledge of Jewish law and Midrash was extensive, but did not contribute significantly to later rabbinic tradition."

A Jew, a Greek speaker, a Greek writer, Greek philosophical milieu, a great influence on the whole Greek world and the whole Western world.

Whatever the Greek language was to Josephus and his people, it was not an abomination.

Also related
[TXT] Greek and Aramaic Among 1st Century Jews
[TXT] Hebrew Usage in the First Century
[Resource Set] How to Learn a Language and a Culture
[TXT] Jesus' Knowledge of Greek: The Role of Language and Motif in the Fourth Gospel Narratives
[TXT] Josephus and Aramaic Primacy: The Language and Literacy Culture of First Century AD
[TXT] The Language Jesus Used
[TXT] Primacy and Possibility:  Problems Facing Aramaic Primacy Claims
          (Cultural Settings for Greek and Aramaic as Literary Languages in the First Century)

Related Articles on the Internet
Antiquities of the Jews 20,11.2
Exile — Jewish Virtual Library
The Greek History of the Middle East from 330 BCE.  Brief Historical Background To The New Testament
Josephus, Flavius
Josephus - A Most Amazing Man Indeed


Topic originally adressed in a reply to an email query 07 July 2011
Finalized and posted on OJTR 2 October 2011
Last edited 14 August 2012

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2011 Orville Boyd Jenkins
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