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Josephus and Aramaic Primacy:
The Language and Literacy Culture of First Century AD

Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

In the discussion of whether the Aramaic language might have been the language of composition of the New Testament documents, I received a note from a reader.  He asks about a comment by a Jewish historian, Josephus, who lived a few decades after Jesus.  This correspondent asks if a statement by Josephus might be taken as a support for the intriguing theory of Aramaic Primacy.

Josephus was pro-Roman in his political and social attitudes, but as a historian, he writes to interpret his Jewish people and their culture and history to the Greco-Roman world at large.

Josephus did not comment on the writings of the Christians.  He likewise did not comment on the role of Greek or Aramaic usage in Galilee or Judea.  He does make one comment about his own use of Greek:

...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

Context
What does Josephus intend to tell us in this simple expression of difficulty he had with formal Greek?  Does this statement tell us anything about the use of Aramaic and Greek in literature?  In popular writing?  Does this tell us anything about the broader Jewish situation in the Roman Empire that might be pertinent to the matter of language in the varied original documents of what we now know as the New Testament?

Much exciting discussion has been occurring and many new first-century sources have been recovered in recent years that give us extensive insights and actual written materials, as well as contemporary commentary from writers of various nationalities in the Roman Empire.  All recent writers, from various disciplines, who have commented on the culture of the first century declare that Greek was the common language of the Jews, though in Palestine Aramaic was also used.

Concerning Josephus' Quote Itself:
1.  What Josephus says here does not address the question of what language the various documents of the New Testament were originally written in.  They express a personal testimony of Josephus' experience in his language and cultural heritage.  His one comment about the Jewish attitude toward learning languages of other ethnic groups is not unusual, but might have some minor bearing on the factor of preference for language in regard to cultural focus.

2.  The comment is somewhat unique, since all other information from the era indicates that Greek had become the primary language of Palestine.  Some of the sources linked on my articles explain details of that.  Notably the Hasmonean Jewish dynasty that ruled between the Greeks and the Romans, used Greek, stamping their coins in Greek only, except for the first issue which also included Hebrew.  Greek was their language of administration, with Aramaic the public interface at large for the region, since many of the ethnicities and territories they conquered and incorporated into their new enlarged nation of Judea apparently spoke only Aramaic.

3.  Josephus was a priest, and thus of the inner circle which did maintain a Hebrew context for longer than any other group until the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem in 70 CE.  It is likely that Aramaic was used commonly among the different groups of Jews in the Roman province of Judea and perhaps between the Judeans and the semi-autonomous client kingdom of Galilee and Perea.

However all written evidence (now extensive from the archaeological studies of recent decades) seems to be in Greek.  Josephus would have been under more conservative pressures, being of royal and priestly ancestry, though he was a member of the Pharisee party, whom he claims had the general support of the populace at large.  The Pharisees were more numerous and more visible, who were in constant contact with the common people over the whole of Palestine, not just Judea.

4.  Speaking as a linguist, it sounds to me like Josephus' comment about pronunciation likely means that he could not speak with the pronunciation of the native Roman-Greek populations.  He was self-conscious about his bad pronunciation.  As a member of the aristocracy, in most of his professional career in Rome and other cities of the Empire, he related to the influential international business and political community outside Palestine.  He would perhaps be concerned about their perception of him.  This is a common factor in multi-lingual situations.

Romaphile:  Like the Sadducees, Josephus seems to have opposed the troublesome independence movements that threatened the stability and the social order that favoured the priestly class.  He was a Roman sympathizer and counseled compromise and moderation, but could not prevail over the hard-line Jewish zealots who wanted to rise up against the Romans.  Josephus only reluctantly agreed to lead Jewish forces during the short period of independence before the Roman repressions began against the 64 uprising.  After suffering defeat and capture, and some time in captivity in Rome, he was pardoned and served as an officer in the Roman army of occupation.

Self-Conscious:  He later related to a more genteel and scholarly class of Romans, proficient in "high Greek," which perhaps would have made him somewhat self-conscious of his less cosmopolitan way of speaking.  Romans had been speaking Greek, trading in Greek and writing their literature in Greek since the days when Rome was just a prominent city of the Etruscan Empire.

To relate to Romans and especially the governing and military level, he would have had to be fluent in Greek.  But he might have been self-conscious about his Palestinian accent or non-native syntax.  Remember Greek had many forms across the wide geography of the Roman Empire.

The social context makes sense of what Josephus writes about his trouble with the Greek language.  It does not tell us anything about the literary trends or documents written during that period.

Across the Empire
1.  Out in the empire, as I and many other writers comment in our various articles, the picture was much different from Palestine.  Greek had long been the primary and only comon language used by Jews.

Greek Bible:  This was one reason the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) had been translated into Alexandrian Greek long before the time of Jesus.  The other primary purpose appears to have been the presentation of Hebrew religious and philosophical concepts to the Greek world, perhaps partly as an ethnic or political defense in the changing times from the secure Macedonian Empires to the uncertainty of a rising Roman hegemony.

2.  The literary, linguistic and cultural map of first-century Palestine gives us no reason to think any of the letters of the New Testament would have been written in Aramaic.  They were all written to groups of people in Greek cities or regions, where the Jews as well as the Greeks, Romans and other ethnic groups would have spoken Greek.  Why would he have written in a language foreign to them?  He was a communicator, not an obfuscator.

Orality:  Further, extensive analysis has been done by Orality specialists on clssical literature.  An analysis of Paul's writings indicates a clear Greek oratorical and story style.  Paul makes reference to his letters being read aloud to the communities — they were written for oral effect in the Greek cultural context of oral dramatic presentation and rhetoric, including public dialogue.  Luke's story of Paul on Mars Hill also reflects Paul's Greek context, referring to popular Greek poetry and literature in his oral presentations.  If we had any evidence that Aramaic was an active language outside the Palestinian territories, there might some merit, but I am not aware of any.

Oral-Culture Characteristics:  Proponents of the Aramaic Primacy Theory particularly seem unaware of the concepts and characteristics of oral cultures, and the relationship between speaking and writing.

Writers I have seen approach the texts of the New Testament as if this were all one book from its inception.  The documents we have there, instead, were written by many writers, many of whom are anonymous, and they circulated separately for centuries.  Collections of various ones of these are referred to in various locations, along with other documents did not get into the final "standardized" canon.

3.  I have not seen any indications that Aramaic was a literary language at that time.  On the other hand, Greek appears in every sphere of life, high and low, personal and public, literary and informal.  Every archaeological dig seems to uncover lots of potshards on which are written various business transactions, receipts, invoices, personal notes, schedules, etc., even graffiti.  Do we have such testimony to the use of Aramaic?

I don't see references to Aramaic literature till later centuries, though I have not personally analyzed all the original manuscripts.  Indications are that Aramaic was actively used, in oral form, and in writing supporting that oral form.  I comment that the way the Old Testament finally got gradually translated into Aramaic was by Aramaic notes to explain the readings of the Hebrew and Greek Tanakh (Old Testament) in the Palestinian synagogues.  This was gradually expanded and collected into separate Aramaic Tanakh collections.

4.  In the Eastern territories — let's say Palestine and Syria for short — what we know as "books" never became common till well into the Middle Ages.  Writings were still maintained on separate scrolls.  This is the original meaning of the word that became "book" (Greek: byblion, from byblos).  In turn that was actually the name of the town in Syria where papyrus was processed into writing paper.   It was in the western, Greek-speaking Roman areas that the codex — sewn individual pages — came to be used beginning in the 1st century CE, as the forerunner of what we call books.

The Scrolls:  So, what would it mean to say "The Bible" was originally written in Aramaic?  There was no Bible (book), as we use the term!  Only various individual manuscript scrolls in whatever language.  Certain ones of those scrolls were gradually given priority in use and preference and were collected together as a set.

5.  This facilitated the collection and collation of more than one writing by various authors for easy use in a set.  This, however, did not occur in the east till later, so this makes it even less likely that every book we now have in the collection called the New Testament was somehow written as a group in Aramaic BEFORE being translated into Greek!

There was not a "New Testament" as we now know it, either in the east or west.  There were individual documents written to specific places, but then circulated in various combinations to other places.  Lists of accepted and recognized collections of Christian-Nazarene writings are quite similar by the 300s.  There were always additional popular writings from the Christian community in addition to those chosen to be the standard ("canon") writings.

6.  The social and linguistic factors are against Aramaic as the original language of the Christian writings.  The social and cultural factors are against it; the linguistic and literary factors are against it.  It just does not make sense, no matter how much you make fun of the variations in the Greek manuscripts.

Sarcasm:  Before he gave up the simplistic focus on language and literacy in regard to the biblical texts, the author made fun of the world's scholars because they believed the New Testament texts were originally written in Greek, except maybe Matthew.  The author has now rejected the previous strident position and is revising the book to discuss the theory, not to prove it true.  He has now moved away from traditional perspectives on the Bible totally.

The original version of Was the New Testament Really Written in Greek? did a great job of belittling and satirizing the Greek manuscripts.  The author demonstrated an active, but biting, sense of humour.  He informed me in 2010 that he has abandoned this view and the beliefs that led to such an approach to the sacred writings.  On the page at the link above Lataster explains his earlier erroneous assumptions behind the book.  His new perspective is available on his website presenting his later book.

I have read similar cutting ad hominems, about myself as well as others, on discussion lists for the Aramaic Primacy theorists.  A common derogatory term used is the name Zorba when referring in general to Greek Primacy advocates or even the supposed original translators or compilers of the Greek manuscripts in copy history.  The discussions are very cultic at times.

That attitude of personal disparagment and ethnic slight does not make the scholarship of this clique look any more reliable.  I think, on the contrary, it actually distracted from the truly valuable insights the Aramaic Primacists had discovered for us in doing this kind of analysis.

But in late 2010, Raphael Lataster contacted me to tell me he had disclaimed the earlier argumentative mindset behind the ethnocentric literalist concept of God's word in writing.  Lataster indicated he had grown beyond the limitations of his rationalist, literacist concept of the scriptures and expressed a resepctful appreciation of the dynamic and rich character of the texts in their cultural and historical context.  (See his rather far-reaching about-face in his new eBook.)

7.  The Eastern churches claim it was specifically the Peshitta (Syriac) version of the Bible that was the original.  This we know can't be the case, because the historical record seems to indicate that there are quotes from earlier Aramaic versions, in various dialects (with their variations like some of the variations in the Greek manuscripts).

It appears that the Peshitta was a revision or compilation to standardize the local versions, comparable to Jerome's Latin Vulgate translation in the west, which provided one new standard text in place of all the early local Latin variations from different translators and interpreters.

Primacy Contentions
The discussion originated around the book Aramaic Peshitta Primacy for Dummies, a short form of the longer book Was the New Testament Really Written in Greek?.  The books attempt to show that the whole New Testament was written originally in Aramaic.  When I first found the books on the website in 2005, this author was introduced under a different name.

I found in October 2007 that the author was introduced on his Aramaic Peshitta Bible Repository website as Raphael Lataster.  I discuss the Aramaic Primacy concept in another article.

I comment there that the Aramaic translators also had the advantage of the oral traditions, since it appears that the original teachings of Jesus were in Aramaic.  The early churches likely continued and wrote these down in their turn.  Perhaps, for instance, the common sayings of Jesus found in both Luke and Matthew were collected or written in an early Aramaic document.

We do find references in the early church fathers to "the Hebrew gospel" or "the gospel of the Hebrews."  The reference is uncertain, but several scholars have taken this as one indication that perhaps Matthew was originally written in Aramaic.  Again, it could just as well have been a proto-gospel, a source (Quelle) document collection of Jesus' teachings, that early writers referred to as "the Gospel of the Hebrews."

Direct Evidence?
We have no direct evidence of a total Gospel in the language.  There are some secondary and tertiary indications of one Gospel in Aramaic.  The weight of current evidence, however, seems to be against the possibility that every document now included in the New Testament was originally written in Aramaic.

The stated audiences of the New Testament books were not Aramaic-speaking ethnicities and were not in Aramaic-speaking areas.  But the Aramaic nations would have the advantage of the cultural context and original language format used by Jesus in his teachings.

Aramaic Context and Tone
The Greek versions of the Gospels would have been attempting to express in Greek the oral Aramaic teachings of Jesus.  Native Aramaic speakers who prepared the first translation of the Gospels written in Greek could judge how best to express these in their Aramaic New Testament.  An Aramaic version would more naturally reclaim and preserve that Galilean Aramaic tone, usage and cultural context.

No one doubts the Aramaic sub-strata and teaching context of Jesus' teachings.  But the gospel message flew out across the Roman Empire in the first few days after his death.  Pentecost was only 50 days later.  This would definitely have happened in Greek, as testified in the book of Acts.  The only universal vehicle in the Roman Empire was its common and administrative language, Greek.

The matter of the 50 "split words"
One important focus of the Aramaic-origins theory is that there are different Greek words used in different Greek manuscripts of New Testament writings that represent one word-concept in Aramaic.  Lataster calls these "split words."  This same reader that started this line of my thinking about Josephus also asks about this "split word" idea.

It might be helpful to note that this is not a standard term or phenomenon, but a term made-up, as far I can tell, by Lataster.  In an isolated list, 50 might seem like a lot, but in fact this is negligible in light of the amount of the combined text of all the New Testament documents!  And when I analyzed these 50, it appeared that all these can be explained in other ways, by the normal characteristics and requirements of translation from one language and cultural worldview to another.

Aramaic Teachings:  Another important factor is that, for the Gospels at least, the context of the events and the teachings of Jesus were Aramaic.  Even if the original stories were written in Greek, they were representing teachings and events in a largely Aramaic context.  Despite Greek being common in Palestine, it appears the main body of his teachings were conducted in Aramaic.  Specialists have dealt with this in more detail and focus than I have or will.  Sources are numerous in print and on the Internet.

This would be a factor in the ease of re-expression in Aramaic.  I have had similar experiences in Bantu languages operating in an English-Swahili setting in East Africa.

Decisions:  There is another very good explanation that accounts for the single Aramaic word used for various Greek words in the different Greek manuscripts.  The Aramaic (and particularly the Peshitta, which Lataster is referring to), was late enough that the translators could evaluate the variations and choose what seemed best.  This is just a basic characteristic of the translation process.  Every translation has to decide what one word would best cover the situation in the original Greek.

Shakespeare's Variations:  These same kinds of variations occur in various manuscripts of the same play by Shakespeare.  A producer or director has to decide which of those variant words or phrases an actor will use in that particular production of the play.  That does not tell us anything about the original language the author himself used there!  In this case, they are all versions of English.

Extensive Technical Language Data
Further, the matter is just not as simple as Lataster makes out.  I mention that there are various ways to deal with these passages.  Lataster's comments are further weakened by the fact that he seems to ignore basic characteristics of languages and literature.  There is a very extensive body of both technical and popular materal expressing a detailed understanding of languages, how they develop, how they work, how they change, how people learn them, how language relates to the particular cultural wordview and how translation works between one language-culture and another.

Sophisticated Technology
The main academic disciplines that embody this sophisticated expertise and worldwide technology are Historical and Comparative Linguistics and Socio-Linguistics, accompanied by Anthropological Linguistics.  There is likewise a highly-precise and practical body of literature and technology related just to translation, and specifically Bible translation.  The extensive study of languages, learning and translation over the past 150 years or so have consistently indicated some universal parameters and characteristics of human speech and how one form relates to another.

How Language Works
This body of knowledge and specific data on tens of thousands of human speech forms worldwide have now been catalogued.  These gives us a dynamic and detailed picture of about how language relates to society and culture and how languages relate to each other.

The extensive catalogue of technical and social dynamics involved gives us good insights into what kinds of processes do happen, can happen or must happen in the process of translating one language to another.  The principles entailed therein seem not to be a factor in the claims I have seen and the analyses I have evaluated so far in the Aramaic Primacy theory.

Related Topics and Resources on this Site
[review] Oral Greek Styles in Paul's Writings
[TXT] Aramaic New Testament
[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] The Language Jesus Used
[TXT] Oral-Relational Dynamics in Biblical Interpretation
[TXT] Primacy and Possibility:  Problems Facing Aramaic Primacy Claims
          (Cultural Settings for Greek and Aramaic as Literary Languages in the First Century)
[TXT] That Abominable Greek?
[TXT] What Was Koine Greek?
[Resource Set] What is Worldview
[TXT] When Paul Studied with Gamaliel

Related Articles on the Internet
Aramaic Peshitta Bible Repository
Antiquities of the Jews 20,11.2
Aramaic Peshitta Gospels and Acts with English interlinear.
Exile – Jewish Virtual Library
Exploring Aramaic Primacy
The Greek History of the Middle East from 330 BCE.  Brief Historical Background To The New Testament
herePantheism Unites - the new perspective from Raphael Lataster
Josephus - A Most Amazing Man Indeed
Lataster, Was the New Testament Really Written in Greek? (with Lataster's disclaimer)

First written 23 August 2006 in an email exchange with a reader
Revised 25 September 2007
Rewritten 5 December 2007
Last revised 29 January 2014

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright 2006, 2007 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

Email: orville@jenkins.nu
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