Theology and Christian Faith
Languages and Cultures
Primacy and Possibility: Problems Facing Aramaic Primacy Claims
Cultural Settings for Greek and Aramaic as Literary Languages in the First Century
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
Since I first learned about the theory of Aramaic Primacy in early 2005, I have been fascinated by the claims of this line of reasoning. This view holds that every document now part of the Christian New Testament was first written in the Aramaic language. There are other related claims.
I should clarify that I am not a Greek Primacist. I am not conducting any campaign. And I have no interest in trying to convince anyone of "Greek Primacy."
Aramaic Primacists claim the Bible in Aramaic now used in the ancient Asian churches, the Syriac language of the Peshitta, is actually the original language spoken by Jesus. This seems to conflict with what is known about the various Aramaic languages documented and analyzed by historical linguists. The variety of speech used in the Peshitta seems to derive from the northern areas of Aramaic speech, in what is now southeastern Turkey, in the upper Tigris and Euphrates sources.
The version of Aramaic in which the Peshitta is written is commonly called Syriac. This form of Aramaic died out as a living language in the 10th-12th centuries (Ethnologue, SIL, Dallas Texas.) Other forms of Aramaic language are still spoken by small communities, primarily in Syria and Iraq.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica gives this statement of the Aramaic situation and time frame:
One of the important languages to derive from Aramaic was Syriac. It was spoken over large areas to the north and east of Palestine, but the literature emerged from a strong national church of Syria centred in the city of Edessa. The development of Syriac scripts occurred from the 4th to the 7th century CE.
—"Writing: Spread of Aramaic to the Middle East and Asia," Encyclopaedia Britannica (Electronic, 1997)
In this article I discuss some of the factors presenting problems for the Aramaic Primacy arguments. I give some attention to some problems in logical reasoning used to defend the Aramaic Primacy theory.
The most glaring limitation is that the advocates ignore the basic characteristics of languages, now catalogued extensively and discussed prolifically on the Internet and in print. I discuss some of these factors here, as well as in other articles on this website.
There are interesting gaps of logic in the arguments. An argument presented to me by an advocate goes like this:
The English was translated from the Greek manuscripts. It follows that the Greek was translated from the Aramaic. This is based on the idea that Aramaic manuscripts are 99% in agreement.
In order not to misrepresent this argument here are the actual words from the correspondent himself:
Which tradition then seems to have really preserved their words and which one has great agreement among its manuscripts? Going by increasing numbers of manuscripts and textual variants, we see that English versions are translated from Greek manuscripts. It follows then that Greek manuscripts derive from Aramaic ones.
I was fascinated by this strange line of reasoning. There are, of course, assumptions under this that may not yet have come out in discussions.
This strange logic makes two assertions, claiming that the second is a necessary conclusion from the first. But in fact they are not even related! Look again at what the quote says:
1. "English versions are translated from Greek manuscripts"
Then he says "It follows then that"
2. "Greek manuscripts derive from Aramaic ones"
How are these two statements related? The second is absolutely unrelated to the first. One certainly does not follow from the other. The fact that English (or French, or Chinese, or Swahili) was translated from a set of Greek manuscripts has nothing at all to do with how the Greek manuscripts were developed!
The add-on comment about agreement between the available Aramaic manuscripts likewise tells us nothing defintive about the original Aramaic text, nor the Greek text. In fact, comparative linguists, who specialize in ddiscovering and analyzing the relationship between different forms of language, and the related practical science of textual criticism that attempts to reconcile differences between manuscript traditions of the same text, would tend to see the almost total agreement as an indication that the text is derivative and not original, manipulated and controled as a set of copies of one manuscript, not separate manuscript traditions.
Such childish logic makes one feel embarrassed for the author of the above quote! Greek being translated in another language tells us absolutely nothing about how the Greek manuscripts came to be!
Whatever translation is done from any text in any previous language has nothing to do with where the first manuscript came from. Any text written by anybody or translated from any source langaue can be translated into any other language! Wedon'thave to know where a text came form in order to translate it into anotehr langague. How much plainer can it be?
It appears that another assumption is that we cannot trust any manuscript that cannot be proven to have the actual original words of the author. Yet this is empirically unverifiable, and thus a non-issue. We have no original documents, in any language, to reference as a standard comparative point.
This appears to be tied to a limited concept of literacy, assuming that the original word was in the writing, rather than the writing being a testimony and record of the spoken words and active events and deeds the Gospels actually record. This appears to put the prime value on the form rather than meaning.
Meaning in Language. It seems to assume also that meaning in language resides only in the individual words. Word meanings vary constantly and change over region and time. Language is able to make meaning because of its relation to the culture and worldview that provide the social context for language. Word-oriented theories of language were long ago discredited.
Meaning in language is conveyed in structure and syntax, of which discrete "words" are only a part. The determining factors, however, on which meaning depends are the combination of
(1) discourse — the whole context of an oral or written piece or conversation
(2) the broader cultural and historical context out of which that arises.
The simplistic and unrealistic word-oriented idea of language meaning leads to the conclusion that if there is any variation, that somehow brings into question the authority of the whole writing, ignoring the message it actually presents. This is a different concept of writing than prevailed until recent centuries. This view seems to actually violate the integrity of the ancient documents as seen in their own cultural and historical context.
Imposing Alien Expectations. This is the same misunderstanding of the nature of literature and message that misled some European textual critics in the 1800s and up into the 1900s to dismiss whole documents or even the whole Bible. This approach assumes a scientific modern view of history which led them to focus on truth as specific facts rather than overall claims and events. This led them to impose a set of expectations from their literate, analytical cultural worldview upon the ancient documents that arose out of a dynamic, relational, oral culture.
They misunderstood how cultures different from their own new western Enlightenment culture would make meaning. They assumed there was only one way of making meaning, and even seemed ignorant of the worldview history of their own European culture. They did not know how oral cultures considered and created meaning. They did not realize how different most cultures of the world, oral-relational cultures, were from their preferred way of thinking.
It appears that Aramaic Primacy advocates make a similar mistake of viewing the ancient documents, not in the original cultural and social milieu in which they were written, but in terms of the inherited tradition of literate transmission of the writings in one particular language tradition.
Analytical or Relational. Literate cultures tend to be analytical and linear in thinking. They focus on individual words and "facts," which oral cultures look upon meaning as they do upon life — centered in relationships, and dynamic in interpersonal exchange, life events and relationships. This difference in the literate assumptions is complicated by the empiricist reductionism that underlies the whole of western scientific culture.
There is the further problem that it is clearly assumed in the discussions that the whole of the New Testament was written as a unit. I have seen no acknowledgement that each "book" of the New Testament was an independent document.
We have clear testimony to the independent circulation of the various writings over some centuries. History records the long period of varied localized use and differences of opinion over what writings should be considered authoritative. The collection developed by consensus, not by council. The process was a dynamic one.
The Oral Kingdom
The Gospel did not depend on the writings. The writings were, rather, a testimony to the good news and the life stories that presented the good news in the life of Jesus, his Passion and his resurrection. Even illiterates could be saved. From a historical point of view, the Good News obviously came orally, and Jesus himself is not known to have ever written down, or even, as far as we know, dictated anything.
The writings arose out of the testimonies of the faith communities already established by the oral presentation of the gospel out in the Empire. Purposes of the writings would be to encourage and train followers, to teach new converts and to defend or present the message to the hostile communities of the Empire around them.
Oral World and Oral Gospel. I discuss here and elsewhere in this regard concepts of Orality, which are ignored by this theory. All I have seen of Aramaic Primacy assumes the whole value and reliability of any Christian heritage lies in the literature.
Interpersonal. But Jesus as portrayed in the very writings we are discussing, always interacts personally and orally with the people. Jesus' message deals with relationships and morality, not with information, facts and intellectual knowledge.
The whole picture of the Kingdom of God presented in the Gospels is that of a living presence in human society, not in mental knowledge or any written documents. The Kingdom is present in the person and preaching of Jesus. The Kingdom is personal and Living, not captured in a freeze-frame of documents.
Living Reality. The written testimonies point to the events and the Living Reality beyond them. This is referred to in the strong emphasis of the writer of the Gospel of Luke on the operations of the Holy Spirit. The Living Spirit of Jesus, as Luke calls the Spirit, is currently implementing and confirming the Rule of God in our current time through the life and word testimonies of His Body.
The writer of the Fourth Gospel similarly focuses on the presence of the Comforter. Paul, who wrote the biggest proportion of the New Testament, emphasizes the living presence and the dynamic spoken word of the Good News.
Oral Letters. Paul emphasizes oral presentation and hearing, even pointing out that his letters should be read before the congregation. They were not circulated like library books. The reading of the message was a dynamic group experience, the words of the letter serving as the representative of Paul in his absence.
Open Canon. The Gospels of course assume the Hebrew writings, but it is helpful to note there was no official "canon" of Hebrew documents until after the time of Jesus. It seems some popular documents circulated in Aramaic as well as Greek. The majority of documents of the era seem to have been written in Greek. The Hebrew scriptures had been in Greek for 150 or 200 years, and this appears to be the version quoted or referenced by most of the New Testament writers.1
Greek Focus. Likewise, though Jesus was proclaimed as a Jewish Messiah, from the earliest time, there was heavy response from non-Jewish people. This is represented even in the Gospels, which include some time in Judea, but are set primarily in Galilee and the surrounding Greek areas, like the Decapolis, or Sidon.
The book of Acts details a trail of events specifically to indicate this movement into the broader Greco-Roman world from the beginning. This corresponds to Paul's own testimony of the uncertainty and debate that occurred among the Jewish followers of Jesus concerning the position of the non-Jews who responded to Jesus. Signs on all fronts are that Non-Jews quickly outnumbered the Jewish followers, even before any documents we know were written.
Real-Life Dynamics. These are some of the background factors of the discussion of what languages would be used where to what audiences for what purposes. Specific a about specific words or variations make sense only in this context of the cultures out of which the documents arose. This was a real-life situation, not a theoretical academic discussion in the abstract control of a manuscript library or scientific laboratory.
Possibilities and Likelihoods
There is a wealth of perspective provided by the disciplines dealing with language, culture and history of the relevant period and ethnicities. These are what I discuss, as a reference point to possibilities and likelihoods of language use among the mixed cultures of the Roman Empire of the First Century CE.
Similarity vs Originality. A basic argument of Aramaic Primacy is that the Peshitta is the original version of the whole New Testament collection. And remember, they refer to the original of every document of the New Testament — not just the Gospels, but even the letters written to churches in the Greek areas of the Empire. The claim is that since there is only a 1% variation among the Peshitta version manuscripts, this indicates it is closer to the original.
They assume similarity of the current copies is a proof of originality. But in reality, it would seems that this is a suspicious sign of a controlled process, telling us nothing of the original manuscript that was being preserved in transmission.
Manuscript Characteristics. However, there are also only 300 or so manuscripts, whereas there are thousands of the Greek manuscripts of various New Testament writings. Discussions of the matter by Aramaic Primacy advocates ignore matters basic to handwritten manuscripts, and the copying and transmission over the centuries. They rather place all the focus on translation from either Greek to Aramaic or Aramaic to Greek.
I see a problem in the high similarity of the Aramaic manuscripts, which can usually be taken for a limited range of distribution and a controlled process of production, not a favorable argument for the actual dynamic history of the Christian movement. The Christian texts circulated throughout the Roman Empire and were gradually collected into a standard set of separate documents that gradually came to be bound together and called the New Testament.
Language and Culture
What I want to focus on are the language and culture factors of the era. These will provide a background necessary to deal with matters of language use and translation patterns. Otherwise we are dealing with abstract theories and pull the specific factors out of the historical and cultural context within which they arose.
My comments on the topic of Aramaic Primacy are focused on the linguistic and cultural considerations related to the claims.
Languages are involved in the social and linguistic landscape within the dynamic mix of cultures of the Macedonian and Roman Empires which are the setting for the discussion. I have stated some areas where the claims I have read conflict with the known character of human language and translation processes from the disciplines of linguistics and cultural history.
I also reference other sources that provide perspective on the historical setting, cultural and political dynamics that seem to be pertinent to the questions. I have tried to point out why what I have seen so far of Aramaic Primacy is not consistent with what is universally known about how languages work and relate to each other in culture and history.
I mentioned in a previous article that the examples I have seen are common examples of the normal documented dynamics of translation. They are not definitive proofs that the Aramaic was original.
On the other hand the extensive documentation of the culture, literature, communal life and ethnic and linguistics factors of the era provide a range of possibilities or likelihoods that we can refer to.
There is an extensive base of knowledge developed over the last 200 years, and drawing on many disciplines of knowledge worldwide, that describes how languages work and the relationship between language and culture. There is a very detailed catalogue of the kinds of operations documented among human languages universally and regionally that can throw great light on kinds of possibilities that may occur in the changes of languages internally and in the interactions between languages.
There is a highly developed science of translation, and specifically Bible translation, that gives clear ideas of the human thought processes and the mechanics of language syntax. These give us a wide base of insights into how translations occur. I refer briefly to this phenomenon. There are specialists with extensive information and technical references online and in print.
There are some patterns that can and do occur in language and interaction between languages and in the development of language in society and some that don't and apparently cannot.
These are fascinating realms of historical, cultural, linguistic and theological discovery and celebration. From a Christian perspective, I see that this is an area of worship, as we learn more of the world God rules and the dynamics of the peoples he has placed here to share creation with us. The excitement of discovery is one aspect of worship if that endeavour is dedicated to him. All my efforts are designed and carried out in this way.
The more we know about the interaction of these forces in history, the better we can understand the past forces and processes that have gone into our current experiences. The concept of incarnation is critical here, seeing how God has been involved in these historical and human forces within society, peoples and individuals.
In personal correspondence, an advocate of Aramaic Primacy says:
It was quite common for ruling classes to learn the language of their subjects and/or enemies.
How can we just set a general rule? We have to actually look and see what the actual situation was. Situations vary. Empires vary. For example, my correspondent goes on to cite the British in India. India was very complex. A few of the administrators and some of the scholar settlers learned Hindi. But the British Empire is not the Macedonian, Seleucid or Roman Empire.
Greek as a Roman Language
There is a big difference here that invalidates this British example. The language of the Romans was already Greek. It is known that the Romans were speaking Greek as the language of culture, business and administration during the Etruscan Empire, when Rome was an Etruscan city developed as a center of culture and commerce by the Etruscans. This is well-documented in many studies on the Etruscans, the Romans and other Italic history.
The Greeks had settled as traders and colonisers over much of what later came to be known as Italy. Greek was already the common language of the territories the Romans took over from the Greeks/Macedonians. All the historical information available indicates they continued to use Greek. In links in my various articles I refer to several scholarly books that deal with this.
Roman Literature in Greek
Numerous writers on history and literature comment that the Roman writers wrote primarily in Greek, and only around the first century did real Latin literature become more common. Greek was the language of Roman histories, dramas, etc. For instance, historian M J Trow is only one of many authors who review the language and literature situation as background to their various studies.
Trow, in his book on the British Celtic Queen of the Iceni, Boudicca, comments on the Roman historians who provide source information on the period of Roman conquest in Britain. He comments on one:
Lucius Cassius Dio, often referred to as Dio Cassius, was a Roman historian who wrote in Greek. Born in Bythinia (Modern Turkey) in 164, he was the son of Cassius Apronianos, the governor of Dalmatia. [Emphasis mine]
We also find that in the first 250 years of the Christian Era, Christian writers and theologians wrote in Greek. Professor Leo Donald Davis, SJ, points out that the first Christian theologian in Rome itself to write in Latin was Novation, about 257 CE.2
From this we see that even in the late 2nd century of the Christian era, some Roman writers were still writing their works in Greek, although Latin literature was being produced by this time. Greek was the common language of the Roman Empire, even native Romans and Roman citizens used Greek, even for their Roman history annals.
Elsewhere I also refer to an excellent survey of the period and the use of language in the Roman Empire, and Syria-Palestine. Shaye J D Cohen is a specialist in this period. His book From the Maccabees to the Mishnah gives a thorough picture of the interaction of the various languages and their associated cultures in relation to the development of Judaism in the period from the 200s BCE into the early Middle Ages of Europe.
One thing I would like to see more on is the specific dynamic of the Roman area of Syria and the Persian/Seleucid Mesopotamia and the language dynamics on each side of that busy commercial border. I am very interested in finding information or sources on this which would clarify aspects of the discussion.
Another pertinent area of background that gives us useful insights on the relationships and use of languages is Orality. Concepts of Orality and Oral Culture characteristics have become a strong focus in recent years, the last two decades or longer. This has put the concepts of writing into a new context and clarified the role that writing and written documents played.
I refer to some sources on this in several articles and presentations on Orality, current and ancient, on my website. On this topic also, there are many technical resources reporting on and analyzing findings in literature of the era, archaeological findings and cultural analysis. I link to some of these in my articles on Orality.
There has arisen a whole discipline of studies in Orality, involving a focus in most academic and scholarly areas of study. These studies have now re-evaluated the literature of the Greeks and other ancient writings, including the biblical texts and related texts of cultures in that region. These provide a valuable area of perspective that determines much about the possibilities we could expect in the use of languages and formats of the writing from the era, including the Jewish and Christian literature, canonical and extra-canonical.
A testimony to the orality of the world at that time is pointedly found in a canon of the Second Ecumenical Council of Nicea, 787. Davis, in the work referred to earlier, points out that one canon (a required disciplinary principle) requires that all bishops in the universal church know the full Psalter by heart.3 These were the most learned and literate men of their time, with great collections of decrees, letters, tomes, creeds, and huge collections of records of their discussions, disputes and decisions. Yet they lived in an oral world, and their oral memory skills were prodigious, as they worked orally in that oral culture.
Culture and Language Setting
This is the context in which these questions arise. It is this cultural and linguistic picture that provides the foundation for any discussion about translation and language preferences in certain culture-groups, etc.
There is one very strong factor that seems to mitigate against the possibility that all New Testament documents were originally written in Aramaic. All the areas to which Paul wrote his letters are Greek-speaking regions. There were other local languages spoken, notably Celtic dialects and seemingly some remaining Indo-European languages related to Hittite.
It is unclear, for instance, in the reference to the Lycaonians, what is meant by "the Lycaonian language" (Acts 14:11 "they shouted in the Lycaonian language"). Is this a Celtic language, a speech descended from Hittite, or does this reference just mean their dialect of Greek? But we definitely have no reason to think that Aramaic was a language in this Asian area.
I have seen no record of Aramaic being spoken as the home language of any ethnic group as far west as Anatolia. This area, called Asia by the Romans and Asia Minor by modern Europeans, is named Anatolia because it was the Eastern Greek region, even in classical times. The word anatolia is the Greek word for "eastern." I have searched for some evidence indicating that the Hellenistic Jews spoke Aramaic, but have not found any.
Paul's Greek Orality
Several studies have been produced in this regard analyzing the New Testament documents. One excellent work by John D Harvey analyzes all the writings of Paul or possibly written by him. Harvey's book, Listening to the Text, compares all these New Testament documents to the patterns of Greek drama, rhetoric and known literature.
In the process, Harvey reminds us that most "literature" was performed orally — read and dramatized before live audiences. Harvey's analysis of Paul's writings demonstrates that they follow standard patterns of Greek writing for oral production. In addition, Harvey points out that the letter form itself, which Paul uses to address his scattered constituents, is a Hellenistic format of communication.
This format is a rhetorical format, representing the writer/speaker as the letter is read aloud to the audience in Greek dramatic style. Thus the language (Greek) fits the format (Greek rhetoric or drama), which is consistent with the cultural characteristics of the locations he writes to.
Though they naturally contain patterns of Semitic style and emphasis (not just Hebrew or Aramaic), such as chiasma, they fit the category and exhibit the characteristics of Greek literature of the time. This is a definite confirmation of the more generally obvious factors of the Greek-speaking target audiences of Paul.4
History and Language
I was intrigued by one statement an Aramaic Primacy advocate made:
Many times Paul refers to "our history" when talking about Hebrew history, indicating his audience are Jews, whether they live in Greece, Rome, Turkey, Israel, etc.
He concludes that this indicates that Paul was writing to Jews.
I don't see how this relates to the question. What does Paul's statement tell us about the language used by Jews, either in the Empire or in Palestine-Syria? What does this tell us about writing in the language appropriate to the audience? Having a common history is not related to what languages might be used for writing to certain audiences on certain subjects.
I tried very hard to find a relevant connection to our topic here. But I cannot see how this relates at all. What does this tell us about language use? Paul, of course, counts himself as a Jew in such a statement. But such a comment does not address the topic at hand and in no way does it ignore the fact that Greeks or other ethnic groups are involved in the churches.
The cited statement from Paul appears to me to simply refer to the situation of Jewish people all over the Empire claiming a kinship and identity with the Hebrew-Jewish history in the Tanakh (Old Testament). No one denies that. That is not relevant to what languages they spoke in various places. This is a separate question from what language was used in writing letters to new churches or in composing the gospel stories for distribution around the Empire. On the contrary, the commonality of all these areas mentioned in the phrase is that they all used the Greek language.
The Hebrew scriptures had been in the Greek language of Alexandria for at least 150 years, perhaps over 200, by the birth of Jesus. Surely this is significant. In my articles or reading lists I refer to several studies that present related information from the discoveries of ancient literature, archaeology, cultural studies and other disciplines. These are available for review and refutation if contrary evidence should change the picture. These are not documentary theories and defenses. I am referring to studies about the historical era.
As for the claim that Paul's audience was Jews, this overlooks clear references all through his letters that he writing in most cases to a mixed audience. It does seem from various indications that there were Jews in all the churches. But most of the topics, questions and problems Paul discusses relate to Gentiles and their cultural problems, particular to each locale.
Of course, there were Jews in the congregations Paul was writing to. But they were in Greek-speaking areas. And there were non-Jews in all these congregations. The list of those to whom Paul sends greetings includes mostly Greek names.
The letter to the Roman Christians mentions many people with Roman names and some with Greek names. We know that there were both Gentiles and Jews in that church, because the whole letter is a treatise addressing the question of the relationship of the Jews to the Nations who are now all in one body in Christ.
Multiple Jewish Languages. So, yes, some of the people Paul wrote to were Jews. Of course. But we know further from the Day of Pentecost events recorded in Acts 2 that these Jews in various parts of the Empire spoke the languages of the particular places where they lived. This is the point of the story in Acts 2. They remark that they all "heard in our own languages."
Aramaic is not one of the languages mentioned. We are told these were "Jews living in Jerusalem." In Luke's story, unfortunately, he does not represent what language Peter used in the address to the huge crowd that had gathered to witness an question this strange Miracle of Hearing.5
We note that Jews in the church in Rome have Roman names. This indicates the level of indigenization of these Jewish families in the capital city of the Empire over the generations that Jews had been living there.
Alexandrian and Roman. One Jewish preacher-prophet who followed the new faith in Alexandria even had the name of a Greek god, Apollos. As a native of Alexandria his native language was Greek. Jews had lived in various cities of Egypt here since the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem in the 500s BCE. There was even a separate temple with full sacrificial rites upriver in Elephatine, in southern Egypt.
A new wave of Jewish settlers moved into the new Macedonian capital of Alexandria en masse at the invitation of Ptolemy I, the first ruler after the death of Alexander the Great. Jews were well-known figures in the philosphical and commercial circles of Alexandria and there was a great synagogue community there. Zeno, who founded the Stoics, was a Jew. Greek was the language. This is what led to the translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek, in what came to be known as the Septuagint. Thsi is the version of the scriptures that mos tof the New Testament writers quote.
Apollos met Paul in Ephesus, according to the author of Acts (Acts 18:24). Paul put him under the tutelage of his two Roman Jewish colleagues, Priscilla and Aquila. Since they were Romans and he was Alexandrian, their common language would be Greek.6
We are told further that even the administrator ("ruler") of the synagogues in this Greek city of Ephesus was named Sosthenes (Acts 18:17). That is very Greek. We would not expect his native language to be Aramaic!
Missionary to the Gentiles. Paul himself recounts in several places that his commission was to the Gentiles. For instance, in his speech to the Jerusalem crowd (Acts 22:21), "Then the Lord said to me, 'Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles'" (also Gal 2:2, 7). The story says at this point, the Jewish crowd was offended by this. So Paul definitely started churches among the Gentiles. He definitely wrote to those Gentiles in those churches.
Covenant Strangers. The whole topic and purpose of the letter to the Romans is how the Gentile believers and the Jewish believers relate in regard to the Hebrew Covenant.
Confused Greeks. The letters to the Thessalonians were the first documents written that became part of what we call the "New Testament." These letters dealt with the end-time resurrection and address questions that came up because of the newness of such a view to the Gentile members of the church who did not understand this Jewish concept.
Greek Cultural Patterns. The letters to Corinth deal specifically with pagan Greek customs and practices. It would have made no sense to address them in a language of Syria or Mesopotamia. The letters to Timothy likewise deal with the pagan social background of Ephesus. There, as in Corinth, Paul is concerned that the dress and practices of the new Gentile Christians in exercising their Christian freedom in Christ not appear like the sexual libertines of the Greek temples.
Gentile Converts. The events in acts reports that early converts of Paul in several places were non-Jews, after in some cases the Jews drove him out of the synagogue. Paul and his companions commonly preached in the marketplaces and forums to the Gentile populace. Paul's first convert in Philippi was a local merchant, Lydia. Her home became the meeting place for the church that developed.
Paul, Roman-Jew-Greek. Keep in mind that Paul himself was a Roman citizen. He says he was born a citizen (Acts 22:28). But we know he was born in an Asian city, Tarsus, in Anatolia — the "eastern Greek" area.
In this discussion, the narrator tells us that after his conversation with the Roman military commander, Paul addressed the Jerusalem Jews in Aramaic. This indicates he was speaking with the Roman in their common language Greek. We note that the officer at first thought Paul was an Egyptian Jewish messianic pretender who had recently stirred up trouble.
This identification with Egypt is another indication that Greek was the Roman context — even in Jerusalem — until Paul addressed the Jewish crowd at large. We would expect Paul to be fluent in Aramaic also, since he had studied under the Rabbi Gamaliel, likely in Jerusalem.
Manuscript Agreement, Greek
One final item I could briefly comment on. The aforementioned advocate of Aramaic Primacy says:
The number of Greek manuscripts and the very low rate of agreement suggest that the "Greek original" is virtually lost.
This is a puzzling statement, since the percentage of correspondence of the extensive number of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament is much higher than for other documents of literature from the first century BCE-CE and later. The high percentage of agreement is even more remarkable in light of the amazing, unprecedented total number of manuscripts maintained and copied over much of the known world for centuries!
The comparative studies and critical information gathered on the New Testament texts in the last 150 years indicates an extremely high level of care given to the copying of manuscripts. The very history of families of documents that has now been documented indicates the level of reliability and the care that has been taken. The variations, in this light, become only one more testimony to the dynamism and orality of the movement and its interpersonal focus.
While I am not a historical-critical specialist, I try to keep up with studies. I use both the western and eastern compiled texts in my studies. I use several languages, African and European, so have seen a wide range of translations and interpretations from the Greek texts. Besides the Septuagint and modern Greek Old Testaments, I also use Hebrew, with some labour, in my Old Testament studies.
I have truly been given some great gifts of opportunity and rejoice at the experiences I have had over the decades of my life. My language experience includes about 55 languages in some form of field analysis or mastery and use. I use several of these in my Bible study. I have assisted Bible translators as a consultant, and I have translated Bible and doctrinal teaching materials in some African languages.
From what I have seen of the comparative studies on biblical texts, and from my critical use of the comparative versions of manuscripts, I can't see how my correspondent's view represents the text evidence. I have lived in Cyprus and use Modern Greek also in my comparative studies. This helps indicate how close the agreement actually is.
Many quotes from the Old Testament by New Testament writers are word-for-word quotations from the Septuagint.
Incidentally, I never heard anyone claim there was any original manuscript still extant. Everyone knows we have only copies, and there is such a high agreement there is no uncertainty about the message. The differences that do occur in no way change the message of any book. The minor differences between the thousands of Greek manuscripts affect no teaching or practice of the faith. It appears no meaning has been lost.
Manuscript Agreement, Aramaic
My correspondent states:
Aramaic Peshitta which has around a 99% agreement rate among its 300 or so manuscripts.
I comment in my various articles on the characteristics of languages and translation traditions. In that context, 99% is can be taken as an example of
1. a translation, since a variation in the texts must be resolved by a translator in a manner not necessary when read in the various copies of the original language. There is much on the Internet about translations, and Bible translators' techniques, problems and training approaches for Bible translators.
2. a controlled copying process, or the elimination of variations that would normally be expected to occur in the simple process of hand copying various manuscripts.
In addition, another aspect of reason 2 could be the limited geographical and population area covered by the Aramaic language and thus the range of Aramaic manuscript distribution. This might also account for an extraordinarily high similarity. This is a sub-set of the controlled process, but the control might be only an inherent limitation due to the limited involvement of people and geography served.
There were many different dialects of Greek, spoken over an extensive proportion of the world, so that would make the situations very different for the distribution of manuscripts in each language, no matter which one was written first or which one was the translated version.
These characteristics do not in any way indicate that the 99% language was the one in which the document was originally written. The assumption underlying this is a logical fallacy, inconsistent with the characteristics of languages, and the realities of manuscript copying and translation.
The more important question, however, lies among the factors I have focused on and outline above. Why would Paul or anyone else, for that matter, have spoken or written in a language that the audience (Greeks, Parthians, Gauls, Jews born in the Greek territories, Romans, etc.) would not use or even likely know?!
The churches of the letters were all in Greek-speaking areas, although it is possible the Roman church would also have Latin-speaking members. Greek would still be their common language. And we know from the names that Paul himself mentions in the letter to the Romans that there were many native Romans with Latin names in that congregation.
Greek had been used by the Roman elite and nobility since before Roman independence from the Etruscan Empire. Under the Republic and the Empire, the preferred tutors were Greeks, often family slaves or contracted persons. Greek was the language of education. Roman literature, according to authorities, was written in Greek until the 1st-2nd century CE.
The available information does not indicate that Aramaic would have been used. Even if somehow Aramaic were still used by Jews born and raised for many generations in the Greek and Roman Empires, why would we expect the many other non-Jewish ethnicities living in the former Greek territories, now part of the Roman Empire, to know Aramaic? There were even Greek manuscripts in the Qumran documents.
These comments point up why the important focus lies in these contextual factors of culture, language, literature forms, commercial relationship patterns and practices, etc. Every document arises out of a historical and cultural context. Language use is tied to cultural worldview.
1 Some sources date the Septuagint to 250 BCE, but this seems early. Events in some of the books occurred in the 2nd century BCE, documenting the Maccabean era.
2 Leo Donald Davis, The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology (Theology and Life Series 21, Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1990), p.46.
3 Ibid, p.310.
4 For those desiring more details and specific documentation on the literature of the ancient period, in regards to its oral character, Harvey provides a 30-page bibliography of books and articles on biblical and Greco-Roman literature.
5 Some might remark that the event reported by Luke in Acts 2 is a stylized event symbolizing the intention of the Good News story for all nations, languages and peoples. Well, that may well be. The whole thrust of Luke's gospel and the accompanying second volume called Acts is the universality of the message of God's Rule on earth. But even if the account is stylized for literary purposes, that is irrelevant. That simply returns the focus to the whole point of the story. Luke is referring to the variety of languages entailed even if we consider only the Jews of the era! This great variety of languages (Arabic, Egyptian, Berber or Greek from Libya) are the tongues of these Jews who are now living in Jerusalem! They were people of the Empire. The only common language of the Empire was Greek. Greek was long the language of northern Egypt and the ruling dynasty, and likewise the neighbouring Greek colony of Cyrene, with its more indigenous Berber residents farther west and into the hinterland.
6 As citizens and residents of the City of Rome, Aquila and Priscilla would probably speak Latin as a mother tongue, and be fully bilingual in Greek, as merchant-class and aristocratic, educated Romans were. Very likely Greek would also be a second mother tongue, but perhaps as a second language. Evidence now available seems to indicate that upper-class Romans would be what is now classified as "mother-tongue bilinguals." Compare this to the situation in medieval Europe where most nobility were bilngual in their native language and French. My impression of the situation at that time is that many Romans were native bilinguals, others were fully bilingual (learning Greek as a formal second language, but fully competent), others would be functionally bilingual, and the lower classes perhaps would not speak Greek.
The Aramaic Primacy Theory of the New Testament
Christians Started with a Greek Old Testament
Cultural Drama in Christian Beginnings
Greek and Aramaic Among 1st Century Jews
Hebrew Usage in the First Century
Jesus and the Hebrew Language
Josephus and Aramaic Primacy: The Language and Literacy Culture of First Century AD
The Language Jesus Used
Oral Foundations of the Gospels
The Oral Greek Character of Paul's Writings
Oral-Relational Dynamics in Biblical Interpretation
Suswa: An Evangelical Experiment (The Use of Natural Networks in Christian Evangelism)
Textual Themes and Language Variations in the late Prophets
What Was Koine Greek?
Related on the Internet:
Exploring Aramaic Primacy
The Greek History of the Middle East from 330 BCE. Brief Historical Background To The New Testament
Pantheism Unites - the new perspective from Raphael Lataster
John D Harvey, Listening to the Text: Oral Patterning in Paul's Letters
Shaye J D Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987); especially Ch 5, "Sectarian and Normative" and Ch 6, "Canonization and Its Implications"
Also of Interest:
Alexander and the Language of the Southern Greeks
First written as part of an email exchange 21 December 2007
Finalized as an article and posted on OJTR 13 February 2008
Revised 12 August 2012
Last revised 7 June 2014
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2008 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.
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