Alexander Roberts.

Greek, the language of Christ and His apostles online

. (page 38 of 47)
Online LibraryAlexander RobertsGreek, the language of Christ and His apostles → online text (page 38 of 47)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

once, occur to the reader. It may be sufficient to
refer to Wales, or the Highlands of Scotland, in nu-
merous districts of which both the Celtic and English
tongues are in constant use, the one being the lan-
guage of homely private life, and the other being
made use of as the language of literature, and on
almost all public occasions.

Every one acquainted with the facts of the case
will grant how wide-spread the Greek language had
become before the commencement of our era. It was

1 "Discussions on the Gospels, in two parts. Part I. On the Language
employed by our Lord and his disciples. Part II. On the Original Language
of St. Matthew's Gospel, and on the Origin and Authenticity of the Gospels."
Macraillan and Co.

. ' 6*

8 4


in truth the common medium of intercourse through-
out the whole civilized world. Cicero, bringing but
this, point by contrast to his native tongue, declares
in well-known words, " Graeca leguntur in omnibus
fere gentibus, Latina suis finibus, exiguis sane, con-
tinentur." l This statement, if true in the great
orator's day, became far more emphatically so some
generations afterwards. The knowledge and use of
the Greek language continued to spread with great
rapidity during the century which followed the death
of Cicero, and it retained its supremacy for several
ages as the language of the Christian Church. Let
me refer only to the following facts. The Apostle
Paul wrote to the Romans and Galatians in Greek ;
Latin writers both in prose and verse 2 testify to the
constant use which was made of Greek in the Im-
perial City at the date at which they write ; while
towards the end of the second century Irenaeus
wrote from Lyons in Greek, on a theme interesting
to, and intended to be considered by, the whole
Christian world.

The question now is, Had Greek, in any way, at-
tained a footing in Palestine as in the rest of the
world ? . Answers crowd upon us to this question,
and these both of an a priori and a posteriori cha-
racter. It seems almost impossible for any one to-
consider the national history of the Jews for a cen-
tury or two before Christ without concluding that
Greek could not have failed to secure a large ascen-
dency among them. The several dynasties to which
they were successively subject, Egyptian, Syrian, and
Roman, alike contributed to this result. A new wave

» Pro Arch. 23. " Suet. Tib. cap. 71 ; Juv. Sat. vi. 180, et seq. &c.




of Hellenic influence passed over the land with every
fresh change which occurred in its political condition.
Nor was this influence much checked under the
Maccabean princes. With the temporary indepen-
dence then enjoyed, there was, no doubt, an attempt
made to throw off the taint of Gentilism in every
particular. But Hellenic tendencies had become too
firmly rooted in the land, and the constant use of the
Greek language was found too necessary in all
national transactions, to allow of any considerable
change taking place during the brief period in which
Judaea then existed as an independent kingdom.
And soon did the hopeless effort die away. More
than half a century before the beginning of our era
Pompey the Great appeared in Palestine as' an ar-
biter between the brothers Hyrcanus and Aristobulus,
and from that moment Gentile influence revived in
greater power than ever. The government speedily
passed from the Asmonaean to the Herodian family;
Judaea soon became an acknowledged dependency of
Rome ; and we naturally conclude that, as in other
parts of the Empire, so in Palestine, the Roman
power would be the pioneer and support of Greek
civilization and literature. 1

But now let us look at facts. We have the Apo-
cryphal books of the Old Testament, the writings of
Josephus, inscriptions still remaining on ruins in
Palestine, numismatic evidence, and, above all, the
New Testament itself, from all which sources proof
is to be derived in favour of the conclusion for which
I contend.

» Ewald (Geseh. des Volk. Is. iv. 250-520) gives an excellent sketch of the
history of the period, shewing the gradual encroachments and ultimate ascen-
dency of Gentilism.





As to the Apocryphal books, there is good reason
to believe that the latest of them was written some
time before the commencement of our era, while the
others range, at somewhat uncertain dates, from that
period up to perhaps the third century before Christ
And it at once strikes us as a suggestive fact con-
nected with these books, that they exist only in
Greek. One of them, we know, was at first written
<in Hebrew, but the original was soon replaced by a
translation. Another is generally believed to have
been composed in Hebrew, but of it, too, all traces of
the supposed original have perished. Some of the
rest are conjectured by critics to have been partly
written in Greek and partly in the ancient tongue of
Palestine, but of all, without exception, it holds true
that only in their Greek form were they generally
known among the Jews of our Saviour's day.

Now, in this consideration there seems to be an
argument which will weigh much with every unpre-
judiced mind in the controversy respecting the pre-
vailing language of Palestine at the time of- Christ.
The Jewish literature was then Greek. Writings in-
tended for the people, and commonly current among
them, were composed in the Greek language. Of
that fact, the most cursory glance at the Apocrypha
is sufficient to convince us ; and the impression thus
made is strengthened by a more particular examina-
tion of the several books.

Let me, for instance, refer to a single incident re-
corded in the Second Book of Maccabees. In the
seventh chapter of that book we have a remarkable
account of the heroic conduct of a mother and her
seven sons when subjected to torture in the presence


of Antiochus Epiphanes. Mention is again and
again made in the narrative of the sufferers having
made use of their proper ancestral tongue in ad-
dressing each other, while, at the same time, it is
evident from the intercourse which they held with
the king that they also understood and employed
Greek. There can be no doubt that both the mother
and sons were bilingues, speaking between them-
selves in Hebrew, and addressing Antiochus in
Greek. This whole book, it may be remarked, bears
unmistakable evidence of the sway then possessed
by Hellenic influence in Palestine. No one can read
it, in a spirit of candour, without being convinced
that, as the writer himself declares (Chap. iv. 13),
"a kind of acme of Hellenism" had then been
reached in the land ; and that, in accordance with
this state of things, the people generally had become
quite familiar with the Greek language.

Much might be said on the point at issue in con-
nection with the writings of Josephus. But I shall
refer, at present, to only two notable passages. The
first occurs in the preface to the " Wars," and may
be rendered as follows : " I have devoted myself to
the task of translating, for the sake of those who
live under the government of the Romans, the nar-
rative which I formerly, composed in our national
■language, and transmitted to the barbarians of the
interior." It is now generally agreed that by the
" barbarians " here referred to (toIs dvco Papfiapot,*;)
Josephus means the Jews of Babylon, Parthia, Ara-
bia, and those beyond the Euphrates. For the in-
formation of these distant members of his nation, he
had at first composed his history of the Jewish war





in Hebrew. This history, he tells us, he afterwards
translated into Greek " for the sake of those living
under the government of the Romans " — manifestly,
therefore, though not exclusively, for the use of his
brethren in Palestine. The inference as to the lan-
guage dominant among them is obvious. Nor does
the conclusion to be derived from the other passage
in the works of Josephus referred to appear to me
less decisive. It is to be found in the last chapter
of his "Antiquities" (xx. 11, 2). Much erroneous
reasoning has, I believe, been founded on this pas-
sage. I shall have to refer to it again, when dealing
with the objections which have been brought forward
against my argument. Meanwhile I remark that it
implies, as Cardinal Wiseman in his Hora Syriaca
has observed, that so prevalent was the knowledge
of Greek then among the Jews, that the very slaves
understood it (" Etiam servi linguam Graecam calle-
bant "), and that thus, as Josephus states, on account
of the commonness of the accomplishment, it was
undervalued by those who aimed at a high reputa-

Proceeding now to a brief notice of existing in-
scriptions in Palestine, it is well known that almost
all those which can be dated about the time of Christ
are in Greek. Seetzen long ago collected sixty-nine,
all of which, with one exception, were in that lan-
guage. Burckhardt in his " Travels in Syria" (1823)
also gives a great variety of Greek inscriptions. And
coming down to our own day, I find Captain Burton
in " Unexplored Syria" (ii. 378) making the following
remark : " Mr. Tyrwhitt Drake and I, when travel-
ling about the Hauran, copied some one hundred




and thirty -five Greek inscriptions, besides three
Palmyrene." The inference as to the ancient lin-
guistic condition of the country is clear and con-

The numismatic evidence plainly points to the
same conclusion. There is hardly an exception to
the rule that the various coins which circulated in
Palestine about the time of Christ bear Greek super-
scriptions. And it seems impossible to give any
adequate explanation of this fact unless we admit,
in accordance with what has already been said, that
Greek was then the prevailing language of the

But we have now to notice by far the most im-
portant source of proof in the prosecution of this
argument — that which is found in the New Testa-
ment itself. I here assume that the several books
are a genuine product of the age to which they are
generally referred. Of course, some will dispute
that position, and to them the reasoning founded on
the postulate named will have little weight. In fact,
an eminent Biblical scholar said to me in as many
words, after reading my work, that he would have
felt the argument as to the habitual use of Greek by
Christ irresistible, had he believed that the Gospels
belonged to the first century of our era. It is only
fair then to say that, in what follows, I proceed upon
that assumption. The New Testament is regarded
as having been written at the time which has been
usually assigned it, and by the persons to whom its
several portions are ascribed. These positions admit,
I believe, of conclusive proof, but are here taken for
granted. And, supposing them conceded, I have

-»W M»- -





now to ask the reader's attention to a general glance
at the books of which the New Testament consists.

Turning first to the Epistles, this question at once
occurs. How could Palestinian Jews, like Peter,
James, and John — " unlettered and ignorant men,"
as they were styled by their countrymen — men cer-
tainly possessed of no advantages, either of rank or
education, above the respectable labouring classes in
Judaea — have written in Greek, unless that were the
language which men even in the humblest station
naturally employed ?

The old answer to this question — that the Greek of

the sacred writers was due to the gift of tongues — is

now almost universally abandoned. Every Biblical

scholar of reputation agrees with Neander when he

says that the apostles, like other people, obtained

their knowledge of the language " according to the

natural laws of lingual acquirement." But then this

conclusion immediately draws after it another. If

Peter and James naturally made use of the Greek

language, that language must have been known to

all classes in the community. And this is a point

which I beg to press upon the attention of those

who maintain that Hebrew was then chiefly, or

almost exclusively, the language of Palestine. How,

I ask, in that case, were the apostles able, as they

did, to write in Greek ? The idea of a miracle

having been wrought for this purpose being set

aside, there remains no other explanation of the fact

in question than that Greek was a language which

they habitually employed. But then, as I maintain,

this concession implies that it was in common use

by the great body of the population. These first



disciples of Jesus were taken from the lower ranks
among the people. They had, no doubt, previous
to their call to the apostleship, received the elements
of an ordinary education ; and there can be no ques-
tion that, during the years of their intercourse with
Christ, great additions were made to their intellectual
vigour and attainments. But all this will not account
for their knowledge of Greek, if it be supposed that
Hebrew was the language to which alone they were
accustomed from their youth, and which they habitu-
ally employed in intercourse with their Divine Master.
No one can doubt that they possessed a very con-
siderable command of the Greek language — their
writings are sufficient to prove that point. How
then, I ask again, did they acquire it ? Not by
miraculous interposition, as is now generally ad-
mitted. It must therefore have been in the natural
and ordinary way; and, this being granted, it follows
as an irresistible inference, that if they, humble
fishermen of Galilee, understood Greek to such an
extent as naturally and easily to write it, that lan-
guage must have been generally known and used
among the people.

And now turning to the Gospels, and glancing
•over their contents, what reason do we find for sup-
posing that they contain merely translations of the
words which our Lord employed? Is there a single
hint to that effect given by any of the writers ? Do
they not, on the contrary, express themselves exactly
as they would have done supposing they had meant
to report to us the very language which was made
use of by the Saviour ? A very strange mode of rea-
soning, as appears to me, has prevailed with respect



to those occasional Aramaic expressions which are
inserted in the Gospels as having been employed by
Christ. It has been argued that the occurrence of
such terms, now and then, in the reports which have
been preserved to us of our Lord's discourses, proves
that He generally made use of the Syro-Chaldaic
language ; and that, accordingly, it is in these few
instances only that we have examples of the very
words which He employed. But such a conclusion
rests upon a manifest petitio principii: there is not
the least foundation furnished for it in the Evangelic
narrative. None of the writers ever imply that they
are giving the words of Jesus more exactly when
they report Hebrew than when they report Greek.
On the contrary, the very same mode of expression
is made use of by them, whether it be the one lan-
guage or the other which our Lord is represented as
employing ; and to say, therefore, that the occurrence
here and there of an Aramaic word or phrase proves
that He habitually made use of that dialect, is simply
to assume the point in question, and to mistake for a
sound and valid argument what is in reality a fore-
gone conclusion.

The fact seems to be, that the occasional occur-
rence of Aramaic expressions in the Gospels, instead
of proving that Christ habitually made use of that
dialect, rather tends to prove the contrary, If it be
maintained that Syro-Chaldaic was the language
which He generally employed, the question at once
occurs, why we have a few such words, and a few
only, preserved to us as having been used by Him
on rare occasions. On the supposition that He spoke
usually in Greek, these words, we may see, come in




naturally enough as exceptions to the general rule,
just as in the reported discussions of Cicero we often
find a few Greek terms introduced ; and, as in our
own language, a French or German expression may
every now and then occur. But if, on the other
hand, it be supposed that Christ really, for the most
part, made use of the Aramaic, so that the Greek was
the exception, and not the rule, in his discourses, it
seems impossible, as experience has shewn, to give
any satisfactory, or even tolerable, explanation of the
manner in which the few Aramaic words found in
. the Gospels are introduced.

It may, however, in turn be asked, Can any reason
be assigned for the occurrence of these expressions
on the hypothesis that our Lord spoke, for the most
part, in Greek, and only now and then in Hebrew ?
The reply to this question has already been sug-
gested. Let it be remembered that I admit and
maintain the simultaneous existence in Palestine, at
the date referred to, of both the Aramaic and Greek,
the former language being, no doubt, in many respects
subordinate to the latter, but still the mother-tongue
of most of the native population ; and how natural
the supposition that, in such circumstances, our Lord
should have sometimes found it proper or expedient
to depart from his usual practice, and make use of
the. debased but still vernacular language of the

Let me refer, in illustration, to Mark v. 41, which
in English runs thus : " He took the damsel by the
hand, and said unto her, Talitha cumi ; which is,
being interpreted, Damsel, I say unto thee, arise."
Now, on the supposition that Greek was Our Lord's

■ P ■



usual form of address, I cannot but think that a very
good and satisfactory ground may be perceived for
the exception which is here particularly noted. The
person on whom this miracle was performed was of
tender years, and was probably as yet but little
acquainted with Greek. At any rate, Greek was to
her, as to every native Jew, a language not gene-
rally employed in the domestic circle, and it was to
Hebrew that her ears from infancy had been accus-
tomed. How beautifully accordant, then, with the
character of Him whose heart was tenderness itself,
that now, as He bent over the lifeless frame of the
maiden, and breathed that life-giving whisper into
her ear, it should have been in the loved and familiar
accents of her mother-tongue. Although dead and
insensible the moment before the words were uttered,
yet, ere the sound of them passed away, there was
life and sensibility within her. Does not every reader
thereby perceive, in the thoughtful tenderness of the
act, a most sufficient reason why it was in Hebrew,
and not in Greek, that our Lord now addressed her ?
And do we not also discover a cause why the fact of
his having done so should be specially noticed by
the Evangelist ? Are we not thus furnished with a
new and affecting example of our Saviour's gracious-
ness ? And do we not feel that St. Mark — the most
minutely descriptive of all the Evangelists — deserves
our gratitude for having preserved it ? Softly and
sweetly must the tones of that loving voice, speaking
in the language of her childhood, have fallen on the
sleeping spirit of the maiden ; and by words of ten-
derness, no less than words of power, was she thus
recalled to life and happiness.



In regard to this whole matter, it is obvious that,
on the supposition of our Lord having spoken, for
the most part, in Greek, we can very easily account
for those isolated and occasional Hebrew terms
which occur in his discourses. The Aramaic had,
as a matter of course, no small influence upon the
Greek of the country, and necessarily insinuated
many of its idioms and expressions into the co-
existing language. Hence the occurrence of such
words as Amen, Corban, Rabbi, &c. ; x>f such desig-
nations as Cephas, Boanerges, &c. ; and of such

phrases as irpocrairov XajAfiaveiv, yeveadai Savarov, &C.

But it seems no easy matter, on the hypothesis that
our Lord generally made use of Hebrew, to account
for the retaining of such words as 'Paxd (Matt. v.
22) and Map/ieovp (Luke xvi. 11), while his lan-
guage is, for the most part, translated. For why,
it may well be asked, should an exception be made
in favour of these expressions ? What right had
they to stand as they were originally uttered, while
the whole context in which they are imbedded was
subjected to a process of translation ? It certainly
does appear to me somewhat difficult to answer these
questions on the supposition that our Lord generally
made use of Hebrew ; whereas, on the theory which I
uphold, that the substance of his discourse was Greek,
and has thus been reported to us in its original form
by the Evangelists, nothing could be more natural,
or indeed inevitable, than that such Aramaic words
and phrases should from time to time occur and be

I shall enter upon an examination of special pas-
sages afterwards, but meanwhile I venture to main-

9 6




tain that, as has been shewn, there is every reason
to conclude, from a general survey of the New Tes-
tament, that Greek was generally known and used
in Palestine at the time of Christ ; that that accord-
ingly was the language which He usually employed ;
and that, while He sometimes made use in public of
the Aramaic dialect, such an occurrence was quite
exceptional to his ordinary practice, and is on that
account distinguished by particular notice in the
Evangelic history. a. Roberts.


I believe that Jesus Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate, was
crucified, dead, and buried; that he descended into hell, and the third
day rose again from the dead.

When we begin to institute a comparison between
the Gospels and Epistles on the above-quoted art-
icles, we are struck at once with the different way in
which the meaning of these sublime events of the
Saviour's life was understood before and after the
gift of the Holy Ghost. The Evangelists make con-
spicuous everywhere how little even the chosen
Twelve understood concerning the events which
were to befall their Master. When Jesus (Luke
xviii. 31-34) said plainly to them that, in their ap-
proaching visit to Jerusalem, He should be delivered
to the Gentiles, be mocked, scourged, and put to
death, and the third day should rise again ; we are
told, " They understood none of these things, and
this' saying was hid from them, neither knew they
the things which were spoken." And if this were so
with the plain details of what was about to come to


pass before their eyes, how much less were they
likely to understand the great purpose for which
these events were permitted to occur ! Christ, as
we shall presently see, had given to his disciples,
before the Resurrection, some few intimations of the
great end for which He had come into the world ;
and when- the Holy Ghost came upon them, these
things were, without doubt, brought vividly to their
remembrance, and the full meaning then made plain
to them of what before had been obscure, or rather

. But in the Epistles the historic details of Christ's
passion form a very trifling portion of the Apostle's
matter. He deals almost wholly with the end for
which these events were wrought. It is not that
Christ died, but that He died for the sins of men,
which St. Paul is anxious to proclaim : it is not the
resurrection of Jesus only which he preaches, but
that Christ is the first-fruits of them that sleep, and
that we too shall be raised, yea, all in Christ shall be
made alive : it is not a mere historic fact that Jesus
was taken up into heaven, and that a cloud received
Him out of the sight of the disciples, of which St.
Paul has to tell, but that the followers of Christ
should seek those things which are above, where
Christ sitteth at the right hand of God.

Of all this teaching the Gospels which have been
preserved for us say but very little. Till Christ's
resurrection was accomplished; and the fact thereof
fully received, no such lessons could have place ; of
which lessons, however, the Epistles are full, and
the narrative which we derive from the Gospels can
only be traced by allusions made here and there by
vol. vi. . 7



the Gentiles. It is a very able and sincere attempt to ap-

Online LibraryAlexander RobertsGreek, the language of Christ and His apostles → online text (page 38 of 47)