In a recent post, we explored the origins of the gospels. These books outlining Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection, were written relatively soon after his crucifixion and, evidence indicates, are basically first- and second-hand accounts. The gospels of Matthew and John were written by two of Jesus’ original disciples, at least according to tradition and to early church historians.
Recently, while on a trip across the country, I was reading a book that repeated a common argument against the gospels being eyewitness accounts. Here’s the basic argument: There’s no way that the gospels were written by people who were actually with Jesus. In particular, the books of Matthew and John could not have been written by any of Jesus’ disciples. Why? Because Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic, yet the earliest existing copies of the gospels were written in Greek…and good Greek at that. There’s just no way that these semi-literate people from the backwater of Judea could have written these books in Greek.
On the surface, the argument makes sense. Dig an inch below the surface, however, and it makes less sense, for two reasons:
- There’s some evidence that one of the gospels (Matthew’s) was originally written in Aramaic, the primary language of Jews in Judea at the time.
- Even if Matthew’s gospel was not originally written in Aramaic, there is strong evidence to indicate that many Jewish people—and others in first century Judea—could speak Greek. Matthew and John would have been no exception, and could therefore have written their gospels in Greek.
Let’s take a closer look.
A Common Language in Judea: Greek
Over the last few decades, archeological and historical work has shown us that Judea, while hardly a garden spot, was not a total “backwater” area of the Roman Empire, as some have asserted. Many of Judea’s inhabitants, Jewish or otherwise, were bilingual, or even trilingual, to some extent.
For example, research into Jewish funerary inscriptions created all over the known world from 300 B.C. to 500 A.D., shows that about 70% of them were written in Greek. In Palestine (Judea), where Jesus preached, about 66% were written in Greek. (Jewish Funerary Inscriptions — Most Are in Greek, Pieter W. Van Der Horst, Biblical Archeology Review, Sept.-Oct., 1992). This is an indicator that Greek was a relatively common language among Judean Jews, even if it wasn’t their primary language.
In addition, New Testament scholar and expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Joseph A. Fitzmeyer, wrote that “The Dead Sea scrolls reveal that a trilingualism existed in Palestine in the first and second century of the Christian era. In addition to Aramaic, some Jews also spoke Hebrew or Greek—or both. Different levels of Jewish society, different kinds of religious training and other factors may have determined who spoke what.” (Did Jesus Speak Greek?, Joseph A. Fitzmeyer, Biblical Archeology Review, Sept.-Oct. 1992).
For many of Judea’s people—including Jesus and his disciples—their first language would have been Aramaic, a language that was distantly related to Hebrew. In addition, many Jews would have spoken some Hebrew. At the time, Hebrew was a “dead language” like Latin is today, and it was used primarily for religious ceremonies.
There were other languages spoken in the area as well, but one language stitched everyone together, particularly those who were engaged in commerce, or who had any education, or who were in a position of leadership: Greek.
It’s not unreasonable to say that Judea was much like modern-day Europe in one respect: Different nationalities or population groups all spoke their own languages, but shared one in common. Throughout my career, I have traveled and worked in Europe and it’s clear that Germans speak German, the French speak French, Italians speak Italian, the Spanish speak Spanish, and everyone speaks English (at least in business, and in the major cities and towns).
Forget Esperanto, English is basically the second language in Europe. It’s a language that’s shared in common across the continent. It’s widely used in international business forums because most can understand it. So it was with the Greek language in Judea and elsewhere in the eastern Roman Empire.
Jesus and the Disciples Likely Spoke Aramaic and At Least Some Greek
This brings us back to Jesus and his disciples. A number of scholars have argued that Jesus and his disciples spoke Greek, as well as their native tongues. It is most likely that Jesus preached in Aramaic to a Jewish audience in Judea, but was able to converse in Greek when needed. The same would have been true of his disciples, particularly one such as Matthew, who was a tax collector.
At the end of his earthly ministry, when Jesus issued the Great Commission to his original disciples, he instructed them to spread the gospel throughout the world. Some have taken this to mean that he was telling the disciples to go preach to the Gentiles. Others have said that, at that time, Jesus was only telling his disciples to reach out to other Jews that were spread throughout the known world (the Jewish diaspora). Most members of the Jewish diaspora (as well as Gentiles in that part of the world) would primarily have spoken Greek. To succeed in fulfilling the Great Commission—which they did—the disciples would most certainly have had to use Greek.
Also, think about this: Decades later, when Matthew and John would have penned their gospels, Greek would have been a logical choice. It was the language that would have reached the most people, Jewish or Gentile, in the known world.
Was Matthew’s Original Written in Aramaic?
Our earliest fragments of the gospels are written in Greek. However, it’s important to note that a Church Father, Irenaeus, wrote in about 180 A.D. in Against Heresies, that Matthew originally published his gospel “among the Hebrews in their own tongue,” presumably Aramaic or Hebrew. Other church historians, including Origen, Eusebius, and Papias, also mentioned that Matthew had written his original gospel in Aramaic or Hebrew. We do not have this Aramaic / Hebrew version today, so we cannot know for sure if these historians are correct. However, Greek copies were soon in circulation, and some of those are the ones that have survived.
The key point is this: The fact that our earliest copies of the gospels are in Greek does not argue against our understanding of their authorship. There may have been an original copy of Matthew written in Aramaic that was rapidly translated into Greek, but that doesn’t really matter. The fact is, we have evidence that the traditionally accepted gospel authors could likely have written in Greek, and we would have expected them to have done so, as it was the common language of the their intended audience.
Image Attribution: “The Evangelist Matthew Inspired by an Angel” by Rembrandt – Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Evangelist_Matthew_Inspired_by_an_Angel.jpg#mediaviewer/File:The_Evangelist_Matthew_Inspired_by_an_Angel.jpg