Did Jesus Speak Greek at Caesarea Philippi?

In a comment to Michael Barber’s latest installment in his series asking “Is Peter the Rock?,” Doug Chaplin said:

Michael, thanks for this series. However, while I fully agree with the comment in a previous post that we need to take seriously the fact that the NT is written in Greek, I find the particular way you express the argument here very strange, since it depends on a conversation in Greek between Jesus and Peter.

Obviously at a narrative level (and the level Gundry is claiming to work) that’s so, but discussion of Jesus’ intention in relation to Matthew’s character’s Greek speech seems misplaced.

In saying that I don’t mean to make a comment on the historicity of the question, nor the meaning of the text, but rather to suggest that your argument is confusing the two, as if the language of the translation or narration determines the history.

I noted in a comment on Michael’s previous post that Stan Porter argues that Jesus might have actually spoken Greek here (at the historical level).  Here’s the relevant portion of Porter’s DNTB article:

A related question to the issue of the Greek of the NT is that of which language or languages Jesus spoke (see Fitzmyer). The vast majority of scholars rightly contend that Jesus’ primary and first language was probably Aramaic (Casey). Many scholars also entertain the possibility that, at least in a religious context such as that indicated by Luke 4:16-20, Jesus may have spoken Hebrew as well. This linguistic scenario seems well founded. Jesus was born to a Palestinian Jewish family and was apparently well versed in the institutions of the Jewish people, including the use of Aramaic, the language of the Jews since their return under the Persians from exile in Babylon. Not only did Aramaic remain a low-level vernacular in Syria during the time of the Seleucids and after, but also Aramaic continued to be used by Jews during the first century, as is well attested from the Dead Sea Scrolls finds and other related documents. Jewish worship during this time was often carried on in Aramaic, with an interpretive translation into Aramaic (known as a targum) of the Biblical text being offered.

A more contentious issue in recent scholarship, however, is whether Jesus knew and used Greek and possibly even taught in it on occasion (see Porter 2000a, 126-80 for discussion). Many scholars recognize this possibility in theory but hesitate to specify particular instances where this may have occurred. Jesus came from an area that had been highly influenced by Hellenism. Nazareth was a small village, but it was on the same trade route as an excellent example of a Greek city in Palestine, Sepphoris, where both Greek and Aramaic were spoken, and near the primarily Gentile Decapolis, Hellenistic cities or villages in the region of Galilee. Jesus was involved in a trade where it is reasonable to assume that he would have had contact with others than his townspeople, possibly including Romans or other who spoke Greek. In the course of his itinerant ministry, Jesus also traveled to various parts of Palestine where he may have had contact with Greek speakers. Several of his disciples, including Andrew, Phillip, and even possibly Peter, had Greek names, despite being Jewish.

On the basis of linguistic context of first-century Palestine, as well as Jesus’ background, a set of criteria have recently been developed to test whether Jesus spoke in Greek and whether any of the words of Jesus in the Gospels may record his actual words (see Porter 2000a, 126-237). The criteria that have been developed are three: the criterion of Greek language and its context, which determines the likelihood that in a given context Jesus would have spoken Greek; the criterion of Greek textual variance, which determines whether any of the words recorded can be attributable to Jesus; and the criterion of discourse features, which examines features of discourse, analyzing the words and actions of Jesus through the category of register.

This examination has shown that there is a plausibility that in a number of contexts Jesus may well have used Greek in conversing with others: (1) Matthew 8:5-13 par. John 4:46-54: Jesus’ conversation with the centurion or commander (but the Johannine account diverges in terms of wording); (2) John 4:4-26: Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman; (3) Mark 2:13-14 par. Matthew 9:9; Luke 5:27-28: Jesus’ calling of Levi/Matthew; (4) Mark 7:25-30 par. Matthew 15:21-28: Jesus’ conversation with the Syrophoenician or Canaanite woman; (5) Mark 12:13-17 par. Matthew 22:16-22; Luke 20:20-26: Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisees and Herodians over the Roman coin of Caesar; (6) Mark 8:27-30 par. Matthew 16:13-20; Luke 9:18-21: Jesus’ conversation with his disciples at Caesarea Philippi; (7) Mark 15:2-5 par. Matthew 27:11-14; Luke 23:2-4; John 18:29-38: Jesus’ trial before Pilate. Furthermore, on the basis of Greek textual variance, in several of these contexts his actual words may be recorded (Jesus’ conversation with the Syrophoenician or Canaanite woman, his conversation with Pharisees and Herodians, his conversation at Caesarea Philippi and his trial before Pilate).1

Now it’s perfectly reasonable to think that Jesus knew some Greek.  I’m less persuaded that we can figure out where he might have spoken Greek in real life by examining the Gospel accounts (even with Porter’s proposed criteria). There’s definitely some wordplay going on in the passage, but I think it’s Matthew’s, and I have no reason to believe that it’s not faithful to Jesus’ original intention in his Caesarea Philippi discourse.

B”H

1 Stanley E. Porter, “Greek of the New Testament” in Dictionary of New Testament Background (eds. Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000, 433-34.

9 thoughts on “Did Jesus Speak Greek at Caesarea Philippi?

  1. Some think Jesus only and always spoke aramaic but I think that is silly – he was a Galilean and just makes sense he would have had some Greek speaking ability especially being he was a carpenter and had work to do – did he only serve aramaic speaking people?

  2. Brian: Generally speaking, most folks, especially tradesmen, were polyglots (to some extent) back then. Aramaic for everyday conversation; Hebrew for liturgical settings; Greek for commerce; Latin for dealing with governing officials.

  3. Hmmm…I thought the only thing the Jesus couldn’t do was reveal the exact time of his second coming?!!? So…wouldn’t He have used the language required/appropriate to any situation…? Exactly as Nick mentioned and beyond?

  4. Jesus is GOD!!!! He can speak ANYTHING HE wants. He could have made up a language the whole time on earth and had it translated in the minds of the people into whatever language was best for them. Being God gives you that ultimate free reign on EVERYTHING!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. deedee: You find an argument from me about Jesus being God but I think the Incarnation was such that he didn’t take advantage of that. He really took humanity onto himself and all that entailed so I don’t think he really could have spoken anything he wanted. At least not during his time on earth.

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