The thrice-repeated question “Lovest thou me?” Jesus posed to Peter after His resurrection as recorded in John 21:15–17 (KJV) actually shrouds a scene at the heart of a tragedy. Looking at the Greek text clarifies the situation.
Jesus asks Peter, ἀγαπᾷς με; agapas me? “Do you love me?” He asks this question twice, both times using the verb ἀγαπῶ agapo (15, 16)—the verb also used in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world . . .” Peter, however, responds each time by saying not ἀγαπῶ σε agapo se “I love you,” but φιλῶ σε filo se, a verb one would use in saying to a close friend, “I do care for you.” Peter, burdened by his denial of the Master only days earlier, is now feeling unworthy to gaze at the Master and say to Him that he loves Him.
When Jesus asks Peter a third time, He switches to Peter’s verb: φιλεῖς με; filis me? It is as though Jesus were saying, “Even so, Peter, do you care for me?”
There is little doubt that in Peter’s ears each question Jesus asks has a ring of forgiveness and acceptance. But at the ring of the third question, Peter sees Jesus once again willing to not only accept him as he is but to also stoop down to his level of unworthiness and lift him up. Overwhelmed, Peter feels grieved.
The difference between ἀγαπῶ agapo and φιλῶ filo is not allowable in English, nor in Aramaic. This lack of distinction leads to the assumption that Peter was grieved because Jesus asked him the same question three times, once for each of the three times the disciple had denied his Master. And, admittedly, some contemporary New Testament scholars claim the two words convey no difference of meaning in this passage.
Had that been the case, however, the Greek word in verse 17 would have been τρίς tris “three times.” But it is what Jesus specifically did τὸ τρίτον to triton“the third time” (17)—when He intentionally compromised His wording to Peter’s—that overwhelmed Peter.
Studying John 21:15-17 in light of Modern Greek clarifies this meaning. Both ἀγαπάω -ῶ agapao/agapo and φιλέω -ῶ fileo/filo are contract verbs. Thus, they have an uncontracted and a contracted form. The Greek text in this passage employs contracted forms. Used in Classical Attic, contracted forms would have been foreign to Homer and other ancient Greek authors in the ninth century BC. The difference between the contracted and the uncontracted form of a verb has no semantic bearing. In New Testament these two verbs share some common ground in meaning yet are clearly distinct—a distinction reflected in Modern Greek, which shares much in common with the koine of the New Testament on this point. After 20 centuries, the New Testament sense of ἀγαπῶ in Modern Greek remains intact, while that of φιλῶ I kiss has been reduced to one sense. On the other hand, the meaning of virtually all New Testament compounds and derivatives of φιλῶ (φίλος -η friend, φιλία friendship, φιλαδελφία brotherhood, φιλανθρωπία philanthropy, etc.) is fully preserved in Modern Greek. In this light, one can hardly doubt that this dialogue between Jesus and Peter was held as recorded—in Greek. Additionally, one can hardly doubt that Jesus’ use of φιλῶ in verse 17 was intentional.
There are various views respecting the use of the verbs ἀγαπῶ and φιλῶ in John 21:15–17. Regardless, one must bear in mind two vital points: (a) the use of these two different verbs in the original text is not accidental, and (b) their delicate interplay, especially within the context given, can be subject to a “translation which either does not care, or is not able to reproduce the variation in the words as it exists in the original.” This should all the more be reason for the Bible student to become familiar with the language of the New Testament.
Philemon Zachariou is a native Greek, a retired Greek professor, and the author of Reading and Pronouncing Biblical Greek: Historical Pronunciation versus Erasmian. He currently develops New Testament Greek instructional material, is an adjunct professor of English at Northwest University, and a BibleMesh Greek tutor.
1. George Lamsa’s English rendition of this passage from Aramaic follows the KJV wording, thus it does not reflect the distinction between ἀγαπῶ and φιλῶ. George M. Lamsa, The Holy Bible from Ancient Eastern Manuscripts (Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Company, 1957).
2. See, for example, Herman Ridderbos, The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 565-66.
3. Potwin compares the Old Syriac version (AD 150) and the Peshitto version (about AD 300) of John 21:15-17 and finds that, even though the two differ from each other, neither corresponds to the wording of the Greek original. Lemuel Sloughton Potwin, Here and There in the Greek New Testament (Michigan: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1898), 122-126.
4. That Jesus and Peter could freely converse in Aramaic but also in Greek, the lingua franca of the then Hellenized world, does not sound remote to a thoroughly bilingual person. This situation is hardly any different from that in which two close friends, or brothers, both from Mexico but raised in a bilingual community in Los Angeles, end up at times conversing even in their own hometown in Mexico intimately, and just as naturally, in English.
5. Richard C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973), 43.
THAT JESUS spoke Aramaic is a foregone conclusion: Jesus was a Jew brought up in a Jewish home; and the Greek New Testament cites instances in which Jesus uttered words in Aramaic. Standing upon such sure historical ground, certain scholars today maintain that Jesus spoke and ministered only in Aramaic. This view, however, is remarkably limited.
First, the idea that Jesus made use of Aramaic only, stipulates that all the words of Jesus recorded in the Greek Gospels were translated from Aramaic; and that in order to understand their true meaning, one would need to investigate the Aramaic of 2,000 ago. Such an argument, however, disregards the sovereign Author’s providential medium through which he allowed his message to be recorded and delivered.
Second, if Jesus used Aramaic only, we would expect to find in the Greek Gospels several, if not multiple, instances in which Jesus uses Aramaic and which the authors transliterate and explain in Greek. If Jesus habitually spoke Aramaic, then there is no reason that only a few of his Aramaic words should be recorded in the Gospels while the rest were translated into Greek. Moreover, when the Gospel authors render the Aramaic originals of Jesus into Greek, they explicitly point out that they are doing so.
Finally, when Jesus converses with non-Jewish persons (Pilate, the centurion, the Greek-speaking Syrophoenician woman, the Greeks who came to see him, and others), the Gospel writers give no hint of the need for an interpreter, meaning that Jesus communicated with those individuals directly. In such cases it is extremely unlikely that Jesus relied on Aramaic.
Such considerations lead us closer to the evidence that…JESUS Spoke Greek also
Because the Four Gospels—in fact, the entire New Testament—were written in Greek by authors of Jewish thought, the question arises whether Jesus, like those writers, spoke Greek also; and, if so, whether he did minister in Greek—and to what extent.
In considering the answer, it is important to first understand the role of the Greek language throughout the Roman world, including Judaea, at the time of Christ (external evidence) before examining the linguistic evidence in the scriptures (internal evidence).
THE FOLLOWING cursory historical description shows that from Alexander the Great down to Christ, Greek had been established as a world speech, the lingua franca of the Graeco-Roman world, which included Judaea.
The Greek of the NT is the language that was commonly used in the Greek-speaking Hellenistic world. It is referred to as the Κοινή Koine “common (tongue).” Κοινή developed primarily from the vernacular of the Hellenic tongue of classical Athens, from the average Athenian’s simpler form of the highly artistic classical Attic of the world of letters.
Thus, if the classical Greek vernacular of Aristotle’s day was to serve as the medium for spreading Christ’s message worldwide but needed to be readied as the “common language of the people,” certain unprecedented circumstances had to converge upon politically divided Greece. The force that united Greece came in the person of Alexander the Great who, in an astoundingly short time (334-323 BC) planted the seed of the Hellenic language and culture throughout his conquered world. The widespread Hellenizing socio-linguistic elements would become so deeply rooted that they would stand the test of time and human vice even after the spread of the Roman Empire a century and a half later.
With the Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament now translated into “the common language of the people” and circulated among Hellenized Jews for nearly four centuries in the form of the Septuagint (LXX), Κοινή was ready to carry also the New Testament message to Jew and Gentile alike throughout the Roman world.
THE REMAINDER of this study examines the linguistic and scriptural evidence of the extent to which Κοινή was an integral part of Jewish life in general and of Jesus’ ministry in specific. That Jesus not only conversed but that he also ministered in Greek is evidenced by linguistic insights gleaned from a variety of scenarios such as the following.
Jude and James
Two of Jesus’ siblings, Jude and James (Mat. 13:55), wrote parts of the Greek New Testament in stately, literary Κοινή phrase and idiom. Their Greek proficiency level reflects early language acquisition coupled with formal training.
It would be unthinkable that Jesus’ brothers, with whom Jesus grew up, would be so proficient in Greek while Jesus himself was not. Like other Jews of the day, Jesus and his brothers grew up speaking Aramaic and Greek and being educated in both.
Jesus’ Dialogues with Other Jews
Semantic elements peculiar to Greek provide insights that are in harmony with the thought pattern and outcome of certain dialogues Jesus had with Jewish individuals, an indication that such dialogues were held as they were recorded—in Greek. Below are two key examples.
In John 21:15-17 Jesus asks Peter, ἀγαπᾷς με; agapas me? “Do you love me?” He asks this question twice, both times using the verb ἀγαπῶ agapó (ἀγαπάω agapáo) (15, 16). Peter responds both times by saying φιλῶ σεfilo se = “I do care for you,” that is, by using a different verb, φιλῶ filó (φιλέω filéo) (15, 16), for he can only say he cares for Jesus as a friend cares for a close friend because he feels unworthy to say that he loves him.
When Jesus asks Peter a third time, he uses not the verb ἀγαπῶ (as he did the first two times), but Peter’s verb: φιλεῖς με; fileis me? = “Do you care for me?” (17). It is as though Jesus is saying, “Even so, do you care for me as a friend?”
In Peter’s ears each question has a ring of forgiveness for each time he denied Jesus. But in the third question Peter sees Jesus willing (as always before) to not only accept him as he is, but also to step down to his own level of unworthiness and lift him up. Peter feels overwhelmed.
The absence of this linguistic distinction in the majority of translations leads to the assumption that Peter was grieved because Jesus asked him the same question three times. The Greek text shows that Peter became sorrowful, not because Jesus asked him the same question three times, but because the third time Jesus rephrased his question by compromising his wording to Peter’s. This distinction is not allowable in English or in Aramaic. In this light, there is every indication that this dialogue between Jesus and Peter was held in Greek.
That Jesus and Peter could freely converse in Greek (as they could in Aramaic) does not sound remote to a thoroughly bilingual person. This situation is hardly any different from that in which two close friends, or brothers, both from Mexico but raised and schooled in a bilingual community in Los Angeles, end up at times conversing even in their own hometown in Mexico intimately, and just as naturally, in English.
Besides, Peter had to be fluent in Κοινή, the common language of the mixed multitudes in Galilee, in order for his fishing partnership to thrive (Luke 5:10). Regarded as an uneducated person (Acts 4:13), he nevertheless proved to be an eloquent public speaker on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-36) when, undoubtedly, he spoke in Greek to the multilingual multitudes (2:9-11), just as he did when he preached in Greek in the house of Cornelius, a Roman centurion (Acts 10).
John gives an account of a Pharisee named Nicodemus, an admirer of Jesus. Nicodemus is resolved to find out for himself once and for all who Jesus truly is, so he visits Jesus secretly by night in order to try to size up the Master (John 3:1-2).
“Master,” Nicodemus says, “we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no man can do the wonders you do except God be with him” (2).
Jesus brushes his visitor’s introductory accolades aside and immediately brings into the discussion a topic unrelated to Nicodemus’ inquiry, yet more relevant to his spiritual need:
“Truly, truly, I say to you,” Jesus says, “unless one is born from above (ἄνωθεν anothen), he cannot see the kingdom of God” (3).
The adverb ἄνωθενanothen comes from ἄνωano “above” + -θεν –then, a suffix denoting origin of motion from a locality, hence, “from above.” In certain contexts the same word can mean “again, anew,” “the upper part,” or “from the beginning.” It becomes rather clear from the remainder of the dialogue, however, that what Jesus relates to Nicodemus is the need for every person’s spiritual birth (5), a birth related not to earthly matters but to a birth by the Spirit (6) = from ἄνωθεν “above” (7), to heavenly things above (12), and specifically to the only one who “came down from heaven” (13) (= from above).
Jesus uses ἄνωθεν early in the dialogue (3), before Nicodemus has had an opportunity to “test” Jesus and form a solid opinion of him. While it sounds logical that Nicodemus misunderstood Jesus, the likelihood cannot be discounted that his misunderstanding was intentional, particularly because the opportunity for a witty wordplay appeared enticing at a moment Jesus seemed to have plunged himself into a difficult situation with the words he had uttered—a welcome chance for an audacious Nicodemus to hear the word ἄνωθενanothen not as “from above” but as “a second time = again”:
“How can a man, being old, be born?” queries Nicodemus with an air of sanctimony. “Is it possible for him to enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?” (4).
Jesus patiently explains the need for every human being born from the womb (water) to be born also of the Spirit (5-8)—Jesus never said “a second time,” as Nicodemus put it. But when Nicodemus makes a thwarted attempt to challenge Jesus a third time—apparently awe-struck by the character of Jesus—and groping for words, he mutters, “How can these things be?” (9) he receives a jolting exclamation from Jesus, who tells him that as a leading teacher of Israel he should know better than to be puzzled by such truths (10).
This view of Nicodemus’ demeanor and wittiness at the beginning of his encounter with Jesus may sound conjectural, but the likelihood of its accuracy is high. Nicodemus, who turned out to be a supporter of Jesus (John 7:50-51, 19:30), was a well-educated rabbinic Pharisee. Like Paul, and judging by his Greek name Νικόδημος Nikodemos “people’s victor,” which is suggestive of strong Hellenistic influence, Nicodemus was a Hellenized Pharisee; and, as such, most capable of an instantaneous linguistic twist at an opportune moment. Jesus used this “people’s victor” to reveal insights that hinged on a Greek word with a bifurcated meaning that allowed the dialogue to take the double path it did.
In v. 8, Jesus uses πνεῦμα spirit, breath, wind, rather than ἄνεμοςwind (Mat. 14:32) or πνοήbreath, wind (Acts 2:2) to explain the effects of the ΠνεῦμαSpirit on all who are born from above, his metaphor revealing a truth in indelible wordplay form.
The Testimony of the Jews
But specifically with regard to the question whether Jesus did in fact teach in Greek, the answer might best be heard from the mouth of the Jewish officials who sought to arrest him:
Where does this man [Jesus] intend to go that we will not find him? [Maybe] to the dispersion of [those among] the Greeks and teach the Greeks? (John 7:35)
These frustrated, first-hand eyewitnesses of Jesus’ teaching are asking where Jesus intended to go, their scoffing remarks suggesting he was better fit to teach Greek-speaking Hellenized Jews and non-Jews.
From the Cross
While on the cross, Jesus quoted from Psalm 22:1 as he cried out, “Eli, Eli” (Mat. 27:46)—or “Eloi, Eloi” (Mark 15:34). Some bystanders misunderstood Jesus, thinking he was crying out the Greek name for the prophet Elijah: Ἠλία! Ἠλία! [ilía, ilía].
Who were these bystanders, whose ears were so attuned to Greek and who also knew about the prophet Elijah, except Greek-speaking individuals who mingled with Jews? Doubtless, those same individuals heard Jesus’ promise to the penitent criminal on the cross next to him; and then, again, when he prayed, Πάτερ, ἄφες αὐτοῖς, οὐ γὰρ οἴδασιν τί ποιοῦσιν Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing; and again when he said Διψῶ I thirst; and finally when he said Τετέλεσται It is finished (= completed).
No bystander misheard or misunderstood Jesus in any of these and other such instances, because each time the words he spoke must have sounded familiar. And when the Roman soldiers who offered Jesus vinegar to drink and said, Εἰ σὺ εἶ ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων, σῶσον σεαυτόν If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself there was no doubt in their mind that Jesus would understand them—in Greek.
The Sign on the Cross
In John 19:19-20 we read that Pilate wrote a sign and affixed it to the cross of Jesus. The sign was in Hebrew (Aramaic), Roman (Latin), and Greek. The Greek part of the sign read:
ΙΗΣΟΥΣ Ο ΝΑΖΩΡΑΙΟΣ Ο ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ ΤΩΝ ΙΟΥΔΑΙΩΝ
Jesus the Nazarene the King of the Jews.
The Temple Warning Inscription
Discovered in 1871 and housed in a museum in Istanbul, a Greek inscription warned non-Jews of the death penalty imposed on anyone who would go past the balustrade of the Temple’s Courtyard of the Gentiles. Josephus, the Jewish historian, wrote about this sign, which was written also in Latin. The seven-line Greek inscription (without spaces) reads:
ΜΗΘΕΝΑ ΑΛΛΟΓΕΝΗ ΕΙΣΠΟΡΕΥΕΣΘΑΙ ΕΝΤΟΣ ΤΟΥ ΠΕΡΙ ΤΟ ΙΕΡΟΝ ΤΡΥΦΑΚΤΟΥ ΚΑΙ ΠΕΡΙΒΟΛΟΥ ΟΣ Δ ΑΝ ΛΗΦΘΗ ΕΑΥΤΩΙ ΑΙΤΙΟΣ ΕΣΤΑΙ ΔΙΑ ΤΟ ΕΞΑΚΟΛΟΥΘΕΙΝ ΘΑΝΑΤΟΝ
No foreigner shall enter within the enclosure surrounding thetemple. Therefore whoever is caught [doing so] will himselfbe the cause for his subsequent death.
Jesus set his eyes on the sign on his cross perhaps just once; on the warning sign, as often as he visited the Temple. The warning epigram is a strong indication that the common language of the day was Greek and would have therefore been understood both by the Jew and the non-Jew visiting or living in Jerusalem at that time. A translation of the warning into Aramaic was apparently pointless.
Hellenized Jewish Names
Special attention is given in Genesis to the “sons” of Ἰάβαν Javan (Gen. 10:2-5) with whom the Israelites came most often in contact. Javan is identified as the representative of the Ionian Greeks who lived chiefly along the western coast of Asia Minor. Cross-linguistic borrowings bear witness to such contacts. Part of the evidence comes in the form of declinable Jewish names in the Septuagint ( Ἔσδρας Ezra, Ἠλίας Elijah, Ἰερεμίας Jeremiah, Ἰησοῦς Jesus, Ἰούδας Jude, Ἰωνᾶς, Jonah, Ἰωσίας Josiah, Μωϋσῆς Moses, Σολομών Solomon), evidence that Jewish names had been Hellenized long before the commencement of the Septuagint around 285 BC, or since 332 BC, the year Alexander conquered Judea.
A “borrowed” word or loanword is a word imported from one language into another. Loanwords are mostly substantives—here, primarily Jewish proper names. As a loanword, a Jewish name is said to be Hellenized when, following repeated use over time, it is “metamorphosed” phonologically and morphologically into a Greek-like word. Because Greek is highly inflectional, the Jewish name is eventually subjected to inflectional patterns of Greek nouns. The Hellenizing of a loanword is accomplished only by Greek speakers—just as a foreign word in English is Anglicized by speakers of English.
Listed below are declinable Jewish names in the New Testament including adjectives denoting ethnic or local origin. Case endings from all three declensions reflect morpho-logical transformations compatible with Κοινή grammatical patterns. The declension of some names is mixed, Ἰησοῦς Iisous ( Jesus) being a conspicuous example. Masculine names ending in unaccented -ας normally conform to Attic case endings -ας, -ου, -ᾳ, -αν, -α (but Ἰούδας > gen. Ἰούδα). Names ending in accented -ᾶς (chiefly non-Greek) conform to Doric -ᾶς, -ᾶ, -ᾷ, -ᾶν, -ᾶ, popular in Neohellenic. Endings show the case(s) in which a name is found. The list is not exhaustive.
The transliterated endings of the majority of Jewish names do not comport with Greek word endings (Ἀβραάμ Abraham, Δαυίδ David, Ἐνώχ Enoch, Ἰσαάκ Isaac, ᾽Ιώβ Job, Ρούθ Ruth, Σαμουήλ Samuel), which may explain in part why they remain indeclinable.Yet, except for references to the OT, Ἰακώβ Jacob (-β) is rendered Ἰάκωβος by every New Testament writer who uses it (Matthew, Mark, Luke, Paul, James, Jude); and Paul’s Hebrew name Σαούλ Saul (-λ) becomes Σαῦλος Savlos.
Of particular interest is the name Ἱερουσαλήμ (-μ) Ierusalim Jerusalem. Jews, Jewish proselytes, and probably much of the Hellenized world regarded Jerusalem as a sacred place, though not solely by dint of its Hebrew name, place or city of peace. In ears attuned to Greek, Ἱερουσαλήμ, occurring 77 times in the New Testament, has a ring of sacredness, for it can be acoustically (and visually) associated with Ἱερός, Ἱερόν, Ἱεροῦ sacred, temple. Indeed, τὴν ἁγίαν Ἱερουσαλήμ the holy Jerusalem (Rev. 21:10) has a ring of sublime redundancy.
Ἱεροσόλυμα Ierosolima, an alternative Greek rendition of Jerusalem, ends in -α and may thus be treated as a feminine noun in the singular, first declension. Ἱεροσόλυμα does occur in the singular as a feminine noun only once (Mat. 2:3). In all other 61 occurrences13 it is a neuter noun in the second declension and always in the plural: Ἱεροσόλυμα, –ων, –οις. Indeed, Jerusalem was not a singular locality but a city composed of many ἱερά sacred places.
The point: The morphological transformation of loan-words is an adaptation brought about through prolonged use. Jewish names, particularly those that appear Hellenized only in the New Testament, were Hellenized by speakers of Greek, whether Jewish or non-Jewish. This circumstance suggests that by mid-first century AD virtually every Jew in Israel was bilingual; and that after nearly four centuries of a growing dependence on Κοινή—also the language of the Septuagint—the Jews would of necessity record their sacred accounts again in Κοινή, added evidence that Jesus and the disciples, like every New Testament author, daily depended on the use of Greek.
In classical Greece, ἐκκλησία ekklisíawas a lawful assembly of all who possessed the rights of citizenship for the transaction of public affairs. Athenian citizens were summoned out of their homes—expressed by ek = out of, from + klísis = a calling, an invitation—to conduct meetings. Every man was ex officio a member of the ekklisía, the sovereign assembly of Greek cities, the equivalent to our modern parliaments.
In Hellenistic times down to the time of Christ, the secular use of ekklisía still carried its old classical meaning (cf. Acts 19:39). Though ekklisía is infrequently used in the Septuagint (about 25 times), it conveys the idea of a group of people assembling for a variety of purposes including worship (2 Chron. 20:26), transporting the Ark (1 Kings 8:2), or in the sense of “assembly of God” (Deut. 23:1). Ekklisíais never used for pagan gatherings as is συναγωγή [sinagoyí] “synagogue.” The word ekklisia was thus being molded through the Septuagint in preparation for its added sense later in NT times.
There is hardly room for doubt that the word ekklisíawas not associated within a Christian context until after Jesus said to Peter:
And I say to you that you are Peter, and upon thisrock (not Peter) I will build me the Church (Mat. 16:18).
Jesus had repeatedly told his disciples that “the kingdom of God” was at hand. By his declaration to Peter, the term ekklisía, having a strong political ring, must have given the disciples the much-anticipated signal of the imminent establishment of Christ’s kingdom on earth. High hopes for such a mighty kingdom were all but dashed when Jesus went to the cross (Luke 24:21). With hopes temporarily revived after Christ’s resurrection, the disciples raised the same question about the establishment of his kingdom in Israel (Acts 1:6).
No other term would have carried the pre-established concept of ekklisía,namely, individuals being specifically called out to join others likewise called out to assemble as one body of citizens, each with equal voice and voting authority, to conduct lawful matters for the sake of their individual and collective welfare. Had Jesus used συναγωγή synagogue, people would have taken his word as an endorsement of everything a synagogue stood for in that day, and synagogue would have served as a prototype for all church bodies to follow. While synagogue denotes “a gathering,” ekklisía denotes “a calling.” The genius of the word ekklisía points to the fact that in God’s mind the Church of Christ is a “called-out” body of people, separated from the world.
Jesus did not change the meaning of ekklisía. With a happy wordplay (Πέτρος~πέτρα [petros~petra] = Peter~rock) and a prophetic promise, he simply added to ekklisía (a feminine noun) a new dimension by adorning itwith a spiritual attire fit for a heavenly bride: his Church.
Informed scholars are convinced that Jesus regularly taught and ministered to Hellenized crowds and individuals in Greek. For instance, according to Robertson:
Jesus Himself laboured chiefly in Galilee where were many gentiles and much commerce and travel. He taught in Decapolis, a Greek region. He preached also in the regions of Tyre and Sidon (Phoenicia), where Greek was necessary, and he held converse with a Greek (Syro-Phoenician) woman [Mk. 7:26]. Near Caesarea-Philippi (a Greek region), after the Transfiguration, Jesus spoke to the people at the foot of the mountain. At the time of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus addressed people from Decapolis and Perea (largely Hellenized),… It is hardly possible that these crowds understood Aramaic. … It is clear, therefore, that Jesus spoke both Aramaic and Greek according to the demands of the occasion…
That Jesus spoke and taught in Κοινή is not mere conjecture. “We take it as proved that Jesus and the apostles, like most of their Jewish contemporaries … who moved in public life, spoke both Aramaic and Greek and read Hebrew (cf. Luke 4:17).”
Grudem quotes A. W. Argyle as noting, “To suggest that a Jewish boy growing up in Galilee would not know Greek would be rather like suggesting that a Welsh boy brought up in Cardiff would not know English. … Jesus and his disciples, all of whom were Galileans (Acts ii.7), were bilingual, speaking Greek as well as Aramaic.”
Says Roberts, “Christ habitually made use of Greek in His public teaching, and the Evangelists reported in the same language those gracious and ever-living words which thus proceeded out of His mouth.”
A Rule of Thumb
One must bear in mind that all of the NT epistles were written in Κοινή, that the Gospels and the Acts have survived only in Greek, and that “the New Testament as a whole was circulated in Greek almost from the very time of its origin” —even if it should be granted that some Aramaic accounts of the words of Jesus were extant in the middle of the first century. As Brown notes:
An Aramaic-speaking Jewish-Christian church in Palestine maintained a shadowy existence for many decades, but left little record. All of the preserved literature of the earliest church is in Greek. Only in Edessa of Syria did Aramaic-speaking Christians form their own church and translate the Greek New Testament into their dialect, Syriac. Not until after Constantine did Aramaic-speaking Christians in Palestine itself produce a translation in their dialect, the so-called Palestinian Syriac, now extant except for fragments only in the Gospels. With both, at most some lingering traditions remained of the Aramaic originals of Jesus’ sayings.
Even if the nuances we saw in the dialogue between Peter and Jesus or Nicodemus and Jesus could be found also in Aramaic—which, as we just saw, were not—they would be tied to a translation from the Greek.
But that Greek was to become the linguistic vehicle for Jesus’ message to the world does not mean that Aramaic simply provided the raw material which Greek eventually churned and molded into a polished product ready for the print shop. In his daily ministry Jesus used Aramaic or Greek according to the demand of the occasion. And though it may not always be possible to determine what words of Jesus in the Greek text were actually spoken in Greek and what words were translated from Aramaic, a safe way to hear those words, when unsure, is the way they were recorded—in Greek.
The most weighty and direct scriptural evidence that Jesus not only spoke but that he did in fact minister in Greek is found in John 7:35. In the light of this verse, each of the foregoing points of discussion highlights that evidence. It is perhaps in this same light that the scholar and student of Greek ought to realize the very reason for which Christ’s sayings in the New Testament were recorded in Greek.
Greek: the Logical Medium
Bible scholars would readily reckon the merit of the claim that Greek “was the logical medium for the Christian message because it is the most expressive language known to man.” Such claims with respect to the Greek language, whether in a religious or a non-religious sense, are without number. Here are some samples:
The more deeply the structure of the Greek language is investigated, the more apparent becomes the wisdom of God in having selected so clear and so admirable a medium for making known to man the new covenant in Christ Jesus.
It was not an accident that the New Testament was written in Greek, the language which can best express the highest thoughts and worthiest feelings of the intellect and the heart, and which is adapted to be the instrument of education for all nations.
Greek, the first great language of Western civilization, is considered by many to be the most effective and admirable means of communication ever devised. Its lucidity of structure and concept, together with the seemingly infinite variety of modes of expression, render it equally suitable to the needs of the rigorous thinker and the inspired poet.
In a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1819, he refers to the Greek language as the “most beautiful of all languages.”
1. Κοινή [kini] (as in key-knee) means “common (tongue)” and refers to the Greek of the Hellenistic era. 2. George Lamsa’s English rendition of this passage from Aramaic follows the KJV wording, thus it does not reflect the distinction between ἀγαπῶ and φιλῶ. George M. Lamsa, The Holy Bible from Ancient Eastern Manuscripts (Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Company, 1957). 3. Potwin compares the Old Syriac version (AD 150) and the Peshitto version (about AD 300) of John 21:15-17 and finds that, even though the two differ from each other, neither corresponds to the wording of the Greek original. Lemuel Sloughton Potwin, Here and There in the Greek New Testament (Michigan: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1898), 122-126. 4. In his translation from Aramaic, Lamsa follows the KJV, thus he uses “born again,” not “from above.” 5. Lamsa is of the opinion that “the teaching of Greek was forbidden by Jewish rabbis. It was said,” he says, “that it was better for a man to give his child meat of swine than to teach him the language of the Greeks.” The evidence Lamsa provides is weightless hearsay: “It was said.” (Lamsa, x.) 6. Ἑλλήνων (gn), Ἕλληνας (ac) “Hellenes” Greeks (“Gentiles”). The name referred not only to Greeks from the mainland of Greece, but also to Hellenized Jews of the dispersion as well as to Greek-speaking non-Jews of all ethnicities. 7. Jewish does not designate a name’s Hebrew or Aramaic derivation or origin. 8. Greek words can only end in a vowel; in the consonants ν, ρ, ς, ξ, ψ, i.e. [n r s]; or in [f] as in βασιλεῦ [vasilεf] king (voc.), ἄνευ [anef] without. Word stems, on the other hand, can end in any consonant: φόβος (φοβ-), λέγω (λεγ-), ἰσχύς (ισχ-), βάλλω (βαλ-), etc. In this very sense, to Greek ears any consonant ending may sound as a familiar “word ending” to which variable elements are simply added. Thus non-Greek name endings, though foreign-sounding, are acoustically acceptable, which may explain in part why a good number of Jewish names have remained indeclinable, notwithstanding the tendency of Greek to add a suffix to them. 9. Matt. 2, Luke 27, Acts 37, Rom. 4, 1 Cor. 1, Gal. 2, Heb. 1, Rev. 3. The Textus Receptus has Ἱερουσαλήμ, Ἱεροσόλυμα, etc. (i.e., Ἱερ– rather than Ἰερ-), all the more indicative of the association of the name with Ἱερόν, Ἱεροῦ, etc. sacred, temple, which is spelled with the aspirate ( ῾ ). 10. When there was ekklisía to be held in classical Athens, the town crier or herald would literally call the qualified citizens out of their homes to meet at a designated place. 11. A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1934), 28-29. 12. Ibid., 102. 13. Wayne Grudem, 1 Peter (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), 30. 14. Alexander Roberts, A Short Proof that Greek Was the Language of Christ (Alexander Gardner: London, 1893), 112-13. 15. Merrill C. Tenney, New Testament Survey (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1966), 55. 16. John P. Brown, Ancient Israel and Ancient Greece: Religion, Politics, and Culture (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), 22. 17. Claims that the original Gospels were in Aramaic are not taken seriously by NT scholarship and are based “on the specious ground that the mother tongue of Christ and the apostles was Aramaic.” Gleason L. Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, rev. ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 55-56. 18. Ray Summers, Essentials of New Testament Greek (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1950), vii. 19. Rev. George Holden, A Practical Guide to the Greek Testament (London: Samuel Bagster and Sons, Limited, 1900), 92. 20. W. J. Conybeare and J. S. Howson, The Life and Epistles of St. Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 8. 21. Kenneth Katzner, The Languages of the World (London, New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2002), 98. 22. http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/P/tj3/writings/brf/jefl258.htm
Modern Greek (Neohellenic) is of great significance in the interpretation of many parts of the New Testament text. While many New Testament words may show retention of their Classical Greek meaning, a good number of them may possess an added dimension or some distinct new nuance that is preserved in Greek today. Here is a quick glance at two key terms in John 15 traditionally understood as branches and vine respectively.
In an article titled “Is Jesus the Vine or the Vineyard?” Caragounis takes the reader on a fully documented journey from Aesop (7th–6th c. BC) through classical, Hellenistic, Byzantine, and modern times to show how these words were used at different stages in their evolutionary spectrum, especially in New Testament times. By the end of the journey the reader realizes that what has traditionally been understood as κλήματα [klimata] branches (disciples) and ἄμπελος [ambelos] vine (Jesus) is to be understood instead as κλήματα vines (disciples) and ἄμπελος vineyard (Jesus). This “new” (and correct) interpretation of κλῆμα and ἄμπελος is based not on the “modern” usage of these words, but on their New Testament usage preserved in Modern Greek.
While this “revised” meaning of κλήματα and ἄμπελος in John 15 does not change the fundamental import of Jesus’ imagery (nor the relation between Jesus and His disciples), it does nevertheless paint a very different picture that reveals profound new truths. Indeed, if we, as individual vines (disciples), remain planted in the true and sure ground of the vineyard (Jesus) (v. 5), with God the Father being the γεωργός jeorɣos groundworker (v. 1), we will produce much fruit (v. 5). It is by remaining planted in the ground that each individual vine can receive the necessary nutrients and thus live to produce fruit (v. 4). Not planted securely in the ground, a vine cannot survive and is therefore removed (v. 2).
Thus, if the disciples were to be viewed in the traditional sense as “branches,” then the earnest instruction to remain in the vine would be an unnecessary redundancy, for that is what a branch does naturally by being a part of the main stock. And if Jesus were to be understood in the traditional sense as the vine, then He Himself would be the object of pruning (v. 2). Clearly, then, Christians are the vines and Jesus is the vineyard where the vines are planted.
The New Testament meaning of the words κλήματα vines and ἄμπελος vineyard had been in place before the writer of the Fourth Gospel. After the Christian era, their meaning, having found a mighty shelter in the ecclesiastical language of Byzantine Greek, traversed through the centuries and has been preserved in Modern Greek to this day.
Philemon Zachariou is a native Greek and retired Greek professor. He currently develops New Testament Greek instructional material, is an adjunct professor of English at Northwest University, and a BibleMesh Greek tutor.
 Chrys C. Caragounis, The Development of Greek and the New Testament: Morphology, Syntax, Phonology, and Textual Transmission (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 247–61.
 Rendered in the Historical Greek Pronunciation by the use of International Phonetic Alphabet symbols.
Tapping into Modern Greek can shed light on the New Testament text in sundry ways. An example is the words King Agrippa directed at Paul before the Sanhedrin according to Acts 26:28. Agrippa’s expression, the essence of which is preserved in Modern Greek, is idiomatic in nature. Thus a technical analysis of the type of action indicated by the verb alone cannot fully convey Agrippa’s intended message to Paul:
ἐν ὀλίγῳ με πείθεις Χριστιανόν γενέσθαι
“You nearly persuade me to become a Christian!”
Let us first look at the action expressed by the conative present πείθεις “you are persuading.” A conative verb suggests that an action is begun, attempted, or intended, which naturally suggests that from the narrator’s perspective the action expressed is incomplete, hence imperfective in aspect. Here πείθεις apparently indicates that Paul was making attempts to persuade the king to become a Christian. According to this view, Agrippa’s remarks indicate that Paul was very close to persuading him to become a Christian. Besides, one cannot fail to see that Agrippa’s expressed admiration for Paul’s stunning apologetics was genuine—or, was it?
A similar expression in Modern Greek can shed some light. Today one can say, παραλίγο (= παρ’ ὀλίγον) να με πείσεις “you’ve nearly persuaded me” or παραλίγο να σε πιστέψω “I almost believe you,” an idiomatic expression similar to that used by King Agrippa. This expression, having preserved its sardonic overtones through time, points to the likelihood that King Agrippa’s remark, by which he also abruptly stopped Paul’s speech, is no indication that he was on the verge of becoming a Christian. On the contrary, and as the whole scenario indicates—moments earlier Governor Festus had called Paul “mad” (26:24)—there is an element in Agrippa’s expression that is crucial in interpreting what Luke is telling us about the King’s mindset. That crucial element is the prepositional phrase ἐν ὀλίγῳ.
Translators render ἐν ὀλίγῳ literally as in a little while, in a short time, etc., attributing to ὀλίγον a temporal sense as in James 4:14, 1 Peter 1:6, and Revelation 17:10. A literal translation of this prepositional phrase, however, fails to take into account its special idiomatic sense as part of the entire expression. Seen in its full context, Agrippa’s irony, though civil in expression compared to that of Festus, is no less acerbic at its core. The king was mocking Paul for what Agrippa viewed as a foolish faith.
Modern Greek is a direct descendant of Hellenistic Greek, that is, the “koine” of New Testament times. Thus it preserves a plethora of linguistic elements that can be traced back to the New Testament text. Many New Testament insights therefore can be gained by tapping into Modern Greek. As Hasselbrook notes, “A unity exists between the New Testament and Modern Greek that should not be ignored or left unexplored.”
Coincidentally, the KJV translates ἐν ὀλίγῳ right: almost.
Philemon Zachariou is a native Greek and retired Greek professor. He currently develops New Testament Greek instructional material, is an adjunct professor of English at Northwest University, and a BibleMesh Greek tutor.
 γενέσθαι (Textus Receptus); ποιῆσαι (Nestle).
 David S. Hasselbrook, Studies in New Testament Lexicography: Advancing toward a Full Diachronic Approach with the Greek Language. (Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2011), 48–49.