Book Review: The Language Environment of First Century Judaea

languagejudaeaTitle: The Language Environment of First Century Judaea: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels – Volume Two

Editors: Randall Buth and R. Steven Notley

Series: Jewish and Christian Perspectives 26

Bibliographic info: vi + 421 pp. + 34 pp. of indices

Publisher: Brill, 2014.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Brill for the review copy.

It is a common notion in New Testament scholarship–one that is practically accepted as an axiomatic truth–that in first century Palestine there were two languages in common use, Aramaic and Greek, with the Hebrew language being limited to the learned religious teachers. This volume challenges this common assumption, drawing upon the increasing linguistic data, such as from those working in the field of Mishnaic Hebrew, that points towards the conclusion that Hebrew was also in common use in the first century.

This volume consists of eleven studies total, with the first five looking at sociolinguistic issues from a trilingual framework. The first is from Guido Baltes and focuses on why the two-language paradigm of Greek and Aramaic was able to garner a consensus during the nineteenth century, despite the dearth of data available up until the twentieth century. Baltes also contributes the second study, this time on the epigraphic evidence of the New Testament era. He concludes that only a trilingual model can properly account for the evidence and states that “the assumption of the death of spoken Hebrew after the Babylonian exile can no longer be upheld in view of the epigraphic evidence” (62).

Next up, Randall Buth and Chad Pierce examine the common claim of Greek lexica, such as BDAG, that ‘Eβραϊστί can be used to mean Aramaic. They do this by examining the LXX, Jewish pseudepigrapha, Josephus, Philo, and the New Testament. The conclusion they reach is that such a definition is not defensible in light of the data:

The theory that ‘Eβραϊστί means “Aramaic” is weak and ultimately untenable because the only potential examples are three poorly understood toponyms in one Greek author (the Gospel of John). . . . A question can be posed to the title of the article: What do ‘Eβραϊστί and Συριστί mean in the first century? Answer: ‘Eβραϊστί means “Hebrew,” Συριστί means “Aramaic,” and no, ‘Eβραϊστί does not ever appear to mean “Aramaic” in attested texts during the Second Temple and Greco-Roman periods. (108-09)

Marc Turnage then provides a study which, by exploring the archaeological, sociological, and historical data, contends that the common opinion of Galilee being a region that had recently been converted and Judaized is, in fact, erroneous. The next study is from Serge Ruzer who focuses upon how early Syriac authors seemingly disagreed with the idea that Jesus was an Aramaic and non-Hebrew speaker.

The next three studies focus more on literary issues in a trilingual framework. Daniel Machiela then explores translation in the late Second Temple period, showing that Hebrew-to-Aramaic translations are largely a post-New Testament occurrence and that, in certain cases at least, they occurred outside of Israel.

Randall Buth then provides another study, with this one looking at how to distinguish Hebrew from Aramaic in Semitized Greek texts. One of the conclusions I found to be particularly interesting is how his findings undercut the likelihood that the Gospel of Mark had an Aramaic source:

Finally, if there is a Semitic source layered somewhere behind Mark’s less-than-natural Greek, that source tests as Hebrew rather than Aramaic. This means that [Maurice] Casey’s Aramaic reconstructions of Markan narrative are not natural Aramaic of the period, but, ironically, look like a translation from Hebrew. (307)

The last study in this section is from R. Steven Notley. Here he examines non-Septuagintal Hebraisms in the Gospel of Luke. It is commonly thought that Luke collected a lot of his phraseology from the Septuagint, but according to Notley there are “numerous non-Septuagintal Hebraisms” that are present in Luke that could not have come from the Septuagint. Furthermore, if these Hebraisms don’t show up in the other Synoptic Gospels then it lends credence to the idea that Luke had an independent Hebraic-Greek source (“the evidence suggests that Luke had access to non-canonical sources that were marked by a highly Hebraized Greek” [346]). Notley suggests that the reason these non-Septuagintal Hebraisms are overlooked is because New Testament scholarship “still functions under the outdate nineteenth-century assumption of an Aramaic-only language environment for first-century Judea.”

The final three studies investigate the linguistic milieu by examining specific Gospel texts through a trilingual framework. The first is from R. Steven Notley and Jeffrey Garcia. Here they attempt a philological approach to Jesus’ utilization of the Hebrew Bible in order to connect his teachings directly to the Hebrew Bible. The authors examine the interpretive techniques of five Synoptic pericopae and how they reveal what the language situation looked like in the first century. The pericopae that are examined are: (1) Luke 4:18-19; (2) Matt 11:10; Luke 7:27; (3) Luke 10:25-37; (4) Matt. 21:12-13; Mark 11:11-17; Luke 19:45-46; and (5) Matt. 26:59-65; Mark 14:55-63; Luke 22:66-71.

The next study is David Bivin’s study on Jesus’ πετρος-πετρα wordplay in Matt. 16:18. The apostle’s name was Simon Peter, with Simon being the name he received at birth and Peter being his nickname. Bivin says that πετρος entered the Hebrew language as a proper noun (it is attested as a name in Hebrew), and is a translation of Peter’s native Hebrew nickname פטרוס. Additionally, πετρα also entered the Hebrew language as פטרא (and is found in Rabbinic literature). Thus, “it is possible” that the Hebrew words for πετρος and πετρα were available in Jesus’ day. So while most commentators and exegetes on this text assume that it is an Aramaic wordplay, Bivin concludes that it is actually a Hebrew wordplay (the wordplay is on פטרא and פטרוס). Additionally, Bivin says: “One can capture the flavor of Jesus’ statement with the translation, ‘You are the Rock, and on this bedrock, I will build my community’” (392), however it is “very difficult” to know if the πετρα in Matt. 16:18 refers to Peter himself or Peter’s declaration.

The final study is again from Randall Buth and it tackles Jesus’ cry from the cross in Matt. 27:46 and Mark 15:34. This was a fascinating piece of scholarship that helps explain why Matthew and Mark vary in their portrayal of Jesus’ death-cry.

All in all, this was an interesting collection of studies. Having accurate knowledge of the language milieu of the first century is crucial for a more precise understanding of the world of early Roman Galilee, the New Testament, and nascent Christianity. The articles in this volume show the insights that a trilingual framework can have for the study of Second Temple Judaism and Christian origins. They also demonstrate a variety of other things such as how current Mishnaic Hebrew scholarship can contribute to New Testament studies. But the most important facet of this collection of studies is how they underline the value that language studies have for Gospel scholarship.


4 responses

  1. Pingback: New Jerusalem School Volume Published by Brill | Online

  2. Pingback: The Biblical Studies Carnival – December 2014 | Daniel N. Gullotta

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