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By S. M. Lockridge
Thanks to Michael Bird for the reminder about this clip.
Lyrics by Bernard of Clairvaux, music by Johann Sebastian Bach.
Despite the imperial connection that might have been expected to promote the Latin tongue, “[e]ven after Rome became the world power in the first century BCE, Greek continued to penetrate distant lands. (This was due largely to Rome’s policy of assimilation of cultures already in place, rather than destruction and replacement.) Consequently, [when Pompey conquered Palestine in 63 BC (Ferguson 411) and] even when Rome was in absolute control [under Augustus in 31 BC-AD 14 (cf. Ferguson 26–30)], Latin was not the lingua franca. Greek continued to be a universal language until at least the end of the first century” (Wallace 18). Moreover, when one considers the strong Jewish presence in Palestine, it becomes clear that Hebrew and Aramaic would constitute important languages in the Palestinian milieu (cf. Poirier 55).
“Some scholars argue that (Mishnaic) Hebrew was actually the primary language of first-century Palestine [cf. Poirier 56]. Yet, Hebrew was apparently not widely used by the masses,” as very few Hebrew inscriptions remain from this period (Wallace 24; contra Poirier 59). Although Qumran, Masada, Murabba’at, and the Bar Kokhba caves demonstrate that Hebrew was widely used around first-century Palestine, the extent to which the general (Jewish) populace would have been intimate with the language is somewhat in doubt (Wilcox 979). Moreover, although the Bar Kokhba archives contain a substantial amount of Hebrew material, that Hebrew is often heavily influenced by Aramaic, and in any case, the archives as a whole contain more material in Aramaic than in Hebrew (Poirier 61, 63). Indeed, after the exiles returned, their Hebrew competency seems to have been greatly diminished (Ferguson 499; contra Poirier 56–57), hence the rise of the Aramaic targum tradition (Neh 8:5-8; McNamara 210), which provides still more persuasive evidence for Aramaic having greater currency than Hebrew in first-century Palestine. Similarly, Hellenistic and Diaspora Jews (cf. Jobes and Silva 20) adopted the LXX/OG tradition, pragmatically preferring this tradition to the proto-Massoretic text.
The targum tradition’s growth over subsequent centuries indicates a continued demand for such material, which was eventually set down in writing (Ferguson 500). Consequently, one may conclude that, while some first-century Jews (e.g., Jesus in Luke 4:16–19) certainly had a command of biblical Hebrew, large segments of the population were probably only nominally familiar with the language (Ferguson 580; cf. Wallace 24). Additionally, we should note that first-century Hebrew was in a transitional period between its biblical and Mishnaic forms, but “it is just those features in which Mishnaic Hebrew differs from Biblical Hebrew that it tends to be akin to Aramaic” (Wilcox 993). Thus, Hebrew and Aramaic may both have had currency in first-century Palestine, although the more popular Aramaic was shaping the less popular Hebrew.
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The linguistic situation in Palestine during the first century AD was, to say the least, quite complex because it involved interaction among four different languages—namely, Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. The presence of other languages is also apparent, and although few individuals were probably fluent in three or more of these languages, many were probably bilingual (Poirier 56). In seeking to understand this multi-faceted situation, our strategy will be to handle the less common languages first and proceed to the more common ones. Although language distribution “varied almost personally” (Poirier 56, quoting Barr 112), of primary concern will be the question: Which language(s) held vernacular or nearly vernacular status?
Languages like Coptic (from Egypt) and Persian (from eastern Mesopotamia) appear in first century Palestine, at the very least in loan-word form (Blass, Debrunner, and Funk §6; cf. Wilcox 981). Yet, while these languages may have been present, one must regard their influence in Palestine during this period as minimal. Slightly more influential and prominent was the Latin language (Blass, Debrunner, and Funk §5; cf. Poirier 55). For instance, some Greek suffixes during this period appear to have been influenced by Latin (Blass, Debrunner, and Funk §5.2). Moreover, given the Roman governance, which was in place in Palestine, one would expect, as is in fact the case, that various Latin governmental, administrative, military, legal, and commercial terms and expressions would be adopted by speakers whose primary language was not Latin (Blass, Debrunner, and Funk §5.1, 5.3). Additionally, beyond these individual terms, some phrases of Latin origin were also current in Palestinian Greek (Blass, Debrunner, and Funk §5.3).
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For instance, with just a few clicks and keystrokes, here’s a version of Gal 3:15–16 showing vocabulary that occurs 50 or fewer times in the New Testament.
Kudos to John for creating such a wonderful tool, and thanks to Tommy Keene for his post on this resource.
Keeping the New Testament Greek, attributive adjective “position” classifications straight in one’s head can be challenging, but here is a short summary (see Porter 117):
- Article-adjective-substantive (e.g., ὁ ἀγαθὸς ἄνθρωπος),
- Article-substantive-article-adjective (e.g., ὁ ἄνθρωπος ὁ ἀγαθὸς),
- Substantive-article-adjective (e.g., ἄνθρωπος ὁ ἀγαθὸς),
- Adjective-substantive or substantive-adjective (e.g., ἀγαθὸς ἄνθρωπος or ἄνθρωπος ἀγαθὸς).
In contrast to these four basic patterns, the potentially legitimate structure article-adjective-article-substantive (e.g., ὁ ἀγαθὸς ὁ ἄνθρωπος) is not used (Mounce §9.12).
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