Article - Levine

Judaism and Hellenism in Antiquity: Conflict or Confluence?
Lee I. Levine 

(Hendrickson Publishers, 1998, pp.72-84) 

Languages of Jerusalem

Four different languages could be heard in Second Temple Jerusalem throughout the year, though in sharply varying degrees: Aramaic, Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. They are all attested in epigraphical remains, and we know of literary works from the city that are written in at least three of the above languages. Much of Jerusalem’s population was probably familiar with, if not fluent in, the first two or three of these languages. Archeological remains from the Judean Desert and Qumran, and those relating to Bar Kokhba and Babatha, as well as several rabbinic traditions (j. Megillah 1.7b; Sifre-Deuteronomy 343), clearly indicate the complex linguistic situation in Palestine and Arabia throughout the first and second centuries C.E.

Latin. Of the four languages mentioned above, Latin was the least common and was restricted largely to Roman soldiers and Imperial officials. As a result, it was used only in certain places in the city at certain times, for example, in the Antonia fortress on pilgrimage festivals when large contingents of soldiers were brought in to keep order, or in the procurator’s residence when he visited the city. There is always the possibility that some Jews from Rome, Italy, or the western provinces of the Empire visited Jerusalem. However, their numbers were probably quite small, and even then many of them were probably Greek-speakers. Of the approximately six hundred catacomb inscriptions from Rome in the latter Empire, only 21 percent were in Latin., while 78 percent were in Greek, and the remaining 1 percent in Hebrew and Aramaic. Other than the specifically mentioned populations, occasions, and settings, it seems safe to say that the use of Latin at the time was negligible in the city’s life.

Hebrew. Relative to Latin, Hebrew was more commonly used in the city, although it is impossible to gauge to what extent. Other that funerary inscriptions, we have little evidence for the use of this language among the population in general. Even the funerary inscriptions are only partially helpful in this respect; it is often difficult to distinguish between Hebrew and Aramaic, as most of the inscriptions consist of names only. And even when we are sure that an inscription is in Hebrew, it does not necessarily indicate that Hebrew was spoken, but rather that the language may merely have been used for identification in a funerary context. Similarly, with regard to the “Hebrews” of the early Jerusalem church referred to in Acts (6:1), it is not clear whether this term refers to the language spoken or to these people’s Semitic/Palestinian origins. Furthermore, even if the word does refer to a language, it is generally assumed that Aramaic, and not Hebrew, was intended.
We have only scattered traces of spoken Hebrew in Jerusalem. The statements ascribed to pre-70 sages in rabbinic literature are almost all in Hebrew and may be relevant (assuming that they are not merely a second-century C.E. tannaitic formulation). The first chapters of the Ethics of the Fathers is a case in point. The two Aramaic statements found there, quoted in Hillel’s name (1:13, 2:6), are striking exceptions that may highlight, even prove, the rule that Hebrew was used primarily in limited circles, such as the Pharisees. Of more direct relevance are references in the New Testament and in Josephus’ writings of the speaking of “Hebrew” in Jerusalem, as, for example, when Paul addresses a crowd before being taken to the barracks, or when Josephus speaks to the city’s inhabitants (Acts 21:40, 22:2; War 6:96). If Paul’s remarks were indeed in Hebrew, this may be understood, at most, as a demonstration of his Jewishness. However, in light of other evidence that seems to point to the predominance of Aramaic in the city, most scholars have interpreted this word as designating a Semitic language, in this case Aramaic.

Other than several works probably written in Jerusalem during the Hellenistic-Hasmonean period, such as Ben Sira, Jubilees, Judith, Psalms of Solomon, and possibly other books if the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, the most telling evidences for the wide-spread use of Hebrew in Jewish circles of the first century comes from outside Jerusalem. The written material found in the Judean Desert, relating to both Qumran and Bar Kokhba, attest to the use of Hebrew not only as a literary language but also, in the case of the latter, as a living tongue used in letters and documents. However, the relevance of this data to the question of languages spoken in Jerusalem is unclear. It is also not at all certain what percentage of the Qumran population hailed from Jerusalem; the Bar Kokhba fighters certainly did not. Moreover, the highly developed religious-nationalistic ideologies of both of the above-noted groups argue for a greater emphasis on Hebrew than in the rest of Judea’s population.

Mishnaic Hebrew has often been invoked as evidence for a spoken language, but even if this be granted, any direct connection with Jerusalem is tenuous. Mishnaic Hebrew’s roots may well have been in the Galilee or rural Judea in this earlier period. In fact, it was rural Judea, not Jerusalem or the Galilee, that was the geographical context associated with a Hebrew clause in the ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract (m. Ketubot 4:12). Finally, the wording of at least one document preserved in the Mishnah and purportedly describing a Second Temple setting – the prozbol, giving the court the right to collect debts after the sabbatical year – was in Hebrew (Shevi`it 10:4).

Greek. We are on more secure ground in trying to assess the use of Greek in Jerusalem. The epigraphical evidence is clear in this regard. More than one-third of the inscriptions found in and around the city are in Greek. Of the 233 inscriptions recently published by L.Y. Rahmani in his catalogue of ossuaries, 73 are in Greek only and another 14 bilingual – in Greek and either Aramaic of Hebrew, i.e., about 37 percent. Thus, we can safely set this number as the minimum percentage of those inhabitants in the city who preferred Greek. Undoubtedly, there were many others who used Greek regularly, yet wished to have their Hebrew names recorded in a funerary setting – much as is the case in the Diaspora today. Since most of these inscriptions were found on ossuaries and sarcophagi, primarily for the practical purpose of identification, it is likely that the families and relatives of the interred were most familiar with the Greek language.

Diaspora Jews who had settled in Jerusalem were clearly responsible for some of these Greek inscriptions. The custom of bringing the bones of the deceased to the Land of Israel for burial is only attested in the post Bar Kokhba period, i.e., from the second century C.E. onward. The most salient example of a Diaspora Jewish family having taken up residence in Jerusalem is reflected in the monumental Theodotus inscription, which records three generations of synagogue leaders called archisynagogoi. This family appears to have come to Jerusalem from Rome and established a synagogue, presumably as a kind of Landsmannschaft. Such an institutionalized Diaspora presence in Jerusalem is likewise reflected in Acts 6 which, in addition to identifying one wing of the nascent Jerusalem church as Hellenists (Greek-speaking Jews from the Diaspora), refers, as noted above, to a series of Diaspora synagogues in the city, serving Jews from Alexandria, Cyrene, Asia, Cilicia, and freedmen possibly from Rome.

However, most of the Greek funerary inscriptions noted above probably originated in Jerusalem’s middle and upper classes. We have no way of knowing if, and to what extent, the lower classes knew Greek. Other than a smattering of isolated terms, this seems doubtful, as reflected in the Roman tribune’s question to Paul: “Do you know Greek?” (Acts 21:37). Having just rescued Paul from a threatening crowd, this official may well have regarded him as a local rabble-rouser.

That many native-born Jerusalemites had some command of Greek may well be indicated by Josephus in a revealing though somewhat enigmatic passage, in which he takes pride in his Jewish learning. He also seems to imply that to know Greek was so common among his fellow Jews that it was of no particular significance:

‘For my compatriots admit that in our Jewish learning I far excel them. I have also labored strenuously to partake of the realm of Greek prose and poetry, after having gained a knowledge of Greek grammar, although the habitual use of my native tongue has prevented my attaining precision in the pronunciation. For our people do not favor those persons who have mastered the speech of many nations, or who adorn their style with smoothness of diction, because they consider that not only is such skill common to ordinary freemen but that even slaves who so choose may acquire it. But they give credit for wisdom to those alone who have an exact knowledge of the law and who are capable of interpreting the meaning of Holy Scriptures.’  (Antiquities 20.263-64)

Other than Josephus himself, however, we know of no one else in first-century Judea who wrote in Greek other than Justus of Tiberias, who composed several histories in that language.

There is some rather telling evidence for the knowledge of Greek among Jerusalem’s Jews in the Hasmonean period, and perhaps earlier. Eupolemos, apparently to be identified with one of Judah Maccabee’s emissaries to Rome in 161 B.C.E., wrote a history of biblical Judea in Greek. According to the Letter to Aristeas, probably written in the latter half of the second century B.C.E., Jerusalem boasted enough Greek culture that Ptolemy wrote to the high priest, asking for a delegation of those versed in the Hebrew text and knowledgeable in Greek to come to Alexandria and translate the Bible.

Although the Letter of Aristeas itself is in large part fanciful and legendary, the author clearly presumed that Greek was known in Jerusalem. Moreover, the grandson of Ben Sira, who migrated to Egypt in 132 B.C.E., translated his work into Greek, presumably having gained at least a rudimentary knowledge of that language while in Hasmonean Jerusalem. At about the same time, a Greek epitome known as 2 Maccabees was being created – very likely in Jerusalem – from Jason of Cyrene’s five-volume history of Judah Maccabee. Several Greek letters were added to this epitome, purportedly written by the authorities in Jerusalem to Alexandria in 143 B.C.E., again in 124 (and perhaps a third one as early a 161). From about the turn of the first century B.C.E., the book of Esther (with additions) was translated into Greek by one Lysimachus son of Ptolemy of Jerusalem and sent to Alexandria. Finally, later rabbinic literature knows of a halakhic controversy between Sadducees and Pharisees from some time in the later Second Temple period wherein the works of Homer were used as an example of not defiling the hands (m. Yadaim 4:6).

To fully account for the Greek spoken in Jerusalem, one must also consider the thousands of visitors who spent time in the city during pilgrimage festivals and on other occasions. Of those coming from the Roman Diaspora, the overwhelming majority’s mother tongue was assuredly Greek. Approximately 70 percent of the entire corpus of Jewish inscriptions for the Greco-Roman and Byzantine periods, in both the Diaspora and Palestine, is in Greek. Even within the Temple precincts, certain chests set aside for donations were marked with Greek letters (m. Sheqalim 3:2). Moreover, the number of non-Jews who frequented the city and Temple – and who assuredly spoke either Greek of Latin – was not negligible, as is attested by the Greek and Latin inscriptions placed on the parapet (soreg) surrounding the Temple’s sacred precinct designed to prevent gentiles from entering (War 5.193-94). While it is difficult to assess what percentage of the population spoke Greek, or even understood it, the use of Greek in Jerusalem appears to have been far more widespread that either Latin of Hebrew. That some rabbis sought to ban the teaching of Greek in the early second century C.E. while others facilitated a Greek translation of the Bible by Aquilas further indicated the widespread use of the language (m. Sotah 9:14; j. Megillah 1.11.71C).

Aramaic. There can be little question that the most ubiquitous language of first-century Jerusalem was Aramaic. Evidence for its extensive use comes from a number of sources. Many funerary inscriptions are in Aramaic, including one indicating the reburial of King Uziah’s bones in the Second Temple period. As noted above, Greek references to Hebrew by Josephus (War 6.96) and in the New Testament (Acts 21:40, 22:2) may well refer to Aramaic. The use of Aramaic by the populace at large, reflected either in the name of a place (Gabath Saul, War 5.51) or in phrases ascribed to Jesus (talita kumi, Mark 5:41; or lama shabaktani, Matthew 27:46), is striking testimony for how widespread Aramaic was at the time.

Three types of evidence should be considered decisive in according Aramaic primacy among the languages used in the city. The first is the use of Aramaic translations of the Scriptures in this period – in synagogue settings, at the very least. This custom is well known from rabbinic literature of the second century C.E., but it probably existed beforehand as well. Greek translations of biblical books, as well as an expanded Aramaic midrash known as Genesis Apocryphon, have been discovered at Qumran. Rabbinic tradition also speaks of an Aramaic translation of Job that was found on the Temple Mount in the time of Rabban Gamaliel the Elder (ca. 30-50 C.E.), and of another that came to the attention of Rabban Gamaleil II in Tiberias (ca. 100 C.E.; t. Shabbat 13:2). The fact that such translations existed and played a central role in the synagogue liturgy of the time indicates the degree to which the populace at large did not understand Hebrew and thus required an Aramaic translation. Perhaps this was one of the reasons why the Torah-reading cycle in the synagogues of Judaea was spread over three to three and one-half years.

A second indication of Aramaic’s predominance in the city at this time can be found in the literary works written in this language. The last part of Daniel was composed in Aramaic circa 165 B.C.E. and thus serves as a case in point from the mid-second century. During the Hasmonean period, a number of apocryphal and pseudepigraphical books were presumably originally composed or soon translated into Aramaic; 1 Enoch, Tobit, and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs seem to fit this category. Moreover, Alexander Jannaeus’ dated coins bear Aramaic inscriptions: “King Alexander, year 25.” From the first century C.E., we have a list of holidays during which mourning was prohibited, with a brief indication of their origin; this list became known as Megillat Ta’anit and is written in Aramaic.

The third, but far from the least important, piece of evidence, is a series of public documents in Aramaic relating specifically to Second Temple Jerusalem. Aramaic versions of the marriage contract (ketubah) – at least one explicitly associated with Jerusalem – are quoted in the Mishnah (Ketubot 4:7-12), and letters sent by Rabban Gamaliel the Elder from the Temple Mount area to Jews throughout Palestine and the eastern Diaspora regarding tithes and the intercalation of the year were likewise written in Aramaic (t. Sanhedrin 2:6).

Among the many ancillary indications of Aramaic’s prominence in first-century Jerusalem is the well-documented reality of the third century C.E. and onward, when Aramaic reigned supreme in the Galilee – in synagogue inscriptions, the Jerusalem’s Talmud, early midrashim, and the continually evolving targumic literature. It may be assumed that the prominence of Aramaic in the later Empire was, in large part, a continuation from earlier centuries.

In summary, by far the two most prominent languages of first-century Jerusalem were Aramaic and Greek. Thus, except for Hebrew, which appears to have been limited to highly defined circles, the languages of Jerusalem were those common to the peoples throughout the East. Just as Greek could have easily been used throughout the Empire and even beyond its borders, so, too, written Aramaic could have served as a bond between a Buddhist emperor, a Parthian dynast, and the Jewish high priest in Jerusalem. In short, throughout the Roman East, Jerusalem included, these two languages were the most important channels of communication from the time of Alexander to the Arab conquest.