Languages of First-Century Palestine by Samuel Thomas

Q. What scriptures and in what language would have been used in the first-century Palestine? I am particularly interested in Jesus’ use of Psalm 110:1 and how it is recorded in the gospels. The text recorded is Greek; would Jesus have used Hebrew, or would he have quoted in Greek?

A. The evidence we have falls into three main categories: (1) physical evidence such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and a variety of inscriptions; (2) linguistic evidence within the texts composed around the turn of the era, for example New Testament texts; and (3) references to or citations of scriptural texts as authoritative and normative.

It is clear from the evidence that while there was not yet a definitive version or list of scriptural texts—that is, the canonical process had not yet reached the point of a fixed text for any particular community—there were texts that were scriptural and authoritative. Some of these were especially popular, such as the five books of Moses, the Psalms, and Isaiah.

The mix of actively used languages in first-century C.E. Palestine included Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew and, to a lesser extent, Latin—each used by different communities in different ways. But here another distinction is in order, namely the distinction between a spoken language and one used in a primarily textual way. To give a famous example: in Luke 4:18, it is plausible that the scripture read in the synagogue was in Hebrew, and that Jesus “translated” the scripture, along with an interpretation, into the spoken language of Aramaic (and yet the text of Luke is itself composed in Greek!).

The citations and understanding of Ps 110 in the New Testament are interesting. Of course, the questions of whether Ps 110 is “prophetic” and what it means to be “of the order of Melchizedek” are primarily theological ones—not linguistic or historical. Overall the evidence points in the direction of Jesus himself using either Hebrew or Aramaic scriptural texts, not Greek ones. And yet in the Synoptic Gospels the quotation of Ps 110 is from the Greek version and not the Hebrew, raising the question whether these were authentic words of Jesus or, more likely, the words of Mark, Matthew, and Luke.

Samuel Thomas, "Languages of First-Century Palestine", n.p. [cited 30 Mar 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/tools/ask-a-scholar/languages-of-first-century-palestine

Contributors

Samuel Thomas

Samuel Thomas
Associate Professor, California Lutheran University

Samuel Thomas is associate professor of religion at California Lutheran University. He teaches and writes about the Dead Sea Scrolls, Second Temple Judaism, the Hebrew Bible, and religion and ecology.

Another name often used for the area of Israel and Judah, derived from the Latin term for the Roman province of Palaestina; ultimately, the name derives from the name of the Philistine people.

Genuine; historically accurate.

Trustworthy; reliable; of texts, the best or most primary edition.

Belonging to the canon of a particular group; texts accepted as a source of authority.

An abbreviated reference to the source of a piece of information.

A collection of Jewish texts (biblical, apocryphal, and sectarian) from around the time of Christ that were preserved near the Dead Sea and rediscovered in the 20th century.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Short written texts, generally inscribed on stone or clay and frequently recording an event or dedicating an object.

Short written texts, generally inscribed on stone or clay and frequently recording an event or dedicating an object.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which share similar literary content.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

Psalm 110:1

* Invalid citation format *

Luke 4:18

18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery ... View more

Ps 110

Assurance of Victory for God's Priest-King
Of David. A Psalm.
1The Lord says to my lord,
“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies your footstool.”
2The L ... View more

Ps 110

Assurance of Victory for God's Priest-King
Of David. A Psalm.
1The Lord says to my lord,
“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies your footstool.”
2The L ... View more

Ps 110

Assurance of Victory for God's Priest-King
Of David. A Psalm.
1The Lord says to my lord,
“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies your footstool.”
2The L ... View more

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