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I've noted that Jesus probably spoke little Greek and did not have formal training. Similarly, Peter and John were likely not trained in Greek (see Acts 4:13). Bart Ehrman points out:

[The four Gospels of the New Testament] are written in Greek, by highly educated and well-trained authors, some thirty to sixty years after Jesus’ death. Jesus’ followers, however, were Aramaic-speaking peasants from Galilee who evidently did not speak Greek, let alone know how to compose lengthy accounts (or even to read) in Greek. The Gospels of the New Testament were apparently written not by his closest followers in his own day but decades later by more highly educated Christians who based their narratives on oral traditions that had been in circulation in the intervening years since his death.—Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code, pp.107-8

Arguably, Mark was the earliest attempt to document the life of Jesus, but the text is Greek and not Aramaic. That implies that the author of Mark was not a first-generation or even a second-generation follower of Jesus, but a later follower who was proficient in Greek.

Contrary to Dr. Ehrman, can it be argued that Mark was actually an Aramaic speaker who acquired Greek later in life? Could he, in fact, have learned Greek in order to be a witness or transmit oral traditions to Gentile converts?

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OK, if we assume that they gospels were written thirty to sixty years after Christ. AND it takes the average seminary student two years to think himself competent, then even "uneducated" Peter had the chance to go to seminary fifteen to thirty times to get the language down before he wrote anything. It is a bit absurd to claim that even Peter couldn't have written in fluent Greek. –  Bob Jones Jun 30 '12 at 18:49
    
@Bob: Agreed. And nobody says he couldn't have had help. I bet there were some good editors among the early Christians. –  Jon Ericson Jun 30 '12 at 19:56
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I find it somewhat amusing that the gospels are thought to have been written no earlier than ~60AD, but a great deal of evidence shows that Paul's letters were [mostly] completed by then. –  warren Jul 31 '12 at 13:19
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"Similarly, Peter and John were likely not trained in Greek (see Acts 4:13)" - Why do you quote Acts 4:13 here? Given the Jews' hatred toward anything Greek shown in Acts 21:28, it seems to me that the high priests' thoughts of being learned and educated in Acts 4:13 was exclusively about the knowledge of the Law, which would, of course, involve the knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic, but quite unlikely Greek. I mean, how do you know that Acts 4:13 implies teaching of Greek? –  brilliant Aug 1 '12 at 20:31

3 Answers 3

This statement by Ehrman that Jesus and the disciples did not speak Greek confuses me. Judea was at the crossroads of three continents. They had been under varying amounts of foreign rule for centuries-foreign rulers who spoke Greek. Greek was the lingua franca of Jesus' day (the trading language spoken by people of different countries). Even the Romans spoke Greek to communicate with the people (Latin was used for legal documents). There is plenty of archeological evidence from the Holy Land that Greek was spoken by many people to varying degrees of fluency. If for no other reason, Mark would need to know Greek when the soldier says, "Hey you! Carry this."

For more evidence of Greek among the disciples, see John 12:20-12 where some Greeks say, "Sir, we would see Jesus." And Phillip of Galilee (a heavily-trafficked trade route) evidently understands them.

Many of the rabbis did not like Greek. Some said that teaching Greek to one's child was the same as teaching polytheism. However, Hillel said the day the LXX was completed was a glorious day for now the Shekinah could be spread amongst the gentiles.

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I actually agree with your conclusions about Greek being more widely known than Ehrman (or Jon Ericson) are asserting, however your argument here about the conversation with Pilate doesn't seem to carry any weight as it is almost certain that appropriate translators were on hand for Pilate to handle other issues where language would been an issue. –  Caleb Aug 4 '12 at 13:25
    
Good thought. And just because a translator isn't mentioned as being present doesn't mean there wasn't one. The only times translators are mentioned are when their presence or absence is important (e.g. Joseph uses translators with his brothers before the reveal Gen 42:23). –  Frank Luke Aug 6 '12 at 14:00

I am shocked at the idea that these "stylistic traits" would "point to an author who struggles to express himself in the language he is writing. " Too many native speakers of the same Koine Greek Mark wrote have found NO such thing in his writing. Mark did not invent any of these traits, many of them are found often enough in Koine written by excellent authors. Why Witherington thinks he knows the social significance of these traits better than they is a real mystery.

Parataxis, for example, had already made great strides in popularity in the writing of Xenophon, whose Greek was beyond question native and good, though his style was rather pedestrian. It made even greater strides in the LXX translation, where it very literally translates the Hebrew. Both these explain why Mark feels perfectly comfortable using parataxis with great abandon in his Gospel, greater than in the other three. By no means is it necessary to suppose he was struggling.

Much the same could be said for most of the others in Witherington's list, though there are exceptions, such as the plural impersonal verb: the rule that you had an impersonal plural verb is followed by a singular verb was a rule of formal written style, NOT a grammar rule. But Mark was not TRYING to follow formal written style. So it does not apply. Luke took a different attitude, he did observe the rule. Again, no indicator of struggling.

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Ben Witherington in The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (pp. 18-9) documents a number of stylistic traits of Mark's Gospel:

  1. Historical present tense verbs
  2. Repetition of phrases
  3. Impersonal plural verb followed by a singular verb
  4. First-person plural narrative
  5. Parenthetical clarifications
  6. γάρ-clauses
  7. Anacoluthon
  8. Paratactic καί
  9. Aramaic phrases
  10. Unusual words or constructions
  11. Chreia

In sum, these traits point to an author who struggles to express himself in the language he is writing. Given my own struggles to communicate in Spanish, I recognize many of these techniques to manage a second language. So the text itself suggests the author of Mark was, in fact, an Aramaic speaker.


In addition, Dr. Witherington points out that Luke and Matthew take the opportunity to correct Mark's style, rather than paraphrase his material. It would appear that while Mark has obvious deficiencies, the other Synoptic authors found aspects of his work important to preserve. Each copied their Markian material verbatim unless there was some reason to clarify or correct it, which suggests the early Christians revered the earliest formulation of the biography of Jesus. One possible reason could be that they considered it historically accurate or written by a particularly credible source.


Tradition has assigned the Gospel of Mark to a relatively obscure figure, John Mark, mentioned in Acts and some of Paul's letters (plus a possible mention in 1st Peter 5:13). Luke clarifies that his name was John (a Hebrew name), but he also went by Mark (a Latin name). Since John Mark was born a Jew, the "Mark" portion of his name plausibly was appended to be a familiar handle for a Gentile audience. (When I took high-school Spanish, I went by "Juan".) Mark was the source of disagreement between Paul and Barnabas, but was later restored to be part of Paul's ministry team. If he were an eyewitness, he would have been very valuable for spreading the message of Jesus' ministry.

This argument based on the traditions is, of course, highly speculative. But when we combine tradition with the incontrovertible evidence that the author of Mark probably knew Aramaic better than Greek, we can make a compelling case that Mark was actually written by an early Christian of the first- or second-generation.

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