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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
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    @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
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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.

  • Does this suggest that "Mark" wrote his gospel by his own hand and it was not subsequently edited? Not bad for a first draft! If he was a country bumpkin then it is a marvel that he can write in any language. But seriously, are we talking about defects or just dialectal concerns? I mean, not all English is spoken or written the same, even in a reasonably literate country such as the USA. – Ruminator Jul 30 '18 at 15:12
  • There is also a guy who recently posted here who has written a book/essay arguing Mark was written originally in Latin.. I'm not yet convinced, but it was definitely an interesting read. Not impossible either, if Mark was a companion of Peter at Rome, and who had a Latin name. In this case, the peculiarities of the Greek are accounted for by a rather rigid Latin-to-Greek translation. Also, Mark is more likely a summary of the prior Gospel messages, than they a 'copying' of him, something only really needed to establish the more 'primitive' theology supposedly in Mark. – Sola Gratia Jul 30 '18 at 17:44
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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
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First of all, 'Mark' should be recognised as a consummate author, regardless of language. Harold Bloom writes (Jesus and Yahweh: the Names Divine, page 65), “Whoever composed Mark is a genius still too original for us to absorb.” John Carroll says in The Existential Jesus, page 17 that Mark was a virtuoso storyteller. On pages 252-253, Carroll says that the Gospel form most resembles that of classical Greek tragedy, suggesting a level of education in Greek classics, quite at odds with the notion of an Aramaic speaker who acquired Greek later in life.

Rhoads, Dewey and Michie say in Mark as Story, page 1, the author used sophisticated storytelling techniques. These were the techniques of quite advanced Greek rhetoric and, again, can not be learnt merely from a study of the lexicon and grammar. One of the most difficult techniques the author uses is the intercalation, or literary sandwich, of which Mark appears to be a leading exponent in the first-century Mediterranean world. John Dominic Crossan provides some examples of these in The Birth of Christianity, saying (page 565) that Markan intercalation is a literary device with a theological purpose and is a quite uniquely Markan phenomenon.

The use of some Latin loanwords and Latin idioms leads some, such as Dietmar Neufeld (Mockery and Secretism in the Social World of Mark's Gospel, page 30) to entertain the possibility that Mark's author was of a social class and a civil status to allow him an education in the basics of Latin and Greek, going on to conclude that Mark was a fairly educated man.

The use of Aramaic loan words suggests that Mark was conversant with a third language, and possibly trilingual. However, there is no evidence that Aramaic was his first language. Whatever his ethnic origins, Mark's proficiency in Greek rhetoric was something learnt over a period of intensive schooling. Either Greek or Latin would more likely have been Mark's first language.

1

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.

0

As I have clearly not adequately explained my procedure in reconstructing the original Latin of Mark to Curious Dannii and Caleb, I would like to illustrate it with examples. Mark 1.6 says "And John was clothed in camel skin and ate locusts and wild honey". For "clothed" I reject the reading indutus of 4 mss, accepting the uestitus of 5, because, whereas uestio is found in 4 other places, induo is found only at 16.5, of a supernatural being, which John here is not. After "clothed" only ms r1 has uestem (in clothing). I reject it, as uestis is found nowhere else in Mark, whereas uestimentum is found 13 times. For "skin" all mss except 2 have pellem; 2 have pilos, which I reject as coming from parallel Mt 3.4. Mark 7.3 says "The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they have washed their hands for a short time, maintaining the tradition of the elders". Ms a's momento (for a short time) gives the right sense. Pugillo (with their fist) of c ff2 i q r1 shows that it comes from pusillo, which Mark uses in 7 other places, which I have accordingly restored. "Washed for a short time" well describes Jewish ritual washing. They need only wash quickly because the object is not to clean the hands but to fulfill the ritual. Thus the Mishnah under Tohoroth (cleanness) Yadaim (of hands) 1.1 states that a quarter of a log of water (the amount contained in one and a half eggshells) is sufficient for ritual washing of the hands. Pugillo (with their fist) is clearly corrupt. No one in his right mind could have believed that all Jews always washed their hands with their fist. The translator correctly translated pugillo with pugme, the reading of almost all the Greek. Aleph W + have pukna (often) a poor conjecture. The tradition is only fulfilled by doing it always, not merely sometimes. d's primo (first) also gives poor sense. Mark's objection is not to washing hands before eating but to doing it perfunctorily, merely to fulfill a ritual.

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I believe that Mark wrote in Latin (see my "Proof that the gospel of Mark was written in Latin"). If this is correct, then the question should be rephrased "Was Latin Mark's second language?"

I feel the evidence suggests it was his first language. He uses pontifex, a word from Roman religion, for the high priest.

He has the following examples of effective alliteration of related words, unlikely in one whose first language was not Latin: 1.18: retibus relictis secuti sunt eum; 3.26: et si Satanas surgit in se; 5.5: et nocte et die in montibus et monumentis erat clamans et concidens se lapidibus; 11.17: et docebat et dicebat: "Scriptum est 'domus mea domus adorationis uocabitur'"; 12.22: si mulier mortua est et mulier sine filiis, cui remanet mulier munda? 13.17: Vae autum illis quae in uentre uiuentem habent; 13.29: in proximo et in foribus est finis; 14.12: dicunt illi discipuli: "Vbi uis paremus pascha?" 14.54: et Petrus sequebatur usque in praetorium pontificis; 15.16: continuo cogentes totam cohortem; 15.45: uenit Ioses ab Arimathea, diues decurio... et intrauit ad Pilatum et petit cadauer Iesu.

Moreover, Marcus, used as the most standard Latin praenomen, as in "I am Marcus", is the name of a typical Latin speaker, as John Smith of a typical English speaker. No one says: "Surprise, surprise, John Smith is writing in English". Similarly, no one need say: "Surprise, surprise, Marcus wrote in Latin".

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    Is this your proof? I read through some of it and understand some of the points at the beginning, but I don't understand where your Latin is coming from. It doesn't seem to be the Old Latin, but if it's a reconstruction, some of your arguments seem circular, as in "his σου agrees with Mark's tuam, not with the LXX's μου" (p. 17). Could you explain? – b a Jul 30 '18 at 11:11
  • The Latin in my "Proof" is that of my "A reconstruction of the original Latin of Mark's gospel .." (also on the internet). I have reconstructed the original Latin not only from Old Latin manuscripts, which often vary (so there is no "the Old Latin") but also accepting evidence from Greek manuscripts and even some from other languages in reconstructing the original Latin. When I say, e.g. "Mark's tuam" I am giving as Mark's what I believe my "A reconstruction" has shown that this is what Mark wrote. Please feel free to ask for any further information you feel might be helpful. – user26146 Jul 30 '18 at 12:10
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    Using a non-extant Latin reconstruction to prove his first language is Latin is ridiculous. It's speculation on top of speculation. – curiousdannii Jul 31 '18 at 1:29
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    This is, linguistically speaking, an absurd argument. Seeing as how your first language is not Latin, the fact that you are even able to make the argument by inventing a supposed reconstruction is proof that the argument doesn't hold water. If you want more proof, read J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy in Turkish. The translation is so good that you'd swear some of the turn of phrases used (especially by the Dwarves and Orcs) are more natural and plausible than in the English original. That doesn't prove that Turkish was Tolkein's first language! – Caleb Jul 31 '18 at 8:11

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