In Acts 16-18, Paul is shown moving from city to city in Macedonia - e.g. Phillipi, Thessalonica, Berea, Corinth - many of to whom he would later write letters. Acts 17:2 explains that it was his custom to enter the local synagogue when he arrived at these cities, so all indications are that the earliest converts in the cities would have been Jews. Acts 17:4 says of his stay, for example, in Thessalonica: "Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women."

Would the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks have spoken the same language? If so, which one?

3 Answers 3


1. The "God-fearing Greeks" would have been using Koine

From the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, Koine Greek - the Greek in which Paul wrote and presumably preached, was the lingua franca. It says:

Hellenism and the Koine Dialect. The conquests of Alexander the Great encouraged the spread of Greek language and culture. Regional dialects were largely replaced by Hellenistic or koine (everyday) Greek. That language is known through thousands of inscriptions reflecting all aspects of daily life. The koine dialect added many vernacular expressions to Attic Greek, thus making it more cosmopolitan. Simplifying the grammar also better adapted it to a worldwide culture. The new language, reflecting simple, popular speech, became the common language of commerce and diplomacy. The Greek language lost much of its elegance and finely shaded nuance as a result of its evolution from classic to koine. Nevertheless it retained its distinguishing characteristics of strength, beauty, clarity, and logical rhetorical power. It is significant that the apostle Paul wrote his letter to Christians in Rome in the Greek language rather than in Latin. The Roman empire of that time was culturally a Greek world, except for governmental transactions.

Robertson, in his Grammar continues the theme saying:

The spread of the Ionic over the East was to be expected. In Alexander’s army many of the Greek dialects were represented.8 In the Egyptian army of the Ptolemies nearly all the dialects were spoken.9 The Ionians were, besides, part of the Greeks who settled in Alexandria. 1 Besides, even after the triumph of the Attic in Greece the Ionic had continued to be spoken in large parts of Asia Minor. The Ionic influence appears in Pergamum also. The mixing of the Attic with foreign, before all with Ionic, elements, has laid the foundation for the κοινή.2

In short, if Alexander the Great (a Macedonian) was using classic Greek as opposed to his own dialect, then it is safe to assume all the "God-fearing" Greeks were using the same.

2. The Jews would have been conversant in Greek, but would have spoken Aramaic in the synagogue

Acts 21 records the languages in which Paul spoke. It says:

37 As the soldiers were about to take Paul into the barracks, he asked the commander, “May I say something to you?”

“Do you speak Greek?” he replied. 38 “Aren’t you the Egyptian who started a revolt and led four thousand terrorists out into the wilderness some time ago?”

39 Paul answered, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no ordinary city. Please let me speak to the people.”

40 After receiving the commander’s permission, Paul stood on the steps and motioned to the crowd. When they were all silent, he said to them in Aramaic[a]:

From the UBS Handbook, the entry on Acts 21:40 says:

Although almost all translations say that Paul spoke to them in Hebrew, actually Paul would have been speaking in Aramaic, the language which the Jews of that day used (see NEB “in the Jewish language”). Spoke to them in Hebrew may be rendered as “spoke to them; the words he used were Hebrew words,” “spoke to them, using the Hebrew language,” “spoke to them in their own Jewish language,” or “…in the language used by the Jews.”

Paul was probably not alone in speaking both Aramaic and Greek, the way much of the world speaks both their own native tongue, plus English in order to understand much of the dominant world culture in which they live.

tl;dr> Most likely, they spoke different languages at home, but a common one when together.

  • 1
    When Paul is speaking Aramaic to the crowd in Acts 21, he is clearly speaking to the Jews in Jerusalem. Is there any evidence that the Jews in Thessalonica or Corinth would have spoken the same? That's what I'm interested in.
    – Soldarnal
    Mar 16, 2013 at 23:27
  • 1
    This is a solid answer, in that it correctly gives the consensus of all experts. But I think in the context of recent questions about Aramaic primacy, it would be nice to have an answer which mentions some of the documentary evidence which has lead experts to this conclusion.
    – Noah
    Mar 16, 2013 at 23:47

The native Macedonians would have spoken a dialect of Greek. In normal usage, this would have been Koine Greek, although Attic Greek continued in use for written use by cultured Greeks.

Mark Avrum Ehrlich says (Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora, page 9) that in the west - the Greek-speaking Mediterranean world - the Jews wrote and spoke only Greek. James Hadley (Essays Philological and Critical, pages 409-410) concurs, saying that when the Jews established themselves in the Grecian world, they gave up their Aramaic mother-tongue for the general language of the people around them.

This is also evidenced by the existence of the Septuagint, which was developed around two hundred years earlier because the western diaspora Jews had become unfamiliar with the Hebrew language. When Paul cited the Old Testament scriptures, he always used the Septuagint, the version with which his readers would have been familiar, and possibly the only version of the scriptures that even he was familiar with.

This the Christians of Macedonia in Paul's time would have spoken a common language, Koine Greek.


Languages in Macedonia It is an interesting study of popular languages in different cities---and ghettos---that piques our curiosity. Unfortunately, things are complicated because many of the ancient lands were conquered several times, and we must take this into consideration in our research. As well, national boundaries change over time.

Latin At the time of the Apostle Paul, and the writing of the epistles, Macedonia was conquered by the Romans who spoke Latin. Thessalonica was designated a Roman colony, and many retired military men from the Roman Legions were given land grants to settle there.

So one could hear Latin spoken profusely...which would not be a hindrance to Paul since he was a Roman citizen. He came from another Roman settlement in Asia Minor: Tarsus, which was no mean city. (Acts 21:39, 22:26)

Greek Of course, Macedonia was part of the ancient Greek Empire under Philip and his son, Alexander the Great. The Greek language would be heard in the marketplace daily.

But beyond this, the Greek Empire had spread throughout the whole Mediterranean area, and with this conquest, Greek customs and the teaching of the Greek language proliferated. So much, that the lingua franca (the business and economic language) of the Mediterranean world was Greek.

Hence the Jews of Alexandria had their Scriptures translated into this language. (B.C.): the Septuagint (LXX). Some of the wording in the N.T. are quotations from this Greek translation. Paul would have been familiar with this tongue. He wrote much of the N.T. epistles in this vernacular.

Hebrew Of course, Paul was a Hebrew (Jew). And he sat under the Master teachers of the rabbinical schools, learning the Scriptures in that native tongue: Hebrew, with its etymology in Aramaic. While in prison once, Paul requested that be sent to him, "a robe, scrolls, and parchment". No doubt some of these were the Hebrew scriptures.

When giving his defense to the raving mad mob at his arrest in Jerusalem, Paul was allowed to address them under the protection of the Roman guards. He spoke to them in fluent Hebrew! (Acts 21:40-22:3)

Macedonia So which language did Paul speak in while living in, or preaching in, Macedonia? Answer: in the marketplace, he would speak to the businessmen and merchants in Greek.

When traveling, if he came across some of the retired Romans, he would speak Latin. There was much commerce between the East and West that had to travel through this narrow stretch of land, so Paul would have rubbed shoulder with a lot of Roman citizens.

But in the Synagogue, Paul would have read from the Hebrew scriptures to start with. Perhaps, from the LXX if the Ruler of the Synagogue was not widely educated in rabbinical literature (Hebrew).

If He read from the LXX (Greek), then any Greek God-fearers (Gentile proselytes) would have easily followed along. Most probably, Paul would have preached in Greek, but when quoting from the Scripture verses, sneaked in a few Hebrew words! The hymns sung would have probably been from the LXX too. If there was a learned Cantor, perhaps a hymn or two in Hebrew.

It all depends on the age of the congregation. The older Jews would have remembered more Hebrew; and the younger Jews would have been more accustomed to Greek.

Providence It is amazing that all the citizenship, rabbinical training, and up-bringing of Paul, worked together to prepare him adequately to be an awesome minister of the Gospel. The versatility that he brought to the ministry of the fledgling Church was quite Providential.

[Archaeologist have found synagogues throughout the old world, with closets where they stored the old Scrolls (of Scripture) in Hebrew. It seems that Hebrew, while not in daily use, was still clung to in religious services.]

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