Did Jesus speak Greek, in addition to Aramaic, the vernacular of Palestinian Jews at the turn of the era? If so, then the task of recovering Jesus’ teachings would be easier, because scholars would no longer have to wonder what nuances were lost when Jesus’ words were translated from the original Aramaic into the Greek of the New Testament Gospels. Indeed, if Jesus spoke Greek, then some of the teachings recorded in the Gospels might preserve his exact words.
Many scholars, citing Greek inscriptions found in Lower Galilee as evidence that the language was widely spoken there, contend that Jesus probably did speak Greek. They point out that Jesus’ home village, Nazareth, was barely 4 miles, or an hour’s walk, from cosmopolitan Sepphoris; therefore, they argue, Jesus could hardly have avoided knowing at least a little Greek.
In fact, the evidence for the use of Greek in Galilee before and during the time of Jesus is extremely limited. At Sepphoris itself, we have only a second-century B.C.E. ostracon that bears a Hebrew transliteration of a Greek word and some first-century C.E. coins minted at Sepphoris during the Great Revolt. Coins minted by Herod the Great’s son Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee from 4 B.C.E. to 39 C.E., bore Greek inscriptions, as did those of Herod Agrippa I, who received control over Galilee for a brief period after Herod Antipas. The inscriptions on two first-century C.E. market weights, probably from Tiberias, are also in Greek. And a famous inscription discovered near Nazareth demonstrates that at least some of Galilee’s inhabitants used the language. Dating to the mid-first century C.E., the inscription warns against grave robbing.
For the most part, however, our evidence for the use of Greek in Galilee postdates the first century C.E. Hundreds of Greek inscriptions are found in the Jewish tomb complexes of Beth She’arim, in southwestern Galilee, but these date mostly to the third century C.E. and later. And although Greek inscriptions are found on numerous mosaics in Roman and Byzantine Galilee, these also belong to a later era. The same can be said for the various amulets, burial inscriptions, coins and other objects that demonstrate the use of Greek alongside Hebrew among the inhabitants of Galilee.
As we analyze the archaeological data, we find that the real question is not whether Jesus spoke Greek, but whether, and to what extent, we can use later evidence to understand conditions in first-century Galilee. We know that early in the second century C.E. Roman soldiers and their support personnel (who spoke Greek) were permanently stationed in Galilee for the first time. We also know that Jews from Judea, some of whom would have been fluent in Greek, migrated north to Galilee following Jewish defeats in the Great Revolt (66–70 C.E.) and the Bar-Kokhba Revolt (132–135 C.E.). These massive population shifts make it extremely difficult to make generalizations about first-century Galilee on the basis of later evidence. Rather than assuming that many first-century Galileans knew some Greek, it is safer to say that by looking at first-century Galilee, we can already see the initial stages of later linguistic trends.