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Stanley E. Porter
McMaster Divinity College Hamilton, ON, Canada
Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus Vol. 4.1 pp. 69-74 DOI: 10.1177/1476869006061779 2006 SAGE Publications London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi

ABSTRACT This essay responds to Michael Birds critique of my criterion of Greek language and its context, put forward especially in my The Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research: Previous Discussion and New Proposals (JSNTSup, 191; Shefeld: Shefeld Academic Press, 2000), pp. 126-80. I clarify the nature of the criterion by noting that Bird several times seems not to clearly understand that it tries to establish probability criteria for proposing that Jesus may have spoken Greek on particular occasions.

Key words: criteria of authenticity, criterion of Greek language and context, New Testament Greek

I am grateful to Michael Bird for taking the time to respond to my criterion of Greek language and its context,1 put forward as one of three criteria in my book on historical-Jesus research and the criteria for authenticity.2 This criterion is the rst of the three, and it attempts to function by creating a probability argument. In other words, as I state, this criterion attempts to determine the weight of probability that Jesus spoke Greek on a given occasion, and that the words recorded were in fact something similar to those in the Gospel accounts.3 The criterion determines such weight of probability through several factors that have a cumulative effect. The rst is the fact that Greek was a language in widespread use among not only the general Mediterranean world of the rst century, but the Jewish people of the time, including those in Palestine and especially the Galilean region. This is, I believe, rmly established on the basis of literary and
1. M.F. Bird, The Criterion of Greek Language and Context: A Response to Stanley E. Porter, JSHJ 4.1 (2006), pp. 55-67. 2. S.E. Porter, The Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research: Previous Discussion and New Proposals (JSNTSup, 191; Shefeld: Shefeld Academic Press, 2000), esp. pp. 126-80; with a further example discussed using the criterion in S.E. Porter, Luke 17.11-19 and the Criteria for Authenticity Revisited, JSHJ 1 (2003), pp. 201-24. 3. Porter, Criteria for Authenticity, p. 163.


Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus

non-literary linguistic evidence, and is in many ways independent of the question of Judaism vs. Hellenism (if this is even a correct formulation). Greek was part and parcel of Jewish identity of the rst century, including in Galilee. On this basis, one must recognize that Jesus could have spoken Greek. In fact, many scholars are willing to admit this fact, even if they do not pursue the argument further to establish whether Jesus did speak Greek on a given occasion. However, this criterion tries to establish that we can have some degree of condence that on particular occasions Jesus may have spoken Greek. Such occasions are those that full the following: the probability of the participants speaking Greek, the particular context and the theme being plausibly discussed in Greek, and the likely determination that the words recorded might have been spoken. At each level of the accumulating argument, there is grounds for refutation of the hypothesis, so that the probability is denable. I determined that a small number of episodes might well record the words of Jesus in Greek, and determined the level of their probability as either: reasonably high probability, reasonable probability or some probability. After considering Birds argument, I believe that, overall, he has not fully understood what it is that I am trying to do by developing this criterion. Bird seems to treat my argument as if it is disjunctiveeither Jesus spoke in Greek or he did notwhen it is based on establishing degrees of probability. The argument boils down to thisif we recognize that Jesus, like many other Jews of the time, may have spoken Greek (and it seems likely that they did, as Bird himself agrees), can we nd a means to determine if on any given occasion he may have? I attempt to provide such a means of doing so. Bird rightly notes that I am restrained in the number of examples that I posit (p. 59). This is not because I do not think that Jesus may have spoken Greek on other occasions (I happen to think that he did, and hope to pursue this more in future research), but because these are ones where we can apply the criterion in a principled way. I believe that Birds essay reects a tension in his own thinking about the likelihood that Jesus spoke Greek, and whether we can determine some of those instances. Sometimes he seems to minimize the evidence, while still retaining maximalist conclusions. In some cases, these have no bearing on the validity of my criterion. These are revealed in several of the points that he attempts to make in refutation of my criterion. With reference to Jesus statement to Pilate, su\ le&geij, Bird agrees that preservation of an authentic Greek utterance of Jesus in the traditionis highly plausible (p. 59; I consider it a reasonably high probability), and in footnote 19 he states that he concurs with me for several reasons. However, he then notes that these reasons are independent of my criterion, so that We can agreewithout necessarily getting there via the same route. This is clearly not an argument against my criterion. If anything, it is further support for it, in that two independent and different methods can arrive at the same conclusion. I take this as

Porter The Criterion of Greek Language and Context


conrmatory support for the validity of my criterion, in that in a (here, test) case where other criteria can arrive at a plausible conclusion mine can do the same. Then Bird (oddly in the light of his previous statements) minimizes his own ndings, noting that our knowledge of the language of the trial of Jesus and whether translators were used is not known, including our deficient knowledge of Pilates Greek abilities. Bird is correct that we do not have denitive knowledge of many of these factors, but that is exactly where the criterion comes into play in weighing probabilities. For a Roman governor in the east, it was in fact highly probable that Greek would have been the language used by him (whether mediated through a translator or not), as it was the lingua franca and prestige language for such an event (as Bird admits in his second reason), and it may even have been used by a Galilean, perhaps even one with minimal Greek linguistic abilities (who makes an admittedly minimal statement in Greek).4 Birds ambivalence over the language of Jesus is further seen when he mentions bilingual interpreters (p. 64) as one of the other explanatory options available, rather than Jesus himself using Greek. Bird suggests that Peter, Philip, Levi and Andrew would be possibilities as interpreters. If these menseveral from a region linked with Galilee and, so far as we know, engaged in the types of professions that would have contacted Gentiles (as was Jesus)could have spoken in Greek, then why not Jesus? Why maximize the possibilities for Jesus followers, but minimize his possibilities, even though they reect very similar socio-economic and geographical backgrounds? Bird reects further ambivalence when he discusses the traditioning process (p. 60) regarding the Jesus tradition. On the one hand, he believes that it was conservative, but on the other he assumes that the Gospels did not want to preserve the words of Jesus, apart from a few exceptions.5 Further, Bird engages in circular argumentation when he assumes his conclusionthat the Gospel authors were not concerned to preserve the words of Jesus but were concerned to interpret and apply their memory of Jesus to their contemporary Christian contexts (the argument is also noticeably disjunctive: a Gospel could preserve the words of Jesus and be concerned for the contemporary context). The fact that Bird admits that there were some instances where the words were preserved indicates that there may have been otherswhat I have tried to provide is a

4. See H.I. Marrou, A History of Education in Antiquity (trans. G. Lamb; London: Sheed & Ward, 1956), p. 256. 5. He does not state what these exceptions are. They are probably the Aramaic words of Jesus cited in the Gospels (e.g., Mk 5.41; 7.34; 15.34; Mt. 27.46, cited in footnote 38; see J. Jeremias, New Testament Theology: The Proclamation of Jesus [trans. J. Bowden; London: SCM Press, 1971], pp. 4-6, for a more complete list of Aramaic words used in the Gospels). However, the explanation of why these particular words were preserved is open to discussion. See Porter, Criteria for Authenticity, p. 157.


Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus

means for determining the probability of some of these incidences, especially where Greek words may plausibly be authentic. Bird further suggests that there was linguistic variation within the transmission of the Jesus tradition (p. 60), a point that I recognize and attempt to address in part in my second criterion, the criterion of Greek textual variance.6 Bird creates an intriguing scenario of Aramaic translated into Greek and Greek translated into Aramaic to attempt to show that Greek sayings of Jesus may have been altered in the transmission processin the period between Jesus uttering them and the Gospel authors recording them, there was a process of translation into Aramaic and then back into Greek. This may be true, but where is the substantive or widespread Gospel evidence of such a scenario?7 Certainly there may have been Aramaic statements translated into Greek, but where is the evidence that Greek statements of Jesus in the Gospels were translated into Aramaic and back into Greek? It could have happened, but it is more probablesince the early church was almost from its inception a multilingual church with Greek as one of the languages, as evidenced by Paul and other church leaders and the New Testament writings themselvesthat the Greek statements were preservedat least more probable until shown (rather than simply asserted) otherwise.8 Bird again assumes his conclusion when he asserts that the purpose of the Gospels is not to preserve the authentic Greek words of Jesus, but rather, it is to tell the story of Jesus for Greek readers in the Graeco-Roman world (p. 61). This disjunctive formulation does not follow. In fact, one might well expect that the telling of the story for Greek readers would, where possible, preserve the Greek words of Jesus. I indeed do not contest the point that Greek was a suitable medium for readers in the Graeco-Roman world, but I do dispute that Greek was used simply or only for the sake of the readers and receivers, without concern for preservation of the words of Jesus.9 One need not only have the one, but can have bothin fact I believe that we do. I am unclear whether by this Bird also means that the Gospels are not meant to preserve the authentic activities of Jesus either. His disjunctive reasoning would leave this possibility openone I hope that he is not asserting. If he is not making such an assertion, then I nd it odd that he would want to exclude the words of Jesus while only accepting the activities of Jesus, since the record for both is found intertwined in the same sources, the
6. Porter, Criteria for Authenticity, pp. 181-208. 7. The Papias account can hardly be germane, as it is ostensibly concerned with Aramaic/Hebrew statements behind Matthews Gospel, not Greek statements behind the Aramaic/Hebrew statements of Matthews Gospel. 8. See H.D. Betz, Wellhausens Dictum Jesus was not a Christian, but A Jew in Light of Present Scholarship, in his Antike und Christentum (Gesammelte Aufstze, 4; Tbingen: MohrSiebeck, 1998), pp. 1-31, esp. pp. 15-16. 9. There has been much recent discussion of preservation of the Jesus tradition that I need not recount here.

Porter The Criterion of Greek Language and Context


Gospels. I also nd it signicantas well as highly suggestivethat all the canonical Gospels are in Greek, some of them no doubt written (at least in part) for Jewish Christians. In his statements regarding Hellenization of Galilee and the use of Greek, Bird is again ambivalent, as well as confusing the issues of language and culture. On the one hand, he wants to note the distinctly Jewish elements of Galilee. No doubt much of this is true, but it has little to no bearing on my criterion of Greek language and its context, especially in the light of his further statement. Bird wants to note that usage of Greek is not antithetical to Jewishness and there is no doubt that Greek was used in Galilee (p. 62). This is my point exactly throughout my book. All I want to do is take that recognition and see if it can be applied in a principled way to determine the probability of statements in Greek by Jesus being authentic. Bird accuses me of committing the fallacy of moving from the general to the particular (p. 62). He then goes on to say that one may grant thatit is highly possible that Jesus spoke Greek at certain times, but then he states that possibility is all that we are left with (p. 63), purportedly because of a lack of evidence that, when, how, to whom and what he spoke in Greek. My argument, I believe, is a little more sophisticated than thisalthough I note that Bird has made my argument for me. Granted the possibility that Jesus spoke Greek, I have tried to establish a criterion by which we can determine the probability that Jesus did speak Greek on a given occasion. I do notas Bird appears to docategorically dismiss the Gospels as evidence that Jesus spoke Greek on occasions, so far as these can be scrutinized to determine their level of probability. Concerning the Greek-speaking background of speakers, Bird drags a red herring across the argument by contending that one could potentially argue that every conceivable context in the Gospels is a potential circumstance for Jesus speaking Greek (p. 63). As Bird admits, Porter does not use the criterion this way (p. 63), so the argumentative force of his contention is greatly minimized. Bird does not realize that he creates an odd argument in his discussion of the lepers of Luke 17. He does not dispute that Greek was used in Samaria, but he disputes that this establishes that these lepers spoke it. Of course, that fact alone does not establish it, and not in a certain way. That is where other elements of the criterion come into play, including cultural, religious and linguistic factors, as well as context and theme, to establish levels of probability (incidentally, in this case I give the episode a low level of probability as recording the words of Jesus).10 Bird draws another red herring across the argument in his discussion of the locations that Jesus visits in the Gospels. He says that some argue that these are the creations of the Evangelists (p. 64), with the implication that they would not be useful in establishing historical probability of an episode actually occurring
10. Porter, Luke 17.11-19, pp. 222-24.


Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus

in that location. Bird then rejects this argument, contending that the journeys and places visited are not simply theologically motivated creations but historically rooted. Again, this argument proves nothing regarding my criterion. A place may well have theological signicance while reecting a historical event. My criterion is designed to sift through such contexts to determine if there is plausibility regarding the words being spoken in Greek, nothing more. In a nal example, Bird drags another red herring across the argument when he states that we have evidence in the Gospels to afrm that Jesus uttered some clauses in Aramaic (p. 65), and he cites Mk 5.41; 7.34; 15.34; Mt. 27.46 (footnote 38). He then strangely states that we have no such parallel for Greek sayings. There is no point in the Jesus tradition where it is reported, and he said to them in Greek (p. 65). If I am not mistaken, in none of the passages that Bird cites is there a statement and he said to them in Aramaic (or Hebrew) either. Jesus simply speaks and the words cited are Aramaic. In fact, that is just what we have with the Greek statementsJesus speaks and Greek words are cited. If Bird is suggesting that words come out of the mouth of Jesus and these are then authentic, then he goes well beyond anything I am arguing for with this criterion. I doubt that this is what he has in mind, but in any case the force of his argument is clearly mitigated. In conclusion let me simply state that I appreciate the seriousness with which Michael Bird has taken my work on criteria for authenticity. However, I believe that at a number of places he is ambivalent in his own thinking, to the point of using arguments that do not actually advance his case against my criterion. I have never contended that this criterion is a nal stopping point for historicalJesus research. To the contrary, it, along with the others, was designed to take us further than the most recent discussion, but not necessarily to suggest nal solutions. The results are tentative and meant to be suggestive of areas of further historical-Jesus research.11 I believe that this criterion, in conjunction with others, provides reasonably probable results as a foundation for further research. If it is probable that Jesus spoke Greek with others, then I believe that it is worth asking the question of whether, and where, we may have incidences recorded in the Gospels in which such conversations took place.


Porter, Criteria for Authenticity, p. 126.