Bible Question:

I am interested in the concept of the poor in Spirit. You write, “Of the two Greek words for poor, PTOCHOS and PENAS, that Jesus could have used, He used PTOCHOS. This word, PTOCHOS, means more than just being poor . . . ” Did Jesus speak Greek? What difference does it make what the precise word Jesus allegedly used?

Bible Answer:

It is important to know the language in which the New Testament was written since the definitions of words control the meaning of sentences, paragraphs and the books in which they are written. Otherwise, the actual meaning of the phrase “poor in Spirit” in Matthew 5:3 would be missed since there are multiple words for “poor” in the Greek language.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:3 (NASB)

The actual manuscripts of the New Testament are written in Greek and historical records reveal the Jews knew Greek. Historical records and the Bible reveal that Greeks visited Israel. The vast majority of the critics of Jesus agree that He spoke Greek. Therefore, it is important to know the definition of words since words can change the meaning. We would encourage the reader to visit, “Was the gospel of Matthew originally written in Aramaic?”

Canaan Was Part Of The Greek Empire

First, the land of Canaan was once a part of the Greek Empire. The infamous Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who murdered many Jews, imposed the Greek culture on the Jewish people during his occupation of their land . He was successful, and many of the priests adopted Greek customs and spoke the language. Did Jews speak Greek? At least some of them did. Second, Greeks were common visitors to Canaan even during the time that Jesus lived.

Now there were certain Greeks among those who were going up to worship at the feast . . . John 12:20 (NASB)

It is reasonable to conclude that the Jews knew Greek. They had businesses and sold goods to the Greeks. They had to know Greek in order to be good merchants. Third, Jesus’ critics imply that Jesus knew how to speak Greek when they made the following statement.

The Jews therefore said to one another, “Where does this man intend to go that we shall not find Him? He is not intending to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks, and teach the Greeks, is He?” (NASB) John 7:35

It is logical to conclude that Jesus understood and spoke Hebrew since the Scriptures were written in Hebrew. It is also reasonable to believe that Jesus understood and spoke Greek and Aramaic since the nations spoke those languages.

Jesus Spoke Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek

The following is a quote from Robert L. Thomas and Stanley N. Gundry, two well known biblical scholars.

John 12:20-23 strongly suggest that Philip, Andrew, and Jesus understood and spoke Greek. Peter, the foremost among the twelve, bears not only Hebrew and Aramaic names (Simon and Cephas) but also is referred to by his Greek name (Peter). It is also likely that this same Peter spoke Greek to Cornelius’s household in Acts 10 and wrote in Greek the two letters bearing his name. That a Galilean fisherman would have a Greek name and speak and write Greek testifies to the fact that those without formal education were competent in that language as well. In the Greek text of John 21, Jesus uses two different Greek words for love. However, none of these pairs can be reproduced in Hebrew or Aramaic; this was apparently a conversation originally carried on in Greek. Also, the play on Greek words PETRA and PETROS in Matthew 16:18 cannot be reproduced in Hebrew or Aramaic and is best explained as occurring in a discussion originally carried on in Greek . . . Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic were all commonly spoken and/or understood among the Palestinian Jews of Jesus’ day . . . Almost certainly Jesus spoke in all three languages . . . [1]

In many countries today it is common for people to speak more than one language. Many Europeans speak several languages. However, Americans typically know only one or two languages. Israel was on the corridor between Egypt, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. Therefore, it is logical and reasonable to conclude that the Jews of Jesus’ day spoke multiple languages.

Conclusion:

During the Sermon on the Mount it is most likely that Jesus spoke Greek so that many foreign visitors would understand Him.

And the news about Him went out into all Syria; and they brought to Him all who were ill, taken with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, paralytics; and He healed them. And great multitudes followed Him from Galilee and Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judea and from beyond the Jordan. And when He saw the multitudes, He went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. (NASB) Matthew 4:24 – 5:1

Hebrew and Aramaic were common languages of the day. Jesus came to shine His light to the world. Even if Jesus did not preach in Greek during the Sermon on the Mount, the Holy Spirit carefully selected the words to communicate what Jesus said. Even if it could be demonstrated that Jesus did not speak Greek, the word meanings are still important because God the Holy Spirit guided the words that the apostle Matthew wrote. We can thank God that words have meaning and that they mean what the Spirit wanted them to mean.

Reference

1. Thomas & Gundry. A Harmony of the Gospels. HarperCollins Publishers. New York. 1978. p. 310-12

Reference Links:

Blessed Are The Poor
Wouldn't you have to know Greek and Hebrew to know for yourself what the scriptures really say?
Was the gospel of Matthew originally written in Aramaic?