It is a commonly held belief (repeated in almost every grammar of New Testament Greek) that following the conquests of Alexander the Great, by the first century Greek had became the lingua franca, or common language, everywhere across the known world from Greece, throughout the Middle East, as far as India. We are told that Jesus spoke Greek, that Greek was the spoken language in Israel, and that was why the New Testament was written in Greek.
In this series of lessons about the History of Aramaic, however, we provide detailed and conclusive evidence that Aramaic (not Greek) was the language spoken across the Middle East in the first century C.E.
According to the Greek Primacy view, out of all the places where Greek might have been spoken, Egypt is the place which was definitely and irrefutably Greek speaking. Several reasons are put forward:
Alexander conquered Egypt first, and everyone in Egypt spoke Greek after that.
“Everyone knows” that Egypt was Greek-speaking. The Jews there spoke Greek, because that’s why they wanted the Hebrew Law or Torah, translated into Greek (the Septuagint). They could no longer speak Hebrew. (Really? Read our lesson Septuagint: Translating the Torah).
Sounds convincing, right? Wrong. When you look at the facts, the written historical evidence proves that Greek was not the normal spoken language in Egypt. Would you like conclusive proof? Then look at Acts 21:
Acts 21:37-39 And as Paul was to be led into the castle, he said unto the chief captain, May I speak unto thee? Who said, Canst thou speak Greek? Art not thou that Egyptian, which before these days madest an uproar, and leddest out into the wilderness four thousand men that were murderers? But Paul said, I am a man which am a Jew of Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city: and, I beseech thee, suffer me to speak unto the people.
Read those verses again. Paul speaks Greek to the Roman soldier. By speaking in Greek, the Roman soldier is actually surprised, and instantly knows that Paul could not possibly be an Egyptian. QED. Therefore the people of Egypt did not speak Greek.
Josephus is also careful to draw a distinction between the Greek tongue and the Egyptian tongue. In Against Apion 1:73, he mentions a certain Manetho, who despite being an Egyptian, is unusual for learning Greek (just as Josephus says that he, too, is unusual for learning Greek – see our lesson Aramaic: Language of Josephus). Josephus records:
“Manetho was a man who was by birth an Egyptian, yet had he made himself master of the Greek learning, as is very evident: for he wrote the history of his own country in the Greek tongue.”
It should be noted that Jews generally had very strong anti-Greek feelings. The Maccabean revolt was still fresh in their minds, when Greek language and culture was forced upon them by Antiochus and the Temple was desecrated. Ever since the Maccabean victory, Jews strongly rejected Greek philosophy and the Greek language, and discouraged the speaking of Greek. Despite this, some Jews had succumbed to Greek learning and had allowed Greek philosophical ideas of heaven and hell to enter Judaism. They had started to Hellenize Judaism, and were despised for it. They are known in the New Testament as Grecian Jews:
Acts 6:1 And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration.
See also our lesson on Josephus’ account of the Septuagint: Translating the Torah. This illustrates that the purpose of translating the Torah into Greek was not because Jews did not understand Hebrew, but because Ptolemy wanted copies in Greek for his own library, along with every other book in the world.