GREEK AND LATIN LANGUAGES, RABBINICAL KNOWLEDGE OF


The nature and extent of the knowledge of Greek and Latin on the part of the rabbis are subjects of scholarly controversy, differing opinions even being based on the same data, since they lend themselves to several interpretations. Such data are the Greek quotations in Talmud and Midrash, rabbinical knowledge of Greco-Roman institutions, written historical sources, archaeology, epigraphy, and certain changes in the Hebrew language. The problem is compounded by fluid historical situations prevailing in late antiquity, such as the varying policy of Rome as the protagonist of Hellenism in the Near East and the degree of native assertion which, in Jewish Palestine, led to sporadic condemnations (Meg. 9a) and supposed prohibitions of Greek. Among these, those after 66 C.E. (TJ Shab. 1:6, 3c) and during the "War of Quietus" (116 C.E.; Sot. 9:14, etc. – a prohibition of the use of Greek, which itself employed the Greek loanword polemos for "war"!) are probably real. However the ruling against the use of Greek in 65 B.C.E. because of an incident at the siege of Jerusalem, as cited in the Talmud (Sot. 49b; cf. Jos., Ant., 14:25–8) is probably legendary (although E. Wiesenberg argues that it was probably historical). The Tosefta (Av. Zar. 1:20) and Menaḥot 99b (c. 90 C.E. and before 135 C.E.) discourage the study of Greek wisdom. This very repetition of anti-Greek measures, however, and some endorsements (Yad. 4:6; TJ, Sanh. 10:1, 28a; Rabbi in: Sot. 49b; Meg. 1:8) and positive evaluations of Greek (Esth. R. 4:12; Gen. R. 16:4, 36:8) indicate the temporariness or ineffectiveness of prohibitions. The Talmud tries to harmonize these contradictions by declaring that Greek was permissible for foreign contacts only (Sot. 49b, et. al.) or as a social asset for girls (TJ, Sot. 9:16, 24c). Use of liturgical Greek is indicated in the Jerusalem Talmud (Sot. 7:1, 21b), possibly in Sotah 49b (Rabbi), et al.; and a sort of public or official instruction is reflected in the metaphorical "500" students of Greek of *Simeon b. Gamaliel II, c. 140 C.E. (Sot. 49b). Occasionally Greek wisdom is distinguished from Greek language but seems to be identical with it in the Hasmonean War report of Sot. 49b, etc. It may signify "sophistry" (Graetz) or the "rhetorical art" as preparation for administrators but hardly a full ephebic or philosophical-scientific education. Opinions as to rabbinic Greek thus differ widely: bilingualism or trilingualism (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek), even a Palestinian version of the general Hellenistic vernacular (koin) and a Judeo-Greek have been surmised, in opposition, for example, to the view that the midrashic use of Greek stances is merely a device to impress non-understanding audiences!

There is, however, complete unanimity that Latin was little known (cf. Git. 80a, et al.), Greek being for nearly a millennium the language of Macedonian, Roman, and Byzantine administrations and many semi-independent cities in Palestine (332 B.C.E.–636 C.E.) and of importance even in Parthia. Moreover, "Latin" loanwords in Hebrew (dux, matrona, Caesar, "legion," "family," a.o.) were often loanwords already in the Greek from which they had been borrowed. Estimates as to the ratio of Greek to Latin loanwords in rabbinic literature have been as high as one hundred to one.

In view of this deadlock of opinions, the problem under review must be examined through fresh approaches.

Languages in Contact

Insufficient use has been made so far of the discipline of modern linguistics in solving this task. Both Aramaic and Hebrew of this period underwent transformation not only in lexicography – c. 3,000 Greco-Roman loanwords – (which is generally acknowledged) but also in phonology (e.g., the gradual weakening of laryngeals in some localities, cf. Meg. 24b; Ber. 32a; Er. 53b; cf. E.Y. Kutscher, in: JSS, 10 (1965), 21–51); in syntax (especially the dissolution of the construct case into a prepositional phrase); the frequency of an absolute nominative before conditional clauses (cf. M.H. Segal, Grammar of Mishnaic Hebrew (1927, repr. 1958), 213–4) resembling the Greek genitive absolute. According to Bendavid (see below) certain usages of the Palestinian sages indicate quasi-mechanical transfer from the Greek and can be found in phraseology (e.g., Heb. lashon ha-ra, Gr. kakoglossia, "evil tongue"); in semantics (Heb. batlan, "scholar," and Gr. scholastikos both allude to "leisure"; Heb. yishuv, Gr. oikoumene, "habitation"); change of gender (biblical makkel, "staff," becomes feminine after Greek bakteria and rhabdos); the increase of reflexive verbs; and new properties of the prepositions. The verb, according to linguists the most conservative element in language, was affected by a new tense system, notably a precise present tense and compound tenses (with auxiliary verb), and the creation of Hebraized roots from the Greek, among them such important verbs as ḳ-l-s, "praise"; k-r-z, "proclaim"; h-g-n, "be proper"; p-y-s, "pacify" and "cast lots"; ṭ-g-n, "fry"; ṭ-k(ḳ)-s, "arrange"; s-m-n, "signify"; ḳ-ṭ-r-g, "accuse"; and p-r-s-m, "publicize." The loanwords cover all aspects of life but are especially prominent in certain areas of material civilization (architecture, agriculture, fashion, commerce, and technology) and public life (government, taxation, law, and warfare). Apart from the salient keywords of Greco-Roman civilization, such as "circus," "theater," "stadium," "hippodrome," "column," "icon," "colony," "metropolis," "triumph," "emperor," "senator," "tyranny," "pedagogue," and "philosopher," even indispensable terms of daily life are loanwords, such as "air," "sandal," "tome," "collar," "sum," "salary," "mint," "nausea," "diarrhea," "character," "person," "type," et al. (all preceding English examples being approximately identical with the Greco-Hebraic terms). Even proper names of rabbis are affected: Alexander, Antigonus, Boethus, Dosa, Pa(p)pus, Symmachus, Tarphon, etc., alongside basic religious terms: Sanhedrin, bimah, afikoman, "angel" (Targum), kairos, "mystery," "blasphemy," et al. (Of course thousands of other Greco-Roman terms in modern Hebrew have been added in the modern technological era.) The orthography of actual Greek words and of loanwords is fairly systematic (though difficult to date and subject to error in scribal tradition and reveals Greek language change, e.g., the Greek upsilon in certain diphthongs is already given as v (or f) as in Byzantine and modern Greek (Selevcus for Seleucus, avto- for auto-). All these observations, however, do not yet give any information regarding the rabbinic knowledge of written Greek sources, especially since Krauss's views of the derivation (see below) of certain loanwords from Homeric or rare Greek poetry have not been generally accepted.

Greek as an Intercultural Representative Prestige Language

This was especially true of public display, including inscriptions in the Temple (even its ritual objects, cf. Shek. 3:2), and on synagogues, epitaphs, etc. Some of the Greek in Palestinian cemeteries may belong here and may not be diaspora Greek. To claim that all rabbis were excluded from this vast sector of public life through ignorance or hostility is manifestly absurd. It has been assumed, however, that the opposition to Greek was strongest among some popular preachers who continued earlier Zealot attitudes (see below, Avi-Yonah, 71).

Greek as Professional Expertise

There is much justification for the claim that Jewish mercenaries, slaves, tax collectors, and certain artisans, e.g., sculptors for idolatrous customers, and the rulers, courtiers, and diplomats of the Hasmoneans and Herodians had to resort to Greek because of their social-economic functions. It seems that the tannaim and many leading Palestinian amoraim, as well as their Pharisaic predecessors, belong to a group of "technocrat" experts who could administer, legislate, interpret, edit law and literature, theologize, moralize, and console – precisely the abilities and functions of their Greco-Roman counterparts, the rhetorician-scholar-bureaucrats, from Cicero to Seneca (once practically vice-emperor), from Dio Chrysostom to Plutarch (a priest-magistrate). The rabbis' idealization of the Sage – the characteristic ideology of hellenized bureaucracies – their popular ethics and their uses of Hellenic myth, literary forms, and *hermeneutics, their academic institutions and efforts at preserving tradition, suggest knowledge of their Greco-Roman colleagues. The presence of schools of law, philosophy, and exegesis in and near Palestine (Ashkelon, Beirut, Caesarea, Gederah, Gaza), the Roman administrative center in Caesarea, and wandering rhetors must have furthered the spread of "professional" Greek. True, most of the grecianized talmudic data could stem from audio-transmission of rhetorics, the expertise of Greco-Roman bureaucracy. Yet Greco-Hebrew legal terminology (diatheke, hypotheke, epitropos, k(o)inonia, cf. Prosbul, etc.), some talmudic science, and rabbinic use of isopsephy (*Gematria) are more technical than the usual orations. Actual Greek halakhic documents (e.g., a marriage contract) and numerous Greek translations of Hebrew literature indicate some measure of literary experience. (Not for all the latter could the aid of proselytes be claimed. In any case, the semilegendary portrayals of the translator *Aquilas, a proselyte *Elisha b. Avuyah, the "heretic," and *Meir, a reputed descendant of proselytes, may belong to periods of native reassertion when it had become unthinkable that rabbis were fluent in Greek.) Moreover, the insistence on oral transmission may occasionally have been merely a literary pose in conformity with a general trend toward cynicism in rhetoric (cf. Diogenes Laertius, 6:2, 48). At this stage of history, Jewish tradition and its agents were probably highly literate and literacy-minded. The Greek knowledge of the Hillelite dynasty to *Rabbi, 200 C.E., and beyond of Joshua, Meir, and *Abbahu, must have been considerable, as their use of Hellenistic materials and disciplines, their friendliness toward Greek, and their contacts with the Roman government indicate. In later centuries, however, the increasing impoverishment of Palestine and the accompanying alienation from Christianized Rome may have modified this situation.

Comparative Studies of Other Hellenizing Cultures would further illustrate Judean situations: Cato the Elder, the Roman arch-conservative speaking excellent Greek; Roman senators outlawing Greek rhetoric; a similar mass of loanwords even within societies resisting Greek, such as the Western Roman Empire, the Syrian Church, and native Armenia and Egypt; and slaves, proselytes, and uprooted populations spreading the knowledge of Greek (in Judea: after the Maccabean wars, cf. E.E. Urbach's discussion of the "Canaanite slave," in: Zion 25 (1960), 141–89, Heb.).

All in all, the scarcity and ambiguity of talmudic sources and the problematics of the historical data do not lend themselves to generalizations. What type of "rabbi," for example, is mentioned in the Greek Leontius memorial of Bet She'arim (Frey, 1006). Did the rabbis debate with Christians in Aramaic or Greek? When they declared Greek as "suitable" for poetry and Latin for war (Est. R. 4:12), did they thereby evaluate languages or merely characterize these cultures in general? Do halakhic statements on Homeric books presuppose their intimate knowledge (TJ, Sanh. 10:1, 28a; Yad. 4:6)? Perhaps the true question is not whether the rabbis knew Greek slightly or in depth (even the rhetors used various aid books), but whether they knew it adequately for their purpose. Only additional finds, such as actual Greek literature or more Greek halakhic documents, will throw further light on these problems.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Frey, Corpus; S. Lieberman, Greek in Jewish Palestine (1942); idem, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine (19622); M. Avi-Yonah, Bi-Ymei Roma u-Bizantyon (19623), 67ff.; S. Krauss, Griechische und lateinische Lehnwoerter im Talmud, Midrasch und Targum (1898–99) (to be used with reservation: see G. Zuntz, in: JSS, 1 (1956), 129–40; cf. however, H. Rosén, in: JSS, 8 (1963), 56–72); E. Wiesenberg: in: HUCA, 27 (1956), 213–33; A. Sperber, ibid., 12–13 (1937–38), 103–274; M. Schwabe, in: Sefer Zikkaron le-Asher Gulak veli-Shemu'el Klein (1942), 187–200; idem, in: Eshkolot, 1 (1954), 73–85; A. Halevi, in: Tarbiz, 29 (1960), 47–55; 31 (1962), 157–69, 264–80; A. Bendavid, Leshon Mikra u-Leshon Ḥakhamim (19672), 111–8, 135–52, 183–90; H.A. Fischel, in: Semicentennial Volume of the Middle West Branch of the American Oriental Society (1969), 59–88; J.N. Sevenster, Do You Know Greek? (1968).

[Henry Albert Fischel]


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