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Neues Testament


Ong, Hughson T.


The Multilingual Jesus and the Sociolinguistic World of the New Testament.


Leiden u. a.: Brill 2016. 422 S. = Linguistic Biblical Studies, 12. Geb. EUR 115,00. ISBN 978-90-04-30315-7.


Benedict Thomas Viviano

This work is the published result of a dissertation at McMaster University, Hamilton Ontario, under the supervision of Stanley E. Porter. Hughson T. Ong became interested in the phenomenon of bilingualism because of his bilingual immigrant parents, Filipino and Chinese (250). Perhaps one should speak of trilingual parents, because of the role of English when they moved to Canada. Another key influence besides Porter is Eugene A. Nida (78).
The work consists of five chapters besides a brief introduction and a conclusion. The boldest claim of the book is that Jesus spoke mainly Greek rather than Aramaic and that his world was predominantly Greek speaking rather than Aramaic. This is both a historical claim and a cultural-religious claim. The book is method-driven rather than intuitive (325). On the one hand, O. wants to draw historical conclusions (7 and passim), yet he does not accept any literary dependence of one gospel on another, for example that Matthew knew Mark (291.328), or other elements of the historical-critical method of studying the Bible. The bold claim is difficult to prove but not necessarily false. His repeated claim that Greek was the prestige language and lingua franca of the first Christian century and place (Roman Palestine) is not impossible. An example from a later period that comes to mind is the Norman miracle: the Vikings landed in what is still called Normandy speaking Danish. Within a century they were not only speaking French, but founded three other kingdoms (Sicily, the Holy Land, and England) and created Gothic architecture. Places can change language and culture within a century, amazing as this can seem. On the other hand, the Aramaic hypothesis presents a Near East still speaking Aramaic except for pockets of Hellenization in cities, in the seventh century, so that the shift to Arabic is easier to imagine after the Muslim conquest.
The first chapter surveys previous scholarship on the question and arrives at the sound conclusion that ancient Palestine was a multilingual society. The main proof for this conclusion consists of inscriptions as evidence. An important role in organizing the data was played by the seminal article by J. A. Fitzmyer, his presidential address at the Catholic Biblical Association in 1970, CBQ 32 (1970) 501–531, and frequently reprinted. Fitzmyer surveys the inscriptions and shows the comparative frequency of Greek, Aramaic, Hebrew and Latin texts, the first two languages being predominant. O. freshens the data by noting a new cash of Latin inscriptions, mostly from Caesarea Maritima, over 500 of them (64–68); they mostly are government texts, including milestones.
Chapter two then attempts to use sociolinguistics as a tool to explore how the different languages could have been used. O. surveys some well known names, among them Nida, Bruce J. Malina, and S. F. Porter. Then he introduces sociolinguistics as studying the intersection of linguistics (Chomsky) and sociology and anthropology. The last two of these three become a license for vagueness and gas-eous jargon. Terms introduced include isogloss, diglossia, and triglossia. O. struggles to provide clear definitions of these terms.
The third chapter surveys the geographical regions that provide the setting for the multilingual Jesus and the gospel of Matthew. The eight regions treated are: Nabatea, Idumea, Judea, Samaria, Galilee, Decapolis, Perea and Phoenicia with their various languages.
The fourth chapter treats of the sociolinguistic world of the individual person Jesus. Here the idea of a default language, of norma-tive languages and of deliberate choices of particular languages are covered. O. wants to prove that Jesus must have been a multilingual speaker. As one reads along one wants to agree but the arguments fall short of being conclusive. He presents six fixed social domains and their corresponding default languages: 1. family; 2. friendship; 3. government; 4. commerce; 5. religion; 6. education. The concept of diglossia is applied to these domains under the following considerations: people use two languages but with different roles: high and low, private and public, formal and informal. Using these categories O. argues which language Jesus would use in the different settings. The concept of a bilingual person is further refined into a true bilingual, a symmetrical bilingual, equilingual, ambilingual, simulta-neous or early bilingual, or second language learned late. Bilinguals can change languages where the social situation alters, this is called code-switching, or crutching. O. wants to know how proficient Jo­seph and Mary and Jesus were in Greek and Aramaic. O. concludes that Jesus was »most probably an early consecutive bilingual who had learned Aramaic from his bilingual parents and Greek from school and the society in general. Consequently, Jesus would have been productively fluent in speaking these two languages, while at the same time, he would also have been receptively fluent to some degree in Hebrew and Latin« (256).
The fifth chapter addresses Jesus’ multilingualism in the gospel of Matthew. He begins with the presentation of the ethnography of communication, that is, speech situations, events or acts. One could consider this analysis organized common sense. O. regards family situations as calling for informal speech (in context, this means Aramaic). Friendship calls for informal speech as well. Government calls for formal speech (Greek or Latin), commerce for informal, religion for formal and education for formal.
With this grid in hand O. proceeds to examine 59 units in Matthew (whereas there are 154 units in the United Bible Society Greek New Testament 1966 formatting of Matthew, but O. treats the en-tire Sermon on the Mount as a single unit. It is broken up into small units in the USB NT). Of these 59 units, Jesus used Greek in 18 cases from O.’s analysis, because they occurred in public formal settings; Jesus could have used Aramaic in 25 units, because they occurred in private informal settings; 14 units could have been either in Greek or in Aramaic, or code-switching could have occurred in them. Jesus used Hebrew in his cry of dereliction from the cross; and may have spoken with Pilate in Latin. For O. the entire Sermon on the Mount was spoken in Greek to the crowds and the disciples. Jesus cures the leper possibly in Greek because of the crowd; so too the cure of the paralyzed man and the two blind men. The Beelzebul and sign of Jonah debate is held in Greek, as well as the discourse on the para-bles (Matt 13:1–35; the explanation to the disciples could then have been in Aramaic). The great Olivet discourse is in Aramaic, not in Greek, a difference from the Sermon on the Mount, because it is addressed to the disciples, not the crowds. Jesus’ debate with the Pharisees and Sadducees (16:1–4), and Peter’s confession (16:13–16), the debates on the Sabbath (12:1–4) are either public and informal or private. They are all in Aramaic. These results are interesting, sometimes speculative, but usually they do not rise above the level of probability. This is a weak conclusion. In historical studies we should strive for high probability. O. would argue that he has contributed to sharpening the historian’s judgment because he applies his formal grids to the individual pericopes, in a consistent manner. His conclusions are reasonable once you swallow the initial pill, that Roman Palestine was heavily Greek-speaking by 28 A. D., even though his reading of Matthew is otherwise flat and uncritical.