Could Jesus Write In Klingon?

by | May 27, 2014

Pope Francis has been traipsing around in the general vicinity of the birthplace of his religion, praying here and there and doing his best to promote peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. This won’t go anywhere (you heard it here first!) but seems like a relatively harmless way for Francis to Do Something about the problems in the region. It’s certainly better than launching a crusade and probably even better than demanding a return to Italian jurisdiction over what was once the Roman province of Judaea, although perhaps a few weeks of having to put up with Grillo, Berlusconi, Mussolini and the rest of them would bring Israelis and Palestinians together like never before.

In the course of his adventures, Francis got into a slightly pedantic discussion with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:

The conversation turned awkward after Netanyahu told the Pope that Jesus spoke Hebrew.


“He was speaking Aramaic,” the Pope replied with a smile.


“He spoke Aramaic and he also knew Hebrew,” Netanyahu said.

Someone called Tom de Castella dutifully analysed the disagreement for the BBC, based on the expert opinions of a couple of Oxford men, and suggested that Jesus probably spoke Aramaic on day-to-day basis whereas “Hebrew was the language of the scholars and the scriptures”. Jesus probably didn’t know Latin, but might have been able to handle a bit of Greek. De Castella also addressed the question of literacy:

There’s no clear evidence that Jesus could write in any language, says Brock. In John’s gospel he writes in the dust, but that is only one account. And we don’t know what language it was in. Jesus might even have been drawing rather than writing, Brock says.

Look, there’s no clear evidence that Jesus even existed. Accounts of his life are similar to Arthurian legends or Beowulf in being, at best, tall tales about a living, breathing man who has been transformed almost beyond recognition by the human imagination. A first century story about Jesus scribbling in the dust has only a tiny pinch of evidential value. Asking whether Jesus could write in Aramaic isn’t quite like asking whether Captain Picard could write in Klingon, but it’s rather like asking whether Sir Gawain knew his Ogham. We’re so far removed from anything that can be addressed with reliable evidence that we might as well be talking about Captain Picard, and I wish news stories about Jesus would routinely acknowledge this tenuousness.

I have to admit, though, that I learned something worthwhile from De Castella’s piece:

It’s unlikely Jesus would have known Latin beyond a few words, says Jonathan Katz, stipendiary lecturer in Classics at Oxford University. It was the language of law and the Roman military and Jesus was unlikely to be familiar with the vocabulary of these worlds. Greek is a little more likely. It was the lingua franca of the Roman Empire – used by the civilian administrators. And there were the cities of the Decapolis, mostly in Jordan, where Greek language and culture dominated.

That’s genuinely interesting. I would have guessed that the lingua franca of the Roman Empire was Latin.

7 thoughts on “Could Jesus Write In Klingon?

  1. Diana MacPherson

    I don’t know about that lingua franca stuff. Greek was a language taught to upper class children and Roman citizens would know their Greek well enough – it’s why some say that Caesar uttered a Greek phrase to Brutus on dying: καὶ σὺ τέκνον (you too, child).

    The Roman military spoke Latin. When you lived in a Roman colony (ie: a territory conquered by the Romans) it was to your advantage to learn Latin so that you could do business with the Romans. No one bothered learning Greek to do business with the Romans. I suspect the professor was misquoted.

    1. Corwin Post author

      It sounds like you know a lot more about this than I do, but surely not everyone in a Roman colony necessarily had much contact with the military or even with actual Romans. Alexander the Great spread Greek throughout much of what became the eastern Roman Empire, and perhaps local administrators just kept using it into Roman times. That would still fall short of “lingua franca of the Roman Empire”, but it would explain why Katz thought Jesus would be more likely to know Greek than Latin.

      1. Diana MacPherson

        Depends what colony you’re talking about. If you’re in Roman Britain, speaking Latin was a definite advantage. Romans brought the military first, but then government officials and doing business with the Romans was inevitable. Those Roman citizens were going to need your services. The Romans never forced a conquered group to learn Latin, but the groups tended to for advantages.

        Alexander spread Greek culture before Rome was an empire but his generals (Ptolemy being one) who divided up his empire, probably had a more lasting Hellenising affect. Sicily, a Greek colony for ages, probably had people speaking various languages: Greek, Latin, various Italic languages.

  2. Tim Underwood

    My guess would be that the character, Jesus, was created for the Greek-speaking Eastern Imperial Church members. What language this story was published in, would seem to be the language that the lead character was speaking.

    Then there is this other idea that the story is actually some kind of documentary. Who the publishers of this documentary were, was never disclosed.

  3. Tim Underwood

    I was just told about ‘Enter Jesus stage left’
    This is a day old video on Ken Humphreys’ YouTube channel.
    The Gospel story is presented as a Greek tragedy: the same way it would have been presented to early Christians.

    Greek would be the language the play was composed in. The Gospels wouldn’t be available in print-form to the multitudes in any case. As a performance, the entire Gospel Story would be presented, very easily, as a play.

    It wouldn’t matter what language the play was presented in, so long as the actors knew their lines.

    1. Corwin Post author

      I assume you mean this video.

      It’s very nicely put together, and I think it does a good job of bringing out the dramatic elements in the Gospel of Mark. However, I don’t see why the Gospel has to be understood as a play, let alone specifically as a Greek tragedy. As a somewhat marginal and downtrodden figure who never gets to be king of anything in a literal sense, Jesus is a long way from a classical tragic hero, and many of the narrative devices that Humphreys interprets in theatrical terms would work just as well if the story were being read or recited rather than performed.

      Also, it strikes me that Greek tragedy might have been a touch highbrow for the population of first century Judaea.

      1. Tim Underwood

        Good point. Of course I don’t know the answer. A play would move more swiftly than a reading; with the extra required narrations. It certainly would be a very quick and economical way to present the Good News.
        The Gospel writers had their own agendas. Their backgrounds in Greek and Roman, tragedies and comedies, would influence their work.
        It is also easy to imagine this material being staged as a play during the story’s inception. Various innovations would be alternate scripts which subsequently became other Gospels.
        I’m surprised you were able to link the video so neatly. Very interesting.
        The writing aids, of whatever kind, don’t address the contents, or even intentions, of these works.


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