TRA Wordtalks

The Galilean Thinker
27/98 23.8.98 Scripture: Mark 1:9-20

THE spread of Chinese people around the world indicates that the 21st century could well belong to them. In the same way the 20th C. belonged to American culture and military power, as the British Empire dominated the world in the 19th C., and before that the imperial empires of the French, German, Spanish, Portugese, Roman and so on.

In the fourth-century before Christ, Alexander the Great conquered the known world. He left behind small communities of Greeks to spread Greek culture and language. This was called Hellenisation. A number of Jewish kings were greatly influenced by this Greek culture and language. Over the next four hundred years Jewish Palestine was heavily influenced by Greek culture and language.

At the time of Jesus a number of Jewish historians and poets wrote in Greek, including Josephus. Greek was used on inscriptions and in public announcements. We have papyri written in Greek including letters, marriage contracts, legal documents and literary texts.

In Acts 6:1 Jewish Christians of Jerusalem are spoken of as `Hebrews' and `Hellenists'. Who are these `Hellenists'? The Hellenists were those who habitually spoke only Greek. The Hebrews were those who usually spoke Aramaic. From 200BC, even Jewish worship was conducted in Greek in Egypt. The Greek term `synagogue' for a Jewish congregation shows the influence of Hellenisation. Subject nations accepted the culture of their conquerors including the idols of their conquerors.

Today, countries change the image on their postage stamps when a new ruler comes to power. In the ancient world, they changed the statues and altars in their temples. Under Greek rulers they were expected to find a place for the Greek gods. Most nations did so. But not the Jews of Palestine. Politics could not be reconciled with a faith that insisted there was one God, and no idol worship. So the study of Hellenisation in Galilee is of great interest to scholars today.

One Greek ruler of Palestine, Antiochus Epiphanes (175-164 BC) enforced Hellenisation. He outlawed distinctive Jewish customs, including circumcision, keeping the sabbath day, and reading the Old Testament. Even worse, Antiochus decreed the temple in Jerusalem should see the worship of the Greek god Zeus and by non-Jews. He underestimated the strength of Jewish religious feeling. They fought back in an armed resistance under the Maccabees. Their fighters defeated the troops of Antiochus and his policies were reversed. But the influence of Greek culture and language continued and was at its height in the day of Jesus.

Jesus, like most Galileans of His day, would have understood Greek. Jesus visited the Hellenistic cities of the Decapolis (Mk 5:20;7:31). One of these cities, Gadara, was home to the famous cynic philosopher Menippus. Consequently some modern theologians think Jesus was also a cynic philosopher or a Greek sage: what I have simply called a Galilean thinker. Jesus was an original thinker who was undoubtably influenced by local Hellenisation and He does teach on some similar themes. But was He a Greek cynic?

And did Jesus himself speak Greek? The answer is almost certainly YES. But did He teach in Greek? Are any of the sayings of Jesus preserved only in the Greek? Jesus normally used Aramaic in both conversation and teaching. But did he also speak Greek? The evidence is in the Gospels. All four Gospels show Jesus talking with Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea, at the time of his trial (Mk 15:2-5; Matt 27:11-14; Lk 23:3; Jn 18:33-38). In what language did Jesus and Pilate speak? It is unlikely Pilate, a Roman, would have spoken either Aramaic or Hebrew, so probably Jesus spoke Greek at His trial before Pilate.

The same might have happened when Jesus spoke with the Roman centurion (Matt 8:5-13; Lk 7:2-10; Jn 4:46-53) in the service of Herod Antipas. What language did Jesus speak to this first gentile convert? Probably Greek. (Mk 7:25-30) Jesus once journeyed to Tyre and Sidon and conversed with a Syro-Phoenician woman. Mark says she was a Greek. Jesus probably spoke to her in Greek. John says (12:20-22) some `Greeks' came to see Jesus and he conversed with them, most likely in Greek. Almost certainly Jesus spoke Greek.

But if Jesus also taught in Greek, then in the words of A. W. Argyle, `we may have direct access to the original utterances of our Lord and not only to a translation of them.' (Expos.Times 67 p93). The Gospels were composed in eastern Mediterranean areas outside of Palestine. That is why they are in Greek. A number of Jesus' disciples had Greek names such as Andrew, Philip, Simon. Matthew, a toll-collector, would have had to deal with people in Greek (Luke 5:27). You can see the influence of Greek language and culture on Palestinian Jewish life. Jesus was an original thinker who lived in a Hellenised country.

Jesus also spoke and read Hebrew. During His visit to the synagogue in Nazareth (Lk 4:16-19) he opened a scroll of Isaiah and read Isaiah 61:1-2 in Hebrew. Jesus was a trilingual Jew, capable of reading and speaking Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic.
Some of the scholars in `The Jesus Seminar' have concluded that Jesus was a poor, wandering wise man similar to Greek sages that travelled the Hellenised world. John Dominic Crossan, in his book `The Historical Jesus' seeks to reconstruct the historical Jesus. In one chapter he discusses the teaching of Greek cynics who travelled with only a cloak and staff teaching withdrawal from the world. Crossan indicates Jesus was this kind of peasant Galilean thinker. Of great significance was the habit of Jesus to sit at table and eat with people of different social and moral backgrounds. Social rules divided people at the eating table.

But Jesus went out of His way to eat with the poor and outcast (Lk 14:15-24), and He accepted women as equal to men. But Dom Crossan's analysis does not explain all there is of Jesus, especially His healings and miracles. He believes Jesus only healed people socially and psychologically, not physically. His more recent book sees his views modified, acknowledging Jesus may never have heard or seen a Greek cynic.

Another scholar arguing from the Hellenised world is Burton Mack. He moves the historical Jesus away from His Jewish roots, into the cosmopolitan, Hellenised Galilee. Jesus did adopt a voluntary poverty, possessed no property other than His cloak, had no home in which to sleep, and spoke in short, pithy sayings that stuck in people's minds.

The Hellenised world and a cosmopolitan Galilee help explain the phenomenal success of early Christianity. For the good news about Jesus was directly relevant to the Hellenised world. But the disciples preached Jesus, not as a Galilean thinker but as the Messiah, the Christ, who died upon the Cross for the sins of people, whom God raised from the dead. He opened a way into the presence of God for all who believed in Him. People responded to that Gospel.

The Christians met the needs of people. They answered their intellectual questions. They established Christian groups throughout the Empire demonstrating in a practical way, acceptance, purpose and meaning in life which satisfied people.

Jesus also sat at table with the most diverse group of people breaking all the social laws of His time. But Burton Mack realises a great difficulty in saying Jesus was a kind of Greek sage. That is, how did the early Church make such an incredible leap from thinking of Jesus as a Greek sage to acknowledging Him as Messiah and Lord? It was the fact they knew Him as more than a wandering Galilean thinker; they believed Him to be God's Son.

These scholars end up with a non-Jewish Jesus which is an essential conclusion of other scholars. Jesus definitely claimed to be the Messiah, discussed matters such as the Sabbath and the Law of Moses, marriage and divorce and the resurrection. Also, Jesus avoided the most Greek-like cities in Galilee like Sepphoris and Tiberias and visited the essentially Jewish Jerusalem. True, Jesus was a wandering Galilean thinker, but He was much more.

The teachings of Jesus made sense. He pointed to a new and a moral way of living. The discovery that the risen Lord came to people in their need and lifted them to a new standard of living turned the world upside down. People now could belong to a new society, with a new moral standard, where the old social restrictions and classes were lost in an open fellowship around a table and memorial meal.

Greeks and Romans and Jews wanted to know what the Christians had to say. Because the Old Testament had already been translated into Greek, the earliest Christian missionaries had no difficulty at all in explaining their message in specific terms. Paul had Greek, Roman and Jewish training and expertise. The whole thrust of Jesus' teaching gave a more convincing explanation of life. The Christian message was firmly based on events that had taken place in the real world of everyday experience - the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But it also affirmed that a good life could not be achieved by human ingenuity or reason. Our own efforts could never save us or make us right with God.

But the Gospel did offer the prospect of a new, close relationship with God Himself to those who were prepared to commit themselves to Jesus and allow his Spirit to remake their lives. In addition, Christians found themselves part of a new social grouping, the church, which offered acceptance and encouragement in their personal beliefs. It is easy to see why and how the early Christians were able to fill the spiritual vacuum of the Hellenistic world. Ever since, evangelical Christians have pressed for reforms in society and demanded moral standards higher than the rest of society wanted.

Evangelical Christians were successful in ending child cruelty, gladiatorial contests and slavery. They opposed child labour and the destruction of family life through drinking and gambling. They fought to end the execution of prisoners and to establish the labour movement. They founded universities and colleges, built hospitals and nursing services, and urged reforms in housing, prisons, public education, sanitation, and health, all in the spirit of Jesus. They also established Christian values of hard work, integrity, compassion, cleanliness, and self-respect which spread through all society, effecting a moral reformation that has changed the life of nations by changing the hearts of their people.

How inconceivable that we are now entering a stage in history where the press praises the public admission of immorality within the Church! Where a Church minister prides herself on deviation from Christian morals and defies the church to remove her from leadership! Today we confront the consequences of moral neutrality. We need a fresh emphasis upon Jesus as Lord and Christ, who was more than just a Galilean thinker, but who was God's Son who died upon a cross to free us from our sin, liberate us from guilt and bring us into a new, moral and Godly fellowship with each other and God.

Believe Him as Lord and Saviour! All other concepts of Jesus are too small. You cannot re-model Jesus to conform to your desires and social values. The Lord and Saviour is clearly seen in Scripture. Deny the Scriptures, and you depart from a true understanding of Jesus as both Lord and Saviour. Accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour and discover for yourself that Jesus is more than scholars think.

Gordon Moyes 1998

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