Was Luke of the New Testament not Jewish just because he was good at Greek?

Was Luke, the author of a Gospel and the book of Acts, a Gentile or a Jew? There are some who maintain that he was Jewish. Far-fetched? Not outlandish at all. One of those who argued that Luke was Jewish was Adolph Saphir, a Hebrew Christian. I shall argue 1. if one is good at a language, it doesn’t follow that the person is a mother tongue speaker, and that 2.  if one is not competent at a second language this does not necessarily mean that one is uneducated. I use the  theory of language learning to buttress my argument.

Here is John Cummings on the four Gospels (Sabbath evening readings on the New Testament: St John (1856):

“The Gospel of St. Matthew was written for the Hebrew, or the Jew; and every idiom and allusion in it proves this. The Gospel according to St. Mark was written for the Roman; and the repeated Latinized expressions indicate that it was so. The Gospel according to St. Luke was written for the accomplished Greek, or chief Gentiles; its commencement is in the purest style of classic Greek, and the whole indicates a tone, a cultivation, and a polish that show for whom it was meant, and that it was written by a cultivated and accomplished scholar. The Gospel of St. John was written for all believers as such in all ages of the world; it has nothing of the peculiar in it, but every thing of the universal; applicable to every scripture readings…The language of John is intensely Hebraistic, or Greek tinctured strongly by Hebraistic idioms, just as a Scotchman’s English is mixed up with what are called Scotticisms.

And Luke:  “You at once discover, by reading Luke`s gospel, that he had Gentile blood in his veins, and was an accomplished Greek scholar; and you discover in a moment, by reading St. John`s, that he was an uneducated man ; the Holy Spirit giving inspiration from heaven to the simple, naked, and often unidiomatical words that he, the uneducated, yet inspired evangelist, employed upon earth. 

With regard to Luke, here is a similar view:

Saphir thought all the Bible authors, including Luke, were Jews; this was simply a given assumption without any reasons given for that conclusion.  I’ve come across a few reasons from people today holding to that idea, but mainly they argue from silence, such as what happened in Acts 21:29: if Luke were a Gentile, then why did they (the mob) only mention Trophimus with Paul, and not Luke?  I now concur with S. Lewis Johnson’s view, that Luke was a Gentile, primarily because of SLJ’s (S. Lewis Johnson) observation that Luke’s Greek was a very different style from the Greek used in the rest of the NT, that Luke’s Greek (except for the first two chapters) is the formal style used by the Gentile writers“ (“Scripture thoughts” – The Divine Unity of Scripture: Adolph Saphir).

I share Lewis Johnson’s  theology, but I don’t agree with his argument that because Luke’s Greek was far more polished than the Greek of the other (Jewish) authors of the rest of the New Testament, he couldn’t have been Jewish. (Some Hebrew Christians [“Messianic Jews”] believe that other parts of the New Testament, for example, Matthew’s Gospel was originally written in Hebrew/Aramaic]). Lewis Johnson’s  argument is not a good one. I explain:

If you were to attend a European Society of the Study of English (ESSE) conference, as I did in Debrecen, Hungary, September 1997, you would find many non-mother tongue speakers of English who have far greater English competence in both social communcative English and academic English than many mother tongue English speakers, including professors. Anecdotes, of course, don’t carry much weight except at a dinner party, therefore, so far, Luke might not be able to shuck off the Gentile label. So, I shall appeal to experts in language teaching to argue not that SLJ is wrong and Sapir is right, but that SLJ might be wrong and Sapir might very well be right.

The bibliographical details of the authors mentioned in brackets as well as my arguments can be found in The Second Language (L2) speaker is dead – Long live the L2 speaker:

The “whole mystique of a native speaker” (Kachru 1982:vii) who uses his/her mother tongue implies five things, which have been hotly contested (Rampton 1990):

1. A particular language is inherited through birth into a particular social group.

2. If you inherit a language, you can speak it well.

3. One is or isn’t a native/mother-tongue speaker.

4. a native speaker has a comprehensive grasp of the inherited language.

5. Being a citizen of a country is analogous to being a native speaker of one mother tongue.

(Christopherson (1973) was among the first researchers to question these notions mentioned by Rampton).

Rampton (1990) suggests that the following terms replace “native”, “mother tongue”, “first language” and “second language” (See also Leung, Harris and Rampton 1997):

1. Language expertise, i.e. the level of proficiency. An important issue in assessing expertise would be the models of language ability that one would use to decide what is an acceptable or minimum level of expertise. But this is not a new issue, even if the terminology is new.

2. Language affiliation, which is concerned with the affective relationship of a learner towards a language. 3. Language inheritance. Membership of an ethnic group does not automatically mean that the language of the ethnic group has been automatically inherited. In South Africa, one can change one’s “mother tongue” by entering another ethnic group or have a hybrid mother tongue, or “replacement” language. A replacement language is a language that becomes more dominant than the mother tongue, usually at an early age, but is seldom fully mastered, as in the case of, for example, some Coloured and Indian children in South Africa who are brought up on a hybrid of English and Afrikaans (in the case of Coloureds) or a hybrid of English and Indian languages or Afrikaans, and some Bantu speakers in South Africa who are brought up on a cocktail of two or more Bantu languages such as Tswana, Sepedi and Xhosa and English.

3. Language inheritance. Membership of an ethnic group does not automatically mean that the language of the ethnic group has been automatically inherited. In South Africa, one can change one’s “mother tongue” by entering another ethnic group or have a hybrid mother tongue, or “replacement” language. A replacement language is a language that becomes more dominant than the mother tongue, usually at an early age, but is seldom fully mastered, as in the case of, for example, some Coloured and Indian children in South Africa who are brought up on a hybrid of English and Afrikaans (in the case of Coloureds) or a hybrid of English and Indian languages or Afrikaans, and some Bantu speakers in South Africa who are brought up on a cocktail of two or more Bantu languages such as Tswana, Sepedi and Xhosa and English.

Davies (1995:145) maintains:

“In terms of ultimate attainment the post-pubertal second language learner may, exceptionally. attain native speaker levels of proficiency and therefore be indistinguishable from the native speaker.” Paikeday (1985) goes further by suggesting that the exception proves that there is no rule, i.e. that there is no native speaker. Undoubtedly there are exceptional cases that disprove the rule. But this is true of many categorisations. Medgyes (1992) suggests that the exceptions prove the rule, and that, therefore, native speakers of a language are – taking into account some exceptions, or as Quirk in Paikeday (1985:7) puts it the “fuzzy edges” – recognised as such. Paikeday (1985:11) plugs the argument that the exceptions do disprove the rule and consequently one can only legitimately speak of degrees of competence of language use, as one would about any other skill, e.g. rowing boats or mowing lawns.

Mother-tongue speakers (the language one uses in one’s early childhood) and first-language speakers (the language one knows best) are usually identifiable. There are exceptions where one can have (1) more than one first language (2) low competence in one’s mother tongue and (3) no first language, i.e. no language that one knows well, e.g. a “replacement” language, referred to earlier.

Back to Luke. The distinction between mother-tongue speaker and non-mother tongue speaker, first-language speaker and second-language speaker is fuzzy. “Second language” teaching experience and research has established that Luke, a master in Greek style, might very well have not been a mother-tongue speaker of Greek. If not a mother-tongue speaker of Greek, then it is very possible that he was Jewish, for what else could he have been, a Tishbite?

In one of SLJ’s talks he says that just because Paul can rattle off a few Greek philosopher’s names is no evidence that he knew his Greek philosophical oats. True, but it is also true that he may have known much more about Greek literature and philosophy than he was letting on.

Which reminds me of how I fooled my French Professor into allowing me to do French II without having done French I. I was a student at Cape Town University abd had completed French Elementary. The following year I spent a year in France and learnt French quite well. When I returned I wanted to register at the University for French II, having done only French Elementary the year before I went to France. The French Professor said that although my French was good enough for French II, I also had to show him that I had a background in French literature. Shucks, what did I, a Jew, freshly Catholic, with a penchant for French know about French literature. At the time, I didn’t even know any Fringe literature. Suddenly, some of the French posters advertising French plays (I do remember seeing Moliere’s “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme: in Paris) paraded before my eyes. I mentioned a few – can’t remember now, which – naturellement. I got into French II. Hey, I went on to do B.A. Honours in French and become a French teacher.

I wonder if Paul could have been in a similar boat.

(Paul is visiting the University of Athens and hopes to do night courses in Greek)

Paul: I want to do Greek II.

Prof: But you haven’t done Greek I.

Prof: But my Greek is good enough for Greek II.

Prof: That may be so, but what do you know about Greek literature and philosophy?

Paul: I can tell you about Epimenides.

Prof: Go on.

Paul: He was from Crete.

Prof: Go on.

Paul: He was the one who said “In him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)

Prof: Very good. Any more?

Paul: Any more what?

Prof: What else did Epimenides say?

Paul: Can’t remember, but I know what Aratus, the Stoic, said. He said: “We are his offspring.” (Also Acts 17:28). Now can I do Greek II.

Prof: Don’t phone (oops) contact me; I’ll contact you.

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6 thoughts on “Was Luke of the New Testament not Jewish just because he was good at Greek?

  1. I am not good at languages, but i can read Scriptures.

    “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God.” (Romans 3:1-2). Case closed….God only trusts Jews to write His words…..

  2. The argument is flawed because it assumes that the mother tongue of a Jew growing up in Asia Minor would have not been Greek; remember that the Jews from wherever at the day of Pentecost comment that they are hearing the gospel ‘in our own languages – i.e. not Aramaic or Hebrew. Given that it would for a second or third generation family there, much of the focus on guessing Luke’s religious background merely from linguistic clues is therefore flawed.

    • To summarise My argument: if you speak/write a language very well, this does not necessarily mean that you are a mother tongue speaker of that language. Language and ethnicity/nationality don’t necessarily go together. So Luke could very well have been a Jew with Hebrew as his mother tongue who excelled at Greek.

      You have observed, correctly, that Greek was the mother tongue of many Jews of Luke’s time, as is the case of modern Jews with Greek nationality or roots. (most modern Jews do not have Hebrew as a mother tongue). This fact does not weaken my argument – as summarised in the first paragraph of my comment – because it is irrelevant to it. Having said that, the fact that many Jews had Greek as their mother tongue is another argument that Luke could very well have been Jewish.

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