Greek, Hellenic Judaism and the problem tongues of Corinth

A look at the problem tongues of Corinth being an internal linguistic struggle between Doric, Aeolic, and Attic Greeks.

This is part 2 of an 8 part series on the mystery tongues of Corinth. Part 1, The Role of Hebrew in the Jewish Aramaic World, covered how Hebrew became the language of religion and worship in Aramaic Judaism. The precedence about Hebrew established here transferred over to Jews living in a Greek world.

When you add that Hebrew was the language of instruction in the Corinthian assembly (Part 6) then we are getting close to finding a good answer to the question of Corinthian tongues.

However, Epiphanius didn’t stop at explaining the tongues of Corinth as being a problem of Hebrew instruction. He further added it was a linguistic conflict between Doric, Aeolic, and Attic Greeks.

This article is an investigation into the ancient Greek world to see if these language conflicts were a problem.

This necessitates a critical journey into the ancient Greek world, Jewish Hellenism, Paul, and references from the New Testament to find answers.


The Greek-Jewish faith is one of the biggest background stories to the New Testament writings and the fledgling Jewish Messianic movement—one that was later to entirely break off from its parent and be called Christianity.

If it was not for the dominant presence of the Greek language and culture in the Jesus narrative, the story of salvation would never have become an international phenomenon. The resurrection was timed perfectly for an explosive expansion for all mankind to hear.

Greek Judaism has a different story than the Aramaic one. One of the biggest differences is that the Aramaic Jews developed a wealth of literature for posterity, while the Greek Jews have left very little.

This lack of literature does not negate the influence of Greek culture and language on Jewish life. The impact of the Greek language and culture on first-century Judaism is so great that it cannot be calculated.

It is no coincidence that the New Testament was written in Greek rather than Hebrew or Aramaic.

In fact, no other language or culture, except perhaps English, have had so great a universal impact than Greek.

Hellenistic Judaism was an influential group in the first-century

Adolf von Harnack built a geographical portrait of Jewish populations in the Roman Empire. The results are found his excellent book, The Mission and Expansion of Christianity. Approximately 1 million Jews lived in Syria during the reign of Nero which comprised about 13% of the population. In Egypt, there were about a million Jews comprising about 7% of the population. 1.5 million Jews resided in Cyrene, Asia Minor, Greece, Italy, Rome, Gaul, Spain, etc. Surprisingly, Jerusalem and Palestine had a smaller footprint, 700,000. Harnack calculated about 7% of the Roman Empire was Jewish(1)Adolf von Harnack. The Mission And Expansion Of Christianity in the first three centuries. Vol. I. Translated and edited by James Moffatt. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1908. Pgs. 6ff

It is traditionally held that the Roman Empire around the first-century was approximately 50 million.(2); And His calculation does roughly fit within this formula.

How Harnack acquired these statistics is not known. He concluded this over a century ago. New statistics have not been found that either prove or disprove his results. I have to rest on his high reputation alone. These statistics are subject to change if improved and substantiated information comes forward.

These findings do not include the Jewish population in the then Parthian empire which included Babylon.

Harnack outlined a framework where Jews living in Greek-dominated lands were far larger than those that lived in the Roman-ruled Middle-East. As a researcher, this statistic was startling, especially in light of the lack of Jewish-Greek literature available for this period. One would think with such a great mass of Jewish-Greeks living at that time there would be a broad representation of Jewish-Greek literature. Outside of the publications representing the New Testament, Philo, and Josephus, this is not the case.(3)The Septuagint is not included because it was published much earlier But then, there are hardly any pieces of Jewish-Aramaic literature available in the first-century either. The production of Aramaic literature comes at a later time.

As noted above, the Jewish community that lived abroad, which is called the diaspora, was larger than the one that lived in Israel major. The population rival to the diaspora Greek-speaking Jews was the Aramaic ones who resided in Syria and in the Parthian empire. Those who principally spoke Aramaic or Hebrew were called Hebrews while those Jews whose lifestyle was heavily influenced by Greek culture and Greek converts were called Ἑλληνιστάς Hellenistas(4)There is more to this term and the contrast between Jews and Greeks. This is covered by Sang-Il Lee’s article, “The Bilingualism of the Hebrews and the Hellenists,” as found in Fire in My Soul: Essays on Pauline Soteriology in Honor of Seyoon Kim. S. B. Choi, J. K. Hwang and M. J. Lee editors. Oregon: Pickwick Publications. 2014. Pg. 243

The New Testament letters make a distinction between the two but it is not an adversative relationship. There was no Greek Jewish institution separate from the Temple or a distinctiveness from the foundations of the Hebrew faith. Nor was there any Jewish-Greek nationalist movement or hierarchical leadership structure. The small reference to the Hellenizers portray a group striving to maintain the Hebrew faith while living in a Greek world.

The narrative of Pentecost in the Book of Acts did not recognize Jewish Hellenists as an institution or separate movement either. The geographic outlay of the Pentecost outburst did not rest on the Greek language or the boundaries of the Roman Empire. Rather, it outlined all the Jewish communities that existed from the Parthian Empire (starting from the western boundaries of Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and Pakistan) to the westerly reaches of the Mediterranean basin. The focus was on native languages and not Greek. The narrative suggests that Greek was not the mother-tongue of these peoples referred to in the Greek diaspora, but rather connected together by Greek as the international common tongue. Even Parthia, one of the greatest rivals to Rome, had recognized Greek as one of their official tongues. Greek was the glue that held everyone together throughout the Jewish world. This is similar to the position the English language holds in the world today.

The narrative of Pentecost showed that Jews of all the nations flocked to Jerusalem, and especially looked upon the Temple as the source of authority. They recognized Jerusalem as the center of the Jewish faith.

As is documented throughout this series, the Hebrew language was a source of unity. The Hebrew culture and liturgy were not antithetical to the Jewish Greek identity.

The Septuagint

The Greek Septuagint was introduced to the Graeco-Roman world over three hundred years before the advent of Paul and his address to the Corinthian Church. The Septuagint was the standard in many Jewish circles, especially the diaspora. Paul himself made substantial usage of the Septuagint; when 93 Biblical quotes from Paul are examined 51 are in absolute or virtual agreement with the LXX, while only 4 agree with the Hebrew text.(5) The text of Talmud Babli Megillah supports the Greek version to have near or equivalent status to that of the Hebrew one.(6)Talmud Babli 9a. Philo believed that the Greek text was necessary for the Jewish faith to become a universal standard:

But this is not the case with our laws which Moses has given to us; for they lead after them and influence all nations, barbarians, and Greeks, the inhabitants of continents and islands, the eastern nations and the western, Europe and Asia; in short, the whole habitable world from one extremity to the other.(7)Philo. On the Life of Moses: II IV:20 . . .Some persons, thinking it a scandalous thing that these laws should only be known among one half portion of the human race, namely, among the barbarians, and that the Greek nation should be wholly and entirely ignorant of them, turned their attention to their translation.(8)Philo. On the Life of Moses: II V:27

The role of the Septuagint became so prominent according to Jennifer Dines in her book, The Septuagint, that it may have forced the Jewish community to explicitly state that the Hebrew text was inspired.(9)Jennifer Mary Dines. The Septuagint. New York: T&T Clark, 2004 Pg. 64

If one uses the epitaphs on Jewish tombs uncovered in Rome with dates beginning from 63 BC and ending at 300 AD, it shows how powerful the Greek language had become – even at the expense of Latin. Out of the 534 names, 76% had a Greek name, 23% a Latin, and only five contained Hebrew, Aramaic, or hybrid name.(10)

Even though Greek was dominant, it doesn’t mean other Jewish traditions were abandoned altogether. A relatively unknown group of Hellenized Jews later evolved a system called minhag-romania, whereby they performed “traditional Jewish prayers that were recited and chanted in Greek, but were written with Hebrew letters.”(11) This unusual rite was based upon the fact that they understood that the Rabbis dictated all readings must be from Assyrian Script. It is not known how large this movement was, or when it began. The website article contains little substantiation.

A Greek perspective on Hebrew and Jews

The Greeks believed their language and culture to be superior to anything else. For example the last non-Christian Roman Emperor, Julian, rejected what was then known to be the sect of the Galileans (Christianity) because it was not of Greek origin, nor wrought from the Greek language, and worse yet, it came from something obscure and unimportant as Hebrew.

Julian was an Emperor of the Roman empire for two short years (361–363 AD). During this period, Rome was in a divided and crumbling state. In order to restore Rome to its former glory, he felt it necessary to undermine the Christian religion and reinstate the ancient Roman customs. His anti-Christian polemical writings, although not available today in original form, were very popular and widespread.

This popularity went beyond his grave. Later Christian leaders such as Cyril of Alexandria (378–444 AD), were compelled to write a defense against his volleys. Because of Cyril’s treatise against Julian, we find excerpts of Julian’s original message, and are able to somewhat piece together Julian’s original thoughts.

Cyril of Alexandria charged that Greek should not be given so high a status and that it has only a utilitarian value. The Hebrew language has a higher standing because it is a sacred language that most, including himself, did not know and therefore must resort to Greek. Here is an excerpt of his actual response to Julian’s high assertion:

For you esteem very lightly the distinguished men with the one subsequent Hebrew language that went a different way from the Greek , and I reckon that your Italian which was made for everyone, that you arranged it a certain number? Furthermore has it not been truly said to us that if we wish to understand the straight and narrow, the Greek language is not about to be held as the author of religious devotion. . . And so we are taught that the greatest place of moral virtue is through the sacred writings of the divinely inspired Scriptures. Nevertheless, we use such things for the preparation of sound teachings with Greek thoughts since we are not familiar with the Hebrew language.(12)S. Cyrilli Alexandrini, Contra Julianum, Lib. VII [234]. MPG: Vol. 76. Pg. 858. Translation is mine.

Even the Latin world highly exalted the Greek language. One of the greatest Roman leaders and Orators, Cicero, so highly valued the writings of the Greek Philosopher Plato that the god Jupiter “were it his nature to use human speech, would thus discourse.”(13)Plutarch. The Parallel Lives. The Loeb Classical Library. Trans. by Bernadotte Perrin. 1919. Pg. 141

If one applies the superiority of Greek over Hebrew into the Corinthian saga, then it would be a conflict over the abandonment of Hebrew for only Greek. This could have been an argument raging in the Corinthian assembly, but I don’t think it was the major emphasis. Hellenistic Jews still had a great attachment to Jerusalem and its customs during this time. Jerusalem had yet to start the insurrection or suffer its crushing defeat. The loss of Hebrew would have been too much a religious shift for Paul or the original Jews of Corinth to make.

Corinthian Pride

The people of Corinth took great pride in their Greek language and culture. This is best reflected in an oration of a second-century speech by a philosopher by the name of Favorinus. Favorinus was a popular speaker and teacher in Athens and throughout the Roman empire. He was greatly celebrated and had statues erected in his honor. In the case of Corinth, his statue had disappeared and he wrote a speech urging its return. Whether he actually spoke this in person at Corinth, we do not know, but we do have his written speech. Favorinus was originally from the Gaul region (inside or around modern France) and was of the Roman upper-class who by great expense had adopted the Greek language and culture so as to be viewed as a Greek. He felt that Corinth ought to appreciate his acquired Greek identity among many other traits. His speech demonstrated that the Corinthian community had strongly favoured native Greek peoples and contained great suspicion to foreigners who adapted to their ways.(14)Dio Chrysostom. Discourses 37-60. Loeb Classical Library 376. Translated by H. Lamar Crosby. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Pg. 25

Even though there is more to come about linguistic infighting, it already comes as no surprise that Paul, an Antiochan Jew, who likely spoke Attic, along with Hebrew and Aramaic, encountered problems navigating through the Corinthian ethos.

Tension over which Greek language should be the official one of the Corinthian assembly

Now it is time to delve further about the conflict between Doric, Aeolic, and Attic Greeks.

Epiphanius’ explanation needs a detailed look into these three Greek dialects. The following results are a detour from the usual approach in the Gift of Tongues Project which stresses use of source texts. The familiarity of Greek literature before the first-century AD is outside the expertise of the author and therefore reliant on third-party analysis.

This picture was found at Wikipedia with the following citation:

Geographical distribution of the dialects of ancient Greek, in the classical era. Not shown: dialects of the western colonies of Magna Graecia. Map re-drawn after a source map in: Roger D. Woodard (2008), “Greek dialects”, in: The Ancient Languages of Europe, ed. Roger D. Woodard, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.51. (= partial re-published version of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Ancient Languages, 2004)

This map represents the language groups around 200 BC. There is no map that could be found for the first-century. According to Epiphanius, this was still a close representation for the first-century.

As was stated in the introduction, Corinth was not an old city, but a new one reestablished and colonized by Rome. It attracted a wide spectrum of peoples and languages.

Corinth was almost in the epicentre where these three language groups bordered.

There were two types of Attic – the native Attic spoken by Athenians, and those that spoke a derivative of Attic throughout the Macedonian Empire broadly labelled by moderns as Koine. Attic was designated the language of the Greek empire by Philip II, father of Alexander the Great.(15)Handbücher zur Sprach- und Kommunikations wissenschaft: Handbooks of Linguistics and Communication Science. Armin Burkhardt, Hugo Steger, Herbert Ernst Wiegand eds. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. 2000. Pg. 440 It evolved as an official language for over three-hundred years before the Christian era, separate from that of the Athenian experience, and became the primary, and if not, an important secondary language for the inhabitants of conquered lands. This internationalized Attic is commonly referred to today as Koine Greek. The international version became its own brand, surpassing that of its parent by a significant magnitude. Athens was slightly east of Corinth.

Epiphanius was likely referring to the Attic spoken by the Athenians, not the massively influential Koine child.

Koine became the literary standard throughout the Greek Empire, but it did not sideline the various Greek spoken dialects throughout Greece major and immediately east of it on the Asiatic coast in the first-century.

The people who lived in first-century Corinth spoke a Doric dialect. Which one was in use during the time of Paul or how much it was influenced by Attic is not entirely known. They shared the Doric family of languages with the Athenian rival city of Sparta in the south. The Doric family of dialects continued to flourish under the Attic radar until at least the third-century AD.(16)T. Bubenik “The Decline of Ancient Dialects” as found in A History of Ancient Greek: From the Beginnings to Late Antiquity. A. -F. Christidis ed. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press. 2007. Pg. 482ff

A very small number of people in Greece still speak a Doric dialect called Tsakonian. Here is an interesting video on the differences between Tsakonian and Attic.

Favorinus in his oration to the Corinthians demonstrated a high respect for the Doric language in order to secure his statue being returned.(17)Dio Chrysostom. Discourses 37-60. Loeb Classical Library 376. Translated by H. Lamar Crosby. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Pg. 25 This demonstrates that Paul was in an environment where sensitivities to the Greek language, especially Doric, were prevalent.

Aeolic slightly to the north was utilized by the city of Thebes and surrounding areas. An older historian from the 1800s, Ernst Curtis, believed the Aeolic tongue as not a dialect, but the mother of all the Greek languages.(18)Ernst Curtius. The History of Greece. Translated by Adolphus William Ward. London: Richard Bentley and Son. 1873. Pg. 27 It is unclear whether the Aeolic Greeks felt this same idea of primacy, but it was a Greek dialect nonetheless representing a major ethnic group in Greece major.

One major Greek language group was missing in Epiphanius’ account, Ionic. This dialect had merged with Attic by the first-century and lost its own independent use. Epiphanius could have simply been too general, ignorant of language histories, or simply biased against Ionic when he wrote this. We will assume this is not the case in order to finish answering Epiphanius’ assertion.

Paul was dealing with a multicultural problem regarding not only the acceptance of Hebrew as the principal language of instruction but was stepping into a political minefield regarding which Greek language would be the standard one for the liturgy.

What does this all mean?

The background evidence on the Greek life and culture supplied supports Epiphanius’ assertion that the Corinthian tongues conflict was between Doric, Aeolic and Attic Greeks. It makes reasonable sense that can be supported by history.

It also demonstrates the impact of the Greek language and culture was everywhere in Paul’s time and it cannot be omitted while reading his first letter to the Corinthians.

Charles Sullivan is a researcher and writer on topics of textual criticism, linguistics, theology, Christian mysticism and philosophy. He also frequently likes to delve into contemporary social and ethical issues from a faith perspective.

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