Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Did Peter Speak Hebrew to the Servant? A Linguistic Examination of the Expression "I Do Not Know What You Are Saying" (Matt 26:70, Mark 14:68, Luke 22:60)

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Did Peter Speak Hebrew to the Servant? A Linguistic Examination of the Expression "I Do Not Know What You Are Saying" (Matt 26:70, Mark 14:68, Luke 22:60)

Article excerpt

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In recent decades and notably since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a growing number of scholars have affirmed that, at the turn of the Christian era, a trilingual reality existed among Jews in the land of Israel.1 Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew were all spoken at the time and in the milieu that saw the emergence of the Christian movement. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that early traditions of this movement-which later found their way into the Synoptic Gospels and other New Testament writings-were formulated in all three of these languages. Yet determining the original language of a specific saying or passage incorporated into the Synoptic Gospels is notoriously difficult. The Hebrew, Aramaic, and Semitized Greek spoken at the time in Jewish circles often cannot be differentiated solely on the basis of the Greek text of the Gospels.2 In order to do so, we need specific relevant insights into these languages from other ancient sources.3 In this article, I offer one such example, in which the linguistic data at hand do enable us to determine in which language the tradition of the early Christian movement has, in all probability, remembered a certain phrase.

I.Peter's Denial

After having discreetly followed Jesus and his arresters to the house of the high priest, Peter waits outside in the courtyard during his master's trial before the Sanhedrin. While there, he is thrice accused of being one of Jesus's men and thrice he denies this firmly. According to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, in one of the three denials, he responds sharply, "I do not know what you are saying" (... [Matt 26:70]; oůx oíSa o Asystę [Luke 22:60]). In the Gospel of Mark, he replies, "I neither know nor understand what you are saying" (ours ... ours ... [Mark 14:68]).

In the context of the gospels, the pragmatic function of the phrase is clear: it is a denial. This is stated explicitly in the phrase introducing Peter's words in Matthew and Mark:4

... (Matt 26:70)

But he denied [it] before all [of them], saying, "I do not know ..." (NRSV)

... (Mark 14:68)

But he denied it, saying, "I do not know ..." (NRSV)

Furthermore, the fact that this statement uttered by Peter constitutes a denial is important in the narrative of the gospels, for this is one of the three times Peter denies Jesus as the latter has foretold.5

The exact meaning of these words, however, is rather obscure. What exactly does Peter mean? What precisely does he not know? Does he mean to say he does not know the man of whom the servant speaks, that is, Jesus? Or is it the question itself that he for some reason does not understand? Perhaps he is implying that he does not understand any of what the servant is saying, since her or his accent is strange to his ears? Or rather, is Peter in such a state of stress and confusion that he just mumbles the first thing that comes to his mind and therefore we should not try to find logic in his words?6 All of these interpretations have been suggested by exegetes.7

II.The Parallel Hebrew Expression

It is well known in New Testament scholarship that a Hebrew phrase parallel to the one attributed to Peter by the Synoptic Gospels is found in the Tannaitic literature: ... ("I do not know what you are saying") occurs five times in the Tannaitic corpus in two different contexts. First, in a legal passage about theft, of which there are parallel versions in the Mishnah and the Tosefta, the phrase is placed on the lips of a man accused of having stolen an ox that had been given into his charge or lent to him.8 The owner of the animal asks him, "Where is my ox?" to which the man responds, "I do not know what you are saying," thus denying the implicit accusation. The sentences in which the expression appears are the following:

m. Šebu. 8:3, 6. ...

"Where is my ox?" And he said to him, "I do not know what you are saying."

t. …

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