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Saul spoke Greek, Aramaic, Hebrew, and Latin (there are many references). Jesus spoke Aramaic, Greek, and Hebrew (again there are many references). In Acts 26:14, Paul (who at this time was using his second name Paul, being a Roman, rather than his first name Saul), testified to Agrippa, possibly in Greek, that when Jesus confronted him on the road to Damascus, Jesus spoke to him in Aramaic and said, "It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks" (KJV), or "it is hard for thee to kick against the goad" (in other versions), which is a Greek proverb.

Is there any significance or relevance here of Jesus speaking in Aramaic and using a Greek proverb to Saul (who became Paul later on), who spoke four languages?

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    Just out of curiosity, what references do you have that Jesus spoke anything but Aramaic? May 18 '15 at 14:40
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  • @TheFreemason - I think the "four languages" reference is to Paul. That Jesus spoke at least Aramaic and Greek, though, is highly likely, given that the lingua franca for communicating to anyone other than Jews would have been Greek.
    – warren
    May 20 '15 at 21:12
  • 1
    Christianity was built on Greek: Why was the New Testament Written in Greek? Not just the language, but the culture and thought too.
    – fгedsbend
    May 26 '15 at 20:19
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Acts 25:14, "it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks," is a direct quotation from a play by Euripides (d. 406 BCE), the Bacchae, with Jesus speaking instead of the Greek god Dionysus. Euripides had used the plural ('pricks') for reason of meter, and Acts uses the same plural, although it would normally be a singular. In his own epistles, Paul never mentions a conversion on the road to Damascus; in fact he said that after "it pleased God to reveal his son in me," he conferred with no one but went immediately to Arabia (Galatians 1:16-17). So, this was a literary elaboration by the author of Acts, ostentatiously saying that Jesus spoke in Aramaic probably to draw some attention away from the popular Greek saying.

Uta Ranke-Heinemann says, in Putting Away Childish Things, page 163, the really strange thing is that with both Jesus and Euripides we have the same “familiar quotation” and the same situation. In both cases there is a conversation between a persecuted god and his persecutor. In the Bacchae the persecuted god is Dionysus and his persecutor is Pentheus, king of Thebes. Just like Jesus, Dionysus calls his persecutor to account, “You disregard my words of warning . . . and kick against the pricks a man defying god.” She says Jesus even uses the same plural form of the noun kentra ('pricks') that Euripides needs for the meter of his line.

To eliminate any doubt that this is just a coincidence, we can also look at Acts' story of Paul's release from prison (Acts 16:26). This also has reasonably close parallels to words in the same ancient play, the Bacchae, and there is no written or archaeological record of an earthquake powerful enough to have somehow released Paul and Silas from their chains.

Peter Kirby notes the parallels between the Bacchae and Acts, but says that the author of Acts need not necessarily have had the Bacchae in mind, since other ancient Greek works use similar phraseology and would also serve as sources for these two scenes in Acts. The Bacchae stands out as a single source that provides the potential source material for both the conversion (with the plural form of kentra) and the prison escape in Acts.

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    I think references for these points would be helpful. May 19 '15 at 14:25
  • @DJClayworth - Reference added, as requested. May 19 '15 at 23:35
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    This is a fascinating answer! However, it needs references for the passages in the Euripides play also in order to verify its claims for those who might be skeptical. Quotations of the relevant passages would be even better. May 27 '15 at 16:18
  • @LeeWoofenden Thank you for your suggestion. I have added a link to a translation of the Bacchae (although translations do differ, and I could not find one with verse/line numbers to point to) and an online citation from Peter Kirby. Although Peter's articles does not come from a published book, he is a serious scholar. May 27 '15 at 21:57
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    You bring up challenging ideas that shouldn't be ignored. I do think it's important to bring to light the latter part of Galations 1:17: "...and returned again unto Damascus." I don't think it unreasonable to understand this to mean that Paul was in Damascus (a place he was later to return) on or around the time of his conversion prior to leaving for Arabia. Perhaps Paul left out the details of such because they were already common knowledge. As for the phrase in Acts 26:14 itself, I believe it was a common adage used by those living in the area at the time. Jul 11 '18 at 13:15
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That Saul had some familiarity with Greek literature is shown by a number of passages, for example:

For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. (Acts 17:28)

(this sermon, given in Athens, would have been delivered in Greek)

So there's no issue with the idea that Jesus would use Greek literature to make a point to Saul--but why quote it in another language?

Sayings can survive translation

We quote Greek literature in English all the time--even though it was originally written in Greek. There are sayings in English that were not original English compositions, but are translations. For example, "The die is cast" and "I came, I saw, I conquered" are both well-known expressions in English, even though they were both originally given in Latin.

This is not to say exact translation of idioms is helpful or common, but merely to show that an articulate idea can retain popularity in another language (this can happen with songs too, e.g. Silent Night, a German hymn, sung by people in many languages)

Whatever the exact Aramaic or Hebrew words used in Jesus' statement to Paul, the well-known Greek words of Euripides were an effective translation (Dick Harfield's post has helpfully shown the correspondence to the words of Euripides).

How to lose a job as a translator in 5 minutes

As a translator, I have learned that when translating a statement well-known in the target language, you do not free-translate the sentence. A good translator will refer to an already accepted translation. For example, if I translated "veni, vidi, vici" as "I arrived, I saw, I conquered", I would lose the confidence of my audience, because everybody knows it's supposed to be rendered "I came, I saw, I conquered."

This is why the Greek New Testament (usually) quotes the Septuagint rather than free-translating the Hebrew Tanakh. It would be natural and expected that, if Jesus told Saul something in Aramaic or Hebrew that was equivalent to a common Greek phrase, when the experience was related in Greek (whether by Saul himself or by Luke in writing Acts), the accepted Greek rendering would be used.

To return to the Silent Night example, if you compare it in German & English & Spanish, you'll find that they are not exact translations of the original German idiom, but they do convey roughly the same idea. Jesus used an idea that was known to Saul, and it was recorded in Greek in Acts using the well-known idiom.

Using the language of Saul's faith

Couldn't Jesus in heaven have just spoken to Saul in Greek? Sure. But why would he?

Greek was not the language of Saul's spiritual heritage--and this was a profoundly transformational spiritual experience for Saul. I think it more likely than not that Jesus spoke to Saul in the language of the Jewish faith: Hebrew.

In the appendix I have supplied several lines of evidence showing that Acts 26:14 refers to Hebrew, not Aramaic.

Conclusion

Jesus spoke to Saul using an idea Saul was familiar with, and He spoke to Saul in the language of Saul's faith. When the idea was translated into Greek, the idiom found in the words of Euripides was the best way express what had been said.


Appendix--the trilingual world of Jesus

Although it has been commonplace in recent generations to suggest that Jesus, Peter, and others of their socio-economic status spoke only Aramaic, the evidence supporting the claim is remarkably fragile. Why have many scholars concluded that (Mishnaic) Hebrew was not spoken in 1st century Galilee? It's a claim oft-repeated but seldom argued from the evidence. Baltes offers a trenchant criticism here of the assumptions that led to this conclusion.

There is a modern myth that only extremely well-educated people speak more than one language (this myth is particularly popular among Americans--I can say that because I'm an American!). This is a sampling error. Past & present, most human beings--educated or not--have spoken more than one language. Greek did not become the lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean until Alexander. English did not become the lingua franca of global business until the economic heyday of the British Empire.

The New Testament speaks several times of people speaking "Ἑβραΐδι". Interpreting Ἑβραΐδι as "Aramaic" worked in a scholarly world that assumed Hebrew was not spoken. The evidence of a living Hebrew language at the time of Jesus has invalidated the Aramaic interpretation.

In a region in which Aramaic, Greek, and Hebrew were spoken, "Ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ" would be a plausible way to say "Hebrew", but would not be an effective way to disambiguate Aramaic. Buth & Pierce have recently argued cogently that ἑβραϊστί and related words were never used to refer to Aramaic. (see R. Buth and C. Pierce "Hebraisti in Ancient Texts: Does ἑβραϊστί Ever Mean 'Aramaic'?")

For a high-level discussion of the uses of Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek in Jesus' milieu, see my thoughts on the Biblical Hermeneutics site here. For a much deeper dive, see this video on my channel: What languages did Jesus speak?

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I don't see relevance here in that Jesus likely spoke Greek (as well as Aramaic and Hebrew), given by the Greek names of his disciples, the Greek manuscripts of the gospels, and the mixed Greek-Aramaic state of Israel at the time. If anything, speaking languages that Paul knew in order to communicate with Paul would likely just be the logical thing to do, and Jesus was mostly likely more experienced with Aramaic due to it being the first language of most people in that area.

http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/markdroberts/2010/07/did-jesus-speak-greek.html http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/Greeks.html

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  • "the Greek manuscripts of the gospels" - there are no extant originals, so I don't see how the extant Greek manuscripts have any relevance to what language the originals would have been composed in. "the Greek names of his disciples" - and they also have Aramaic names - does that mean they have one Greek parent and one Aramaic parent?
    – user900
    May 20 '15 at 0:46
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    They were in a bilingual area. Aramaic being regional and Greek being the common language of Roman-ruled areas. Moreover, the oldest manuscripts of the New Testament are all in Greek, as are mentions of the earliest writings. Greek names, Greek writing, Greek speech, Greek-speaking followers, Greek followup writing. biblica.com/en-us/bible/bible-faqs/… May 20 '15 at 15:27
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The Parallels are extensive.

-the philosophical point of the play is the question do the laws of the polis come from man's government or from the god's? King Pentheus or Olympus. So too Jesus confronts Paul using the law to persecute Christians with the author of the law itself.

-Is the ecstasy of the worshipers Divine? Are they filled with their God? or is it insanity that needs to be controlled by man's law? This is the question every Roman governor faced as did Pentheus.

-The representative of Man's law, King Pentheus, is seeking to control this outburst of divine glory since it is his job to enforce the law and by implication it is his law to enforce. As was Paul, as later was Felix.

-Paul when first confronted by Jesus is representing the law of Moses to prevent and root out blasphemy, as was Pentheus and no doubt making use of whatever aspects of Roman law he could to demonstrate the blasphemy against Caesar as well as YHWH since Rome had final Imperium.

-Jesus is not afraid of the obvious parallel between his divinity and humanity and the Demigod's. This story is designed to create in Greco Roman world, a culture that would understand what is at stake when God claims to be the source of law vs man claiming to be that source. It is since then an ever recurring theme in all subsequent cultures and a central theme in the Christianity vs Culture debate.

-Jesus is raising the same issue with Saul. Saul is righteously defending the people against incursions against the law using the law to suppress the divine ecstasy of Christians claiming to be filled with the Holy Spirit. As was Pentheus. As was Felix -Saul Repents Pentheus does not. -The story concludes with Pentheus being enticed by Bacchus to go out to spy on the naked ladies on the hillside. He is captured and brought to his mother who rips his head off saying, "What a lovely youth. Why does he look so familiar?" (the Brutality of Maenads is well attested in sober historical accounts.)

-Paul's story is last told in Acts to Felix Agrippa the Roman Governor who represents the king and the law of the land. He is warning Agrippa in the same terms he was warned years earlier and Pentheus was warned in the play that those who believe that God is not sovereign over the law and his people are to be persecuted await a certain fate. Agrippa knew the end of the story. He jumps up and says, "Your learning has driven you mad!" Paul was, with his story of his conversion through the lens of Euripides, threatening the Roman governor in front of the entire court with divine judgment.

How this is missed by scholars is entirely beyond me. The parallels and the response of the governor indicate he knew perfectly well what Jesus was saying to Paul and to Him. Repent or Perish. Its a simple message.

Jesus as usual brings together all of history to make his points through the ages to everyone he speaks to.

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  • Your last comment about Agrippa is spot on. Another possible allusion to Bacchus worship is how the events of Pentecost are described. The early disciples may have even been accused of Bacchus worship with the statement, "they are filled with new wine." I once read that in 1st century Rome the two most popular religions were Mythras & Bacchus worship. Finding fictional parallels does not make an account fictional. Take for example Elon Musk’s rockets that look and act almost exactly the same as how speculative (science) fiction once portrayed them on the covers of their magazines.
    – Jess
    Aug 19 at 0:08
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The phrase appears in the KJV and NKJV, it doesn't appear in any other major translation.

First, the phrase is only found in two Greek texts and some Latin and Syriac texts.

The term translated by 'pricks' comes from the Old English prikke, as in to prick and translates the Greek word kentron. This word has the meaning of a 'sharp, pointed projection used in stinging.' One can see why the word was chosen. (Presumably then, it doesn't have the association as it goes now).

Whereas the word 'kick' comes from the Old Norse, kickna, which means to bend backwards, or to sink at the knees. This word was chosen to translate the Greek lakitzo and whose basic meaning is to hurt by resistance.

In Ancient Greek and Roman times the phrase was well-known as simply saying that one was opposing a deity.

When put all together, Christ is simply telling Paul that he was only hurting himself in opposing the divine will by attempting to eliminate the Christians.

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As others have pointed out, in Paul’s desert experience, he heard a voice in Hebrew: ”it is hard for you to kick against the pricks.” The phrase is a direct quotation from a play by Euripides (d. 406 BCE), the Bacchae, with Jesus speaking instead of the Greek god Bacchus. That the conversation took place in Hebrew demonstrates that it was less about Greek legends and more about Jesus.

According to the Biblical scholar Fredrick Danker, being in the textile business Paul most likely was involved in being a maker of stage properties. Since Bacchus was a major focus of stage activities it stands to reason that Paul was very familiar with most of the aspects of the Bacchus religion.

So, in the initial encounter by Paul, the Jewish Hebrew speaking Jesus shows up, out Bacchusing Bacchus so to speak. He appeared as a Zeus-like non-ethereal being of light that quoted Bacchus lines from a pagan play and (for some reason) was heard but not understood by others.

For those who believe it actually happened, as I do, it is suggested that God deliberately mimicked the events described in "The Bacchae" as a type of praeparatio evangelica. For example C.S. Lewis describes his conversion and his subsequent belief that Christianity fulfills the longing and expectations of what was expressed in mythology:

The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences...

… By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle…God is more than a god, not less: Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about “parallels” and “Pagan Christs”: they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t.

In the view of C.S. Lewis and many other Christian apologists, Acts provides a reliable and historically accurate report of Paul’s conversion. C.S. Lewis was an expert in ancient Greek and Latin literature. It is fair to say that he bathed in Greek and Latin works like a dolphin bathes in the sea. He noticed that there were parallels with Greek and Roman mythological narratives. However, as an expert in literary genre, Lewis saw the New Testament as not being fictional in composition.

Lewis once criticized Bible scholars who regarded the Gospel of John as a poetic, spiritual “romance” rather than as historical narrative. He argued, “I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life,” he wrote. “I know what they are like.” Lewis adds that if somebody “tells me that something in a Gospel is legend or romance.” He wrote, “I want to know how many legends and romances he has read, how well his palate is trained in detecting them by the flavor; not how many years he has spent on that Gospel.”

The argument, of C.S. Lewis and other Christian apologists, is that Luke wrote the way he did precisely because he was aware of what Euripides wrote and wanted to offer something compelling to the followers of Bacchus. So Luke crafted his historical narrative with that in mind, for the purpose of conveying spiritual and rhetorical points.

In other words, Jesus fulfilled these archetypal symbols of mythology at certain places & times in history so that faith in the goodness of God could be nourished through the testimony of miracles taking place.

For more of how Bacchus worship might have influenced the contextualization of Christianity by the New Testament writers see "The First Dionysian Gospel: Imitational and Redactional Layers in Luke and John" by Mark G. Bilby. See also Bruce Louden’s "Greek Myth and the Bible."

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    – agarza
    Aug 19 at 2:50
  • Good reasonable theory with references to scholars. Doesn't deserve a -1. Aug 19 at 7:35
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It is extremely unlikley that Jesus, talking to Saul from heaven in the Hebrew language [Act 26:14], would have actually said the Greek words that translate to "It is hard for you to kick against the goads".

Luke does not record these words in the Acts 9 (although they are added here in the Textus Receptus [KJV]) or in the Acts 22 account. In these two accounts it is more likely that Luke is recording the testimony of someone else, other than Paul, telling him about these events. Although we know that is is very likely that Luke was there to hear the testimony of Paul in Acts 26. Perhaps he even had access to the written court records.

I believe the best explanation is that what Jesus did say to Saul on that day was a Hebrew idiomatic expression, not the Greek one that Luke records in the Acts 26 account of Paul's testimony.

So what did Jesus actually say? That is, if He said any idiomatic expression at all; perhaps this is an embellishment that Paul made in his testimony or that Luke added for clarification or perhaps the "court reporter" added it as a translation of the actual Hebrew words that Paul actually did say in his testimony.

Of course we can never know, but what most likely happened is that Jesus did say Hebrew words that make up a Hebrew idiomatic expression that means the same thing as the Greek words that make up the equivalent Greek idiomatic expression.

The literal translation of an idiomatic expressions is sometimes very unclear to the true meaning. The meaning of what Jesus actually said (if He did actually use a Hebrew idiom) is, "your attempt to resist is futile".

Perhaps the Hebrew idiom (lost to history because it is nowhere recorded) was something like, "Saul, why are you spitting into the wind?" Perhaps in Luke's notes for what became Acts 9 & 22 he had written this Hebrew idiom, but not wanting to confuse people with a literal translation of an idiom, he decided to just leave it out.

However, when Paul, or the court stenographer, or Luke himself recognized that the meaning of what Jesus actually did say was appropriately conveyed by the well know Greek idiomatic expression "It is hard for you to kick against the goads", that is how we ended up with those Greek words in our Bibles.

I can picture Luke saying to Paul after the proceedings, "So that is what "enchsh amnshk aui lik" means!" Perhaps he even crossed out the Hebrew idiom in his notes for what became chapter 9 and added the Greek idiom with an arrow in the border, and that is why it got added to the Textus Receptus!

Blessings, I hope this is helpful. SalasinSalvation

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  • Welcome to Christianity.SE! Please be sure to take the tour, and find out how we differ from other sites. You make a fair point, but I wonder how far-fetched it would have been for Saul, natural of Tarsus in Cilicia, to have Greek for a mother tongue and thus Jesus, being God, speaking to him in his own language like the Apostles in Pentecost. It could, on the other hand, have been an adaptation by Luke, who had quite impeccable Greek style...
    – Wtrmute
    Sep 5 '17 at 16:40
  • Thanks for offering an answer here. For some tips on writing good answers on this site, see: What makes a good supported answer?. Meanwhile, I hope you'll browse some of the other questions and answers here. Sep 5 '17 at 17:40
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Or Paul has no credible witnesses for his ostensible conversion on the road to Damascus. Ask yourselves why there's 33000+ worldwide denominations. One crucial figure is always Shaul (Paul) who changed his own name, who professed and taught "my gospel" as opposed to the gospel of the one and only Yahushua Ha'Mashiach, our King and Saviour. Remember the Roman Catholic Church is built upon St Paul's writings and no other single source of writings to this day causes more content ion and more confusion amongst believers as Paul. Period. Whole seminaries are teaching Romans to Philemon only as their Theological backbone for the entirety of the 'new Testament'.

Yahushua, pur Messiah, taught that the law ie the Torah or instructions would be not pass away until both heaven and earth were done away with. All of Yahushua's teachings were against 'religion' and the corruption of his Torah by greedy and vain men, the traditions of of the Pharisees and Saducees. That has gone nowhere and is just a as alive today in this world of utter lawlessness and iniquity.

The Torah stands just as the everlasting Father and his only begotten son Yahushua Ha'Mashiach stands, for all eternity. Why do you think the Feasts of YAHUAH, Most High are all going to be performed and worshiped on during the millennium kingdom? Because they never left,not the sabbaths, the 7 Feasts nor the New Moon days. The Father is not the author of confusion. However the devil is, and the devil knows Scriptures as well as Shaul (Paul) supposedly did. Pray for discernment and be a Berean yourself. The fact is, you can easily take every single writing attributed to Paul out of the 'canon' and you'd still have a harmony of pure beauty and elegance. Am I advocating to do so, no. The Father has left it there for a reason and "It is the glory of [YAHUAH] to conceal a thing: but the honour of kings is to search out a matter." (Proverbs 25:2).

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  • Welcome to Christianity! However, this doesn't really answer the question. Are you saying that Paul lied about his conversion, and that Jesus did not use a Greek proverb?
    – Null
    Nov 18 '20 at 15:11

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