What language did Jesus speak? What about Paul?
In the world of Jesus and Paul it was more common to speak more than one language. The words of Jesus and Paul are of course recorded in the New Testament in Greek. But that doesn’t mean Jesus said everything in Greek; his words were translated to match the language of the Gospels. The evidence point to Jesus using Aramaic as his everyday language; Jesus is recorded in the Gospels using a few words that appear to be Aramaic. On the other hand, education took place in Hebrew: the Isaiah scroll he read from in the synagogue (Luke 4) was almost certainly in Hebrew, and at that time story-parables were told in Hebrew, not Aramaic, so likely Jesus also did his teaching in Hebrew. In fact, the son/stone wordplay in his Parable of the Vineyard only works in Hebrew. And if he grew up as a tradesman near the Greek towns of Galilee, I would not be surprised if he could do business in Greek as well. Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus (John 3) uses some wordplays that only work in Greek (again/from above), but I have difficulty believing this conversation between two Jewish teachers would have taken place in Greek rather than Aramaic or Hebrew. Paul on the other hand certainly wrote his letters in Greek to his Greek-speaking Gentile churches. But according to Acts, Paul also addressed the crowd in Hebrew (I have an article in New Testament Studies about this: “Ancient Names for Hebrew and Aramaic: A Case for Lexical Revision”). I don’t know of any reason to suppose they spoke other languages such as Latin. Even Paul’s letter to the Romans was in Greek. So both Jesus and Paul were likely multi-lingual, speaking Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek.
What “Bible” did Jesus and Paul read?
“Bible” is in quotation marks because that word is not really the best way to talk about the scriptures in the first century. When we speak of a “Bible” nowadays, we tend to mean a single book that contains an collection of ancient Jewish and Christian writings: the 66 books of the Bible (for Protestants). Of course, the New Testament wasn’t written yet, so those 27 books couldn’t have been included anyway, but also the technology to assemble pages into quires to make up a rectangular book with covers did not yet exist. Instead, people wrote and read from scrolls. So a collection of writings would have been stored not in a “Bible” but on shelves containing several scrolls. And probably almost no one had a shelf with only those 24 scrolls that currently make up the Hebrew Bible and no others. So this simple technological limitation made it more difficult to nail down the limits of what was included in the “Bible”.
But you’re probably interested in what language Jesus and Paul read the scriptures in. The options are Hebrew or Greek because the Jewish scriptures had already been translated into Greek a couple of centuries earlier. There is a legendary story in the pseudepigraphal Letter of Aristeas that tells of the miraculous completion of a translation of the Pentateuch into Greek. This legend pointed to a committee of seventy-two translators, and it is the basis for the title we use today for this ancient Greek translation. The Latin word for “seventy” is septuaginta. (The common abbreviation for the Septuagint is “70” given in Roman numerals: “lxx.”) Still today, writers will refer to the Septuagint’s translators as “the seventy.” The legend has it that all the translators sat down separately to translate the entire Hebrew Bible, and they emerged with precisely identical translations. It has clearly always been a concern of believers that their translations be accurate, and the story of the seventy is an appeal to miraculous divine providence as a guarantee for accuracy.
The reality, however, is that the various books of the lxx were translated by various people over several centuries, beginning in the third century bce. We know next to nothing about these translators, but we do still have their work. They translated not just the canonical Hebrew Bible but also several other books, often called “apocryphal” or “deuterocanonical” (though they are accepted in some Christian traditions). There is even some noncanonical material present in what we now call “the Septuagint”—4 Maccabees and the Psalms of Solomon—because it is present in some of the oldest Greek biblical manuscripts.
Now, I already mentioned Jesus reading the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue, and I said the language of that scroll was “almost certainly” Hebrew. I don’t know of any evidence of translated scrolls used in Galilean synagogues in the first century. But the matter gets complicated because in Luke’s quote, Jesus includes the phrase “recovery of sight to the blind,” which is in the Septuagint manuscripts of Isaiah 61:1, but not in the Hebrew. Was Jesus reading from the Greek, or was Luke simply quoting from the Septuagint because that’s what he had in front of him when composing his gospel? Likewise, Mark 7:6-7 uses the Septuagint rather than Hebrew of Isaiah 29:13, and John 1:23 also uses the Greek of Isaiah 40:3. Even Matthew uses the Greek scriptures. As for Paul, sometimes when he quoted scriptures he seems to have been working from memory, because his words don’t exactly match the Greek or the Hebrew. For example, when quoting Isaiah his words most often matched neither the Greek nor the Hebrew (12 times), matched the Greek against the Hebrew 9 times, and never matched the Hebrew against the Greek. One might conclude from this that the authors of the New Testament read their “Bibles” in the Greek version, the Septuagint.
Wouldn’t it make the most sense for Christians to read the Septuagint (if not in Greek, in English)?
Do you mean, “if it’s good enough for St. Paul, it’s good enough for me!”? I suppose there’s some sense in that way of thinking, and Augustine thought so. But I’d say it depends on why you’re reading the scriptures. If you hold to a view of inspiration that says the original words are authoritative, but not their translation, then you should read the “Old Testament” in Hebrew, not Greek (Septuagint) or English. But if you can’t read Hebrew, then at least read an English translation made from the Hebrew rather than from the Septuagint, so it’s not a translation of a translation. If you hold a different view of scriptural authority, then you might come to a different conclusion. For example, Greek Orthodox Christians hold that the Septuagint is the version that is inspired, so when they read the Bible in English, they want a translation from the Septuagint, not from the Hebrew Bible. And if you want to experience the Bible the way Paul’s gentile converts and the Church Fathers did, then yes, you should read the Septuagint (if not in Greek, then in English translation).
What are some examples of the value of the Septuagint?
I’m going to draw from a really accessible book by T.M. Law called When God Spoke Greek to answer this question. In addition to pointing out that the Septuagint is the “Bible” used by the New Testment authors and the majority of early Christians, he gives three good reasons for reading the Septuagint: (1) It shows how Jewish thought developed between the 3rd century B.C. and the 1st century A.D. For example, the translators sometimes avoided speaking as if God had body parts (the arm of the Lord), to avoid any chance of idolatry. (2) It shaped the early Church’s theology such as the “virgin” birth and all the ideas in Romans that derive from Isaiah. But strikingly also (3) even though it is a translation from the Hebrew text, it sometimes reflects an older, more original version of the Hebrew text because the Septuagint was made before certain errors crept into the Hebrew. For example, at the end of 1 Samuel 10 the Septuagint preserves a paragraph about King Nahash that later got omitted from the Hebrew manuscripts. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls 70 years ago confirmed that the Septuagint had it right!
What is the Gospel?
I’m sure others are more expert than me on this question, but I can say that the “good news” that the Jewish scriptures anticipate stem from some core convictions shared by the authors of the Bible: that the world was created good by a loving, wise, powerful God; that he gave humans the capacity to make moral choices; that when we choose to assert ourselves at the expense of others and the “big picture” that God can see, we mess up this world that was made good; that God’s character is such that he will not stand by and let us do this damage to his good creation; instead he will take action to set things right even when he is not the one responsible for making amends. The prophets looked forward to a time when all of humanity abandoned their damaging self-assertion and returned to living in harmony with the way they were designed, to acknowledging the reality of their own dependence on their good creator. The “good news” that John the Baptist and Jesus proclaimed was that this acknowledgment of God’s rule (which they called the “kingdom of God”) is just around the corner. God is finally acting to set the world right! This is what Paul gets so excited about in his letter to the Romans; this is what John’s gospel wants his readers to conclude on the basis of the “signs” he presents: Jesus is the one God anointed (Messiah/Christ) to reconcile the world with himself! If God is doing this good thing for us out of pure love for us, we can trust God and abandon our fears and resulting tendency for self-protecting defensive measures against the rest of God’s creations. We don’t need to look out for number one because Number One is looking out for us!