Got A Rubber?

“Hey, dad, do you have a rubber I could use?” These were the words that came out of my 5-year-old daughter’s mouth and nearly caused me a heart attack. My immediate thought, “Why in the world is my 5-year-old asking for condoms?” At the time, my family and I had recently moved from California to Edinburgh (UK) where I’d begun my PhD studies. My daughter had also been attending an Edinburgh primary school for a few months. I thought to myself, “What kind of Scottish school had I enrolled my 5-year-old into?!?!” After investigating the request further, asking her to explain what she might do with said “rubber,” I finally realized she needed a pencil eraser and NOT a condom. The language barriers continued, and my partner and I quickly learned to avoid seemingly innocuous words like “fanny-pack” (in the UK, “fanny” is slang for a woman’s genitals), or “pants” when intending to talk about trousers (in the UK, “pants” usually refers to one’s underwear) while living in the UK. On the flip side, my family and I also adopted much of the language, and even now, being back in America for a few years, still refer to the garbage can as a “bin,” the restroom as a “toilet,” and sweatshirts as “jumpers.” Thinking through these various experiences made me consider the real-life implications of language use in the ancient world, and more particularly within the Gospel of Mark where various scholars have attempted to locate the Markan author’s and his audience’s provenance and background by language found within the gospel.

Bilingualism and the “Romanization” of Mark

The abundance of Latinisms and Semitisms,[1] scholars argue, can help determine not only Mark’s provenance of writing and the locale of his audience, but also his primary language (Aramaic) and subsequent languages (Hebrew, Greek, and Latin), i.e. such linguistic evidence might reveal a cultural milieu for which one can ultimately situate the author and his audience with precision. The presence of multiple Latinisms, some scholars argue, can help locate Mark in the city of Rome, i.e. where Latin functioned most naturally as the lingua franca in the west. Hengel notes, for example, “such an accumulation of Latinisms is unusual” and “point[s] to an origin in Rome”.[2] In addition, the presence of Semitisms might, for example, underline the author’s first language, Aramaic. In some instances, scholars attempt to import an entire history of Mark based on his language use. Ben Witherington, for example, speaks of Mark’s “Jewish family” and “Jerusalem” upbringing![3] And while general linguistic patterns in Mark’s gospel may certainly be discerned—and provide information potentially related to the author’s identity and background—I argue that such phenomena cannot locate Mark with the type of precision scholars sometimes suggest. In particular, the quest for degrees of “Romanization”[4] in Mark’s gospel are increasingly problematic.

In the Roman Empire, terms such as “Greek” and “Roman” for example were neither monolithic nor mutually exclusive, but reflected an ever-evolving diversity of identity, which changed and adapted through time and space.[5] The process of acculturation, which scholars long bracketed in simplistic dualist terms of dominance and passivity, i.e. the replacement of one native culture by the more dominant (Roman) one, can no longer be sustained. Rather, scholars recognize the coterminous existence of multiple identities and languages amongst Rome and its subjects.[6] Both [Rome and its subjects] had reciprocal interests and could benefit by adopting aspects of the other’s culture, especially language. Rome could benefit in her tasks of conquest while subjects could benefit in goods and prestige. While Rome certainly stimulated the spread of ideological views and institutions with aims toward legitimation; locals too adopted Roman forms of identity without pressure from Rome. Latin, the language of empire and conquest, could be utilized by Rome’s subjects for personal interests and power. The dedication[7] found under an equestrian statue of Vespasian in Perge serves this point:

Imp(eratori) T(ito) F(lavio)
Caesari Aug(usto)
ci(ves) R(omani) et ordo
et res publica

“To Imperator Titus Flavius Vespasianus Caesar Augustus, Roman citizens and the council, and the people of Perge.”

This inscription dates to the earliest years of Vespasian’s reign (69CE) as evidenced by the inclusion of the nomen Flavio (Vespasian’s title had yet to be fixed). In the wake of the Roman civil wars, and after military forces in Judaea, Syria, and Egypt had acknowledged Vespasian as emperor, the citizens of Perge were concerned to make their political allegiances known. In an environment where the epigraphic records indicate that nearly all inscriptions from Perge were found in Greek at that time, this one stands out uniquely. The cities’ loyalties are not only reinforced by their dedicatory statue, but also in their use of Latin.[8] For the city’s Roman citizens, council, and people of Perge, the language of Rome was strategically deployed for their benefit.

This example challenges the security of an “either/or” dichotomy – in the case of Mark, “Roman or …” – and forces a more complex view of “Romanization” set within a matrix of multiple identities, languages, and cultural interactions utilized and negotiated by individuals and communities for their benefit. In other words, Mark’s use of Latinisms does not necessitate a Roman provenance merely because of their presence in his gospel. Rather, Mark could have been motivated to use such language for other – unknown – reasons (I’ll suggest some below). As one quick example, and at a less administrative level, Cicero remarks on Lucullus’ intentional latinizing of his Greek historical work to convince his audience that a Roman had produced it. Cicero notes that Lucullus intentionally littered his work with “barbarisms and solecisms” to achieve these ends.[9] This should serve again as a caution against simplistic and general labelling of Mark (the author) as “Roman,” “Greek,” “Jewish,” or otherwise due to his language.

Mark, the Bilingual?

As noted earlier, one important feature typically ascribed to Mark is his proliferation of “Latinisms”. Latinisms can be bracketed under the more general term, “borrowing,” and more narrowly classified as “loan-words.” Borrowing describes the adoption and import of any linguistically integrated element from one language into another.[10] The Latinisms found in Mark can be categorized as “predictable” Latin loans, integrated (or in the process of integration) into the Greek language to “fill gaps in the lexicon for imported concepts and objects.”[11]

Contact with Roman administrations, institutions, and trade led to empire-wide borrowing of Latin vocabulary and grammatical characteristics.[12] There remain, however, two difficulties when assessing loan-words. The first concerns the degree of integration, i.e. the degree to which a foreign word had become embedded into the host language. Long-standing integration would not require a speaker/author to be functionally bilingual (or bilingual at all), since the borrower may not even realize that a loan is being borrowed.[13]  Secondly, difficulty can arise when assessing the differences between the source and borrower of a term or grammatical construction; and whether it reflects the natural development of pre-existing similarities between Latin and Greek (borrowed words are often easier to assess than syntactical loans).

Van Iersel argues, for example, that Mark’s use of ἵνα (“that”; “in order that”) after verbs of speaking, asking, or commanding mimicked the use of the Latin ut, and should be considered among Markan Latinisms.[14] However, Geoffrey Horrocks has shown that such an influence on the Koine can be found taking shape early in the Hellenistic period, and the convergence of Latin merely stimulated, rather than initiated, this grammatical feature of Koine Greek.[15] Similarly, examples of verb-final constructions in Mark, typically ascribed as Latinisms, can be explained by Classical Greek constructions and early influences of administrative documents being translated from Latin into Greek.[16] In fact, many of the grammatical “Latinisms” attested in Mark can be clarified as an expected progression of Koine’s contact with Latin. In other words, these features found in Koine can no longer be distinctly identified as “Latin” (though features, in some works, can certainly be discerned as such), but rather as the typical progression of language in provinces influenced by the integration of Latin upon Koine.

Is Mark Code-Switching?

The frequent Markan construction ὅ ἐστιν (“which is”; Mk. 3:17; 5:41; 7:11, 34; 12:42; 15:16, 22, 34, 42) exhibits Mark’s purposeful intention in deploying skillful literary “code-switches” [17] rather than “borrowing” or accidental “interference.” [18] In two places, for example, Mark uses Latinisms in a way that is explanatory of his initial Greek terms. The first appears at Mk. 12:42 where ὅ ἐστιν κοδράντης (“which is a quadrans”) explains λεπτὰ δύο (“two lepta”). The other is found at Mk. 15:16 where ὅ ἐστιν πραιτώριον (“which is the praetorium”) explains the Greek term αὐλή (“courtyard/palace”). Though code-switches are often deliberate and, for Mark, intended to explain and define the Greek terms for his audience, nothing points particularly to an audience or provenance in Rome. And while scholars often suggest a competence with Latin on the part of Mark, and subsequently his audience, this level of code-switching, though purposeful, was often employed among low to no-competency bilinguals.[19] To conclude that Mark’s code-switches equated to competent bilingualism, which then equated to the marks of an educated elite are misguided.[20] Various reasons can account for Mark’s code-switches, namely (1) to illustrate his identity and sense of self or group-belonging; (2) to accommodate supposed needs of his audience; or (3) as a stimulus for culturally specific topics.[21]

These features are not mutually exclusive, but often overlap. In the case of Mark, option one and two are certainly pertinent. Joel Marcus, however, argues against Mk. 12:42 and 15:16 being explanatory terms for an audience unfamiliar with λεπτός and αὐλή, but instead prefers that Mark was providing clarifications about imprecise terms (which they knew and understood) with more precise ones.[22] However, in relation to Mark’s Aramaicisms, Marcus acknowledges that Mark makes his language “understandable to readers not conversant with Aramaic,” no less through his ὅ ἐστιν construction.[23] If Mark utilizes ὅ ἐστιν for his audience with explanatory purposes at six other points when applied to Aramaicisms (Mk. 3:17; 5:41; 7:11, 34; 15:22, 34), why should we not expect the two instances at Mk. 12:42 and 15:16 to follow suit, especially when each example is related to language use? Furthermore, these types of code-switches are typically representative of close contacts between minority and majority language groups who have undergone “rapid social change.”[24] For Mark, such an environment need not be explained by a Roman provenance, and may, in fact, be better elucidated by an eastern one (though I’m not advocating a position here).[25] Nevertheless, with such complications in locating Mark and his audience based on language, I take much solace in Morna Hooker’s conclusions, “All we can say with certainty, therefore, is that the gospel was composed somewhere in the Roman Empire!”[26]


Dr. Mark Lamas Jr., Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University Bakersfield


[1] While the majority of the Gospel of Mark is written in Koine Greek, Latinisms and Semitisms in Mark’s gospel describe the author’s integration of vocabulary, grammar, idiom, and syntax taken from Latin (Latinism) or Hebrew and Aramaic (Semitism). Further definition below.

[2] Martin Hengel, Studies in the Gospel of Mark, trans J. Bowden (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1995), 29.

[3] Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, (Socio-Rhetorical Commentary Series; Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001), 20. See also Witherington’s blog, Ben Witherington III, “Latinisms, Western Diction, and the Provenance of Mark’s Gospel,” The Bible and Culture, 1 November 2011,  

[4] For a helpful up-to-date understanding of the research and topic of “romanization,” see Alex Mullen, Southern Gaul and the Mediterranean: Multilingualism and Multiple Identities in the Iron Age and Roman Periods, Cambridge Classical Studies (Cambridge, UK: CUP, 2013), 4-14.

[5] Consider Ennius’ self-described tria cordia (“three hearts”), i.e. Ennius’ trilingual abilities in Greek, Oscan, and Latin, which was neither exclusively Greek, Roman, nor Oscan, but equally diversified as “three hearts” (i.e. identities) simultaneously. Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Rome’s Cultural Revolution (Cambridge, U.K.: CUP, 2008), 4.

[6] Wallace-Hadrill, Rome’s Cultural Revolution, 14.

[7] IK 54 (Perge); AE 1996, 00687.

[8] Werner Eck, “Der Anschluß der kleinasiatischen Provinzen an Vespasian und ihre Restrukturierung unter den Flaviern” in Vespasiano e l’impero dei Flavi (Atti del Convegno, Roma, Palazzo Massimo, 18-20 novembre 2009), eds. Luigi Capogrossi Colognesi and Elena Tassi Scandone (Roma: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 2012), 27-44.

[9] Cic. Att. 1.9.10: Lucullus de suis historiis dixerat, se, quo facilius illas probaret Romani hominis esse, idcirco barbara quaedam et soloeca dispersisse.

[10] J. N. Adams, Bilingualism and the Latin Language (Cambridge: CUP, 2003), 18-29. Cf. Alex Mullen, “Latin and Other Languages: Societal and Individual Bilingualism” in A Companion to the Latin Language, ed. James Clackson (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 531.

[11] J.N. Adams and Simon Swain, “Introduction” in Bilingualism in Ancient Society: Language Contact and the Written Text (Oxford: OUP, 2002), 17. By “predictable”, Adams and Swain note technical terms associated with Roman institutions, which would have quickly forced new terminology upon contact. “Non-predictable” categories would be classified in everyday language occurrences found, for example, at the market.

[12] Adams (Bilingualism and the Latin Language, 5.1.3) notes that Egypt is somewhat unique in that the spread of Latin was met with some resistance and mostly confined to the political sphere.

[13] Adams, Bilingualism and the Latin Language, 29.

[14] Bas M.F. Van Iersel, Mark: A Reader-Response Commentary (trans.W.H. Bisscheroux; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 35.

[15] Geoffrey C. Horrocks, Greek: A History of the Language and its Speakers, ed. by InterScience Wiley, 2nd ed. (Oxford; Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010),93-94; Geoffrey C. Horrocks, “Syntax: From Classical Greek to the Koine” in A History of Ancient Greek: from the Beginnings to Late Antiquity, ed. by A.-F. Christidis with the assistance of Maria Arapopoulou and Maria Chriti (Cambridge: CUP, 2007), 626.

[16] Horrocks, “Syntax”, 621; Jorma Kaimio, The Romans and the Greek Language (Helsinki: Societas Scientiarum Fennica,1979), 120.

[17] Typically defined, code-switching involves the use of two languages in a single utterance. Borrowing (e.g. loanwords), however, is concerned with words that have become embedded into the host language. Distinctions between “borrowing” and “code-switching” are historically muddled with no clear formula for assessment. Often, code-switching and borrowing are presented on a continuum for which code-switching is a prerequisite to borrowing (though not all code-switches will become loanwords). For the definition of this work, code-switching is understood as a conscious use of two or more languages in a communicative event whereas borrowing is considered unconscious as the integration of a word has taken place in a host language. In Mk. 12:42 and 15:16, though the Latinisms (κοδράντης; πραιτώριον) are integrated to the host language, Mark seems conscious of his word choice as evidenced in his construction, ὅ ἐστιν. For this reason, I have opted for the use of “code-switching” in these two instances and “borrowing” for the other loans. See Penelope Gardner-Chloros, Code-switching (Cambridge: CUP, 2009).

[18] Adams, Bilingualism and the Latin Language, 28. Adams notes, “I see interference as unintentional and beyond the control of the writer, whereas code-switching… is often a manifestation of linguistic skill”.

[19] Adams, Bilingualism and the Latin Language, 41; Agnes Bolonyai, “Code-Switching, Imperfect Acquisition, and Attrition” in The Cambridge Handbook of Linguistic Code-Switching, eds. Barbara E. Bullock and Almeida Jacqueline Toribio (Cambridge, UK: CUP, 2009), 262; Alex Mullen, Southern Gaul, 88.

[20] See Dietmar Neufeld, Mockery and Secretism in the Social World of Mark’s Gospel LNTS (London: T & T Clark, 2015), 30. To be fair, Neufeld acknowledges that “we do not know what his [Mark’s] levels of education were or even that he was bilingual, but we can entertain the possibility…”.

[21] Mullen, Southern Gaul, 89.

[22] Joel Marcus, “The Jewish War and the Sitz im Leben of Mark,” JBL 111 (1992):445.

[23] Joel Marcus, Mark 1–8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 27; New York: Doubleday, 2000), 372.

[24] John J. Gumperz and Eduardo Hernandez-Chavez, “Cognitive Aspects of Bilingual Communication” in Language Use and Social Change: Problems of Multilingualism with Special Reference to Eastern Africa (Oxford and New York: OUP, 1971), 112.

[25] Christopher Zeichmann, “Loanwords or Code-Switching? Latin Transliteration and the Setting of Mark’s Composition”, JJMJS 4 (2017): 42-64. Zeichmann’s article helpfully sets the use of Latinisms within three important geographical locations (Palestine, Rome, and Syria), i.e. where scholars have notably contended Mark’s gospel was written. In his findings, he states, “At the level of vocabulary, many of Mark’s words can be found in all three locations, though they are certainly more common in Syria and post-War Palestine than Italia.”

[26] Hooker, St. Mark, 7.

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