Beginning with the Hellenistic period, Koiné (“common”) Greek became the lingua franca in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. By the 3rd century BCE, most Jews were Greek-speaking and therefore it became necessary to translate the Hebrew Bible into Greek. This translation, according to tradition done by 72 Jewish scholars from Jerusalem for the text to be included in the famous library of Alexandria, is known as the Septuagint. From the 2nd century CE, Jews increasingly replaced this translation with other translations in response to growing antagonism with early Christianity, which adopted the Septuagint as the Christian Old Testament.

A 1st century BCE inscription in Greek outside the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem – forbidding the entrance of non-Jews to this sanctuary most sacred to Jews – is another telling example of the ubiquity of Greek during the Hellenistic period. Other terms closely associated with Jewish religious practice, e.g. synagogue (“assembly”, or proseuche, its ancient equivalent) and bima (“raised platform”), also derive from Ancient Greek.

In the Eastern Mediterranean, Jewish use of Greek developed over the centuries into a Judeo-Greek vernacular called Yevanic (from the Hebrew “Yavan” for Greece), which contained various Hebrew loanwords and was written in Hebrew letters. Yevanic was mainly a spoken language and thus constituted rather a specific dialect of Greek.

Extant publications in Yevanic are few and include medieval manuscripts, like a Cretan Book of Jonah, and a Judeo-Greek translation in a polyglot Bible (alongside the Hebrew text and a Ladino translation) published in Constantinople in 1547. The specific liturgical rite of Romaniote Jews, the Minhag Romania, brought forth a specific form of prayer book (Mahzor Romania) but, more commonly, collections of Judeo-Greek hymns and liturgical poetry.

Due to the increasing adoption of majority (standard) languages in modern times and the severe impact of the Holocaust, which decimated Greek Jewry, hardly any competent speakers of Yevanic remain today.

Photo 1
Source: public domain

Photo 2: © Bodleian Library Oxford

Yevanic script, 4th century epitaph, Italy

Section from a Cretan Book of Jonah, ca. 14th century.

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