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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Language of the nt

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LANGUAGE OF THE NT . The object of this article is to give a general non-technical account of the Greek in which the NT is written. It should be stated at the outset that the standpoint of scholarship in regard to this subject has materially altered since Prof. Thayer wrote his excellent article in vol. iii. of the DB [Note: Dictionary of the Bible.] . We shall therefore briefly state the nature of our change in view, and then describe the NT Greek as we now regard it, without further reference to older theories.

1. The old view . In every age of NT study, scholars have been struck by the fact that its Greek to a large extent stands alone. It differs immensely from the language of the great classics of the period which was closed some four centuries earlier, and not much less from that of post-classical writers of its own time, even when those writers were Palestinian Jews, as was Josephus. During the 17th cent. the ‘Purist’ school sought to minimize these differences, holding that deviation from the ‘purity’ of classic standards was a flaw in the perfection of the inspired Book, which must at all costs be cleared away. But, except for such eccentricities of learning, the efforts of scholars in general were steadily directed towards the establishment of some rationale for this isolation of what Rothe called the ‘language of the Holy Ghost.’ Two excellent reasons were found for the peculiarities of NT Greek. (1) NT writers were steeped in the language of the Greek OT, a translation which largely followed the Hebrew original with slavish literalness. A special religious phraseology was thus created, which not only contributed a large number of forms for direct quotation, but also supplied models for the general style of religious writing, much as the style of modern sermons or devotional books is modelled upon the English of the Bible. (2) The writers were mostly Jews who used Aramaic (a language closely related to Hebrew) in their daily life. When, therefore, they thought and wrote in Greek, they were prone to translate literally from their native tongue; and ‘Aramaisms’ thus infected the Greek, side by side with the ‘Hebraisms’ which came from the LXX [Note: Septuagint.] . The degree to which either of these classes of Semitism was admitted to affect particular words or grammatical constructions in the Greek NT naturally differed in the judgment of different writers; but even Thayer, who wrote after the new lights had already begun to appear, shows no readiness to abandon the general thesis that the NT Greek lies outside the stream of progress in the development of the Greek language, and must be judged by principles of its own.

2. Newer views . The credit of initiating a most far-reaching change of view, the full consequences of which are only beginning to be realized, belongs to a brilliant German theologian, Adolf Deissmann. His attention having been accidentally called to a volume of transcripts from the Egyptian papyri recently added to the Berlin Museum, he was immediately struck by their frequent points of contact with the vocabulary of NT Greek. He read through several collections of papyri, and of contemporary Greek inscriptions, and in 1895 and 1897 published the two volumes of his Bible Studies (Eng. tr. [Note: translate or translation.] in one volume, 1901). Mainly on the ground of vocabulary, but not without reference to grammar and style, he showed that the isolation of NT Greek could no longer be maintained. Further study of the papyri he used, and of the immense masses of similar documents which have been published since, especially by the explorers of Oxford and Berlin, confirms his thesis and extends it to the whole field of grammar. To put the new views into two statements (1) The NT is written in the spoken Greek of daily life , which can be proved from inscriptions to have differed but little, as found in nearly every corner of the Roman Empire in the first century. (2) What is peculiar in ‘Biblical Greek’ lies in the presence of boldly literal translations from Hebrew OT or Aramaic ‘sources’: even this, however, seldom goes beyond clumsy and unidiomatic, but perfectly possible, Greek, and is generally restricted to the inordinate use of correct locutions which were rare in the ordinary spoken dialect. The Egyptian non-literary papyri of the three centuries before and after Christ, with the inscriptions of Asia Minor, the Ægæan islands and Greece during the same period, though these must be used with caution because of the literary element which often invades them, supply us therefore with the long desiderated parallel for the language of the NT, by which we must continually test an exegesis too much dominated hitherto by the thought of classical Greek or Semitic idiom.

3. History and diffusion of the Greek language . At this point, then, we should give a history of the world-Greek of NT times. A sister-language of Sanskrit, Latin, Slavonic, German, and English, and most other dialects of modern Europe, Greek comes before us earliest in the Homeric poems, the oldest parts of which may go hack to the 10th cent. b.c. Small though the country was, the language of Greece was divided into more dialects, and dialects perhaps more widely differing, than English in the reign of Alfred. Few of these dialects gave birth to any literature; and the intellectual primacy of Athens by the end of the classical period (4th cent. b.c.) was so far above dispute that its dialect, the Attic, became for all future time the only permitted model for literary prose. When Attic as a spoken language was dead, it was enforced by rigid grammarians as the only ‘correct’ speech for educated people. Post-classical prose accordingly, while varying in the extent to which colloquial elements invade the purity of its artificial idiom, is always more or less dominated by the effort to avoid the Greek of daily life; while in the NT, on the contrary, it is only two or three writers who admit even to a small extent a style differing from that used in common speech. Meanwhile the history of Greece, with its endless political independence and variation of dialect between neighbouring towns, had entered a new phase. The strong hand of Philip of Macedon brought Hellas under one rule; his son, the great Alexander, carried victorious Hellenism far out into the world beyond. Unification of speech was a natural result, when Greeks from different cities became fellow-soldiers in Alexander’s army, or fellow-colonists in his new towns. Within about one generation we suddenly find that a compromise dialect, which was based mainly on Attic, but contained elements from all the old dialects, came to be established as the language of the new Greek world. This ‘Common’ Greek, or Hellenistic, once brought into being, remained for centuries a remarkably homogeneous and slowly changing speech over the larger part of the Roman Empire. In Rome itself it was so widely spoken and read that St. Paul’s letter needed no translating, and a Latin Bible was first demanded far away from Latium. In Palestine and in Lycaonia the Book of Acts gives us clear evidence of bilingual conditions. The Jerusalem mob ( Acts 21:40 ; Acts 22:2 ) expected St. Paul to address them in Greek; that at Lystra ( Acts 14:11 ) similarly reverted with pleasure to their local patois, but had been following without difficulty addresses delivered in Greek. It was the one period in the history of the Empire when the gospel could he preached throughout the Roman world by the same missionary without interpreter or the need of learning foreign tongues. The conditions of Palestine demand a few more words. It seems fairly clear that Greek was understood and used there much as English is in Wales to-day. Jesus and the Apostles would use Aramaic among themselves, and in addressing the people in Judæa or Galilee, but Greek would often he needed in conversation with strangers. The Procurator would certainly use Greek (rarely Latin) in his official dealings with the Jews. There is no reason to believe that any NT writer who ever lived in Palestine learned Greek only as a foreign language when he went abroad. The degree of culture in grammar and idiom would vary, but the language itself was always entirely at command.

4. NT Greek . We find, as we might expect, that ‘NT Greek’ is a general term covering a large range of individual divergence. The author of Hebrews writes on a level which we might best characterize by comparing the pulpit style of a cultured extempore preacher in this country a spoken style, free from artificiality and archaisms, but free from anything really colloquial. The two Lukan books show similar culture in their author, who uses some distinctively literary idioms. But St. Luke’s faithful reproduction of his various sources makes his work uneven in this respect. St. Paul handles Greek with the freedom and mastery of one who probably used it regularly all his life, except during actual residence in Jerusalem. He seems absolutely uninfluenced by literary style, and applies the Greek of common intercourse to his high themes, without stopping a moment to polish a diction the eloquence of which is wholly unstudied. Recent attempts to trace formal rhetoric and laws of rhythm in his writings have completely failed. At the other end of the scale, as judged by Greek culture, stands the author of the Apocalypse , whose grammar is very incorrect, despite his copious vocabulary and rugged vigour of style. Nearly as unschooled is St. Mark , who often gives us very literal translations of the Aramaic in which his story was first wont to be told; there seems some reason to suspect that in the oldest form of his text this occurred more frequently still. The other main Gospel ‘source,’ the ‘ Sayings of Jesus ,’ shows likewise the traces of processes of translation. Space forbids any attempt to distinguish the position of all the NT writers, but we may note that the papyri supply parallels in degrees of culture to compare with them in turn, except so far as sheer translation comes in.

5. Help derived from Modern Greek, and from reconstructed Aramaic originals . We must now return to the development-history of Greek to observe that its later stages, even up to the present day, are full of important contributions to our study of the NT. The ‘Common’ or Hellenistic Greek, described above, is the direct ancestor of the vernacular of modern Greece and the Greek-speaking districts of Turkey. We are daily learning more of the immense significance of this despised patois for interpreting the sacred language. Here the student must carefully eliminate the artificial ‘Modern Greek’ of Athenian newspapers and books, which is untrustworthy for this purpose, just as is the Greek of Plutarch or Josephus. The genuine vernacular with its dialects, based on inconsiderable local variations in Hellenistic, which may have no small weight ere long even in our NT criticism may be placed by the side of modern folk-ballads and mediæval popular stories and saint legends, to take us back to the papyri and inscriptions, as our latest-found tools for NT study. The literature, classical and post-classical, will of course retain the place it has always held, when modern methods have taught us how to check its testimony. And Comparative Philology, with lights on the meaning of cases and tenses and moods, may be added to the equipment with which purely linguistic science may now help forward the interpretation of Scripture. All this is on the side of the student of Greek itself. But the other side of NT language must naturally not be forgotten. Contributions of great value have recently been made to our knowledge of the Aramaic, in which nearly all the sayings of Christ must have been uttered, and in which Papias (as usually understood) shows they were first written down. The possibility of reconstructing to some extent the original of our Greek Gospel sources is drawing nearer; and the co-operation of Greek and Semitic scholars promises marked advances in our knowledge of the very kernel of the NT (cf. next art.).

6. Characteristics of NT Greek . A few concluding words may be given to the general characteristics of the language which had so providentially become the language of the civilized world just at the time when the gospel began its advance. It used to be frequently contrasted unfavourably with the classical Attic, which is undeniably the most perfect language the world has ever seen, for the clearness, subtlety, and beauty with which it can express thought. In Hellenistic Greek the subtlety, the sense of rhythm, and the literary delicacy have largely disappeared. But the old clearness is only enhanced by a greater simplicity; and the boundless resourcefulness of the language impresses us powerfully when in the NT for the first and (practically) last time the colloquial dialect of the people was enshrined in literature, the authors of which were nearly always unconscious that they were creating literature at all. The presentation of Christianity to the Western world as a system of thought could never have been accomplished in Hebrew, even if that language had attained universal currency. In Greek we are always conscious of a wealth of suggestiveness which no translation can convey, an accuracy and precision of thought which repay the utmost exactness of study. This is in no sense lost even when the simpler grammar of the later language becomes the tool of men who had no inheritance of Greek culture. A comparatively elementary knowledge of this simpler Greek, which can be attained without touching the complex structure of the classical language, will constantly reveal important elements in the writer’s meaning that are beyond the reach of our language to convey directly. In our own time at last this language is being studied for its own sake; and even classical scholars are beginning to allow that the renewed youth of Greek, under conditions which make it largely a new language, produced a literature which the philologist, and not merely the theologian, can admire.

James Hope Moulton.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Language of the nt'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/l/language-of-the-nt.html. 1909.

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