The Greeks borrowed their alphabet from the Hebrew alphabet, which is apparent from the fact that the Greek letters (of about the seventh century B.C.E.) resembled the Hebrew characters (of about the eighth century B.C.E.). They also had the same general order. Further, the pronunciation of the names is very similar. For example: Alʹpha (Greek) and ʼAʹleph (Hebrew); Beʹta (Greek) and Behth (Hebrew); Delʹta (Greek) and Daʹleth (Hebrew). However, Koi·neʹ had 24 letters in contrast to just 22 letters in Hebrew. In adapting the Semitic alphabet to the Greek language, certain Semitic consonants were allotted to vowel sounds.
Early Greek was first written from right to left, as Hebrew is to this day, and then alternately from right to left and from left to right, back and forth from line to line. Later, all lines were written from left to right as in English today. Sometimes, in the beginning, the lines were written either from the bottom of the page upward or from the the top downward, but gradually all lines came to be written from left to right successively from the top to the bottom.
Nouns are declined according to case, gender, and number. Related words, such as pronouns and adjectives, are declined to agree with their antecedents or that which they modify.
In koi·neʹ Greek there are five cases. In English there is usually no change in form for nouns except in the possessive case and in number. (Pronouns, however, are subject to more changes.) But in Koi·neʹ each case usually requires a different form or ending, making the language much more complicated than English in this respect.
There are three genders in the Greek language: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Declension of the definite article, which corresponds with the English the, appears in these three genders, and the gender as well as the number and case of the definite article must agree with that of the noun to which it applies.
In Greek there are five cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, and vocative. However, the definite article does not have a vocative case. But when, in addressing a person or thing, the nominative case is used instead of the vocative, then the nominative case of the definite article may be used along with it, as, for example, in John 20:28.
Below we set out the declension of the definite article:
CASE MASC. FEM. NEUT. ENGLISH
Nom. ὁ ἡ τό the
Gen. τοῦ τῆς τοῦ of the
Dat. τῷ τῇ τῷ to the
Acc. τόυ τήυ τό the
CASE MASC. FEM. NEUT. ENGLISH
Nom. οἱ αἱ τά the
Gen. τῶν τῶν τῶν of the
Dat. τοῖς ταῖς τοῖς to the
Acc. τούς τάς τά the
In English there are both a definite article (“the”) and an indefinite article (“a,” “an”). Koi·neʹ Greek has but a single article, which is in some respects the equivalent of the definite article “the” in English. Whereas the English definite article “the” is never inflected, the Greek article is inflected as to case, gender, and number, just as the nouns are. In this regard, Greek stands in striking contrast with two of the languages quite close to it, Sanskrit and Latin, neither of which has the article.
The Greek article is used to set off not only substantives, as with English, but also infinitives, adjectives, adverbs, phrases, clauses, and even whole sentences. The use of the article with an adjective is found in the Greek at John 10:11, where the literal rendering would be: “I am the shepherd the fine [one].” This is stronger than merely “I am the fine shepherd.” It is like putting “fine” in italics.
An example of the article being applied in Greek to an entire clause is found at Romans 8:26, where the phrase “what we should pray for as we need to” is preceded by the article in the neuter gender. Literally, the phrase would read “the for what we should pray.” To get the thought across in English, it is helpful to add the words “problem of.” The definite article focuses matters in such a way that the problem is brought together as a distinct issue. Thus, the rendering “For the [problem of] what we should pray for as we need to we do not know” (New World Translation) gives more accurately the flavor of the writer’s thought.
Greek verbs are built from verbal roots primarily by means of stems and prefixes, suffixes, and endings. They are conjugated according to voice, mood, tense, person, and number. Increased understanding of the Koi·neʹ in recent years, particularly with regard to verbs, has enabled translators to bring out better the real flavor and meaning of the Christian Greek Scriptures than was possible in the older versions. Some of the more interesting features regarding Greek verbs and their influence on Bible understanding are as follows:
English has only two voices for its verbs, that is, the active and the passive voices, but Greek has also a distinctive “middle voice.” In this voice the subject participates in the results of the action or, at times, produces the action. The middle voice stresses the interest of the agent in the action of the verb.
The middle voice was also used with an intensive force. It served a purpose similar to italics in English. Paul said, after being told that bonds and tribulations awaited him when he got to Jerusalem: “Nevertheless, I do not make my soul of any account as dear to me, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 20:22-24) Here the verb for “make,” poi·ouʹmai, is in the middle voice. Paul is saying, not that he does not value his life, but that the fulfilling of his ministry is far more important. That is his conclusion, regardless of what others may think.
The middle voice is used at Philippians 1:27: “Only behave [or, “carry on as citizens”] in a manner worthy of the good news about the Christ.” The verb po·li·teuʹo, “to live in a free state,” is, in this text, in the middle voice, po·li·teuʹe·sthe, “to carry on as citizens,” that is, to participate in declaring the good news. Roman citizens generally took an active part in the affairs of the state, for Roman citizenship was highly prized, particularly in cities whose inhabitants had been given citizenship by Rome, as was the case in Philippi. So Paul is here telling Christians that they must not be inactive, merely being in the position of Christians, but that they must also participate in Christian activity, thereby proving themselves worthy of the good news. This is in harmony with his later words to them: “As for us, our citizenship exists in the heavens.”—Philippians 3:20.
Another important and distinctive characteristic of Greek, contributing to its exactness, is its use of verb tenses. Verbs and their tenses involve two elements: kind of action (the more important) and time of action (of less importance). There are three principal ways of viewing action in the Greek language, each with modifying characteristics: (1) action as continuous (“to be doing”), represented basically in the present tense, the primary force of which is progressive action or that which habitually or successively recurs; (2) action as complete (“to have done”), the principal tense here being the perfect, (3) action as punctiliar, or momentary (“to do”), represented in the aorist. There are, of course, other tenses, such as the imperfect, the pluperfect, and the future.
To illustrate the difference in the Greek tenses: At 1 John 2:1, the apostle John says: “If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father” (King James Version). The Greek verb for “sin” is in the aorist tense, hence the time of the action is punctiliar or momentary. The aorist tense here points to one act of sinning, whereas the present infinitive would denote the condition of being a sinner, or continuous or progressive action in sinning. So John does not speak of someone carrying on a practice of sinning, but of one who does “commit a sin.” (Compare Matthew 4:9, where the aorist indicates that the Devil did not ask Jesus to do constant or continuous worship to him, but “an act of worship.”)
In prohibitions, the present and aorist tenses are likewise distinctly different. In the present tense a prohibition means more than not to do a thing. It means to stop doing it. Jesus Christ, en route to Golgotha, did not merely tell the women following him, “Do not weep,” but, rather, since they were already weeping, he said: “Stop weeping for me.” (Luke 23:28) Likewise, to those selling doves in the temple, Jesus said: “Stop making the house of my Father a house of merchandise!” (John 2:16) In the Sermon on the Mount he said: “Stop being anxious” about what you will eat, drink, or wear. (Matthew 6:25) On the other hand, in the aorist a prohibition was a command against doing something at any given time or moment. Jesus is shown as telling his hearers: “So, never be anxious [that is, do not be anxious at any moment] about the next day.” (Matthew 6:34) Here the aorist is used in order to indicate that the disciples should not be anxious at any time.
Another example of the need to take into consideration the Greek tense in translating is found at Hebrews 11:17. Some translations ignore the special significance in the tense of the verb. With reference to Abraham, the King James Version says: “He that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son.” The Greek verb here translated “offered up” is in the imperfect tense, which may carry the thought that the action was intended or attempted, but not realized or accomplished. Hence, in harmony with what actually happened, the Greek verb is more appropriately rendered “attempted to offer up.” Likewise, in Luke 1:59, speaking of the time of circumcision of the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the imperfect tense used indicates that instead of the rendering, “they called him Zacharias, after the name of his father” (King James Version), the passage should read, “they were going to call [the young child] by the name of its father, Zechariah” (New World Translation). This is in harmony with what actually took place, namely, that he was given the name John, according to the angel Gabriel’s instructions.—Luke 1:13.