A language belonging to the Indo-European family of languages, the tongue of those believed to have inhabited east-central Asia or west-central Europe. (Hebrew is from the Semitic, another family of languages.) Greek is the language in which the Christian Scriptures were originally written (aside from Matthew’s Gospel, which may have been written first in Hebrew) and in which also appeared the first complete translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, namely, the Septuagint Version.
There are three main types of language: (1) isolating, without inflection of its words, and using such devices as word-order for variety of expression, as does Chinese; (2) agglutinative, making use of separable prefixes, infixes and suffixes, as does Turkish; (3) inflectional, achieving variety in expression by means of stems, prefixes and endings. Greek is an inflectional language.
Little is known of the history of the Greek language prior to 1500 B.C.E. In fact, its history is quite obscure prior to the time of about 1000 B.C.E. Due to isolation caused by geographical divisions, a number of different dialects were forming from what appear to have been the original three dialects, Aeolic, Doric and Ionic. The Attic dialect, of Athens, was a development from these, based chiefly, some authorities say, on the Ionic. Attic was the classical Greek. From 330 B.C.E. to 330 C.E. was the age of koi·neʹ Greek, a mixture of differing Greek dialects of which Attic was the most influential. The synthesis of Koi·neʹ was brought about by the military campaigns of Alexander the Great, in whose army were representatives from all the Greek tribes, and whose conquests caused Koi·neʹ to become an international language. From 330 C.E., when the seat of Roman government was moved from Rome to Constantinople, until 1453, when the Turks captured that city, Byzantine Greek was spoken. Since then, modern Greek has held sway. Some scholars have a different outline of the history of Greek, but it is generally agreed that these were the general epochs.
Koi·neʹ had a very distinct advantage over the other languages of the day, in that it was almost universally known. Koi·neʹ means common language or dialect common to all. How widespread the use of koi·neʹ Greek was can be seen from the fact that the decrees of the imperial governors and of the Roman senate were translated into Koi·neʹ to be distributed over the Roman Empire. Accordingly, the charge posted above Jesus Christ’s head at the time of his impalement was written, not only in official Latin and in Hebrew, but also in (koi·neʹ) Greek.—Matt. 27:37; John 19:19, 20.
Regarding the use of Greek in the land of Israel, one scholar comments: “Although the main body of the Jewish people rejected Hellenism and its ways, intercourse with the Greek peoples and the use of the Greek language was by no means eschewed. . . . The Palestinian teachers regarded the Greek translation of the Scriptures with favor, as an instrument for carrying the truth to the Gentiles.” (Hellenism, Bentwich, 1919, pp. 115-117) Of course, the primary reason for the Septuagint Version was for the benefit of the Jews, especially those of the Dispersion, who no longer spoke the pure Hebrew, but were familiar with Greek. Old Hebrew terms involving Jewish worship came to be replaced by terms Greek in origin. The word sy·na·go·geʹ, meaning “a meeting together,” is an example of the adoption of Greek words by the Jews.
Koi·neʹ used by inspired Christian writers
Since the writers of the inspired Christian Scriptures were concerned with getting their message across with understanding to all the people, it was not the classical, but the koi·neʹ Greek that they used. All these writers themselves were Jews. Though they were Semitic, they were not interested in the spread of Semitism, but in the truth of pure Christianity, and by means of the Greek language they could reach more people. They could better carry out their commission to “make disciples of people of all the nations.” (Matt. 28:19, 20) Also, the Koi·neʹ was a fine instrument by which they could express well the subtle intricacies of thought that they desired to present.
It is easy to see, in reading the Christian Greek Scriptures, that they are based to a tremendous extent on the Hebrew Scriptures and well reflect the thought of these earlier inspired writings. And, under the influence of holy spirit, what the Christian penmen wrote in Greek expressed accurately the revelations opened up by Jesus Christ, at the same time being in harmony with and illuminating the Hebrew Scriptures. Professor A. T. Robertson says: “Westcott has true insight when he says of N. T. Greek: ‘It combines the simple directness of Hebrew thought with the precision of Greek expression. In this way the subtle delicacy of Greek expression in some sense interprets Hebrew thought.’” (A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, p. 92) Actually, the Christian writers also influenced the Greek language by bringing in new expressions in order to convey their message of the good news of Jesus Christ.
Koi·neʹ was a development from the classical Attic Greek. While Attic Greek contained many vernacular expressions, the Koi·neʹ added a great many more, making it more cosmopolitan, simplifying the grammar, and so forth. While avoiding the artificial and pedantic style of some of the classical writers, the penmen of the Christian Greek Scriptures nevertheless used many classical words. They rose, in their use of koi·neʹ Greek, in dignity and restraint, far above the common trivialities and vulgarisms of the everyday Koi·neʹ in the nonliterary Greek papyr, found mostly in Egypt. Professor Robertson comments particularly on Luke and Paul and says of the latter: “That Paul could use the more literary style is apparent from the address on Mars Hill, the speech before Agrippa, and Ephesians and Romans.” (Acts 17:22-31; 26:1-23) He says also, “Take the parable of the Prodigal Son, for instance. In literary excellence this piece of narrative is unsurpassed.”—Luke 15:11-32.
Therefore the inspired Christian writers gave to koi·neʹ Greek power, dignity and warmth by reason of their exalted message. Greek words took on a richer, fuller and more spiritual meaning in the contexts of the inspired Scriptures.
All present-day European alphabets stem either directly or indirectly from the Greek alphabet. However, the Greeks did not invent their alphabet; they borrowed it from the Semites. This is apparent from the fact that the Greek alphabetic 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, with a few exceptions. Additionally, the pronunciation of the names of some of the letters is very similar; for example: alʹpha (Greek) and ʼaʹleph (Hebrew); beʹta (Greek) and behth (Hebrew); delʹta (Greek) and daʹleth (Hebrew); and many others. Koi·neʹ had twenty-four letters. In adapting the Semitic alphabet to the Greek language, certain Semitic consonants were allotted to vowel sounds.
STYLE OR METHOD OF WRITING
Greek began first to be written from right to left, as Hebrew still is today, and then alternately from right to left and from left to right, back and forth from line to line, just as a farmer plows his field. Later, all lines were written from left to right as in English today. Sometimes, also, in the beginning, the lines were written either from the bottom of the page upward or from the top downward, but gradually all lines came to be written from left to right successively from the top to the bottom.
The Greek vocabulary is quite abundant and exact. Sufficient words are at the Greek writer’s disposal enabling him to make fine differentiation and to convey just the shade of meaning that he desires. To illustrate, the Greek makes a distinction between ordinary knowledge, gnoʹsis (1 Tim. 6:20), and intensified knowledge, e·piʹgno·sis (1 Tim. 2:4), and between alʹlos (John 14:16), meaning “another” of the same kind, and heʹte·ros, meaning “another” of a different kind. (Gal. 1:6) Many English words have incorporated Greek as well as basic roots, resulting in making the English language more precise and specific in expression.
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.
Generally koi·neʹ Greek is shown to have had five cases. (Some scholars enlarge this to eight.) 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.
In English there are both a definite article (“the”) and an indefinite article (“a,” “an”). Koi·neʹ Greek has but a single article ὁ (ho), which is in some respects the equivalent of the definite article “the” in English. But concerning this feature of Greek it is said that nothing is more native to or inherent in Greek language than the use of the article, and that to discuss it exhaustively would fill a book; also that “the development of the Greek article is one of the most interesting things in human speech.” (A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, p. 754) 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. Also, 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.
By means of the article, the specific is set apart or differentiated from the general or adjectival. For example, at John 1:1, the word the·osʹ, “god,” in its first occurrence in the verse, has the article before it. This distinguishes it from the same word the·osʹ without the article in its second occurrence. A literal English translation of the Greek reads: “In a beginning was the Word, and the Word was with the God, and a god was the Word.” (ED) The first the·osʹ here, having the definite article, obviously refers to Jehovah God the Creator. But the second the·osʹ has no article in Greek. In the English translation, the indefinite article “a” is supplied where no article appears in the Greek. Since, in Greek, the anarthrous noun (noun without the article) can be general or adjectival, the second the·osʹ here is rendered in modern translations as “the Word was a god [general]” (NW) or “the Word was divine [adjectival]” (AT; see also Mo).—Compare The Kingdom Interlinear Translation of the Greek Scriptures.
The Greek article is used not only to set off substantives, as with English, but also with 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 to an entire clause in Greek 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.” (The Kingdom Interlinear Translation of the Greek Scriptures) To get the thought across in English, it is helpful to add the words “problem of,” as stated in A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, page 146: “Paul’s point here is: ‘that problem of praying as we ought we do not know about.’ The article converges the clause into a single point and presents the problem as a particular issue, more rigidly defined than any device of English can render it.” For this reason the rendering “For the [problem of] what we should pray for as we need to we do not know” (NW), gives more accurately the flavor of the writer’s thought.
Greek verbs are built from verbal roots primarily by means of stems and endings, or suffixes and affixes. They are conjugated according to voice, mood, tense, person and number. In Greek they constitute a more difficult study than nouns. Better 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 considered in the following paragraphs.
English has only two voices for its verbs, that is, the active and passive voices, but Greek has a “middle voice.” The Greek scholars Dana and Mantey say the middle voice is “one of the most distinctive and peculiar phenomena of the Greek language. It is impossible to describe it, adequately or accurately, in terms of English idiom, for English knows no approximate parallel. . . . The middle voice is that use of the verb which describes the subject as participating in the results of the action [or, at times, producing the action] . . . . While the active voice emphasizes the action, the middle stresses the agent.”—A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, pp. 156-158.
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·teuʹein, “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 as merely being in the position of Christians, but 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.”—Phil. 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). Time is only a minor consideration in the Greek tenses, say authorities. There are three principal points 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 occurring (“to do”), represented in the aorist (Gr., a·oʹri·stos, “without limits, undefined”). It simply declares something as taking place without reference to its progress or duration or the time of the action. It is the most frequently used of the Greek tenses. There are, of course, the other tenses, the imperfect, the pluperfect and the future, with their subdivisions.
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” (AV). The Greek verb for “sin” is in the aorist tense, hence the time of the action is indefinite. The aorist tense here points to the act of sinning, where 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.”)
But, reading 1 John 3:6, 9 without taking into account the fact that the verb there is in the present tense, as in the Authorized Version, John seems to contradict his words above noted. This version reads: “Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not,” and, “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin.” These renderings fail to carry over into English the continuous action denoted by the present tense of the Greek verbs used. Careful modern translations, instead of saying here, “sinneth not” and “doth not commit sin,” take note of the continuous action and render the verbs accordingly: “does not practice sin,” “does not carry on sin” (NW); “practices sin,” “makes a practice of sinning” (CBW); “does not habitually sin,” “does not practice sin” (Ph); “does not continue to sin” (TEV). Jesus commanded his followers: “Keep on, then, seeking first the kingdom,” indicating continuous effort, rather than merely “Seek ye first the kingdom.”—Matt. 6:33; compare AV; NW.
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. (Matt. 6:25) On the other hand, in the aorist a prohibition was a command against doing something without regard to the time of doing it. Jesus is shown as telling his hearers: “So, never be anxious about the next day” (literally, “be not anxious”). (Matt. 6:34) Here the aorist is used, and “never” helps to put across the sense of the verb in translating the passage into English.
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. The Authorized Version reads: “By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac.” The verb “offered” in this text is in the imperfect tense, which may carry the thought that the action was intended or attempted, but not realized or accomplished. Therefore the rendering. “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, as good as offered up Isaac,” gives the true picture of what took place. Again, as recorded 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” (AV), the passage should read “They were going to call [the young child] by the name of its father, Zechariah” (NW). This is in harmony with what actually took place, namely, that he was named John, according to the angel Gabriel’s instructions.—Luke 1:13.
Much more could be said that would stress the need for careful attention to the various peculiar features of the Greek language in getting more accurately in Bible translation the fine shades of thought expressed by the inspired inspired writers of the Christian Greek Scriptures.
This refers to the spelling of Greek words with letters of the English alphabet. The style of transliterating used in this publication is similar to that employed in many Bible reference works. In most instances it is simply a letter-for-letter substitution, b for β, g for γ, and so on. This is also true of the Greek vowels, a for α, e for ε, e for η, i for ι, o for ο, y for υ and o for ω. Some works distinguish the long and short vowels by marking them accordingly.
The above general rule of letter-for-letter substitution also applies to most diphthongs: ai for αι, ei for ει, oi for οι. The Greek letter yʹpsi·lon (υ) is an exception in the following instances: αυ is au, not ay; ευ is eu, not ey; ου is ou, not oy; υι is ui, not yi; ηυ is eu, not ey.
However, there are occasions when what may at first appear to be a diphthong will have a diaeresis ( ͏̈) over the second letter, as, for instance, αϋ, εϋ, οϋ, ηϋ, ωϋ, αϊ, οϊ. The diaeresis over an i·oʹta (ϊ) or yʹpsi·lon (ϋ) shows that it does not really form a diphthong with the vowel preceding it. Thus the yʹpsi·lon with a diaeresis is transliterated y, not u. The above examples would be ay, ey, oy, ey, oy, ai, oi respectively.
In some diphthongs, ᾳ, ῃ, ῳ, the second vowel, a small i·oʹta (ι) (called an i·oʹta subscript) is written beneath the first vowel. They are sometimes referred to as “improper diphthongs” In transliterating these Greek forms the i·oʹta (or i) is not placed below the line, but next to and following the letter under which it appears. Thus ᾳ is ai, ῃ is ei and ῳ is oi. In each case the first vowel is “long.”
There are three types of accents in Greek: the acute (΄), the circumflex ( ͏̑) and the grave (`) . In the Greek these appear over the vowel of the syllables they accentuate. However, in this publication the accent mark comes at the end of the accented syllable and only one mark is used for all three types of Greek accents. Λόγος is thus marked loʹgos; ζῶον would be zoʹon.
As an aid to pronunciation, either a dot or the accent mark is used to separate all syllables. A Greek word has as many syllables as it has vowels or diphthongs. Thus λόγος (loʹgos) has two vowels and therefore two syllables. The two vowels of a diphthong make one syllable, not two. Δαίμων (daiʹmon) has one diphthong (ai) and one other vowel (o) and thus has two syllables.
For the sake of uniformity in syllable division we have observed the following rules: (1) When a single consonant occurs in the middle of a word, it is placed with the following vowel in the next syllable. Πατήρ would be pa·terʹ. (2) Sometimes a combination of consonants appears in the middle of a Greek word. If this same combination of consonants can be used to start a Greek word, it may also begin a syllable. For instance, χόσμος would be divided koʹsmos. The sm is kept with the second vowel. This is because many Greek words—like smyr·na—open with those same two consonants. However, when a certain combination of consonants is found in the middle of a word and there is no Greek word beginning with that same combination, they are separated. Thus βυσσός is transliterated herein as bys·sosʹ, since ss does not start any Greek word.
A vowel at the beginning of a word requires either a “smooth” breathing mark (ʼ), or a “rough” breathing mark (ʽ). The “smooth” breathing mark (ʼ) may be disregarded in transliteration; the “rough” breathing mark (ʽ) calls for an h to be added at the start of the word. If the first letter is capitalized, these breathing marks occur before the word. In that case, ʼI becomes I, while ʽI is transliterated as Hi. When words begin with the small letters, the breathing marks appear over the first, or, in the case of most diphthongs, over the second letter. Therefore αι’ών becomes ai·onʹ, while ἁγνός is hag·nosʹ and αἱρέομαι is hai·reʹo·mai.
Additionally, the Greek letter hro (ρ), transliterated r, always requires a “rough” breathing mark (ʽ) at the start of a word. So ῥαββί is hrab·biʹ. Sometimes two of these letters occur together in the middle of a word, the second hro having a “rough” breathing mark above it. Here it is necessary to insert the letter h between the first and second hro. Thus ἀῤῤητος becomes arʹhre·tos.
[Chart on page 696]
Letter Name Transliteration and
Α α alʹpha a
Β β beʹta b
Γ γ gamʹma g, hard, as in begin2
Δ δ delʹta d
Ε ε eʹpsi·lon e, short, as in met
Ζ ζ zeʹta z
Η η eʹta e, long, as in they
Θ θ theʹta th
Ι ι i·oʹta i as in machine
Κ κ kapʹpa k
Λ λ lamʹbda l
Μ μ my m
Ν ν ny n
Ξ ξ xi x
Ο ο oʹmi·kron o, short, as in lot
Π π pi p
Ρ ρ hro r
Σ σ, ς3 sigʹma s
Τ τ tau t
Υ υ yʹpsi·lon y or u, French u or German ü
Φ φ phi ph as in phase
Χ χ khi kh as in elkhorn
Ψ ψ psi ps as in lips
Ω ω o·meʹga o, long, as in note
1 Pronunciation shown here differs from modern Greek.
2 Before κ, ξ, χ, or another γ it is nasal, and pronounced like ng in anger.
3 Used only at the end of a word when sigʹma occurs.