The “Uncommon” Greek of the Christian Greek Scriptures
THE ability to speak intelligently, to form and use a language to convey thoughts and ideas, is one of the many things that sets man far above the brute creation. And ever since the building of the Tower of Babel there have been many different tongues or languages upon earth.—Gen. 11:1-9.
For convenience in classifying the languages of man, those who have made a study of them, such as the philologists, have divided them into certain major families according to their peculiar characteristics. These major families we might liken to so many trees in the orchard or forest of speech, and of these there are ten that are spoken by anywhere from 1 to 50 percent of earth’s population. The most widely used is the Indo-European family or tree of languages, it being spoken by 50 percent of earth’s population.
This Indo-European family or tree might be said to consist of two main trunks, an Eastern and a Western, together having six large branches, which, in turn, might be said to have a number of twigs. Thus there is (1) the Indo-Iranian branch, which takes in Sanskrit, Iranian (Persian) and the modern Indian languages such as Hindustani; (2) the Balto-Slavic branch, which includes such languages as Lithuanian, Polish, Russian and Ukrainian; (3) the Germanic (Teutonic) branch, taking in not only German but also English, Dutch and all the Scandinavian tongues; (4) the Romance or Italic branch, consisting chiefly of French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese; (5) the Celtic branch, which includes Irish (Gaelic) and Welsh, and (6) the Greek branch. Two minor branches, Albanian and Armenian, are also included.
The Indo-European languages are so called because of their location, being found in India and Europe, and they are grouped together because they appear to have had a common ancestor, which may well have been Sanskrit. These languages have clearly defined parts of speech, such as nouns, pronouns, verbs, and so forth, and their words are inflected, that is, slightly changed, usually in the endings, to show changes in gender, number and case. Also, the fact that these languages have certain simple words, such as “mother” and “father,” in common, suggests a common ancestry. Thus “mother” is matʹ in Russian; mater, in Latin; mater, in Sanskrit; madre, in Spanish; meter, in Greek, and mutter, in German.
Of all the Indo-European languages, Greek is, next to Sanskrit (no longer spoken), the oldest, and it is considered by many to be the language par excellence, the one excelling all the rest. It appears to be the language most highly developed as well as the most clearly defined.
Greek first began to be written from right to left, even as Hebrew today still is, and then alternately from right to left and then left to right, back and forth from line to line, even as a farmer would plow his field. Later all lines were written from left to right. In early times the lines were written from bottom upward as well as from the top downward, but gradually all writing was done from the top to the bottom.
USED BY BIBLE WRITERS
Of course, for all Bible lovers Greek has particular interest in that the Christian Greek Scriptures were written under inspiration in Greek and in that the very first complete written translation of the Hebrew Scriptures was into Greek.
How did it come about that the Jews in the land of Israel wrote the Christian Scriptures in Greek? This was largely due to the conquests of Alexander the Great, who was as ambitious to spread Greek culture as he was to extend Greek political dominance. With its spread, the dominant Greek, which was Attic—of Athens—was gradually modified, eventually resulting in a common language, known as koiné or “common” Greek. It became an international, a universal language, holding sway from about 330 B.C.E., until 330 C.E. Its success most likely was as much due to its merits as a language as to the Grecianizing efforts of Alexander and succeeding Greek rulers. While there have been several changes in Greek since koiné held sway, the difference between it and that found in a contemporary Athens newspaper is very slight.
How widespread the use of koiné Greek was can be seen in the fact that the decrees of the imperial governors and of the Roman Senate were translated into Greek to be scattered over the Roman Empire. Likewise the charge over Jesus’ head at the time of his impalement was written, not only in official Latin and in Hebrew, but also in Greek. Without doubt Jesus gave many of his sermons in Greek, specially when preaching in Tyre, Sidon and the region of the Decapolis (the Greek ten cities). Possibly Peter spoke Greek on the day of Pentecost, for it is not mentioned among the languages at which the Jews marveled.—Acts 2:8-11.
Regarding the use of Greek in the land of Israel at the time of Christ we are told: “Although the main body of the Jewish people rejected Hellenism and its ways, intercourse with the Greek people and the use of the Greek language was by no means eschewed [shunned]. The Palestinian teachers regarded the Greek translation of the Scriptures with favor, as an instrument for carrying the truth to the Gentiles, and one of the qualifications for membership of the Sanhedrin was a knowledge of languages, including Greek. . . . Diplomatic intercourse was carried on through Greek. Terms involving Jewish worship and ritual came to be Greek in origin,”a a case in point being the term “synagogue,” meaning an assembly.
THE UNCOMMON YET “COMMON” TONGUE
It is indeed of interest that koiné Greek was the language in which the Christian Greek Scriptures were first written, for it had two major advantages over every other language of the day. First of all, it was the universal language. By means of it the early Christians were able to reach the greatest number of people in the shortest period of time, as it did not first require translation to get a wide audience. The fishermen of Galilee understood it and so did the senators of Rome. Wherever Paul and his companions traveled they found people who spoke Greek.
And secondly, koiné Greek was ideally suited for the noble Gospel message directed to the common man, in that it might be said to have been a popularized version of the classical Attic Greek. Still, while avoiding the highly polished style of the classical writers, the Christian Greek Scripture penmen, nevertheless, rose, in their use of koiné Greek, far above the common trivialities of the everyday Greek as found in the Egyptian papyri. They gave to koiné Greek, power, dignity and warmth by reason of their exalted message, which truly was “the greatest story ever told.”
Is not this just the way it should have been? The Gospel message was directed to the simple, honest, common folk, to enlighten, to convince and to move them to action. Its purpose was not to entertain, to appeal to the esthetic sense, or to flatter one’s vanity. As the apostle Paul himself declared: “I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come with an extravagance of speech or of wisdom . . . and my speech and what I preached were not with persuasive words of wisdom but with a demonstration of spirit and power, that your faith might be, not in men’s wisdom, but in God’s power.” (1 Cor. 2:1-5) As the Bible scholar Westcott put it: “It [the koiné Greek used by such as Paul] combines the simple directness of Hebrew thought with the precision of Greek expression.”
ITS VOCABULARY AND DEFINITE ARTICLE
Among the things that help make Greek a rich and an exact language is its vocabulary. For example, as many Watchtower readers already know, in Greek there are four words for “love”: agápe, unselfish, principled love; philía, the affection displayed by friends who have much in common; storgé, the love based on blood relationship; and éros, the feeling associated with sexual attraction and desire, which word, however, was not used by Christian Bible writers.b Thus also there are four Greek words that in the King James Version are once or oftener rendered by the one English word “world”: aión (Matt. 12:32); kósmos (Matt. 4:8); gē (Rev. 13:3) and oikouménē (Matt. 24:14). The New World Translation distinguishes consistently between these four words, rendering them respectively “system of things,” “world,” “earth” and “inhabited earth.”
In particular is the definite article important in Greek, and its use in the Scriptures is more like the classical Attic Greek than like the koiné Greek of the papyri. Concerning this definite article we are told that nothing is more truly distinctive about Greek than its use of it. For one thing, it stands in striking contrast to the two languages closest to Greek, namely, Sanskrit and Latin, which do not have the definite article. And its use in Greek is also in contrast with the English definite article “the,” for it is never inflected, remaining the same wherever used, whereas there are eighteen forms of the Greek definite article, depending upon whether what it makes definite is singular or plural, is masculine, feminine or neuter, and depending upon the case, whether it is nominative, possessive, objective, and so forth, there being five cases in Greek.
By means of this Greek definite article the general or adjectival is set off or differentiated from the specific. Thus John 1:1 (in part) can be rendered either as “The Word was with [the] God and the Word was a god,” or “the Word was with [the] God, and the Word was divine.” (AT) And in Greek the definite article is used not only to set off nouns but also to stress other parts of speech and even clauses and sentences. To illustrate: The use of the definite article to set off an adjective is found at John 10:11, where we read according to the literal Greek, “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 definite article’s being applied to an entire phrase is found at Romans 8:26, where the phrase “what we should pray for as we need to” is preceded by the definite article in the neuter gender. To get the thought across in English it was necessary to add the words “problem of,” for which reason the New World Translation reads “for the [problem of] what we should pray for as we need to we do not know.”
THE AORIST VS. THE PRESENT TENSE
Helping to make the Greek an exact language is also the aorist or indefinite or unlimited form or tense of the Greek verb. It is, if not the most important, one of the most prevalent and most distinctive characteristics of Greek, and this is even more true of koiné Greek than it is of Attic or classical Greek. The aorist refers to a single act and so stands in contrast to the present tense and is said to be punctiliar or relating to a point of time, rather than linear or continuous. Illustrating the difference between these two tenses is the counsel of the apostle John in regard to sin, which difference most translators overlook. Thus at 1 John 2:1 he states: “If anyone does commit a sin, we have a helper with the Father.” But at 1 John 3:6 he states: “Everyone remaining in union with him does not practice sin.” Yes, a Christian may at some time, in the past, at present or in the future, commit an act of sin (aorist), but he does not make a practice of sin, he does not continue in it (present tense). Failing to recognize the distinction, most translators make it appear as if John were contradicting himself.
In prohibitions these two are also contrasted. A prohibition in the present tense means, not merely not to do a thing, but to stop doing it. Thus Jesus, en route to Golgotha, did not merely tell the women following him, ‘Do not weep,’ but, rather, since they were already weeping, “Stop weeping for me.” (Luke 23:28) Likewise to the money changers and others who were making God’s house a house of merchandise, Jesus did not merely say, ‘Do not,’ but “Stop making the house of my Father a house of merchandise!” (John 2:16) See also John 20:17, 1 Corinthians 7:23. On the other hand, a prohibition expressed in the aorist is an exhortation or command against doing something not yet begun. Thus Jesus told us to pray to God, “Do not [ever] bring us into temptation.” He did not ask us to pray, ‘Stop leading us into temptation,’ as if God were already doing such a thing. (Luke 11:4) While it is not always possible to get the fine shades of meaning of the Greek over into another language, it does seem strange that so many modern translations overlook so many of them. The New World Translation is unique in many of these respects.
Many, many other examples might be given to show how Greek excels as an exact and beautiful language, as by its many cases, its “middle voice,” and so forth, but the foregoing should help to show why Greek is rated so highly among philologists and others who study languages. And it also helps to explain why the Creator had the good news of his kingdom, which was to be published world wide, first given to men in the exact, choice and universal koiné Greek of the Christian Greek Scriptures. Truly this common, koiné, Greek is an uncommon language!
a Hellenism, Bentwich (1919), pp. 115-118.