The Bible and Modern Discoveries (2): “New Testament” Greek

July 30, 2019

Greek is the original language of most of the books of the New Testament. Only the gospel of St. Matthew is an exception. According to tradition, it was written in the Hebrew language and translated into Greek by the Evangelist himself.

However, what is now referred to as “New Testament” Greek has particularities that until the nineteenth century gave rise to curious explanations and speculation.

In fact, until about 200 years ago, the only Greek texts transmitted since antiquity were those of the great authors: poets like Homer, historians like Herodotus or Thucydides, doctors like Hippocrates, philosophers like Plato or the Cynics. This language is that of a refined culture. It was the only one known in the West in medieval times and the following centuries.

The comparison of that Greek with the language of the New Testament is confusing. In the latter we find words, forms, constructions, and phrases that could be described as vulgarisms, more of a popular style. The scholars of the Renaissance were unfavorable in their judgement of the Greek New Testament. Their opinion is summed up in these words of Claude Saumaise (1588-1653), “Like the men [the authors of the New Testament], so also their language. Their language is the so-called idiotikos [personal], the common and popular language. For it is called idiotai, of the common man without literary education, who employ the language that the people use in their conversation.”

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there was dispute over the quality and nature of the New Testament Greek. This discussion gave rise to the purist, Hebrew, and empiricist systems.

1. In the early eighteenth century, the purists defended, against all evidence, the absolute purity and correctness of the New Testament.

2. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Hebrewists believed that the New Testament writers had thought in Hebrew and translated their thoughts into Greek. Their language would be only transposed Hebrew.

3. The eighteenth-century empiricists argued that the New Testament writers did not know Greek and wrote it in a haphazard manner. Thus, the New Testament writers could have used one time for another, one mode for another, one case for another, etc.

The Discovery of Koine Greek

But all these systems collapsed after the discovery of thousands of Greek writings in the excavations of Egypt, Persia, and the Near East: stone, papyrus, ostraca—fragments of pottery, —clay tablets and parchments, so much evidence spanning a long series of centuries.

From the point of view of language, these discoveries made possible the study of the Greek called “koine,” or common Greek, which served as the lingua franca throughout the Mediterranean region, especially after the conquests of Alexander the Great. This common language was less correct than the classical language, often mixed with words or phrases borrowed from the language of the speakers. Thus, Greek spoken in Palestine is marked by Hebrew and Aramaic.

The Apostles naturally spoke the language of their time, koinè, and left their writings in this form so as to be accessible to their contemporaries. Thus, the New Testament and the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament, for centuries have been the main witnesses of this common language, before it was rediscovered in the nineteenth century.