Language of the New Testament

lan'-gwaj (Greek).



1. The Old Point of View

2. The Revolution

3. The Proof of the New Position

(1) The Papyri

(2) The Ostraka

(3) The Inscriptions

(4) Modern Greek

(5) Historical and Comparative Grammar

4. Characteristics of the Vernacular "Koine"






I. The Vernacular "Koine" the Language of the New Testament.

1. The Old Point of View:

The ghost of the old Purist controversy is now laid to rest for good and all. The story of that episode has interest chiefly for the historian of language and of the vagaries of the human intellect. See Winer-Thayer, Grammar of the Idiom of the New Testament, 1869, 12-19, and Schmiedel's Winer, sectopm 2, for a sketch of this once furious strife. In the 17th century various scholars tried to prove that the Greek of the New Testament was on a paragraph with the literary Attic of the classic period. But the Hebraists won the victory over them and sought to show that it was Hebraic Greek, a special variety, if not dialect, a Biblical Greek The 4th edition of Cremer's Biblico-Theological Lexicon of New Testament Greek (translated by W. Urwick, 1892) quotes, with approval, Rothe's remark (Dogmatik, 1863, 238):

"We may appropriately speak of a language of the Holy Ghost. For in the Bible it is evident that the Holy Spirit has been at work, moulding for itself a distinctively religious mode of expression out of the language of the country which it has chosen as its sphere, and transforming the linguistic elements which it found ready to hand, and even conceptions already existing, into a shape and form appropriate to itself and all its own." Cremer adds: "We have a very clear and striking proof of this in New Testament Greek."

This was only twenty years ago and fairly represented the opinion of that day. Hatch in 1889 (Essays in Biblical Greek, 34) held that with most of the New Testament words the key lay in the Septuagint. But Winer (Winer-Thayer, 20) had long ago seen that the vernacular koine was "the special foundation of the diction of the New Testament," though he still admitted "a Jewish-Greek, which native Greeks did not entirely understand" (p. 27). He did not see the practical identity of New Testament Greek with the vernacular koine--("common" Greek), nor did Schmiedel in the 8. Auflage of Winer (I. Theil; II. Theil, erstes Heft, 1894-97). In the second edition of his Grammar of New Testament Greek (English translation by Thackeray, 1905, 2), Blass sees the dawn of the new day, though his book was first written before it came. Viteau (Etude sur le grec du Nouveau Testament, I, Le verbe, 1893, II, Le sujet, 1896) occupies wholly the old position of a Judaic Greek. An extreme instance of that view is seen in Guillemard's Hebraisms in the Greek Testament (1879).

2. The Revolution:

A turn toward the truth comes with H. A. A. Kennedy's Sources of the New Testament Greek (1895). He finds the explanation of the vocabulary of both the Septuagint and the New Testament to be the vernacular which he traces back to Aristophanes. It is a good exercise to read Westcott's discussion of the "Language of the NT" in DB, III (1888), and then turn to Moulton, "Language of the New Testament," in the 1-vol HDB. Westcott says: "The chief peculiarities of the syntax of the New Testament lie in the reproduction of Hebrew forms." Moulton remarks: "There is no reason to believe that any New Testament writer who ever lived in Palestine learned Greek only as a foreign language when he went abroad." Still better is it to read Moulton, "New Testament Greek in the Light of Modern Discovery" in Cambridge Biblical Essays (1909, 461-505); Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East (1911); or Angus, "The koine, the Language of the New Testament," Princeton Review, January, 1910, 42-92. The revolution has come to stay. It is now clear that the Greek of the New Testament is not a jargon nor a patois. In all essential respects it is just the vernacular koine of the 1st century AD, the lingua franca of the Greek-Roman empire, the legacy of Alexander the Great's conquest of the East. This world-speech was at bottom the late Attic vernacular with dialectical and provincial influences. It was not a decaying tongue, but a virile speech admirably adapted to the service of the many peoples of the time. The able article in volume III of HDB on the "Language of the New Testament" by Dr. J. H. Thayer appeared in 1900, and illustrates how quickly an encyclopedia article may become out of date. There is a wealth of knowledge here displayed, as one would expect, but Thayer still speaks of "this species of Greek," "this peculiar idiom, .... Jewish Greek," though he sees that its basis is "the common or spoken Greek." The last topic discussed by him is "Problems." He little thought that the biggest "problem" so near solution was the character of the language itself. It was Adolph Deissmann, then of Heidelberg, now of Berlin, who opened the new era in the knowledge of the language of the New Testament. His Bibelstudien (zumeist aus den Papyri und Inschriften zur Geschichte der Sprache, des Schrifttums und der Religion des hellenistischen Judentums und des Urchristentums) appeared in 1895. In this epoch-making volume he proved conclusively from the papyri and the inscriptions that many of the seeming Hebraisms in the Septuagint and the New Testament were common idioms in the vernacular koine. He boldly claimed that the bulk of the Hebraisms were falsely so termed, except in the case of translating Greek from the Hebrew or Aramaic or in "perfect" Hebraisms, genuine Greek usage made more common by reason of similarity to the Semitic idiom. In 1897 he produced Neue Bibelstudien, sprachgeschichtliche Beitrage zumeist aus den Papyri und Inschriften zur Erklarung des Neuen Testaments.

In 1901 (2nd edition in 1903) these two volumes were translated as one by A. Grieve under the title Bible Studies. Deissmann's other volumes have confirmed his thesis. The most important are New Light on the New Testament (1907), The Philology of the Greek Bible (1908), Licht vom Osten (1908), Light from the Ancient East (translation by Strachan, 1910), Paul in the Light of Social and Religious History (1912). In Light from the Ancient East, Deissmann illustrates the New Testament language with much detail from the papyri, ostraka and inscriptions. He is now at work on a new lexicon of the New Testament which will make use of the fresh knowledge from these sources.

The otherwise helpful work of E. Preuschen, Vollstandiges griechisch-deutsches Handworterbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und der ubrigen urchristlichen Literatur (1908-10), fails to utilize the papyri and inscriptions while drawing on the Septuagint and the New Testament Apocrypha and other early Christian literature. But this has been done by Ebeling in his Griechisch-deutsches Worterbuch zum New Testament, 1913. The next step was made by A. Thumb, the great philologian, in his Griechische Sprache im Zeitalter des Hellenismus; Beitrage zur Geschichte und Beurteilung der "koine," 1901, in which the real character of the koine was for the first time properly set forth.

Winer and Blass had both lamented the need of a grammar of the koine, and that demand still exists, but Thumb went a long way toward supplying it in this volume. It is to be hoped that he will yet prepare a grammar of the koine. Thumb's interests cover the whole range of comparative philology, but he has added in this field "Die Forschungen fiber die hellenistische Sprache in den Jahren 1896-1901," Archiv fur Papyrusforschung, II, 396 f; "Prinzipienfragen der Koina-Forschung," Neue Jahrb. fur das kl. Alt., 1906; "Die sprachgeschichtliche Stellung des biblischen Griechisch," Theologische Rundschau, V, 85-99.

The other most important name to add is that of J. Hope Moulton, who has the credit of being the first to apply the new knowledge directly to the New Testament Greek His Grammar of New Testament Greek, I, Prolegomena (1906, 2nd edition, 1906, 3rd edition, 1908, German translation in 1911, Einleitung in die Sprache des New Testament) is a brilliant piece of work and relates the Greek of the New Testament in careful detail to the vernacular koine, and shows that in all important points it is the common Greek of the time and not a Hebraic Greek. Moulton probably pressed his point too far in certain respects in his zeal against Hebraisms, but the essential position of Deissmann and Moulton is undoubtedly sound.

Moulton had previously published the bulk of this material as "Grammatical Notes from the Papyri," The Expositor, 1901, 271-82; 1903, 104-21, 423-39; The Classical Review, 1901, 31-37, 434-41; 1904, 106-12, 151-55; "Characteristics of New Testament Greek, " The Expositor, 1904.

In 1909 appeared his essay, Greek in the Light of Modern Discovery (see above). Since 1908, The Expositor has had a series of papers by J.H. Moulton and George Milligan called "Lexical Notes from the Papyri," which are very useful on the lexical side of the language. Thus the study is fairly launched on its new career. In 1900, A.T. Robertson produced a Syllabus on the New Testament Greek Syntax from the standpoint of comparative philology, which was rewritten in 1908, with the added viewpoint of the papyri researches, as A Short Grammar of the Greek New Testament (2nd edition, 1909, 3rd edition, 1912; translations in Italian in 1910, German and French in 1911, Dutch in 1912). In October, 1909, S. Angus published a good article in the Harvard Theological Review on "Modern Methods in New Testament Philology," followed in January, 1910, by another in the Princeton Review on "The koine, the Language of the New Testament." The new knowledge appears also in Jakob Wackernagel, "Die griechische Sprache" (pp. 291-318, 2nd edition, of Die griechische und lateinische Literatur und Sprache, 1907). L. Radermachcr has set forth very ably "die sprachlichen Vorgange in ihrem Zusammenhang," in his Neutestamentliche Grammatik: Das Griechisch des Neuen Testaments im Zusammenhang mit der Volkssprache. It is in reality the background of the New Testament Greek and is a splendid preparation for the study of the Greek New Testament. A full discussion of the new knowledge in grammatical detail has been prepared by A.T. Robertson under the title A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research. Moulton and Schmiedel are planning also to complete their works.

3. The Proof of the New Position:

The proof of the new position is drawn from several sources:

(1) The Papyri.

These rolls have lain in the museums of the world many years and attracted little attention. For lists of the chief collections of the papyri see Moulton, Prolegomena, 259-62; Milligan, Selections from the Greek Papyri, xi, xii; Mayser, Grammatik der griechischen Papyri aus der Ptolemaerzeit; Lautund Wortlehre, vii-x; Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East, 20-41; Robertson, Grammar of the Greek New Testament, Bibliography. New volumes of papyri as a result of recent explorations in Egypt are published each year. See PAPYRUS, and in the other encyclopedias under the word. Most of the papyri discovered belong to the period of the koine (the first three centuries BC and AD in round numbers), and with great wealth of illustration they show the life of the common people of the time, whether in Egypt or Herculaneum (the two chief regions represented). There are various degrees of culture shown, as can be seen in any of the large volumes of Grenfell and Hunt, or in the handbooks of Lietzmann, Griechische Papyri (1905), and of Milligan, Greek Papyri (1910). They come from the scrap-heaps of the long ago, and are mainly receipts, contracts, letters of business or love, military documents, etc. They show all grades of culture, from the illiterate with phonetic spelling to the man of the schools. But we have here the language of life, not of the books. In a most startling way one notes the similarities of vocabulary, forms, and syntax between the language of the papyri of the 1st century AD and that of the New Testament books. As early as 1778, F.W. Sturz, made use of the Charta Borgiana, "the first papyrus ever brought to Europe" (Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East, 39), and in 1841 Thiersch likewise saw the value of the papyri for the philology of the Septuagint. But the matter was not pressed. Lightfoot threw out a hint about the value of letters of the people, which was not followed till Deissmann saw the point; compare Moulton, Prol., 242. It is not necessary here to illustrate the matter at length. Deissmann takes up in detail the "Biblical" words in Thayer's Lexicon, and has no difficulty in finding most of them in the papyri (or inscriptions). Thus plerophoreo, is shown to be common in the papyri. See Deissmann, Bible Studies and Light from the Ancient East, for extensive lists. The papyri show also the same meanings for many words once thought peculiar to the Bible or the New Testament. An instance is seen in the official sense of presbuteros, in the papyri, 5 ho presbuteros les komes (Pap. Lugd. A 35 f), "without doubt an official designation" (Deissmann, Bible Studies, 155). So adelphos, for members of the community, anastrophe, for manner of life, antilempsis, "help," leitourgia, "public service," paroikos, "sojourner," etc. (Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East, 107). R. Helbing (Grammatik der Septuaginta, 1908) and H. John Thackeray (A Grammar of the Old Testament in Greek according to the Septuagint, 1909) have applied the new knowledge to the language of the Septuagint, and it has been discussed with much ability in the first volumes. The use of the papyri for grammatical purposes is made easier by the excellent volume of E. Mayser, Grammatik der griechischen Papyri aus der Ptolemaerzeit; Laut- und Wortlehre (1906), though his "Syntax," is still a desideratum. Useful also is G. Cronert, Memoria Graeca Herculanensis (1903).

(2) The Ostraka.

The literature on this subject is still small in bulk. In 1899 Ulrich Wilcken published Griechische Ostraka aus Aegypten und Nubien, and in 1902 W.E. Crum produced his book of Christian ostraka called Coptic Ostraca from the Collections of the Egypt Exploration Fund, the Cairo Museum, and Others. This was followed in 1905 by H.R. Hall's Coptic and Greek Texts of the Christian Period from Ostraka, Stelae, etc. These broken pieces of pottery were used by the lowest classes as writing material. It was very widely used because it was so very cheap. Wilcken has done more than anyone else to collect and decipher the ostraka. Deissmann (Light from the Ancient East, 46) notes that Cleanthes the Stoic "wrote on ostraka or on leather" because too poor to buy papyrus. So he quotes the apology of a Christian for using potsherd for a letter: "Excuse me that I cannot find papyrus as I am in the country" (Crum, Coptic Ostraca, 55). The use of apecho, on an ostrakon for a receipt in full, illustrates well the frequent use of this word in the New Testament (Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East, 111).

(3) The Inscriptions.

Here caution must be used since many of the inscriptions give, not the vernacular, but the literary language. The official (legal and military) decrees often appear in very formal style. But a number do preserve the vernacular idiom and often have the advantage of being dated. These inscriptions are chiefly on stone, but some are on metal and there are a few wax tablets. The material is vast and is constantly growing. See list of the chief collections in Deissmann's Light from the Ancient East, 10-20. Boeckh is the great name here. As early as 1779 Walch (Observationes in Matt. ex graecis inscriptionibus) made use of Greek inscriptions for New Testament exegesis, and R.A. Lipsius says that his father (K.H.A. Lipsius, author of Grammatische Untersuchungen uber die biblische Gracitat) "contemplated a large grammar of the Greek Bible in which he would have availed himself of the discoveries in modern epigraphy" (Deissmann, Light, etc., 15). Schmiedel has made good use of the inscriptions so far in his revision of Winer; H.A.A. Kennedy (Sources of New Testament Greek, 1895), H. Anz (Subsidia ad Cogn., etc., 1894), R. Helbing (Grammatik der Septuaginta, 1908), J. Psichari (Essai sur le Grec de la Septante, 1908), H. John Thackeray (A Grammar of the Old Testament in Greek according to the Septuagint, 1909), and R. Meister (Prol. zu einer Grammatik der Septuaginta, 1907) turned to good account the inscriptions for the linguistic problems of the Septuagint, as indeed Hatch (Essays in Biblical Greek, 1889) had already done. W. Dittenberger added some valuable "Grammatica et orthographica" to his Orientis Graeci Inscriptiones Selectae (2 volumes, 1903, 1905). See also E. L. Hicks and G. F. Hill, Greek Historical Inscriptions (1901), and Hicks's paper "On Some Political Terms Employed in the New Testament," Classical Review, 1887, 4 ff, 42 ff. W. M. Ramsay's Cities and Bishoprics of Phrygia (2 volumes, 1895, 1897) and his other works show keen insight in the use of the inscriptions. Deissmann's Bible Studies (1895, 1901) applied the knowledge of the inscriptions to the Septuagint and to the New Testament. In his Light from the Ancient East (1910) copious use is made of the inscriptions for New Testament study. Moulton (Prol., 1906, 258 f, for lists) is alive to the value of the inscriptions for New Testament grammar, as indeed was Blass (Grammatik des neutestamentlichen Griechisch, 1896) before him.

Compare further, G. Thieme, Die Inschriften von Magnesia am Maander und das Neue Testament (1906); T. Nageli, Der Wortschatz des Apostels Paulus (1905), and J. Rouffiac, Recherches sur les caracteres du Grec dans le New Testament d'apres les Inscr. de Priene (1911). Special treatises or phases of the grammar of the inscriptions appear in Meisterhans-Schwyzer, Grammatik der attischen Inschriften (1900); Nachmanson, Laute und Formen der magnetischen Inschriften (1896); Schweizer, Grammatik der pergamenischen Inschriften (1898).

Moulton and Milligan have drawn freely also on the inscriptions for their "Lexical Studies" running in The Expositor (1908 and the years following). The value of the inscriptions for the Greek of the New Testament is shown at every turn. For instance, prototokos, is no longer a "Biblical" word. It appears in a metrical inscription (undated) of Trachonitis on a tomb of a pagan "high priest" and "friend of the gods" (Deissmann, Light, etc., 88); compare Kaibel, Epigrammata Graeca, etc., number 460. Even agape, occurs on a pagan inscription of Pisidia (Papers of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2, 57). See, further, W.H.P. Hatch's "Some Illustrations of New Testament Usage from Greek Inscriptions of Asia Minor," Journal of Biblical Literature, 1908, 134-146.

(4) Modern Greek.

As early as 1834 Heilmeier saw that the modern Greek vernacular went back to the koine (Moulton, Prologoumena, 29), but it is only in recent years that it was clearly seen that the modern Greek of the schools and usually in the newspapers is artificial, and not the real vernacular of today. Mullach's work (Grammatik der griechischen Vulgarsprache, 1856) was deficient in this respect. But Jannaris' Historical Greek Grammar (1897) carries the history of the vernacular Greek along with the literary style. Hatzidakis, Einleitung in die neugriechische Grammatik, 1892, clears the air very much and connects the modern Greek with the New Testament. But it is to Thumb that we are indebted for the best knowledge of the vernacular (he demotike) as opposed to the literary language (he kathareuousa) of today. Mitsotakis (Praktische Grammatik, 1891) had treated both together, though Wied (Die Kunst, die neugriechische Volksprache) gave only the vernacular. But Wied is only elementary. Thumb alone has given an adequate treatment of the modern Greek vernacular, showing its unity and historical contact with the vernacular koine (Handbuch der neugriechischen Volkssprache, 1895; Thumb-Angus, Handbook of Modern Greek Vernacular, 1912). Thus one can see the living stream of the New Testament speech as it has come on down through the ages. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of modern Greek vernacular in the knowledge of New Testament Greek. The disappearance of the optative, the vanishing of the infinitive before hina, and itacism are but instances of many others which are luminous in the light of the modern Greek vernacular. See Psichari, Essais de grammaire historique neo-grecque (1886-89).

(5) Historical and Comparative Grammar.

From this source the koine gets a new dignity. It will take one too far afield to sketch here the linguistic revolution wrought since the publication of, and partly caused by, Bopp's Vergleichende Grammatik (1857), following Sir William Jones' discovery of Sanskrit. The great work of Brugmann and Delbruck (Grundriss der vergleichenden Grammatik der indogermanischen Sprachen, I-V, 1892-1909) marks the climax of the present development, though many workers have won distinction in this field. The point to accent here is that by means of comparative philology the Greek language is seen in its proper relations with other languages of the Indo-Germanic family, and the right interpretation of case, preposition, mode, tense, voice, etc., is made possible. The old traditional empiricism is relegated to the scrap-heap, and a new grammatical science consonant with the facts has taken its place. See Delbruck, Introduction to the Study of Language (1882), Giles, Short Manual of Comparative Philology (1901), for a resume of the facts. Wright, Comparative Grammar of the Greek Language (1912), applies the new learning to the Greek tongue. The progress in classical scholarship is well shown by Sandys in his History of Classical Scholarship (I-III, 1906-8) and by Gudeman, Geschichte der klass. Philologie, 2. Aufl, 1909. Innumerable monographs have enriched the literature of this subject. It is now feasible to see the Greek language as a whole, and grasp its historical unity. Seen in this light the koine is not a dying tongue or a corrupt dialect. It is a normal and natural evolution of the Greek dialects into a world-speech when Alexander's conquests made it possible. The vernacular koine which has developed into the modern Greek vernacular was itself the direct descendant of the Attic vernacular which had its roots in the vernacular of the earlier dialects. The dialectical developments are closely sketched by Thumb, Handbuch der griechischen Dialekte (1909), and by Buck, Introduction to the Study of Greek Dialects (1910), not to mention the older works of Hoffmann, Meister, etc. Jannaris has undertaken in his Historical Greek Grammar (1897) to sketch and interpret the facts of the Greek tongue throughout its long career, both in its literary and vernacular aspects. He has succeeded remarkably well on the whole, though not quite seeing the truth about the modern Greek vernacular. Schanz is seeking to lay the foundation for still better work by his Beitrage zur historischen Syntax der griechischen Sprache (1882 and the years following). But the New Testament student must be open to all the new light from this region, and it is very great. See, further, Dieterich, Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der griech. Sprache von der hellen. Zeit (1898).

4. Characteristics of the Vernacular "Koine":

As already indicated, the Greek of the New Testament is in the main just the vernacular koine of the 1st century AD, though Greek as used by men of ability and varying degrees of culture. The most striking difference between the vernacular koine and the literary Attic is seen in the vocabulary. The writers in the literary koine show more likeness to the classic Attic, but even they reveal the changes due to the intervening centuries. There was, of course, no violent break. The changes came gradually and naturally. It is mainly at this point that Deissmann has done such brilliant work in his Bible Studies and other books. He has taken the lists of "Biblical" and "ecclesiastical" words, as given by Cremer and Thayer, and has shown from the papyri, ostraka, inscriptions, or koine writers that they are not peculiar to the Bible, but belong to the current speech of the time. The proof is so overwhelming and extensive that it cannot be given here. Some words have not yet been found in the non-Biblical koine, but they may be any day. Some few words, of course, belong to the very nature of Christianity christianos, for instance), but apostolos, baptismos, paroikos, sunagoge, and hundreds of others can no longer be listed as "Biblical." New meanings come to old words also. Compare daimonion. It is interesting to note that the New Testament shows many of the words found in Aristophanes, who caught up the vernacular of his day. The koine uses more words from the lower strata of society. Aristotle likewise has many words common in the koine, since he stands at the parting of the ways between the old dialects and the new koine of Alexander's conquests. The koine develops a fondness for compound and even double compound (sesquipedalian) words; compare, for instance, anekdiegetos; aneklaletos; anexereunetos; antapokrinomai; oikodespotes; oligopsuchos; prosanapleroo; sunantilambanomai; huperentugchano; chrusodaktulios, etc. The use of diminutives is also noteworthy in the koine as in the modern Greek: compare thugatrion; klinarion; korasion; kunarion; onarion; opsarion; ploiarion; otion, etc. The formation of words by juxtaposition is very common as in plerophoreo, cheiro-graphon. In phonetics it is to be noticed that "ei", "oi", "ee", "eei", "u", "i" all had the value of "ee" in "feet." This itacism was apparent in the early koine. So ai = e and o and oo were not sharply distinguished. The Attic tt became ss, except in a few instances, like elatto, kreitton. The tendency toward de-aspiration (compare Ionic) was manifest; compare eph' helpidi, for the reverse process. Elision is less frequent than in Attic, but assimilation is carried farther. The variable final consonants "n" (nu) and "s" (sigma) are used generally before consonants. We find "-ei-" for "-iei-" as in pein. outheis, and metheis, are common till 100 BC, when they gradually disappear before oudeis, and medeis. In general there is less sense of rhythm and more simplicity and clearness. Some of the subtle refinements of form and syntax of the classic did not survive in the koine vernacular. In accidence only a few points may be noted. In substantives the Ionic "-res" is frequent. The Attic second declension vanishes. In the third declension forms like nuktan, show assimilation to the first. Both charin, and charita, occur. Contraction is sometimes absent (compare Ionic) as in oreon. Adjectives show forms like asphalen, and indeclinable pleres, appears, and pan, for panta (compare megan), dusi, for duoin. The dual is gone. Even the dual pronouns hekateros, and poteros, are rare. tis, is occasionally used like hostis. hos ean, is more frequent than hos an, in the 1st century AD. The two conjugations blend more and more into one, as the -mi forms vanish. There is some confusion in the use of -ao and -eo verbs, and new presents occur like apoktenno, optano, steko. The forms ginomai, ginosko, are the rule now. There is much increase in aorists like escha, and imperfects like eicha. The form -osan (eichosan, eschosan) occasionally appears. Quite frequent is a perfect like dedokan, and the augment is often absent in the plu-perfect as in dedokei. Per contra, a double augment occurs in apekateste, and a treble augment in eneochthesan. The temporal augment is often absent with diphthong as in oikodomethe. The koine Greek has -tosan, not -nton. In syntax the tendency is toward simplicity, to short sentences, the paratactic construction, and the sparing use of particles. The vernacular koine avoids both the bombast of Asianism and the artificiality of Atticism. There is, indeed, more freedom in violating the rules of concord as to gender, number, and case. The nominativus pendens is common. The comparative does duty often for the superlative adjective, and the superlative generally has the elative sense. The accusative is increasingly common with verbs. The line between transitive and intransitive verbs is not a hard-and-fast one. The growth in the use of prepositions both with nouns and in composition is quite noticeable, but some of the older prepositions, like amphi, are vanishing. The cases used with various prepositions are changing. The instrumental use of en, is very common. Many new adverbial and prepositional phrases have developed. The optative is nearly dead and the infinitive (apart from the use of tou, en to, eis ~to, with the infinitive) is decaying before hina. The future participle is rare. me, begins to encroach on ou, with infinitives and participles. The periphrastic conjugation is specially common. The direct discourse is more frequent than the indirect. The non-final use of hina, is quite noticeable. There are, besides, dialectical and provincial peculiarities, but these do not destroy the real unity of the vernacular koine any more than do individual traits of separate writers.

II. Literary Elements in the New Testament.

Deissmann (Light from the Ancient East, 245) is disposed to deny any literary quality to the New Testament books save the Epistle to the Hebrews. "The Epistle to the Hebrews shows us Christianity preparing for a flight from its native levels into the higher region of culture, and we are conscious of the beginnings of a Christian world-literature." He speaks of it also as "a work which seems to hang in the background like an intruder among the New Testament company of popular books." One feels that this is an extreme position and cannot be justified by the facts. It is true that Peter and John were agrammatoi kai idiotai (Ac 4:13), and not men of the schools, but this was certainly not the case with Luke and Paul who were men of literary culture in the truest sense. Luke and Paul were not Atticists, but that artificial idiom did not represent the best type of culture. Deissmann admits that the New Testament has become literature, but, outside of He, he denies any literary quality in its composition. Paul, for instance, wrote only "letters," not "epistles." But Romans and Ephesians confront us. See Milligan, Greek Papyri, xxxi, for a protest against the sweeping statement of Deissmann on this point. One need not go to the extreme of Blass, "Die rhythmische Komposition des Hebr. Brides," Theol. Studien und Kritik, 1902, 420-61; Die Rythmen der asiatischen und romischen Kunstprosa, 1905, to find in Hebrews and Paul's writings illustrations of the artificial rules of the Asianists. There is undoubtedly rhythm in Paul's eloquent passages (compare 1Co 13:1-13; 15:1-58), but it is the natural poetic quality of a soul aflame with high passions, not conformity to rules of rhetoric. To deny literary quality to Luke and Paul is to give a narrow meaning to the word "literary" and to be the victim of a theory. Christianity did make use of the vernacular koine, the wonderful world-speech so providentially at hand. But the personal equation figured here as always. Men of culture differ in their conversation from illiterate men and more nearly approximate literary style. It is just in Luke, Paul, and the author of He that we discover the literary flavor of men of ability and of culture, though free from artificiality and pedantry. The eloquence of He is that of passion, not of the art of Asianism. Indeed, the Gospels all show literary skill in the use of material and in beauty of language. The Gospel of John has the rare elevation and dignity of the highest type of mind. There is no Atticistic tendency in the New Testament as in Josephus, Ant. There is no posing for the present or for posterity. It is the language of life, the vernacular in the main, but rising at times from the very force of passion to high plateaus of emotion and imagination and poetic grace from the pens of men of real ability, and in some instances of high culture.

III. The Semitic Influence.

It is no longer possible to explain every variation in the New Testament from the classic Attic by the term Hebraism. That easy solution has disappeared. Sooth to say, when the true character of the vernacular koine is understood, there is not very much left to explain. The New Testament Greek as a rule is just normal koine. Milligan (Greek Papyri, xxx) admits on the part of Moulton "an overtendency to minimize" the "presence of undoubted Hebraisms, both in language and grammar." That is true, and is due to his strong reaction against the old theory of so many Hebraisms. The Semiticisms (Hebraisms and Aramaisms) are very natural results of the fact that the vernacular koine was used by Jews who read the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint translation, and who also spoke Aramaic as their native tongue. The Septuagint, as translation of Greek, directly from the Hebrew (or Aramaic), has a much greater number of these Semiticisms. See Swete, An Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek (1900), for the salient facts. Thackeray in his Grammar of the Old Testament in Greek (1909) shows "the koine--the basis of Septuagint Greek" in section 3, and in section 4 discusses "the Semitic element in Septuagint Greek." The matter varies in different parts of the Septuagint, but in all parts the Semitic influence goes far beyond what it is in the New Testament. In the New Testament we have free composition in Greek, except in certain portions of the Gospels and Acts where Aramaic originals (oral or written) lie beyond the Greek text. So in particular Lu 1:1-80, the words of Jesus in Lu 2:1-52, and the opening chapters of Acts. See Dalman, Words of Jesus (1902), and J.T. Marshall, "The Aramaic Gospel," The Expositor, Ser. IV volumes II-VIII; see also ARAMAIC supra. There is, to some extent, translation-Gr, as in the Septuagint. The quotations from the Old Testament are either from the Hebrew original, or, as most frequently, from the Septuagint. In either case we have translation-Greek again. These two classes cover the more obvious Semiticisms if we add Hebrew names (persons and places) and other transliterations like abbadon, allelouia. The Greek of the Septuagint does not, of course, give a true picture of the Greek spoken by the Jews in Alexandria or in Palestine. But the constant reading of the Septuagint was bound to leave its impress on the style of the people (compare the King James Version and the English language). The surprise, in fact, is not the number of Semiticisms, but, all things considered, the fewness of them. Luke, just because he was a Gentile and so noted the Hebraisms in the Septuagint, shows rather more of them than the other New Testament writers: compare prosetheto triton pempsai (Lu 20:12). Some of the points of style so common in the Septuagint find occasional parallel in the papyri or inscriptions, like blepon blepo, chara chairo, ov .... hon .... auton. Others are more obviously imitations of the Hebrew style, as in areskein enopion tinos, rather than areskein tini. But there is a certain dignity and elevation of style so characteristic of the Hebrew Old Testament that reappears in the New Testament. The frequent use of kai, in parts of the New Testament reminds one of the Septuagint and the Hebrew waw ("w"). There is, besides, an indefinable tone in the New Testament that is found in the Old Testament. Swete (Apocalypse of John, cxx) laments the tendency to depreciate unduly the presence of Hebraisms in the New Testament. The pendulum may have swung too far away from the truth. It will strike the level, but we shall never again be able to fill our grammars and commentaries with explanations of so many peculiar Hebraisms in the New Testament. On the whole the Greek New Testament is standard vernacular koine.

IV. Individual Peculiarities of the New Testament Writers.

There is not space for an extended discussion of this topic. The fact itself calls for emphasis, for there is a wide range in style between Mark's Gospel and Hebrews, 1 Peter and Romans, Luke's Gospel and the Apocalypse. There are no Atticists found in the New Testament (compare 4 Macc in the Septuagint and Jos), but there are the less literary writings (Matthew, Mark, the Johannine books, the other catholic epistles) and the more literary writings (Luke's writings, Paul's Epistles, and Hebrews). But even so, no hard-and-fast line can be drawn. Moulton, Cambridge Biblical Essays, 484, thinks 2 Peter more like the Atticistic writings, "though certainly the Atticists would have scorned to own a book so full of `solecisms.'" Moulton assumes that 2 Peter is pseudepigraphic, and does not credit the notion that the crude "Babu" Greek, to use Abbott's term, may be Peter's own uncorrected style (compare Ac 4:13), while 1 Peter may have the smoothing effect of Silvanus' hand (compare 1Pe 5:12). A similar explanation is open concerning the grammatical lapses of the Apocalypse, since John is also called agrammatos, in Ac 4:13, whereas the Gospel of John may have had the revision of the elders of Ephesus (compare Joh 21:24). But whatever the explanation, there is no doubt of the wide divergences style between different books and groups of books in the New Testament list. The Lukan, Johannine, Petrine, Pauline groups stand apart, but with cleavages within each group. Harnack (Luke the Physician, 1907; The Sayings of Jesus, 1908; The Acts of the Apostles, 1909; The Date of the Acts of the Apostles, 1911) has accepted and strengthened the contention of Hawkins (Horae Synopticae, 2nd edition, 1909) and of Hobart (Medical Language of Luke, 1882) that the medical terms in the Gospel of Luke and of Acts show that the books were written by the same writer and that a physician, and so Luke. The diversities in style here and there are chiefly due to the sources of information used. Even in the Pauline books, which form so well-marked a collection, striking diversities of language and style appear. But these letters cover a period of some 15 years of intense activity and mental and spiritual development, and treat a great variety of topics. They properly reflect the changing phases of Paul's preaching of the cross of Christ in different places and under varying circumstances and confronting ever fresh problems. The plays of Shakespeare offer a useful parallel. Even in Paul's old age, in the Pastoral Epistles the stamp of Paul's spirit is admitted by those who admit only Pauline fragments; compare J. Weiss, Beitrage zur Paulinschen Rhetorik (1897). The style is indeed the man, but style is also the function of the subject, and style varies with different periods of a man's life. E.A. Abbott has made an excellent discussion of the Johannine Vocabulary (1905) and of Johannine Grammar (1906), but special grammars of each writer are hardly to be expected or desired. But Nageli has begun a study of Paul's vocabulary in his Wortschatz des Apostels Paulus (1905). The Gospel of Matthew shows very little of that Hebraism that one would expect from the general purpose and tone of the book. It is possible, of course, that the supposed original was in Aramaic, or, if in Greek, of a more Hebraistic type. Whether the present Greek of Matthew made use of Mark's Gospel and a collection of Logia (Q), we do not know. Certainly Mark's Gospel is written in colloquial koine with little evidence of the culture of the schools. Mark is a faithful reporter and does his work with rare simplicity and vividness. He reveals clearly the Aramaic background of Christ's teaching. The writings of James and Jude do not show that only Greek was spoken in the home at Nazareth, nor that they used only Aramaic. These two epistles are evidently free compositions in Greek with much of the freshness of imagery so manifest in the parables of Jesus Himself. This brief sketch does not do justice to the richness and variety of language in the books of the New Testament.

V. The "Koine" Spoken by Jesus.

See ARAMAIC LANGUAGE for proof that Jesus spoke that language as the vernacular of the people of Palestine. But Christ spoke the koine also, so that the New Testament is not an idiom that was unknown to the Master. Gwilliam (1-vol HDB, "Language of Christ") does still deny that Jesus spoke Greek, while Roberts takes the other extreme in his book, Greek the Language of Christ and His Apostles (1888). Per contra again, Julicher considers it impossible to suppose that Jesus used Greek (art. "Hellenism" in EB). J. E. H. Thomson, "The Language of Palestine during the Time of our Lord" (Temple, Bible Dictionary) argues convincingly that Palestine was bi-lingual and that Jesus knew and spoke Greek as well as Aramaic Peter evidently spoke in Greek on the Day of Pentecost and was understood by all. Paul was understood in Jerusalem when he spoke in Greek (Ac 21:37). Jesus taught in Decapolis, a Greek region, in the region of Tyre and Sidon (Greek again). Galilee itself was largely inhabited by Gentiles who spoke Greek. At the time of the Sermon on the Mount, we read that people were present from Decapolis and Perea, besides the mixed multitude from Galilee, Judea, and Jerusalem (Mt 4:25; Lu 6:17). Thomson proves also that in Matthew's Gospel the quotation from the Old Testament in the words of Jesus is from the Septuagint, while Matthew's own quotations are from the Hebrew. The case seems clear. It is not possible to say always when Jesus spoke Greek and when Aramaic. That would depend on the audience. But it is practically certain that Christ Himself knew and spoke at will the vernacular koine, and thus had this linguistic bond with the great world of that era and with lovers of the Greek Testament today.


The literature on this subject is very extensive. The most important volumes have been mentioned in the discussion above.

A.T. Robertson

Bible Verses by Topic Nave's Bible Concordance McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia Online Bible KJV Dictionary

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