Bible Greek

by Glenn Conjurske

From Olde Paths & Ancient Landmarks vol. 6, no. 4 (April 1997).

We have been told a thousand times by the advocates of the new Bible versions that we ought to put the Bible into the language of the common man, and some go so far as to insist that we ought therefore to have a new revision in every generation. In support of this claim we are told that the New Testament was in fact written in the koine Greek, that is, the common Greek of the common people. That this assertion contains a partial truth we would not pretend to deny. It is not the whole truth, however, but rather the voice of ignorance—and worse, of prejudice.

To come directly to the point, what I contend is that the New Testament was not written in the common language of the common man. There is such a thing as Bible language, and this is assuredly not the language of the common man. It is a reverential language, a language of piety, a religious language, a theological language, of which the natural man knows little or nothing. We have endeavored to demonstrate in a previous article that the Bible was written for the people of God. It was written for a people who possessed a spiritual heritage, and a prominent part of that spiritual heritage consists of a spiritual and theological language. It was in this language that the New Testament was written. It is into this language, therefore, that it ought to be translated.

This statement, of course, assumes that such language exists, in both Greek and English. First, the Greek. F. H. A. Scrivener writes,

“It will not be expected of us to enter in this place upon the wide subject of the origin, genius, and peculiarities, whether in respect to grammar or orthography, of that dialect of the Greek in which the N.T. was written, except so far as it bears directly upon the criticism of the sacred volume. Questions, however, are perpetually arising, when we come to examine the oldest manuscripts of Scripture, which cannot be resolved unless we bear in mind the leading particulars wherein the diction of the Evangelists and Apostles differs not only from that of pure classical models, but also of their own contemporaries who composed in the Greek language, or used it as their ordinary tongue.” 1

Scrivener, then, plainly held the language of the New Testament to differ from the Greek language which was in ordinary use at the time. Wherein did it differ? Scrivener continues:

“The Greek style of the N.T., then, is the result of blending two independent elements, the debased vernacular speech of the age, and that strange modification of the Alexandrian dialect which first appeared in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament, and which, from their habitual use of that version, had become familiar to the Jews in all nations.” 2

The New Testament, then, according to Scrivener, was not written in the “vernacular speech of the age” in which it was composed, but in a blend of that speech with the language of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. This was in fact a simple necessity. The language of heathen Greek was inadequate for the doctrine of Christ and the apostles. Their doctrine required a theological language, which heathen Greek could not supply. A theological book requires a theological language. That language was, in general, provided by the Septuagint.

H. B. Swete bears the same testimony:

“The Septuagint is not less indispensable to the study of the New Testament than to that of the Old. But its importance in the former field is more often overlooked, since its connexion with the N.T. is less direct and obvious, except in the case of express quotations from the Alexandrian version. These, as we have seen, are so numerous that in the Synoptic Gospels and in some of the Pauline Epistles they form a considerable part of the text. But the New Testament has been yet more widely and more deeply influenced by the version through the subtler forces which shew themselves in countless allusions, lying oftentimes below the surface of the words, and in the use of a vocabulary derived from it, and in many cases prepared by it for the higher service of the Gospel.” 3

The New Testament, then, employs a vocabulary derived from and prepared by the Septuagint—a vocabulary which did not belong to the common Greek of the time, any more than it did to that of classical Greek. Swete writes further,

“ must not be forgotten that the Greek vocabulary of Palestinian Greek-speaking Jews in the first century A.D. was probably derived in great part from their use of the Greek Old Testament. Even in the case of writers such as St Luke, St Paul, and the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, the LXX has no doubt largely regulated the choice of words. ...

“The Influence of the LXX is still more clearly seen in the N.T. employment of religious words and phrases which occur in the LXX at an earlier stage in the history of their use.” 4

The Septuagint, in other words provided a language in which the New Testament could be written—a Bible language. Swete gives a listing of such “religious words and phrases,” occupying nearly a page of small print, and including such terms as εθνοι (“heathen,” or “gentiles”), χριστος (“Christ”), and διαβολος (“devil”), the latter of which is the common translation of “Satan” in the Septuagint, in Job and other places. Yet Swete’s list is very incomplete, taking no notice of even so common a word as αγγελος (“angel”), the classical meaning of which is simply “messenger.” To this Liddell and Scott add “an angel, LXX, N.T.”

The vocabulary of the New Testament, then, is certainly not the vocabulary of the koine, or common, Greek. It employs a vocabulary created by the Septuagint—familiar, indeed, to Jews, but not to the Greek world as a whole.

A German Evangelical of the nineteenth century, Hermann Cremer, broke new ground in the production of a lexicon of what we may call Bible Greek. The work is entitled Biblico-Theological Lexicon of New Testament Greek, and exists for the purpose of establishing the Biblical and theological significance of the words of the New Testament—a signif­icance which those words certainly did not possess either in classical Greek, or in the common Greek of the New Testament era. In the preface to that work he says,

“In fact, ‘we may,’ as Rothe says, (Dogmatik, p. 238, Gotha 1863), ‘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.’ We have a very clear and striking proof of this in New Testament Greek. ...

“The Seventy [i.e. the translators of the Septuagint] prepared the way in Greek for the N.T. proclamation of saving truth.” 5

The idea of “a language of the Holy Ghost” has been much scoffed at by modern intellectuals, who lack the spirituality to understand the matter. It remains a fact that the writers of the New Testament made no attempt to write in the common language of the times. Indeed, in the nature of the case they could not do so. It does not lie within the realm of possibility to bring down the high and lofty subjects which occupy the pen of inspiration to the level of “the common language of the common man.” The language must rather be brought up to the level of the theme. The writers of the New Testament found this largely done to their hand in the Septuagint. Where that failed them, they must adapt the language of the Septuagint, or of the common Greek of the day, to bring it up to the level of their subject—first in their preaching, and afterwards in their writing. What they gave to us is a book written, not in the common language of the day, but in Bible language. So, at least, thought men like Scrivener and Cremer and Swete.

With the advent, however, of that air of intellectual superiority which gained ascendency in the latter part of the nineteenth century—and which continues to the present day—there arose also a spirit of liberalism, a love of change and an impatience of old standards and beliefs, which was sure to challenge the opinions of its fathers. This liberal intellectualism was of the most shallow sort—much increased in knowledge, perhaps, but as much decreased in wisdom, and best characterized by a comparison to the man who could not see the forest for the trees. These “scholars” discovered some trees of which their fathers were ignorant, and the more trees they discovered, the more they denied the existence of the forest.

The result of all of this we see in the dictum of A. T. Robertson, who says, “There is no distinct biblical Greek.” 6 This dictum is based, of course, upon the extensive research of certain scholars, but the animus of those scholars cannot be overlooked. One of the foremost of them was the German Adolph Deissmann, whose Light from the Ancient East appeared in 1908. The dust jacket of the (1965) Baker reprint of this tells us, “Another purpose dominated the author’s thinking as he wrote, however, and that was to destroy once and for all the myth of ‘Biblical Greek.’” A man so animated would not necessarily be an objective judge of the evidence, and do men not know that scholars who are determined to prove a matter can “prove” most anything to their devoted followers? But will Mr. Robertson contend that the phrase το πνευμα αγιον, “the Holy Ghost,” is common Greek—or if it is, that it means the same thing in common Greek that it does in the New Testament? Will he contend that ό διαβολος means “the devil” in common Greek, the same as it does in the New Testament? Will he contend that βαπτιζειν, to baptize, means nothing more in the New Testament than it means in secular koine Greek—that it has no theological sense in the New Testament, which it neither does nor can have in secular Greek? Will he tell us that το ευαγγελιον means “the gospel” in koine Greek? The “sacral” use of this word which Deissmann affects to find in secular Greek is mere trifling.

Let it be plainly understood, we do not contend for any distinct Bible Greek in grammatical forms, usage of verb tenses, meanings of prepositions and particles, or any such matters. Though something of this sort may exist in some small measure, it does not concern us. In all such matters we may grant that Bible Greek is essentially the Greek of the times. Nevertheless, its vocabulary is its own—not completely so, but nevertheless very strikingly so. Not that the words of the New Testament are new-coined (though some of them evidently are), or that they are divested entirely of their common meanings. No, but they are adapted to the subject matter in hand. They are lifted from the common level to that of the divine and holy, and in the process they acquire religious and theological meanings which they neither did have nor could have had in common Greek. This is Bible language. It is not the language of the common man, and it cannot be understood by the common man, unless he is first instructed in those divine realities of which it is the vehicle.

But most of these scholars know little or nothing of those divine realities. Most of them have been occupied solely with the letter of Scripture, while they knew nothing of its spirit. They have been so occupied with the externals of Scripture that they have learned nothing of its spiritual substance, and many of them seem to have a particular penchant for misunderstanding what the issues are. If some have contended that New Testament Greek is a distinct language in accidence or syntax, or that its vocabulary consists largely of new-coined words, found only in Biblical Greek, these scholars have done well to overturn such notions, but if they have gone on to declare that therefore Biblical Greek does not exist, they have thrown out the baby with the bath water.

Deissmann writes, “The characteristic features of the living Greek language that was in international use are most clearly seen in the phonology and accidence. The assumption of a special New Testament or Biblical Greek is hopelessly refuted by the observations made in this field.” 7 Be it so. It is nothing to me. I never had any reason to think anything otherwise. When he comes, however, to the vocabulary of the New Testa­ment, he cannot speak so confidently. He writes, “With regard to the words themselves the proof of our thesis cannot in all cases be made out with the same completeness.” 8 He labors at great length to show that many words formerly held to belong only to Biblical Greek were in fact in use in the common Greek of the time, guessing that only 50 of 5000, or one in a hundred, will prove in the end to be purely Biblical words—a very high proportion, after all, such as no orthodox teacher today could employ if he would, though a teacher of new or heretical notions might. But neither does this touch the root of the issue. It is rather what we would expect. It is no easy matter to coin new words. We may do it, by turning verbs into nouns, nouns into adjectives, etc., but in a rich and well-developed language, but little of this remains to be done. What we mean by Bible Greek has little to do with the existence of words in the Bible which are not found elsewhere. We refer to the meanings of those words. Deissmann labors much in this field also, and overturns some of the mistaken assertions of earlier writers like Cremer. But most of the points which he makes are of the most picayune sort, which do not touch the foundation of the matter at all. And in spite of all his labor, he is yet obliged to write, “In the religiously creative period which came first of all”—by which liberal jargon he refers to the period in which the New Testament was written—“the power of Christianity to form new words was not nearly so large as its effect in transforming the meaning of the old words.” 9

Now in so saying, Mr. Deissmann grants me all that I could desire. This has long been my own thesis—formed when I was in complete ignorance of the controversy which has raged over the theme. My contention is that much of the vocabulary of the New Testament has a religious or theological content, quite foreign to anything which the same words ever did mean or could mean in secular Greek. It is Bible language, and as such it is language which the common man of the period in which it was penned had no capacity to understand. “The man on the street,” the heathen man, “the common Greek,” untaught in the truths of divine revelation, could no more understand the New Testament at first reading, than the author of this article can understand a car repair manual. Some of it I can understand, surely, but there are numerous terms which are beyond my knowledge.

I believe the only real “myth” involved in the business is the constant assertion that the New Testament was written in the common Greek of the times. And this myth has now been made the basis of numerous modern versions of the Bible, which vie with each other in their endeavors to reduce the language of the Bible to the debased and rapidly declining language of modern America. This is a great evil, for there is a “Bible language” in English as surely as there is in Greek, but the treatment of that I must reserve for another time.

1. A Plain Introduction to the Criticism of the New Testament, by Frederick Henry Ambrose Scrivener. Cambridge: Deighton, Bell and Co., Third Edition, 1883, pg. 558.

2. ibid

3. An Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek, by Henry Barclay Swete. Cambridge: At the University Press, 1902, pg. 450.

4. ibid., pp. 453-454.

5. Biblico-Theological Lexicon of New Testament Greek, by Hermann Cremer, Translated from the latest German Edition, by William Urwick. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, Third English Edition, 1886, pp. iv-v.

6. A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press, n.d., (copyright 1934), pg. 77.

7. Light from the Ancient East, by Adolph Diessmann, Translated by Lionel R. M. Strachan. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1965, pg. 72.

8. ibid., pg. 74

9. ibid., pg. 78.