The Introduction to "Essentials of New Testament Greek"

The Introduction to "Essentials of New Testament Greek" by John Homer Huddilston, A.B. (Harv.), Ph.D Professor of Greek in the University of Maine My purpose is to offer here a few considerations on two questions. 1. Why was the New Testament written in Greek? 2. What are the main points of difference between this Greek and that of the classical period? Every one knows that Greek was not a native of Palestine, but that in some way this exotic plant found root there, and, to the exclusion of the native language, became the organ of the everlasting Gospel. How then did this occur?It will first be necessary to understand something about the languages which were used in the countries to the east from the Mediterranean, prior to and contemporary with the advent of the Greek. All of this part of Asia, including the countries from Assyria on the north to Arabia on the south, had one separate and distinct family or branch of languages ? the Semitic. Of this primitive Semitic nothing is left us. Long before the curtain of history rises, the early language had assumed marked grammatical and lexigraphical peculiarities among the various peoples. Accordingly we know nothing of the parent speech except through the tongues of these early nations. The Assyrians (whose language is known from cuneiform inscriptions) and the Aramaeans, who comprised a large part of the population of Assyria and Babylon and to whose language, the Aramaic, we shall refer later, represented the most northern group of the Semitic. South of these we find the Hebrews of Canaan, in whose language the most considerable portion of the Old Testament was written, and akin to them the Phoenicians, whose language is known to us imperfectly and through inscriptions only. Further south the Arabic and Ethiopic make up what is sometimes termed the South Semitic. Of these three groups, the North, the Middle, and the South Semitic, we shall confine our considerations to the first two; for here it is that we have to look for the language of the Jews. Their Hebrew was early exposed to the dialects of the surrounding tribes and especially open to Aramaic influences on the north. Indeed as early as 700 B.C. we read that the messengers of the king Hezekiah requested the ambassador of the king of Assyria to speak to them in Aramaic, "for we understand it" (ii. Kings 18 :26). The Jews would not long retain their language in its early purity beside that of another people who, as a conquering nation, were continually insinuating themselves into their life and politics. The result was that long before the breaking up of the Jewish kingdom in 586 B.C., the Hebrew had departed considerably from its original integrity. During the long years of captivity in Babylon and throughout the Babylonian empire, the Aramaic, which was the official language of the Babylonian court, must have become quite as much a part of the Hebrews as their native tongue. The books of the Old Testament written after the exile, Ezra and Daniel, are known as the Aramaic books, owing to the fact that considerable portions of them are in the Aramaic. We must not understand, however, that this large admixture of Aramaic is due wholly to the years of exile in Babylon. It has been the accepted view since the time of Jerome that in this period the Israelites ceased to speak and write Hebrew and turned to the use of the Aramaic only. Hence the term Chaldee, so often used to signify the speech of the Jews, as though the language of the Chaldees - the Aramaic - was introduced into Palestine by the returned exiles, and that subsequent to this the Hebrew died out and the Chaldee or Aramaic took its place. In recent years scholars have generally parted with this view, and have attempted to show that the change was more gradual. This seems by all means the most probable. A people retains its language long after its institutions and customs have ceased to exist. A conquering nation rarely succeeds in supplanting the language of the conquered. Slowly and gradually do the forces work that bring in the elements of a new speech. The English, for example, has not after five centuries entirely displaced the Celtic of Ireland nor has Welsh ceased to be a very important factor in the literature and life of the United Kingdom notwithstanding the fact that more than 500 years have passed since Edward built his castles on the Welsh frontier We must conclude therefore that for centuries the Aramaic gradually gained in popularity over the Hebrew, until the latter became at last the language of scholars and the learned few, while to the great mass of Jews the Aramaic was the only language known. This change must have occurred before the time of Christ; for we find then that the common people no longer understood the Hebrew of the Scriptures, but used instead versions known as Targums, written in Aramaic. This then is the language of Palestine at the time of Christ, and the same which in the New Testament is called Hebrew.A great distinction, however, must be made between this Jewish-Aramaic and the Hebrew. The literature of each is sacred, but of the Hebrew we have left us the scant remains of the Old Testament only, while the former has extant a vast literature of the Talmud, Targums, and interpretative works, and has lived on in a more or less changed condition till the present time and forms the basis of the language much used by the Jews to-day throughout the world.At the close of the fourth century BC., Alexander of Macedon crossed the historic Hellespont, overturned the Persian empire at Arbela, destroyed the famous city of ancient Tyre, overran all western Asia, even crossing into Egypt, where he founded the world?s new metropolis bearing his own name (332 BC). It is hard to measure the results of this conquering of the world. By no means the least important of the many that might be described was the spread of Greek letters and Greek civilization. This noble language of ancient Hellas, so rich and beautiful, so full of power and sweetness, was destined to work far greater results in the minds and hearts of men than the brief rule of Alexander and his successors. They soon passed away, and the Greek kingdom in Asia ceased to exist; but the Greek language which came with them still remained and spread with great rapidity throughout this whole territory, revealing to these Semitic races a new world of beauty and power. Although Greece soon fell under the conquering hand of Rome, Greek art and Greek letters took captive her captor. Rome was then the world, while through all her borders the language of Greece became the speech of trade and intercourse. Greek was even the language of the Roman court, and Roman boys were taught their Homer along with their native Vergil. The wide use of Greek at that period can be best compared with the English of to-day. It may be said with little hesitancy that, at the time of Christ Greek was known in all parts of the Roman world. What more fitting language than this in which to send forth the Gospel of peace?In Palestine there was of course a Greek population which existed alongside of the Jewish, and which became more numerous and distinct with the spread of Roman civilization. Of these two languages, Greek and Aramaic we must suppose that a considerable part of the population knew enough for conversation at least. It is necessary to turn only to Alsace- Lorraine with its French and German, or to Wales with its Welsh and English to find in modern time, such a fusion of two tongues as must have existed in Palestine at the beginning of our era.The question as to whether Christ and his disciples knew and spoke Greek has been one that has long been debated. Some of the most illustrious of modern critics have been found on either side. It is not for me to enter upon it here, but simply to state my belief. It is more than probable, from what has been stated in regard to the two languages of Palestine at this period, that Greek, as well as Aramaic, must have fallen upon the ears of our Lord and his first followers from their earliest boyhood, and that all of them grew up in continual association with two languages. A few examples of this native speech are left us; Mark 5:41 and Mark 7 4 may be referred to. Instances when we may conclude that Greek was used by Christ are, Mark 7:26, 27, and John 12:23. Matthew, from his duty as a tax-collector, would have required both languages, while Luke, the most cultured of the evangelists, exhibits marked power in his use of Greek. There was but one way of reaching ?all nations? and sending to them the new message. There never could have been any doubt in the mind of Luke, Mark, or John regarding the language they should employ in writing their histories of our Lord?s life and works. Matthew appears to have written first in the Aramaic, but no doubt followed this immediately with a Greek version. A parallel to this may be observed in the case of the historian Josephus (A.D. 38- 103), who wrote his history of the Jews first in Hebrew (Aramaic), and afterwards in Greek. It is not necessary to note concerning Paul that "all who are at Rome" and the "church at Corinth" and ?the churches throughout Asia? could have been addressed in no language but the Greek.A considerable portion of the population at Alexandria was Jews, for whom the Greek had displaced their native Aramaic, and as early as 275 BC they had so far forgotten the tongue of their fathers that they required a Greek translation of the Old Testament. This was made at Alexandria by Jewish-Greeks, and is known as the Septuagint or the translation of the LXX. For the Jews scattered throughout the world in Cappadocia, Cyprus, Phrygia, Rhodes, Greece, and Rome the Septuagint became the Bible. So general was its use even in Palestine that the evangelists quote quite as frequently from the Greek version as from the Hebrew. Paul, himself a Hebrew and reared according to the strictest sect of the Pharisees, often agrees more nearly with the Septuagint when he quotes from the Old Testament.After the fall of Jerusalem the Jewish population of Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, and other seaport towns, rapidly increased. Then, as now, the Jews were a commercial people; Greek was the one language of commercial intercourse. Thus we see this wonderful language served as a common bond to hold together Jew and Gentile, Greek and Roman. Then it was that men were for the first time united by one speech and made, so to speak, into one family. With the overturning of old, worn-out kingdoms, and the breaking down of ancient myth and fable of the, pagan world, a new soil was prepared ready for new seed, ? the Gospel of love.Secondly, we come to consider the characteristics of the Greek of the New Testament. Does it differ very widely from classical Greek? To this the answer is "yes", and we may well rejoice that it does. Had the language as used by Plato and Demosthenes become the organ of the new message to the world, how different would have been the effect Imagine the result if the simple grace of our English Bible were to be replaced by the swelling periods of Milton or Bacon. A far simpler language was and is needed by the lowly, and this we shall see the later Greek to be.The language of the Macedonian Greeks, which was the same as that carried into Asia by Alexander, was essentially the same as that which Plato, Sophocles, and Demosthenes had used. From this wide diffusion, however, many changes were effected in the grammatical structure of the language, and especially in the vocabulary. Much of the rigidness which had characterized it in the hands of the great Athenian writers was cast aside. The language was popularized, so to speak. This new form of the Greek was called Hellenistic Greek, and the people who learned and used it were known as Hellenists. We have had occasion already to refer to the Hellenistic Jews in Alexandria and other cities.In Palestine, however, as well as in the other Semitic countries, this Hellenistic Greek was greatly corrupted by the native tongue. Hebrew, Aramaic, and Syriac words were being continually introduced into the Greek. To a large number of people who would use the Greek, it would amount to nothing other than a translation of their native tongue, together with the native idiom. Their thinking was all in Aramaic, while their words were in Greek. The literature of the Hebrew and Aramaic was entirely of a religious nature. The religious fervour of the Jews gave a strong bent to the tone of their language. It was the language of the human heart longing for the kingdom of God and the coming of the Messiah. The words in common, every-day use were the same as those in which had been cast the revelation of God to his chosen people. Even at an early day this must have given a deep religious colouring to the Greek ? hitherto a pagan language. The translation, however, of the Old Testament did most to fix the idiom and form of the Greek for the expression of religious ideas. Then it was that Greek meant something to the Jews beyond a convenient menus of intercourse for commercial life. For two centuries and a half this Greek Bible worked into the hearts and minds of the dispersed Jews, and the words that before in pagan Greece and Rome had meant little beyond the mortal and perishable of this World, took on a new meaning - fired with the flame of the sacred Hebrew.When we come to the language of the New Testainent, we have crossed a wondrous gull. To quote from the words of the celebrated Dr. Schaff: "The language of the apostles and evangelists is baptized with the Spirit and fire of Christianity, and receives a character altogether peculiar and distinct from secular Greek." The Greek was flexible and elastic enough to admit of a transformation under the inspiring influences of revealed truth. It furnished the flesh and blood for the incarnation of divine ideas. Words in common use among the classics, or in popular intercourse, were clothed with a deeper spiritual significance; they were transplanted from a lower to a higher sphere, from mythology to revelation, from the order of nature to the order of grace, from the realm of sense to the realm of faith.? It is worth while to note the word "transformation" in the above. Here is the key to the whole question. How rich this baptism of the pagan words has been may be seen by comparing the New Testament and the classical sense of such words as love, faith, prophet, sin, glory, peace, joy, mercy.The purity of the New Testament Greek differs very considerably in different authors, and indeed in one and the same writer we can observe two extremes. Luke, for example, in the first four verses of his gospel furnishes a specimen of as pure and elegant Greek as may be found on the page of any classical author. Immediately, however, he drops off into the vernacular, as though aware that he is addressing the many and not the few. In considerable portions of his gospel and the Acts are to be found the harshest Hebraisms. This is especially noticeable when he quotes from the Old Testament. In all the writers of the New Testament, the Hebrew of the Old Testament quotation appears distinctly through the thin veiling of the Greek.Of the four evangelists Luke was the best educated, and therefore used the purest Greek. Matthew may be placed next, with Mark last. Concerning John, there is great difference of opinion. Some scholars declare his gospel the most thoroughly Hebrew of the four. It is said to have a Hebrew body with a Greek dress. On the other hand, there are those who maintain for him the purest Greek. The fact is, his short sentences would fall naturally into the idiom of almost any language. Paul's Greek exhibits neatly every variety of classic elegance. However, it does not come within the Scope of this article to give the peculiarities of the individual authorsIt is necessary to speak more definitely as regards the linguistic differences between the Greek of the New Testament and that of the period of classical Greek, which we may consider to have dosed with Aristotle (384-322 BC) 1. The vocabulary of the New Testament furnishes nearly 900 words that are not found in the classical writers. Many of these occur in subsequent authors, as Polybius and Plutarch and in the Septuagint. 2 Compound words are especially common. Rare combinations are used. The etymology always reveals the force of the expression. 3 What is called the doctrinal sense of certain words, as love, hope, faith introduces a new element quite distinct from anything earlier.Grammatically, very wide changes from the classical Greek may be noted 1. The dual number has disappeared entirely. 2. Adjectives of the third declension in ων and υς are especially rare. Of adjectives in ης there are but two or three common examples. 3. The comparison of adjectives has been simplified, and is usually done by the use of an adverb, and the positive degree, except in the case of a few adjectives of irregular comparison.In the verb a great breaking away from classical usage is seen. i. The optative mood is comparatively rare. It does not occur at all in the writings of John, and is found in the epistles and the Acts more than in the gospels. Except in the optative of wish or desire, the subjunctive regularly takes the place of this mood.2. In the uses of the voice and tense the changes are not so marked. In the subjunctive rarely any tense occurs aside from the present and the aorist. 3. It may be observed that in the verbs those in μι tend to break down into the ending in ω, while verbs in ιζω are much more common than in other Greek. 4. The forms in μι in the present system are comparatively rare. Hardly ever does the present subjunctive of these verbs occur, while the second aorist system has few forms in this mood.The syntax is too difficult a question to discuss here, and so but few points shall be presented. 1. Especially characteristic of New Testament Greek are the various uses of ἵνα, which in classical Greek is confined for the most part to the introduction of final clauses. Of this conjunction there are no less than six well defined uses in the New Testament. 2. While in classical Greek the conjunction ὥστε is used i,ith either the indicative or infinitive to denote result and with nearly equal frequency in both constructions, the indicative occurs but twice in the New Testament. The participle still continues a fundamental form of construction, but shows signs of weakening in such instances as John 11:1 and Luke 15:1, where the simple imperfect of the verb would have been expected. This form of expression is most common in Luke.The prepositions present a great variety of uses not inherent in the Greek word, thus betraying Hebrew influence.These are only a few of the most marked peculiarities of the language of the New Testament, but perhaps enough to show that it is much weakened and simplified as compared with classical Greek. If one adds to the peculiarities here mentioned the strong colouring in idiom and vocabulary that arises from the Hebrew, a general notion may be formed as to the structure of this language.To know thoroughly the real force and value of this language, a wide familiarity with Semitic ? especially Hebrew and Aramaic ? is indispensable. Not only this, but the investigator must know Latin, of the influence of which I have taken no notice, as well as Greek from its earliest beginning in Homer. Such preparation as this few are able to acquire. A student may, however, gain a very satisfactory facility in handling the New Testament language, who knows nothing of any language except his own. Careful, assiduous labour for a few months will put the average student in control of the essentials, and this slight acquaintance will be found to repay one a thousand fold. No one can ever attain to the ability of reading and understanding the grand simplicity and power of John?s brief sentences, ringing as they do with the imperishable grandeur of the Greek, without seeing an entirely new power in the Word. Any translation must ever fall far short of rendering the grace and force of the Greek. As a rose when plucked loses its sweetness and the fragrance is soon blown, so perishes in translation that fleeting, indescribable something that makes Greek the noblest of languages.
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