Chapter 1. The Greek Language & Textual Criticism

Going Deeper

Matthew lists Jesus’s immediate male ancestors as Joseph, Jacob, Matthan, Eleazar, Eliud, and Achim (Matt 1:14–16). Seemingly contradicting Matthew, Luke lists them as Joseph, Heli, Matthat, Levi, Melchi, and Jannai (Luke 3:23–24). Some early Christian scribe (as preserved in the 5th-century Codex Bezae [D]) attempted to harmonize these accounts by inserting the Matthean list of names into Luke’s Gospel. The vast majority of Greek manuscripts, however, bear witness to the divergence of names apparently present in the autographs (original manuscripts) of Luke and Matthew. We are reminded that the inspired text is our authority—not some later edited or “corrected” version.

In the late 1400s, Annius of Viterbo popularized the idea that Matthew preserves the genealogy of Joseph while Luke records the genealogy of Mary. Annius’s interpretation, however, is based on an unlikely translation of the Greek text in Luke 3:23. A more fitting explanation is provided by Julius Africanus (AD 160–240), an early Christian apologist. Julius, in a letter to Aristides, explains that the Jewish custom of Levirite marriage and the resulting disparity of legal and biological lineage explain the differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies. 1.7.1–15.

The modern scholar René Laurentin points to the importance of holding to the Gospel authors’s original wording rather than forced renderings of the Greek that attempt to prove that Mary was a descendant of David through the Lukan genealogy. Laurentin writes,

Nothing is truly lost in Mary’s not being biologically the daughter of David. The rigor with which the evangelists have avoided this easy solution gives a new indication of their exactitude. They did not invent in order to appease current expectations, as those who came after them did. On the contrary, they accepted the paradoxes which caused the difficulty. This honesty led them to great theological profundity., trans. Michael J. Wrenn and assoc. (Petersham, MA: St. Bede’s Publications, 1986), 345. See also Andreas J. Köstenberger and Alexander Stewart, The First Days of Jesus: The Story of the Incarnation (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015).

If, indeed, Joseph’s adoption of Jesus fully legitimizes the Savior’s Davidic ancestry, can we not further point out that God’s adoption of us as sons and daughters truly grants us eternal access into his Fatherly presence?

Chapter Objectives

The purpose of this chapter is to survey both the history of the Greek language and the discipline of textual criticism. First, we will briefly consider the history of the Greek language and how such knowledge may aid the student of the GNT. Second, we will introduce the discipline of textual criticism—that is, the study of ancient manuscripts and patterns of text transmission with the goal of arriving at the original text (or “earliest attainable text”)., Text Critical Studies 8, ed. Klaus Wachtel and Michael W. Holmes [Atlanta: SBL, 2011], 127). Finally, we will note recent trends in text criticism.

History of the Greek Language

“Say something for me in Greek!” Most seminary students have probably heard this request from a family member or friend. Such persons, however, look puzzled when the student explains that he is primarily reading Greek of the NT era, not learning modern Greek. When students better understand how the Greek language of the NT differs from preceding and subsequent forms of the language, they can more easily recognize difficult forms or understand grammatical features that were in transition at the time of the NT. Furthermore, an understanding of the way in which the Greek language evolved will guard against simplistic and erroneous approaches that fail to see the Greek language used in the NT as a snapshot of a changing language.

All languages change over time as they incorporate new influences or alter old forms. Certainly, any modern English speaker can clearly see such changes by reading the King James Version of the Bible (1611) or the plays of William Shakespeare (1564–1616). The Greek language is no exception. To understand the history of the Greek language, we will briefly survey the following historical periods:

Form of Language Dates
Proto Indo-European Prior to 1500 BC
Linear B or Mycenaean 1500–1000 BC
Dialects and Classical Greek 1000–300 BC
Koine Greek 300 BC–AD 330
Byzantine Greek AD 330–AD 1453
Modern Greek AD 1453–present

Proto Indo-European

Scholars who study languages classify them according to related families. One such family is the Indo-European family of languages, which includes the sub-families of Greek, Indo-Iranian, Armenian, Albanian, Italic, Celtic, Germanic, and Balto-Slavic., rev. ed. (Princeton, NJ: n.p., 1969; repr. 1983), 73.By studying the oldest preserved forms of Indo-European languages and how those languages differ and continued to evolve, scholars are able to reconstruct a preceding, earlier “ancestor language.” This common hypothetical ancestor of Indo-European languages is called Proto Indo-European (or PIE, for short), which was used prior to 1500 BC. We have no written records of this early ancestor of the Greek language. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994).

Linear B

After the Proto Indo-European period but before the Classical period, there was a written precursor to Greek known by scholars as “Linear B.” This language is also called Mycenaean, with inscriptions discovered in Mycenae, Crete, and elsewhere. The written alphabet used for Linear B (deciphered by Michael Ventris in 1952) differs from Classical Greek, with each symbol representing a syllable rather than an individual vowel or consonant sound. [New York: Ecco, 2013]). The relatively recently deciphered inscriptions and clay tablets in Linear B remind the NT Greek student that hundreds of years of changes in the Greek language can be traced through written texts prior to the time of the NT.

This clay tablet with Linear B script, dated to 1450–1375 BC, is Minoan and was found at Knossos, Crete, by Arthur Evans. It records quantities of oil apparently ­offered to various deities.

Dialects and Classical Greek

Scholars differ as to what to call the next period in the development of the Greek language. A. T. Robertson and Hersey Davis label it the “Age of Dialects” and extend it back to 1000 BC, noting that various regional dialects in Greek co-­existed and competed for dominance. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1933), 8–10. These dialects included Aeolic, Doric, Arcado-­Cypriot, and Ionic. Homer’s epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were not written down until roughly 800 BC, so some scholars date the Classical or Dialect period beginning at 800 BC. The various Greek dialects gave way to the political and cultural ascendancy of Athens (and thus the Ionic-Attic dialect) by the 4th and 5th centuries BC. These two centuries are viewed as the literary high point of the Classical period in Greek literature.

In previous generations, students often came to seminary having already studied Classical Greek for many years. In fact, several lexicons and reference grammars assume a student’s familiarity with differences between Classical and NT Greek. Without any further explanation (and to the dismay of students!), such resources will comment that a form represents the Doric or Aeolic spelling. If students wish to expand their knowledge of Greek back into the Classical period, perhaps the best bridge is still Stephen W. Paine’s Beginning Greek: A Functional Approach (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), which includes translation exercises from both Xenophon (4th century BC) and the NT.

Koine Greek

Several factors contributed to the ongoing evolution of the Greek language into a genuine lingua franca(widely used common language) that came to dominate cultural, political, and economic life in Europe and the Near East for centuries. Most significant among these developments were the short-lived but highly successful military conquests of Alexander, son of Phillip II of Macedon. Alexander the Great, as he came to be known, had studied under Aristotle (384–322 BC) and self-consciously sought to bring the culture and language of the Greeks to the lands he subdued. By the year 326 BC, he had conquered much of the known civilized world of his day—from Eastern Europe to India. The Koine (pronounced, “Coy-neigh”) period of the Greek language is generally dated to begin after the initial unifying effects of Alexander’s conquests (c. 300 BC) and to end with the moving of the capital of Rome to Constantinople (AD 330).

During the Koine period, Greek was spoken as a second language by many. Increased trade and travel had a regularizing effect on the language. Consequently, a “common” or ordinary dialect emerged. This κοινὴ διάλεκτος (common dialect) is well preserved in innumerable papyri and in the writings of the NT.

Various other terms are sometimes used to refer to Koine Greek with slightly different nuances. These are:

The Greek of the NT, as an expression of the Koine Greek in the first century AD, is in some sense a picture of an object in motion. The language is in a state of flux, moving toward more explicit expressions and simpler syntactical constructions, as would be expected of a lingua franca. Some of the changes we see taking place as the language shifts from Classical to Koine are:

  1. Authors regularize the aorist by applying first aorist endings to second aorist verbs. So, for example, one finds εἶπα (“I said,” Acts 26:15) alongside εἶπον (“I said,” John 16:15).
  2. The optative mood is rarely found in Koine Greek. Only sixty-eight uses of the optative are found in the NT, usually in formulaic constructions such as μὴ γένοιτο (NASB, “May it never be,” Rom 9:14) or εἴη (“could be,” Luke 1:29).
  3. Koine authors are prone to use prepositions rather than noun cases alone to communicate relationships more explicitly (e.g., 1 Pet 1:2a, κατὰ πρόγνωσιν θεοῦ πατρὸς ἐν ἁγιασμῷ πνεύματος εἰς ὑπακοὴν καὶ ῥαντισμὸν αἵματος Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ; ESV, “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood”).
  4. With a simplifying, regularizing trend, -μι verbs sometimes appear with omega verb endings (e.g., Rev 11:9, οὐκ ἀφίουσιν “they do not permit” [cf. διδόασιν]).
  5. The disappearance of some letters is complete. Digamma (ϝ), formerly appearing after epsilon in the Greek alphabet and pronounced like English “w,” disappears. The letter koppa (ϙ) also disappears. The “memory” of lost letters, however, continues to cause spelling irregularities. καλέω, for example, originally had a digamma at the end of the root and for that reason does not lengthen the contract vowel before a tense formative. Thus, the future of καλέω is καλέσω, not καλήσω.
  6. The elaborate hypotactic (subordinated) style of Classical Greek shifts toward parataxis. In paratactic style, an author places assertions side by side rather than in cascades of subordinated clauses. Authors vary in style, but as a general rule, the simpler, paratactic model is more common among Koine writers. For a NT book written almost entirely in paratactic style, see 1 John.
  7. Comparative forms are used to express the superlative idea (e.g., Luke 9:48, ὁ μικρότερος, “whoever is least”). The superlative form is commonly elative in sense (e.g., Jas 3:4, ὑπὸ ἐλαχίστουπηδαλίου, “by a very small rudder”).
  8. Though true of virtually any historical period of any language, during the Koine period words continue to shift in meaning. (This development is called “semantic shift.”) During the Classical Greek period, for example, λαλέω meant “to chat” or “to babble.” In the NT, however, λαλέω is a general verb for speaking, in the Koine period (Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek: A Survey of Basic Concepts and Applications, 2nd ed. [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995], 157).possibly preferred by authors when the speaker is not being quoted directly.

Other shifts in the Greek language could be noted, but the eight listed above are some of the most common, and any reader of the GNT will soon encounter all the trends listed above. In the first five sentences of the Practice Exercises for this chapter, students will be asked to identify which of the grammatical or orthographic (spelling) shifts above are represented by the underlined words from the GNT.

Byzantine Greek

In AD 330, the capital of the Roman empire moved from Rome to the city of Constantinople (formerly named “Byzantium”). Thus began a new era for the Greek language. Except in the Holy Roman Empire, Latin was increasingly used for politics, trade, and religion. Byzantine or Medieval Greek maintained continuity with the earlier Koine, but continued to experience syntactical changes and semantic shifts.

Modern Greek

Modern Greek is generally divided into two forms: (1) a literary form, known as Katharevousa or Καθαρεύουσα (“purifying”) Greek; and (2) Demotic or Δημοτική (“the people’s language”). in the Koine period (Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek: A Survey of Basic Concepts and Applications, 2nd ed. [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995], 154. Scholars see a direct evolutionary connection between modern Demotic Greek and its medieval predecessor, while Καθαρεύουσα is viewed as an artificial, contrived form of the language. Compared to many languages, however, Greek has experienced comparatively few changes over the last two thousand years. Most NT Greek students, for example, are able to pick their way through much of a modern Greek Bible. See the chart below that compares the Koine GNT and modern Greek Bible.

Koine (NT) Greek Modern Greek Bible
Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος. (John 1:1) Ἐν ἀρχῇ ᾐτο ὁ Λόγος, καὶ ὁ Λόγος ᾐτο παρὰ τῷ Θεῷ, καὶ Θεὸς ᾐτο ὁ Λόγος.( John 1:1)

A few NT Greek professors advocate using modern Greek pronunciation because, at points, it seems a more accurate reflection of first-century pronunciation. The vowels omicron and omega, for example, are both pronounced with a long “o” sound (ō) in modern Greek.