How We Got Our Bible -- Part 4: The Greek Language of the New Testament


Last week we defined some terms commonly used with the Bible; terms like inerrancy which means that there are no factual errors in the Bible, and infallibility, the fact that the doctrine and concepts are correct, that the Bible can be trusted for guidance.   And we pointed out that less than 1% of the Scripture in the Bible is in competent dispute, and where it is in competent dispute, the disputed verses are not material to any doctrine of the Scriptures.   So the disputes do not matter, except to the scholars.

Then we looked at the words Bible and Testament, and found that the name of the two sections of the Bible should be named the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.  The Greek word being translated as Testament, Diatheke, is more correctly translated as "Covenant", which is what God calls it in Jeremiah and in Hebrews.

Then we looked at the structure of the Hebrew Bible, finding that it is in three sections:

We said that although the Jews say they have 24 books and our Bible has 39 books in the Old Testament, all of our books are there, just grouped differently and in slightly different order, but having the same information and content.

Then we looked at the Hebrew language and studied some of its unique aspects:

For the last two weeks we have talked about the Hebrew language and some of its unique aspects.   Here is the word we pronounce as B'resheeth.  We talked about it in the Genesis study.  Genesis 1:1 says "B'resheeth bara Elohim" - "In the Beginning God madeÖ."   B'resheeth is translated "in the beginning"; before there was a beginning.   But here is the word in Hebrew:

Remember we talked about the beauty of the letters and how they flow.

And you can see the pointing added by the Masoretes between 500 and 950 A.D.   These marks help identify the inferred vowels, which don't normally occur in the word as printed.   Dave found an image of B'resheeth so I could show you what we have been talking about.   We have to do it in an image, since neither of us has software that will produce Hebrew writing on our computers.   With help from Dave, let me describe what some of these Hebrew letters are, and the vowel pointing.

Beth (or Bet) - the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet is the letter "B" because it has a dot in the middle of it.  Without the dot it would be a "V".  It is a pictograph of a house.  The Hebrew word Beth means house:

Two dots: A syllable marker or position filler that we write in English with an apostrophe.


  Resh is the Hebrew letter "R".
The two dots under it    is the long "ei" sound as in "Beirut" and "faith".


  Aleph, the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Not strictly the letter "A", but more like the glottal catch at the beginning of "action" and "awful".  The Jews call their alphabet the "Aleph-Bet". The Greeks call theirs the "Alpha-Beta", leading to our word "alphabet".


 Sheen can symbolize either "S" or "SH".  When the dot is over the left limb, it is a "Seen" (the letter "S"); when the dot is over the right limb, it's a "Sheen" (the "SH").  This one is the latter. The dot under the sheen is the short "i" as in "bit", but in combination with a "yod" following it, it becomes the long "i" as in "beet". The little diagonal may be an extra help to signal this combination.


 Yod is the Hebrew letter "Y".  It is the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet, possibly the one Jesus was talking about when he said that every "jot" and "tittle" will be fulfilled.   Notice the similarity between "yod" and "jot".


 Tau, the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Here it is a voiceless "TH" like in "thing".  When it occurs  with a dot inside it, its a soft "T".


So now you can read "B'resheeth" from right to left, now that you know a little about Hebrew.

The Greek of the New Testament:

Last week we looked at the Hebrew language for several reasons;

We will get to the Septuagint a little later. But first, letís look at the Greek language, like we looked at Hebrew as a language.

The Greek language is very different. In contrast to Hebrew, the Greek language is very colorful and very picturesque. it is designed to describe thoughts and ideas and emotions -- all abstract concepts.   In contrast to Hebrew, Greek verbs have all kinds of different inflections to indicate unique aspects about the verb.   The Hebrew does not have any such differentiation.

Greek is designed for thoughts for reasoning an argument.  Its vocabulary and style can penetrate well beyond physical phenomena.  The Hebrew relates to what you see and observe;  Greek can get in behind what causes it. Greek deals with causation.

Classic Greek, called "Attic" was very subtle in its syntax and often untranslatable. It was the highest form of Greek.   But when Alexander conquered most of the world, there were all these dialects.  And in order to help everyone have a common language, he replaced all of the dialects with Hellenistic Greek, or common Greek called Koine Greek.   The New Testament was written and read in Koine Greek, which was not quite as elegant as Attic Greek or high Greek, but far more stable and still very challenging, picturesque and complex.   It still has the rhetorical power of the Greek language.

Greek Verbs:

To give you some feeling of the Greek verbs, this is going to impact what we're going to look at later.  There are five aspects to a Greek verb: tense, mood, voice, person and number.  More than just the translation of the verb from Greek by the way it's placed in the word order, you can tell

Middle Voice:

One of the great misunderstandings in the book of Romans is the failure to understand that unlike other languages, Greek can have both active and passive of forms at the same time.  That's the situation where we are receiving an action but we are receiving the action because of our own fault.   And you have to understand the grammar to read it correctly.   A single Greek verb may require several words or even a sentence, or several sentences to portray the meaning.  I mention this to give you some feeling of the challenge and difficulty of translating the Greek language.  It is tough.

Common Use:

By the way, Jesus is commonly believed to have spoken in more than one language.   He spoke Aramaic; we know that from Mark 15.   He also spoke Greek, at least according to some Bible scholars.   In the Greek text of Mark it is clear to them from their studies that Jesus was speaking to a Greek speaking woman after his resurrection.   Remember in the garden when the woman thought that he was the gardener until he spoke to her in Greek?   That's in John 20 on Easter morning.  She thinks he is the gardener until he calls her by name, in Aramaic, as he turns to her.   You can argue against this understanding, but it helps understand why she did not recognize him.

Pilate spoke Latin, Greek and Hebrew.  Most scholars believe that the interrogation was in Greek.  He personally signed the sign above Jesus at the crucifixion in all three languages.  The sign read "King of the Jews" in those three languages.

Aramaic is a Semitic language, just as Arabic is.  It was the language of the Assyrians, Chaldeans, Hebrews and Syrians.   Do you remember that Abraham was called from the Ur of the Chaldees, and that he traveled from Paddan Aram to the land that God gave to him and his descendants?  The Hebrew patriarchs spoke Aramaic, and it was the common language of the Jews at the time of Christ.

The name Aramaic comes from the name of Aram, the fifth son of Shem (Gen 10:22), grandson of Noah.   The common language of Palestine shifted from Hebrew to Aramaic between 721 BC and 500 B.C., so Palestine had been using Aramaic for 500 years by the time Jesus was born.   It remained the prevalent language until after the Arabian conquest of the area under Islam starting in the 7th century A.D.  It was after 1200 A.D. that Arabic became the dominant language of the people in the Middle East.   Even after Arabic became the common language, Aramaic was the language of the religious community.

Early Texts:

When we talk about the Old Testament, there are three primary texts that you need to be aware of.

  1. The Vorlage - The original Hebrew that started with the Torah, and as we get to David in the kings they started keeping chronicles or records and it starts to get codified in the days Ezra & Nehemiah.   The Hebrew texts that were around prior to a number of translations which are not around today are sometimes called the Vorlage.   It is a German word meaning "precedent".  it was the basis for the translation into Greek three centuries before Christ was born.  That was the time that one of the most important translations to you and me was made.   The Vorlage, among other documents, were the documents from which the Septuagint was translated. There are no copies or fragments of the Vorlage.

    Donít confuse Vorlage with the Vulgate which came a few hundred years later, and is the Latin translation related to the Catholic Church.

  2. The Septuagint: - About 285 B.C., Ptolemy Philadelphiaus impaneled 70 or 72 scholars at Alexandria, Egypt to translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek.   In those days Ptolemy was under the vestige of the Greek empire.  Most of the known world spoke Greek.  Even if you were Jewish you spoke Greek, not Hebrew.  Hebrew was a religious thing; Greek was the commercial language.  Everybody spoke Greek, so if you were Jewish you would like to read your Scriptures in something you understood which was not Hebrew.

    In recognition of that they took the best 70 scholars that they could find, and they spent 15 years translating what we would call the Old Testament into Greek. The work product of that effort is called the Septuagint.

    The argument of whether there were 70 or 72 comes from the belief by some Jewish Scholars that they took 6 scholars from each of the 12 tribes.   But Septuagint means 70 in Greek, and there are many references to there being 70 scholars.  So there were about 70 -- (70 or 72, plus or minus).

    Keep in mind that they did not have printing at the time, so all of this had to be done by hand copying.  We have four copies of the Septuagint today with minor variations from having been copied.

    But here is the real point.  When this was done is a matter of secular history.  Check any encyclopedia.  It was finished about 270 B.C.  Scholars quibble about ten years one way or the other.  But it was in place in writing, translated into Greek, close to 300 years before the birth of Jesus.   And we have copies of it today.  It lays out his genealogy and when he was going to be born, and where, and so forth.  It was in black and white in the Septuagint 300 years before it happened.   And the Septuagint was translated from the Hebrew texts handed down for hundreds of years.   Keep in mind that at the time of translation, there were no Christians.  So the Jews did not need to bias it to defend it from the Christians.  And since thee were no Christians, there was no effort to "christianize" it.   This is the last time a translation was done which did not have forces to twist the Scriptures to the Jewish side or to the Christian side.   For this reason many scholars, (and I, not a scholar by any stretch of the imagination), consider the Septuagint to be the best Old Testament source document available to us today.   So if we have the near perfect unbiased near source document, everything is settled.  No issues left for the Old Testament. Right?  Not quite.

  3. The Apocrypha: - The Septuagint was a compilation of the translation of many different books and documents.  It included Scripture from the Vorlage, but it also included many other books translated from Hebrew to Greek.   By 100 BC, Hebrew scholars were grouping the translations into 24 Books to be read by everyone.   These were the books in the Hebrew Tanak, our Old Testament.   And they said there were 70 books to be read only by scholars.   These were books translated in the Septuagint, but apparently only useful for background, for reference.   They were considered less valid, less inspired.

    This leads us to the question of the difference between the Old Testament in the Protestant Bible and the Old Testament in the Catholic Bible.   What is the difference?  The Catholic Old Testament contains seven books that were written in the "Inter-Testamental Period", the period between our Old and New Testaments, i.e.about 400 B.C. to the birth of Jesus. These books are called the Apocrypha.  The interesting thing about them is that no one considered them important.   The Hebrew scholars in 100 B.C. considered them to be reference material.   The Jews never did include them in the Tanak.   Christians never considered them important enough to worry about until Martin Luther expressly delegated them to an appendix in the Bible, primarily to confront the Catholic Church which had some of them in the Vulgate, which we will get to later.   Martin Luther took this stand in 1522.   The Catholic Church at the Council of Trent in 1546, declared for the very first time (in what appears to have been a backlash against Luther) that the 7 Books of the Apocrypha that are in the Catholic Bible today are an integral part of the Old Testament.   Until then, they and other of the Apocryphal books (14 or 15 in all) were in the Vulgate, but not considered very important.   The funny thing is that even the Catholic Church has always downplayed them.  If you read the 7 books in the Catholic Bible today, there is very little theology in them.  They are history, and interesting to see what was going on in the period of time between the Old and New Testaments.   And some are like a wild fairy tale.  But thee is no meat, no theology, except the Catholic concept of purgatory which depends on the Books of Macabees.

    So the argument over the books of the Apocrypha is an argument for argumentís sake.  No one has ever considered them comparable to the books of the Tanak.  They did not become a big deal until Martin Luther made them one, and the Catholic Church made them one back.   But even then, the Catholic Church downplayed them.   The surprising thing to me is that they were in the group of many books that were translated with the Septuagint.  But even then they were as reference, history, for color.


Next week:

Pat and I will be in Washington for the National Prayer Breakfast.  Dave Westley will describe some of the issues involved with a translation of the Bible by showing you his translation work in Mexico.

In two weeks I want see what happened to the Old Testament after the Septuagint.  That will set the stage for the development of the New Testament Canon.

After that we will then use all of this background to compare the various versions of the Bible available to us today.   And each of us can make an informed choice about which version or versions we want to use for study.