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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary

Greek Language

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It was because of the wide diffusion of this language that the New Testament was written in Greek. Its diction is not, however, that of the classical Greek, but it was chosen, no doubt, with a view to greater usefulness. In the age which succeeded Alexander the Great, the Greek language underwent an internal change of a double nature. In part, a prosaic language of books was formed, η κοινη


διαλεκτος , which was built on the Attic dialect, but was intermixed with not a few provincialisms; but a language of popular intercourse was also formed, in which the various dialects of the different Grecian tribes, heretofore separate, were more or less mingled together, while the Macedonian dialect was peculiarly prominent. The latter language constitutes the basis of the diction employed by the LXX, the writers of the Apocrypha, and of the New Testament. The style of the New Testament has a considerable affinity with that of the Septuagint version which was executed at Alexandria, although it approaches somewhat nearer to the idiom of the Greek language; but the peculiarities of the Hebrew phraseology are discernible throughout: the language of the New Testament being formed by a mixture of oriental idioms and expressions with those which are properly Greek. Hence it has, by some philologers, been termed Hebraic Greek, and (from the Jews having acquired the Greek language, rather by practice than by grammar, among the Greeks, in whose countries they resided in large communities) Hellenistic Greek. The propriety of this appellation was severely contested toward the close of the seventeenth, and in the early part of the eighteenth, century; and numerous publications were written on both sides of the question, with considerable asperity, which, together with the controversy, are now almost forgotten. The dispute, however interesting to the philological antiquarian, is after all a mere "strife of words;" and as the appellation of Hellenistic or Hebraic Greek is sufficiently correct for the purpose of characterizing the language of the New Testament, it is now generally adopted. A large proportion, however, of the phrases and constructions of the New Testament is pure Greek; that is to say, of the same degree of purity as the Greek which was spoken in Macedonia, and that in which Polybius wrote his Roman history. It should farther be noticed, that there occur in the New Testament words that express both doctrines and practices which were utterly unknown to the Greeks; and also words bearing widely different interpretations from those which are ordinarily found in Greek writers. It contains examples of all the dialects occurring in the Greek language, as the AEolic, Boeotic, Doric, Ionic, and especially of the Attic; which, being most generally in use on account of its elegance, pervades every book of the New Testament.

2. A variety of solutions has been given to the question, why the New Testament was written in Greek. The true reason is, that it was the language most generally understood both by writers and readers; being spoken and written, read and understood, throughout the Roman empire, and particularly in the eastern provinces. To the universality of the Greek language, Cicero, Seneca, and Juvenal bear ample testimony: and the circumstances of the Jews having long had political, civil, and commercial relations with the Greeks, and being dispersed through various parts of the Roman empire, as well as their having cultivated the philosophy of the Greeks, of which we have evidence in the New Testament, all sufficiently account for their being acquainted with the Greek language. And if the eminent Jewish writers, Philo and Josephus, had motives for preferring to write in Greek, there is no reason, at least there is no general presumption, why the first publishers of the Gospel might not use the Greek language. It is indeed probable, that many of the common people were acquainted with it; though it is also certain the Christian churches being in many countries composed chiefly of that class of persons, some did not understand Greek. But in every church, says Macknight, there were persons endowed with the gift of tongues, and of the interpretation of tongues, who could readily turn the Apostles' Greek epistles into the language of the church to which they were sent. In particular, the president or the spiritual man, who read the Apostle's Greek letter to the Hebrews in their public assemblies, could without any hesitation render it into the Hebrew language, for the edification of those who did not understand Greek. And with respect to the Jews in the provinces, Greek being the native language of most of them, this epistle was much better calculated for their use, written in the Greek language, than if it had been written in the Hebrew, which few of them understood. Farther, it was proper that all the apostolical epistles should be written in the Greek language, because the different doctrines of the Gospel being delivered and explained in them, the explanation of these doctrines could with more advantage be compared so as to be better understood, being expressed in one language, than if, in the different epistles, they had been expressed in the language of the churches and persons to whom they were sent. Now what should that one language be, in which it was proper to write the Christian revelation, but the Greek, which was then generally understood, and in which there were many books extant; that treated of all kinds of literature, and on that account were likely to be preserved, and by the reading of which Christians, in after ages, would be enabled to understand. the Greek of the New Testament? This advantage none of the provincial dialects used in the Apostles' days could pretend to. Being limited to particular countries, they were soon to be disused; and few (if any) books being written in them which merited to be preserved, the meaning of such of the Apostles' letters as were composed in the provincial languages could not easily have been ascertained.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Greek Language'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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