GREEK, THE ORIGINAL LANGUAGE OF THE NEW TESTAMENT New Wine into New Wineskins by Giuseppe Guarino.
We got the New Testament in Greek. Koinè Greek, used in a form we can call Biblical Greek. The Author was recently confronted with some claims that Greek was not the New Testament actual language of composition. Then he asked himself: were the autographs of the New Testament actually written in Greek or Hebrew, Aramaic, or whatever language or dialect was spoken by the Jews in Israel during the first century? He investigated the matter and found enough reasonable evidence to come up with convincing ideas. They are collected in this book, hoping they will be a satisfactory answer to those interested in this challenging question.
Introduction (from the book)
This collection of considerations is a personal review of facts I have learned and thoughts I have meditated on the challenging topic described in the title of this book.
We got the New Testament in an “original” Greek. I was recently confronted with some claims that this is not its actual language of composition.
So, I asked myself: were the autographs of the New Testament actually written in Greek or Hebrew or even Aramaic, or whatever language or dialect was spoken by the Jews in Israel during the first century?
I investigated the matter and found enough reasonable evidence to come up with convincing ideas. I collected them here.
I pray the results of my study will give a satisfactory answer to those interested in this challenging question.
Sicily, 9th December, 2018.
The Language of the New Testament
As far as evidence is concerned, the original Text of the New Testament has been handed down to us through manuscripts which contain it in Greek.
The question has recently been asked me: Are you sure the original New Testament was actually written in Greek?
The New Testament is a collection of books written independently, at various times and in different places, for specific immediate needs or purposes.
In this perspective, and for the sake of convenience, we will discuss about those books separately.
The initial question, in fact, must be thus reviewed: were any or all of the books of the New Testament originally written in another language that was not the Greek in which they have travelled down through the centuries?
If we rely on external, objective, evidence only, we must answer the preceding question positively. There is, in fact, no manuscript attestation that can actually compete with the over six thousand representing the Greek originals of the New Testament.
The Church has constantly relied on the Greek manuscripts as a witness to the original text of the Christian Scriptures. And, apart from some references to Hebrew autographs, like Matthew for example, we have no other serious candidate for a non-Greek original language.
The above made me always state, and I confirm it now, that the New Testament was originally written in Greek.
The first century Greek spoken everywhere in the Roman Empire is called Koinè. But I prefer to refer to Biblical Greek when speaking of the language of the Septuagint or of that of the New Testament.
Koinè was the language of commerce, of contracts and documents. It was the language spoken everywhere in the former Greek empire founded by Alexander the Great.
The peculiarities of the language of the Scriptures became even more evident in the hands of the early Christians.
So many conjectures, suppositions and ideas can be added to the above statement which represents facts as they are. So many details of the language of the New Testament can be investigated.
The purpose, my purpose, is not and cannot be arguing or trying to prove or disprove this or that theory, but to deepen and widen our understanding of the holy scriptures, their meaning, authority and authenticity.
If I wanted to shock the readers I would say that all the books of the New Testament were basically written in Hebrew, this term being a general way to address the language currently spoken in Israel during the times of
Jesus – if it was biblical Hebrew or Aramaic, we will say something about it later. In fact, even if Paul, Luke, or any other inspired author entrusted their thoughts and ideas to the Greek language, their mother tongue, frame of mind and the environment in which they lived was Jewish, Semitic. The Faith they were writing about was based on Hebrew Scriptures. Very probably in their work they consulted some reliable early document in Hebrew – abundant evidence shows the latter is more than an assumption.
Had the New Testament been written all in Hebrew it could have not been more Jewish than it is the way it was delivered to us.
I believe this to be a fact.
After I learned Greek, studying the original text made it clear for me how necessary it was to learn at least some Hebrew.
This is why I call the Greek of the Septuagint and its consequent New Testament evolution, Biblical Greek. Because it is a derivation of Koinè. It started there, but then it took a path of its own, which is also deeply connected to the development of the Jewish Faith that we call Christianity.
Just a few examples.
Matthew 1:1 reads: “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (King James Version).
I choose the KJV here because we need to look at a literal translation. The opening of this gospel is so deeply Jewish that no translation in any language can change this fact.
If it had been originally written in Hebrew, the translator(s) in Greek must have rendered it faithfully
and literally, so that, in practice, the Greek is no less Semitic than a Hebrew autograph.
The KJV follows a literal translation criteria, which I actually like.
We all know there are different ways of translating a text from one language to another.
For the way in which I read the Bible, I always had a preference for the literal approach. Other ways will inevitably reflect the personal ideas and opinions of the translator(s).
Translating literally is sanctioned by the New Testament itself, since the Greek we read today clearly shows
- Hebrew thoughts in a native speaker’s mind or
- Reference to written sources, documents, or
- Even autographs.
The New Testament in Greek keeps all the flavor, the Semitisms, the atmosphere, the terminology of Hebrew-Jewish language and culture.
The New King James Version tries to move a bit further in Matthew 1:1 and renders: “the book of the generation” so the reader may have access to the idiomatic correspondent expression in English: “the genealogy.”
This is more conveying the meaning in our modern current language than simply translating it, for the sake of being more understandable and make sense to the English speaking reader.
The NKJV doesn’t continue this way for the rest of the verse. It is just like the KJV: “the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.”
The Amplified Bible will fulfill its purpose and further dig into the meaning of Mt 1:1, which, of course, is not so evident to the non-Jewish mind or those who are not familiar with the Scriptures: “The book of the ancestry (genealogy) of Jesus Christ (The Messiah, the Anointed), the son (descendant) of David, the son (descendant) of Abraham.”
The English word “son” perfectly translates the Greek here, which, in turn, literally renders the Hebrew, and conveys the idea of descent and not of a direct father-son relationship. This frame of mind is not found here in Mt 1:1 only. See James 2:21, Romans 4:1, 12, 16, Acts 7:2, just to name a few.
Anyway, focusing on the Hebrew language only can also lead us astray.
If not by the authors, Greek was chosen by the supposed translator(s) of the New Testament, who must have been convinced that it could serve their purpose well.
Neglecting the importance of Greek is dangerous and can be an (even involuntary) attempt to undermine the witness of the Church.
In the next chapter I will give the reader a quick introduction of the Greek language in general, then I will move to discuss evidence in favor of Greek autographs and the possibility of non-Greek autographs.