Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

History of the Greek Language

The Greek language has a long and rich history stretching all the way from the thirteenth century B.C. to the present. The earliest form of the language is called "Linear B" (13th century B.C.). The form of Greek used by writers from Homer (8th century B.C.) through Plato (4th century B.C.) is called "Classical Greek." It was a marvelous form of the language, capable of exact expression and subtle nuances. Its alphabet was derived from the Phoenician’s as was that of Hebrew. Classical Greek existed in many dialects of which three were primary: Doric, Aeolic, and Ionic (of which Attic was a branch).

Athens was conquered in the fourth century B.C. by King Philip of Macedonia. Alexander the Great, Philip’s son, who was tutored by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, set out to conquer the world and spread Greek culture and language. Because Alexander spoke Attic Greek, it was this dialect that was spread. It was also the dialect spoken by the famous Athenian writers. This was the beginning of the Hellenistic Age.

As the Greek language spread across the world and met other languages, it was altered (which is true of any language). The dialects also interacted with each other. Eventually this adaptation resulted in what today we call Koine Greek. "Koine" (κοινή) means "common" and describes the common, everyday form of the language, used by everyday people. It was not considered a polished literary form of the language, and in fact some writers of this era purposefully imitated the older style of Greek (which is like someone today writing in King James English). Koine was a simplified form of classical Greek and unfortunately many of the subtleties of classical Greek were lost. For example, in classical Greek ἄλλος meant "other" of the same kind while ἕτερος meant "other" of a different kind. If you had an apple and you asked for ἄλλος, you would receive another apple. But if you asked for ἕτερος, you would be given perhaps an orange. Some of these subtleties come through in Scripture but not often. It is this common Koine Greek that is used in the Septuagint, the New Testament, and the writings of the Apostolic Fathers.

For a long time Koine Greek confused many scholars. It was significantly different from Classical Greek. Some hypothesized that it was a combination of Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. Others attempted to explain it as a "Holy Ghost language," meaning that God created a special language just for the Bible. But studies of Greek papyri found in Egypt over the past one hundred years have shown that this language was the language of the everyday people used in the writings of wills, private letters, receipts, shopping lists, etc.

There are two lessons we can learn from this. As Paul says, "In the fullness of time God sent his son" (Gal 4:4), and part of that fullness was a universal language. No matter where Paul traveled he could be understood.

But there is another lesson here that is perhaps a little closer to the pastor’s heart. God used the common language to communicate the gospel. The gospel does not belong to the erudite alone; it belongs to all people. It now becomes our task to learn this marvelous language to help us make the grace of God known to all people.