Low Greek and the New Testament

What Jesus MeantThe marketplace Greek of the New Testament — koine (“common denominator”) Greek — is not elegant. When Alexander the Great conquered his huge patchwork quilt of different peoples speaking different languages, the only way the defeated could communicate with Macedonian officers, and with other parts of the empire, was in fumbling attempts at the rulers’ Greek. When the Romans succeeded the Greek imperial forces, they had to use the language in place, not their own Latin. As Cicero said of the Roman empire, “Greek is read in practically every nation, while Latin is hedged within its own narrow confines.”

In koine, as in any pidgin language, niceties tend to be lost. Words are strug together, often without connectives to get across a basic meaning. Most of the gospels are written in this basic language, used equally by Romans like Pilate and by Aramaic speakers like Jesus and his followers. Sentences sometimes fumble clumsily at meaning. “What to me and to you, woman?” says Jesus to this mother (John 2.4). “Nothing to you and to that just man,” says Pilate’s wife (Matthew 27.19). “The law and prophets up to John” (Luke 16.16). “I must be at my father’s” (Luke 2.49) — his father’s what? Commentators quarrel. Definite articles, used according to subtle rules in classical Greek, come and go confusingly in koine: the Lord’s Prayer open with an address to “Our Father in the heavens,” but a little later in the prayer we get “in heaven and on earth.” Tenses shift randomly.

When the meaning is obscure in such a simple language, it is less often because of any sublime meaning conveyed than from mere linguistic clumsiness. Grammar can be muddled, if not neglected altogether. The Book of Revelations is especially ungrammatical — Nietzsche, a trained classicist, said that if God wrote the New Testament, he knew surprisingly little Greek. Except in the Epistle to the Hebrews, the complex sentence structure of classical Greek is rarely evident. We get a simple stringing-on of independent clauses (parataxis) linked repetitively with the boring kai (“and”). Dialogue has no elegant variation. It is a matter of “And X say… And Y says… And X says…”

Most of the words used are common. The infant Jesus is laid in a hay trough (phatne). But translators know that people expect a “biblical English” in the gospels. They make the hay trough more dignified by using a foreign word (French manger, for food) instead of “hay trough.” When Jesus answers Pilate, “So you say,” they try to find a more elegant form of answer — though “So you say” exactly replicates the Greek. Translators try to give more churchiness to the evangelists, to teach them their linguistic manners. Jesus should not say to his mother, “What to me and to you, woman?” So they do not let him. Almost every translation into English tries to hide the “faults” of the New Testament. They straighten out the grammar, make the tenses more uniform, break up the repetitions.

—Garry Wills
What Jesus Meant

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