What’s With All the Greek?

That puzzlement was expressed by a Fish Hooks reader about the way references to Greek words and ideas keep turning up.  Isn’t that rather odd?  After all, virtually all of the Bible was written by and about Jews, and Jesus and His disciples were Jews.  So why aren’t we always talking about Hebrew?  Or, since the Church began in the Roman Empire, why not Latin?  Why are we so preoccupied with Greek when we talk about the origins, theology, and traditions of Christianity?

The simple (but not obvious) explanation is that Greek was the common language of the entire Mediterranean world at the time the Christian church was being born.  Hebrew was now a ‘dead’ language even in Palestine (Jesus and His disciples spoke Aramaic) and outside of the Holy Land the many dispersed Jews spoke a multitude of languages (Acts 2:8-10).  Though the Jewish Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) were written in Hebrew, and that was how they were (and still are) read in synagogue worship, few Jews actually understood what was being read without translation.  And though the entire Mediterranean region was under Roman rule, relatively few of the subjects spoke Latin.

The one single language which was widely used across the New Testament world was Greek.  This was a carry-over from the fact that the Roman Empire had essentially taken over the older Greek empire that Alexander the Great had conquered about 300 years earlier.  The Romans were great admirers of the Greek’s ancient culture and consequently the educated people around the empire were literate in their language. Most ordinary people also had some ability to converse in a dialect known as Koine (‘common’) Greek.  In other words, Greek in the New Testament world was sort of like basic English is in today’s world – a second language that allowed diverse people to communicate.

So when Paul set out on his missionary journeys, the people he encountered (both Jews and Gentiles) generally understood Greek, and when he and the other Apostles wrote letters (epistles) to the newly-formed Christian congregations, they wrote them in Greek.  Similarly, when the Evangelists set down the Gospel accounts, they did so in Greek (though Mark’s mastery of the language seems pretty sketchy).  Consequently, all of the New Testament was written in Greek.  But, as a matter of fact, the early Christians also read the Old Testament in Greek.

Roughly 200 years earlier, the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) had been translated into Koine Greek so that the far-flung Jewish peoples of the Mediterranean could read it in a language they understood.  This translation, known as the Septuagint (an interesting story in itself), was what New Testament writers usually quoted when they referred to the Jewish scriptures.  So Greek is important to our study of the Old Testament too, since it was in Greek terms that the early Christians understood it.

As both the empire and the church eventually broke into Eastern and Western branches, a Latin translation of the Bible (the Vulgate) became the standard of the Roman Catholic Church in the West.  But the Greek tradition was deeply embedded in the theological and liturgical language of Christians.  When the Protestant Reformation eventually split off from the Roman church, there was a revived interest in reading the Bible in the ‘original’ Greek.  So though it is a kind of complicated story, one can now perhaps see why Greek has been so influential in the story of Christianity and remains so important in the traditions of the Church.

But let’s address the unspoken question that many readers will likely be asking: “Since English is now the common language of the modern world, why do we still have this preoccupation with Greek terms?” Well, to answer that question satisfactorily, one would have to explain why physicians use Latin names like clavicle, why physicists use German terms like bremsstrahlung, and why chefs use French terms like soufflé – Christianity too has its own ‘technical language.’ But in addition to the practical aspect of retaining ancient words that have well-established meaning, there is the emotional depth of knowing that when we use a Greek phrase such as Kyrie Eleison (“Lord have mercy”) we are uniting ourselves in spirit with millennia of believers around the globe.

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