‘It’s all Greek to me’… how many times have I heard that phrase? How many people have asked what on earth Greek has to do with the Bible? Well, the New Testament was written in a form of Greek called Koine, which is part of the way along the language spectrum taking us from Homer to Modern Greek. Learning the alphabet can feel like a hurdle, but once you’ve broken the code, the language itself is not too difficult to learn, and opens up whole new ways of thinking about the New Testament. Here are just a few of the puzzles it’s helped me think about.
‘In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God’. A familiar phrase, which millions of people can quote worldwide. There are so many strange things about it though. In Greek the word order reads ‘God was the word’, and you need to know Greek well to understand why not to read it that way. Then what on earth does it mean for the word to be WITH God? Theological issues aside, even linguistically it is very odd. To make things more complicated, the word translated as ‘with’ (pros), means something like ‘towards’ in most circumstances.
‘With’ is a preposition, a word used to help relate other words to each other. Jesus didn’t speak Greek, nor was it the native language for most of the New Testament authors. Instead, we see them use Greek as well as they can to represent the natural Aramaic or Hebrew of their world. Prepositions are an obvious problem – Greek and Hebrew just don’t think about them in quite the same way. Take the baptism of Jesus. He is dipped eis the Jordan, and then the Holy Spirit descends eis him like a dove (Mark 1:9-11). So what does eis mean? Usually it is translated as ‘into’, but how could the dove dive-bomb Jesus like that? And does that mean that baptism should be immersive, or should we not worry about following a text literally? In addition, languages such as Polish, Dutch, Danish, German, and indeed Greek, don’t have separate words for dove and pigeon. If an English speaker imagines the Holy Spirit as a pigeon, we might think of food, or nuisance birds in Trafalgar Square, not the image of purity and peace conveyed by the white dove seen in pictures.
There are over 100 ways to describe rain in Scotch, as the frequent rain there means people have become better at differentiating different kinds. We need language to represent reality. Different cultures see the world differently, and the more languages you learn, the more of the world you are able to perceive. Learning New Testament Greek gives us a chance to step inside the shoes of the New Testament writers, to try to make sense of the world in their terms. The language is a puzzle – there are words and endings to be learned, and grammar to be understood, which all go together like a giant jigsaw, a black and white one which only gets coloured in once all the pieces are in the right order and you can see the whole picture. It gives you a different way of studying which can be a helpful break from and reflection on essay writing. It lets you read texts without relying entirely on someone else’s translation and interpretation.
Language learning is hard work, but ask any student of Greek at university, however, and they’ll tell you how much fun it is too, and how exciting it is to be able to open a text from 2000 years ago and read it.