Christianity & Ancient Greece

Greek Koinē and the Bible

Dr. Vasileios Liotsakis

Alexander von Humboldt Postdoctoral Fellow

Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg

CHS Fellow, Harvard Universtiy

Although the Word of God originated from the Jewish religious doctrines, the Greek language was the very element which contributed the most to its dissemination throughout the world. First, as regards the Old Testament, during the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC some parts of the Hebrew Bible and some other texts were translated from Jewish into the current Alexandrian Greek. This translation is known as the ‘Septuagint’, which linguistically stems from the Latin septuaginta, (seventy) and is a Koinē Greek translation of Hebraic texts, some of which were later included in the canonical Hebrew Bible. As the primary Greek translation of the Old Testament, it is also called the ‘Greek Old Testament’. This translation is frequently quoted in the New Testament, especially in Pauline Epistles, while it was also used by the Apostolic Fathers and later Greek Church Fathers.

The title (Greek: Ἡ μετάφρασις τῶν Ἑβδομήκοντα = The Translation of the Seventy) stems from the seventy two Jewish scholars who, sponsored by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, translated the Torah (Pentateuch, Five Books of Moses) into Koinē Greek for the Library of Alexandria. According to Philo of Alexandria, who drew mainly from the Septuagint, the translators’ number emerged from the selection of six members from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. Thereafter, the Greek translation was disseminated to the Alexandrian Jews, whose first language was not Hebrew but Koinē Greek, which was gradually consolidated since Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Eastern world as the lingua franca of Alexandria and the Eastern Mediterranean.

In the ensuing three centuries, the translation of the Torah was also followed by the translations of other books. In total, the textual tradition of the Septuagint began in Alexandria in the 3rd century BC, expanded throughout the Mediterranean world, and ended by 132 BC. The Septuagint constitutes the prototype for several other versions of the Christian Old Testament all over the world (Old Latin, Slavonic, Old Armenian, Syriac, Old Georgian and Coptic).

Excluded from the Hebrew canon of the Jewish Bible in Rabbinic Judaism, translations of the Torah into Koinē Greek have survived in fragmentary condition. There were also other – seven or more – Greek versions of the Old Testament, whose rare fragments barely suffice to offer us a clear picture of them. Our most important source for these translations is Origen’s Hexapla, a comparison of six translations, such as those by Theodotion, Aquila, and Symmachus.

The Greek language had an equally central role in the composition of the New Testament (the Gospels and the Acts of Apostles). The language of Jesus and the first apostles was Aramaic, in which they taught their doctrines in Palestine. However, as soon as the first missionaries left the Palestinian territory in order to spread Jesus’ words in the rest of the world, they realized that they had to deliver their sermons in the lingua franca of the inhabitants of the areas which they visited, namely Greek Koinē. Following the inheritance of the Septuagint, the Hellenistic Jewish missionaries, and especially those from Antiochia, were the main inspirers of the composition of the New Testament in Greek. The gospels as well as the Acts of the Apostles stemmed from accounts spoken or written in Aramaic, but were first composed as the whole which we today call the “New Testament” in Greek.

Now, as for the language of both the Septuagint and the New Testament, Greek Koinē was the language which was used in both oral and written form by the Greeks and non-Greeks of the Hellenistic world during the period roughly speaking, between the 3rd century BC and 3rd century AD. It is based mainly on the common Attic dialect and the Ionic of the Classical era (5th century – death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC) and emerged from the coexistence and the subsequent linguistic interactions of the Greeks and the Eastern peoples after the conquest of the East by Alexander the Great. After Alexander’s death, the new Macedonian kingdoms, from the Ptolemaic Egypt to the Seleucids’ Mesopotamia, consolidated Greek not only as the language of administration and international and commercial communication but also as the conquered peoples’ language in their day-life oral affairs. The non-Greeks who learnt Greek contributed to its simplification both on a syntactical and phonetic level and enriched it with vocabulary from their own languages. The version of Greek Koinē in the Septuagint and the New Testament exemplifies the way in which the Greek language was affected by Eastern linguistic loans, since in these texts we may trace many Semiticisms, such as Semitic phraseology, wherefrom the common word ἐγένετο meaning “it came to pass” or the absence of the scheme μέν … δέ stem. This version of Greek is known as Jewish Koinē Greek, Jewish Hellenistic Greek or Biblical Koinē, resembling, however, to a high degree the Greek Koinē.

Papyrus 46 A folio from Papyrus 46. One of the oldest extant New Testament manuscripts in Greek, dated between 175 and 225. The picture shows the I Corinthians, II, 3 - II, 11 and it is kept in the University of Michigan Papyrus Collection.