Was the Bible Written in ‘Street Language’?

by Michael Marlowe

June 2009

One often hears from proponents of “dynamic equivalence” that this method of representing the Biblical text is appropriate because the New Testament was written in the ordinary language of the common people of its day. Therefore it is a matter of faithfulness to the text to represent it in a correspondingly colloquial style. Some have gone so far as to call the language of the New Testament “street language.” In a recent book Mark Strauss states the argument thus:

This idea of rendering God’s Word into the language of the people has its primary precedent in the Bible itself. It was once believed that the language of the New Testament was a unique kind of Hebraic Greek or even a “Holy Ghost language” created especially for biblical revelation. Study of the Egyptian papyri over the past one hundred years has demonstrated conclusively that New Testament Greek is actually an example of Koine (or “common”) Greek, the everyday language of the people that spread throughout the Mediterranean region following the conquests of Alexander the Great (late fourth century B.C.). There is nothing archaic, solemn or mystical about the kind of language used by the inspired authors of the New Testament. It is the Greek of the street. This says a great deal about the nature of God’s revelation. Just as God took on the form of common humanity when he revealed himself as the living Word, so his written Word was revealed in language that the person on the street could understand. This fact alone should convince us to translate Scripture into contemporary, idiomatic English—not an imitation English that artificially mimics patterns and structures of either Greek or Hebrew. (1)

Adolf DeissmannIn a footnote here, Strauss refers the reader to the work of the German scholar Adolf Deissmann (1866-1937), who at the end of the nineteenth century set out to demonstrate the “popular” character of New Testament Greek by pointing to the apparently similar language found in recently discovered papyrus fragments of tax receipts, wills, personal letters, and other humble “non-literary” documents of the Hellenistic era. These documents were taken to be representative of the ordinary idiomatic language of Greek-speaking people of the first century. (2) Deissmann’s analysis of these materials first appeared in his Bibelstudien, published in 1895. This was soon followed by Neue Bibelstudien (1897). These two works were combined and translated into English as Bible Studies (1901). Subsequent works of Deissmann which appeared in English were New Light on the New Testament (1907), The Philology of the Greek Bible (1908), and Light from the Ancient East (1910). In these works, Deissmann often seemed to deny that there was anything literary or especially Jewish about the language of the New Testament. His purpose, as he put it, was “to emphasize the popular and non-literary element in the language of the apostles and to protest against the dogmatic isolation of New Testament philology.” (3) Nevertheless, as we shall see, Deissmann did not carry this emphasis so far as to maintain that the language of the New Testament was entirely of a popular nature.

Deissmann’s views were embraced by many scholars at the time, and he is often regarded as the father of a ‘revolution’ in New Testament philology. He did in fact demonstrate that the Greek of the New Testament belonged for the most part to the Hellenistic or Koine Greek of the time, and he pointed to many instructive lexical parallels in the non-literary papyri. But it is important to note that, like Deissmann himself in his later and less polemical writings, scholars who accepted his conclusions acknowledged that the style of the New Testament was not altogether ‘popular,’ chiefly on account of its many Hebraisms. David Alan Black explains:

One of the influences which gives to the Greek of the New Testament a distinct complexion is ... the presence of Semitisms — characteristic features of a Semitic language occurring in another language. No one who knows Hebrew or another Semitic language can fail to be impressed by the Semitic tone and flavor of the New Testament and by its obvious adoption of Semitic modes of speech. This applies to such fundamental matters as sentence structure and the meaning of words. For example ... the expression “he opened his mouth” in the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:2) cannot be interpreted solely as Greek, but must also be read in light of Semitic language patterns. When the Semitic background is understood, the phrase ... indicates the beginning of some profound or solemn pronouncement, as in NEB’s “he began to address them.” Another example is the common expression apokritheis eipen “answering he said.” No Greek of any period, left to himself, would say or write apokritheis eipen any more than you or I would say, “He answered and said,” unless we were seeking to imitate biblical language. These are but two indications that the New Testament cannot be interpreted solely in terms of Greek grammar, but must also be studied in terms of its Semitic background. (4)

This foreign element in the language was largely due to the fact that the authors were steeped in the language of the Hebrew Old Testament, either through direct acquaintance with the Hebrew or through their familiarity with the Septuagint, which for the most part reproduces Hebrew idioms quite literally. (5)

The influence of the Septuagint went far beyond mere idioms or stylistic features. It gave special meanings to a number of key words in the Greek New Testament. This fact is often mentioned in introductory textbooks of biblical hermeneutics, because it has some important consequences. In their Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1993) authors William Klein, Craig Blomberg, and Robert Hubbard write:

One aspect of word studies brings the two testaments together. Due to the demise of Hebrew as a spoken language, in the second century B.C. the Jewish community in Alexandria produced the Septuagint [LXX]. Thereafter, the Jews living in the Roman world used the LXX translation. In fact, it became the Bible of most of the early Christians during the writing of the New Testament. As a result of their experience of the Old Testament through this Greek translation, the New Testament writers used many Greek words with meanings not normally found in the everyday use of the same terms, much like Christians today might use terms like “fellowship” or “redemption” with meanings not normally understood by secular people. Religious and theological ideas developed in the Old Testament had become attached to the words, adding new nuances to their meanings. (p. 195, emphasis added.)

The authors go on to explain that in the New Testament the word kyrios “Lord” as applied to Jesus Christ carries “strong connotations of deity,” because this word is used in the Septuagint so often as a way of representing the divine name “Yahweh” (p. 195). They also point out that when Paul uses the word prototokos in reference to Christ (Colossians 1:15, 18) he does not intend by it the ordinary meaning of this Greek word (“firstborn”), but the theologically enriched meaning it acquired in the Septuagint, as a Messianic title connoting superior status: “Clearly, the Septuagint usage of the word ‘firstborn’ has influenced Paul’s choice of this messianic title to show Christ’s primacy over both creation and those who will experience resurrection from the dead” (p. 196). Students who fail to recognize that Greek words acquired special religious meanings among Jews and Christians will not perceive the true sense of these words in the New Testament. (6)

Deissmann himself acknowledged the presence of many Hebraisms in the New Testament. In his article “Hellenistic Greek” in the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia (1909) he said of the Synoptic Gospels, “Here is a Greek which is full of Semitisms.” But what he wished to maintain was that this was mostly “translation-Greek,” not a dialect ordinarily spoken by the writers, but “artificial and existent only on paper,” and that its presence in the New Testament is to be explained by the hypothesis that many portions of it are translated from Aramaic. And yielding still more ground, he admitted that in addition to these instances of “translation-Greek,” there were also “new words and new meanings for words” in the New Testament, and a number of Hebraisms which he could only explain as “a coloring of certain books, just as sermons and religious papers of the present are colored with Biblical terminology.” Deissmann put it this way in his Realencyklopädie für protestantische Theologie und Kirche article:

It must not be denied that beside the occasional Semitisms [i.e. the Semitisms which are due to literal translations of the Hebrew and Aramaic sources] there are also some Semitisms that became usual. Especially in places where the LXX was common, through hearing and reading, some of the originally occasional Hebraisms gradually became usual ones. Johannes Weiss therefore speaks correctly of a ‘staining’ of the religious language by certain LXX terms. But this concerns mostly lexical Semitisms, just as the ‘language of Canaan’ of our German sermons and Sunday papers is mainly composed of ‘biblical’ words which have vanished from colloquial language but have remained familiar to the reader of the Bible. (7)

What could Deissmann really claim to have proven, after these important concessions? Merely that the New Testament has somewhat fewer Hebraisms than was formerly thought, and that we will do well to pay attention to all available evidence, including the most ordinary kinds of documents from the first century, in our analysis of words and expressions of the New Testament. Deissmann himself did not maintain that the New Testament is written entirely in a vernacular idiom. On the contrary, he compares the language of the New Testament to the style of modern religious authors who use words and expressions “which have vanished from colloquial language but have remained familiar to the reader of the Bible.” Here one can see clearly enough that Deissmann’s more cautious statements about the language of the New Testament are not in line with the views expressed by Strauss and other popular authors.

Yet it is true that Deissman was not in the habit of using nuanced terms, and he seems to have had little appreciation for literary features or linguistic nuances in general. For the most part his writings deal with the question of style in a very simplistic and dichotomizing fashion. He seems to recognize only two categories or levels of language in the Hellenistic world — the Atticizing literature (represented by Polybius and other writers) and the vulgar non-literary writing (represented by the non-literary papyri). If anything does not strictly conform to the grammatical and stylistic standards of the Atticizing purists of the age he thinks he is justified in calling it the Volkssprache, “language of the people.” He was too reluctant to acknowledge that just as there was an Atticizing literary style among many Pagan authors, there was also among Jews and Christians a Hebraizing style of writing, and that is what we have in the New Testament.

We see the same dichotomizing tendency when Deissmann employs his famous distinction between “letters” (informal and private correspondence) and “epistles” (formal compositions intended for public reading). He does not acknowledge the importance of recognizing gradations, but portrays everything in black and white. After pointing to the personal touches in Paul’s writings he declares that “St. Paul was not a writer of epistles but of letters,” (8) and thus he lumps the whole Pauline corpus in with the inarticulate personal letters of the non-literary papyri. He does not even make an exception for the Epistle to the Romans. Deissmann’s crude literary analysis (if we can call it that) was at first taken seriously by some scholars, but it could not stand up to scrutiny. Nowadays it is commonly recognized that Deissmann’s analysis was reductionistic and forced. As David E. Aune says,

Deissmann’s influential distinction between letters and epistles has obscured rather than clarified the spectrum of possibilities that separated the short personal letter from the literary letters of antiquity. There are, for example, no really private letters among Paul’s authentic letters. Nor was Deissmann sensitive to stylistic differences between papyrus letters and Pauline letters. The letters of Paul and Seneca, for instance, exhibit a dialogical style quite different from anything found in papyrus letters. (9)

Recently Prof. Detlev Dormeyer (University of Dortmund), in an extensive form-critical analysis of the Pauline epistles, has concluded that Paul’s style is best classified as a “public literary speech style.”

Paul strove to attain a sophisticated rhetorical and literary level of Koine, but not the level of artistic prose, since he rejected the philosophical educational goals of the Greek paideia (1 Cor. 1.18-31). Hence in 2 Corinthians (10-13), a fighting letter, he contrasts the “weight and strength” of his letters with what the Corinthians thought was the “contemptibility of his speech” (2 Cor. 10.1, 9-11). One should not, however, take such Socratic self-stylization for granted (Betz 1972: 57-69). Paul’s intention was obviously to imbue his letters with the power to convince and to persuade through the use of rhetorical rules, but without taking on the role of a sophist or a philosopher. The rhetorical quality of the letters was not at issue in the quotation from the Corinthians just cited. Since Paul meant his letters to be read aloud at congregational meetings (1 Thess. 5.27) he was forced to choose the public literary speech style. Contrary to the opinion of Deissmann, who classified the letters as being in the unliterary language of private papyrus letters (Deissmann 1923: 198-205; see above Chapter 1), it must be assumed that Paul had a Hellenistic education, consisting of more than the second stage of grammar school, which included the beginning of rhetorical studies (Becker 1989: 53-55; contra Dihle 1989: 219: a lack of rhetorical and philosophical education). Paul had no quarrel with the formal goals of education in antiquity, but with their contents. So in 2 Peter (3.15-16), quite rightly, a warning is given that people with no formal education (amatheis) might find Pauline letters difficult to understand and might twist the meaning (see above Chapter 3). (10)

Deissmann’s treatment of the apostle Paul in his works was designed to support an overall picture of the early church. He liked to portray Paul as an unlettered “man of the people” because he saw the early church as an exclusively “proletarian” religious movement, and to some extent his linguistic arguments depend upon this false picture of the social status of people in the early church. He took no account of the many indications in the New Testament that Paul and most of the early Christians were not from the lowest stratum of society, but were what we would call middle-class. Again, he sets up a false dichotomy (in this case that of “rich vs. poor”) which only obscures the truth of the matter. (11)

What has been said concerning Deissmann above is also true of some of the scholars who followed him. There was a tendency to make extravagant claims for the new evidence and for Deissmann’s analysis of it. In essays we find scholars emphatically declaring that the New Testament is written in “the language of colloquial speech,” just as Strauss does in the essay quoted above, but when we read on in the same essays we find important concessions and qualifications. One reason for the lack of properly nuanced treatments of this subject is the lack of a conventional terminology for different levels or types of style. For instance, we read in Funk’s English edition of Blass and Debrunner’s Grammatik des neutestamentlichen Griechisch the following description of Paul’s style: “Paul exhibits a good, sometimes even elegant, style of vulgar Greek.” (12) Here the word “vulgar” is being used in contrast to the “Atticized” style of some literary works of the age, and we understand that the authors are using the word in a relative sense, but it causes us to wonder what sort of style can be called both elegant and vulgar. Obviously words such as “vulgar” and “popular” are being used in some careless ways by scholars who are trying to deal briefly with the subject of dialects and styles without an adequate terminology, and perhaps with no real awareness of the need for a taxonomy of styles. (13) One also gets the impression that some otherwise competent grammarians and linguists are ill-equipped to discuss the subject of style. A really helpful analysis of style requires more than the technical science of a linguist, it requires the tact of a literary critic.

James Hope Moulton was a British scholar who enthusiastically embraced Deissmann’s view of the language of the New Testament, and like Deissmann he sometimes expressed himself on this subject in a rather polemical and one-sided way, but also like Deissmann he compared the style of some portions of the Greek New Testament to the archaic ‘Biblical English’ style of older English versions like the King James Version and the English Revised Version:

Tied down by their instructions not to forsake the diction of their predecessors (except where it involved complete obscurity), and precluded from indulging in paraphrase, the Revisers often used the deliberate archaism proper to literature as distinguished from ordinary educated speech. This is very much what Luke does when he employs the literary dialect, to the very moderate extent he allows himself. His imitations of the Septuagint Greek will answer to the over-literal translations which are sometimes found in the Revised Version, as in its predecessors. This element is of course much more considerably found in the writings of Mark and in the Apocalypse, where the author was at home in a Semitic speech ... (14)

A.T. Robertson was an enthusiastic promoter of Deissmann’s views in America, but he was careful to state his misgivings about the tendency of some followers of Deissmann to unduly downplay the Hebraisms in the New Testament. In his article “Language of the New Testament,” which appeared in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915), Robertson begins with an enthusiastic account of Deissmann’s conclusions, but half-way through the article he adds this note of caution:

Milligan (Greek Papyri, xxx) admits on the part of Moulton “an overtendency to minimize” the “presence of undoubted Hebraisms, both in language and grammar.” That is true, and is due to his strong reaction against the old theory of so many Hebraisms. The Semiticisms (Hebraisms and Aramaisms) are very natural results of the fact that the vernacular koine was used by Jews who read the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint translation, and who also spoke Aramaic as their native tongue ... there is a certain dignity and elevation of style so characteristic of the Hebrew Old Testament that reappears in the New Testament ... Sweete (Apocalypse of St. John, cxx) laments the tendency to depreciate unduly the presence of Hebraisms in the New Testament. The pendulum may have swung too far away from the truth.

Robertson’s observation that in connection with these Hebraisms there is “a certain dignity and elevation of style so characteristic of the Hebrew Old Testament that reappears in the New Testament” especially interests us here. The same opinion is expressed by the German scholar Lars Rydbeck in his carefully nuanced treatment of the subject. Rydbeck writes, “I do not see any really vulgar characteristics in the language of the New Testament (apart from very special things in the Apocalypse). To draw connections between the language of the really vulgar papyri and the grammatically correct Greek of the New Testament may be difficult.” And in a note he adds,

This characteristic [i.e. the grammatical correctness of the NT] should by no means deny the Semitic coloring in the phraseology of the New Testament ... Linguistic phenomena of Semitic origin which are usually recorded in the syntax part of the NT grammars never touch the fundamental grammatical structure of Greek ... These phenomena, which originated by directly reflecting the Semitic, act as phrases, and that is how we actually conceive of them. Because of their regular abundance in certain parts of the New Testament they exercise a stylistic dominance and let the normal and grammatically correct Greek move into the background. This Old Testament colored phraseology gives the New Testament style its own pathos and solemnity. (15)

This is a properly nuanced view of the general linguistic level of the New Testament, and of the origin and stylistic effect of its Semitisms. A style which consciously imitated the Hebraistic Greek of the Septuagint would not be esteemed by the secular literary critics of the time, who sought to preserve the “classic” Greek of the fourth century B.C., but it is no less literary on that account. The more respectable Greek authors of the time cultivated a style which harked back to the old Classical or Attic usages of the golden age of Greek literature. Their Attic style deliberately resonates with the language of the great dramatists and philosophers of Athens. But the apostles do the same thing, only with the difference that their language resonates with the Prophets of Israel. The presence of these Hebraisms, then, is no reason to call the language of the New Testament “non-literary.” On the contrary, this is one of the features which give to it a literary character. Further on in his article, and quite aside from the matter of Hebraisms, Robertson takes up the subject of literary style again:

Deissmann is disposed to deny any literary quality to the New Testament books save the Epistle to the Hebrews ... One feels that this is an extreme position and cannot be justified by the facts ... to deny literary quality to Luke and Paul is to give a narrow meaning to the word ‘literary’ and to be the victim of a theory ... Men of culture differ in their conversation from illiterate men and more nearly approximate literary style. It is just in Luke, Paul, and the author of Hebrews that we discover the literary flavor of men of ability and of culture, though free from artificiality and pedantry.

Even by the standards of the Attic purists, then, the New Testament is not without literary qualities. This estimate of the New Testament is shared by most New Testament scholars, though all are quick to point out the difference between the simple style of Mark and the elegance of Luke. (16) Regarding Paul, Stephen Neill has written: (17)

There is an immense difference between the vigor and general correctness of the New Testament writers, and the halting, broken jargon of so many writers of the papyri. This is literature. T.R. Glover, who had an exceptionally wide knowledge of the literature of the time, both Greek and Latin, once remarked to me that Paul is obviously the greatest writer of the first and second centuries after Christ, an opinion which was shared by the most notable classical scholar of this century, von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf ... There is another point at which a warning has to be uttered against placing more weight than they will bear on these new discoveries. What the writers of the New Testament wrote was in the main the Greek of their own time; but it was Greek with a difference. It had the background of a long Jewish tradition ...

Regarding the New Testament in general, Dormeyer maintains that “the stylistic level of the language of the New Testament corresponds only partially to the high style of artistic prose, but it is nevertheless of a middle-level literary Koine throughout.” (18)

Finally, it should be observed that Deissmann’s opinions pertained only to the Greek Bible. The idea that the Hebrew Old Testament is written in “street language” cannot be maintained with any semblance of plausibility. All scholars recognize that the Hebrew of the Old Testament is largely poetic and can only be described as literary language. (19) Anything which may be said concerning the Greek of the New Testament has no application to the Hebrew of the Old Testament.

All of this should be enough to show how inadequate and misleading it is for Strauss to state that the New Testament is simply “the Greek of the street.” Even less tenable is his inference from this, that our translations of the Bible (both in the Old and New Testaments) should on this account studiously avoid “solemn” (i.e. formal) diction or English that “mimics patterns and structures” of the original languages. The truth of the matter is, the language of the New Testament does deliberately “mimic” the language of the Hebrew Bible in many places, and this is only one of the features of this Greek that give to it the formal literary quality noticed by Robertson and many other Greek scholars. If we are to take this style for our precedent, we will go in the opposite direction from what Strauss recommends. It is evident that Strauss’s sweeping characterization is a reflection of the same polemical and unbalanced view of the language of the New Testament that Deissmann’s earlier writings encouraged, but which was never accepted by most scholars, including Deissmann himself.

It must be recognized that, whatever the significance and usefulness of the secular papyri material may be, the New Testament was clearly not written in the colloquial language of a Gentile market-place. It was written by men steeped in the language and imagery of the Hebrew Bible. It was written for an audience which had already been gathered into churches, instructed in the fundamentals of the Christian faith, capable of recognizing distinctly Christian usages, and able to perceive numerous subtle allusions to the contents of the Old Testament. A common street-corner audience is not even in view, and the language, style, and subject-matter are not at all adapted to such an audience. Moreover, the writings of the New Testament certainly do have literary characteristics. They deal with exalted themes in suitably formal style.

This is not to say that the New Testament is written in such refined literary language or in such a Jewish patois that ordinary Greek-speaking people would have found it very difficult to follow. It is not as if its original readers would struggle through it with such difficulty as a modern schoolboy might experience in the reading of Shakespeare’s plays. The Greek of the New Testament is fundamentally the koine Greek of its time, not the Classical Greek of a bygone era. But it is not merely the common language of its era, and it does not represent the lowest and simplest form of the koine. It is the common language ennobled by an infusion of Jewish and Christian meanings for many words, and by many borrowings from the language of the Old Testament, chiefly from the Septuagint version. In short, it is ‘Biblical’ Greek. If we were to look for an example of an equivalent style in English, we would find it not on the street, but in religious writings, such as sermon collections, in which the style of the writer is much influenced by the language of traditional English Bibles, and in which words are often used in technical senses established by theological tradition.

A final point I would make here concerns the meaning of the word Κοινή. In the paragraph quoted from Strauss at the beginning of this article, readers are led to think that the term Koine means “common” in the sense of “everyday” colloquial speech: “New Testament Greek is actually an example of Koine (or ‘common’) Greek, the everyday language of the people ... the Greek of the street.” Likewise Eugene Nida in another popular-level book misleads his readers into thinking that Koine denotes “common language” in this sense:

This is the kind of language common to both the professor and the janitor, the business executive and the gardener, the socialite and the waiter. It may be described as ‘the overlap language’ because it is that level of language which constitutes the overlapping of the literary level and the ordinary, day-to-day usage. The overlap area is itself a very important level, for it probably constitutes the form of language used by fully 75% of the people more than 75% of the time. It is essentially the same level of language in which the New Testament was first written, the so-called Koine Greek. The term Koine itself means ‘common,’ and it was precisely this type of ‘common language’ which the Gospel writers employed to communicate their unique and priceless message.” (20)

These statements give false impressions of the meaning of the term Koine Greek, because they conflate two different meanings of the English word “common.”

Κοινή is the feminine form of the adjective κοινός, which usually means “common” in the sense of “mutually shared,” as opposed to “proprietary.” Philologists have called the kind of Greek that prevailed in New Testament times Koine Greek because it was a form of Greek used throughout the ancient Mediterranean world as “the common dialect” (ἡ κοινή διάλεκτος) transcending and eventually displacing the old regional dialects of the classical period (Ionic, Attic, Aeolic, and Doric). It was “common” in the sense that it was used by people everywhere, a universal dialect as opposed to the old parochial ones. As used by philologists, then, this term does not necessarily imply any judgment about the level or register of the language. It does not mean “common” in any sociological sense, as in “the common people” as opposed to the educated, or in the sense “colloquial,” as Strauss asserts. Nor does it denote anything like what Nida means by “common language” in the paragraph quoted above.

He might as well have coined the term “middle language” for the “overlap language” he describes, and then asserted that this “middle language” would be especially appropriate for the translation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, because they were composed in Middle English.

This is an expedient attempt to establish a matter of fact by exploiting the popular notion that the name of something discloses its nature, and by taking advantage of the ambiguity of the word being used as a name. The facts are thus conjured out of the supposed etymology of a term. This kind of sophistry is unworthy of a scholar, and it is no more excusable in a popular-level book than it would be in one written for other scholars. But if the term is going to be appropriated and redefined in this tendentious way, so that anyone using it appears to be a disciple of Deissmann, then we must reject it, and return to the older designation Hellenistic Greek. It serves no good purpose to use terms which only spread confusion and darkness over the subject.

The quotations below demonstrate how widespread among scholars is the recognition that the language of the New Testament is not merely the secular Koine Greek of the Hellenistic era, but that it does indeed possess such a specialized character that it may appropriately be called Biblical Greek.

*   *   *   *   *

“Wenn ich jünger wäre, so wollte ich diese [hebräische] Sprache lernen, denn ohne sie kann man die heilige Schrift nimmermehr recht verstehen. Denn das neue Testament, obs wol griechisch geschrieben ist, doch ist es voll von Ebraismis und hebräischer Art zu reden. Darum haben sie recht gesagt: Die Ebräer trinken aus der Bornquelle, die Griechen aber aus den Wässerlin, die aus der Quelle fließen, die Lateinischen aber aus den Pfützen.” (“If I were younger I would want to learn this language, because without it one can never truly understand the Holy Scriptures. For the New Testament, although it is written in Greek, is full of Hebraisms and betrays the Hebrew style of writing. Therefore they have rightly said, the Hebrews drink from the spring, the Greeks out of the small stream which flows from the spring, but the Latins drink out of the pools.”) —Martin Luther, Tischreden (“Table Talk”), in the Weimar edition, vol. 1, p. 525.

“If Greek words as used in Scripture express no higher ideas than on the lips of Pagans, then we can have only the thoughts of Pagans in the Bible. On this principle, how could the Gospel be preached to heathen? to the Hindoos, for example, if they were forbidden to attach to the words God, sin, repentance, and a holy life, no other ideas than those suggested by the corresponding terms of their own language? The Bible, so far as written in Greek, must be understood as Greek. But the “usus loquendi” of every language varies more or less in different ages, and as spoken by different tribes and nations. Every one admits that Hellenistic Greek has a usage distinguishing it from the language of the classics. The language of the Bible must explain the language of the Bible. It has a “usus loquendi” of its own.” —Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (New York: Charles Scribner, 1873), p. 873.

“The national Hebrew or Aramaic element influenced Greek-writing Jews in a threefold manner. In the first place it is probable that the speaker or writer quite involuntarily and unconsciously rendered a phrase from his mother tongue by an accurately corresponding phrase; again, that the reading and hearing of the Old Testament in the Greek version coloured the writer’s style, especially if he desired to write in a solemn and dignified manner (just as profane writers borrowed phrases from the Attic writers for a similar object); third and last, a great part of the N.T. writings (the three first Gospels and the first half of the Acts) is in all probability a direct working over of Hebrew or Aramaic materials. This was not a translation like that executed by the LXX., rendered word for word with the utmost fidelity, and almost without any regard to intelligibility; but it was convenient to adhere to the originals even in expression instead of looking for a form of expression which was good Greek.” —Grammar of New Testament Greek by Friedrich Blass, translated by Henry St. John Thackeray (London: MacMillan and Co., 1898), p. 4. (21)

“The interesting light thrown upon the vocabulary of the Septuagint by the recent publication of Egyptian Papyri has led some writers to suppose that the language of the Septuagint has nothing to distinguish it from Greek as spoken daily in the kingdom of the Ptolemies. Hence some fine scorn has been wasted on the ‘myth’ of a ‘Biblical’ Greek. ‘Biblical Greek’ was a term aptly applied by the late Dr. Hatch to the language of the Septuagint and New Testament conjointly. It is a serviceable word, which it would be unwise to discard. For, viewed as Greek, these two books have features in common which are shared with them by no other documents. These features arise from the strong Semitic infusion that is contained in both.” —F.C. Conybeare and St. George Stock, Grammar of Septuagint Greek (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1905), p. 22.

“I can only regard it as a great exaggeration if one insists on denying the existence of a Jewish and a biblical Greek.” —Eberhard Nestle, review of J.H. Moulton’s Grammar in Berliner Philologische Wochenschrift, 8 Dec, 1906.

“It was unavoidable but that the primitive Christian writers often used compulsion with the Greek tongue and offended against its genius. They wished to bring to expression things which, up to that time, were foreign to the Greek spirit and only found expression in Semitic languages. And besides, it is only natural that the phraseology of the Greek translation of the Old Testament, to which they were habituated from their youth, should unconsciously flow from their pens, and still more, that when their subject-matter brought them into close contact with the Old Testament or when they translated from the Aramaic dialect of Palestine, their Greek should receive a foreign tinge.” —Hermann Von Soden, The History of Early Christian Literature: The Writings of the New Testament, translated by J.R. Wilkinson, edited by W.D. Morrison (London: Williams & Norgate, 1906), pp. 11-12.

“one has the conviction that the joy of new discovery has to some extent blurred the vision of Deissmann and Moulton to the remaining Hebraisms ...” —A.T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (New York: George H. Doran, 1914.), p. 91.

“it is a radical error, we for our part think, to suppose that because the New Testament was written in the living language of the period, rather than in an artificial language of books, it is therefore characterized by anything like cheapness or vulgarity. The New Testament writers used, indeed, the common speech of their time, but they used it in a very uncommon way. That is the reason why the King James Version, despite faults in detail, is really a much more faithful translation than those recent versions that put the New Testament into the language of the modern street.” —J. Gresham Machen, review of Light from Ancient Letters by Henry Meecham (New York, 1923), in The Princeton Theological Review, vol. 23, no. 4 (1925), p. 675.

“The New Testament documents were, no doubt, written in a language intelligible to the generality of Greek-speaking people; yet to suppose that they emerged from the background of Greek thought and experience would be to misunderstand them completely. There is a strange and awkward element in the language which not only affects the meanings of words, not only disturbs the grammar and syntax, but lurks everywhere in a maze of literary allusions which no ordinary Greek man or woman could conceivably have understood or even detected. The truth is that behind these writings there lies an intractable Hebraic, Aramaic, Palestinian material. It is this foreign matter that complicates New Testament Greek ... The tension between the Jewish heritage and the Greek world vitally affects the language of the New Testament.” —E.C. Hoskyns, The Riddle of the New Testament (1931), pp. 19-20.

“When the terms of Jewish religion had to be translated into another language, into Greek, for the Greek-speaking Jews who spread through the countries of Hellenistic culture after Alexander, the Greek pneuma was taken as the regular word to represent the Hebrew ruakh. Pneuma had already a history in the Greek poetical and philosophical vocabulary, which we surveyed in our last lecture. But it would be a mistake to suppose that in the mouths and in the writings of Jews, and later on, of Christians, pneuma had the same connotation it had for pagan Greeks. By being used to translate ruakh it acquired for Jews and Christians a new connotation, that of ruakh, which in some of its meanings indeed overlapped with the connotation of pneuma, but in others was used in a way which would, I think, have been hardly intelligible to a Greek of the time of Plato. (To glance on for a moment at the language of the New Testament, it is doubtful whether a pagan Greek who heard for the first time the phrase which we translate ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ would have been able to attach any meaning to it. ‘Blessed are the grovellingly poor by their breathing’ or ‘by gaseous substance.’) I believe that the view stated in books of the last generation, by Siebeck for instance and Cremer in his Lexicon of Biblical Greek, that the word pneuma did not get a connotation which was spiritual in our sense till it was adopted by the Jews to translate ruakh and passed on from the Synagogue to the Christian Church, is substantially true.” —Edwyn R. Bevan, Symbolism and Belief (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1938), pp. 181-2.

“Carried on by the exhilaration of having found a key that unlocks many lexical and syntactical puzzles in the New Testament, Deissmann and certain other scholars went to the extreme of neglecting to take into due account two other factors immensely important for a correct interpretation of the language of the New Testament, namely, the influence of the language of the Old Testament, and the creative vitality of the Christian faith. The pendulum has now begun to swing back to a more central position. The papyri are still recognized as indispensable to the understanding of much of the vocabulary and grammar of the New Testament, but it is now perceived also that the most distinctive and the really important words in the New Testament are either borrowed from the Old Testament or are common, everyday words which the Spirit of God filled with new significance.” —Bruce M. Metzger, “The Language of the New Testament,” in The Interpreter’s Bible vol. vii (1951), page 53.

“If you’re going to apply the principle of equivalent effect, you’ve got to examine very carefully the style, the spirit, and the meaning of your original. And I soon came to the conclusion that people are wrong who tell you that the Greek of the Gospels is a debased language. It’s different from classical Greek, but ‘debased’ is the wrong word. In the first place, it was the best language available to the Gospel writers, and they use it to the best possible effect. Secondly, though it was loosened in syntax and grammar, I should talk of natural development rather than debasement. But diction alone is not all that counts; and when I talk of the Gospels as ‘supreme works of literary art,’ I am thinking rather of the skill with which their very miscellaneous contents were put together: that I think is a work of consummate art. Then again we have to consider whom they were written for. I came to the conclusion very soon that they were written, not for the man in the street, whose existence I do not really believe in, but for the man in the congregation, and that we must not write down to him, that he will not thank us for writing down to him. There is good reason for thinking that the original audience of the Gospels found them just as difficult as we do; and if therefore we paraphrase or lower our standard of English in order to make things crystal clear to the so-called man in the street, we’re going beyond our jobs as translators.” —Emile V. Rieu, “Translating the Gospels: A Discussion Between Dr. E.V. Rieu and the Rev. J.B. Phillips.” The Bible Translator 6/4 (October 1955), pp. 150-159.

“One word of caution is perhaps necessary. The pendulum has swung rather too far in the direction of equating Biblical with ‘secular’ Greek; and we must not allow these fascinating discoveries to blind us to the fact that Biblical Greek still does retain certain peculiarities, due in part to Semitic influence (which must be far stronger in the New Testament than in the equivalent bulk of colloquial or literary ‘secular’ Greek, even allowing for the permeation of society by Jewish settlements), and in part to the moulding influence of the Christian experience, which did in some measure create an idiom and a vocabulary of its own.” —C. F. D. Moule, An Idiom Book of New Testament Greek. 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959; page 3.

“Obviously [the Greek of the New Testament] it is not classical. What is it? Around the seventeenth century there were those who believed that it was a special language created by the Holy Spirit, but — especially in the late nineteenth century — this view lost favour when a great many letters, business documents and other writings were discovered, preserved in papyrus in the dry climate of the Egyptian desert. The language of these papyri was much the same as that found in the New Testament. Scholars therefore turned to them to find out the meaning of words, grammar and syntax in the Hellenistic period, and in the light of this knowledge to interpret the New Testament. On the other hand, it has proved impossible to pass directly from the papyri to New Testament exegesis, for two reasons. (1) The New Testament writers were saturated in the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, and much of their language bears Septuagintal overtones. Some New Testament terms can be understood much better in relation to the Septuagint than in relation to sales contracts. (2) Some of the gospels, and to a certain measure some of the epistles, come from or through men who were bilingual and seem to have thought in two languages at once. One language was Greek; the other was Aramaic or Hebrew. Even though none of the New Testament books was written in Aramaic, the authors of some of them thought in Aramaic, at least at times. And behind the sayings of Jesus in their Greek versions lies a chain of transmission which began in a Semitic language. Obviously this chain cannot be reproduced in a translation. But it has to be taken into account ... Sometimes it is suggested that these older translations [the King James Version and the Book of Common Prayer], hallowed by usage, are the most satisfactory because their archaic language conveys overtones of the antiquity which is actually a feature of the Bible ... There is, of course, something to it. The New Testament writers themselves did not hesitate to make free use of the Septuagint version of the Old Testament, written in a Greek at times very strange and, in their time, a century or so old. In addition, at least some of the New Testament writings were intended for liturgical use, and liturgical language emphasizes the continuity of Christianity by preserving archaic expressions — which are sometimes, though not often, incomprehensible to later generations. Some of the New Testament writings, then, are archaizing in flavour and a purely ‘modern’ translation does not translate.” —Robert M. Grant, A Historical Introduction to the New Testament (London: Cox & Wyman, 1963).

“It is true that Deissmann has shown that parataxis occurs in uneducated Greek texts where Semitic influence cannot be suspected; but John, though he may not have had a formal Greek education, was not an uncultivated writer. On the other hand, there are certain particulars in which John’s style resembles that of Greek mystical writings, and if Semitic paranomasia can occasionally be conjecturally recovered, similar phenomena in Greek can be detected with certainty (e.g. 15.1-3; note also the double meaning found in anothen, 3.3,7 which can hardly be paralleled in Aramaic). Perhaps it is safest to say that in language as in thought John treads, perhaps not unconsciously, the boundary between the Hellenic and the Semitic; he avoids the worst kind of Semitism, but retains precisely that slow and impressive feature of Aramaic which was calculated to produce the effect of solemn, religious Greek, and may perhaps have influenced already the liturgical language of the Church.” —C.K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John: An Introduction with Commentary and Notes on the Greek Text (London: SPCK, 1955), p. 11.

“The event of our study, as I see it, has been disenchantment with Bishop Lightfoot’s guess that ‘if we could only recover letters that ordinary people wrote to each other without any thought of being literary, we should have the greatest possible help for the understanding of the language of the New Testament.’ It happens that a towering mass of papyrus material of that very kind was recovered and yet I have been at pains to show how little of it has helped in understanding the weighty Christian words which first appeared in the New Testament and early Fathers, or were applied by these believers in a way different from that in which ordinary people exploited them. Always ‘the greatest possible help’ came to me, I confess, not by closely examining the papyrus, which I have done, but from the immediate context and from the Greek Scriptures first of all. After examining the secular use of the following words, I will show repeatedly that it is seldom the same as the Christian use, and that we must always go elsewhere for a more assured and devotional understanding. God may not after all have communicated ‘absolutely in the language of the people, as we might surely have expected He would’ [J.H. Moulton, Grammar, vol. 1, p.5], when the New Testament was written. From a liberal Protestant point of view we might well have expected it and yearned for it, but my own enquiries in the sphere of syntax, style, and now in vocabulary, have pleaded for caution. God seems not to have used the contemporary vernacular speech without revolutionizing it, whether in style (or lack of it), whether in sentence construction, or whether in vocabulary. The early Christians had their own form of speech, and I account it to be as ‘sacred’ in vocabulary as I found it in syntax and style ... My own strong feeling is echoed in the words of the late Biblical scholar, Dr. C.H. Dodd, that ‘it is rarely safe to ignore the LXX in attempting to determine the meaning of Pauline language.’ [Journal of Theological Studies NS 5, 1954, p. 248]. Only I think it is true of other New Testament writers besides St. Paul. The contemporary secular Greek does help us to a limited extent. It throws light on the meaning of such words as ‘milk’ and such trivia as the height of a man’s stature. It brings in a wealth of ideas from accountancy, wills, receipts, deposits, and beggars’ collecting-bags. However, if we would get to the heart of the Christian message we need more than the help of secular Greek. The great Christian words which concern salvation and Christian living were not produced in a secular environment. They are rooted in the Greek Old Testament, so that Septuagintal study is likely to forward Christian exegesis. Greek-speaking Jews, even before the advent of the Saviour, had worked wonders with the Greek language. The Greek of their Scriptures is very different from the uncultivated dialect of the market-place which you read in the secular papyri and which literary men scorn. Grecian Jews had imbibed their linguistic tradition in several ways — from religious experience, from the bilingual circumstances of their environment, and especially from devotion to their Scriptures and almost daily attendance at the synagogue liturgy. Christians being mostly Jews at the beginning, inherited this metabolized language, only to transform it still more remarkably” —Nigel Turner, Christian Words (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1980), pp. xi-xiii.

“there is still not a sufficient number and variety of sources to establish conclusively by means of the documents that the Greek of the New Testament is more or less the vernacular of the Hellenistic period or that it is not ... It seems clear that Deissmann’s original thesis must be modified in the direction of influence from the Septuagint and other Semitic influences, but this is no reason to rank New Testament Greek as something unique and unrelated to the total history of the language.” —Edgar V. McKnight, “Is the New Testament Written in ‘Holy Ghost’ Greek?” The Bible Translator, 16 (1965), pages 92, 93.

“It seems necessary therefore at the outset to put in a plea for caution, lest an exaggerated view should be taken of the extent to which our new lights alter our conceptions of the NT language and its interpretation. We have been showing that the NT writers used the language of their time. But that does not mean that they had not in a very real sense a language of their own.” —J.H. Moulton, A Grammar of New Testament Greek, vol. 1, Prolegomena, 3d ed., (Edinburgh: Clark, 1906; reprint, 1949), p. 19.

“In the not unnatural recoil from the old position of treating the Greek of the New Testament as an isolated language, a tendency has shown itself in various quarters to lose sight of certain distinctive features by which it is none the less marked, and which, notwithstanding all the linguistic and stylistic parallels that have been discovered, impart a character of its own to the language of our New Testament writings. This applies, in the first place, to the over-eagerness which many advocates of the new light display in getting rid of the ‘Hebraisms’ or ‘Semitisms,’ which have hitherto been regarded as a distinguishing feature of the Greek New Testament. ... it still remains true that it is impossible to remove genuine ‘Semitisms’ from the New Testament altogether, or to the extent that is sometimes demanded. Why, indeed, should there be any undue anxiety to do so? The presence of a few ‘Semitisms’ more or less does not prevent our recognizing that the general language of the document in which they occur is Greek, any more than the Scotticisms, into which a North Briton shows himself so ready to fall, exclude the possibility that all the time he is doing his best to talk English. And it is surely wiser to attribute these Semitic-seeming words and constructions at once to their natural source, the more especially when they occur in circumstances which make their presence not only explicable but inevitable. The mother-tongue of almost all the New Testament writers was Aramaic, and although, in keeping with the general practice of the time, they had learned to use Greek freely as a subsidiary language, their native upbringing would constantly assert itself in the choice of particular words and phrases. In the case of the Evangelists this tendency would be still further encouraged by the fact that not merely Aramaic traditions, but Aramaic documents, lay at the basis of their writings; while even St. Paul, to whom Greek had been all along a second language, constantly shows signs of his Jewish upbringing in the arrangement and construction of his sentences. This was due, doubtless, in no small degree to the influence which the translation-Greek of the Septuagint had come to exercise over him. Whatever may have been the case in his earlier years, the Greek Old Testament was undoubtedly the Bible of St. Paul’s manhood and ministry, and not only its thoughts but its actual phraseology had passed in sucum et sanguinem. What more natural, then, than that when he himself came to write on cognate themes, he should almost unconsciously fall into the same mode of speech, much as a modern preacher or devotional writer is tempted to imitate the archaic English of the Authorized Version.” — George Milligan, The New Testament Documents: Their Origin and Early History (London: MacMillan and Co., 1913), pp. 49-53.

“It seems that the initial excitement over the papyri parallels to the NT was perhaps overstated. That is to say, as helpful as the papyri have been for our understanding of NT vocabulary stock, we have not found perfect syntactical parallels in the papyri.” —Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), p. 23.

“Biblical Greek is a unique language with a unity and character of its own ... There is a family likeness among these Biblical works, setting them apart from the papyri and from contemporary literary Greek ... We now have to concede that not only is the subject-matter of the Scriptures unique but so also is the language in which they came to be written or translated. This much is plain for all who can see ...” —Nigel Turner, Syntax (Vol. III of A Grammar of New Testament Greek, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1963), pp. 1-9.

“In spite of the exaggerations of earlier scholars ... it is becoming generally recognized today that there is really something unique about the language of the New Testament, and especially of the Synoptic Gospels — something not to be explained wholly by the parallels found in the Egyptian papyri.” —Frederick C. Grant, The Earliest Gospel (New York: Abingdon Press, 1943).

“Adolf Deissmann’s famous dictum that early Christian works were written in popular, colloquial Greek must now be modified to recognize that these writings are written in the professional prose of the day. Early Christian letters are similar to official and philosophical letters, and the gospels are similar to other Greco-Roman biographical literature.” —James R. Adair, Jr., online review of Books and Readers in the Early Church by Harry Gamble, accessed on Sep 1, 2002.

“labeling NT Greek as ‘colloquial’ seems problematic nowadays. The diglossic or polyglossic situation that prevailed in the Greek-speaking world involved more linguistic varieties than ‘colloquial’ and ‘literary,’ and no variety of written Greek would be identical with spoken Greek. Even the concept of ‘NT Greek’ becomes problematic, since the differences between the individual writings of the NT are so conspicuous, and, in spite of all parallels that have been detected, there are certain linguistic features that are attested only in Jewish and Christian texts.” — Jerker Blomqvist, Lund University, online review of Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, published in Bryn Mawr Classical Review, 2001.

“Biblical Greek is a peculiar language, the language of a peculiar people.” — Matthew Black, “The Biblical Languages,” in The Cambridge History of the Bible (vol. 1, ed. P.R. Ackroyd and C.F. Evans, Cambridge, 1970), p. 11.

“[T]he New Testament writers used many Greek words with meanings not normally found in the everyday use of the same terms, much like Christians today might use terms like ‘fellowship’ or ‘redemption’ with meanings not normally understood by secular people.” — William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1993), p. 195.

“Bible translators ... have often made quite a point of the fact that the language of the New Testament was Koine Greek, the language of the ‘man in the street,’ and hence a translation should speak to the man in the street. The truth of the matter is that many New Testament messages are not directed primarily to the man in the street, but to the man in the congregation. For this reason, such expressions as ‘Abba Father,’ Maranatha, and ‘baptized into Christ’ could be used with reasonable expectation that they would be understood.” — Eugene Nida, Toward a Science of Translating (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1964), p. 170.


1. From chapter four (“What is Bible Translation?”) of Mark L. Strauss’s Distorting Scripture? The Challenge of Bible Translation & Gender Accuracy (Downer’s Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1998). Accessed online at http://www.tniv.info/pdf/WhatisBibleTranslation.pdf on August 30, 2002. A similar statement recently appeared in a press release issued by the Zondervan Corporation, announcing a revision of their NIV Bible. “The committee exists to ensure that the NIV continues to articulate the words of God, as we find them recorded in the original languages, in a form of English that is comprehensible to the broadest possible audience ... As a committee, our response to this challenge has always been to follow the example of the original Bible writers who wrote in forms of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek that reflected the language spoken by the everyday working people of their day. Just as the New Testament is written in ‘Koine’ or ‘common’ Greek, our aim with the NIV Bible is—and has always been—to translate the Bible into what you might call ‘Koine’ or ‘common’ English.” (“Biblica Announces First Update in Quarter Century of the World’s Most Popular Bible,” dated September 1, 2009.) In the press realease, these words are attributed to the translation committee’s new chairman, Douglas Moo.

2. It seems to me that this assumption is far more problematic than some scholars are willing to admit. Though personal letters written by those who were evidently native speakers of Greek may be accepted as evidence of idiomatic Greek usage of the writer’s time and place, most of the papyri are not personal letters; and no document can be cited as evidence of idiomatic speech without an argument which establishes that it is right to use the document in this way. J.H. Moulton, an early and enthusiastic proponent of Deissman’s thesis, admitted that in the non-literary papyri one often encounters such fractured grammar which he can only explain as “the writing of a foreigner who attained complete fluency in the secondary language but never grasped its grammar well enough to write correctly by instinct.” (“New Testament Greek in the Light of Modern Discovery,” 1909, reprinted in The Language of the New Testament: Classic Essays, ed. Porter, p. 84). Obviously a body of evidence which includes such documents cannot be used uncritically as evidence of the ordinary vernacular usage of people whose first language was Greek. Yet in scholarly works one commonly finds assertions about vernacular Greek supported by nothing more than mere references to the catalog numbers of papyrus documents in which certain words or constructions occur. As Lars Rydbeck pointed out in a 1967 essay, Moulton and others who have made such facile use of the papyri as specimens of “popular” koine fail even to give a satisfactory definition for their concept of “popular” Greek, or to consider whether the language of any given document represents the kind of intermediate level prose which we would expect to find in various documents, including carefully written private letters. In Rydbeck’s opinion most of the papyri present language at this level, and not at a colloquial level. He estimates that no more than fifteen percent of the published “non-literary” papyri represents informal popular language (“On the Question of Linguistic Levels and the Place of the New Testament in the Contemporary Language Milieu,” English version published in Porter, op. cit., p. 200). Further, it must be asked whether a given document exhibits a regional or ethnic dialect, a question which cannot always be skated over with the usual assumption about the world-wide homogeneity of Hellenistic Greek. All of these questions must be taken seriously and addressed before the lon-literary papyri can be used to demonstrate anything about the style of some portion of the New Testament. And even after all these complicating questions and caveats are taken into account, it must be understood that the New Testament itself is by no means homogenous, the different parts exhibiting widely different styles.

3. Light from the Ancient East: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Graeco-Roman World, by Adolf Deissmann. Translated by Lionel R.M. Strachan. 2nd edition, translated from the fourth German edition of 1922. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1927), page 71, n. 2.

4. David Alan Black, “New Testament Semitisms,” The Bible Translator 39/2 (April 1988), p. 216. Black’s essay is a good brief introduction to the subject. A much more thorough treatment is Wilbert F. Howard’s “Appendix on Semitisms in the New Testament” in Accidence and Word Formation (Vol. II of Moulton’s A Grammar of New Testament Greek), Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1929, pp. 412-85.

5. Deissmann indeed tried to minimize this aspect of the Septuagint, and argued that many of the Hebraisms of the Septuagint were in fact ordinary usages of Koine Greek, but even the scholars who have favored Deissmann’s view of the language of the New Testament have distanced themselves from his precarious arguments regarding the Septuagint. James Barr, for instance, who is very much interested in maintaining Deissmann’s arguments regarding the New Testament, has called his treatment of the Septuagint “very one-sided and inadequate” (Semantics of Biblical Language, page 241, note 2). Septuagint scholars have made some emphatic statements on this subject. F.C. Conybeare and St. George Stock have put it thus: “[The Greek of the Septuagint] is so deeply affected by Semitic influence as often to be hardly Greek at all, but rather Hebrew in disguise.” (Grammar of Septuagint Greek [Boston: Ginn and Company, 1905], p. 21). Likewise H. St. J. Thackeray in his Grammar wrote: “Notwithstanding that certain so-called ‘Hebraisms’ have been removed from that category or that their claim to the title has become open to question, it is impossible to deny the existence of a strong Semitic influence in the Greek of the LXX.” (A Grammar of the Old Testament in Greek [Cambridge: University Press, 1909], p. 29). More recently Dr. Johan Lust, the Septuagint lexicographer, has written:

“Although it may be based on it, LXX Greek cannot simply be characterized as Koine Greek. It is first of all translation Greek. This is most obvious at the level of syntax and style. The order of the words in the translation most often closely sticks to that of the Hebrew original. In fact, in many passages, the Hebrew and the Greek can be put in parallel columns, word by word. The result is that the syntax of the Septuagint is Hebrew rather than Greek. No classical author and hardly any author using Koine Greek would have written sentences the way they are composed in the first Bible translation. The translators obviously paid more attention to the Semitic source language than to the Greek target language. They did not try to create an artistic Greek literary composition, but chose to stay as closely as possible with the Semitic original. This led to what is usually called ‘Hebraisms’ or ‘Semitisms,’ which might be better referred to as ‘translationisms.’ ... Although less blatant, the translation character of the Greek of the LXX can also be detected at the level of its vocabulary.... For some Hebrew words, the translators employed a stereotyped Greek equivalent, disregarding the context and semantic nuances. Thus, שלום was translated as a rule by ειρηνη, although the semantic field covered by the Greek word does not coincide with that of the Hebrew. It is well known that this led to Greek sentences which must have been hard to understand for native Greek speakers, e.g. when David speaks of the ειρηνην του πολεμου (the peace of the war) in 2 Sam 11.7.” (Introduction to A Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint [Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2003], pp. xviii-xix).

For a detailed study of the language of the LXX see Alviero Niccacci, “Marked Syntactical Structures in Biblical Greek in Comparison with Biblical Hebrew,” Liber Annuus (Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, Jerusalem) 43 (1993) pp. 9-69. Niccacci carefully demonstrates that “LXX Greek is definitely a translation language” and that “the NT follows its lead.” See also the shorter treatment by Henry S. Gehman, “The Hebraic Character of Septuagint Greek” reprinted in The Language of the New Testament: Classic Essays, ed. Stanley E. Porter (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991). A good survey of studies in the translation technique of the LXX in general, with a full bibliography, is Emanuel Tov’s “The Nature and Study of the Translation Technique of the LXX in the Past and Present,” published in C.E. Cox, ed., VI Congress of the International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies (Jerusalem, 1986; Atlanta, 1987), pp. 337-359.

6. Recently some scholars who are especially interested in defending “dynamic equivalence” versions of the Bible have tried to downplay the importance of this fact, but they cannot deny it. For example, D.A. Carson in his Exegetical Fallacies (Baker, 1984) excuses himself from any discussion of the exegetical fallacies that arise from a failure to recognize the peculiar meanings of Greek words inherited from the LXX, and clearly he is uncomfortable with the whole subject. He cannot go into the subject very far without admitting that a fallacy rears its head when interpreters naively suppose that the New Testament was written in “street language.” But he does vaguely concede that the influence of the LXX upon the language of the New Testament was “profound” (p. 63).

7. Here I give Stanley Porter’s English translation of the original German article, published as “Hellenistic Greek with Special Consideration of the Greek Bible” in The Language of the New Testament: Classic Essays, edited by Stanley Porter (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991), p. 57. Porter translates from the third edition of the Realencyklopädie für protestantische Theologie und Kirche edited by A. Hauk (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1899), vol. VII, pp. 627-39. James Hope Moulton likewise explains that some Semitisms in the New Testament were “due to the copying of phraseology which had passed into religious style from the over-literal Septuagint version of the Old Testament,” and that this “religious style” is “especially prominent in the writings of the Gentile Luke.” (The Science of Language and the Study of the New Testament: Being the Inaugural Lecture Delivered on January 30th, 1906 [Manchester: University Press, 1906], p. 16.)

8. “Der Apostel Paulus ist Briefschreiber, nicht Epistolograph.” (Licht vom Osten: Das Neue Testament und die neuentdeckten Texte der hellenistisch-römischen Welt. 4th ed. [Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1923], p. 203).

9. David E. Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987), 160.

10. The New Testament among the Writings of Antiquity (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), p. 78. This is an English edition of Dormeyer’s Das Neue Testament im Rahmen der antiken Literatur-geschichte. Eine Einführung (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1993). See also Dormeyer’s article “The Hellenistic Letter-Formula and the Pauline Letter-Scheme” in Stanley E. Porter, ed., The Pauline Canon (Brill, 2004).

11. Deissmann’s idea that the early church was exclusively lower-class is simply untenable. See the discussion of this issue in A.J. Malherbe, Social Aspects of Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983), pp. 29-59 and in W. A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven: Yale, 1983), pp. 51-73. In connection with his ideas regarding the “proletarian” socio-economic character of the early church it should be noted that Deissmann, like many liberal Protestant professors in Germany of his day, was committed to the socialist political movement. He was a follower of Friedrich Naumann, the leading light of Christian Socialists in the 1890’s. See Wolfhart Pentz, “The Meaning of Religion in the Politics of Friedrich Naumann,” Zeitschrift für neuere Theologiegeschichte 9 (2002). I believe that Nigel Turner hits the nail on the head when he wryly observes that Deissmann’s thesis in its more extreme form was especially congenial to “a liberal Protestant point of view” (Christian Words, p. xi).

12. A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature: F. Blass and A. Debrunner: A Translation and Revision ... by Robert W. Funk (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), Introduction § 3. Here Funk’s edition accurately reflects the wording of the tenth German edition of Blass and Debrunner’s Grammatik des neutestamentlichen Griechisch (1959), which reads: “Paulus zeigt ein gutes, bisweilen gewähltes vulgärgriechisch.” But it should be noted that Rehkopf’s revised German edition (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1976) reads instead: “Paulus zeigt ein höherstehendes, bisweilen gewähltes Griechisch” (“Paul exhibits a superior, sometimes elegant Greek”).

13. Moises Silva also notices that much of the debate surrounding Biblical Greek “suffers from the use of imprecise language” (“Bilingualism and the Character of Palestinian Greek,” Biblica 61 [1980], p. 198), and he points out that much of the literature fails even to make the elementary distinction between dialects and styles. But as a defender of Deissmann he does not acknowledge that the imprecision which has caused more trouble than any other is Deissmann’s almost meaningless use of the words volkstümlich “popular,” Volkssprache “popular language,” Umgangssprache “colloquial language,” etc. Lars Rydbeck calls special attention to this in his essay, “On the Question of Linguistic Levels and the Place of the New Testament in the Contemporary Language Milieu” (English version in The Language of the New Testament: Classic Essays, ed. Porter, Sheffield, 1991).

14. James Hope Moulton, “New Testament Greek in the Light of Modern Discovery,” in Essays on Some Biblical Questions of the Day: By Members of the University of Cambridge, ed. Henry Barclay Sweete (London: MacMillan, 1909), as reprinted in The Language of the New Testament: Classic Essays, ed. Stanley Porter (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991), pp. 67-68.

15. I quote from the English version of Rydbeck’s essay published as “On the Question of Linguistic Levels and the Place of the New Testament in the Contemporary Language Milieu” in The Language of the New Testament: Classic Essays, ed. Porter, pp. 201-2. This is a translation from Rydbeck’s Fachprosa, vermeintliche Volkssprache und Neues Testament (Uppsala, 1967).

   Daniel Wallace expresses a similar opinion in his Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), pp. 20-30, and emphasizes the importance of avoiding an oversimplifying dichotomy of “literary” vs. “popular” Greek. He distinguishes three general “Types” of Koine Greek: “1. Vernacular or Vulgar (e.g., papyri, ostraca) ... 2. Literary (e.g., Polybius, Josephus, Philo, Diodorus, Strabo, Epictetus, Plutarch) ... 3. Conversational (New Testament, some papyri).” He defines the category of “Conversational” Koine as “the spoken language of educated people,” and compares it to the level of language commonly heard today “in sermons.” He further states that this “conversational” level he has in mind is exemplified by “Cicero’s speeches,” which he regards as “a good example of conversational Latin.” (pp. 20-22.) After briefly describing the exaggerations of Deissmann and Moulton, he says “it seems that the initial excitement over the papyri parallels to the NT was perhaps overstated. That is to say, as helpful as the papyri have been for our understanding of NT vocabulary stock, we have not found perfect syntactical parallels in the papyri. Most of the papyri are beneath most of the NT syntactically, while the NT is not on the same literary level as such authors as Josephus or Polybius. It largely holds a middle ground between vulgar and literary” (p. 23). He states that “confusion over the nature of NT Greek” is caused by the failure to recognize “this intermediate level,” which “many scholars seem to be unaware of” (p. 27). Moving on to a more particular discussion of the New Testament, Wallace also emphasizes that “its style ... is largely Semitic.” The writers used a Jewish style of writing “shaped both by their religious heritage and by their linguistic background.” He compares this style, shaped by a religious sub-culture, to the linguistic features which might characterize “conversations between two Christians at church.” And in conclusion he quotes with approval the summary of C. F. D. Moule: “The pendulum has swung rather too far in the direction of equating Biblical with ‘secular’ Greek; and we must not allow these fascinating discoveries to blind us to the fact that Biblical Greek still does retain certain peculiarities, due in part to Semitic influence (which must be far stronger in the New Testament than in an equivalent bulk of colloquial or literary ‘secular’ Greek, even allowing for the permeation of society by Jewish settlements), and in part to the moulding influence of the Christian experience, which did in some measure create an idiom [=style] and vocabulary of its own.”(p. 29). In general Wallace’s analysis is sound, but we would point out that his use of the term “conversational” to describe the kind of style exemplified in sermons, and in the speeches of Cicero (!), is clearly inappropriate. Oratorical styles normally rise above the level of “conversation.”

16. There is a variation in levels of style between parts of the New Testament. Kendrick Grobel writes, “The Greek of the several New Testament authors falls at various points between the literary Koine and that of the marketplace, without quite reaching either extreme.” (“The Languages of the Bible,” in The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible, 1971, page 1199). Hebrews, Luke and Acts are distinctly literary in tone, and resemble the Attic style. The least “Attic” are Revelation and the Gospel of Mark. Paul’s epistles fall in between, with much variation in the level of style. For a good brief discussion of style in the New Testament see Henry J. Cadbury, “The Language of the New Testament,” in The Abingdon Bible Commentary (New York: Abingdon Press, 1929), pages 880-84. An older but very thorough study is William Henry Simcox’s The Writers of the New Testament: Their Style and Characteristics (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1890. Reprinted Winona Lake, Indiana: Alpha Publications, 1980).

17. Stephen Neill, The Interpretation of the New Testament (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), pp. 150-51.

18. Dormeyer, op. cit., p. 12.

19. On the failure of “dynamic equivalence” versions to exhibit the literary style of the Bible, see especially the book by Leland Ryken, The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2003). On the literary character of the Hebrew Bible in particular see the books by Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981), The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York: Basic Books, 1985), and Genesis: Translation and Commentary (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1996).

20. Eugene A. Nida, Good News for Everyone: How to Use the Good News Bible (Waco: Word, 1977), p. 12.

21. The original German of Blass’s Grammatik des neutestamentlichen Griechisch (1896) reads: “Das nationale, hebräische oder aramäische Element beeinflusste die griechisch schreibenden Juden in einer dreifachen Weise. Zunächst ist es glaublich, dass ganz unwillkürlich und unbewusst der Redende oder Schreibende eine Phrase aus seiner Muttersprache in genauem Anschluss übersetzte; sodann, dass das Lesen und Hören des Alten Testaments in der griechischen Uebersetzung den Stil des Schreibenden bildete, namentlich wenn er feierlich und würdig schreiben wollte (gleichwie die Profanschriftsteller zu gleichem Zwecke Phrasen aus den Attikern entlehnten); drittens endlich ist nach allem Anschein ein grosser Theil der ntlichen Schriften (die drei ersten Evangelien und der erste Theil der AG.) direkt nach hebräischen oder aramäischen Vorlagen gearbeitet. Es war dies nicht ein Uebersetzen wie es die LXX übten, Wort für Wort mit möglichster Treue und fast ohne Rücksicht auf Verständlichkeit ; aber es war bequem, den Vorlagen auch im Ausdruck sich anzuschliessen und nicht erst nach einer gutgriechischen Ausdrucksform zu suchen.” (pp. 4-5.)