The New Testament was written in koine Greek – a loose term used to describe the various forms and dialects of Greek used in the eastern Roman Empire during the time of the early church. The word koine itself means “common” or “shared”. It was not the classic Greek of Homer or the unified Greek of the Macedonian empire. Instead, it was a group of transitional forms which were all mutually discernible.
Many people are intimidated by Greek because it looks different from English. Although Greek is significantly different from English, it is not really a difficult language to learn. Most of the letters are similar, with a few exceptions, and the pronunciation and accents are relatively easy to learn.
When I read Greek, I use a modified modern pronunciation. Not everyone does this, especially in seminary circles, but I find it is convenient and since the koine has been a dead language for over 1,500 years, there really is no way to know exactly how it was pronounced. (For some reason, seminaries will apply this logic when reading Hebrew, but not Greek.)
Here is a simple sentence in Greek – the first line of the Gospel of John:
Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.
Now, I will transcribe it using English characters:
en arkee een ho logos, k-eye ho logos een pros ton the-on, k-eye een ho logos.
- ν looks like our English letter v but it is the letter nu (pronounced nee).
- ρ is the letter rho (long o) and is pronounced like our letter r.
- χ is called chi and is pronounced like a k but a little further back in the throat, like the Scottish word loch.
- η is the letter eta (long e) and is pronounced like a long e. In koine, it might have been a long a sound.
- This symbol – ῾ – is called a hard breathing mark and makes the h sound at the beginning of a word.
- λ is called lambda and is pronounced just like our letter l.
- γ is called gamma and has three pronunciations. Most of the time, it is pronounced as a g but it can also sound like an h and an n in certain situations. Don’t worry about those just yet.
- π is called pi (pronounced PEE) and you should be familiar with it from math class. It is pronounced as the letter p.
- θ is the letter theta (with a long e and short a) and is pronounced as th.
Once you know what the letters sound like, it is easy to sound out the Greek.
But what does it mean? If you were any good at vocabulary as a kid, or if you took a lot of science classes, many of the words might be familiary.
αρχη means “first.” We have it in English with words like archangel and hierarchy – both words that came from Greek.
λογος means “word” and we use it every day. Any word that ends in -logy comes from this word – biology, theology, mythology.
θεον (or θεος) is another word that is common in English. Theology is a combination of this word and λογος, so it means “the word about God.”
The only other significant word in the verse is προς, which means “with” and it also appears in English in words like prosthetic.
Just knowing these four Greek words gives you enough of an understanding to read the verse.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”
It does not take much work at all to read it.
Of course, some Greek is not this simple, but about 30-40% of Greek vocabulary is familiar to the educated English-speaking person, but they don’t know it. This is because Greek and Latin were required languages for education during the Renaissance and early Modern era. As a result, most sciences and technical fields incorporate a lot of Greek, and that filters down into every day language.
I’ll write more next week as we “read Greek.”