The Greek Language As
Historical Tradition

by Irene Alexandrou

“The Greek language…the fullest in richness of
meaning, the most flexible in poetic expression,
the richest in vocabulary, the most ancient of
the European languages and the phonetics
of which goes back to the mythical origins of
archetypal meaning…”--Harris Lampides

The New Testament documents were originally written in the Greek language, although Aramaic and Hebraic influences are also quite evident. To gain insight into the meaning of specific passages and for a true interpretation, one must carefully examine in the original language, the words and phrases that are relevant to the subject matter. Before we study specific words, it is essential to go back and trace through history one of the most precise and expressive languages known to man-Greek.

The Greek language, called Hellenic by the people who speak and write it, has one of the longest and most documented histories of all of European languages. Its history dates back over 3500 years and it has gone through several developmental phases that span over 34 centuries. There are four distinct forms or phases that the Hellenic language has gone through: Ancient Greek or Classical Greek (14th – 4th Century BC), Hellenistic Greek also known as Koine Greek or New Testament Greek (4th Century BC-4th Century AD), Byzantine Greek (5th-15th Century AD) and Modern Greek (16th Century-Today).

The Ancient Greek language itself went through different transformations. The original form, Mycenaean Greek (14th –12th century BC), was characterized by the use of syllabic script called Linear B. Linear Greek was not deciphered until 1953. There is a break in the evolution of the language from the 12th to the 8th century BC because the Mycenaean civilization was destroyed by the Dorian invasions. Therefore, for nearly four centuries very little linguistic progress was recorded. From the 8th to 4th century BC, the prominent Greek language form becomes Archaic or Classical Greek. It was at this time that the ancient Greeks spoke differently. The language took another form or dialect. For example, in Sparta, they used the Doric dialect and in Athens, the Attic dialect. This however, did not prevent all Hellenes from communicating with one another, because the differences between the dialects were minimal.

Hellenistic Greek, or Alexandrian Koine, also known as New Testament Greek, shaped up after the classical period. The Koine language became the most widely used language of the time due to the expansion of the empire of Alexander the Great. The Hellenistic Greek form originated from the Attic dialect that was used by the Athenians around 500 – 400 BC, when they had reached the height of their glory. In the year 336 BC, Alexander the Great ascended to the throne of his slain father, Philip. Although Alexander was a great military man and strategist, his most lasting accomplishment was his introduction of the Hellenic language and culture to the people he conquered. Alexander the Great was instrumental in combining all Hellenic local dialects to form Koine Greek (from the Greek word for “common”), the language of the street; the language of the peasant, the fisherman, and the ordinary person. This allowed his combined army to communicate with one another. Koine Greek was also taught to the inhabitants of the regions that he conquered, turning it into the “world language” of the time. It was spoken in Syria, in Asia Minor, in Persia, in Egypt and every other land under his rule. Alexander became Hellenism’s greatest Apostles and missionary when, because of his efforts, Hellenic became the official language of his vast empire. His dream was realized, and by the time of the first century AD, Hellenic had become the common language used throughout the Roman Empire. It was during this period that the books that later became the New Testament were written; thus, Hellenic was the natural choice for the transmission of the “Good News” The Disciples of Christ were to spread the Gospel “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8) and to make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). What better way to accomplish this than by using the “Koine” or “common” language of the masses? The New Testament (the four Gospel, the Letters of Saint Paul and Saint Peter, and the Apocalypse of Saint John) is written in Koine Greek.

The next stage of the language is the Byzantine Greek. Byzantine Greek was the official language of the Byzantine Empire and is considered to be an early version of the Modern Greek language. The spoken form of this language differed greatly from the written form. Because Byzantine Greek was spoken over vast areas and by many people, it continued to have different dialects and idioms. It was not until the Ottoman domination of most Hellenic speaking areas and the consequent banning of Greek schools that the language changed considerably.

After the Hellenes gained their independence from the Ottoman Turks, the intellectuals felt that the original language had evolved and was no longer true ort pure. They tried to return to the Hellenic written in Classical Athens; hence the katharevousa (pure, clean language) was written, and Dimotiki (people or common language) was spoken. In 1976, the Greek government voted Dimotiki as the official written and spoken language of Greece. Thus has evolved the of language we now know of as Modern Greek.

The Language of the Hellenes is one of the most expressive and precise languages known to man. Each word has many nuances and meanings. A single thought might be expressed by the use of dozens of different Greek words, each providing a slightly different perspective. We will begin our study of Greek words with the word “prayer.” Prosefhi.

“With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, “(Ephesians 6:18) The word “prayer” is the Greek word prosefhi. This is a compound Greek word that is made up of the words “pros” and “efhi”. The word “pros” is a prefix meaning face-to-face. The Gospel of John uses the word “pros” when it declares “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God…” John 1:1 The word “with” is translated from the Greek word “pros”. The meaning conveyed by this word is one of intimacy. The Holy Spirit is telling us that the Father and the Son had an intimate, face-to-face relationship. The second word “efhi” means a wish, a desire or a vow. This word was used to show a person who has made a vow to God in exchange for something good to come in his life. One would vow to give up something to God in exchange for their desire or wish

The word “prosefhi” reveals to us two significant concepts about prayer. It tells us that prayer is the vehicle that transports us face-to-face with God in a personal relationship. Also, the idea of sacrifice is associated with prayer. It shows us a state of sacrifice and consecration in prayer when our lives are guided entirely by God because the word “prosefhi,” or prayer, has to do with a complete surrender, sacrifice, and consecration.

Although most translations do an excellent job of conveying the “Word” from the original Greek language text, no translation is an absolute. Many times it is simply impossible to convey the depth and diversity of meaning that is found in the source of the language. In upcoming issues we will be examining passages, words and translations from the New Testament.

Irene Alexandrou served her parish of Saint Mark in Boca Raton, Florida as director and teacher of the afternoon Greek School and has also taught Modern Greek at Florida Atlantic University. Since 1996 she has actively served the Hellenic Society of Paideia of South Florida as its president.

HCS readers may also be interested in other articles about the Hellenic Society of Paideia of South Florida, or the Greek language under the Hellenic Studies section of the site archives, especially a significant report on the status of Greek language studies in the U.S. by world-famous educator and scholar, Dr. John Rassias of Dartmouth College.

2000 © Hellenic Communication Service, L.L.C. All Rights Reserved.