An Introduction to Koine Greek

You probably know it better as “New Testament Greek”.

With the first full week of classes at Bible College attended, I’ve been learning a lot. Most of it about the syllabus and when exams are and assignments are due, admittedly, but I’ve learnt a lot of other things, too.

For example, on Wednesday morning, I had my first Greek lesson!

Early Greek

The oldest form of Greek we know about comes from the “Linear B” writing found in southern Greece and Crete. Having looked through the Wikipedia page, I have to admit it looks nothing like Greek to me; then again, I haven’t learnt the language yet, just the alphabet, so perhaps what the writing actually says is quite Greek; I wouldn’t know.

Linear B fragment

Linear B fragment

The Linear B script was used to write Mycenaean Greek, which existed from the 16th to 12th centuries BC.

Classical Greek

“Classical Greek” is the name given to the sort of Greek which was used by people like Homer and Plato, who lived from the 8th to 4th centuries BC. According to my Greek textbook, Classical Greek was “a marvelous form of the language, capable of exact expression and subtle nuances” (Mounce, William D., 2009).

Classical Greek writing looks much more like the alphabet I am now familiar with. Unlike Linear B, which was syllabic (each “letter” represented a syllable, not a single sound), Classical Greek used an alphabet derived from Phoenician. Most of the world’s alphabets – those from in Europe, northern Africa, and the near east – are derived from Phoenician. Although there are quite noticeable differences between the European alphabets (Greek, Latin, Cyrillic) and the Afro-Asiatic ones (Hebrew and Arabic), there are also a number of similarities.

Classical Greek had a lot of dialects, but the three main ones are known as Doric, Aeolic, and Ionic. Attic Greek, which was spoken by Alexander the Great, was spoken in Athens, and when Alexander conquered most of what was considered the world at that time, Attic Greek was the language he spread.

Koine Greek

Another word for Koine Greek given to it by scholars is “Hellenistic Greek”, because it was the common trade language of the Mediterranean and Middle-East during the “Hellenistic Period”, which lasted for three hundred years from about 330-30BC, as well as the “Roman Period”, which lasted on for almost five hundred years after that. It’s also called “Alexandrian Greek”, because most evidence of it is centred around the city of Alexandria in Egypt.

The name “Koine” itself (κοινή) just means “common”, as in “Common Greek” (not the Classical “educated” form). Although it was most famously used in the New Testament, Koine Greek was also used by some scholars (such as Plutarch and Polybius), but also for other things like Alexandrian shopping lists, travel phrasebooks, and some scholarly grumblings about how the lower classes didn’t speak Greek properly (Phrynichus Arabius, 2nd century AD).

The Septuagint

Part of the Septuagint

Part of the Septuagint

The Septuagint is perhaps the first written source of Koine Greek, and was written in the 3rd century BC. Despite its fancy name, what the Septuagint really is is the Old Testament (plus the Apocrypha and some other bits).

After Alexander the Great’s death, a lot of Jews were moved from Jerusalem to Alexandria, and after some generations, began to speak Greek, rather than Hebrew, as their first language. According to the popular story, the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Koine Greek was sponsored by Ptolemy II (in much the same way King James sponsored the translation of the Bible into English).

The Septuagint is quote in the New Testament perhaps more than the original Hebrew version; perhaps because Koine Greek was the language people were speaking and writing in so as to be understood. Paul, in particular, quoted almost entirely from the Septuagint.

My Greek lecturer tells us, as part of his argument that Hebrew is unnecessary and we should devote all of our energies to his class (I’m pretty sure he’s joking), that Jesus used the Septuagint. I’m not entirely convinced, particularly because as He was dying He quoted the Psalms in Aramaic!

The New Testament

Part of the New Testament on Papyrus, dating to around 200AD.

Part of the New Testament on Papyrus, dating to around 200AD.

The original language of the New Testament was Koine Greek.

In Galatians, Paul says: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son” (4:4).

It is no coincidence that Jesus came right as, for the first time since Babel and the last time until the present, there was a near-universally understood language. Alexander conquered as far east as India, and by the time Jesus was born, Roman rule saw the expansion of Greek as a common language (the Romans were obsessed with Greece)

No matter where Jesus, the Apostles, or Paul travelled in their ministry, they were able to speak Koine Greek and be understood by everyone.

Whatever Did Reuben Do?

Or: “Jacob’s Last Words to his Sons (Genesis 49)” In chapel today, we heard about Jacob and his hard life (and Murphy’s Law). The principal preached, contrasting Jacob’s words to Pharaoh in Genesis 47:9:

.        “The days of the years of my pilgrimage are one hundred and thirty years; few and painful have been the days of my life, and they have not attained to the days of the years of my fathers in the days of their pilgrimage”

with his blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh in 48:15:

.        “God, before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has fed me all my life long to this day…”

My attention drifted, and I found myself reading from Chapter 49, where he calls his sons together and talks at them. It’s a bit of an amusing chapter, actually.

Reuben’s ‘words’ are mixed:

.        (3) “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity and the excellency of power.”

Three isn’t so bad. Three is quite good. But four becomes a little insulting:

.        (4) “Unstable as water, you shall not excel, because you went up to your father’s bed; then you defiled it – He went up to my couch.”

Trying not to look like I wasn’t paying attention, I went, “What?! What have I missed?” Thankfully, I didn’t have to wonder for long, because my Bible provides a helpful cross-reference to Chapter 35 verse 22:

.        “And it happened, when Israel dwelt in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah is father’s concubine; and Israel heard about it.”

Okay. This is something that wasn’t mention in the sermon, during the bit where we were hearing about Jacob’s dysfunctional family and all the things his unruly sons had done. But, then, what did Simeon and Levi do, to get such a horrible message from their father?

.        “(5) Simeon and Levi are brothers; instruments of cruelty [violence] are in their dwelling place. (6) Let not my soul enter their council; let not my honour be united to their assembly; for in their anger the slew a man, and in their self-will they hamstrung [lamed] an ox. (7) Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce; and their wrath, for it is cruel! I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel.”

Although I do have a helpful cross-reference for the “slaying a man” part (the Dinah incident in Chapter 34), one has to wonder about the “hamstringing an ox” incident.

Judah’s message is good. It seems Jacob liked Judah. I’d even go so far as to say that Judah was Jacob’s favourite son after Joseph. Judah gets five verses (8-12), mostly extolling him and promising him all manner of good things.

Zebulun’s message is mostly good, but short and succinct: he’s going to become a sea-port. I’m not sure what Issachar did to deserve his indictment, and my Bible doesn’t give me any helpful cross-references, either:

.        “(14) Isaachar is a strong donkey, lying down between two burdens; (15) he saw that rest was good, and that the land was pleasant; he bowed his shoulder to bear a burden, and became a band of slaves.

I can only assume this has something to do with all the years in Egypt, but surely this, then, should apply to all of the sons?

Dan’s message is good at the beginning, as Jacob tells him he’ll become one of the tribes of Israel, but verse 17 isn’t very good, either:

.        “Dan shall be a serpent by the way, a viper by the path, that bites the horse’s heels so that its rider shall fall backward.”

Gad, also, has a short message, in verse 19:

.        “Gad, a troop shall tramp upon him, but he shall triumph at last.”

My Bible not-so-helpfully directs me to Deuteronomy 33:24, where Moses is blessing all the tribes. This seems to be the “triumphing” bit, but begs the question as to what happened to Gad in the meantime.

Asher, I think, was probably Jacob’s third-favourite son; or, at least, like Zebulun, he didn’t stir up too much trouble. Asher gets “rich bread” and “royal dainties”. (Whatever “royal dainties” are).

Naphtali’s words are a little confusing:

.        (21) “Naphtali is a deer let loose; he uses beautiful words.”

I have no useful cross-reference at all here, but I’m not sure this is a blessing. “He uses beautiful words” sounds a little too much like some of the Proverbs about Satan’s enticement to me.

Then there’s Joseph. Jacob loved Joseph, of course. Joseph gets five verses, like Judah, but his are much nicer. Every blessing you can imagine is given to Joseph.

Benjamin finishes the list, and his is another mixed blessing:

.       (27) “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he shall devour the prey, and at night he shall divide the spoil.” It seems that Benjamin gets a bit of wealth for himself or something, but it’s not a very nice comparison.

I’m not sure what the point to this post was. I’m certainly not going to call it a “study”, because my Bible Study Methods lecturer would have a fit. I suppose it’s just a series of observations on Jacob’s last words to his sons, which I found slightly amusing. (Quotes taken from the New King James Version)