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.

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2 thoughts on “An Introduction to Koine Greek

  1. Very good summary. Thank you!

    If any of the Apostles went East, however, they would have needed Aramaic. It was the lingua franca from the Mediterranean to India from the time of the Persians till the invasion of the Arabs. I’m not sure how much penetration Greek had to the East. I think the Seleucids were speaking Greek, but I don’t know how much the average person was.

  2. Rachel says:

    I’ve always assumed the apostles could speak Aramaic well enough anyway. Quite aside from the portions of the Old Testament which are written in Aramaic (mostly in Daniel and Ezra), it was the common language of Galilee and Jesus and the disciples use Aramaic a lot – pretty much every time the gospels as “and so-and-so said ‘word’, which is ‘word'”, the first one is in Aramaic.

    My Hebrew teacher says Aramaic isn’t terribly different (ha- becomes -a is the one he said), and Wikipedia confirms this. I agree that Greek probably wouldn’t have been spoken much by the common people further east – probably just around the Mediterranean. The use of Aramaic would make much more sense, because it would be closer to the languages they’re familiar with. I don’t expect the apostles would have used a language known only by the educated elite – they were very much about using the common language.

    I wonder what language Thomas used when he went to India? I know he stayed with the Jewish community in Kerala for a while, so perhaps he spoke Hebrew or Aramaic with them while he was learning the local language.

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