“The Ingredients of New Testament Greek” by Jan Joosten, part 1

GreekWe often think of essential information as coming out in books. In many cases, however, I have found insights that are just as profound, and generally expressed in more compressed form, in articles. I recently happened on Joosten’s article “The Ingredients of New Testament Greek.” I would like to summarize some points from the article in order to pass on at least some of his insights and to encourage interested readers to read the article.

1. A Good Reminder. Joosten starts out by providing a good reminder. The Greek of the New Testament (NT) has some peculiarities that set it apart even from similar writings of the same period, like the works of Flavius Josephus (56). He gives two examples based on common New Testament vocabulary items. A lexicon focused on the NT, like Bauer’s (BDAG), gives the impression that ἀγαπάω means “love” and δόξα means “glory.” Outside of the Septuagint (LXX) and the NT, one “discovers that the first word is not the usual one to express the meaning ‘to love,’ and that the normal meaning of the second one is not ‘glory'” (56) (My note: These two words are both examples of the influence of the Greek of the LXX upon the New Testament.).

2. Undertanding the Three Ingredients of New Testament Greek. In order to interpret the Greek of the NT, Joosten suggests that we need to appreciate its three ingredients, namely, Hellenistic Greek, the LXX, and a “semitic substratum” (the influence of Hebrew or Aramaic).

a. Everyday Hellenistic Greek. The first ingredient is Hellenistic Greek. The NT was written in common, everyday Greek rather than literary Greek (My note: This is what makes it easier than the Greek of Philo and Josephus.). In the late 19th century, archaeologists and Greek scholars began to provide a plethora of parallels to the Greek of the NT through the discovery and analysis of ancient pieces of papyri. Here, in the common writings of the day, are many parallels to the Greek of the NT. Joosten concludes, “In all its diversity, however, New Testament Greek receives crucial illumination from the non-literary Greek documents. One should always start from Moulton and Milligan and similar publications if one wishes to know the meaning of New Testament words” (see Vocabulary of the Greek Testament Illustrated from the Papyri and Other Non-Literary Sources [1914-1929] and New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity).

b. The Septuagint. The influence of the LXX on the NT is an obvious ingredient. It is easiest to illustrate with reference to NT vocabulary (see above). The term Septuagint refers to the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was in use among Greek-speaking Jews in New Testament times. It was only natural that the language of the LXX should influence the language of the NT. The LXX translators “created many new expressions” (59) and influenced the vocabulary of the NT. For instance, the term χριστός (“anointed one,” “Christ”) is a term that the NT borrows from the LXX, rather than from secular Greek.

c. The Semitic Substratum. This is the most difficult and slippery ingredient of the three (60). As Joosten notes, “The teaching of Jesus, as well as many stories about him, will originally have been transmitted in Hebrew or Aramaic” (59). One can dispute the extent to which this is true, but there is evidence that Joosten’s point cannot simply be dismissed. He says, “the Greek language used among Jews in Palestine may have had some peculiar features due to influence from Hebrew and Aramaic” (60). As a result, interpreters, especially of the Gospels, “should be prepared to delve into Semitic texts more or less contemporary with the New Testament writings and addressing similar subject matter” (60). (My note: Everyone can do that, right?)

How, then, should we interpret the Greek of the New Testament, especially in those places where we suspect the influence of the LXX, of Hebrew, or of Aramaic? Very carefully? Joosten provides some guidelines about how to proceed. I will look at these in an upcoming post.

Coming up: A second post on “The Ingredients of New Testament Greek” by Jan Joosten

Click here for the link to Joosten’s article on academia.edu.