“The Ingredients of New Testament Greek” by Jan Joosten, part 2

GreekHow, 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.

1. Joosten’s basic advice. “The only advice for students is that they should familiarize themselves with all three of the relevant fields,” that is, with Hellenistic Greek, the Septuagint (LXX), and the “Semitic substratum” (Hebrew and Aramaic) (60).

2. Step one: Hellenistic Greek usage. Look at the Hellenistic Greek usage of the word in NT times first, for a “linguistic phenomenon that can be explained from Hellenistic Greek should not be presented as a Semitism or a Septuagintism” (60). Joosten provides the example of ἐρωτάω (“to ask for information”) and αἰτέω (“to request something”). In classical Greek, these verbs have the meanings given above, but in the NT ἐρωτάω, like αἰτέω, can mean “to request something” (Luke 16:27). This usage of ἐρωτάω was once labelled as a Semitism (influenced by Hebrew and/or Aramaic). It is not a Septuagintism, since the LXX follows the classical Greek usage of both words. Deissmann showed from “non-literary documents of the Roman period” that ἐρωτάω commonly means to “request” (61). So, Hellenistic Greek provides the most relevant parallel to NT usage of ἐρωτάω rather than Semitic sources.

3. Step two: Semitic background. If the Hellenistic Greek usage does not line up with NT usage, then the interpreter should look to the LXX or Hebrew/Aramaic usage. “Does the Semitism reflect influence of the Septuagint, or does it reflect the Semitic background of the New Testament texts?” This question can be hard to answer (62; my note: This makes sense, because the LXX itself is affected by Hebrew, that is, it is translation Greek).

Joosten provides an example in which it is necessary to consider both the LXX and Aramaic usage. In Matthew 25:35, “I was a stranger and you welcomed (form of συνάγω) me.” In Hellenistic Greek, συνάγω never means “welcome” or “to receive as a guest” (62). It often means “to gather.” In the LXX, συνάγω sometimes has the meaning “welcome” when it is used as a literal or wooden translation for ףסַאָ. This Hebrew verb commonly means “gather,” but means “welcome” in Judges 19:15 and 2 Sam. 11:17. As a result, συνάγω means “welcome” in the LXX translation of these verses and this could be behind the usage of συνάγω in Matthew 25:35 (62-63). Alternatively, Joosten provides evidence from Aramaic for a verb that could mean both “gather” and “receive as a guest” (63-64). In this case, Joosten says that context may help one to decide whether the LXX influence or Aramaic influence is primary. LXX influence is more likely in Paul’s letters, while Aramaic influence is more likely in the words of Jesus (64).

4. What happens when the Greek and Semitic meanings of a word are both relevant? Joosten passes on to the interesting example of Hebrews 9:15-17, where the Hellenistic Greek usage and LXX usage are both relevant. In order to interpret these verses, it is important to know that διαθήκη means “covenant” in the LXX and “testament, will” in Hellenistic Greek usage (65-66).

5. Conclusion. Joosten arrives at a challenging conclusion. He encourages study of Hellenistic Greek parallels to NT usage, as well as LXX parallels. I would say that these two areas of study seem attainable for many NT interpreters. His encouragement to study Aramaic and Hebrew parallels is more challenging. He says, “But patient study of Aramaic and Hebrew texts throw a surprising light on some particularly difficult [NT] passages” (69). It seems to me that we have here a good reason for specialists in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek to work together, and for NT interpreters to hone their skills in Hebrew and Aramaic.

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