Author's Bias | Interpretation: conservative

The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament:
General Introduction

Few archeological discoveries in recent years have awakened more widespread interest than the countless papyrus documents recovered from the sands of Egypt, and as it is from them that our principal non-literary illustrations of the Vocabulary of the Greek Testament have been drawn, it may be well to describe briefly by way of Introduction what these papyri are, and what is the nature of their value for the New Testament student.

Papyrus as Writing Material.-In itself, the word papyrus is the name of a reed-plant (Cyperus papyrus, L.) which at one time grew in great profusion in the river Nile, and gave its name to the writing material or "paper" of antiquity formed from it. The pith of the stem of the papyrus plant was cut into long thin strips, which were laid down on a flat table and soaked with Nile water. A second layer was then placed crosswise on top of the first, and the two layers were pressed together to form a single web or sheet. After being dried in the sun, and scraped with a shell or bone to remove any roughness, a material not unlike our own brown paper was produced.

The size of the papyrus sheets varied considerably, but for non-literary documents a common size was from nine to eleven inches in height, and from five to five and a half inches in breadth. When more space than that afforded by a single sheet was required, a number of sheets were joined together to form a roll, which could easily be extended or shortened as desired. Thus, to take the case of the New Testament autographs, which were almost certainly written on separate papyrus rolls, a short Epistle, like the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, would be a roll of about fifteen inches in length with the contents arranged in some five columns, while St. Paul's longest Epistle, the Epistle to the Romans, would run to about eleven feet and a half. The shortest of the Gospels, St. Mark's, would occupy about nineteen feet; the longest, St. Luke's, about thirty-one or thirty-two feet. And the Apocalypse of St. John has been estimated at fifteen feet. Taking the other books on the same scale, Sir F. G. Kenyon, to whom the foregoing figures are also due, has calculated that if the whole New Testament was written out in order on a single roll, the roll would extend to more than two hundred feet in length, obviously an utterly unworkable size. This alone makes it clear that not until the papyrus stage in their history was past, and use was made of both sides of parchment or vellum leaves, was it possible to include all the books of the New Testament in a single volume.

The side of the papyrus on which the fibers ran horizontally, or the recto, as it came to be technically known, was from its greater smoothness, generally preferred for writing, while the back or the verso, was reserved for the address, at any rate in the case of letters. But when space failed, the verso could also be utilized, as shown in a long magical papyrus in the British Museum, in which nineteen columns are written on the recto, and the remaining thirteen on the verso.

In any case we have abundant evidence of the use of the verso, when fresh papyrus was not available, as when a man writes a letter on the back of a business document, explaining that he had been unable at the moment to find a "clean sheet" or as when the back of the official notification of the death of a certain Panechotes is used for a school-exercise or composition, embodying such maxims as "do nothing mean or ignoble or inglorious or cowardly," written in a beginner's hand and much corrected.

In other cases, before the verso has been so used, the original contents of the recto have been effaced or washed out, a practice which adds point to a familiar verse. In Col 2:14, we read that our Lord "blotted out the bond written in ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us," and the verb used for "blotted out" is the technical term for "washing out" the writing from a papyrus sheet. So complete was the forgiveness which Christ by His work secured, that it completely canceled the old bond, that had hitherto been valid against us, for it bore our signature. He made the bond as though it had never been (cf. Exod 32:32, Rev 3:5).

As regards other writing materials, a reed pen (cf. 3 Macc 4:20) was prepared, much as we now prepare a quill, while the ink (cf. 2 John 1:12) was made from a mixture of charcoal, gum and water. The marvelous way in which the ink has preserved its colour invariably attracts attention, and shows that anything in the nature of adulteration must have been unknown. A first-century letter, chiefly about writing materials, refers to "the ink pot."

The character of the handwriting naturally varies with the nature of the document and the education of the scribe. But the task of decipherment can rarely be said to be easy, partly owing to the frequent use of contractions and partly to the numerous lacunae or gaps caused by the brittle nature of the material. The restoration of the letters or words which have thus dropped out demands the exercise of the utmost patience and skill. And those who have had an opportunity of inspecting some of the originals can only marvel that intelligible transcriptions have been made from them at all.

When, then, we speak of papyri, we are to think simply of rolls or sheets of paper of this character, which had been put to all the many and various purposes to which paper as a writing material is put amongst ourselves, while the addition of Greek distinguishes the papyri written in that language from the Aramaic or Latin or Coptic papyri which have been similarly recovered. We need only add that the earliest dated Greek papyrus we possess belongs to the year BC 311-310, and that from that time an almost continuous chain of documents carries us far down into Byzantine times.

Papyrus Discoveries.-With the exception of some calcined rolls from Herculaneum, which were brought to light as far back as 1752 and the following years, papyri have been found only in Egypt, the marvelously dry climate of that country being especially favourable to their preservation. A certain number, more particularly those of a literary character, have been recovered from their original owner's tombs. The Persae of Timotheos, for example, the oldest Greek literary manuscript in existence, dating, as it does, from the fourth century BC, was found near Memphis in the coffin of a Greek soldier, by whose side it had been deposited in a leathern bag. And an Homeric roll, now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, used to be exhibited along with a lock of the hair of the lady with whom it had been buried. Other rolls have been found in earthen jars in the ruins of temples or houses, thus strangely recalling the prophecy of Jeremiah: "Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, this deed of the purchase, both that which is sealed, and this deed which is open, and put them in an earthen vessel; that they may continue many days" (Jer 32:14).

But the great mass of papyri come from the rubbish heaps, rising sometimes to a height of twenty to thirty feet, on the outskirts of old Egyptian towns and villages. Possibly out of a feeling of reverence for the written word, the inhabitants did not as a rule burn their old papers, but threw them out on these heaps. There they were quickly covered over with the fine desert sand, and, so long as they were above the damp level of the Nile, have remained practically uninjured down to the present day. For the most part they consist of single sheets, or fragments of sheets, sometimes no larger than a postage stamp, but occasionally whole baskets of official documents are found, which had been cleared out en masse from public archives or record offices. And everyone will recognize the absorbing interest attaching to these scraps of paper, discarded as useless by their first writers and owners, on which no eye has looked for many hundreds of years, but which now, as original documents, recreate and revivify the past for us in a way which nothing else could do.

The earliest finds in Egypt of which we have knowledge took place in 1778, when some Arabs, digging for their own purposes in the Fayûm district, accidentally came upon some fifty rolls in an earthen pot; but, unable to find purchasers, they destroyed them on account, it is said, of the aromatic smell they gave forth in burning. Only one roll was saved which, passing into the hands of Cardinal Stefano Borgia, came to be known as the Charta Borgiana. The contents are of little general interest, being merely an account of the forced labours of the peasants on the Nile embankment at Arsinoë in the year AD 191-2, but the papyrus will always have the significance of being the first Greek papyrus to be published in Europe.

In the year 1820 further finds, dating from the second century BC, were made in the neighborhood of Memphis and Thebes, but it was not until 1889-90 that a beginning was made in systematic exploration, when at Gurob Professor Flinders Petrie extracted a large number of papyri from Ptolemaic mummy-cases, and brought them home to England.

To the same period of exploration belong such important literary finds as the lost work of Aristotle on The Constitution of Athens, copied on the back of a farm bailiff's accounts, which are dated in the eleventh year of Vespasian, that is AD 78-9; the Mimiambi or Mimes of Herodas, which reproduce with photographic exactness the ordinary, and often sordid, details of the everyday life of the third century BC; and about thirteen hundred lines of the Odes of Bacchylides, a contemporary of Pindar, and a nephew of the Simonides for the recovery of whose works Wordsworth longed in a well-known poem:

O ye, who patiently explore
The wreak of Herculanean lore,
What rapture! Could ye seize
Some Theban fragment, or unroll
One precious, tender-hearted, scroll
Of pure Simonides.

But significant though these discoveries were, their interest was largely eclipsed by the results of the digging carried on by Dr. Grenfell and Dr. Hunt at Oxyrhynchus, the ancient Behneseh, in the winter of 1896-97 and the following years. The two English explorers had been attracted to the spot by the expectation that early fragments of Christian literature might be found there, in view of the important place which Oxyrhynchus occupied in Egyptian Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries. And their prescience was rewarded, for, amongst the papyri recovered on the second day, was a crumples leaf written on both sides in uncial characters, amongst which Dr. Hunt detected the somewhat rare Greek word for "note." This suggested to him the "note" of our Lord's Sayings in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 7:3-5); and, on further examination, he found that he had in his hand a leaf out of a very early collection of Sayings attributed to Jesus, some of which corresponded closely with the canonical Sayings of the Gospels, while others were new. We are not at present concerned with the many questions which were thus raised, but the importance of the discovery was undeniable, especially when it was followed next day by the finding of another uncial fragment containing the greater part of the first chapter of St. Matthew's Gospel, written not later than the third century, and therefore a century older than the oldest manuscript of the New Testament previously known. Both leaves, Dr. Grenfell suggests, may not improbably have formed "the remains of a library belonging to some Christian who perished in the persecution during Diocletian's reign, and whose books were then thrown away."

Along with these, and other almost equally sensational finds, Oxyrhynchus yielded an enormous mass of documents of the most miscellaneous character dating from the Roman Conquest of Egypt to the tenth century after Christ, when papyrus was superseded by paper as a writing material.

Other noteworthy collections come to us from the British Museum, Berlin, Florence, and various other sources, and the general result is that there are now available about ten thousand published documents, and that these are being constantly added to. Whether the still unedited papyri have any great surprises in store for us it is vain even to conjecture. But even if they have not, they will serve a useful purpose in illustrating and confirming the lexical and other results that have already been reached, and in increasing still further our stock of first-hand documentary evidence regarding the most important period in the world's history.

Classification of Papyri.-The papyri are generally classified under the two main heads, literary and non-literary, with the biblical and theological texts occupying a position about mid-way between the two. It is with the non-literary texts that we are concerned just now, and a glance at the citations on one or two pages of the following Vocabulary is sufficient to show the miscellaneous character of these texts, comprising as they do all manner of official documents, such as Imperial rescripts, accounts of judicial proceedings, tax and census papers, contracts of marriage and divorce, notices of birth and death, and so forth, along with a number of private letters touching upon all sides of family and everyday life.

And as the contents of these documents humains are wide as life itself, so they supply materials for the most varied fields of human learning. Their value to the historian and the jurist is apparent on the surface, while with their aid the geographer can reconstruct the map of ancient Egypt with a precision previously impossible. To the palaeographer again, who has hitherto been sadly hampered by lacunae in the development of ordinary script, they offer an uninterrupted series of examples, many of them exactly dated by year and month and day, from the third century before Christ to the eighth century after Christ. And to the philologist they show the true place of the Common Greek of the period, as distinguished from the dialects of the classical period, in the development of the Greek language. Examples of the Common Greek on its literary side had not, indeed, been previously wanting, but now, for the first time, it was possible to see it in undress, as it was spoken and written by the ordinary men and women of the day.

"New Testament Greek."-It is with this aspect of the papyri that we are primarily concerned. Alike in Vocabulary and Grammar the language of the New Testament exhibits striking dissimilarities from Classical Greek; and in consequence it has been regarded as standing by itself as "New Testament Greek." In general it had been hastily classed as "Judaic" or "Hebraic" Greek; its writers being Jews (with the probable exception of St. Luke), and therefore using a language other than their own, a language filled with reminiscences of the translation-Greek of the Septuagint on which they nurtured. But true as this may be, it does not go far to explain the real character of the Greek which meets us in the New Testament writings. For a convincing explanation we have in the first instance to thank the German scholar Adolf Deissmann, now Professor of New Testament Exegesis in the University of Berlin. While still a pastor at Marburg, Dr. (then Mr.) Deissmann happened one day to be turning over in the University Library at Heidelberg a new section of a volume containing transcripts from the collection of Greek Papyri at Berlin. And, as he read, he was suddenly struck by the likeness of the language of these papyri to the language of the Greek New Testament. Further study deepened in his mind the extent of this likeness, and he realized that he held in his hand the real key to the old problem.

So far from the Greek of the New Testament being a language by itself, or even, as one German scholar called it, "a language of the Holy Ghost," its main feature was that it was the ordinary vernacular Greek of the period, not the language of contemporary literature, which was often influenced by an attempt to imitate the great authors of classical times, but the language of everyday life, as it was spoken and written by the ordinary men and women of the day, or, as it is often described, the Common Greek, of the great Graeco-Roman world.

That, then, is Deissmann's general conclusion, which quickly found an enthusiastic and brilliant advocate in this country in the person of Dr. J. H. Moulton. And though the zeal of the first discoverers of the new light may have sometimes led them to go rather far in ignoring the Semitisms, on the other hand, and the literary culture of the New Testament writers, on the other, their main conclusion has found general acceptance, and we have come to realize with a definiteness unknown before that the book intended for the people was written in the people's own tongue. Themselves sprung from the common people, the disciples of One Whom the common people heard gladly, its writers, in their turn, wrote in the common tongue to be "understanded of the people."

Anticipations of this View.-It is somewhat strange that this discovery was so long deferred. Publications of papyri go back as far as 1826, but there is nothing to show that this particular way of utilizing their documents ever occurred to the first editors. At the same time it is interesting to notice certain anticipations from other sources of what such discoveries might mean, or, as it has been called, of Deissmannism before Deissmann.

In the Prolegomena to his translation of Winer's well-known Grammar of New Testament Greek, published in 1859, Professor Masson, at one time Professor in the University of Athens, writes: "The diction of the New Testament is the plain and unaffected Hellenic of the Apostolic Age, as employed by Greek-speaking Christians when discoursing on religious subjects…Perfectly natural and unaffected, it is free from all tinge of vulgarity on the one hand, and from every trace of studied finery on the other. Apart from the Hebraisms-the number of which have, for the most part, been grossly exaggerated-the New Testament may be considered as exhibiting the only genuine facsimile of the colloquial diction employed by unsophisticated Grecian gentlemen of the first century, who spoke without pedantry."

A second statement to much the same effect will be found in the article "Greek Language (Biblical)," contributed by Mr. (afterwards Principal Sir James) Donaldson to the third edition of Kitto's Cyclopaedia of Biblical Literature, edited by Dr. W. Lindsay Alexander (Edinburgh, 1876). In Vol. Ii. p. 170, the writer states: "Now it seems to us that the language used by the Septuagint and N(ew) T(estament) writers was the language used in common conversation, learned by them, not through books, but most likely in childhood from household talk, or, if not, through subsequent oral instruction. If this be the case, then the Septuagint is the first translation which was made for the great masses of the people in their own language, and the N(ew) T(estament) writers are the first to appeal to men through the common vulgar language intelligible to all who spoke Greek. The common Greek thus used is indeed considerably modified by the circumstances of the writers, but these modifications no more turn the Greek into a peculiar dialect than do Americanisms or Scotticisms turn the English of Americans and Scotsmen into peculiar dialects of English."

Still more interesting is the prophecy ascribed to Professor (afterwards Bishop) J. B. Lightfoot in the year 1863. Lecturing to his class at Cambridge, Dr. Lightfoot is reported to have said: "You are not to suppose that the word [some New Testament word which had its only classical authority in Herodotus] had fallen out of use in the interval, only that it had not been used in the books which remain to us: probably it had been part of the common speech all along. I will go further, and say that if we could only recover letters that ordinary people wrote to each other without any thought of being literary, we should have the greatest possible help for the understanding of the language of the N(ew) T(estament) generally."

The significance of this quotation is unmistakable, and it is followed, twenty-one years later, by what is, so far as I know, the first definite mention in this country of the papyri in connexion with New Testament study. It occurs in Dean Farrar's well-known volume, The Messages of the Books (London, Macmillan, 1884), where, in a footnote to his chapter on the "Form of the New Testament Epistles," the writer remarks: "It is an interesting subject of inquiry to what extent there was at this period an ordinary form of correspondence which (as among ourselves) was to some extent fixed. In the papyrus rolls of the British Museum (edited for the trustees by J. Forshall [in 1839]) there are forms and phrases which constantly remind us of St. Paul" (p.151).

The hint, thus thrown out, was unfortunately not followed up at the time, but if the full significance of the papyri for the study of the New Testament was long in being recognized, no one can complain of lack of attention to the subject at the present day. It is leading to the re-writing of our Lexicons and Grammars of the New Testament, and no modern Commentary on any of its books fails to avail itself of the help afforded by these new treasures from Egypt.

Taken from "The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament" by James H. Moulton and George Milligan. ©1997 by Hendrickson Publishers. Used by permission of Hendrickson Publishers, P.O. Box 3473, Peabody, Mass 01961-3473 (

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