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The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament:
General Introduction

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Gains from the Study of the Papyri.-Abundant proof of this will be forthcoming in the pages which follow. Meanwhile, it may be helpful to those who have made no special study of the subject if I attempt to indicate some of the ways in which the new evidence can be applied to the elucidation of the words of the New Testament.

Orthography and Accidence.-We may begin with Orthography and Accidence. In these particulars the New Testament writings have not yet been subjected to the same searching comparison with the new evidence which Helbing and Thackeray have applied to the Old Testament; but enough has already been done by Blass, Shmiedel, Moulton, and Deissmann, following on the notable work of Westcott and Hort, to show that we are in a better position to-day for recovering the ipsissima verba of the New Testament autographs than many modern textual critics are ready to admit. There was a constant tendency on the part of the later copyists to improve on the "vulgarisms" or "colloquialisms" of the original, and it cannot but help us to determine what is due to this refining process when we have such abundant evidence in our hands as to how the common people of the time actually wrote and spelt.

The form γένημα, for example, which Westcott and Hort prefer for the five occurrences of this word in the New Testament (Mt 26:29; Mk 14:25; Lk 12:18 (marg.), 22:18; 2 Cor 9:10), as against the γένημα of the Textus Receptus (except in Lk 12:18), is now fully established on the evidence both of the Ptolemaic papyri, and those belong to the first four centuries after Christ. The aspirated σφυρίς again, for σπυρίς (Mt 15:37, 16:10; Mk 8:8, 20; Ac 9:25) is amply, though not universally, attested in the vernacular documents; while the syncopated form ταμεΐον (for ταμιεΐον) as in Mt 6:6, 24:26; Lk 12:3, 24, is the prevailing form in the papyri from1 AD onwards, though the fuller form occurs in various passages from Ptolemaic times. The very indifference, indeed, of the writers of our documents to symmetrical forms or to unified spelling may in itself be taken as a warning against the almost feverish haste with which a "redactor," or later author, is sometimes brought in to explain similar phenomena in the different parts of a New Testament book.

Morphology.-In the same way, when we pass to Morphology, it is again to discover that many verbal forms, with which our best New Testament texts have made us familiar, can here be amply attested. One of the commonest of these is the attaching of the 1st aorist forms to the 2nd aorist, as when in Mt 10:23 we read έλθάτω for έλθέτω, and in Mark 3:8 ήλθαν for ήλθον.

The practice, already present in the Attic εϊπον, meets us repeatedly in the papyri, as well as in late Hellenistic writers generally. Similarly, γέγοναν for γέγονασι, which Westcott and Hort read in Rom 16:7, in accordance with BSA, receives frequent corroboration, as in an almost contemporary papyrus letter from the Fayûm. An interesting form, which may cause trouble, if it is not watched, is the substitution of έάν for άν after őς, őπου, etc.,

which the same editors have faithfully reproduced from the leading manuscripts in such passages as MT 12:32, őς έάν εϊπη and Mk 14:9 őπον έάν κηρυχθή.

Professor J. H. Moulton has carefully examined the evidence of the papyri on this point, and has found that in the first and second centuries of the Christian era έάν greatly predominated, but that, as a form of άν, it had almost died out in ordinary usage before the great unicals were written. The fact, therefore, that their scribes preserved έάν may be taken as showing that they "faithfully reproduce originals written under conditions long since obsolete."

Syntax.-This last example may fittingly introduce us to the field of Syntax, and to Moulton and Howard's invaluable Grammar, where at every turn the evidence of the newly discovered vernacular documents is called in to decide corresponding usages in the New Testament writings. One or two examples will show how rich and suggestive that evidence is.

Take, for instance, the prepositions, and an impartial survey can hardly fail to lead us to the conclusion that the laxer usage which is everywhere observable in later Greek hardly justifies many of the over-niceties of interpretation in which New Testament expositors have been apt to indulge. The free interchange of είς and έν is a case in point. This may be carried back to the fact that both words were originally forms of the same root; but what we are especially concerned with is that they are largely interchanged in ordinary usage, as when in a letter of AD 22 the writer tells us that when he came to Alexandria (έπί τώ γεγονέναι έν 'Αλεξανδρία), he learnt so and so from certain fishermen at Alexandria (είς 'Αλεξάνδρί[αν]). When, then, in commenting on Jn 1:18 όών είς τον κόλπον τοϋ πατρός, Bishop Wescott speaks of the phrase as implying "the combination (as it were) of rest and motion, of a continuous relation, with a realization of it," is he not pressing the phraseology farther than contemporary evidence warrants, however doctrinally true the deduction may be? Nor can those who advocate the rendering "immersing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" for the baptismal formula in Mt 28:19 do so on the ground that the more familiar rendering is philologically inaccurate. Without entering on the question as to the exact shade of meaning underlying βαπτίζοντες, it is clear that είς τό őνομα may be understood as practically equivalent to έν  τάόνόματι, the new light thus joining hands with, and lending support to, the almost unanimous tradition of the Western Church.

A corresponding caution must be observed in connexion with the construction of ϊνα. Classical Greek has taught us to expect that ϊνα construed with the subjunctive denotes purpose, but in Hellenistic Greek this has been extended to include a consecutive usage, and sometimes, as in modern Greek, a simple statement of fact. When, therefore, in Jn 17:3 the Fourth Evangelist writes-αϋτη δέ έστιν ή αίώνιος ζωή ϊνα γινώσκωσι σέ τόν μόνον άληθινόν θεόν καί őν άπέστειλας 'Ιησοΰν Xριστόν it is of course possible that by the latter clause he means us to understand our Lord as pointing to the knowledge of God as the aim and end of eternal life. But it is equally permissible, and more in accord with contemporary usage, to interpret the words as defining the contents of the life eternal: this life is a life consisting in, and maintained by, the knowledge of god, and of Him whom God had sent.

It would be early to go on multiplying examples in this direction, but enough has been said to show that the syntax of the New Testament is not modeled on strictly classical lines, and that this must be kept steadily in view in the work of interpretation.

Vocabulary.-It is, however, in the matter of Vocabulary that the new gains make themselves most fully felt, and prove most clearly that we are dealing with a book written in the common speech of its day.

This is seen, for example, in the large reduction in the number of so-called "Biblical" words, that is, words which have hitherto been regarded as the special property of the Biblical writers, no evidence of their use having hitherto been procurable from profane sources.

Thayer, at the end of his edition of Grimm's Lexicon, gives a long list of these "Biblical" words, the very length of which tends to confirm that feeling of the isolated or peculiar character of the New Testament writings, to which reference has already been made. The list is unnecessarily long even from Thayer's point of view, as it includes not a few words for which he himself supplies references from non-Christian sources, which, though sometimes later in point of time than the New Testament itself, nevertheless show unmistakably that the words belong to the ordinary stock then in use. And now the new evidence comes in to extend these references in so many directions that Deissmann is able to reduce the number of words peculiar to the New Testament to something like fifty, or about one percent of the whole vocabulary.

Our new sources do not merely reduce the number of words hitherto regarded as peculiar to the New Testament writings; they also confirm the meanings traditionally assigned to others, sometimes on somewhat slender grounds.

A familiar instance is the Pauline word λογεία. According to Grimm-Thayer, the word is "not found in profane authors," but for its meaning in 1 Cor 16:1-2, the only places were it occurs in the New Testament, the translation "a collection" is suggested. Such a translation is in harmony with the context, and is now conclusively established by the fact that from the second century BC the word is found in the papyri in this sense. It is sufficient to refer to a curious letter from Tebtunis, in which a tax-gatherer after naively describing his unprincipled efforts to defeat a rival in the collection of a certain tax, adds, "I bid you urge on Nicon regarding the collection (περίτήςλογε<ί>ας)."

Or, to take a wholly different example, when in a letter of AD 41, a man counsels a friend in money-difficulties to plead with one of his creditors, μή ϊνα άναστατώσης ήμάς, "do not unsettle us," that is "do not drive us out from hearth and home," he little thought that he would supply future students of the New Testament with an apt parallel for the metaphorical us of the same verb in Gal 5:12, where St. Paul expresses the hope that οί άναστατοΰντες," those who are unsettling" his Galatian converts, "would even mutilate themselves." So too the naught boy's admission from Oxyrhynchus that his mother complains "that he is upsetting me" (őτι άναστατοϊ με) throws light upon the description of the brethren at Thessalonica by their Jewish opponents, "These that have turned the world upside down (őί τήν οίκουμένην άναστατώσαντες) have come hither also" (Ac17:6).

Similar aid is given in the choice of meaning where more than one rendering is possible. In Mt 6:27, for example, both the Authorized and Revised Versions agree in rendering ήλικία by "stature," "And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit unto his stature?" but the margin of the Revised Version has "age"; and if we are to follow the almost unanimous testimony of the papyri, this latter sense should be adopted throughout the New Testament occurrences of the word, except in Lk 19:3, where the context makes it impossible. Thus in the important verse, Lk 2:52 καί Iησοΰς προέκοπτεν τή σοφιά καί ήλικία, the meaning is not that Jesus "advanced in wisdom and stature," that is "in height and comeliness" (as Grimm-Thayer), but "in wisdom and age," a description to which an excellent parallel is now afforded by an inscription of 2 BC, in which a certain Aristagoras is praised as-ήλικία προκόπτων καί προαγόμενος είς τό θεοσεβεϊν.

Again, in not a few instances, our new documents supply us with the true meaning of words only imperfectly understood before.

In commenting on 1 Pet 1:7 ϊν τό δοκίμιον ύμών τής πίστεως πολυτιμότερον χρυσίου τοΰ άπολλυμένον διά πυρός δέ δοκιμαζομένου εύρεθ είς έπαινον καί δόξαν καί τιμήν έν άποκαλύψει Iησοΰ Xριστοΰ Dr. Hort (Comm. Ad l) saw that the meaning required was "the approved part or element of the faith," that is, the pure faith that remained when the dross had been purged away by fiery trial; but unable to find any warrant for this sense of δοκίμιον, he was driven to suspect that the true reading was δόκιμον, for which he had the support of a few cursives. There was no need, however, for any such conjecture. Ever since Deissmann first drew attention to the importance of the evidence of the papyri in this connexion, examples have been rapidly accumulating to show that δόκίμιος, as well as δόκιμος, means "proved," "genuine," in such a phrase as χρυσός δοκίμιος, "tested gold," and we need no longer have any hesitation in so translating the word both in the Petrine passage and in Jas 1:3.

Or, to take another example, where the appearance of a hitherto unestablished usage has again done away with the need of textual emendation. In Ac 16:12 ήτις έστίν πρώτη τής μερίδος Mακεδονίας πόλις, the reading μερίδος was objected to by Dr. Hort, on the ground that μερίς never denotes simply a region or province, and he proposed accordingly to read Πιερίδος in its stead, "a chief city of Pierian Macedonia." But while it is true that μερίς in the sense of a geographical division does not occur in classical writers, it is regularly so used in documents of the Apostolic age, so that the rendering "district" in the Revised Version, however arrived at, need no longer raise any qualms.

It is, however, by imparting a fresh life and reality to many of our most ordinary New Testament terms that the new authorities render their most signal service. We know how our very familiarity with Scriptural language is apt to blind us to its full significance. But when we find words and phrases, which we have hitherto associated only with a religious meaning, in common, everyday use, and employed in circumstances where their meaning can raise no question, we make a fresh start with them, and get a clearer insight into their deeper application.

Take, for instance, the common designation of Christians as "brethren" or "brothers" (άδελφοί). The practice no doubt was taken over from Judaism (Ac 2:29,37) and from the example of our Lord himself (cf. Mt 12:48, 23:8); but we can at least see how the adoption of such a term was rendered easier by its application to the members of a funeral society, whose duty it was to take part in the embalming of dead bodies, or again to the "fellows" of a religious corporation in the Serapeum of Memphis.

So with the title "presbyter" (πρεσβύτερος). Without entering on the question of the presbyter's place and authority in the early Christian Church, it is obvious that the use of the word in civil life to denote a local or village officer must have prepared the way in Gentile circles for its acceptance in its new connotation. Thus in the year BC 117 a tax-farmer petitions the village-scribe and "the elders of the cultivators," that he may be assured of official "protection." Or, again, in AD 114 a woman lodges a complaint of assault and robbery against another woman whose husband as "elder" was responsible for the peace and order of the village. Or once more, in a document of AD 159-60, mention is made of the priests of the Socnopaeus temple as being divided into five tribes under the rule of "elder-priests"-clearly a title not of age but of dignity. It is in this same document, we may note in passing, that the charge is laid against a fellow-priest of "letting his hair grow too long and of wearing woollen garments"-the former item recalling the fact that in the Early Church short hair was considered the mark of a Christian teacher, as compared with the unshorn locks of the heathen philosopher.

Keeping still to words with an ecclesiastical ring about them, the term "liturgy" has an interesting history. In classical times it was used of public services rendered gratuitously to the State, but later it came to be applied to all kinds of work or service, including those of a religious character, such as the "liturgy" of the Twin Sisters Thaues and Thaus, who held some position as attendants in the temple of Serapis at Memphis, with a corresponding right to certain allowances of oil and bread, which were apparently frequently in arrears. Similarly the corresponding verb is used in a contract of the year AD 8-9 with an artiste who undertakes to give her "services" on certain specified occasions, including the festivals of Isis and Hera, at a salary of forty drachmae a year, along with a further wage or present of thirteen drachmae two obols.

Other more general uses of the word occur in connexion with the maintenance of the banks of the Nile, or with the release of persons from some public service "because it is not at present their turn to serve." Very interesting too is a doctor's claim for exemption, on the ground that he was a doctor by profession, and had "treated medically" the very persons who were now attempting to lay this new "liturgy" upon him.

I admit, of course, that none of these instances adds materially to our knowledge of the word's connotation, but they give it fresh point, and enable us to understand how well-adapted it was to describe the "liturgy" or "ministry" of Christian fellowship (cf. 2 Cor 9:12, Phil 2:17, 30), and all the more so, because the word has now come to be almost wholly limited to a particular form of public worship.

Its occurrence in the current phraseology of the time adds again a fresh reality to the Greek word (άρραβών) which is usually translated "earnest" in our English Versions. We have all been taught that by the "earnest" of the Spirit in such passages as 2 Cor 1:22, 5:5; Eph 1:14, we are to understand a part given in advance of what will be bestowed fully afterwards. But how increasingly clear this becomes when a woman who is selling a cow receives a thousand drachmae as an "earnest" (άρραβώνα) on the total purchase money, or when certain dancing girls at a village entertainment receive so many drachmae "by way of earnest" (ύπέρ άραβώνος) on their promised salary!

Much help can be derived from the legal documents, which are so common amongst the papyri. Thus is his pioneer Bible Studies (p. 104ff.), Deissmann has shown that the Greek adjective (βέβαιος) usually translated "sure" or "steadfast" in our English Versions, along with its cognate verb (βεβαιόω) and substantive (βεβαίωσις), is the regular technical term in the papyri to denote legally guaranteed security. This sense occurs, of course, in classical Greek, but its constant reappearance in the papyri gives fresh point to the New Testament usage. Two examples will make this clear. In an application for a lease belonging to the year AD 78, and therefore practically contemporary with the New Testament writings, provision is mad for the publication of the lease for the legal period of ten days "in order that if no one makes a higher bid (έπίθεμα), the lease may remain guaranteed (βεβαία) to us for the period of five years without change," and, similarly, in a somewhat later document (AD 266), connected with the resignation of a deed, it is laid down, "I will further guarantee the property always against all claims with every guarantee" (έτι τε καί παρέξομαί σοι βέβαια διά παντός άπό πάντων πάση βεβαιώσει). Read, then, the verb with this technical sense in view, and what added assurance it gives to the promise of 1 Cor 1:7: "Thus you lack no spiritual endowment during these days of waiting till our Lord Jesus Christ is revealed; and to the very end he will guarantee (βεβαιώσει) that you are vindicated on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Moffatt), just as another legal term (ύπόστασις), which was used to denote the collection of papers bearing upon the possession of a piece of property, or as we would now say, the title-deeds, imparts a new certainty to the familiar definition-"Faith is the title-deed (ύπόστασις) of things hoped for" (Heb 11:1).

In what are probably the earliest of his letters that have come down to us, the two Epistles to the Thessalonians, St. Paul finds it necessary to rebuke his converts for walking "in a disorderly manner" (2 Thess 3:11). The word (άτάκτως), with its cognates, is confined to these Epistles in the New Testament, and what exactly is meant by it is by no means clear at first sight. Is St. Paul referring to actual sin or moral disorder, or to something less heinous? The papyri have supplied the answer in a striking manner. Among them is a contract of AD 66 in which a father arranges to apprentice his son with a weaver for one year. All the conditions of the contract as regards food and clothing are carefully laid down. Then follows the passage which specially interests us. If there are any days during this period on which the boy "fails to attend" or "plays truant" (őσας δ̉̉΄ έάν έν τούτω άτακτήση ήμέρας), the father has to produce him for an equivalent number of days after the period is over. And the verb which is used to denote playing truant is the same verb which St. Paul uses in connexion with the Thessalonians. This then was their fault. They were idling, playing truant. The Parousia of the Lord seemed to them to be so close at hand that it was unnecessary for them to interest themselves in anything else. Why go their daily work in the morning, when before night Christ might have come, they thought, forgetting that the best way to prepare for that coming was to show themselves active and diligent in the discharge of their daily work and duty.

The reference to the Parousia may suggest a last example. Parousia, as applied to the Return of the Lord, is simply the anglicizing of a Greek word (παρουσία) which literally means "presence." But in late Greek the word had come to be applied in a quasi-technical sense to the "visit" of a king or great man. Thus in a papyrus of 3 BC we read of a district that was mulcted to provide a "crown" for one of the Ptolemaic kings on the occasion of his "visit"; and in a letter of about the same date a certain Apenneus writes that he has made preparations for the "visit" of a magistrate Chrysippus by laying in a number of birds for his consumption, including geese and pigeons.

It would seem, therefore, that as distinguished from other words associated with Christ's Coming, such as His "manifestation" of the Divine power and His "revelation" of the Divine plan, the "parousia" leads us rather to think of His "royal visit" to His people, whether we think of the First Coming at the Incarnation, or the Final Coming as Judge.

The Literary Character of the New Testament.-These examples are sufficient to show that it is often from the most unlikely quarters that light is shed upon our New Testament vocabulary, and that a scrap of papyrus may be the means of settling some long-standing crux interpretum. I would not, however, be understood to say that the later Greek which was associate with the papyri has no rules of its own, or that, in the hands of the New Testament writers, it is not often employed with marked literary grace and power. The writer, of course, differ largely in this connexion, in keeping with their individual education and culture. At one end of the scale, we have the rude Greek of St. Mark's Gospel, or of the Apocalypse: at the other, the polished periods of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrew. But even in the case of the least literary writings of the New Testament we must beware of so emphasizing their popular character as to lose sight of the dignity and beauty imparted to them in virtue of the subject-matter with which they deal and the spiritual genius of their authors. "In the Gospels," as Professor Wellhausen has pointed out, "spoken Greek, and even Greek as spoken amongst the lower classes, has made its entry into literature." And Professor Jűlicher has borne similar testimony with reference to the Pauline Epistles. "These Epistles," he writes, "in spite of the fact that they are always intended as writings of the moment addressed to a narrow circle of readers, yet approach much more nearly to the position of independent literary works than the average letters of great men in modern times... Without knowing or intending it, Paul became by his letters the creator of a Christian literature." And more than that, Paul, as the same authority admits, "must be ranked as a great master of language,...and it is because his innermost self breaths through every word that most of his Epistles bear so unique a charm." It is utterly unnecessary to labour the point. Such passages as the triumphant Hymn of Hope in Rom 8 and the glorious Hymn of Love in 1 Cor 13 are moved by a heart-felt eloquence which makes them, regarded as literature, as notable as anything ever penned. And if we are told that the Pauline letters "differ from the messages of the homely Papyrus leaves from Egypt not as letters, but only as the letters of Paul," we can accept the statement (though hardly in the sense the writer intended it), because it is just "Paul," and what Paul stands for, that does make all the difference.

G. Mulligan

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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