Whittemore on NT Greek
( 1874)

Review of: G. H. Whittemore, THE GREEK OF THE NEW TESTAMENT,
The Baptist Quarterly, Vol VIII, 1874

Page Index

Review: - Whittemore on NT Greek:
    Greek Language: historical development
    Aramaic Influence: Jewish speakers
    Christian Influence: specialization
    Classic Purists: not applicable
    Pronunciation: and modern Greek

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Whittemore on NT Greek


Our purpose in citing this article, is that it gives us a good idea of what the state of knowledge of New Testament (Koine) Greek was at the end of the 19th century. As well, it tells us what previous scholars and works were available and popular at the time, and how the understanding of the language was continuing to evolve at this critical period just before the discovery of the major papyri finds in Egypt etc.

Taken from: The Baptist Quarterly, Vol VIII, 1874

Headings have been added for clarity and navigation purposes.


In view:
A Grammar of the Idiom of the New Testament, prepared
as a Solid Basis for the Interpretation of the New Testament.

By Dr. George Benedict Winer. Seventh edition, enlarged and improved. By Dr. Gottlieb Lunemann, Professor of Theology at the University of Gottingen. Revised and Authorized Translation. Andover: Warren F. Draper. 1869.

A grammar of the New Testament Greek. By Alexander Buttman.
Authorized Translation, with numerous additions and corrections
by the Author.
Warren F. Draper, Publisher. Andover, Mass. 1873.

WHAT is New Testament Greek distinctively? This inquiry naturally arises or recurs, as we look at the two solid volumes by Winer and Alexander Buttmann, which, with latest improvements and additions, some even specially made for his translations, Professor James Henry Thayer, of Andover, has rendered accessible to American and English students.

It is certainly a suggestive fact, as to the importance of this inquiry, that Alexander Buttmann is a son of that Philip Buttmann whose classical Grammars, in successive editions, are now verging upon a century of authority. Notwithstanding his father's achievements in the realm of Greek scholarship, this Alexander was not left to sigh that there were no more worlds to conquer. Even in a sphere which Winer had made so peculiarly his own, he hoped and wished, to use his own language, that his work might succeed in winning for itself a modest place in this department of literature, behind or by the side of its predecessor and master.

This is the dignified and unassuming position of one who, after studying at the Universities of Berlin and Bonn, was for nearly twenty years a teacher in the gymnasium at Potsdam, resigning his office, in 1854, to devote himself to literary labors, as a chief result of which the present work appeared in 1858. It is, by common acknowledgment — including that of the latest English and American translators of Winer — the most important treatise since Winer's. The survey then of these volumes, and of the copious literature to which they refer, ought gravely to impress all who have to do with the professional or popular exposition of the Sacred Word.

It ought to be peculiarly instructive to the college student contemplating the Christian ministry. He takes up a Greek Testament, and it is, in many instances, such plain sailing, after the intricacies of "the False Embassy," or of a Greek tragedy, that he may think it hardly necessary to devote a year, and then, perhaps, parts of two more, to an investigation of such a Greek style. He may be tempted to have for it something of the contempt which moved the ancients, who were acquainted with the classical Attic, and with the literary, as distinguished from the colloquial Hellenic.

Slight attention to the circumstances of the authorship and translation of the works before us will correct any such hasty and unworthy impression. Even from Germany, the home of linguistic science, Professor Thayer reports this utterance of the lately deceased Meyer, whom he styles " the prince of New Testament expositors " :

" We theologians are still far too deficient in a comprehensive and positive knowledge of Greek Grammar."

There is significance in the fact that such men as Doctors Edward Robinson, Conant, and Hackett, each busied himself professionally with the classics in earlier life, but found ample scope for their powers in the labors to which they soon passed, and which have made them the authorities they are in Biblical science.

The Greek Language: Overview

Only a brief and most general statement of facts can here be attempted, in answer to the 'question with which we set out. As the Attic dialect, with its Ionic basis, enriched from the other idioms of Greece, afforded the finest model of the prose style, and as Athens long remained the seat of letters, especially of philosophy and rhetoric, these circumstances necessarily operated to bestow an overshadowing prestige upon this dialect, from the fifth century before Christ. Through the conquests of Alexander the Great, it was introduced into Egypt, and overspread a great part of Asia.

In its diffusion at home and abroad, while cherishing its own peculiarities, it contracted different local influences, and assumed the character of a general Greek language, usually called the common or Hellenic dialect. In a plain, unartistic, colloquial style of this world-wide language were composed the Alexandrian translation of the Old Testament and the New Testament. It is a very interesting style. Masson, one of the translators of Winer, formerly professor in the University of Athens, says:

"Apart from the Hebraisms, 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 reason why, in spite of the limitations of their culture, we should expect fair Greek, according to their time, of the New Testament writers, is, that a simple, unlabored correctness is a frequent result of deep and worthy emotion, a due sense of responsibility, and of the solemnity of an occasion or office. Under these influences persons, in general careless and colloquial, or at best, inattentive to grace of style, surprise us with the propriety of their speech. ...

A competent student comparing the New Testament with the classic prose, feels that in the former he is reading, in general, good Greek, though with unusual expressions, and moulded by a different style of thought, much as is the case when ona comes from classical to mediaeval and scholastic Latin.

In considering this new genius of the language, there may be noticed first, under guidance of the epithet Hellenistic, frequently applied to the style of the New Testament, from Hellenist, a Jew who spoke Greek, its Hebrew element. That its influence should be a strongly marked one might be expected from the peculiar mental and moral characteristics of the Jews, and the part assigned them in the development of the world's education.

...It was the religious element in man's nature, the highest of all its attributes, which was mainly cultivated in this people, under the favoring distinction of being a chosen nation, the depositary of the primal truth of religion, the unity of the living God, to whose will they were taught subordination, with a comprehensiveness surpassing that with which Sparta and Eome demanded individual subjection to the state. It would be inevitable that a strong impress from all this should be manifest in their employment of another language, especially when devoted, as in the New Testament, to the very themes which were their peculiar inheritance.

Aramaic Influence

The native Aramaean, in the time of our Saviour, in common with all other vernacular tongues which the universal Greek had now wholly or partially superseded, still exercised its influence upon the latter, in the ordinary intercourse of life, and in the realm of religion, with its traditional phraseology. The historic style of the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and some of the Apocryphal books, affords the clearest view of the simple every-day influence of the Jewish idiom upon the Greek.

In the Septungint translation, and in some doctrinal passages of the New Testament, there might naturally be expected a more marked Hebrew physiognomy. It must suffice to remark the general influence of this element of the New Testament diction, in great fulness and circumstantiality of expression, in the flow of successive co-ordinate clauses, with little variety of conjunctions, or tenses, and in a prevailing want of compact periodic structure.

In the detail of conversational utterances, their direct quotation dispenses with the optative of the oratio obliqua. It has been questioned, indeed, whether, at all stages of the Greek language, the use of this mood was not rather a feature of the literary style, than of that of common life. It is superfluous to develope the plea contained in the above facts for the special study of both the original languages of the Bible. Professor Thayer's characterization of the two grammarians may be appropriately given here:

"While Winer—owing, doubtless, to the lax views respecting the New Testament language which prevailed when he began to write—seems loath to recognize incipient departures from classic usage, Professor Buttmann, on the other hand, is quick to concede and to trace out the general tendency of the language to degenerate from the classic standard, is inclined to give greater prominence than Winer to the influence of the Septuagint, and even to detect traces of the Latin in the syntax of the New Testament."

Christian Linguistic Influence

There is another, the Christian element of the New Testament Greek. If we might reasonably look for the impress of nationality upon the writings composed in it, equally might be anticipated an influence from the world of new conceptions and revelations with which those works abound. As one has said—

" The new life of Christianity has formed for itself a language, to give adequate expression to the thoughts and aspirations it has awakened."

There is a pleasing analogy between the effect of this fresh, divine energy infused into man through the grace of Christ—seizing, animating, and amplifying the same faculties before possessed, and the new and extended import of many long-established Greek words, in their Christian sense. With a general meaning obvious from their ordinary employment, the connection in which they came to be used, inevitably gave them a fuller, sometimes a unique meaning. Like the emblems and shadows of the Old Dispensation, the force and beauty of which could only be fully realized in the consummation of that which they prefigured, so words were informed with a new significance in the light of the great subjects on which they were employed by the sacred writers. One comprehensive instance alone can be cited—that subject of so many prophecies, the Kingdom of God, or of Heaven—so favorite an idea with the Jews, and yet so imperfectly conceived by them, as shown by the rejection of Him who came to establish it upon earth; and by the slowness of his own disciples to realize that it was not an administration of state which he came to set up. It conveyed almost as new conceptions to Jewish converts who became its subjects, as to those it gained among the Greeks, whose language had been taken to designate and proclaim it.

It belongs to the Bible to have caught and perpetuated images of man's noblest endowment, speech, at very important and interesting epochs of various languages—witness the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, Luther's Bible, and the Common English Version.

In this resume of the general traits which characterize the Greek style under consideration, its lineage has been presented according to the admirable and succinct definition, by Dr. E. Robinson, of the language of the New Testament:

" - The later Greek language, as spoken by foreigners of the Hebrew stock, and applied by them to subjects on which it had never been employed by native Greek writers."

Purists' View Dismissed

In this true view, the long contest of the Purists in behalf of its classical character, can seem only an antiquated curiosity in the history of letters. As investigations of the Greek basis of this style, there are the works well known to scholars, of Sturz and Thiersch, in connection with which may be mentioned the later work of Mullach on the popular Greek.1 But because there is not entire unanimity of view as to the facts and theories connected with the so-called Macedonian and Alexandrian dialects, it has been preferred to draw the broad outlines of the subject which command assent, and which are of most practical interest. 2

Pronounciation of Koine Greek

Our remaining space will be devoted to a topic germane to the effort to gain a correct and lively impression of the New Testament Greek, namely, how to pronounce it. The utility of frequently and correctly pronouncing a language with which one deals, can hardly be overrated. It is obvious in the case of a living tongue. One may read German and French with considerable ease, and yet be dumb when he lands upon those shores. It may be said that only a reading knowledge of the sacred text is required.

But a language vastly more resembling the Greek of the New Testament, than does Italian the Latin of the Christian era, is today spoken in Greece, and in different parts of the East, and it cannot be doubted that what may be called the classical and sacred tour, including prominently Greece, with Rome and Palestine, will become more and more common, making a knowledge of this tongue a pleasant and valuable possession. What an interesting elucidation of Scripture is the reason reported to have been given by a Greek sailing-master for not going in shore, because the waters were ολιγα — " few," shallow — as compared with the contrary fact assigned for John's baptizing at AEnon, near Salim, because of πολλα — "many," or deep waters there !

Even if one be only a literary student, he will find the viva voce employment of the language useful. Masson, whom we have before quoted, says:

"Familiarity with the existing pronunciation and popular idiom of the Greeks, might afford most valuable aid towards maintaining or restoring genuine readings in the New Testament text."

Then there is that subtle connection between " rhyme and reason," which sometimes makes an obscure phrase at last yield its secret to him who, in efforts to understand it, has conjured with its utterance in every variety of vocal inflection. A dead language must be made living to him who would expound it, and he has not its words in hand, so to speak, until he utters them in conformity with at least some theory of pronunciation.

Then he begins to know what he is talking about. And what an element in the revivification of the sacred records, to produce the very sounds which Christ and his apostles were accustomed to hear and utter! But can we know and do this ? Professor Felton has said of his conversations with scholars at Athens, on the subject of pronunciation—

They all admit that the musical element of quantity has disappeared from their language, but insist, with a good show of reason, that those who have inherited the language from the past, and who have always heard it, by unbroken tradition from the days of the apostles, in their churches, are more likely to have a pronunciation resembling that of their ancestors, than the nations of Europe, who apply to the Greek the pronunciation of their own languages, and consequently differ from one another.

According to a very high authority, "The modern Greek pronunciation, as a system, that is, in all its parts, cannot be proved to be as old as the fifth century after Christ."

Modern Greek Probably Closer to NT Greek than Classic Greek

This, however, is little less than the antiquity of the oldest manuscripts of the New Testament, from the orthographical errors of which, some have inferred an already long-existing prevalence of many features of the pronunciation in question. It is to be remembered that what is called the ancient pronunciation of Greek is not altogether a subject of even theoretical accord, and that the modern Greek pronunciation was old, venerable with many centuries, when Erasmus, in the sixteenth century, displaced it with the system he brought into vogue. The contest was then practically decided against the opposing champion, John Reuchlin, the accomplished gentleman, scholar, and diplomat, whom Erasmus himself apotheosized, associating his name with that of St. Jerome.

Even if this decision be acquiesced in, as to the ancient utterance, that of Plato and Demosthenes, may it not be questioned whether — in view of the dissemination and corruption of the speech, consequent upon the Macedonian conquests, and which at the Christian era had been going on for more than three centuries — the pronunciation of the first century A. D., did not more distinctly foreshadow the peculiarities of the modern, than it retained the traditions of the ancient style ? And might not this suggestion be specially probable in the case of the Jews, from at least one prominent characteristic of their own pronunciation, as traditionally taught, the aspiration of mutes after vowels, which also has place in the modern Greek ?

Reviewer's Apology

It was at first intended to exhibit, in this article, the respective positions of Winer and Buttmann upon some points of grammatical science, and progress had been made in the comparison. At a future time, the promised publication in English, by Professor Thayer, so assiduous in valuable services to sacred learning, of Professor Grimm's Lexicon, an edition by the latter, of Wilke's Clavis, may be made the occasion of some remarks upon the Lexicography and Grammar of the original New Testament.

George H. Whittemore.

Rochester, N. Y.

Original Footnotes:

1. Grammatik der griechischen Vulgarsprache in historischer Entwicklnng von Prot Dr. F. W. A. Mullach. Berlin, 1856.

2. A valuable account of the genealogy of later Greek will be found, as might be expected from its author, in the Introduction to the Greek Lexicon of the Roman and Byxantine Periods, by Prof. E. A. Sophocles, of Harvard University.

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