THE GREEK ALPHABET
It is helpful to have a knowledge of the Greek alphabet and language to appreciate the nuances of meaning in the Greek Septuagint Old Testament and the Greek New Testament of the Bible. Reading the Greek text allows one to capture the full impact of what the Gospel writer is hoping to convey in his narrative. Here are three examples.
Perhaps the best example of this is St. Paul's famous passage on love in his First Letter to the Corinthians. There are four Greek words for love! Which one is St. Paul referring to? στοργή - storge refers to the natural affection parents have for their children; ἔρως - eros is romantic love; φιλία - philia is friendship; and ἀγάπη - agape is unconditional love, the love God has for us. St. Paul employs the word agape!
A second example is the pivotal passage in the Gospel of Luke when Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem (9:51), the place where he will be taken up. The Greek text fully dramatizes this event by expressing the determination of Jesus, reading "As the day was approaching for his Ascension, he πρόσωπον ἐστήρισεν - set his face on Jerusalem." Thus begins the journey to Jerusalem where he will accomplish his mission by redeeming mankind through the sacrifice of the Cross. The journey also provides an avenue to teach his disciples, those who follow Jesus on the way to Jerusalem. Discipleship in Luke is conveyed by the verb ἀκολουθέω - I follow, a form of which occurs nineteen times throughout the Gospel, such as the key sentence of Luke 9:23, "If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and ἀκολουθείτω μοι - let him follow me."
The third example is the word witness in the Acts of the Apostles. Jesus tells the disciples ἔσεσθέ μου μάρτυρες, you shall be my witnesses. St. Luke expresses discipleship in the Acts of the Apostles by the word witness, a form of which (nominative singular μάρτυς and plural μάρτυρες) occurs twenty-four times throughout Acts. The disciples will become the witnesses of the Teachings, Cross, and Resurrection of Jesus, and will carry out his mission as his witnesses to the "ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). Our English word martyr is a direct translation of the Greek word for witness. The martyr is the ultimate Christian witness!
The Greek alphabet was derived from the Phoenician alphabet. Phoenicia (now Lebanon) was a peaceful sea-faring nation expert in navigation and trade that developed their alphabet around 1400 BC in an effort to communicate with their diverse trading partners that encircled the Mediterranean Sea. It was the Phoenician alphabet that was widely received in Greece and throughout the Mediterranean, as it was only 22 letters based on sound, as opposed to the myriad of symbols in cuneiform and hieroglyphics prevalent at the time.
The Greek alphabet contains 24 letters. The form of Greek used by writers from Homer (the Iliad and the Odyssey) about 700 BC to Plato (The Republic) in 360 BC, is called Classical Greek. There were three dialects to classical Greek, Doric, Aeolic, and Ionic (of which Attic is a derivation). Alexander the Great, who was tutored by Aristotle, spoke Attic Greek and conquered the East, spreading the Greek language throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond. Thus began the Hellenistic Age.
A common Greek language arose among the people and became known as Koine Greek (κοινή, the word meaning "common"). Greek in the Holy Land was heavily interpenetrated by native Semitic languages, such as Aramaic and Hebrew. This likely explains the variant spellings in the Greek New Testament for words such as Jerusalem (Ἰερουσαλήμ, Ἱεροσόλυμα), Nazareth (Ναζαρὰ, Ναζαρέτ, Ναζαρὲθ), and Nazarene (Ναζαρηνέ, Ναζωραῖος).
No original manuscript by the author of a biblical book has yet been uncovered! Koine Greek was the language used by writers of the Old Testament Greek Septuagint and the Greek New Testament. The original Greek New Testament was written in all capital letters, without spaces, punctuation, accents or diacritical marks.
A major contribution of Greek culture was the addition of vowels to the development of our alphabet. Vowels are formed by unimpeded airflow through the airway when the vowel sound is produced. The seven Greek vowels are
α - alpha, ε - epsilon, η - eta,
ι - iota, ο - omicron,
υ - upsilon, and ω - omega.
Please note that the letter s has two forms σ and ς, the second form ς occurring at the end of a word.
Consonants are formed when airflow is blocked completely (a stop) or partially when a sound is made. The labials are pronounced by impeding the flow of air through closure of the lips and are π - pi, β - beta, and φ - phi. The dentals are actually pronounced by the placing of the tongue on the alveolar ridge behind the teeth and are τ - tau, δ - delta, and θ - theta. The palatals or velars (soft palate) are formed by impeding the flow of air with the tongue moving upwards against the palate, and are κ - kappa, γ - gamma, and χ - chi. The liquids are formed by air flowing through the mouth around the tongue and are λ - lambda and ρ - rho. The nasals are formed with air flowing through the nose and are μ - mu and ν - nu. The sibilants are formed through a narrow channel with the tongue shaped lengthwise, directing air over the edge of the teeth, and are σ - sigma and ζ - zeta. The final two, ξ - xsi and ψ - psi, involve formation of two letters and are called double consonants.
Stops have major implications in the formation of nouns and verbs. A voiced sound is one in which the vocal cords vibrate when the sound is made; you can tell by putting your fingers on the voice box and pronouncing a voiced letter, such as delta. A voiceless sound is one in which the vocal cords do not vibrate. Aspiration is a breath of air that follows the initial part of a sound; for example, by putting your hand in front of your mouth, you can feel a burst of air when saying phi.
|Palatal or Velar
The letter gamma γ is pronounced as a hard g, as in golf, but before another gamma γ, kappa κ, xi ξ, or chi χ, the gamma is pronounced as n, and is called a gamma nasal. For example, ἄγγελος is pronounced angelos, the word for angel.
The letter zeta ζ is pronounced as our z at the beginning of a word, as in zinc, but within a word as dz, as in adze.
Of the seven vowels, two vowels, η - eta, and ω - omega are always long; two vowels, ε - epsilon, and ο - omicron are always short; and three vowels can be either long or short: α - alpha, ι - iota, and υ - upsilon. Long vowels take approximately twice as long to pronounce as short vowels.
When short iota follows the long vowels alpha, eta, and omega (in lower case), the iota is written beneath them as an iota
subscript, and appears as ᾳ, ῃ, or ῳ. This may occur in the dative singular (see below); when this is seen, the iota is not pronounced.
Upsilon υ as a capital letter is Υ. Ιn transliteration upsilon is generally represented by y, except when it is part of a diphthong, it is represented as u .
A diphthong is a pair of vowels that make one sound, as we have in English: aisle, neighbor, oil, jaunt, though. The second vowel is always an ι or
υ. Diphthongs are considered long. The following image indicates the pronunciation of each Greek vowel and diphthong:
Capital letters today are used only for proper names, the beginning of paragraphs, and the first word of a quotation.
Every Biblical Greek word that begins with a vowel takes a breathing mark, either rough or smooth.
Greek has an h sound, which occurs only at the beginning of some words, and is expressed by the dasia or rough breathing mark ῾.
The rough breathing mark is placed above the initial vowel of a word and pronounced before the vowel sound. When a word is capitalized, the rough breathing is written before the initial vowel. Every word that begins with rho or an upsilon takes a rough breathing mark, but the h is generally not pronounced with rho (as in English - rhetoric).
In words that begin with a vowel and lack an h sound, the absence of the h is represented by the psili or smooth breathing mark ᾿.
In words that begin with a diphthong, the breathing mark is placed over the second vowel of the diphthong.
The following chart contains 50 Greek words from the New Testament. The lexical form of the word is listed, nouns in the nominative singular, verbs in the present indicative first person singular. The biblical examples are often in the lexical form. The fundamental part of a word, which conveys the essential idea of a word and remains after the word has been analyzed into all its component parts, is called a root. A Greek word has as many syllables as it has vowels or diphthongs. Biblical Greek is polytonic, for it has breathing marks, and three accents which were once used for musical pitch but in time indicated stress in a word: acute (oxia) ´, grave (varia) `, and circumflex (perispomeni) ῀. A careful study of the transliteration of the Greek words should give one an appreciation of the pronunciation of the Greek letters and vowels. The words themselves will help you in reading Scripture.
THE GREEK LANGUAGE
Greek is written from left to right as Latin, the Romance and English languages. The Greek language is characterized by a high degree of inflection. Each Greek word actually changes form (inflection) based upon the role that it plays in the sentence. A Greek noun is composed of the stem, which conveys the meaning, and the case ending. The inflection of a noun is called its declension, and nouns are declined. There are three patterns of declension to Greek nouns: stems ending in alpha or eta are in the first declension, those ending in omicron are second declension, and stems ending in a consonant are third declension. Case endings are the way the Greek language designates the function of a noun (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, vocative), the gender (masculine, feminine, or neuter), and the number (singular or plural). Case marks the relationship of the noun to the verb. Word order in Greek is primarily used for emphasis, balance, contrast, or variety.
For example, when Κύριος, the Greek word for Lord, is the subject (nominative case), as "the Lord blessed the crowd," the word keeps its lexical form as above and is spelled in transliteration as Kyrios. When the Lord is possessive (genitive case), as "the Lord's supper or the Lord's prayer," the word is spelled Κύριου. When the Lord is the indirect object (dative case), as "Philip brought bread to the Lord," it is spelled as Kyrioi; the omicron lengthens to omega, and the iota subscripts in the dative singular, to form Κυρίῳ. When the Lord is the direct object (accusative case), as "the Father sent the Lord," it is spelled Κύριον. When the Lord is addressed (vocative case), as "Lord, Lord, please forgive me," the word is spelled Kύριε, as in the hymnal Kyrie Eleison. The following chart lists the case endings for Κύριος, a second declension noun in the masculine singular. Thus in the following Biblical passage from the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans, Lord must be the direct object or in the accusative case.
A Greek verb describes the action or state of being in a sentence, and is primarily composed of the verb root, to which are added various affixes. The addition of prefixes, infixes, and/or suffixes forms each particular stem and personal ending. The verb stem expresses the basic meaning of the verb and indicates tense and mood. The personal endings convey voice, person and number in agreement with its subject. The inflection of a verb is called its conjugation, and verbs are said to be conjugated. Tense expresses aspect or the kind of action, either continuous, undefined, or the completion of an action; tense expresses both aspect and time (present, past, future) in the indicative mood. The Greek verb has seven tenses in the indicative mood: present, future, aorist (see below), perfect, imperfect, pluperfect, and future perfect. Voice is either active, middle, or passive. In the active voice, the person performs the action, as "the teacher taught the students." In the passive voice, the subject is acted upon, as "the students were taught by the teacher." There is also middle voice, in which the subject of the verb does the action, but the action somehow affects the subject, as in self-interest, such as "I defend myself." The mood of a verb may be indicative (the most common), a statement of fact, reality, or actual occurrence; imperative, a command; subjunctive, a contemplated, possible, or probable action; or optative, a wish or hope.
There are three principal parts to an English verb: the present tense, the simple past, and the past participle. Examples are "bless, blessed, blessed," or "sing, sang, sung." The Greek language has six principal parts or tense forms to a verb. The principal parts of a verb are a standard set of related forms from which you can provide the correct stem for each particular verb to express tense, voice, mood, person, and number. All possible forms of a Greek verb, including infinitives and participles, are inflected from a stem derived from one of these six principal parts. Here are the six principal parts of the verb λύω, a regular verb which means "I loose, untie, free, release," or (2) "I destroy," and in which the verb root λυ is consistent throughout:
||I will loose
||I have loosed
||I have been loosed
||I was loosed
To conjugate a verb, for example, take the first principal part of the verb I have - ἔχω, which serves as the lexical or dictionary form of the verb. The present tense stem is formed by removing the omega, and in combination with the connecting or thematic vowel and the primary active personal endings, one is given the following conjugation of the present active indicative of the verb ἔχω:
Pertinent to the Greek verbal system is the aorist tense.
The aorist presents an occurrence in summary. Its very name means ἀ- (without) ὅρος (boundary, limit), an indeterminate or undefined action. The aorist describes an action without specifying its duration. The first three of the four verbs in the following Biblical passage from St. Paul to the Romans are in the aorist tense. The first two, confess and believe, are in the aorist subjunctive second person singular. In the indicative mood, the aorist generally expresses a simple action in past time, as the third verb raised, which is in the aorist indicative third person singular. The fourth verb, in the future passive second person singular, provides reassurance: "you will be saved!" As we learn from the last-minute conversion of the good thief in the Gospel of Luke 23:42-43, the Lord is loving, merciful, and patient - his forgiveness and salvation are available in the event of our conversion until the end!
1 Minto A. Pauline Soteriology. Course Lectures and Texts, Franciscan University, Steubenville, Ohio, 2005.
2 Caneday AB. Biblical Greek I and II. Course Notes, Northwestern College, St. Paul, Minnesota, 2009, 2011.
3 Mounce WD. Basics of Biblical Greek. Grammar and Workbook, Third Edition. Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2009.
4 Hansen H and Quinn GM. Greek - An Intensive Course. Attic Greek. Fordham University Press, New York, 1992.
5 Zerwick M and Grosvenor M. Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament. Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, Rome, 1996.
6 Aland B, Aland K, Karavidopoulos J, Martini CM, Metzger B. The Greek New Testament, 4th Revised Edition. United Bible Societies, New York, 1993.
7 Bauer W. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Second Edition (BAGD). University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1979.
8 New Greek-English Interlinear New Testament. 4th Corrected Edition, United Bible Society and NRSV. Trans: Brown RK and Comfort PW. Tyndale House, Wheaton, Ill., 1990.
9 Spicq C. Theological Lexicon of the New Testament. 3 volumes, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts, 1994.
10 Wallace DB. Greek Grammar Beyond The Basics. Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1996.
The Prologue of John
St. Paul on Conversion