Christianity and the Greek Language 

 

This new mental life is reflected in the way the Bible uses language. The New Testament particularly introduces concepts which were utterly foreign to the way of thinking in the contemporary world. Because of this, Christianity had a significant effect upon the Greek language. Several words were given a totally new depth of meaning. For example, the Christian idea that death is only a sleep gave rise to the Greek word for 'cemetery', which literally means 'a dormitory'. The Greek word used in the NT for inspiration, theopneustos, apparently occurs nowhere else in Greek literature. The idea of God breathing His word into men was in this sense a unique concept- as unique as the Bible. The Greek language had one word which meant 'Woman'; there was no word which meant 'married woman' because the idea of a woman not getting married was just impossible to conceive in the Greek mind. Women always  got married. So there was a word for 'little girl' and one for 'woman'.  Yet Paul, through the Spirit, introduced the idea of a woman consciously deciding not to get married so as to devote herself to the Lord (1 Cor. 7:34). He speaks of " she that is unmarried" (RV). This would have sounded very confusing in first century Greek; the radicalness of the idea is almost lost on us. The point is, God was presenting to the Christian believers a totally new intellectual concept which even their own Greek language could not adequately express.

Or take the influence of Christianity on the Greek language of humility. The Lord taught that the leaders, the great ones, in His Kingdom, would be the humble servants (Mt. 20:27). Christ spoke of himself as a humble King, which would have been a contradiction in terms to the first century Greek mind. Consider the following commentary by another writer: " The ancient Greeks had no time for humility. In fact, their language didn't even have a word for it until well into the first century....the early Christians evidently had to coin a word for it. It's a clumsy, long word, made by sticking together the Greek word 'low-down' and the Greek word 'mentality'. The sudden appearance of this new word in Greek literature during the first century is generally attributed to the influence of the early church" (1).

Or take the influence of Christianity on the Greek language of love. We can " know the love of Christ , which passeth  knowledge" (Eph. 3:19), we can get a handle on a spiritual concept which is beyond our natural knowledge, we can know what is unknowable. Likewise we can experience peace that passes understanding (Phil. 4:7). The Greeks had various words for love, agape (a rather general word, used in the LXX); eros  (referring to the physical aspect) and phileo, referring (for example) to the love of parents for children. These terms had loose definitions and are almost interchangeable in their OT (LXX) and NT usage. But then Christ introduced a whole new paradigm: " A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love (agape) one another; as I have loved you  " (Jn. 13:34). To love as Christ loved was something fundamentally new, and He chose one of the available terms and made it into something else. Christ chose a rather colourless word in the Greek language: agape, and made it refer specifically to the love of God and Christ towards us, and also to the love which their followers should show to each other. This is agape, He says: this is my redefinition of that word, which must enter your new vocabulary. It is true that agape and phileo are interchangeable in the NT in some places; but the Lord’s redefinition of love, His placing of new meaning into old words, still stands valid. Not only does the Lord give ‘love’ a new flavour as a word. He above all showed forth that quality of love. He turned man’s conception of love on it’s head. Thus He plugged in to the Pharisee’s debate about who could be identified as their neighbour- by showing, in His Samaritan parable, that we must make ourselves neighbours to others.

Or take the influence of Christianity on the Greek language of grace. We have spoken elsewhere about this (2). The idea of totally undeserved favour,  pure  grace of the kind God shows us, is quite foreign to our human experience and thinking. Or take God's view of justice, totally alien to ours. We are bidden praise God for smiting the firstborn babies of Egypt, because this is a sign of His eternal mercy (Ps. 138:10 cp. 143:12). This is proof enough that His view of mercy and ours are quite different.

Not only was language re-interpreted by the Christians. Whole concepts were reoriented. Holiness in the sense of separation from the unclean had been a major theme in the Mosaic Law, and it figured largely in the theology of the Pharisees. But the Lord quoted “Be holy because I, Yahweh your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2) as “Be ye therefore merciful, even as your father in heaven is merciful” (Lk. 6:36). To be merciful to those who sin is now the true holiness- not merely separation from them and condemnation of their ways. Note, too, how He invites us to interpret the Yahweh as “father”, rather than transliterating the Name.

A New Language

So we are thinking in a new mental language, the alphabet of which starts and finishes with Christ, the alpha and omega (the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, Rev. 21:6). This is the kind of language we speak with each other. This explains why we can meet other believers and not speak their human language, and yet still sense a great level of communication. We are citizens of spiritual Israel, we have left our old nationality and are living the new life under a new King in a new Kingdom with a new language. Of course, we still live in the flesh, and yet the more we appreciate these things, the more we will realize as we move around in this world that we are as far above this life as the heavens are above the earth; we are in Heavenly places in Christ (Eph. 2:6). We cannot expect the world to understand our mental position. But we are in good company. People genuinely thought Mary Magdalene, Peter and the apostles, Paul, even the Lord Jesus, were medically insane. They just could not enter into the new mind which existed in those people. Paul commented from much experience of this: " Whether we be beside ourselves, it is to God...I speak as a fool...as a fool receive me...we are fools for Christ's sake" . We need to meditate upon the import of some of the Lord’s sayings before we realize the extent of the break between us and the world’s way of thinking. It is, e.g., quite instinctive to seek to preserve our lives. But the Lord taught that whoever will save his life must first of all lose it (Mt. 16:25). His standards are fundamentally and almost aggressively different to those of the world in which we live. To offend one of the little ones meant having a millstone tied around the neck, and being cast into the sea (Mt. 12:6). This was a common way of executing criminals in the Sea of Galilee. The Lord’s hearers would immediately see that He was saying that to offend a weak believer is, in His books, one of the worst criminal offences. But it is something the world hardly notices, let alone judges or condemns.

If we grasp the spirit of all this, it will not be necessary to make lists of practical changes which should be seen in the life of the convert to Christ. The things about which we have written are in some ways abstract, and yet if properly grasped they will have a fundamentally practical effect upon us, in an artless and natural way.


Notes

(1) Alan Hayward, The Humble King , 'The Bible Missionary' No.131, January 1994.

(2) See 'Humility and preaching'.

<Previous              Contents                Next>