Biblical Linguistics

by Spiros Zodhiates

Before delving into the matter at hand, I would like to offer a little background on myself and the journey through which God has guided me these past eighty-plus years. I was born to Greek parents on the island of Cyprus and have had the privilege of being immersed in the Greek language since my birth.

Although I have studied modern Greek, classical Greek, and biblical Greek at great length, I must say that the language of the New Testament still fascinates me. Every day I am presented with new challenges—both linguistic and grammatical—as I spend more time in God's word. In all honesty, I am still learning Greek despite having been acquainted with its most intricate nuances for more than eight decades.

Almost sixty years ago I arrived in the United States to serve with the American Mission to Greeks, a small ministry that God has blessed and multiplied, transforming it into AMG International, Inc. ("Advancing the Ministries of the Gospel"). In 1966, I became president of this organization, which has become known the world over for its philanthropic and evangelistic ministries.

During these many years of service to our Lord, I have written extensively on a multitude of topics concerning the correlation of the Scriptures in the original Greek to the everyday Christian experience. These works—some being large volumes while others are mere booklets—have been well received in the global Christian community.

Therefore it is with delight in God's word and awe at His illuminating power that I now consider the matter of grace (chris [5485]) in the light of the Greek New Testament and in the life of the believer.

First of all, it is estimated that 60 percent of all English words are derived from the Greek language. That means three out of every five words spoken in the language in which I am writing find their origin in Greek. However, despite the fact that words such as "Bible," "crisis," and "didactic" originated in Greek, the contemporary meanings attached to these words are not an exact replication of their Greek roots (biblon, krsis, and didache\). Although the signification of an English word may resemble that of its Greek counterpart, the two are not necessarily equivalent.

Taking the question of word meanings a step further, I have contended that the same Greek word may require one of several interpretations depending on the context in which it is employed. In regard to biblical Greek, also called Kone\ Greek, there are two major works that apply specifically to Christians: the New Testament and the Septuagint (also referred to as the LXX), a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into biblical Greek several hundred years before Christ's birth.

Interestingly, the Septuagint and the Greek New Testament share many words which are also prevalent in classical Greek. And although it would be convenient to apply the same meanings to these words regardless of where or when they occur, convenience does not always equate to what is correct. The definition of a specific word may change over time—a principle of semantics evident in any language.

A classic example from modern English is the word "charity." While the King James Version translators rendered the Greek noun agpe\ (26) as "charity," four centuries later the word has taken on an almost entirely different meaning. Today "charity" is thought of more as alms-giving and less as the selfless love of God (Eph. 5:2, cf. John 3:16). And charity is just one example that demonstrates linguistic progression within a language.

Therefore, when comparing a noun or verb that occurs in both the LXX and the New Testament, we must be careful not to apply a blanket definition that disregards linguistic metamorphoses. These principles of language—not confusing word meanings within the same language or between languages—also applies to Greek words that originate from Hebrew. The meanings may be similar but not exactly synonymous.

As a sidelight, modern Greek has adopted many words that occur in biblical Greek but, again, the meanings have altered over time. For example, the Greek adjective logos ([249], literally "without word") is found both in the New Testament as well as the LXX and a derivative has even been carried forward into modern Greek. logos is found in the LXX translation of Exodus 6:12 when Moses wondered how Pharaoh would listen to one "of faltering lips" [translated "uncircumcised" in KJV]. Metaphorically, the word "uncircumcised" was used of lips which were closed and too thick to speak with ease, as Moses repeatedly complained about himself before the Lord. In the New Testament logos has been interpreted as an adjective applying to animals ("brute"; 2 Pet. 2:12; Jude 1:10) and "unreasonable" demands (Acts 25:27). In modern Greek, logo, a derivative of logos, is the noun for "equine" and has nothing to do with speech—apart from the fact that horses cannot talk.

Therefore, upon close examination the fact becomes evident that word meanings within the same language are modified over time and one definition or concept will not suffice if a total understanding of the word is desired.

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