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Companion To The Bible by E. P. Barrows

CHAPTER XXIV. LANGUAGE OF THE NEW TESTAMENT. 1. In the character of the original languages of the Bible...

CHAPTER XXIV. LANGUAGE OF THE NEW TESTAMENT.1. In the character of the original languages of the Bible, as in every thing else pertaining to the plan of redemption, God's hand is to be reverently acknowledged. It was not by chance, but through the provident care of Him who sees the end from the beginning, that the writers of the Old Testament found the Hebrew, and those of the New Testament the Greek language ready at hand, each of them so singularly adapted to the high office assigned to it. The stately majesty, the noble simplicity, and the graphic vividness of the Hebrew fitted it admirably for the historical portions of the Old Testament, in which, under the illumination of the Holy Spirit, the direct intuition of God's purposes and of the deep springs of human action superseded the necessity of philosophical argument and deduction. The historians of the Old Testament did not pause to argue concerning their statements of men's motives and God's designs. They saw both with wonderful clearness of vision; and they found in the simplicity and directness of the Hebrew syntax, so far removed from all that is involved and complex, a suitable vehicle for their simple and direct statements of truth. How congenial the Hebrew language is to poetic composition, as well in its rugged and sublime forms as in its tender and pathetic strains, every reader of the Old Testament in the original understands. The soul is not more at home in the body than is sacred poetry in the language of the covenant people. As the living spirit of the cherubim animated and directed the wheels of the chariot in Ezekiel's vision, so does the spirit of inspired poesy animate and direct the words and sentences of the Hebrew language: |When the cherubim went, the wheels went by them; and when the cherubim lifted up their wings to mount up from the earth, the same wheels also turned not from beside them. When they stood, these stood; and when they were lifted up, these lifted up themselves also: for the spirit of the living creatures was in them.| Ezek.10:16, 17. The same characteristics fitted the Hebrew language most perfectly for prophetic vision, in which the poetic element so largely prevails.2. Turning now from the Hebrew of the Old Testament to the Greek of the New, we have a language very different in its structure; elaborate in its inflections and syntax, delicate and subtle in its distinctions, rich in its vocabulary, highly cultivated in every department of writing, and flexible in an eminent degree; being thus equally adapted to every variety of style -- plain unadorned narrative, impassioned oratory, poetry of every form, philosophical discussion, and severe logical reasoning: in a word, a language every way fitted to the wants of the gospel, which is given not for the infancy of the world but for its mature age, and which deals not so much with the details of particulars as with great principles, which require for their full comprehension the capacity of abstraction and generalization. In the historical records of the Old Testament, and in its poetic and prophetic parts, the Hebrew language was altogether at home. But for such compositions as the epistle to the Romans the Greek offered a more perfect medium; and here, as everywhere else God's providence took care that the founders of the Christian church should be furnished in the most complete manner.3. We find, accordingly, that centuries before our Lord's advent, preparation began to be made in the providence of God for this change in the language of the inspired writings. One result of the Babylonish captivity was that Hebrew ceased to be the vernacular of the masses of the people, and a form of Aramaean took its place. Chap.14, No.4. After the return of the Jews from this same captivity and their reestablishment in their own land, the spirit of prophecy was also withdrawn, and the canon of the Old Testament brought to a close. Thus the cessation of Hebrew as the spoken language of the people, and the withdrawal of the spirit of prophecy were contemporaneous events. The canon was locked up in the sacred language, and the interpreter took the place of the prophet. |The providential change of language suggested a general limit within which the voice of inspiration might be heard, as the fearful chastisements of the captivity turned men's minds to the old Scriptures with a devotion unknown before.| Westcott's Introduc. to the Study of the Gospels, chap.1.4. But the conquests of Alexander the Great (B.C.334-323) brought the Greek language and the Greek civilization into Asia and Egypt, as a sure leaven destined to leaven the whole mass. To this influence the Jews could not remain insensible. It reached even Palestine, where they naturally clung most tenaciously to the Aramaean language and to the customs of their fathers. But out of Palestine, where the Jews were dispersed in immense numbers, it operated more immediately; especially in Egypt, whose metropolis Alexandria was, after the age of Alexander its founder, one of the chief seats of Grecian learning. To the Jews of Alexandria the Greek language was vernacular. By them was executed, as we have seen, under the patronage of the Egyptian king, the first version ever made of the Hebrew Scriptures, namely, that called the Septuagint (Chap.16, Nos.1-7), which was begun, if not completed, in the latter part of the third century before Christ. Though this version encountered bitter opposition on the part of the unbelieving Jews after the establishment of the Christian church, in consequence of the effective use made of it against them by Christian writers, it was received from its first appearance and onward with general favor. The Hellenistic Jews -- those using the Greek language and conforming themselves to Grecian civilization -- made constant use of it, and the knowledge of it was very widely diffused beyond the boundaries of Egypt. In our Saviour's day it was in very general use, as the abundant quotations from it in the New Testament show; and it must have contributed largely to the spread of the knowledge of the Greek language among the Jewish people in and out of Palestine. Though the Roman empire succeeded to that of the Greeks, the Roman could not supplant the more polished Greek tongue, with its immense and varied literature. On the contrary, the Greek language penetrated into Italy, and especially into Rome, the metropolis of the civilized world, where, in our Saviour's day, Greek literature was in high repute, and the Greek language was very generally understood. Thus, in the good providence of God, the writers of the New Testament, also, found ready at hand a language singularly adapted to their service.

Biblical scholars have noticed the significant fact that of the long list of names in the sixteenth chapter of Romans, the greater number belongs to the Greek language, not to the Latin. |The flexibility of the Greek language gained for it in ancient time a general currency similar to that which French enjoys in modern Europe; but with this important difference, that Greek was not only the language of educated men, but also the language of the masses in the great centres of commerce.| Westcott in Smith's Bible Dict., Art. Hellenist.

5. Respecting the character of the New Testament Greek there was in former times much controversy, often accompanied with unnecessary heat and bitterness. One class of writers seemed to think that the honor of the New Testament was involved in their ability to show the classic purity and elegance of its style; as if, forsooth, the Spirit of inspiration could only address men through the medium of language conformed to the classic standard of propriety. Another class went to the opposite extreme, speaking in exaggerated terms of the Hebraisms and solecisms of the New Testament writers. The truth lies between these extremes. The style of the New Testament is neither classical nor barbarous. Its characteristics are strictly conformable to the history of its origin. (1.) Its basis is not the Greek of Plato and Xenophon, but the so-called Hellenic or common dialect which arose in the age of Alexander the Great, when |the previously distinct dialects, spoken by the various sections of the Hellenic nation, were blended into a popular spoken language.| Winer, Gram, of the New Test., sec.2. The Alexandrine Jews doubtless learned it not so much from books as from the daily intercourse of life, and it probably had its provincial peculiarities in Alexandria and the adjacent region. (2.) In Jewish usage this common Greek dialect received an Hebraic coloring from the constant use of the Septuagint version, which is a literal rendering of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, of course with the retention of many Hebrew idioms. Only such thorough Greek scholars as Josephus and Philo could rise above this influence. The New Testament writers manifest its power in different degrees; for, as it respects Hebraisms, they do not by any means stand on a common level. (3.) As the Aramaic -- the so-called Syro-Chaldaic -- was the language of the mass of the people, the style of the New Testament writers received a tinge from this also. (4.) More than all, the style of the New Testament receives a peculiar impress from the fact that the authors were Jews writing under the full influence of a Jewish education and a Jewish faith, with the superadded element of Christianity. It is the phenomenon of the spirit and thoughts of Jewish Christians embodied in the language of Greece; and this at once separates the writings of the New Testament by a wide interval from all purely classic compositions. The apostolic writers imposed on the Greek language an arduous task, that of expressing ideas foreign to the conceptions of the most cultivated among the pagan authors; ideas partly common to the old Jewish and the Christian religions, partly peculiar to Christianity. This could only be done by giving to existing terms a new and higher meaning, whereby they assumed a technical character wholly unknown to the classic writers.

|Compare particularly the words: works (to work, Rom.4:4), faith, to believe in Christ, or to believe absolutely, confession, righteousness, to be justified, to be chosen, the called, the chosen, the saints (for Christians), edification and to edify in a figurative sense, apostle, to publish the good tidings and to publish absolutely for Christian preaching, the adoption of baptisma, baptism, for Christian baptism, perhaps to break bread for the holy repast (the Agape with the communion), the world, the flesh, fleshly, in the known theological sense,| etc. Winer's Gram, of the New Test., sec.3.

6. From all the abovenamed causes the language of the New Testament received a form differing widely from the classic style, but admirably adapted to the high office assigned to it. To those who study the New Testament in the original, the peculiarities of its language offer a wide and interesting field of inquiry. But for the common reader the above hints will be sufficient.

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