Suppose my house is in a remote area with no one in sight to call my neighbor. Or that my neighborhood is spread over a wide metropolitan area. Would one living two miles away from my house be less my neighbor than my next-door neighbor? Jesus commanded us, You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31, etc.). But who is really my neighbor?
This question echoes what an expert of the Jewish law posed to Jesus during a dialogue he was having with Him in public: And who is my neighbor? the man asked sanctimoniously (Luke 10:29), at which point the Master responded in the form of the parable of the good Samaritan. At the end of the parable, Jesus asked the law expert which of the three men in the story had been neighborly to the victim in need, and the law expert pointed out the Samaritan. Jesus commended him for responding correctly and advised him to follow the Samaritan’s example (Luke 10:37).
But the question Jesus asked of the law expert had nothing whatsoever to do with one’s house being near or far from a neighbor’s house. So how can we know how the law expert perceived Jesus’ use of the Greek term for neighbor ? For that, we need to examine two key parts of the Greek text that contain that term (given below in bold print):
1. Jesus’ challenger asks, Καὶ τίς ἐστί μου πλησίον; And who is near me? (Luke 10:29b).
2. At the end of the parable, Jesus asks, Τίς οὖν τούτων τῶν τριῶν δοκεῖ σοι πλησίον γεγονέναι; Which then of these three do you consider to have become near? (Luke 10:36).
Greek πλησίον [plision] near is an adverb that is commonly translated neighbor, a noun. It is a form of the adjective πλησίος (-α, -ον) which means one near, one close by. Though indeclinable, this adverb may be used with the definite article substantivally in reference to a person, e.g., τοῦ πλησίον (Eph. 4:25), τῷ πλησίον Rom. 3:10), τὸν πλησίον (Jam. 2:8), meaning the(one)near, nearby—that is, the near for short.
Like the law expert, we hear the Master say that nearness and proximity to another person is relevant only in terms of the action we take in the face of that person’s need. Jesus’ question was not whether the victim was near the three men passing by, but rather which of the three had become near to him (Luke 10:36). The Samaritan saw the victim and ἐσπλαχνίσθη [esplahnisthi] was moved by compassion (Luke 10:33). That means that we become near the moment we act with compassion toward anyone in need whom we accost in our daily path regardless of where we are or where we live.
The good Samaritan is in harmony with the Golden Rule (albeit this name is not in the Bible): Do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Matthew 7:12); and with James’ Royal Law: If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well (James 2:8). Collectively, these and a good number of other scripture references both in the New and in the Old Testament portray a panoramic view of neighbor as one who, moved by compassion, pleases heaven by becoming near to someone in need.
Incidentally, Greek for neighbor is γείτων [yiton] one living in the same land (Luke 14:12, 15:6, 9; John 9:8) or περίοικος [periikos] one dwelling around (Luke 1:58, 65). Today these three New Testament words—πλησίον, γείτων, περίοικος—are spelled, used, and according to historical evidence pronounced the same way in Modern Greek.
In New Testament times a good number of Classical Greek words took on a new semantic dimension. One example is the word ἐκκλησία [eklisia] “church.” This article focuses on a revelation that begins to unfold with Jesus’ utterance of the word ἐκκλησία and which is later portrayed by Paul as “the Body of Christ.” Here some historical background of the term will help.
In classical Athens every male citizen was ex officio a member of the ἐκκλησία (from ἐκ “from/out of” + καλέω“I call”), a lawful “called-out assembly” that met for the transaction of public affairs. Citizens were summoned out of their homes to conduct meetings in a fashion that resembled our modern parliaments. It is this decision-making process in which the Athenian citizens had an equal share of power that laid the foundation of democracy “people’s-rule.”
In New Testament times, ἐκκλησίαstill carried its secular meaning (cf. Acts 19:39). So when Jesus declared to Peter, ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν “upon this rock I will build my church” (Mat. 16:18),the name ἐκκλησία probably gave the disciples the much-anticipated signal that the establishment of Christ’s kingdom on earth was imminent. After all, from the very beginning of his public ministry Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of God was at hand (Mat. 4:17), a thing the disciples themselves were instructed to proclaim also (Mat. 10:7).
High hopes for such a mighty earthly kingdom were all but dashed when Jesus went to the cross (Luke 24:21). But with such hopes revived after Christ’s resurrection, the disciples raised the same question about the establishment of His kingdom in Israel (Acts 1:6).
It is worth noting that in his declaration to Peter, Jesus used the word ἐκκλησία rather than συναγωγή [sinaɣoji]“synagogue” or another synonym, such as συνάθροισις [sinaθrisis] “congregation.” For while συναγωγή or συνάθροισις denotes a gathering or a congregation respectively, ἐκκλησία denotes a calling. The genius of the word ἐκκλησία points to a called-out body of people separated from the world.
Thus, what unfolds between Christ’s utterance of ἐκκλησία to Peter and Paul’s writings is an immeasurably profound revelation: each believer is a member of Christ’s Body, the Church (1 Cor. 12:27, Eph. 1:23), with Christ being the Head of the Church (Eph. 1:22).
As Christians, we would do well to bear in mind that we, as members of The Church of Christ, do not “go to church” but rather meet at designated places of worship, and that in obedience to the admonition regarding the assembling of believers together (Heb. 10:25).
The prisoners exchanged not a word as the camion jounced its way toward a German concentration camp. It was the island of Crete, Greece, in late May 1941, when fierce German air raids had begun to ravage our towns and villages. I looked at those despairing, exhausted faces and found it difficult to accept the idea that I, too, was a prisoner of war.
The camion made its final stop. We were in a German concentration camp in Ayious Apostolous, a small peninsula overlooking the Cretan Sea, just a few kilometers from my hometown, Hania. At first I couldn’t recognize the area—barbed wire and German guards were everywhere, surrounding a large number of working prisoners.
I knew very little about concentration camps, but I suspected that hard labor, uncertainty about tomorrow, starvation, torture, and even execution lay in store. I thought of my wife and three children, whom I had not seen for several days. “Lord,” I prayed, “revive in me the flame of my conviction that You have a definite plan for me in this life. Lay Your protective hand upon all my loved ones, and also upon me.”
Our first task that afternoon was to restore a huge tent that had blown down over the first-aid equipment. The captives were yelling confused instructions to each other, and after a period of frustration I yelled out, “Let just one, not everyone, give orders around here!” The men froze, staring at me. The only stare that gave me a sensation of uneasiness, however, was coming from under a German colonel’s hat.
Working together, we at last drove the final peg into the ground. But I had no sooner caught my breath and gazed into the twilight to see the first stars, when the German colonel and a guard came up and signaled me to follow. The colonel stopped at his headquarters and turned around, looking at me as if he meant to say something friendly. Then he pointed to his guard, who stood a couple of meters to my right and holding a machine gun.
“You are to go with him tomorrow morning,” he said firmly, in broken Greek. “I am giving you twenty-five prisoners. Your task will be to walk into every food store and every garden as far as Hania.”
Vandalism! I thought. Extortion! But I had no choice.
The condition in which I found Hania the next day was beyond description. Buildings had been bombed. People were burying their dead. The city was nearly deserted—everyone who could had sought refuge in nearby villages. Those who had stayed behind now witnessed savagery at the hands of their own friends, for they were people I knew. None dared to object to what was happening, though; none dared protest as he watched his food, the food his family needed, being forced away. With heavy, aching hearts, we stuffed the truck with all the edible goods we could find, until there was barely enough space for us.
As we approached the district of Splantzia in Hania, I felt cold chills all over my body. I began to shake. “Just in time!” I whispered with trembling lips, and a prayer of gratitude to God rose within me for His protecting hand. Had I not moved my family to the village of Perivolia just as the air raids began, all my loved ones would most assuredly have been killed, for an incendiary bomb had exploded inside our house!
That evening we returned from our foraging with great quantities of meat, fish, fruit, and vegetables. Shouts of joy rose from the hungry prisoners, most of whom had not eaten for days. But my own heart was breaking.
This venture gained favor for me in the eyes of the Germans, as well as the captured men. The German colonel announced that night that I was in charge of the prisoners. Immediately I divided the men into groups to facilitate the rationing of food and the organization of labor.
When the British bombed our concentration camp two nights later, the men ran to my tent and found me on my knees, praying and singing praises to God. Surprise replaced their panic, and in moments I was sharing with them my testimony and God’s message of salvation.
But what I had been forced into doing during that food-gathering expedition did not match my Christian testimony. Knowing that I would soon be sent out again, I brought the matter before God for a solution. Of all solutions, the most satisfactory one was also the most impossible—escape. I knew this would be a matter of life and death, but there was no other way out of my predicament.
The next day I assigned another prisoner to take charge of the rations. When I explained my intentions to him and to some of the prisoners, they reacted with fear.
“But how are you going to escape, Panos? You know they’ll mow you down!”
“Certainly not over the fence,” I said with a smile. “God has His way.”
That afternoon I looked half soldier, half civilian. Sack over the shoulder, hat on my head—a gift from a civilian who wished that I have protection from the hot sun—I began to whistle “Onward Christian Soldiers” and walked toward the well-guarded gate of the concentration camp. I saluted the guard, he saluted back, and I exited. So I would not be suspected as an escapee, I purposely passed near a company of German officers standing outside the gate and engaged in conversation. After saluting them, still whistling, I continued my escape without any further complications. Like Peter walking out of prison under the noses of the guards, I walked under the noses of the German soldiers and was free.
Only when I found myself with my wife and children and other relatives in Perivolia did I realize, with incredulity, the apparent absurdity of my action. Logically speaking, it was absolutely impossible! Most assuredly, God had barred every suspicion from my captors’ minds.
My six-day ordeal in captivity was over. God was my Captain, and I was His soldier.
Two Greek words, σχῆμα and μορφή, generally understood as figureandform respectively, are thought to be synonyms. Some translations in fact use compound forms of these words (transfigure, transform) interchangeably. As will be shown below, however, an understanding of their underlying difference in meaning can shed a new light on a number of scripture verses.
The distinction between σχῆμα and μορφή is best seen in Philippians 2:6–8. Here Paul speaks of Christ Jesus as being in the form of God ἐν μορφῇ Θεοῦ; and who, by becoming incarnate, assumed the form of a slave μορφὴν δούλου and was thus found by others to be in figure σχήματι like a man. Let us now examine these two words.
Σχῆμα [s-híma]. From this word we get English scheme and schematic. In the above passage, σχῆμα is variously translated figure (DBT), fashion (KJV), appearance (NIV), or in other ways. The word signifies all the outwardly perceptible shape of one’s existence. Indeed, Christ had the shape, bearing, language, action, relations, habits, needs, and behavior in general of an ordinary human being, so that in the entire mode of his outward appearance and conduct he made himself known, and was recognized by others, as a man. The inclusion of likeness of men ὁμοιόματι ἀνθρώπων [omiómati anθrópon] in verse 7 exhausts Paul’s emphasis on Christ’s true humanity.
Μορφή [morfí]. From this word we get English morph, which is also found in compounds such as morphology and metamorphosis. In the above passage, μορφή is generally translated form, though some translations render it as nature (GNT), very nature (NIV), humble position (NLT v. 6), or in other ways.
Σχῆμα here concerns the outward appearance and expression of the incarnate Christ and is therefore simpler to comprehend. Μορφή, on the other hand, concerns the pre-incarnate Christ’s divine attributes and existence as God. This makes one wonder how Paul really uses μορφή. For while in ordinary speech the two terms may overlap, μορφή is here used in a narrow sense. For a possible answer, we must probe the term’s application in Greek philosophical thought. As Lightfoot remarks, Paul’s use of μορφή “[is] in a sense substantially the same which it bears in Greek philosophy.”
Lightfoot’s commentary now ushers into our discussion Aristotle’s view of μορφή. In his Metaphysics, Aristotle discusses the relationship between matter and form. Existence, he says, is understandable only in terms of what a particular thing does or is meant to do: (a) timbers and stone are potential to a house; (b) that which shelters men and their possessions functions as a house. When (a) and (b) are combined, one speaks of what a house actually is—its function—not its shape. Aristotle concludes that while matter is equated with potentiality, form is equated with function. Korsgaard concurs. “Function,” she says, “[. . . is] the best candidate for form,” and it “does not mean purpose but rather a way of functioning—how a thing does what it does.” In the same vein of thought, Ainsworth comments, “A statue may be human-shaped, but it is not a human, because it cannot perform the functions characteristic of humans.”
Paul was born and educated in the “university city” of Tarsus, where society was heavily influenced by Hellenistic language and culture and Stoic philosophy. His superb command of the Greek language indicates that he studied Greek at the university level. Such factors point to the likelihood that the Apostle not only was acquainted with Aristotle’s philosophy, but that he also applied μορφή in the Aristotelian sense of function.
Viewing now μορφή in this light, we will at once see Paul drawing in the above passage an extreme contrast between the pre-incarnate Christ as being equal in function with God, and the incarnate Christ as being equal in function with a slave of God—a servant who voluntarily surrendered to the Father the independent exercise of his divine attributes.
Below are excerpts from the KJV that show how they are affected when the strikethrough word in italics (the word used in various translations) is replaced by the preferred equivalent shown in bold print.
Jesus was transfiguredtransformed (Mat. 17:2, Mark 9:2). Comment: An outward expression of Jesus’ indwelling divine form was temporarily made manifest to Peter, James, and John.
Satan transformstransfigures himself (2 Cor. 11:14). Comment: Satan cannot change his function, only his appearance.
Satan’s pseudo-apostles and deacons transformtransfigure themselves (2 Cor. 11:13, 15). Comment: Like Satan, his evil servant spirits cannot change what they do, only their appearance.
Do not be conformedconfigured to this world but be transformed [sic] by the renewing of the mind (Rom. 12:2). Comment: Christian principles should not be compromised in this world; rather, change in behavior should be maintained through the ongoing renewal of the mind by pursuing what pleases God. Both commands here are durative in aspect.
Christ will changetransfigure our vile body that it may be fashionedconformed to his glorious body (Phil. 3:21); We are being changedtransformed from glory to glory (2 Cor. 3:18); We will be changedconformed to the image of God’s Son (Rom. 8:29). Comment: Our earthly bodies are destined to change both shape and function by being conformed to the image of Christ.
Today, after 2,000 years, both σχῆμα and μορφή and their compound forms as used in the NT are read, spelled, understood, pronounced, and applied the same way in Modern Greek, though only educated speakers of Greek would to any extent associate these terms with Aristotelian concepts.
 Richard C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1973), 261.
 Joseph B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, 8th ed. (London: MacMillan and Co., 1888), 132–33.
 Barbara Jancar, The Philosophy of Aristotle (NY: Monarch Press, 1966), 127.
At Christmas we celebrate Jesus’ birth. But do we know when Jesus was actually born? I do not mean the day, month, or even the year of Jesus’ birth, only the very moment His earthly life began. Simple, yet utterly profound, this question beckons an examination of three Greek verbs and some of their derivatives in connection with Jesus’ birth:
συλλαμβάνω [silamváno]I conceive, become pregnant.
τίκτω [tíkto] I give birth, bear (children). When in reference to the mother, it also means labor in childbirth (cf. John 16:21 below).
γεννάω [jenáo] I give birth, beget, bring forth. Widely used in the Scriptures and in Modern Greek, this verb denotes bringing forth one into this life.
Jesus affords us a clear distinction between verbs 2 and 3: “When a woman is in childbirth τίκτῃ [verb 2] she has sorrow, because her time has come; but when she gives birth to the child γεννήσῃ [verb 3] she no longer thinks about her suffering because of the joy that a human being was born into the world” (John 16:21).
Proceeding with these verbal nuances, let us now put our question into perspective by looking at Mary and events surrounding the birth of John the Baptizer. In Luke chapter 1, we read that Zacharias, a priest, and Elizabeth, his wife, were advanced in age and childless (7), their childlessness carrying a stigma of disgrace (24). When Elizabeth, who was known to be barren (7, 36), συνέλαβεν conceived (36), she kept her pregnancy secret for the first five months (24).
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy (26), the angel appeared to Mary and announced that she was going to συλλήμψῃ conceive and τέξῃ bear a son and that she would name him Jesus (31). He also explained to Mary that τὸ γεννώμενον [verb 3] that which is born was holy and would be called “Son of God” (35). The announcement of the angel ended with another piece of miraculous tidings: Elizabeth, Mary’s “barren” relative, was already six months pregnant with a son (36).
Mary immediately went to visit Elizabeth (39). As Mary entered Zacharias and Elizabeth’s home, and upon greeting Elizabeth (40), Elizabeth’s baby lept inside the womb (41, 44). Whereupon, Elizabeth became filled with the Holy Spirit (41) and pronounced blessings upon Mary and upon the fruit of her womb (42), thereby also attesting Mary’s pregnancy.
Mary sojourned with Elizabeth three months (56). When Elizabeth’s time came to τεκεῖν bear (a child) and ἐγέννησεν υἱόν gave birth to a son (57), Mary returned to her home (56). By then Mary’s pregnancy could not be concealed. As Joseph considered releasing Mary secretly (Mat 1:19), an angel appeared to him in a dream, announcing that τὸ . . . ἐν αὐτῇ γεννηθέν (verb 3) that which was born within her was of the Holy Spirit (Mat 1:20).
In light of what we have gleaned from the foregoing, let us now return to two key points related to when Jesus’ earthly life began.
In the angel’s announcement to Joseph (Mat. 1:20) we note the use of the aorist participle τὸ γεννηθέν that which was born. This means that Jesus’ birth at that point in time was an event completed in the past.
Moving now three months back in time, we note in the angel’s announcement to Mary (Luke 1:35) the use of the same verb, except this time in the present participle: τὸ γεννώμενον. Significantly, from the speaker’s time of reference, this participle denotes an action not in the past, hence synchronous with the angel’s announcement.
The point: The verb γεννάω as used in the scriptures examined above makes no distinction whatsoever between (a) birth at the time of delivery, and (b) birth in the womb from conception. It becomes clear therefore that baby Jesus, like all human babies in this world, was a full human life worthy of love and protection from the very beginning of his time in the womb. At conception, to be exact.
 Historical Greek Pronunciation (HGP) using International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbols.
Are you interested in studying New Testament Greek? And are you currently comparing online Biblical Greek programs? If so, know that in this age of booming distance education, searching for the right Biblical Greek program can lead the uninformed down the wrong path. To that end, you need to know what makes BibleMesh and its approach to Greek distinctive, and how BibleMesh will guide you in the right path.
Part of BibleMesh’s distinctiveness is that you can enroll in the Biblical Greek program’s self-study track or the credit-bearing track. In either case, you will find that each Greek lesson progressively steers you through all components of the program: grammar, vocabulary, reading and writing, listening and pronouncing, translation, and assessment. At the same time, you will find that, unlike other programs, the BibleMesh Greek program does not require you to purchase any pricey Greek textbooks, lexicons, commentaries, workbooks, CDs, or other material—not that such helps are unnecessary.
But what truly sets BibleMesh Greek apart from other online programs is how it uses Cerego, a cutting-edge program that helps optimize your retention of information. While other popular programs also use Cerego, they use it with the Erasmian or “academic” pronunciation, a sound system that is artificial and un-Greek. In contrast, BibleMesh uses Cerego with the authentic Hellenic pronunciation, also known as the Historical Greek Pronunciation. And that, in a nutshell, is a prime feature that characterizes the distinctiveness of BibleMesh Greek.
Some related terms and definitions seem apropos here:
Hellenic: Hellenic means “Greek,” an Anglicized form derived from Latin Graecus, which originates from Γραικός Graikos, the name of a Greek tribe that migrated to Italy in the 8th century B.C. Technically the name Hellenic, which is used by BibleMesh, may refer to the Greek of any period, including Biblical Greek and Modern Greek.
Neohellenic: This name combines Neo “new” with Hellenic to form the official name for Modern Greek.
Hellenistic: Hellenistic refers to the time period between 300 BC and AD 300. The term comes from Ἑλληνίζω “I Hellenize,” i.e., “I make Greek.”
Historical Greek Pronunciation (HGP): HGP comprises the Greek sounds represented by the 24-letter Ionic alphabet, a script that was adopted by classical Athens (officially in 403 BC). Preserved in Modern Greek, the HGP can thus be traced to NT times and to Classical Greek.
Koine: Κοινή (in Erasmian pronounced “coy-neigh” and in HGP “kiní”) is often used to refer to NT Greek. Κοινή means “common” (tongue) and is identified with Hellenistic Greek. Thus the Κοινή of NT Greek is Hellenistic Greek.
Modern Greek: See “Neohellenic” (above).
 The description of the development of the NT Greek pronunciation and the HGP are expounded in Philemon Zachariou’s book, Reading and Pronouncing Biblical Greek: Historical Pronunciation versus Erasmian (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2020).
The phrase “born-again Christian” has become almost cliché. Yet seen through a key Greek word in a dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus, this common phrase can be clothed anew in meaningful truth. The word at issue is ἄνωθεν anothen “from above.” The word is formed from ἄνω “above” + -θεν, a suffix denoting origin of motion from a locality, hence “from above.” In certain contexts, ἄνωθεν can also mean “again.” The question is which meaning it carries in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus.
Nicodemus, a Pharisee and secret admirer of Jesus, is resolved to find out for himself once and for all who Jesus truly is, so he visits Jesus privately at night and attempts to size up the Master (John 3:1-2). “Master,” Nicodemus says, “we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no man can do the wonders you do except God be with him” (2). Jesus brushes his visitor’s introductory accolades aside and immediately brings into the discussion a topic unrelated to Nicodemus’ inquiry, yet more relevant to his spiritual need: “Truly, truly, I say to you,” Jesus says, “unless one is born from above [anothen] he cannot see the kingdom of God” (3).
A thought instantly flashes in Nicodemus’ mind, and possibly with an air of sanctimony he boldly queries, “How can a man, being old, be born? Is it possible for him to enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?” (4).
Let us pause a moment and put this dialogue in perspective. Jesus uses ἄνωθεν early in the dialogue (3), that is, before Nicodemus really has had a chance to “test” Jesus and form a solid opinion of him. But while we could suppose that Nicodemus misunderstood Jesus’ use of ἄνωθεν and heard it as “again,” the likelihood cannot be discounted that his “misunderstanding” was intentional, particularly because the opportunity for a witty wordplay appeared too enticing at a moment in which Jesus appeared to have plunged himself into a difficult situation with the words he had uttered—a welcome opportunity for an audacious Nicodemus to choose to hear the word ἄνωθεν not as “above” but as “a second time,” that is, “again.” We can reasonably conjecture that Jesus’ primary meaning in employing ἄνωθεν was “from above” because in Modern Greek ἄνωθεν has preserved its classical and New Testament meaning of “from above.” (Informally, Modern Greek uses από (ε)πάνω to signify “from above,” both words having retained their classical and New Testament sense.)
Perceiving Nicodemus, Jesus patiently explains to him the need for every human being born from the womb (water) to be born also of the Spirit (5-8). But when Nicodemus makes a thwarted attempt to challenge Jesus a third time—though apparently awe-struck by the character of Jesus—and groping for words, he mutters, “How can these things be?” (9), he receives a jolting exclamation from Jesus, who tells him that as a leading teacher of Israel he should know better than to be puzzled by such truths (10).
While this view of Nicodemus’ demeanor and wittiness at the beginning of his encounter with Jesus may sound somewhat conjectural, the likelihood of its accuracy is high; for Nicodemus, who turned out to be openly a staunch supporter of Jesus (John 7:50-51, 19:39), was a well-educated rabbinic Pharisee. Like Paul (and judging by his Greek name Νικόδημος Nikodemos “people’s victor,” which is suggestive of strong Hellenistic influence) Nicodemus was a Hellenized Pharisee; as such, he was most capable of an instantaneous Greek linguistic twist at an opportune moment. Jesus used this “people’s victor” to reveal insights that hinged on a Greek word with a bifurcated meaning that allowed the dialogue to take the double path it did.
Today, a more meaningful understanding is in store for the Christian who walks in Nicodemus’ footsteps, meets Jesus, and hears the Master say that to be born again is to be born from above.
Philemon Zachariou is a native Greek, and a retired Greek professor. He currently develops New Testament Greek instructional material, is an adjunct professor of English at Northwest University, and a BibleMesh Greek tutor.
The thrice-repeated question “Lovest thou me?” Jesus posed to Peter after His resurrection as recorded in John 21:15–17 (KJV) actually shrouds a scene at the heart of a tragedy. Looking at the Greek text clarifies the situation.
Jesus asks Peter, ἀγαπᾷς με; agapas me? “Do you love me?” He asks this question twice, both times using the verb ἀγαπῶ agapo (15, 16)—the verb also used in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world . . .” Peter, however, responds each time by saying not ἀγαπῶ σε agapo se “I love you,” but φιλῶ σε filo se, a verb one would use in saying to a close friend, “I do care for you.” Peter, burdened by his denial of the Master only days earlier, is now feeling unworthy to gaze at the Master and say to Him that he loves Him.
When Jesus asks Peter a third time, He switches to Peter’s verb: φιλεῖς με; filis me? It is as though Jesus were saying, “Even so, Peter, do you care for me?”
There is little doubt that in Peter’s ears each question Jesus asks has a ring of forgiveness and acceptance. But at the ring of the third question, Peter sees Jesus once again willing to not only accept him as he is but to also stoop down to his level of unworthiness and lift him up. Overwhelmed, Peter feels grieved.
The difference between ἀγαπῶ agapo and φιλῶ filo is not allowable in English, nor in Aramaic. This lack of distinction leads to the assumption that Peter was grieved because Jesus asked him the same question three times, once for each of the three times the disciple had denied his Master. And, admittedly, some contemporary New Testament scholars claim the two words convey no difference of meaning in this passage.
Had that been the case, however, the Greek word in verse 17 would have been τρίς tris “three times.” But it is what Jesus specifically did τὸ τρίτον to triton“the third time” (17)—when He intentionally compromised His wording to Peter’s—that overwhelmed Peter.
Studying John 21:15-17 in light of Modern Greek clarifies this meaning. Both ἀγαπάω -ῶ agapao/agapo and φιλέω -ῶ fileo/filo are contract verbs. Thus, they have an uncontracted and a contracted form. The Greek text in this passage employs contracted forms. Used in Classical Attic, contracted forms would have been foreign to Homer and other ancient Greek authors in the ninth century BC. The difference between the contracted and the uncontracted form of a verb has no semantic bearing. In New Testament these two verbs share some common ground in meaning yet are clearly distinct—a distinction reflected in Modern Greek, which shares much in common with the koine of the New Testament on this point. After 20 centuries, the New Testament sense of ἀγαπῶ in Modern Greek remains intact, while that of φιλῶ I kiss has been reduced to one sense. On the other hand, the meaning of virtually all New Testament compounds and derivatives of φιλῶ (φίλος -η friend, φιλία friendship, φιλαδελφία brotherhood, φιλανθρωπία philanthropy, etc.) is fully preserved in Modern Greek. In this light, one can hardly doubt that this dialogue between Jesus and Peter was held as recorded—in Greek. Additionally, one can hardly doubt that Jesus’ use of φιλῶ in verse 17 was intentional.
There are various views respecting the use of the verbs ἀγαπῶ and φιλῶ in John 21:15–17. Regardless, one must bear in mind two vital points: (a) the use of these two different verbs in the original text is not accidental, and (b) their delicate interplay, especially within the context given, can be subject to a “translation which either does not care, or is not able to reproduce the variation in the words as it exists in the original.” This should all the more be reason for the Bible student to become familiar with the language of the New Testament.
Philemon Zachariou is a native Greek, a retired Greek professor, and the author of Reading and Pronouncing Biblical Greek: Historical Pronunciation versus Erasmian. He currently develops New Testament Greek instructional material, is an adjunct professor of English at Northwest University, and a BibleMesh Greek tutor.
1. George Lamsa’s English rendition of this passage from Aramaic follows the KJV wording, thus it does not reflect the distinction between ἀγαπῶ and φιλῶ. George M. Lamsa, The Holy Bible from Ancient Eastern Manuscripts (Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Company, 1957).
2. See, for example, Herman Ridderbos, The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 565-66.
3. Potwin compares the Old Syriac version (AD 150) and the Peshitto version (about AD 300) of John 21:15-17 and finds that, even though the two differ from each other, neither corresponds to the wording of the Greek original. Lemuel Sloughton Potwin, Here and There in the Greek New Testament (Michigan: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1898), 122-126.
4. That Jesus and Peter could freely converse in Aramaic but also in Greek, the lingua franca of the then Hellenized world, does not sound remote to a thoroughly bilingual person. This situation is hardly any different from that in which two close friends, or brothers, both from Mexico but raised in a bilingual community in Los Angeles, end up at times conversing even in their own hometown in Mexico intimately, and just as naturally, in English.
5. Richard C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973), 43.
THAT JESUS spoke Aramaic is a foregone conclusion: Jesus was a Jew brought up in a Jewish home; and the Greek New Testament cites instances in which Jesus uttered words in Aramaic. Standing upon such sure historical ground, certain scholars today maintain that Jesus spoke and ministered only in Aramaic. This view, however, is remarkably limited.
First, the idea that Jesus made use of Aramaic only, stipulates that all the words of Jesus recorded in the Greek Gospels were translated from Aramaic; and that in order to understand their true meaning, one would need to investigate the Aramaic of 2,000 ago. Such an argument, however, disregards the sovereign Author’s providential medium through which he allowed his message to be recorded and delivered.
Second, if Jesus used Aramaic only, we would expect to find in the Greek Gospels several, if not multiple, instances in which Jesus uses Aramaic and which the authors transliterate and explain in Greek. If Jesus habitually spoke Aramaic, then there is no reason that only a few of his Aramaic words should be recorded in the Gospels while the rest were translated into Greek. Moreover, when the Gospel authors render the Aramaic originals of Jesus into Greek, they explicitly point out that they are doing so.
Finally, when Jesus converses with non-Jewish persons (Pilate, the centurion, the Greek-speaking Syrophoenician woman, the Greeks who came to see him, and others), the Gospel writers give no hint of the need for an interpreter, meaning that Jesus communicated with those individuals directly. In such cases it is extremely unlikely that Jesus relied on Aramaic.
Such considerations lead us closer to the evidence that…JESUS Spoke Greek also
Because the Four Gospels—in fact, the entire New Testament—were written in Greek by authors of Jewish thought, the question arises whether Jesus, like those writers, spoke Greek also; and, if so, whether he did minister in Greek—and to what extent.
In considering the answer, it is important to first understand the role of the Greek language throughout the Roman world, including Judaea, at the time of Christ (external evidence) before examining the linguistic evidence in the scriptures (internal evidence).
THE FOLLOWING cursory historical description shows that from Alexander the Great down to Christ, Greek had been established as a world speech, the lingua franca of the Graeco-Roman world, which included Judaea.
The Greek of the NT is the language that was commonly used in the Greek-speaking Hellenistic world. It is referred to as the Κοινή Koine “common (tongue).” Κοινή developed primarily from the vernacular of the Hellenic tongue of classical Athens, from the average Athenian’s simpler form of the highly artistic classical Attic of the world of letters.
Thus, if the classical Greek vernacular of Aristotle’s day was to serve as the medium for spreading Christ’s message worldwide but needed to be readied as the “common language of the people,” certain unprecedented circumstances had to converge upon politically divided Greece. The force that united Greece came in the person of Alexander the Great who, in an astoundingly short time (334-323 BC) planted the seed of the Hellenic language and culture throughout his conquered world. The widespread Hellenizing socio-linguistic elements would become so deeply rooted that they would stand the test of time and human vice even after the spread of the Roman Empire a century and a half later.
With the Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament now translated into “the common language of the people” and circulated among Hellenized Jews for nearly four centuries in the form of the Septuagint (LXX), Κοινή was ready to carry also the New Testament message to Jew and Gentile alike throughout the Roman world.
THE REMAINDER of this study examines the linguistic and scriptural evidence of the extent to which Κοινή was an integral part of Jewish life in general and of Jesus’ ministry in specific. That Jesus not only conversed but that he also ministered in Greek is evidenced by linguistic insights gleaned from a variety of scenarios such as the following.
Jude and James
Two of Jesus’ siblings, Jude and James (Mat. 13:55), wrote parts of the Greek New Testament in stately, literary Κοινή phrase and idiom. Their Greek proficiency level reflects early language acquisition coupled with formal training.
It would be unthinkable that Jesus’ brothers, with whom Jesus grew up, would be so proficient in Greek while Jesus himself was not. Like other Jews of the day, Jesus and his brothers grew up speaking Aramaic and Greek and being educated in both.
Jesus’ Dialogues with Other Jews
Semantic elements peculiar to Greek provide insights that are in harmony with the thought pattern and outcome of certain dialogues Jesus had with Jewish individuals, an indication that such dialogues were held as they were recorded—in Greek. Below are two key examples.
In John 21:15-17 Jesus asks Peter, ἀγαπᾷς με; agapas me? “Do you love me?” He asks this question twice, both times using the verb ἀγαπῶ agapó (ἀγαπάω agapáo) (15, 16). Peter responds both times by saying φιλῶ σεfilo se = “I do care for you,” that is, by using a different verb, φιλῶ filó (φιλέω filéo) (15, 16), for he can only say he cares for Jesus as a friend cares for a close friend because he feels unworthy to say that he loves him.
When Jesus asks Peter a third time, he uses not the verb ἀγαπῶ (as he did the first two times), but Peter’s verb: φιλεῖς με; fileis me? = “Do you care for me?” (17). It is as though Jesus is saying, “Even so, do you care for me as a friend?”
In Peter’s ears each question has a ring of forgiveness for each time he denied Jesus. But in the third question Peter sees Jesus willing (as always before) to not only accept him as he is, but also to step down to his own level of unworthiness and lift him up. Peter feels overwhelmed.
The absence of this linguistic distinction in the majority of translations leads to the assumption that Peter was grieved because Jesus asked him the same question three times. The Greek text shows that Peter became sorrowful, not because Jesus asked him the same question three times, but because the third time Jesus rephrased his question by compromising his wording to Peter’s. This distinction is not allowable in English or in Aramaic. In this light, there is every indication that this dialogue between Jesus and Peter was held in Greek.
That Jesus and Peter could freely converse in Greek (as they could in Aramaic) does not sound remote to a thoroughly bilingual person. This situation is hardly any different from that in which two close friends, or brothers, both from Mexico but raised and schooled in a bilingual community in Los Angeles, end up at times conversing even in their own hometown in Mexico intimately, and just as naturally, in English.
Besides, Peter had to be fluent in Κοινή, the common language of the mixed multitudes in Galilee, in order for his fishing partnership to thrive (Luke 5:10). Regarded as an uneducated person (Acts 4:13), he nevertheless proved to be an eloquent public speaker on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-36) when, undoubtedly, he spoke in Greek to the multilingual multitudes (2:9-11), just as he did when he preached in Greek in the house of Cornelius, a Roman centurion (Acts 10).
John gives an account of a Pharisee named Nicodemus, an admirer of Jesus. Nicodemus is resolved to find out for himself once and for all who Jesus truly is, so he visits Jesus secretly by night in order to try to size up the Master (John 3:1-2).
“Master,” Nicodemus says, “we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no man can do the wonders you do except God be with him” (2).
Jesus brushes his visitor’s introductory accolades aside and immediately brings into the discussion a topic unrelated to Nicodemus’ inquiry, yet more relevant to his spiritual need:
“Truly, truly, I say to you,” Jesus says, “unless one is born from above (ἄνωθεν anothen), he cannot see the kingdom of God” (3).
The adverb ἄνωθενanothen comes from ἄνωano “above” + -θεν –then, a suffix denoting origin of motion from a locality, hence, “from above.” In certain contexts the same word can mean “again, anew,” “the upper part,” or “from the beginning.” It becomes rather clear from the remainder of the dialogue, however, that what Jesus relates to Nicodemus is the need for every person’s spiritual birth (5), a birth related not to earthly matters but to a birth by the Spirit (6) = from ἄνωθεν “above” (7), to heavenly things above (12), and specifically to the only one who “came down from heaven” (13) (= from above).
Jesus uses ἄνωθεν early in the dialogue (3), before Nicodemus has had an opportunity to “test” Jesus and form a solid opinion of him. While it sounds logical that Nicodemus misunderstood Jesus, the likelihood cannot be discounted that his misunderstanding was intentional, particularly because the opportunity for a witty wordplay appeared enticing at a moment Jesus seemed to have plunged himself into a difficult situation with the words he had uttered—a welcome chance for an audacious Nicodemus to hear the word ἄνωθενanothen not as “from above” but as “a second time = again”:
“How can a man, being old, be born?” queries Nicodemus with an air of sanctimony. “Is it possible for him to enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?” (4).
Jesus patiently explains the need for every human being born from the womb (water) to be born also of the Spirit (5-8)—Jesus never said “a second time,” as Nicodemus put it. But when Nicodemus makes a thwarted attempt to challenge Jesus a third time—apparently awe-struck by the character of Jesus—and groping for words, he mutters, “How can these things be?” (9) he receives a jolting exclamation from Jesus, who tells him that as a leading teacher of Israel he should know better than to be puzzled by such truths (10).
This view of Nicodemus’ demeanor and wittiness at the beginning of his encounter with Jesus may sound conjectural, but the likelihood of its accuracy is high. Nicodemus, who turned out to be a supporter of Jesus (John 7:50-51, 19:30), was a well-educated rabbinic Pharisee. Like Paul, and judging by his Greek name Νικόδημος Nikodemos “people’s victor,” which is suggestive of strong Hellenistic influence, Nicodemus was a Hellenized Pharisee; and, as such, most capable of an instantaneous linguistic twist at an opportune moment. Jesus used this “people’s victor” to reveal insights that hinged on a Greek word with a bifurcated meaning that allowed the dialogue to take the double path it did.
In v. 8, Jesus uses πνεῦμα spirit, breath, wind, rather than ἄνεμοςwind (Mat. 14:32) or πνοήbreath, wind (Acts 2:2) to explain the effects of the ΠνεῦμαSpirit on all who are born from above, his metaphor revealing a truth in indelible wordplay form.
The Testimony of the Jews
But specifically with regard to the question whether Jesus did in fact teach in Greek, the answer might best be heard from the mouth of the Jewish officials who sought to arrest him:
Where does this man [Jesus] intend to go that we will not find him? [Maybe] to the dispersion of [those among] the Greeks and teach the Greeks? (John 7:35)
These frustrated, first-hand eyewitnesses of Jesus’ teaching are asking where Jesus intended to go, their scoffing remarks suggesting he was better fit to teach Greek-speaking Hellenized Jews and non-Jews.
From the Cross
While on the cross, Jesus quoted from Psalm 22:1 as he cried out, “Eli, Eli” (Mat. 27:46)—or “Eloi, Eloi” (Mark 15:34). Some bystanders misunderstood Jesus, thinking he was crying out the Greek name for the prophet Elijah: Ἠλία! Ἠλία! [ilía, ilía].
Who were these bystanders, whose ears were so attuned to Greek and who also knew about the prophet Elijah, except Greek-speaking individuals who mingled with Jews? Doubtless, those same individuals heard Jesus’ promise to the penitent criminal on the cross next to him; and then, again, when he prayed, Πάτερ, ἄφες αὐτοῖς, οὐ γὰρ οἴδασιν τί ποιοῦσιν Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing; and again when he said Διψῶ I thirst; and finally when he said Τετέλεσται It is finished (= completed).
No bystander misheard or misunderstood Jesus in any of these and other such instances, because each time the words he spoke must have sounded familiar. And when the Roman soldiers who offered Jesus vinegar to drink and said, Εἰ σὺ εἶ ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων, σῶσον σεαυτόν If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself there was no doubt in their mind that Jesus would understand them—in Greek.
The Sign on the Cross
In John 19:19-20 we read that Pilate wrote a sign and affixed it to the cross of Jesus. The sign was in Hebrew (Aramaic), Roman (Latin), and Greek. The Greek part of the sign read:
ΙΗΣΟΥΣ Ο ΝΑΖΩΡΑΙΟΣ Ο ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ ΤΩΝ ΙΟΥΔΑΙΩΝ
Jesus the Nazarene the King of the Jews.
The Temple Warning Inscription
Discovered in 1871 and housed in a museum in Istanbul, a Greek inscription warned non-Jews of the death penalty imposed on anyone who would go past the balustrade of the Temple’s Courtyard of the Gentiles. Josephus, the Jewish historian, wrote about this sign, which was written also in Latin. The seven-line Greek inscription (without spaces) reads:
ΜΗΘΕΝΑ ΑΛΛΟΓΕΝΗ ΕΙΣΠΟΡΕΥΕΣΘΑΙ ΕΝΤΟΣ ΤΟΥ ΠΕΡΙ ΤΟ ΙΕΡΟΝ ΤΡΥΦΑΚΤΟΥ ΚΑΙ ΠΕΡΙΒΟΛΟΥ ΟΣ Δ ΑΝ ΛΗΦΘΗ ΕΑΥΤΩΙ ΑΙΤΙΟΣ ΕΣΤΑΙ ΔΙΑ ΤΟ ΕΞΑΚΟΛΟΥΘΕΙΝ ΘΑΝΑΤΟΝ
No foreigner shall enter within the enclosure surrounding thetemple. Therefore whoever is caught [doing so] will himselfbe the cause for his subsequent death.
Jesus set his eyes on the sign on his cross perhaps just once; on the warning sign, as often as he visited the Temple. The warning epigram is a strong indication that the common language of the day was Greek and would have therefore been understood both by the Jew and the non-Jew visiting or living in Jerusalem at that time. A translation of the warning into Aramaic was apparently pointless.
Hellenized Jewish Names
Special attention is given in Genesis to the “sons” of Ἰάβαν Javan (Gen. 10:2-5) with whom the Israelites came most often in contact. Javan is identified as the representative of the Ionian Greeks who lived chiefly along the western coast of Asia Minor. Cross-linguistic borrowings bear witness to such contacts. Part of the evidence comes in the form of declinable Jewish names in the Septuagint ( Ἔσδρας Ezra, Ἠλίας Elijah, Ἰερεμίας Jeremiah, Ἰησοῦς Jesus, Ἰούδας Jude, Ἰωνᾶς, Jonah, Ἰωσίας Josiah, Μωϋσῆς Moses, Σολομών Solomon), evidence that Jewish names had been Hellenized long before the commencement of the Septuagint around 285 BC, or since 332 BC, the year Alexander conquered Judea.
A “borrowed” word or loanword is a word imported from one language into another. Loanwords are mostly substantives—here, primarily Jewish proper names. As a loanword, a Jewish name is said to be Hellenized when, following repeated use over time, it is “metamorphosed” phonologically and morphologically into a Greek-like word. Because Greek is highly inflectional, the Jewish name is eventually subjected to inflectional patterns of Greek nouns. The Hellenizing of a loanword is accomplished only by Greek speakers—just as a foreign word in English is Anglicized by speakers of English.
Listed below are declinable Jewish names in the New Testament including adjectives denoting ethnic or local origin. Case endings from all three declensions reflect morpho-logical transformations compatible with Κοινή grammatical patterns. The declension of some names is mixed, Ἰησοῦς Iisous ( Jesus) being a conspicuous example. Masculine names ending in unaccented -ας normally conform to Attic case endings -ας, -ου, -ᾳ, -αν, -α (but Ἰούδας > gen. Ἰούδα). Names ending in accented -ᾶς (chiefly non-Greek) conform to Doric -ᾶς, -ᾶ, -ᾷ, -ᾶν, -ᾶ, popular in Neohellenic. Endings show the case(s) in which a name is found. The list is not exhaustive.
The transliterated endings of the majority of Jewish names do not comport with Greek word endings (Ἀβραάμ Abraham, Δαυίδ David, Ἐνώχ Enoch, Ἰσαάκ Isaac, ᾽Ιώβ Job, Ρούθ Ruth, Σαμουήλ Samuel), which may explain in part why they remain indeclinable.Yet, except for references to the OT, Ἰακώβ Jacob (-β) is rendered Ἰάκωβος by every New Testament writer who uses it (Matthew, Mark, Luke, Paul, James, Jude); and Paul’s Hebrew name Σαούλ Saul (-λ) becomes Σαῦλος Savlos.
Of particular interest is the name Ἱερουσαλήμ (-μ) Ierusalim Jerusalem. Jews, Jewish proselytes, and probably much of the Hellenized world regarded Jerusalem as a sacred place, though not solely by dint of its Hebrew name, place or city of peace. In ears attuned to Greek, Ἱερουσαλήμ, occurring 77 times in the New Testament, has a ring of sacredness, for it can be acoustically (and visually) associated with Ἱερός, Ἱερόν, Ἱεροῦ sacred, temple. Indeed, τὴν ἁγίαν Ἱερουσαλήμ the holy Jerusalem (Rev. 21:10) has a ring of sublime redundancy.
Ἱεροσόλυμα Ierosolima, an alternative Greek rendition of Jerusalem, ends in -α and may thus be treated as a feminine noun in the singular, first declension. Ἱεροσόλυμα does occur in the singular as a feminine noun only once (Mat. 2:3). In all other 61 occurrences13 it is a neuter noun in the second declension and always in the plural: Ἱεροσόλυμα, –ων, –οις. Indeed, Jerusalem was not a singular locality but a city composed of many ἱερά sacred places.
The point: The morphological transformation of loan-words is an adaptation brought about through prolonged use. Jewish names, particularly those that appear Hellenized only in the New Testament, were Hellenized by speakers of Greek, whether Jewish or non-Jewish. This circumstance suggests that by mid-first century AD virtually every Jew in Israel was bilingual; and that after nearly four centuries of a growing dependence on Κοινή—also the language of the Septuagint—the Jews would of necessity record their sacred accounts again in Κοινή, added evidence that Jesus and the disciples, like every New Testament author, daily depended on the use of Greek.
In classical Greece, ἐκκλησία ekklisíawas a lawful assembly of all who possessed the rights of citizenship for the transaction of public affairs. Athenian citizens were summoned out of their homes—expressed by ek = out of, from + klísis = a calling, an invitation—to conduct meetings. Every man was ex officio a member of the ekklisía, the sovereign assembly of Greek cities, the equivalent to our modern parliaments.
In Hellenistic times down to the time of Christ, the secular use of ekklisíastill carried its old classical meaning (cf. Acts 19:39). Thoughekklisíais infrequently used in the Septuagint (about 25 times), it conveys the idea of a group of people assembling for a variety of purposes including worship (2 Chron. 20:26), transporting the Ark (1 Kings 8:2), or in the sense of “assembly of God” (Deut. 23:1). Ekklisíais never used for pagan gatherings as is συναγωγή [sinagoyí] “synagogue.” The word ekklisia was thus being molded through the Septuagint in preparation for its added sense later in NT times.
There is hardly room for doubt that the word ekklisíawas not associated within a Christian context until after Jesus said to Peter:
And I say to you that you are Peter, and upon thisrock (not Peter) I will build me the Church (Mat. 16:18).
Jesus had repeatedly told his disciples that “the kingdom of God” was at hand. By his declaration to Peter, the term ekklisía, having a strong political ring, must have given the disciples the much-anticipated signal of the imminent establishment of Christ’s kingdom on earth. High hopes for such a mighty kingdom were all but dashed when Jesus went to the cross (Luke 24:21). With hopes temporarily revived after Christ’s resurrection, the disciples raised the same question about the establishment of his kingdom in Israel (Acts 1:6).
No other term would have carried the pre-established concept of ekklisía,namely, individuals being specifically called out to join others likewise called out to assemble as one body of citizens, each with equal voice and voting authority, to conduct lawful matters for the sake of their individual and collective welfare. Had Jesus used συναγωγή synagogue, people would have taken his word as an endorsement of everything a synagogue stood for in that day, and synagogue would have served as a prototype for all church bodies to follow. While synagogue denotes “a gathering,” ekklisía denotes “a calling.” The genius of the word ekklisía points to the fact that in God’s mind the Church of Christ is a “called-out” body of people, separated from the world.
Jesus did not change the meaning of ekklisía. With a happy wordplay (Πέτρος~πέτρα [petros~petra] = Peter~rock) and a prophetic promise, he simply added to ekklisía (a feminine noun) a new dimension by adorning itwith a spiritual attire fit for a heavenly bride: his Church.
Informed scholars are convinced that Jesus regularly taught and ministered to Hellenized crowds and individuals in Greek. For instance, according to Robertson:
Jesus Himself laboured chiefly in Galilee where were many gentiles and much commerce and travel. He taught in Decapolis, a Greek region. He preached also in the regions of Tyre and Sidon (Phoenicia), where Greek was necessary, and he held converse with a Greek (Syro-Phoenician) woman [Mk. 7:26]. Near Caesarea-Philippi (a Greek region), after the Transfiguration, Jesus spoke to the people at the foot of the mountain. At the time of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus addressed people from Decapolis and Perea (largely Hellenized),… It is hardly possible that these crowds understood Aramaic. … It is clear, therefore, that Jesus spoke both Aramaic and Greek according to the demands of the occasion…
That Jesus spoke and taught in Κοινή is not mere conjecture. “We take it as proved that Jesus and the apostles, like most of their Jewish contemporaries … who moved in public life, spoke both Aramaic and Greek and read Hebrew (cf. Luke 4:17).”
Grudem quotes A. W. Argyle as noting, “To suggest that a Jewish boy growing up in Galilee would not know Greek would be rather like suggesting that a Welsh boy brought up in Cardiff would not know English. … Jesus and his disciples, all of whom were Galileans (Acts ii.7), were bilingual, speaking Greek as well as Aramaic.”
Says Roberts, “Christ habitually made use of Greek in His public teaching, and the Evangelists reported in the same language those gracious and ever-living words which thus proceeded out of His mouth.”
A Rule of Thumb
One must bear in mind that all of the NT epistles were written in Κοινή, that the Gospels and the Acts have survived only in Greek, and that “the New Testament as a whole was circulated in Greek almost from the very time of its origin” —even if it should be granted that some Aramaic accounts of the words of Jesus were extant in the middle of the first century. As Brown notes:
An Aramaic-speaking Jewish-Christian church in Palestine maintained a shadowy existence for many decades, but left little record. All of the preserved literature of the earliest church is in Greek. Only in Edessa of Syria did Aramaic-speaking Christians form their own church and translate the Greek New Testament into their dialect, Syriac. Not until after Constantine did Aramaic-speaking Christians in Palestine itself produce a translation in their dialect, the so-called Palestinian Syriac, now extant except for fragments only in the Gospels. With both, at most some lingering traditions remained of the Aramaic originals of Jesus’ sayings.
Even if the nuances we saw in the dialogue between Peter and Jesus or Nicodemus and Jesus could be found also in Aramaic—which, as we just saw, were not—they would be tied to a translation from the Greek.
But that Greek was to become the linguistic vehicle for Jesus’ message to the world does not mean that Aramaic simply provided the raw material which Greek eventually churned and molded into a polished product ready for the print shop. In his daily ministry Jesus used Aramaic or Greek according to the demand of the occasion. And though it may not always be possible to determine what words of Jesus in the Greek text were actually spoken in Greek and what words were translated from Aramaic, a safe way to hear those words, when unsure, is the way they were recorded—in Greek.
The most weighty and direct scriptural evidence that Jesus not only spoke but that he did in fact minister in Greek is found in John 7:35. In the light of this verse, each of the foregoing points of discussion highlights that evidence. It is perhaps in this same light that the scholar and student of Greek ought to realize the very reason for which Christ’s sayings in the New Testament were recorded in Greek.
Greek: the Logical Medium
Bible scholars would readily reckon the merit of the claim that Greek “was the logical medium for the Christian message because it is the most expressive language known to man.” Such claims with respect to the Greek language, whether in a religious or a non-religious sense, are without number. Here are some samples:
The more deeply the structure of the Greek language is investigated, the more apparent becomes the wisdom of God in having selected so clear and so admirable a medium for making known to man the new covenant in Christ Jesus.
It was not an accident that the New Testament was written in Greek, the language which can best express the highest thoughts and worthiest feelings of the intellect and the heart, and which is adapted to be the instrument of education for all nations.
Greek, the first great language of Western civilization, is considered by many to be the most effective and admirable means of communication ever devised. Its lucidity of structure and concept, together with the seemingly infinite variety of modes of expression, render it equally suitable to the needs of the rigorous thinker and the inspired poet.
In a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1819, he refers to the Greek language as the “most beautiful of all languages.”
1. Κοινή [kini] (as in key-knee) means “common (tongue)” and refers to the Greek of the Hellenistic era. 2. George Lamsa’s English rendition of this passage from Aramaic follows the KJV wording, thus it does not reflect the distinction between ἀγαπῶ and φιλῶ. George M. Lamsa, The Holy Bible from Ancient Eastern Manuscripts (Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Company, 1957). 3. Potwin compares the Old Syriac version (AD 150) and the Peshitto version (about AD 300) of John 21:15-17 and finds that, even though the two differ from each other, neither corresponds to the wording of the Greek original. Lemuel Sloughton Potwin, Here and There in the Greek New Testament (Michigan: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1898), 122-126. 4. In his translation from Aramaic, Lamsa follows the KJV, thus he uses “born again,” not “from above.” 5. Lamsa is of the opinion that “the teaching of Greek was forbidden by Jewish rabbis. It was said,” he says, “that it was better for a man to give his child meat of swine than to teach him the language of the Greeks.” The evidence Lamsa provides is weightless hearsay: “It was said.” (Lamsa, x.) 6. Ἑλλήνων (gn), Ἕλληνας (ac) “Hellenes” Greeks (“Gentiles”). The name referred not only to Greeks from the mainland of Greece, but also to Hellenized Jews of the dispersion as well as to Greek-speaking non-Jews of all ethnicities. 7. Jewish does not designate a name’s Hebrew or Aramaic derivation or origin. 8. Greek words can only end in a vowel; in the consonants ν, ρ, ς, ξ, ψ, i.e. [n r s]; or in [f] as in βασιλεῦ [vasilεf] king (voc.), ἄνευ [anef] without. Word stems, on the other hand, can end in any consonant: φόβος (φοβ-), λέγω (λεγ-), ἰσχύς (ισχ-), βάλλω (βαλ-), etc. In this very sense, to Greek ears any consonant ending may sound as a familiar “word ending” to which variable elements are simply added. Thus non-Greek name endings, though foreign-sounding, are acoustically acceptable, which may explain in part why a good number of Jewish names have remained indeclinable, notwithstanding the tendency of Greek to add a suffix to them. 9. Matt. 2, Luke 27, Acts 37, Rom. 4, 1 Cor. 1, Gal. 2, Heb. 1, Rev. 3. The Textus Receptus has Ἱερουσαλήμ, Ἱεροσόλυμα, etc. (i.e., Ἱερ– rather than Ἰερ-), all the more indicative of the association of the name with Ἱερόν, Ἱεροῦ, etc. sacred, temple, which is spelled with the aspirate ( ῾ ). 10. When there was ekklisía to be held in classical Athens, the town crier or herald would literally call the qualified citizens out of their homes to meet at a designated place. 11. A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1934), 28-29. 12. Ibid., 102. 13. Wayne Grudem, 1 Peter (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), 30. 14. Alexander Roberts, A Short Proof that Greek Was the Language of Christ (Alexander Gardner: London, 1893), 112-13. 15. Merrill C. Tenney, New Testament Survey (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1966), 55. 16. John P. Brown, Ancient Israel and Ancient Greece: Religion, Politics, and Culture (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), 22. 17. Claims that the original Gospels were in Aramaic are not taken seriously by NT scholarship and are based “on the specious ground that the mother tongue of Christ and the apostles was Aramaic.” Gleason L. Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, rev. ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 55-56. 18. Ray Summers, Essentials of New Testament Greek (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1950), vii. 19. Rev. George Holden, A Practical Guide to the Greek Testament (London: Samuel Bagster and Sons, Limited, 1900), 92. 20. W. J. Conybeare and J. S. Howson, The Life and Epistles of St. Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 8. 21. Kenneth Katzner, The Languages of the World (London, New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2002), 98. 22. http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/P/tj3/writings/brf/jefl258.htm
Modern Greek (Neohellenic) is of great significance in the interpretation of many parts of the New Testament text. While many New Testament words may show retention of their Classical Greek meaning, a good number of them may possess an added dimension or some distinct new nuance that is preserved in Greek today. Here is a quick glance at two key terms in John 15 traditionally understood as branches and vine respectively.
In an article titled “Is Jesus the Vine or the Vineyard?” Caragounis takes the reader on a fully documented journey from Aesop (7th–6th c. BC) through classical, Hellenistic, Byzantine, and modern times to show how these words were used at different stages in their evolutionary spectrum, especially in New Testament times. By the end of the journey the reader realizes that what has traditionally been understood as κλήματα [klimata] branches (disciples) and ἄμπελος [ambelos] vine (Jesus) is to be understood instead as κλήματα vines (disciples) and ἄμπελος vineyard (Jesus). This “new” (and correct) interpretation of κλῆμα and ἄμπελος is based not on the “modern” usage of these words, but on their New Testament usage preserved in Modern Greek.
While this “revised” meaning of κλήματα and ἄμπελος in John 15 does not change the fundamental import of Jesus’ imagery (nor the relation between Jesus and His disciples), it does nevertheless paint a very different picture that reveals profound new truths. Indeed, if we, as individual vines (disciples), remain planted in the true and sure ground of the vineyard (Jesus) (v. 5), with God the Father being the γεωργός jeorɣos groundworker (v. 1), we will produce much fruit (v. 5). It is by remaining planted in the ground that each individual vine can receive the necessary nutrients and thus live to produce fruit (v. 4). Not planted securely in the ground, a vine cannot survive and is therefore removed (v. 2).
Thus, if the disciples were to be viewed in the traditional sense as “branches,” then the earnest instruction to remain in the vine would be an unnecessary redundancy, for that is what a branch does naturally by being a part of the main stock. And if Jesus were to be understood in the traditional sense as the vine, then He Himself would be the object of pruning (v. 2). Clearly, then, Christians are the vines and Jesus is the vineyard where the vines are planted.
The New Testament meaning of the words κλήματα vines and ἄμπελος vineyard had been in place before the writer of the Fourth Gospel. After the Christian era, their meaning, having found a mighty shelter in the ecclesiastical language of Byzantine Greek, traversed through the centuries and has been preserved in Modern Greek to this day.
Philemon Zachariou is a native Greek and retired Greek professor. He currently develops New Testament Greek instructional material, is an adjunct professor of English at Northwest University, and a BibleMesh Greek tutor.
 Chrys C. Caragounis, The Development of Greek and the New Testament: Morphology, Syntax, Phonology, and Textual Transmission (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 247–61.
 Rendered in the Historical Greek Pronunciation by the use of International Phonetic Alphabet symbols.