Hellenistic Greek

The spoken and written language of Hellenistic times, a period that begins with the conquests of Alexander the Great, covers NT times, and reaches the time of Constantine the Great. Within this period, the Hebrew text of the OT was translated into the Greek of the Septuagint, and the books of the NT were written. Hellenistic Greek became the language used by Greeks and non-Greeks, including Jews of the diaspora of pre-Christian and NT times. It was also the common language in Palestine at the beginning of the Christian era. The seven deacons mentioned in Acts (6:5) belonged to the Hellenistic party. Saul of Tarsus was a Hellenist, and it is most probable that the Lord had been familiar with some words and sentences of Hellenistic Greek.

In ancient times the Greek language was not a single, uniform tongue. Each of the divided Greek city-states developed its own dialect according to its progress and achievements. There were numerous dialects; four of them were prominent: Attic, Ionian, Doric, and Aeolic. Little by little the variety of dialects gave way to a “common” dialect. The great classical writers on one hand and the pan-Hellenic athletic games and festivals (Olympic, Delphi, Corinth) on the other contributed to this development.

This common Greek was based mainly on the Attic dialect. Athens being the great center of letters and arts, it became natural that the language of Athens became the universal language of the Greeks. In time the Attic dialect was no longer the pure language of the past. Elements from the other Greek dialects were mixed to form the common Attic.

The common Attic Greek was the language adopted by the Macedonian kings. It became the official language of the court and subsequently was brought with the conquests of Alexander to the conquered lands and peoples of the East. Thus it became the language of the Egyptians, Syrians, and Jews as well as of the Greeks who moved with the military forces and as merchants, educators, etc. From this the language termed Hellenistic or Koine emerged. In the new cosmopolitan centers such as Alexandria, Pergamos, and Antioch the new international language was molded.

In the course of time, beside the changes that are inevitable in every living language, expressions and words were added to Hellenistic Greek, not only from the variety of Greek dialects, but also from the languages and dialects of the “barbarians.” In addition, during the Roman domination, Latin elements were introduced. It is a universal law that those who learn and use a language not only acquire but also give elements of their own modes of expression: idioms, local words. The Hellenistic Greek of the Septuagint and of the NT books is a demonstration of this fact. The variations of the language in the sacred books are easily explained when we consider the ethnic and cultural backgrounds of translators and authors.

The OT translation of the Septuagint was made under one of Alexander's successors, King Ptolemae (third century b.c.). Philo, Josephus, and early church fathers support the idea that the translation was made in Greek understood by the king and by Greeks in general. Becoming international, Hellenistic Greek was gradually simplified in grammar and syntax while the distinction between long and short vowels tended to disappear. The refined and highly cultured philologists despised as “barbarian” the Septuagint version of both OT and NT books.

The Septuagint, with apparent Semitic elements, might be said to belong to the Alexandrian version of Hellenistic Greek, while the NT language is the Palestinian version of the same. The Septuagint translators in their attempt to render the text as accurately as possible could not avoid hebraisms, while the NT writers, as original authors, were freer from such elements.