Recently I began going over my notes on NT Greek, mainly trying to decide on matters of content if I were to teach it. (Since I’ve never had to teach NT Greek, I figured it be best to know how I would if called on to do so). In the midst of this review, I (re)discovered one little anecdote that commonly appears in Greek textbooks: the “old” proposal that the NT was written in a special type of Greek for a specific purpose. As the late Rodney Decker says:
In the nineteenth century, it was frequently assumed that the Greek of the New Testament was not Classical Greek, but rather a special dialect of Greek created by the Holy Spirit for the purpose of accurately conveying divine revelation: “Holy Spirit Greek” as it was sometimes called.
—Koine Greek Reader (2007), 246.
Two things struck me about this claim (and others like it):
- The use of “frequently” to describe the assumption. Admittedly, I am neither a grammarian nor a student of the history of ancient languages–specifically NT Greek. I say that to say this: I’m open to correction for what I’m about to say. In all the searching/reading that I’ve done, I have not seen this assumption as widespread as the term, “frequently” suggests. However, I have frequently (almost routinely) seen the assumption that this assumption (or understanding) was widespread. But that’s a different discussion for another time.
- The use of “special dialect” to describe the nature of the language. This is important because it signals the crucial difference between a dialect and a language. For comparison, think: Eubonics vs. Klingon. One is an adaptation and form of an existing language, while the other is language sui generis. Thus, I appreciate Decker’s more tame (or even sober) description, in comparison to how others have portrayed things.¹ For example, Reggie Kidd describes the old view as: “many concluded that the New Testament was written in a secret, in-house ‘Holy Ghost Greek’ ” (With One Voice , 166). That’s simply taking things (and the evidence) a bit too far.
Almost without fail, the culprits involved in perpetrating this “Holy Spirit/Ghost Greek”–especially as an entirely new language–are identified as Hermann Cremer (1834-1903) and Joseph Henry Thayer (1828-1901). Occasionally, some (e.g. Decker) will briefly mention Richard Rothe (1799-1867) as the source or inspiration for Cremer’s ideas, with Thayer following suit. However, after I read Cremer’s argument in context, and his use of Rothe, I did not see him advocating a NT Greek language sui generis via the Holy Spirit. Here’s why:
Lexical works upon the New Testament Greek have hitherto lacked a thorough appreciation of what Schleiermacher calls “the language-moulding power of Christianity.” A language so highly elaborated and widely used as was Greek having been chosen as the organ of the Spirit of Christ, it necessarily followed that as Christianity fulfilled the aspirations of truth, the expressions of that language received a new meaning, and terms hackneyed and worn out by the current misuse of daily talk received a new impress and a fresh power. But as Christianity stands in express and obvious antithesis to the natural man (using this phrase in a spiritual sense), Greek, as the embodiment and reflection of man’s natural life in its richness and fulness, presents this contrast in the service of the sanctuary. This is a phenomenon which repeats itself in every sphere of life upon which Christianity enters, not, of course, always in the same way, but always with the same result–namely, that the spirit of the language expands, and makes itself adequate to the new views which the Spirit of Christ reveals. The speaker’s or writer’s range of view must change as the starting-point and goal of all his judgments change; and this change will not only modify the import and range of conceptions already existing, but will lead to the formation of new conceptions and relationships. In fact, “we may,” as Rothe says. . .”appropriately speak of a language of the Holy Ghost. For in the Bible it is evident that the Holy Spirit has been at work, moulding for itself a distinctly religious mode of expression out of the language of the country which it has chosen as its sphere, and transforming the linguistic elements which it found ready to hand, and even conceptions already existing, into a shape and form appropriate to itself and all its own.” We have a very clear and striking proof of this in New Testament Greek.
–H. Cremer, Lexicon of New Testament Greek (1892), vi.
The usual criticisms laid against Cremer’s statement are:
- he spoke way too soon and concluded too much, because
- later papyri discoveries (cf. Deissmann) revealed that the Greek of the NT was the everyday language of the Empire in and around the time of Jesus; thus “the Greek of the NT was not a language invented by the Holy Spirit (Hermann Cremer had called it ‘Holy Spirit Greek’)”², and
- his assumptions relied upon faulty views of inspiration–namely, the so-called “mechanical inspiration theory”, whereby not only the content of the NT but also its very language were given by the Holy Spirit³
My problem is that I do not see any of these criticisms as relevant or applicable to Cremer’s statement. He was not (as I read him) advocating a language sui generis, as the criticisms suggest; he was arguing primarily for the Holy Spirit’s role in using existing language and giving existing terms and concepts fresh meanings to be used by NT writers. Moreover, while I acknowledge the existence of a “mechanical inspiration theory”, I do not think we can see it as a presupposition to Cremer’s argument, mainly because he is not assuming (or even agreeing with) one of the necessary premises of that theory–i.e. the Holy Spirit invented that language.
All of that to say: if we’re going to mention the Holy Spirit Greek anecdote, let’s give Cremer (and possibly even Rothe) better credit.
¹ Nigel Turner is said to declare: “Bibl[ical] Greek is a unique language with a unity and character of its own” and that “We now have to concede that not only is the subject-matter of the Scriptures unique but so also is the language in which they came to be written or translated” (Syntax , 4, 9–quoted [and slightly adapted] from Wallace, Greek Grammar , 26). However, S. Porter suggests that Turner backed off a bit from this definitive position–i.e. that we’re dealing with a unique language. Turner’s slightly revised view, according to Porter, says the Greek of the NT is “distinguishable dialect of spoken and written Jewish Greek” (Grammatical Insights , 183–quoted from Porter, “Introduction” in The Language of the New Testament: Classic Essays , 29).
² D. Wallace, Greek Grammar (1996), 25.
³ cf. C.-W. Jong, The Original Language of Luke Infancy Narrative (2004), 8.