‘Greek’ – Dr. James Patrick, January 28, 2017


The Romans gave the inhabitants of Hellas the name Graeci but they called themselves Hellenes. In Homer Hellas is a Thessalian tribe and the Greeks are Achaeans, but in the historical period Greeks are Hellenes and Athens is the “school of Hellas.” As a people they appear on the stage of time as ordinary folks, sometimes noble, sometimes traitorous but their literature is, after the Hebrew Scriptures the most important in the West and perhaps in the world.    Their cultural dominance is the work of a mere three centuries, from Hesiod and Homer in the eighth century before Christ to the fifth century Athenian bloom, Ictinus and the Parthenon, the playwrights Euripides and Sophocles, the historians Herodotus and Thucydides, Plato and, slightly later, Aristotle.     When Athens was great Rome was a marshy village by the Tiber, and Latin letters would not blossom until the first century BC with Virgil and Horace.  

The defining characteristic of the Hellenes was their language, which is to be distinguished from their subsequent written literature.  We know that Greek existed as a spoken language represented by a pattern of straight lines called Linear A and Linear B found on numerous clay tablets that were preserved when the palace at Knossos was burned perhaps about 1100.    It was long suspected that these linear scripts were Greek, but this was uncertain until Michael Ventris deciphered Linear B in1956.  As it happened Linear B was something of a bore, being mostly tax lists and other official records, but it showed that the language then existed. What caused this language to burst into the Iliad three centuries later and to be written down using an alphabet borrowed from the Phoenicians is a puzzle.   In any event when Greek begins to be written it is written in a language with not two but three voices, middle as well as active and passive; an extra mood, the optative (might, may as distinguished from the would, should of the subjunctive), and a fully developed tense structure. It was also distinguished by the absolute construction, the genitive absolute, which is the ancestor of the ablative absolute in Latin and the nominative absolute in English, these being constructions that work although their relation to the modified sentence is conceptual, not grammatical, as, “The sun having risen, they departed.”  Greek also loves participles and what I suppose we would call gerunds, words that function like substantives although they are really verbs or verbal. It was no wonder that the Athenians, possessed of such a complex and delicate language, called the Persians barbarians because their language sounded like “bar-bar-bar.”   There is nothing quite like the literature of the Hellenes; nothing like it in China or India or Persia. 

The Greeks had always been great traders and there were commercial settlements as far west as Spain. At about the time of Homer Greeks had begun to colonize southern Italy, for which see the Greek temples at Paestum near Naples, creating Magna Graecia, and there are still in Calabria villages in which Griko, a blend of Italian and Greek is spoken, a lingering result of Greek settlements in Italy.  The Greek Rite seminary at Grottaferrata is about sixty miles south of Rome, marking the limits of Greek linguistic advance up the peninsula.

The motives of Alexander the Great may have been complicated—perhaps he did have an ecumenical vision, but their effects were sure and enduring.   His conquest of Egypt Hellenized much of the lower Nile, and made Alexandria, the second city of the Roman world and a center of Greek culture.  One lasting consequence was the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek about 260 BC in the version called the Septuagint.   Their language remained influential long after the Greek cities passed into political insignificance, the most of Greece having been annexed by Rome about 150BC. Athens was always the University town, and to it Roman students were sent.

The Iliad is a great example of the anti-evolutionary nature of culture, for everything subsequent has been more regular, less complex. Plato and Aristotle are easier than Homer and Plotinus (c. 260 AD) is less difficult than Aristotle.  The Aramaic in which Matthew may have been written aside, the language of the Church was Greek and the New Testament was written in that language. The Roman Church spoke Greek until mid-third century, the first great Latin Father being Tertullian, followed soon by Ambrose, Augustine, Cassiodorus, and Boethius. When Constantine moved the capital to his new city on the Bosporus his city became a center of Greek culture and language. The conciliar debates of the fourth and fifth centuries were dominated by Greek-speakers from Constantinople and Alexandria, and there were Roman bishops with Greek names into the seventh century.  

As the ability of Constantinople to control and protect Italy gave way to Gothic power about 600 AD, as Moslem invaders seized Egypt and Syria beginning in the 640s, West and East were increasingly alienated one from another culturally and geographically with the result that the one Italo-Byzantine culture of Justinian became two, with knowledge of Greek failing in the West.   Justinian was the last emperor fluent in both languages. The scene was then set for tension and finally for schism.  Augustine was not read in the East nor John Chrysostom in the West. It would be wrong to say that knowledge of Greek language and literature perished in the West, but such knowledge was attenuated, surviving in Naples.   

Constantinople would remain an ever-embattled citadel of Greek language and culture until the fall of the city to Mehmet II in 1453. Fleeing Greek scholars would then bring Greek language to Florence and the West where knowledge of Greek would suddenly become an essential sign of learning and a culture for the generations who made the Renaissance. Erasmus wrote that all knowledge was contained in Greek literature. Thomas More, when he was Chancellor of the University of Oxford chided the colleges for persisting in the old Aristotelian way.  For the next four centuries schoolboys would be required to learn both languages, and the ability to read the Greek Testament would be one of the college admissions requirements.

Under Moslem occupation Greek did not fare well in its homeland, so that when Shelley and Keats took a romantic interest in Greece it was a backwater dominated by brigands and the Greek language was fast disappearing. When Lord Elgin hauled off the famous marbles there were no Greeks capable of resistance and the Turkish authorities settled for cash for what they probably considered infidel ruins. Reconstructing Greece was a largely British project down to providing a German prince to be the kings of the Hellenes. The old language is said to have lived on among native story-tellers, some of whom were able to recite long passages from Homer, but the Greek language itself had to be reconstructed as modern Greek. Knowledge of Greek in the West would go when the classical curriculum departed about 1870. My guess is that the generation of Eliot, Lewis, and Collingwood was the last among whom real facility in Greek existed. Knowledge of the language is limited to Protestant seminaries, graduate faculties, and specialists, so that the literature that made our civilization is as impenetrable to the average graduate as Sanskrit.  

One particularly devastating result has been the loss to political and ethical discourse of Plato’s Republic and his Laws, and Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics.

Classical Languages & Prologue of St. John’s Gospel (1: 1–14) in Greek – Dr. Madeline Wright

The Importance of the Classical Languages

The study of Greek and Latin literature has endured for two thousand years, as Horace predicted when he wrote about his own poetry in Odes, Book III, number 30:  “I have built a monument more lasting than bronze.”  (“Exegi monumentum aere perennius.”)

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the modern age up to the nineteenth century, Latin in particular was the essential language of scholarship in the West.  To study the Classics now is to continue a tradition that, while no longer the assured possession of every learned person, still brings the student into a fellowship with the greatest thinkers and artists of the past in a way no other field of study can achieve.

I wrote those paragraphs about 25 years ago.  I’m not as confident as I was.  Is it really important to study classical languages?  For most careers, no, obviously not.  At present I’m inclined to rely on what I heard from a freshman student of mine, in 1975, when I was a teaching assistant for first-semester Latin at the University of Texas.  On the first day of class, I asked: “Why do we study Latin?” After a bit of an awkward silence, one student spoke up.  She said: “Because it’s beautiful.”

I was stunned.  I had expected a ponderous reply about ancient authors and venerable traditions.  I was also delighted.  Latin and Greek may not be important the way they once were, but they are life-enhancing.

So, I’ll try to show how delightful it is to read a great and holy book like the Gospel of John in the original Greek.  At the very least, it is wonderful not to have to decide which translation to use!

Greek & Phoenician Alphabet

Prologue of St. John’s Gospel (1: 1–14) in Greek

John 1:1 ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος

1:2 οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν

1:3 πάντα δι᾽ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν ὃ γέγονεν

1:4 ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν καὶ ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων

1:5 καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν

1:6 ἐγένετο ἄνθρωπος ἀπεσταλμένος παρὰ θεοῦ ὄνομα αὐτῷ ἰωάννης

1:7 οὗτος ἦλθεν εἰς μαρτυρίαν ἵνα μαρτυρήσῃ περὶ τοῦ φωτός ἵνα πάντες πιστεύσωσιν δι᾽ αὐτοῦ

1:8 οὐκ ἦν ἐκεῖνος τὸ φῶς ἀλλ᾽ ἵνα μαρτυρήσῃ περὶ τοῦ φωτός

1:9 ἦν τὸ φῶς τὸ ἀληθινόν ὃ φωτίζει πάντα ἄνθρωπον ἐρχόμενον εἰς τὸν κόσμον

1:10 ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ ἦν καὶ ὁ κόσμος δι᾽ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο καὶ ὁ κόσμος αὐτὸν οὐκ ἔγνω

1:11 εἰς τὰ ἴδια ἦλθεν καὶ οἱ ἴδιοι αὐτὸν οὐ παρέλαβον

1:12 ὅσοι δὲ ἔλαβον αὐτόν ἔδωκεν αὐτοῖς ἐξουσίαν τέκνα θεοῦ γενέσθαι τοῖς πιστεύουσιν εἰς τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ

1:13 οἳ οὐκ ἐξ αἱμάτων οὐδὲ ἐκ θελήματος σαρκὸς οὐδὲ ἐκ θελήματος ἀνδρὸς ἀλλ᾽ ἐκ θεοῦ ἐγεννήθησαν

1:14 καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν καὶ ἐθεασάμεθα τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ δόξαν ὡς μονογενοῦς παρὰ πατρός πλήρης χάριτος καὶ ἀληθείας

John 1: 1–14 King James Version

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

2 The same was in the beginning with God.

3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

5 And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

7 The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.

8 He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.

9 That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.

11 He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

12 But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:

13 Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

For Reference: Interlinear Greek-English Text: John 1 Interlinear Bible (biblehub.com).

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