The Greek alphabet and Koine Greek

I introduce the Greek alphabet and koine Greek, the form of Greek used by the New Testament writers, in the first class session of a New Testament Greek WordSearch seminar,

On this web page I give an abridged version of the material covered in this class session along with some of the handouts on we use. Even without participating in a WordSearch seminar, this information will enrich your personal and group Bible study.

Koine Greek

Above: John 3:16 in koine Greek

During the classical period (6th, 5th, and 4th centuries BCE), the Greek language was divided into a number of dialects, of which the three main families were the Doric, the Aolic, and the Ionic. One branch of the Ionic Family, the Attic, attained supremacy, particularly as the language of prose literature. Attic Greek became the dialect of Athens in her golden era; the language of Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle.

Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE), inspired by the vision of his father, Philip of Macedon (382-336 BCE), and his tutor, Aristotle (384-322 BCE), made himself master of the entire Ancient Near East. This was a triumph of both Macedonian military might and the Greek language in its Attic form. This dominance of Greek culture and language is known as the process of "Hellenization."

When the Romans conquered the eastern Mediterranean world in the second and first centuries BCE, they made no attempt to suppress the Greek language. Rome herself had already come under Greek influence. She now made use of the Greek language in administrating at least the eastern portion of her vast empire. Thus the language of the Roman Empire was not so much Latin as it was Greek.

The map below shows the main local languages in the Roman Empire in the first century CE.

Roman Empire

Above: Languages of the Roman Empire (1st cent. CE)

By the first century CE, the Greek alphabet and language had become a world language (lingua franca). The local languages of the various regions continued to exist, and many provinces were bilingual; the original local language existing side-by-side with the Greek. In the great cities of the Empire, especially those in the East, the Greek language was universally understood. Even the city of Rome had a large Greek-speaking population. It is no surprise that Paul's letter to the Christians in Rome is written in Greek rather than Latin.

However, the Greek language had to pay a price for this enormous extension of its influence. The ancient Greek dialects, other than Attic, had almost completely disappeared by the first century CE. Furthermore, the language of the new post-Alexandrian cosmopolitan age was markedly different from original Attic dialect upon which it was founded.

The new lingua franca which prevailed after Alexander has been appropriately called "the Koine." The word koine means "common." This is a fitting description for a language which was a common medium for exchange among diverse peoples. The Koine, then, is the Greek world language that prevailed from about 300 BCE to the close of ancient history around 500 CE.

The New Testament and the writings of the Apostolic Fathers were written within this Koine period. Linguistically, it is very closely related to the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, called the "Septuagint," which was made at Alexandria in the third and second centuries BCE.

While the New Testament writers use the standard Greek alphabet, the general language of the New Testament differs from that of contemporary Greek writers. For example, the Greek of the New Testament is very different from the Greek of the historian and essayist Plutarch (46-120 CE).

This is in part due to the Jewish-Greek dialect used by the New Testament writers, which was heavily influenced by the Semitic languages, Hebrew and Aramaic. It is in part a reflection of the wide gap between the polished language of literature and the language of everyday. Scholars have observed that the language of the New Testament, at various points where it differs from the literature of the Koine period, reflects the language of the "non-literary papyri" (i.e., wills, receipts, petitions, and private letters).

Thus the New Testament is written simply in the popular form of the Koine, which was spoken in the cities throughout the entire Greek-speaking world. Using the standard Greek alphabet, the New Testament writers used the common, living language of the day. The New Testament is written using the simple language of life, not the language of religion and theology.

The Greek alphabet

The Greek alphabet is a set of twenty-four letters that has been used to write the Greek language since the late ninth century BCE. As such it is the first and oldest alphabet to note each vowel and consonant with a separate symbol.

The chart below shows the Greek alphabet in majiscule (upper case characters) and minscule (lower case characters). It gives the name for each letter as well as its phonetic or "sound" value.

Greek Alphabet

A digraph is a pair of letters used to write one sound or a combination of sounds that does not correspond to the written letters in sequence. Greek includes several digraphs, including various pairs of vowel letters that used to be pronounced as diphthongs but have been shortened to monophthongs in pronunciation. A diphthong is a "two-tone" vowel. A monophthong is a "single-tone" or "pure" vowel sound.

None of these are regarded as a letter of the Greek alphabet, but it is imperative that students learn both pure vowels and diphthongs. The chart below shows the correct pronunciation of vowels and diphthongs from the Greek alphabet.

Greek vowels and dipthongs

Greek numerals (numbers) are a system of representing numbers using letters of the Greek alphabet.

Each unit (1, 2, ..., 9) was assigned a separate letter, each tens (10, 20, ..., 90) a separate letter, and each hundreds (100, 200, ..., 900) a separate letter. This requires 27 letters, so the 24-letter Greek alphabet was extended by using three obsolete letters: digamma or stigma for 6, qoppa for 90, and sampi for 900.

To distinguish numerals from letters they are followed by the keraia, a symbol similar to an acute sign.

Greek numerals

Greek alphabet resources

The following printable resources are pages from the student study guide I use when teaching a Greek WordSearch class or seminar. Please use these in your personal or group Bible study.

Greek Alphabet Handout

Right-click to download this PDF file here.

Greek Articulation Handout

Right-click to download this PDF file here.

The Online Greek Bible Online Greek Bible provides the complete Greek New Testament online as well as other helpful resources.

Would you like to host a Greek WordSearch seminar at your church, school, or study group?

I am also available to teach WordSearch in other countries on a more limited basis.

Contact me for more information.

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