1-4-1 Christianity And The Greek Language
This new mental life is reflected in the way the Bible uses language.
The New Testament particularly introduces concepts which were utterly
foreign to the way of thinking in the contemporary world. Because of this,
Christianity had a significant effect upon the Greek language. Several
words were given a totally new depth of meaning. For example, the Christian
idea that death is only a sleep gave rise to the Greek word for 'cemetery',
which literally means 'a dormitory'. The Greek word used in the NT for
inspiration, theopneustos, apparently occurs nowhere else in Greek literature.
The idea of God breathing His word into men was in this sense a unique
concept- as unique as the Bible. The Greek language had one word which
meant 'Woman'; there was no word which meant 'married woman' because the
idea of a woman not getting married was just impossible to conceive in
the Greek mind. Women always got married. So there was a word for
'little girl' and one for 'woman'. Yet Paul, through the Spirit,
introduced the idea of a woman consciously deciding not to get married
so as to devote herself to the Lord (1 Cor. 7:34). He speaks of "
she that is unmarried" (RV). This would have sounded very confusing
in first century Greek; the radicalness of the idea is almost lost on
us. The point is, God was presenting to the Christian believers a totally
new intellectual concept which even their own Greek language could not
Or take the influence of Christianity on the Greek language of humility.
The Lord taught that the leaders, the great ones, in His Kingdom, would
be the humble servants (Mt. 20:27). Christ spoke of himself as a humble
King, which would have been a contradiction in terms to the first century
Greek mind. Consider the following commentary by another writer: "
The ancient Greeks had no time for humility. In fact, their language didn't
even have a word for it until well into the first century....the early
Christians evidently had to coin a word for it. It's a clumsy, long word,
made by sticking together the Greek word 'low-down' and the Greek word
'mentality'. The sudden appearance of this new word in Greek literature
during the first century is generally attributed to the influence of the
early church" (1).
Or take the influence of Christianity on the Greek language of love.
We can " know the love of Christ , which passeth knowledge"
(Eph. 3:19), we can get a handle on a spiritual concept which is beyond
our natural knowledge, we can know what is unknowable. Likewise we can
experience peace that passes understanding (Phil. 4:7). The Greeks had
various words for love, agape (a rather general word, used in the LXX);
eros (referring to the physical aspect) and phileo, referring (for
example) to the love of parents for children. These terms had loose definitions
and are almost interchangeable in their OT (LXX) and NT usage. But then
Christ introduced a whole new paradigm: " A new commandment I give
unto you, That ye love (agape) one another; as I have loved you
" (Jn. 13:34). To love as Christ loved was something fundamentally
new, and He chose one of the available terms and made it into something
else. Christ chose a rather colourless word in the Greek language: agape,
and made it refer specifically to the love of God and Christ towards us,
and also to the love which their followers should show to each other.
This is agape, He says: this is my redefinition of that word, which must
enter your new vocabulary. It is true that agape and phileo are interchangeable
in the NT in some places; but the Lord’s redefinition of love, His placing
of new meaning into old words, still stands valid. Not only does the Lord
give ‘love’ a new flavour as a word. He above all showed forth that quality
of love. He turned man’s conception of love on it’s head. Thus He plugged
in to the Pharisee’s debate about who could be identified as their neighbour-
by showing, in His Samaritan parable, that we must make ourselves neighbours
Or take the influence of Christianity on the Greek language of grace.
We have spoken elsewhere about this (2).
The idea of totally undeserved favour, pure grace of the kind
God shows us, is quite foreign to our human experience and thinking. Or
take God's view of justice, totally alien to ours. We are bidden praise
God for smiting the firstborn babies of Egypt, because this is a sign
of His eternal mercy (Ps. 138:10 cp. 143:12). This is proof enough that
His view of mercy and ours are quite different.
Not only was language re-interpreted by the Christians. Whole concepts
were reoriented. Holiness in the sense of separation from the unclean
had been a major theme in the Mosaic Law, and it figured largely in the
theology of the Pharisees. But the Lord quoted “Be holy because I, Yahweh
your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2) as “Be ye therefore merciful, even as your
father in heaven is merciful” (Lk. 6:36). To be merciful to those who
sin is now the true holiness- not merely separation from them and condemnation
of their ways. Note, too, how He invites us to interpret the Yahweh as
“father”, rather than transliterating the Name.
A New Language
So we are thinking in a new mental language, the alphabet of which starts
and finishes with Christ, the alpha and omega (the first and last letters
of the Greek alphabet, Rev. 21:6). This is the kind of language we speak
with each other. This explains why we can meet other believers and not
speak their human language, and yet still sense a great level of communication.
We are citizens of spiritual Israel, we have left our old nationality
and are living the new life under a new King in a new Kingdom with a new
language. Of course, we still live in the flesh, and yet the more we appreciate
these things, the more we will realize as we move around in this world
that we are as far above this life as the heavens are above the earth;
we are in Heavenly places in Christ (Eph. 2:6). We cannot expect the world
to understand our mental position. But we are in good company. People
genuinely thought Mary Magdalene, Peter and the apostles, Paul, even the
Lord Jesus, were medically insane. They just could not enter into the
new mind which existed in those people. Paul commented from much experience
of this: " Whether we be beside ourselves, it is to God...I speak
as a fool...as a fool receive me...we are fools for Christ's sake"
. We need to meditate upon the import of some of the Lord’s sayings before
we realize the extent of the break between us and the world’s way of thinking.
It is, e.g., quite instinctive to seek to preserve our lives. But the
Lord taught that whoever will save his life must first of all lose it
(Mt. 16:25). His standards are fundamentally and almost aggressively different
to those of the world in which we live. To offend one of the little ones
meant having a millstone tied around the neck, and being cast into the
sea (Mt. 12:6). This was a common way of executing criminals in the Sea
of Galilee. The Lord’s hearers would immediately see that He was saying
that to offend a weak believer is, in His books, one of the worst criminal
offences. But it is something the world hardly notices, let alone judges
If we grasp the spirit of all this, it will not be necessary to make
lists of practical changes which should be seen in the life of the convert
to Christ. The things about which we have written are in some ways abstract,
and yet if properly grasped they will have a fundamentally practical effect
upon us, in an artless and natural way.
(1) Alan Hayward, The Humble
King , 'The Bible Missionary' No.131, January 1994.
(2) See 'Humility