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The Bible Sings

A Plea for the Original Language

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.


We are very fortunate that our scriptures come down to us in two beautiful languages, Hebrew and Greek. When read properly, with good pronunciation, their words are like music. Appreciating the Bible’s original languages is thus not just a reading but a listening experience.

Biblical Hebrew, from the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family, is quite unlike the Indo-European languages Hebrew and Greek. The thought process is entirely different. There is much in Hebrew left unsaid that English spells out explicitly. On average (and I counted the words in some typical Bible verses), it takes three times as many English words to translate a given Hebrew phrase. This means that many Hebrew verses that sound poetic in the original, with balanced phrases, tend to sound prosaic when rendered in English. (Here’s an exercise: imagine what a haiku would sound like if, instead of the traditional 5, 7, and 5, its three lines contained 15, 21, and 15 syllables respectively!) I will leave the treatment of Hebrew for another occasion. In this article I would like to focus on biblical Greek.

When it comes to original languages, Jews and Muslims have an advantage over their Christian companions. Both Jews and Muslims are used to hearing their scriptures recited in the original, and they hear them not just read but chanted. The scriptures literally sing. Muslims go so far as to say that the only Qur’an is the Qur’an recited in Arabic; no translation is the actual Qur’an but only a commentary. They have a point, and the same could be said of the Hebrew and Greek scriptures. There are aspects of the original languages that cannot be captured in translation. But unfortunately, instruction in Hebrew and Greek is not traditionally a part of Christian education (unless one enters the ministry - more on this below).

This is not to diminish the value of reading the Bible in one’s own language. Much blood was spilled in the process of bringing us the Bible in translation, and it is a gift greatly to be valued. A good translation (and some are much better than others) can convey much of the Bible’s meaning. Nevertheless, an appreciation of the Bible’s actual sound can greatly enhance one’s experience, providing a sense of the beauty of the words themselves.

Of course, the quality of the readings will vary. It is of course possible to recite the original scriptures badly, and no doubt this often occurs. For Hebrew, there are many accomplished cantors who do beautiful recitations; for example, if you want to hear the Hebrew scriptures read well, you can check the livestream of Central Synagogue in New York City and hear the cantors on staff do a lovely and graceful job.

The situation with Greek is less fortunate. The average Christian never gets to hear the New Testament in its original Greek. At one time in history the Bible was the exclusive property of the clergy, and today this remains true of the Greek New Testament, even though translations are now widely available in virtually every language. The original New Testament is like a secret and gated garden, to which only pastors and professors have the key.

To access the New Testament in Greek, one normally needs to be either a seminary student or part of a Greek-speaking congregation (such as the Greek Orthodox). What is even worse, in seminary Greek is treated more as an academic exercise than as a living, breathing language whose sounds communicate the beauty of the text. Seminary students are taught Greek for purposes of translation, and not so much for aesthetic and spiritual appreciation or devotion.

There is some history to this. The academic approach to Greek that we find in seminaries and universities is reflected in the system of pronunciation these institutions use. It is called “Erasmian,” after Desiderius Erasmus, a Dutch (not Greek) philosopher and scholar who lived at the turn of the sixteenth century.

In 1528 Erasmus published his Dialogue on the Correct Way of Pronouncing Latin and Greek, a tale about a lion, a bear, and the Greek language. Lion, who wants to raise his cub to be a cultured member of society, asks Bear, a very educated fellow, to teach him how to pronounce classical Latin and Greek. Bear proceeds to teach Lion a system of Greek pronunciation at odds with the way Greek was pronounced in his own time, but which Bear considered more “classical.” That system has survived as the method currently taught almost universally in academic settings.

Ironically, Erasmus himself did not use this “Erasmian” pronunciation when he taught or pronounced Greek! Erasmus said that if you want to know how to pronounce Greek, go to a native Greek speaker. And that is the pronunciation Erasmus actually used, virtually identical to our modern Greek pronunciation.(1)

One might well ask, if even Erasmus didn’t actually use “Erasmian” pronunciation, why did he propose it? We should note that Erasmus presented his dialogue not as a formal position paper but as a fable. It was a speculative effort to explore what might have been the pronunciation of ancient Greek. It was not a serious proposal for how Greek should actually be taught. Some even believe it was a parody!

Greek had changed quite a bit from the time of Homer to the time of the New Testament. The Erasmian system superficially seems to share some affinities with the more ancient Greek (for the technically minded: e.g. the observance of rough breathings and the absence of itacism). Still, by no means can one confidently claim that it captures ancient Greek pronunciation, and much less the Koine Greek of the New Testament. By New Testament times Greek pronunciation had already undergone changes making it very close to the modern sound of today’s Greek speakers. Thus many scholars believe that modern Greek pronunciation can give us a fair idea of what people at the time of Christ would have actually heard, whereas Erasmian Greek certainly does not.

Bradley H. McLean, author of a rare Greek grammar textbook using the modern system, says of Erasmian pronunciation:

As might be expected from its origins, this system of pronunciation is entirely artificial. It is merely a “classroom” pronunciation, which has never been used by Greeks in any period of their history. We now know, on the basis of thousands of papyri and inscriptions that have been discovered since the time of Erasmus, that this Latinized pronunciation contradicts how Greek was actually spoken....

In retrospect, it is indeed surprising that a pronunciation system invented by a Dutchman living 500 years ago in Northern Europe, with no real contact with Greek culture, should still be in use in the modern university of the twenty-first century.(2)

McClean actually calls modern Greek pronunciation historical, because of its closeness to the original Koine. There are good reasons for the use of the term “historical” to describe the modern Greek pronunciation: it really does go back a lot farther than is often supposed, and has changed little since the New Testament period.(3)

So another obvious question: if the Erasmian system was contrived and speculative, if it does not reflect the actual sound of Greek in any period of its history and certainly not in the New Testament period, and if even Erasmus didn’t use it, then why is it taught virtually everywhere outside the Greek-speaking world, in nearly every school or seminary one can think of?

The reasons are both political and pedagogic. Leaving the former aside, the most common justification one hears for the Erasmian system is that it’s good for teaching: it has the feature, which modern Greek does not, of nearly every letter having its own distinct sound. For many, this makes it much easier to learn. If each letter corresponds to one unique sound, and different letters (particularly vowels) never share the same sound, then it is much easier to know how a word is spelled by just hearing it. For example, in Greek ἡμεîς means “we” and ὑμεîς means “you” (plural). In Erasmian Greek the first is pronounced “haymays” and the second is pronounced “humays,” so there is no confusion. But in modern Greek they both sound the same and are pronounced “imis.” So isn’t Erasmian better for that reason?

Not really. One can learn to deal with the ambiguities of the modern Greek system. And while the Erasmian system may have a slight pedagogical advantage, it loses something more important: euphony. To those attuned to modern Greek pronunciation, Erasmian sounds artificial, harsh, and even ugly. This is a sore point in the debate between the two approaches, but it is true. The beauty of the Greek language just does not shine through Erasmian sounds the way it does with modern Greek.

This puts non-Greek speaking readers of the New Testament at a double disadvantage. It is hard enough for them to find opportunities to hear the New Testament in Greek, and when they do they are likely to hear it in Erasmian and will miss the way Greek can actually sound when recited in the more euphonious modern pronunciation, much closer to what first-century audiences would have heard. As its defenders practically admit, the Erasmian system is most suited for the classroom. Seminary students learn biblical Greek so they can translate it; it is presented as an academic exercise. But we need to keep in mind that, more than anything else, first-century Greek compositions were meant to be heard. There was no printing press back then; letters and sermons were heard much more often than read. So the best ones were crafted with their hearers in mind. We can better appreciate this if we hear their Greek in a manner closer to what the original listeners knew. There is an aesthetic quality to this experience that for many, including myself, Erasmian Greek just does not provide.

So how can one hear the New Testament recited in modern Greek? That may take a little work. If you visit a Greek Orthodox church, you will hear it, but the entire service will be in Greek so may be difficult to follow. There is available an excellent modern Greek recitation of the whole New Testament by Spiros Zodhiates. I recommend it highly. In fact, I learned to read modern Greek by listening to him. You can also find modern Greek recitations on YouTube, but those tend to be read more rapidly, making them harder to follow.

As Erasmus himself recognized, a native Greek speaker would do the best job reciting the New Testament, and that is whom you would most want to hear. I am not a native Greek speaker, so will try to do my best to illustrate the point of this article. I will start by reciting for you the prologue (first four verses) of the Letter to the Hebrews. In Hebrews one finds the most sophisticated and carefully crafted Greek in the New Testament. The verses really do sing, if one can learn to hear the music. It is a dimension of this work, an often-misunderstood masterpiece of the New Testament, that cannot be preserved in translation. So even if you cannot understand the actual Greek, you can still gain a fuller appreciation of the work if you supplement a good translation with the actual sounds of the language.

Here is the first verse of Hebrews, recited with modern Greek pronunciation:

Translation: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets.”

The sounds of this verse are singularly crafted. What stands out most is the alliteration: the repeated “p” sounds beginning five key words. Note also how many words end sounding in “s.” In between, the vowels just seem to flow into each other. Listen to it again, if this was not apparent on first hearing.

Here is the second verse:

And the translation:

“But in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.”

Note the many omega (“o”) sounds creating a kind of musical assonance. Notice how the phrases balance each other rhythimcally, something the English translation can“t reproduce.

Here is the third verse:

Translation:

“He is the reflection of Godís glory and the exact imprint of Godís very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.”

Again notice how the author plays with sound: the alliteration, the assonance, and the balanced phrases.

And now the fourth and final verse of the prologue:

Translation:

“Having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”

Once again one can hear how balanced the phrases are, and how the author plays with “o” vowels. Clearly this text was meant as a listening experience. One might also note that in Greek, all four verses are a single sentence. In Greek they are a poem; in English, prose.

I would like to conclude with the Lord’s Prayer recited in modern Greek. Hopefully now you can hear the music without any further description:

Translation:

Our Father in heaven,
    hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
    as we forgive our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
    but deliver us from the evil one.
For the kingdom and the power and the glory
    are yours forever. Amen.

(Translation based on the NRSV and the NKJV, which uses the Textus Receptus, the Greek text from which the Lord’s Prayer originally derived.)

Even as we study the Bible in the language making it most accessible to us, may we also have opportunities to supplement our study with exposure to the original. May we all have a chance to hear the Bible sing.

Notes

(1) Jody A. Barnard, “The ‘Erasmian’ Pronunciation of Greek: Whose Error is It?” Erasmus Studies 37 (2017), 109-132.

(2) Bradley H. McLean, New Testament Greek: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 3.

(3) Philemon Zachariou, Reading and Pronouncing Biblical Greek: Historical Pronunciation versus Erasmian (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2020).

June 2021