One of my prize possessions in my library is Adolf Deissmann’s Light From the Ancient East, first published in 1908. When I bought it during my grad school days, it felt like I was being privileged to enter into a wide world of sacred discovery.
But, of course, “sacred” is not what it was about as much as “secular.”
New Testament scholars used to believe that the Greek of the NT was a special type of holy language: a Holy Ghost Greek. Since about 500 of the approximately 5000 Greek words in the pages of the NT were unknown from any other source, many assumed that the Spirit had supplied a special vocabulary that fit the special nature of the documents.
But in 1897, Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt pulled a bunch of paper scraps (papyri, actually) from a garbage dump in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. These were full of the kinds of notes sent by common people: shopping lists, notes from parents to children, bills, receipts, etc.
Before this, most of what we had access to was the stuff from historians, politicians, poets, and philosophers. They had continued to write in the “better” (classical) Greek, rather than the “common” (we use the word “koine”) Greek of the people.
But all of a sudden there was a treasure trove of information. And guess what? Nearly all of those special “Holy Ghost words” started showing up. Deissmann, a German professor, started sifting through the tons of information and soon published Light From the Ancient East, helping others understand that the Greek language in the New Testament was, for the most part, the language of the streets. Common life, common business, common communication.
In Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book , which was so helpful for writing this little post and about which I’ll say more tomorrow, he celebrates the impact of this:
“The difference that this has made to Bible translation and Bible reading is hard to exaggerate. In retrospect it shouldn’t have been such a surprise that this was the kind of language used in the Bible, for this is exactly the kind of society that we know that Jesus embraced and loved, the world of children and marginal men and women, the rough-talking working class, the world of the poor and dispossessed and exploited. Still, it was a surprise: our Bibles written not in the educated and polished language of scholars, historians, philosophers, and theologians but in the common language of fishermen and prostitutes, homemakers and carpenters. . . . We often thoughtlessly supposed that language dealing with a holy God and holy things should be stately, elevated, and ceremonial. But it is a supposition that won’t survive the scrutiny of one good look at Jesus — his preference for homely stories and his easy association with common people, his birth in a stable and his death on a cross. For Jesus is the descent of God to our lives just as we are and in the neighborhoods in which we live, not the ascent of our lives to God whom we hope will approve when he sees how hard we try and how politely we pray.”
It’s been a long time since I’ve actually read through Deissmann’s tome. But when I was a young, eager student of the Greek New Testament, I soaked it in. These words written by people and somehow inspired by God (so I believed — and believe) came in a language that fit the nature of Jesus’ incarnation.
Again, from Peterson (as he leads up to explaining what he was seeking to do in his translation, The Message): “Virtually anyone can read this Bible with understanding if it is translated into the kind of language in which it was written. We don’t have to be smart or well educated in order to understand it any more than its first readers did. It is written in the same language we use when we go shopping, play games, or ask for a second helping of potatoes at the supper table — and it requires translation into that same language.”
This post originally appeared on Mike’s blog at this link.