God chose to reveal himself to us using languages that preceded English by thousands of years. In the New Testament, that language is primarily Greek. There are still many people who speak Greek today, but the Greek of the New Testament (and before) is different from the Greek of today. In a similar way, being able to speak English today doesn’t mean you can read Shakespeare (or Middle English, for that matter) with 100% comprehension. It still takes a bit of work.
The New Testament was written in koine (or “common”) Greek. It is called “common” because it was the way that people around that time period spoke in regular conversation. This includes writing to one another, and also conversing with one another in the marketplaces. (When I refer to “Greek” on this website, I will mean koine, or biblical, Greek. If I refer to present-day Greek I will call it “modern” Greek.)
The meaning of (some) words and the pronunciation of (some) letters aren’t the only things that separate modern Greek from biblical Greek. In the oldest manuscripts of the New Testament, Greek was written entirely in capitals and didn’t have any spaces between words. Here’s an image that shows what this looks like:
Writing that is in all capitals is called majuscule or uncial text. Writing that contains lowercase letters, along with breathing marks and accents, is called miniscule text. Here’s an example of that kind of writing:
By the way, one of the ways that scholars date the age of New Testament manuscripts is whether or not they are written in majuscule or miniscule text. By definition, miniscule writing came later in history, and therefore those manuscripts containing that script are not as old.
The Greek Alphabet
Learning any new languages requires learning its alphabet. We obviously do this because letters are the basic building-blocks of words that allow us to pronounce them. Of course, without knowing these things, we can’t really move onto learning the grammar and syntax of a language, let alone its semantics. (If those terms are unfamiliar to you, take a look at this post where I explain all of them.)
The following table is adapted from the third edition of Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar (BBG) by William D. Mounce (pp. 8-9). It is the book that I used to learn biblical Greek, and I think it is an excellent one. Here are the columns from left to right: the English names of the letters, the transliteration of letter’s pronunciation in English, the capital and lower-case Greek letter, and an example of its pronunciation.
|Iota||i / ī||Ι||ι||Short: intimate
|Sigma||s||Σ||σ / ς||study|
|Upsilon||u / y||Υ||υ||German ü|
A couple of things to note:
- The pronunciation guide here is Erasmian pronunciation that is commonly taught in seminaries. Some schools prefer to teach modern Greek pronunciation. I will follow Erasmian pronunciation because it’s how I learned Greek.
- A letter with a line (macron) over it (like ē) indicates that the letter has a long pronunciation.
- Sigma takes two forms. The second one listed (ς) only appears at the end of words.
- When gamma (γ) is followed by another gamma or by kappa (κ), chi (χ), or xi (ξ), it is pronounced “n.”
- If a rough breathing mark (῾) proceeds a vowel, it adds an “h” sound.
The Greek vowels are alpha, epsilon, eta, iota, omicron, upsilon, and omega (α, ε, η, ι, ο, υ, ω). When two vowels occur right next to each other, they are collectively called a diphthong and form a single sound. Here’s a table of the Greek diphthongs with examples for pronunciation (BBG, 10):
You are now ready to start pronouncing Greek words and reading them out loud! If you need more help, you can also hear Dr. Mounce’s lectures on chapters 3 and 4 under the Language Tools section of this website.