Oath Formulas in Biblical Hebrew (Part 2): The Curious Case of Ruth 1:17

Naomi and her Daughters exhibited 1804 by George Dawe 1781-1829

In a previous post we introduced the concept of Hebrew oath formulas using Blane Conklin’s book, Oath Formulas in Biblical Hebrew.1. We learned how an oath is more than a promise because an oath commits the oath-taker to certain consequences or sanctions if it is broken.

We also examined the anatomy of oaths and learned that they are composed of two parts: 1) a statement of sincerity called an “authenticating element” (e.g., I solemnly swear…); and 2) the content of the oath (e.g., …to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth). And lastly we surveyed the five different types of oaths found in the Hebrew Bible:

  1. Raising of a hand
  2. Swearing
  3. Invocation of witness(es)
  4. “By the life of X”
  5. “Thus will X do to Y, and thus will X add”

In this post we look at the particular oath formula used in Ruth. 1:17. This will help us see how a better understanding of oath formulas sheds light on some thorny linguistic issues that have long puzzled both grammarians and translators alike. But first, some context.


The opening scene of the book of Ruth is dire, as famine forces Elimelech, his wife Naomi and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion to abandon their home in Bethlehem in search of provisions in the foreign but fertile lands of Moab. Hoping for peace and prosperity, the family finds loss and heartache instead.

Soon after arriving in Moab, Elimelech dies. After their father’s death, Mahlon and Chilion marry two Moabite women. Mahlon marries Ruth, and Chilion marries Orpah, but tragedy soon strikes again, this time turning the Moabite newlyweds into widows. Within the space of ten years, both Ruth and Orpah lose their husbands, and Naomi her husband and sons.

Upon hearing of God’s provision in Israel–as the famine had ended–Naomi decides to return home to Bethlehem. But before leaving, she instructs Orpah and Ruth to return to their own Moabite families, so that they might find new husbands to care and provide for them. Orpah follows her mother-in-law’s instruction and returns home, but Ruth resists, speaking these words in Ruth 1:16–17:


“If anything but death” vs. “If even death”

As it stands, verse 17c (the final clause of 17 marked in blue) is difficult to understand in Hebrew. I’ve provided a literal translation of this clause above (leaving the particle כִּי untranslated for now, but more on that below). The confusion is evident when comparing English translations:

  • ESV: “May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”
  • NRSV: “May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”
  • NASB: “Thus may the Lord do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me.”
  • NIV: “May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”
  • KJV: “the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.”
  • JPS: “Thus and more may the Lord do to me if anything but death parts me from you.”

Notice that while the ESV, NASB, KJV, and JPS have something to the effect of “if anything but death,” the NRSV and NIV have “if even death”. At issue, according to Conklin, is whether, in Ruth’s view, death will or will not be included in the things that may ultimately separate her and Naomi.2

Moreover, notice that each English version adds a word or two (e.g., “anything but” or “even”) in order to make sense of this enigmatic Hebrew clause. Yet, it is unclear where these words find their source in the Hebrew text.

Are the English versions justified in adding these words? If so, which versions get it right? And if not, how do we make sense of these clauses?

Is v.17c really a protasis?

Despite their differences, all of the translations above begin v.17c with the English conjunction “if.” This means that each version takes this clause to be the protasis of a conditional sentence. (In grammar-speak, the protasis is the if-clause, or the condition, while the then-clause, is the apodosis, or consequence.)

As a result, we naturally infer that the preceding clause (17b) is the apodosis (“[then] may the Lord do so to me and more also”). Yet Conklin highlights a couple of reasons why 17b-c in Hebrew is likely not a conditional sentence at all.

Clause Order

For starters, in contrast to 17b-c, conditional sentences in Biblical Hebrew almost always follow the order protasis-apodosis (i.e., if-then). Indeed, Conklin observes only three clear exceptions where the pattern is reversed (i.e., then-if), namely Genesis 18:28, 30; 42:37.3

Thus, the highly usual order of the (so-called) conditional clauses in 17b-c, though not impossible, leads one to question if another interpretive option is available.

Conditional כִּי?

Another reason for questioning the conditional interpretation centers on the function and translation of the particle כִּי that occurs at the beginning 17c. As noted above, English versions typically translate this כִּי with the English conjunction “if.” Yet, Conklin argues, an alternative view is preferred.

Although there are indeed clear instances in the Hebrew Bible where כִּי functions as a conditional particle (albeit a relatively small percentage), virtually all of these cases occur in the casuistic legal contexts of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy.4 Hence, for Conklin, since Ruth 1:17 is clearly not a case of casuistic law, the conditional interpretation of כִּי is at best suspicious.

But the questions still stands: if כִּי does not function as a conditional particle in 17, what then is its function?

Outside of casuistic legal contexts, כִּי is used to accomplish a few other functions, the most common ones being:

  • A connective which marks the following clause as the motivation or reason for what precedes, in which case כִּי is typically translated as “for” (e.g., “Do not fear him, for I have given him into your hand”).
  • A complementizer which introduces an object clause of a verb of speech, perception or cognition, usually translated as “that” (e.g., “he said that”)

According to Conklin, it is improbable that כִּי functions as a motivating/reason connective in 17c since, if anything, the preceding clause (i.e., “May the Lord do so to me and more also”) provides the reason for the following כִּי clause, not vice versa.

He therefore concludes, “[t]he logic of the situation renders the motivational function unlikely”.5 Rather, he contends, a better option presents itself once we take into account that 17b-c is a particular type of Hebrew oath formula.

“(I swear) that only death will separate”

In short, Conklin suggests that כִּי in 17c is best understood as a complementizer. That is to say that כִּי introduces an object clause of a verb of speech, perception, or cognition, and is best translated as “that”. But is there a verb that meets this description in 17c?

At first glance, it seems that the complementizer function is highly unlikely here simply because there doesn’t seem to be a verb that meets this description. Yet this is precisely where an understanding of Hebrew oath formulas makes all the difference.

For starters, Hebrew oaths often involve highly formulaic and elliptical expressions. In other words, for ancient Hebrew speakers and readers, oath formulas were so well established that one need not include every word or phrase for the oath to be understood as such.

Given this fact, it is likely that the clause in question involves an elided or implicit oath authenticator שָׁבַע (“to swear”), a Hebrew verb of speaking, which requires a complementizer כִּי to introduce its object.6 As a result, the translation of Ruth 1.17 would read as follows:


In support of this view, Conklin highlights the fact that when שָׁבַע is overtly used as an oath authenticator elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, it is followed by the complementizer כִּי, as in Amos 4.2:


Alternatively, other oaths exist in which כִּי follows an authenticator that does not require a complementizer. As with Ruth 1.17, the most straightforward way of making sense of these instances is to understand them in light of an implicit שָׁבַע where כִּי is a complementizer, as in Genesis 42.16:


Furthermore, as Conklin observes, when שָׁבַע is not elided, no other authenticator is used (e.g., Amos 4.2), but when שָׁבַע is elided an additional authenticating element is always present, e.g., “May the Lord do so to me” (Ruth 1.17); “by the life of Pharaoh” (Gen. 42.16). In other words, the void left by the elision of שָׁבַע is always filled by an alternative authenticating expression.7

For these reasons and others, Conklin argues that the obscure Hebrew grammar found in Ruth 1.17 and elsewhere is clarified when we take into account the sometimes peculiar linguistic features of Hebrew oath formulas. Whether or not you agree with all of his arguments, his case is thought-provoking and informative, facilitating a better understanding of the form and function of oath formulas in Biblical Hebrew, and indeed their importance for both ancient readers and modern interpreters.

Conklin’s book and other specialized resources for the study of biblical Hebrew are available on Logos 7 in the Hebrew Studies Library Expansion, and make a great additional to any biblical scholar’s library.




Josh Westbury (PhD, Stellenbosch), a scholar-in-residence at Logos Bible Software.

  1. Blane Conklin, Oath Formulas in Biblical Hebrew, edited by M. O’Connor and C. L. Miller (Linguistic Studies in Ancient West Semitic 5; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2011).
  2. Ibid., 2.
  3. Ibid., 33.
  4. Ibid., 46.
  5. Ibid., 50.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.

Why should we care about the Dead Sea Scrolls?


The big news of last week was the announcement by Hebrew University, and Craig Evans here on theLAB, that a 12th Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) cave was discovered just last month.

But why are the DSS important? I’ll look at three main reasons below. But first we need to ask, what are the DSS?

What are the Dead Sea Scrolls?

The term ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ actually refers to a wealth of archaeological treasures discovered in a specific region of the land of Israel, running from Jericho to Masada (a straight-line distance just under 40 miles, and about 66 by car). These finds trace their origins back to the fourth century BCE, and up to the second century CE. Various inhabitants of this region left traces of their existence behind, including ancient ruins, pottery, caves, parchments, papyri, linen, coins, tools, and more.

History of Discovery

One day in late 1946 or early 1947, a 15-year-old shepherd boy wandered into a wadi, or canyon, looking for a lost sheep. When a well-placed toss of a rock into a cave mouth on the cliffs brought the sound of breaking pottery, he went to investigate. The scrolls he found and brought back to show his family were the first of the most important finds in modern biblical archeology. This wadi, which has yielded the majority of the manuscript treasures, is the now-famous Wadi Qumran located near the northwest shore of the Dead Sea.

The area was thoroughly excavated in the 1940’s and 50’s by both local and Western explorers and archaeologists. Although hundreds of caves were explored, only eleven had yielded manuscript treasures now identified as the Dead Sea Scrolls. That number has now increased to 12 with the recent archaeological work undertaken by Randall Price, Oren Gutfield, and Ahiad Ovadia. Although they did not find any entire scrolls with writing, the pottery fragments, parchments, papyri, and linen coverings indicate clearly that this twelfth cave deserves to be numbered with the other eleven.

The DSS Manuscripts

To date, there have been 600 manuscripts discovered among the 12 caves. Cave 4, however, contained the greatest concentration, yielding 400 manuscripts of which 100 are biblical. The only book of the OT not represented in this collection is Esther. One of the greatest treasures discovered among the DSS is a nearly complete scroll of Isaiah, known as the Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsa). The biblical material in the DSS collection is an important witness to the textual transmission of the OT.

But biblical material makes up a smaller percentage of the texts. The DSS also contain a large amount of apocryphal and pseudepigraphal works. These include Tobit, Ecclesiasticus, the Letter of Jeremiah, 1 Enoch, Jubilees, and The Testament of Levi. In additional to these, there are the so-called Sectarian Manuscripts which concern life in the religious community at Qumran, including the Manual of Discipline and the Thanksgiving Hymns.

Finally, the DSS collection includes commentaries on various books of the OT, including the famous Habakkuk commentary. This text presents fascinating insights into the interpretive practices of the Qumran community. The commentary follows a verse-by-verse approach, and centers on a figure called “The Teacher of Righteousness” who is persecuted by a wicked priest.


And yet as interesting as the DSS are in archaeological and historical terms, why are they significant to biblical scholars today?

Why do the Scrolls matter?

We can consider the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls along three main points of interest: texts, people, and hermeneutics.

The History of Textual Transmission

First, the texts enjoy a unique position in the history of the transmission of scripture. They are the oldest surviving manuscript witnesses to the OT, nearly 1,000 years older than the earliest known witnesses prior to 1946. This is significant in and of itself, but it also means that the DSS can be compared to other textual witnesses, including the Septuagint and Masoretic Text, to gain insight both into pedantic issues of grammar, punctuation, and spelling, and into bigger-picture questions of pre-Christian Judaism in the intertestamental period.

Indeed, one of the most significant aspects from a textual perspective is that the DSS confirm the early history of the Masoretic form of the text of the OT. Prior to the discovery of the DSS, the MT was dated by many scholars to, at the earliest, the 2nd century CE. Now, however, the evidence points to a provenance many centuries prior.

This gives modern biblical scholars a deeper level of confidence that the text before them, in their critical editions or otherwise, has been faithfully and accurately transmitted by real people living centuries ago, who were motivated by legitimate zeal for God.

Real People in History

This bring us to our second point, that there were real people behind the production of the DSS who left footprints of their existence in the scrolls. The way of life followed by the Qumran community is proscribed in texts such as the Manual of Discipline, and the songs they sang together are found in the Thanksgiving Hymns. Thus the DSS offer a perpetual reminder of the vital importance of remembering that real flesh and blood people once inhabited this region, and lived their lives in strict adherence to their particular interpretation of the OT.

The scriptures were a life-and-death matter for these people. They took their sacred books so seriously that they were willing to live in the desert regions of Israel and separate from the Temple in Jerusalem. That alone was a radical departure from the typical Judaism of the day, matched only by the radical interpretations of scripture presented by the authors of the NT.

Ancient Interpretations of Scripture

This leads to our third and final point concerning hermeneutics. As an interesting comparison, while the Qumran community took to the arid regions of ancient Palestine to practice their particular form of Judaism, the Christian community initially tried to remain within the ancient synagogue, viewing Christ as the long-awaited Messiah now come for his people. Both groups relied upon their particular views of the OT scriptures to shape and inform their approach to daily life, and the life to come.

What we find in the DSS non-biblical manuscripts is the attempt by pious Jews to grasp the significance of the OT for the times in which they lived. Their commentaries on various books of the OT and their documents dictating life in the community attest to the power of scripture in the lives of these people so many years ago. However, there are crucial differences between the interpretive practices of the Qumran scribes and the writers of the NT books, and herein lies the greatest potential for fruitful research into the DSS.

Scholarly work on either the DSS or the NT requires engagement with the other set of texts. One cannot do serious research into the NT without considering the DSS, nor the other way around. These texts are both crucial witnesses to the Judaism leading up to and during the time of Jesus.

They mutually inform each other on many issues, including the sayings of Jesus; Messianic expectations during the Roman occupation; and the concept of “grace” in the Second Temple period. A particularly good example of this last point is the recent study by John Barclay, Paul and the Gift, where the DSS present a key dialogue partner with Paul on the theme of God’s charis, or grace.

Why the DSS should matter to you

In sum, the DSS are an essential witness to the text, people, and interpretive practices of at least one type of Judaism in the period preceding the arrival of Christ in ancient Palestine. That alone is enough to warrant, at the very least, a strong familiarity with their history and teachings.

To begin your foray into the DSS, I suggest starting with the classic translation and introductions in Geza Vermes’s The Dead Sea Scrolls in English. For a helpful recent introduction to the DSS, get a hold of Joseph Fitzmyer’s The Impact of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Both resources, and many more, are fully tagged and searchable in Logos 7.

But apart from reading a translation and some introductory material, how does one best study the DSS, especially when doing serious research? That will be the topic of my next post.

Please consider subscribing to theLAB to stay abreast of the latest news from Qumran, and to read compelling articles by biblical scholars from around the globe on all topics related to academic study of the Bible.

Kristin de Troyer’s LXX Summer School

Dr. Kristin De Troyer. Foto: Andreas Kolarik, 04.12.15

Dr. Kristin De Troyer. Foto: Andreas Kolarik, 04.12.15

theLAB was just made aware of an exciting opportunity on offer this summer in Austria. World-reknowned Septuagint scholar Kristin de Troyer is running a course titled, “The Hebrew and Greek Texts of Esther” at Universität Salzburg. This topic is fitting given her extensive publishing output on Esther (and much more!).

Be sure to check out the flyer (below), but also head over to William Ross’s blog for a detailed explanation of why this course and its instructor are so special and thus not to be missed; he also explains why the book of Esther and its textual history makes for such a compelling area of study. If you are passionate about LXX studies, the Greek language, and textual criticism (and more) do consider applying soon.

Also, whether you plan to attend the course or not (but especially if you do), be sure to check out the collection of essays on Esther, including Kristin’s, “Esther in Text- and Literary-Critical Paradise,” in Studies on Esther.


Seeing James in Higher Definition

static1.squarespaceThe High Definition Commentary on James has just been released.

Here’s what I like about the idea of the High Definition Commentary, which focuses on the field of “Discourse Grammar”: this field (and this commentary) does for a somewhat unfamiliar set of grammatical features what we need our grammatical labels to do. It helps us really see things we only intuited before.

You have always known what nouns and verbs are, because you have never really mixed them up after age four (?), except perhaps on purpose. Ever since you were a little kid, you said, “That’s a very big ___________,” and you never stuck a verb in the blank (“That’s a very big jumping”). You said, “I saw Johnny _________ into the street,” and you never stuck a noun in the blank (“I saw Johnny truth into the street”).

But being taught the labels “noun” and “verb” that fateful day in second grade gave you clarity on what you already intuited, making it much easier to parse the meaning of your own sentences—or those of others you were reading or listening to. This parsing serves your own understanding, and it gives you a greater capacity to explain sentences to others.

This is what the High Definition Commentary (HDC) does, but not with “nouns” and “verbs.” You already have those down. The HDC does this with Discourse Grammar. As with nouns and verbs, you have been intuiting (English) discourse markers your whole life. But if you didn’t have labels for them, you didn’t notice them in quite the same way, or to quite the same degree.

Take, for example, this first paragraph from the HDC volume on James 2:1–13 (releasing tomorrow, remember). I have accentuated every insight which is based on Discourse Grammar.

James signals the shift to a new topic through the use of redundant address (“my brothers”) and an exhortation not to hold our faith with partiality. What does this mean on a practical level? James uses a very complex set of “if” conditions that stretches all the way through the end of verse 4 to make one important “then” statement. These conditions evoke a vivid scenario that he uses to critique the entirety of the situation. He accomplishes the same task as that we do when we say, “Let’s suppose that someone enters your assembly in fine clothing, and you look favorably on the one…” The conditions do not mean that this exact scenario must occur before we make a favorable distinction; it is simply a common strategy in Greek for signaling a hypothetical situation.

You can see this “complex set of ‘if’ conditions” without the insights of Discourse Grammar. But, as with nouns and verbs and prepositions and genitive uses and all the other labels we’ve agreed upon for parsing our speech and writing, you see more clearly when you have the label.

Try it:

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:1–4 ESV)

Author Steve Runge (Faithlife Scholar in Residence) is doing what scholars serving the Christian church are supposed to do: he is popularizing the insights of some rather difficult academic research into how we “mean” with sentences.

The commentary also includes helpful illustrations you can use in teaching or preaching.


The HDC volume on James is also being put out in paper form by Lexham Press. Pick it up today if you want the insights of Discourse Grammar in your study of James.

* * *

People interested in careful study of the Bible often use Logos Bible Software. Our free 30-Day Challenge will show you how to use Logos while walking through the exegesis of a portion of Matthew 4. Learn more about the training, or sign up below.

mark wardMark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.

Understanding a Common Hebrew Connective


This post is by Josh Westbury, a scholar-in-residence at Faithlife.

Instructions are a vital part of everyday life. Imagine driving to a new place without directions, or baking an intricate dessert without a recipe, or—heaven forbid—having to put together a piece of Ikea furniture without a picture-by-picture guide telling you how each part fits together. Sure these feats are possible, but instructions make them much more manageable.

[Read more…]

Did Jesus Speak Greek?


I was somewhat surprised, after I posted about Jesus’ use of the diminutive κυνάριον in his delightful conversation with the Syrophoenician woman (Matt 15:26–27), to have several people make comments like this one:

Was the historical Jesus really speaking Greek with the woman? If not, then many things change about your study and conclusions.

The other language many people think Jesus might have been speaking is Aramaic, a language related to but distinct from Hebrew (and even more distinct from Greek). I answered the commenter this way:

The Aramaic question is totally fair, but it’s one I find never has any firm answer and never gets me anywhere exegetically. When it does get me somewhere (as with some interpretations of “Thou art Peter and upon this rock…”), I tend to think of it as cheating, special pleading. I agree with [the other commenter] that the final form of the (Greek) text is what I have to deal with.

I admit I’m suspicious of the whole question. What effect can it have other than to destabilize the Greek text we in fact have? When will we ever be able to uncover an Aramaic Vorlage (source text) with any certainty—much less one that actually helps us understand the words of Jesus in the New Testament? I’m already too good at evading what Jesus told me to do (“Love your enemies,” “Give to him that asks of you”). I don’t need a temptation to doubt that the New Testament faithfully records Jesus’ words.

But it’s not right for me to simply wish for Jesus to speak Greek because that would make me feel safer from challenge. So I did some study in my journals in Logos—this is precisely the kind of question that is too complicated for commentaries to handle and too narrow for monographs. So to journals I turned. And I was happy to see one of the premier New Testament scholars of the day directly taking up my question: Stanley Porter, in “Did Jesus Ever Teach In Greek?” (Tyndale Bulletin 44, no. 1 [1993]: 199–235).

I’m not going to do original research for this post; Porter’s command of the primary sources far exceeds my own. But I’m going to list in detail the major reasons why Porter’s answer to his own titular question was “Yes.” Jesus did most likely, at least on occasion, teach in Greek.

Porter says that “evidence is increasing that [lower Galilee] was the Palestinian area most heavily influenced by Greek language and culture.” Porter cites several books, as well as this interesting article by eminent Roman Catholic Joseph Fitzmyer (who writes, “There are some indications that Palestinian Jews in some areas may have used nothing else but Greek”), but Porter also points to evidence within the text of Scripture. We’ll start there.

Biblical Evidence

  1. “One indication of the pervasive influence of Greek [is that] in Acts 6:1 (cf. 9:29) a distinction is made between Ἐλληνισταί and Ἑβραῖοι, probably a linguistic distinction made between Jews who spoke mainly Greek and those who spoke mainly Aramaic or who also spoke Aramaic. Before the third century A.D. these terms were virtually exclusively linguistic terms referring to language competence. To distinguish those outside Palestine as Greek speakers would not have been necessary (it would have been assumed), but apparently there was a significant part of the population that spoke mostly Greek even of those resident in Jerusalem.”
  2. “The seven men appointed in Acts 6:5 to serve the Greek-speaking constituency all have Greek names.”
  3. “Referred to as the ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ in Matthew 4:15, lower Galilee was a center for trade among the Mediterranean, Sea of Galilee and Decapolis regions. Galilee was completely surrounded by hellenistic culture.”
  4. “Matthew (Mt. 9:9; Lk. 5:27-28) or Levi (Mk. 2:13-14), the tax collector in Capernaum, would probably have known Greek in order to conduct his duties with the local taxpayers and the tetrarch Herod Antipas’s officials. Many of Jesus’ disciples were fishermen who worked the Sea of Galilee, including Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John. They almost assuredly would have needed to conduct in Greek much of their business of selling fish.”

Extrabiblical Evidence

Porter also points to evidence from outside the Bible.

More impressive than what is known even of Galilee for establishing the probability that Jesus spoke Greek is the epigraphic and literary evidence for the widespread knowledge of Greek throughout Palestine including Galilee…. That Greek was used not only in the Diaspora but also in Palestine, even for composition by Jews of distinctly Jewish literature including much religious literature, indicates that Greek was an important and widely used language by a sizable portion of the Palestinian Jewish population.

Literary Evidence

Porter gives several examples of literary evidence for the use of Greek:

  1. “There have been a number of papyrus texts (including a number of fragments) found in Palestine written in Greek by Jews. The papyri of the Judaean Desert include a wide range and variety of artifacts, such as commercial transactions, fiduciary notes, contracts of marriage, and fragments of philosophical and literary texts, among others.”
  2. “So far as Jewish literature is concerned, there is also significant evidence of composition being done in Greek in Palestine by Jews for Jewish audiences. For example, the book of Daniel, besides using Greek names to refer in 3:5 to three musical instruments (lyre, harp and pipes [NIV]), and being composed in Hebrew and Aramaic, in its deuterocanonical form includes additional sections composed in Greek (Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Children, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon).”
  3. “Worth noting as well is the fact that, although 2 Esdras and Judith were written in Hebrew, they survive virtually entirely or at least in significant part in Greek versions, quite possibly reflecting Jewish linguistic priorities for preservation of religious texts.”

Inscriptional Evidence

Porter also gives examples from inscriptions.

The inscriptional evidence points in the same direction…. There are a number of crucial texts that do point to the early and sustained, widespread use of Greek in Palestine and in particular in Galilee.

For example:

  1. “Kee notes that ‘when the synagogue movement began to flourish and to take on architectural forms in the second century C.E., the inscriptions were in Greek, even in Jerusalem.’”
  2. “The best indicator of the language of the common people is the sepulchral inscriptions, and the evidence certainly indicates a widespread and constant use of Greek in Palestine, including especially Galilee. To put the evidence from funerary inscriptions into its proper context, it is worth noting that, according to the latest statistics on published inscriptions, 68% of all of the ancient Jewish inscriptions from the Mediterranean world are in Greek (70% if one counts as Greek bilingual inscriptions with Greek as one of the languages).”

Porter concludes from the above:

In the light of this accumulated evidence, which is overwhelming when compared to the equivalent Aramaic evidence, it is surprising that many scholars have not given more consideration to the hypothesis that Jesus spoke and even possibly taught in Greek.

So what about Jesus’ own speech as recorded in the New Testament? Does it point in the same direction?

Evidence from the Recorded Speech of Jesus

Porter thinks so. He offers this evidence from within Jesus’ own words in the New Testament:

  1. “The first and most important example, and the one that sets the tenor for the subsequent treatment of passages, is Jesus’ trial before Pilate (Mk. 15:2-5; Mt. 27:11-14; Lk. 23:2-5; Jn. 18:29- 38; cf. 1 Tim. 6:13). It is highly unlikely that Pilate, the prefect assigned to this remote posting in the Roman empire, would have known any Semitic language. No translator or interpreter is mentioned for the conversation that occurs between Jesus and Pilate, making it unlikely that Latin or Aramaic was used. In fact, the pace of the narrative, in which conversation is held between not only Pilate and Jesus but Pilate and the Jewish leaders, Pilate and the crowd, and the Jewish leaders and the crowd, argues against an interpreter intervening. It is most likely, therefore, that Jesus spoke to Pilate in Greek.”

And that brings us back to the diminutive κυνάριον and Jesus’ conversation with the Syrophoenician woman. Porter actually cites this very passage as a reason to believe that Jesus spoke Greek:

  1. “The first example of a passage in which Jesus may well have spoken Greek is Mark 7:25-30, when Jesus travels to the area of Tyre. A woman with a daughter possessed by an evil spirit hears of his presence there and begs for Jesus’ help. The woman is called in Mark’s Gospel a Ἑλληνίς, a Συροφοινίκισσα by birth, i.e. a gentile (7:26). Even though the indigenous language of the area was Semitic, this area had long been under hellenistic influence (and antagonistic to the Jews; see Josephus, Ag. Ap. 1.69-72) and evidenced widespread use of Greek, as has been noted above. The description of the woman in the Gospel makes sure that the reader knows that the woman was a Greek-speaker despite her birth. Otherwise the reference is gratuitous. There is no indication of an interpreter being present.”

Did Jesus speak Greek? The New Testament doesn’t directly answer all the questions we like to ask it. But when combined with archaeological evidence, Porter concludes that

the evidence regarding what is known about the use of Greek in ancient Palestine, including the cosmopolitan hellenistic character of lower Galilee, the epigraphic and literary evidence, including coins, papyri, literary writers, inscriptions and funerary texts, but most of all several significant contexts in the Gospels, all points in one direction: whereas it is not always known how much and on which occasions Jesus spoke Greek, it is virtually certain that he used Greek at various times in his itinerant ministry.


9423We’ve put one of Stanley Porter’s books on linguistics on special sale for the next week. Click here to get Biblical Greek Language and Linguistics: Open Questions in Current Research for $9.99, 64% off.

Moisés Silva Writes a Personal Note About the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 11.53.04 AMThe newly updated New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis was updated because of the assiduous work of one man, Moisés Silva, whose work I have admired for a long time. Because of that admiration, I was both excited about the update and curious to know what it entailed. So I emailed Dr. Silva with a personal note:

Dr. Silva,

I learned from you (and Barr, et al.) that theological lexicography is bad.* So when I see promos for the new NIDNTTE that say, “This volume…includes in-depth treatments of theologically rich words,”1 my eyebrows are raised. When I hear, “learn how many Greek words can be used for ‘love’ and what is the proper way to distinguish their nuances,”2 my eyes threaten to roll.

But then I see your name as editor and Carson and Wallace as blurbers—and then I remember an exchange I had with you a few years ago when you sent me the ἀγάπη entry from the upcoming NIDNTTE.

I suppose I’m just asking you to allay my skepticism and assure me that the NIDNTTE was revised according to your linguistic principles, which I uphold.

Thank you,


I said “theological lexicography is bad” with my tongue trending toward my cheek, but I should have been more careful. Silva graciously responded,

Thanks for your note, Mark.

It is true that in Biblical Words and Their Meaning I emphasize the pitfalls that TDNT and its users face, but that’s a little different from saying that “theological lexicography is bad.”

Now the original NIDNTT sought to provide a methodological improvement on TDNT by grouping words according to concepts. The revised NIDNTTE goes beyond that. Here let me quote the relevant section from the Introduction:

Unfortunately, the adoption of a new structure by the Theologisches Begriffslexikon, and thereafter by NIDNTT, was not sufficient to transcend the basic problem. Some of the articles did have helpful introductory paragraphs, but these were much too brief and sketchy. In addition, the concepts that served as entries were merely German/English headings, not true semantic fields, while the number of Greek terms discussed under each concept was much too small, and the Greek terms chosen were not always semantically connected but had some other kind of association (e.g., the adverb ὀπίσω, “after,” was discussed under the heading Disciple). Most important, the articles themselves, with rare exceptions, discussed each term (with its cognates) in isolation from the other terms listed under the concept; in fact, different words within the same semantic field were usually treated by different authors. What we find, therefore, is largely a physical, not a semantic, grouping of the words discussed. Moreover, the reality is that most users of so-called theological dictionaries of the Bible are motivated by interest in a particular word at a time, and many of them find the conceptual grouping an inconvenience in locating the discussion of that word.

The present edition reverts to an alphabetical organization, but it preserves—indeed, enhances—the distinctive interest in conceptual groupings by several new features.

(1) In the first place, the body of the work is preceded by a comprehensive List of Concepts. This register parallels the organization of the material in the first edition, but with three significant improvements: (a) it provides a fuller (though still not exhaustive) catalog of concepts; (b) it includes a much larger number of cross-references that lead the user to antonyms and to other terms with looser semantic associations; and (c) it lists, under each concept, a far greater number of Greek terms (plus a brief English gloss), with a link to the appropriate articles in the case of terms that receive separate discussion. It should be noted that this list provides a modest catalog of semantic fields, though with no pretensions that it is a scientific arrangement (such as is attempted in J. P. Louw and E. A. Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, 2 vols., 2nd ed. [1989], a work that contributed greatly to the present dictionary). Moreover, the list can serve, again in a modest way, as a partial English-Greek dictionary of NT terms.

(2) In the body of the work each article lists all cognates found in the NT, followed by an indication of the concept(s) to which the word group belongs. This information is linked to the List of Concepts so that the user can quickly identify the other word groups that either occupy the same semantic field or are otherwise related to it.

(3) To a greater degree than is usual in theological dictionaries, the articles themselves from time to time call attention to semantic relationships between the word group being discussed and other lexical items. For practical reasons these comments are usually brief—and often merely suggestive—but in selected articles substantial discussion of synonyms is provided (see, e.g., ἀγαθός, ἀγαπάω, καινός).

Later in the Introduction I mention the perils of theological lexicography and then say the following:

It can hardly be doubted, however, that TDNT and comparable reference works continue to provide a distinctive and valuable approach to the study of Scripture. The challenge is to minimize its problems. The present edition seeks to do so not only by the attention it pays to broader semantic relations (see above, 2. Structure) but also by the way the material is covered. While avoiding an artificial separation between linguistic and conceptual data, the two are distinguished as carefully as is feasible—e.g., by separating them in the presentation of the data when appropriate, by making a special effort to avoid ambiguity in the discussion of specific instances, and occasionally by alerting the user to invalid inferences.

The question remains, however, whether it is justifiable to produce theological dictionaries in which most of the terms covered are not theological at all. A relatively small percentage of the NT vocabulary consists of terms that have developed a specialized Christian sense (e.g., ἁμαρτία, “sin”; σάρξ, “flesh”; χάρις, “grace”). The same is true of specialized vocabulary in other bodies of literature (e.g., only a fraction of the words used by Plato may be regarded as technical or semitechnical philosophical terms). Specialized terms are highly referential (cf. proper names, whose semantic value is not strongly affected by how they are used); as such, they are able by themselves to convey a considerable amount of semantic information, as in the case of νόμος when this word has the specialized sense “the Mosaic law.” (See further Silva, Biblical Words, 101–8.)

While most of the words in the NT are not of this type, even nontheological terms are often found in theological contexts. The value of a theological dictionary is that it can offer exegetical discussion of such contexts by focusing on one word at a time. The point, then, is not necessarily that the word in question has acquired its own theological significance, but rather that there is a special benefit in assessing how that word is functioning in theological contexts. Good commentaries, of course, include discussions of this type through a running exposition of the passage. A theological dictionary, by bringing together the theological passages where the word is found, is able to provide a richer, more systematic exposition of the lexical data.

In addition, there are many other kinds of revisions in the articles. It is my hope that users will take the time to read through the Introduction carefully, since doing so will be a great help to them in using the material profitably.

Thanks a bunch for your interest.

Blessings, Moisés.

Silva also clarified later:

Mark, no additional contributors were involved in the work of revision, but the word revision is important here. Even though I did quite a bit of rewriting and even fresh writing, most of the material comes from the original contributors. My responsibility was to bring more consistency to the work, to omit and add material as necessary, to do some selective updating, etc. Because the changes were so numerous and sometimes so substantial, it would have been less than candid to retain the names at the end of each article. However, I should add that the Introduction includes this caveat: “(Although the revising editor assumes responsibility for the final form of this edition, readers should not infer that the views expressed throughout the work necessarily reflect his own opinions.)”

This is what a true Christian scholar does: he serves the church with a careful appropriation of the work of others and a diligent effort to make it available to the church. Whereas I was tempted to take Silva’s critiques of theological lexicography as a reason not to use theological dictionaries at all, he was judicious enough to give a balanced appraisal of the value of that work.

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 11.53.04 AMI still believe—as I’m confident Silva does—that there’s no replacement in biblical studies for understanding the way language works, and that any good resource can be misused by someone who doesn’t grasp basic linguistic principles. But with a man like Silva attached to the NIDNTTE, I’m no longer a skeptic as to its value. Buy the NIDNTTE today for $50 off the cover price.

How Should Κοινή Greek Be Pronounced?

Man pronouncing letters

I’m going to give you two sets of overlapping opinions on this issue, one set you should listen to and then my own set.

This post is aiming mostly for the person who has no opinions on the issue, and was only dimly aware that opinions existed. You need to know there’s disagreement, and you need to have a basic grasp of why that is.

An Accredited Opinion

For a fully accredited opinion, let’s turn to trained linguist, long-time Greek teacher, published grammarian, and author of an excellent first-year grammar, the late Rod Decker:

The pronunciation of Greek in its various historical stages is debated by scholars. Several proposals have been made. This textbook provides two choices. One is a form of what is called Erasmian pronunciation. This is usually selected for its pedagogical value, not for historical purposes. Some form of Erasmian pronunciation is fairly standard in academic circles. It is not what Greek sounded like in the Koine of the first century, but it has the pedagogical advantage of distinguishing vowel sounds, many of which have similar pronunciations in other systems. Some people think Modern Greek pronunciation should be used to teach Greek, but that is anachronistic and certainly not accurate, though it may be closer to Koine than Erasmian. Others have proposed what is probably a fairly accurate reconstruction of first-century Koine. One of the better-known proposals is Randall Buth’s “Reconstructed Koine” (for further information on this system, including audio material, see his Biblical Language Center). That would be a better option than the modern system, and your teacher may prefer that you use it. If so, see the alternate pronunciation given in chapter 1 along with whatever supplemental materials your teacher may provide.

For students learning to read Koine Greek for academic or ministry purposes, pronunciation is mostly (but not entirely) a convenience. Personally I use a traditional Erasmian system, freely acknowledging that it is not an accurate representation of exactly what Jesus and Paul sounded like when they spoke Greek. If you were learning to speak Greek (either Koine or modern), then pronunciation would obviously be far more important.

Linguists such as Geoffrey Horrocks have done unbelievably detailed work in diachronic linguistics (tracing the form of a language through time) to figure out what the predominant Κοινή pronunciation rules were in given time periods. But Decker basically argues that pedagogical and ministry purposes trump strict accuracy, and I think his advice is sound. That’s a big reason Erasmian pronunciation has stuck around since Erasmus: it has demonstrated its utility, given the church’s most common purposes for learning Greek. Decker contributed to a (pricey) book of essays called Linguist as Pedagogue which deals in greater detail with the issues involved in teaching Greek.

An Overlapping Opinion

Now my idiosyncratic, loosely accredited opinion. By reading on, you agree to the terms and conditions associated with loose idiosyncratic accreditation.

Other things being equal—and they’re not—I would tend to prefer to pronounce μονογενής the way John did and δικαιοσύνη the way Paul did. I think there may be hidden value for textual criticism in the careful study of pronunciation. Just as, to this day, if I produce a typo it’s likely to be a homonym or malapropism of what I meant to say, I believe that some errors of ancient copyists might be more explicable to the amateur textual critic if he or she knew how that copyist pronounced Κοινή.

I also think, though I register Decker’s misgivings (not quoted), that Κοινή Greek should be spoken—or at least read out loud—more often than it is in American classrooms. I think there are hidden benefits for exegesis that come from knowing in one’s bones that Greek Is Not Math.

But there are natural limits to the confidence we can have in the way we’re pronouncing Κοινή. Imagine being a Swahili-speaking scholar in the year 2790, after the Great Conflagration has burned up most English literature. You will be able to provide some answers to the question, “How did English speakers of the 21st century pronounce their O’s and their R’s?” But you may miss out completely on the vocal fry of the Valley girls, the finely articulated drawl of the Charlestonians, and any other kind of dialectical (or idiolectical!) speech that somehow doesn’t survive in archaeological remains.

I applaud those who are resurrecting conversational Κοινή, but at the moment I end up going with my pragmatic American instinct. Erasmian punctuation makes it easier for English speakers, at least, to learn the language, and there are no native Κοινή speakers around to wince or (as the French are famous for doing) look down their noses at our mistakes. If teaching Κοινή Greek as a spoken language takes off, I’ll be glad to amend my opinion. But for now I’ll stick with the tried, even if we know it’s not true.

Greek Is Not Math

shutterstock_229035061 (1)Plenty of Bible interpreters treat New Testament Greek the way my three-year-old girl treats my one-year-old boy: with well-meaning, blundering over-attention that ends up making him cry. Evangelical scholar and linguist Moisés Silva has a hilarious little piece in Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation in which he shows what this over-attention looks like by applying it to English (you just have to read it).

People, Silva says, find a lot of meaning that isn’t there in vocabulary, syntax, and verb tenses. They treat Greek like it’s a math problem: they assume that if they plug in the data and turn the crank they’ll get a definitive answer to whatever interpretive question they’re asking. I’ve heard numerous such exegetes say that Greek is the most exact, unambiguous language ever invented.

Μὴ γένοιτο. I do believe that the Bible gives definitive answers to human questions, but I don’t believe that Greek is math. Koine Greek, like Hebrew and English and Swahili and Old Norse, had to be used by regular people (Koine means “common”) who didn’t have vast education and couldn’t hold on to all the fine shades of meaning often supposed to be hidden in Greek. I’m not saying there are no subtle nuances in the Greek New Testament, only that the path to finding them doesn’t end with parsing and case uses.

Here’s my point: you need exegetical tools that will help you remember that you’re dealing with a human language and therefore achieve the level of interpretive certainty the text actually justifies. We cannot forget that good interpretation weighs various factors; it doesn’t just count them.

Let me make a recommendation if you’re learning Greek: your ears are two of your most valuable tools in language acquisition, and they will help you—on an almost subconscious level—to remember that Greek is a genuine human language and not math. Logos includes easy access to Greek audio pronunciations in several key places where you’ll be working as you learn.

And another recommendation: make general study of linguistics, and study of Greek linguistics in particular, part of your Greek study from the beginning. Some resources I and the other Logos Pros recommend:

Why Do People Learn Κοινή Greek?


One of the things that really fascinated and even awed me after I asked for comments from readers of this Greek email list is that so many of you have taught yourselves Greek.

Now, my experience is not universal, but I judge learning languages on one’s own to be, let’s say, uncommon. When I tell people that I speak Spanish tolerably well, every one of them without exception says, “I took Spanish in high school, but I don’t remember a word of it.” (High school Spanish teachers, could you not at least get hola into their heads?)

I’m in print arguing that the real motivation most people have for learning Spanish, French, German, or Chinese is what sociologists who have studied second-language acquisition call “money.” But knowing Κοινή Greek is unlikely to bring fortune, as I know all too well.

So why do people who are done with school study a language whose native speakers are all so dead? What makes people turn off the TV—a choice that probably ought to be investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee—and instead pull out a Κοινή Greek grammar book? Why do people learn Greek?

Because God spoke it.

Now I know it’s not quite that simple; I’m an ICBI kind of Christian familiar with the necessary theological distinctions. I know that God didn’t dictate the Bible to scribes but used the personalities and experiences and even the literary proclivities of the Scripture writers. I know that at least in books like Deuteronomy he used an editorial process (Moses didn’t write about his own death and burial). I also know that, as the KJV translators said,

The very meanest translation of the Bible in English, set forth by men of our profession, … containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God.

Christians do not view the Bible the way Muslims view the Qur’an—as valid only in its original form. English (and Spanish, and French, and German, and Chinese) versions carry God’s authority.

But people who want to get closer to God, to understand him better, sometimes feel an impulse that nothing but the study of Greek (and Hebrew) can fulfill. They are frustrated when the precise import of a particular turn of phrase in Peter’s second epistle eludes them—because what God says matters to them. And they don’t want to teach the Bible to others without the particular kind of confidence that only comes from parsing the participles for yourself.

Luther took Greek and Hebrew so seriously that he said, “We will not long preserve the gospel without the languages”! In a letter “To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools,” Luther wrote,

The languages are the sheath in which this sword of the Spirit [Eph. 6:17] is contained; they are the casket in which this jewel is enshrined; they are the vessel in which this wine is held; they are the larder in which this food is stored; and, as the gospel itself points out [Matt. 14:20], they are the baskets in which are kept these loaves and fishes and fragments. If through our neglect we let the languages go (which God forbid!), we shall not only lose the gospel, but the time will come when we shall be unable either to speak or write a correct Latin or German.

Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 45 : The Christian in Society II, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 360.

I’m wary of claiming too much for Greek and Hebrew, and so is Luther:

A simple preacher (it is true) has so many clear passages and texts available through translations that he can know and teach Christ, lead a holy life, and preach to others. (Ibid., 363)

But Luther’s 500-year-old opinion is still, it seems to me, valid today:

But when it comes to interpreting Scripture, and working with it on your own, and disputing with those who cite it incorrectly…; that cannot be done without languages. (Ibid., 363)

I care about linguistic minutiae in the Greek New Testament, but not as ends in themselves. Sometimes it helps to remind ourselves what our goal is in our work.

New Greek students, remind yourself why you’re slogging.

Experienced exegetes, remind yourself why you slogged.

God has spoken, and it is our privilege and responsibility, we students of the languages, to listen especially closely.49819


If you’re studying on your own and want some help, Learn to Use Biblical Greek and Hebrew with Logos 6 is now available.