“It’s All Greek To Me”

Copyright © 2005, 2006 by Larry G. Overton

greekBehind our English translations of the New Testament lies a Greek text. Many of you may already know this, but it is a fact that must be known and kept in mind when studying the New Testament (hereafter, NT). Bible teachers reference the readings and the meaning of the Greek text, not to impress their hearers (at least, that shouldn’t be their motivation), but to establish the original sense of the NT author.

The NT was originally written in an ancient form of the Greek language known as Koinē [κοινη̃], which means “common.”[1] This “common” Greek dialect prevailed after the conquest of Alexander the Great throughout the Mediterranean world. As J. Gresham Machen, the principal founder of Westminster Theological Seminary said,

The Greek world language which was written and spoken from about 300 B.C. to about A. D. 500 was different from any of the dialects that preceded it. It was based upon Attic {the dialect of Athens}, but it was not Attic. It requires a separate name. The name which is usually applied to it is ‘the Koine’, that is, ‘the common [language]’.[2]

Christianity was a worldwide movement. Jesus told His disciples that they would be witnesses of Him “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8), and He commissioned them to “make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19). This meant communicating the good news of Jesus to many ethnic or people groups. An effective means of doing this was to employ a lingua franca, that is, a “common or commercial” language used “among peoples of diverse speech.”[3] And it just so happened that Koinē Greek was the lingua franca of the day. It is for this reason that the NT was written, not in Hebrew or Aramaic or Latin, but in Greek.

Of course, our English versions of the NT are just that: they are versions, translations from Greek to English. They are the result of many scholars (who are well versed in the Bible and in Biblical languages) translating the NT text from Greek to English.

 Handwritten & Handed Down

Before the translation process, however, came the transmission of the Greek text. And that’s where the “manuscripts” come in. The word “manuscript” is from a compound Latin word meaning “written by hand.”[4] Of course, the original NT documents (the Gospel narratives, the letters of Paul, etc.) were hand written.

While the originals have not survived, many copies of these original documents exist, and these copies are in many cases quite ancient. There are literally thousands of ancient manuscripts of the Greek NT that have survived down through the centuries. In all of these manuscripts, it is common to find variations.

 Variant Readings, Reliable Text

However, the fact that variations occur in the manuscripts of the Greek NT does not mean that the NT documents are unreliable. In most cases, the variations are very minor. In fact, many variations are so minor that they make no difference at all in translation. Many variations are things like words being transposed (e.g., “Christ Jesus” instead of “Jesus Christ”), a difference in the spelling of a proper noun (“Beelzeboub” versus “Beelzeboul”), a difference of the tense of a verb, etc.

There are instances of textual variations that are a bit more substantial than spellings and transpositions of words. Another type of variant is an alternative word, the substitution of one word in the text for another. For the most part, though, variations in this category do not significantly change the meaning of the verse in which they occur. For example, Acts 13:44 in some manuscripts refers to the word “of the Lord” (Kuriou [Κυρίου]) where most others have the reading “the word of God” (Theou [Θεου̃]). Of course, the two different readings do affect the meaning of the phrase, but not substantially, and no Christian doctrine is undermined based upon one reading or the other.

There are variations that involve the addition or deletion (depending on your point of view) of a word, phrase, verse or even more. For example, Acts 8:37 has Philip the evangelist replying to the Ethiopian eunuch’s question about being immersed in water:

And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, it is lawful.” And answering, he said, “I believe Jesus Christ to be the Son of God.”

Most editors of the Greek NT consider this variant an addition to the text, since only a handful of manuscripts have this reading. However, the omission of what traditionally was numbered verse 37 in Acts 8 does not deprive us of any essential doctrine; believing with the heart and confessing with the mouth that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God is taught elsewhere in the NT.


The fact is, these variant readings of different manuscripts do not undermine the reliability of the NT, nor do they alter any basic Christian doctrine. Geisler and Nix address this fact in their excellent work, A General Introduction to the Bible.

It is significant that the Bible has not only been preserved in the largest number of manuscripts of any book from the ancient world, but that it also contains fewer errors in transmission. Actually, the variant readings which significantly affect the sense of a passage are less than ten percent of the New Testament, and none of these affect any basic doctrine of the Christian faith.[5]

[1] Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott & James M. Whiton, A Lexicon Abridged from Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, pgs. 383f.

[2] J. Gresham Machen, The New Testament: An Introduction to its Literature and History, p. 28.

[3] Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged, p. 1316.

[4] Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged, p. 1379.

[5] Norman L. Geisler & William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, p. 489.