Greek is an Indo-European language, which means that it belongs to the same language family as English, German, French, Russian and Spanish. (For a glimpse of the relationship, compare English “father,” “mother” and “daughter” to their Greek equivalents: “pater,” “meter,” and “thugater.”)
Today, Greek is spoken by about 13 million people, mostly in Albania, Cyprus and, of course, Greece itself.
Anciently, however, it was among the most important languages on Earth. In fact, written Greek has been found all the way back in the mid-15th century before Christ, when it appears not in the familiar Greek alphabet (a term derived from its first two letters, alpha and beta) but in a script that scholars call “Linear B.” That makes Greek the oldest living language in the world; older tongues are known, such as Egyptian and Hittite, but they’re long dead.
By contrast, despite the many changes that have occurred in the language since ancient times, modern Greeks still usually consider ancient Greek literature as belonging to their own language rather than to a foreign one, just as Shakespeare, though difficult, remains English while Dante and Goethe aren’t.
And that literature is rich and vast. When Greek really came into its own with Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” and the works of Hesiod a few centuries after Linear B, it served as the vehicle for a cultural contribution (e.g., the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes), history (for example, Herodotus, Thucydides and Josephus), science (Ptolemy, for instance, as well as Eratosthenes and Aristarchus), medicine (e.g., Hippocrates and Galen), mathematics (e.g., Euclid, Archimedes, Pythagoras, Apollonius and Diophantus), and philosophy (e.g., Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus) that no other language has ever surpassed.
Much of this had already been achieved by the fourth century B.C., when the ambitious social climber Phillip, king of backward Macedon, hired Aristotle to tutor his son. This boy, Alexander, ultimately earned his nickname “the Great” with a brilliant series of military conquests that created an empire extending from Greece down into Egypt and eastward to India. (Like the period in which it flourished, that empire is known as “Hellenistic,” from “Hellas,” the Greek word for “Greece.”) A zealous believer in Greek civilization, Alexander spread “Hellenism” over a vast area.
His long-powerful influence, for instance, explains why the famous Bamiyan Buddhas, the massive A.D. fifth-sixth century statues destroyed in central Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2001, were depicted as clothed in Greek-style robes.
More to the point, Alexander’s conquests and his enthusiasm for everything “Hellenistic” led to Greek becoming the common language, the “lingua franca,” of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near East and, eventually, the second language of many cultured Romans. (Likewise, many people today with no genetic or geographical connection to France and England speak French and English.) This late-antique form of the language is usually referred to as “koine” (“common”; pronounced koy-NAY).
The language of the ancient Jews, of course, had been Hebrew and then, after their return from the Babylonian captivity of the sixth century B.C., the closely related tongue known as Aramaic. Like more distantly related tongues such as Arabic and Ethiopic, both Hebrew and Aramaic belong to the Semitic language family, quite unconnected to the Indo-European family. (For a glimpse of the differences, compare English “father,” “mother” and “daughter” to their Hebrew equivalents: “ab,” “em” and “bat.”)
Aramaic emerges into visible history about 900 B.C.; it was the language of administration in the Assyrian Empire and, after that, in the empires of the Assyrians’ successors, the Babylonians, and then the Persians.
But Alexander’s conquests, and then the Seleucid Empire that ruled Palestine following his premature death — named after Seleucus, one of his infantry generals — deposited yet another linguistic layer, a Greek one, on the Near East, represented in such cities as Alexandria and Antioch. And it particularly affected the intellectual and cultural elite. This is why the great Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (d. ca. A.D. 50) and the Jewish historian Yosef ben Matityahu (d. ca. A.D. 100; better known as Flavius Josephus) wrote in Greek. It explains why, in third-century B.C. Egypt, the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament was translated into Greek as the famous “Septuagint.”
And, finally, Alexander’s Hellenistic political and cultural transformation of the Mediterranean and the Near East explains why Greek is the original language of the New Testament. To reach the largest audience in the region where Christianity was born, Greek was the obvious language to use.
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.