Monthly Archives: March 2011

The Language of Ecclesiastical Greek

This article is intended to help beginners in Ecclesiastical Greek develop a strategy to translate a wide range of Church writings.

The Church fathers used the common written language in use during their time. This was Attic Greek.

There are two caveats though: first there are many sub-dialects in Attic Greek that the translator has to be conscious of. Secondly, many manuscripts were modified by medieval copyists and are mixed-bag of old and newer constructs.

Greek in the ancient world was much like the contemporary English language. There is koine English, which is a base form of English which many countries and regions share very similar commonalities. For example the United States south, British, and Australians can communicate with only a few problems. However, each one does have some distinct words and pronunciations that each party quickly recognizes and makes adjustments. Ecclesiastical Greek has many authors that wrote in their own sub-dialect similar to the slight differences found between British, American and Australian literature.

Ecclesiastical Greek writings span over a millennium and a wide geographical area which means there is a variety of Greek sub-groups in Ecclesiastical literature. Attic Greek is by far the most common one used.

Contrary to previous iterations of this article, ancient pidgin Greek does exist. It is especially evident in the New Testament texts. Most texts were written in Alexandrian Greek heavily influenced by Hebrew and Aramaic. However, by the time of the fourth century, when Greek authors began to proliferate, the Hebraisms were lost, giving way to more standard Greek syntax and word usage.

Origen, Cyril of Alexandria, Didymus of Alexandria are Alexandrian Greek writers. The influence of Alexandrian writers spread to leaders such as John Chrysostom, but not entirely. Gregory Nazianzus and the Cappadocian writers were not so inclined. The Cappadocians had a preference to classical Greek.

Chrysostom and Origen share a vocabulary that many dictionaries do not suffice. The spellings of some words have lingual shifts while other words are used exclusively only in their texts.

Every Greek Church father is slightly unique and has to be approached with the understanding that their Greek has some regional influences that may not be found anywhere else.

That means to immerse oneself in that persons writings in order to understand his style, nuances, peculiarities, commonalities and differences

A portion of the methodology used here at this site for translating is to read the text over a number of times and then type it into the computer. The typing allows one to slowly think about the copy and memorize the structure, content and relationships.

When the time comes for translating, this knowledge moves the work more consistently.

The translator discovers along the road of translating a number of Church writers that what is learned from translating one author may not entirely apply to another. For example Gregory Nazianzus may not apply for Epiphanius or vice-versa.

Classical and Byzantine Greek are represented fairly well in online and physical dictionaries. Alexandrian Greek used outside of the Bible is not so well addressed.

Some writings may promote Aeolian, Doric, Ionic and Attic Greek in their histories. Aeolian and Doric ceded to Attic (which was a more modern version of Ionic plus integration of other sub-dialects) by the time the great majority of Church writings came into existence. The only concern for the Church translator is Attic and its sub-dialects.

After the fourth century, Ecclesiastical Greek remained static for centuries. Since Latin took over the Church as the official language, those who wrote in Greek tended to be more simplistic. Either Greek was their second language, or their intended audience were not native Greek speakers. Because of this, later Ecclesiastical Greek is generally not as hard as the earlier manifestations.

Knowledge of classical Greek and philosophy is a must, and this cannot be stressed enough. Many books are written from a Greek philosophical framework. This is covered in Patrology and Greek Philosophy.

More information on how to translate the Church fathers can be found at Translation Tips on the Greek Church Fathers.