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OBSERVATIONS ON THE
LANGUAGE AND IDIOM OF THE NEW
THE LANGUAGE AND IDIOM.
If the words and phrases employed by the apostles and evangelists, in delivering the revelation committed to them by the Holy Spirit, had not been agreeable to the received usage of the people to whom they spoke, their discourses, being unintelligible, could have conveyed no information, and consequently would have been no revelation to the hearers. Our Lord and his apostles, in publishing the gospel, first addressed themselves to their countrymen the Jews; a people who had, many ages before, at different periods, been favoured with other revelations. To those ancient Jewish revelations, now collected into one volume, Christians give the name of the Old Testament; and thereby distinguish them from those apostolical and evangelical writings, which, being also collected into one volume, are called the New Testament. In the latter dispensation, the divine authority of the former is presupposed and founded on. The knowledge of what is contained in that introductory revelation is always presumed in the readers of the New Testament, which claims to be the consummation of an economy of God for the salvation of man; of which economy the Old Testament acquaints us with the occasion, origin, and early progress. Both are therefore intimately connected. Accordingly, though the two Testaments are written in different languages, the same idiom prevails in both; and in the historical part at least, nearly the same character of style.
2. As the writings of the Old Testament are of a much earlier date, and contain an account of the rise and first establishment,
together with a portion of the history of the nation to whom the gospel was first promulged, and of whom were all its first missionaries and teachers, it is thence unquestionably that we must learn, both what the principal facts, customs, doctrines, and precepts are, that are alluded to in the apostolical writings, and what is the proper signification and extent of the expressions used. Though the New Testament is written in Greek, an acquaintance with the Greek classics (that is, with the writings of profane authors in that tongue in prose and verse) will not be found so conducive to this end, as an acquaintance with the ancient Hebrew Scriptures. I am far from denying that classical knowledge is, even for this purpose, of real utility; I say only, that it is not of so great utility as the other. It is well known that the Jews were distinguished, by all Pagan antiquity, as a nation of the most extraordinary and peculiar manners; as absolutely incapable of coalescing with other people-being actuated, especially in matters wherein religion or politics were thought to be concerned, by the most unrelenting aversion to every thing foreign, and the most violent attachment to every thing national. We cannot have a clearer evidence of the justness of this character, than their remaining to this day a distinct people, who, though they have been for many ages scattered over the face of the earth, have never yet been blended in any country with the people amongst whom they lived. They are, besides, the only wandering nation that ever existed of which this can be affirmed.
3. Before the tribes of Judah and Benjamin returned from captivity in Babylon to the land of their fathers, their language, as was inevitable, had been adulterated, or rather changed, by their sojourning so long among strangers. They called it Hebrew, availing themselves of an ambiguous name.* It is accordingly called Hebrew in the New Testament. This, though but a small circumstance, is characteristical of the people, who could not brook the avowal of changing their language, and adopting that of strangers, even when they could not avoid being conscious of the thing. The dialect which they then spoke might have been more properly styled Chaldee, or even Syriac, than Hebrew. But to give it either of these appellations, had appeared to them as admitting what would always remind both themselves and others of their servitude. After the Macedonian conquests, and the division which the Grecian empire underwent among the commanders on the death of their chief, Greek soon became the language of the people of rank through all the extensive dominions which had been subdued by Alexander. The persecutions with which the Jews were harassed under Antiochus Epiphanes,
Hebrew was ambiguous, as it might denote either the language spoken on the other side of the river, (that is Euphrates, which is commonly meant when no river is named), or the language of the people called Hebrews.-Preface to Matthew's Gospel, sect. 14-18.
concurring with several other causes, occasioned the dispersion of a great part of their nation throughout the provinces of Asia Minor, Assyria, Phenicia, Persia, Arabia, Libya, and Egypt; which dispersion was in process of time extended to Achaia, Macedonia, and Italy. The unavoidable consequence of this was, in a few ages, to all those who settled in distant lands, the total loss of that dialect which their fathers had brought out of Babylon into Palestine. But this is to be understood with the exception of the learned, who studied the oriental languages by book. At length a complete version of the Scriptures of the Old Testament was made into Greek; a language which was then, and continued for many ages afterwards, in far more general use than any other. This is what is called the Septuagint, or version of the Seventy, (probably because approved by the sanhedrim,) which was begun, as has been said, by order of Ptolemy Philadelphus, king of Egypt, for the use of the Alexandrian Library. At first no more than the Pentateuch was translated, which was soon followed by a version of the other books. This is doubtless the first translation that was attempted of the sacred writings.
4. It will readily be imagined, that all the Jews who inhabited Grecian cities, where the oriental tongues were unknown, would be solicitous to obtain copies of this translation. To excite in them this solicitude, patriotism would concur with piety, and indeed almost every motive that can operate upon men. In one view, their Bible was more to them than ours is to us. It is religion alone, I may say, that influences our regard; whereas their sacred books contained not only their religious principles and holy ceremonies, but the whole body of their municipal laws.* They contained an account of their political constitution, and their civil history, that part especially which is most interesting the lives of their Patriarchs, and the gradual advancement of that family from which they gloried to be descended; the history of their establishment as a nation; the exploits, victories, and conquests of their ancestors; the lives and achievements of their kings and heroes, prophets and reformers. Nay, more, the Scriptures might also be justly considered as a collection of the writings, both prosaic and poetical, of all the most eminent authors their country had produced. A copy of such a version was therefore, in every view we can take of it, an inestimable treasure to every Jew who understood Greek, and could not read the original. And hence we may easily conceive, that the copies would soon be greatly multiplied, and widely scattered.
5. Let us attend to the consequences that would naturally follow. Wherever Greek was the mother-tongue, this version would come to be used not only in private in Jewish houses, but also in public in their schools and synagogues, in the explanation of the weekly lessons from the Law and the Prophets. The style
* See Lowth, De Sacra Poesi Hebræorum, Præl. viii.
of it would consequently soon become the standard of language to them on religious subjects. Hence would arise a certain uniformity of phraseology and idiom among the Grecian Jews, whereever dispersed, in regard to their religion and sacred rites, whatever were the particular dialects which prevailed in the places of their residence, and were used by them in conversing on ordinary
6. That there was, in the time of the apostles, a distinction made between those Jews who used the Greek language and the Hebrews, or those who spoke the language of Palestine and of the territory of Babylon, which they affected to call Hebrew, is manifest from the Acts of the Apostles. There we are informed, that "there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration," Acts vi. 1, &c. That those Grecians were Jews is evident from the history; for this happened before Peter was specially called to preach the gospel to Cornelius and his family, who were the first fruits of the Gentiles to Christ. Besides, though the word Grecian made use of in our translation is synonymous with Greek, yet the term employed in the original is never applied in the New Testament to Pagan Greeks, but solely to those Jews who had resided always or mostly in Grecian cities, and consequently whose common tongue was Greek. The Gentile Greeks are invariably called in Scripture 'EXλnves; whereas the term used in the place quoted is 'EXλnvioral, a word which, even in classical authors, does not mean Greeks, but imitators of the Greeks, or those who write or speak Greek; being a derivation from the word λAnvilev, to speak Greek, or imitate the Greeks. The term occurs only thrice in the New Testament; that is, in two other passages of the Acts beside that now quoted. One of these is where we are told that Saul, also called Paul after his conversion, being at Jerusalem, "disputed with the Grecians," TOOS TOUS EXXNvioras, who "went about to slay him," Acts ix. 29. This also happened before the conversion of Cornelius, and consequently before the gospel was preached to any Gentile; but as to their festivals there was a general concourse of people at Jerusalem, from all parts of the world into which they were dispersed, a considerable number of those Hellenists or Grecizers, as in our idiom we should be apt to term them, must have been present on that occasion. The only other passage is where we are told, that some of these being Cypriots and Cyrenians, who were scattered abroad on the persecution that arose about Stephen, "spake unto the Grecians" (TOOS TOUS 'Eλλnvioras) at Antioch, "preaching the Lord Jesus," Acts xi. 20. Whether this was before or after the baptism of Cornelius, recorded in the foregoing chapter, is not certain; but one thing is certain, that it was before those disciples could know of that memorable event. Concerning the others who were in that dispersion, who were probably