There’s no better time than Christmas to learn New Testament Greek

A 3rd-4th-century Greek inscription at one of Israel's oldest churches (Getty/ Israeli Antiquities Authority)

Have yourself a merry little Christmas. And an ancient, classical one, too, while you’re at it. That’s the wise message sent out by the Pope this winter.

First, he recommended that the young should learn more Latin. Students, he said, should “know how to treasure the very rich heritage of the Latin tradition to educate them in the path of life”. And then he said we should go back to the original Greek of the Lord’s Prayer, to get a better translation than the one we now use.

As the Pope said, the current line “Lead us not into temptation” has been badly translated. It suggests God leads us astray, whereas Satan is to blame. The line should really be translated, “Don’t let me fall into temptation.”

French bishops have already made the change, from “Do not submit us to temptation” to “Do not let us enter into temptation”. The Spanish have gone for “Don’t let us fall into temptation”; and the Italians for “Don’t abandon us to temptation.”

The problem goes back to the original Greek of the New Testament, and eisenenkês, the Greek word for “lead”. Derived from eisphero, it literally means “carry into”. To translate it as “Lead us not into temptation” is far too literal. Still, that’s essentially how it was translated into the Vulgate Latin – ne nos inducas in tentationem – and into English, in the familiar 1662 Book of Common Prayer translation. And so it has remained.

The story is a reminder of what I was taught by my old classics teachers: “Don’t be so literal, Mount. Interpret! Think of the English sense when you’re translating.”

The Greek of the New Testament is marvellously clear – and very simple. In the whole New Testament, only 320 Greek words make up around 80 per cent of the text. Admittedly, the other 20 per cent has 5,120 words; often tricky ones. But, still, the simplicity of the text is such that it makes sense to interpret heavily when moving from simple Greek to complex English. It’s fair enough to give eisenenkês a passive, rather than an active meaning: “Don’t let us be led into temptation.”

It isn’t the first time the Church has got into a spot of bother over its Greek. The most famous example was over the Nicene Creed in 325 AD. Then the Homoousians declared that the Son was homoousios – of the same substance – as the Father.

The Homoiousian school said he was homoiousios – of a similar substance – to the Father, but not the same. The single differing letter between the two words – that “i” – led to the expression “one iota of difference”.

Here’s hoping the latest row will draw people back to the original Greek of the New Testament – and the delight of reading the Christmas story in ancient Greek. The closer you are to the original text – written in Greek between around 50 and 120 AD – the closer you are to the original meaning.

What simple joy it is to read the story of Mary and Joseph, in Matthew I, in Greek: eteken huion kai ekalesen to onoma autou Iesoun – “She had brought forth her first born son, and he called his name Jesus.”

In her 1925 essay “On Not Knowing Greek”, Virginia Woolf said of Aeschylus’s 5th-century BC Greek, “The meaning is just on the far side of language”; that is, the purest, most original of meanings.

The same goes for New Testament Greek: the Nativity never sounds so immediate. I hope this Christmas is all Greek to you.

Harry Mount is author of Odyssey – Ancient Greece in the Footsteps of Odysseus (Bloomsbury)

This article first appeared in the December 22 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here