The Street Language of the New Testament

Spiritual theologian Eugene Peterson contends that the archaeological discoveries at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt (1897) and the ancient kingdom of Ugarit in Syria (1923) revolutionized “the post-King James world of Bible translation.” He writes:

The difference that this has made to Bible translation and Bible reading is hard to exaggerate. In retrospect it shouldn’t have been such a surprise that this was the kind of language used in the Bible, for this is the exactly the kind of society that we know that Jesus embraced and loved, the world of children and marginal men and women, the rough-talking working class, the world of the poor and dispossessed and exploited. Still, it was a surprise; our Bibles written not in the educated and polished language of scholars, historians, philosophers, and theologians but in the common language of fisherman and prostitutes, homemakers and carpenters. Not entirely, to be sure. F. F. Bruce cautions against exaggerating the extent to which the Greek vernacular is taken over wholesale into the Greek New Testament. There are wide differences in style within the New Testament, ranging from true literary works (Hebrews and First Peter) to the vernacular conversation of ordinary people (the Gospels), with Paul coming roughly halfway between. But now that it is all laid before us, it makes perfect sense. Of course the witness of God’s revelation to us would use the language most accessible to us. Professor Moulton had it right: “The Holy Ghost spoke absolutely in the language of the people, as we might surely have expected He would.”

* * *

The discoveries made at Oxyrhynchus and other Egyptian sties are irrefutable evidence that the language of our New Testament is primarily the language of the street (although, as noted earlier, not entirely). Why should this surprise anyone? But it invariably does. When Augustine first read the Bible he was greatly disappointed. As Peter Brown explains,

He had grown up expecting a book to be cultivated and polished: he had been carefully groomed to communicate with educated men in the only admissible way, in a Latin scrupulously modeled on the ancient authors. Slang and jargon were abhorrent to such a man; and the Latin Bible of Africa, translated some centuries before by humble, nameless writers, was full of both. What is more, what Augustine read in the Bible seemed to have little to do with the highly spiritual Wisdom that Cicero had told him to love. It was cluttered with earthly and immoral stories from the Old Testament; and, even in the New Testament, Christ, Wisdom Himself, was introduced by long, and contradictory, genealogies.

It was only after his conversion that he realized that this word of God was not an elevated language used by philosophers and poets to discourse on the “higher things” but the language in which men and women were finding themselves addressed by the Holy Spirit in the thick of everyday life.

Not unlike Augustine, we often thoughtlessly suppose that language dealing with a holy God and holy things should be stately, elevated, and ceremonial. But it is a supposition that won’t survive the scrutiny of one good look at Jesus – his preference for homely stories and his easy association with common people, his birth in a stable and his death on cross. For Jesus is the descent of God to our lives just as we are an in the neighborhoods in which we live, not the ascent of our lives to God whom we hope will approve when he sees how hard we try and how politely we pray.

Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading (pp. 146-147, 151-152)

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