The Differences in Spoken Language

While there has been much written about translating Biblical Greek, one of the biggest issues that seems to be ignored is that Christ words were not originally written but spoken. What we read as Christ's words must be interpreted by how people speak, not how they write. The other books in the NT were written Greek. Christ's use of the Greek common tongue, Koine, was spoken and that it how the Gospel writers tried to capture it. Paul and the other letter writers of the Epistles composed down their ideas on paper. This is very important to understanding them.

The Differences Between Spoken Language and Written

There are a number of differences between all spoken languages and all written ones. Among them are:

  • Writing is recorded and can be read by anyone and anytime, so it is based the thinking of the writer, not on immediate feedback from its audience.

  • Spoken words address the live interactions of people at a specific time and place. While Christ was speaking for all times and attributed his words at the time to the Father, they still had to make sense to the people with whom he was interacting.

  • Writing has longer, complete sentences and many subordinate clauses. Spoken language consists exclamations, incomplete sentences, repetitions, digressions, and interruptions that make sense within the larger context of the conversation. In translation, Christ's Greek words are often forced into sentence structure when it is not there in the Greek.

  • Written language uses punctuation to capture meaning. Speech uses timing, tone, volume, and gestures to add meaning. We see this in the Greek, especially of the synoptic Gospels, which are "converted" into completed sentences only in translation.

Word Order: The Key Difference Between Greek and English

While there are a number of differences between the two languages, the most important one is their word order. Simply put, English is more structured that Greek. While English follows the general sentence order of "subject verb object," Greek is more fluid. Generally, in a Greek sentence, the most important words come first.

However, the word order of spoken Greek and spoken English is more alike than the written languages. Word order in spoken languages is not necessarily grammatical in either language. When people talk, there is a natural tendency to put the most important ideas first in English, even if the word order doesn't work out as properly grammatically.

Word order might be said to be more important in spoken languages than written in order to convey meaning. An important example is in telling jokes. Jokes, written and especially spoken, rely upon a very specific word order. This word order puts the keywords last, not first. Just as punch-lines come at the end of the comic set-up, any keywords in the punch-line must come at the end of the statement because the laughter ideally follows.

Since the Greek written language puts the most important words first in its normal written structure, spoken Greek can and must have a different structure when jokes are told. The ending of the statement must be the most important. Since this is the structure we see in a lot of Christ's statements, we can assume these statements are humorous at least to some degree. However, statement structure isn't the only evidence of Christ's statements being humorous. See this article for more on Christ's humor.

In translating Christ's spoken words, (see verses here), I follow the word order as much as possible without making Christ sound like Yoda, since some sentences have the verbs at the end and adjectives following nouns. You can see how many of these statements have the keywords at the end, structuring them more like spoken humor, rather that normal Greek. Christ often, for example, puts the verb before the subject so that some action is described before the audience knows what it applies to. This flexibility of Greek word order is a great resource for a speaker.

Christ uses this technical, for example, to make his stories more interesting. For example, consider the sentence, "The rain fell." Not very interesting. But suppose the speaker says, "a wise man who constructed his house on a rocky cliff, and it came down (pause) the rain" (Mat 7:25). This order, especially with a pause, is entertaining wordplay. It is one basis for Christ's humor (again, see this article for more on that subject). But even when not used in a punch line, Christ's chosen word order is entertaining, creating a certain tension in story-telling. Consider the next line from the verse above, "And they showed up....the floods. And they breathed forth...the winds. And they beat on...the house." Notice the little trick there where the position used for the subject becomes the position of the object.

So Christ carefully chooses his word order. He clearly chooses it to be entertaining as much as to convey meaning. The freedom he has to do this in Greek is better than that of English. However, the two spoken languages are not so different. We can certainly imagine an entertainer using exactly these same kinds of tricks in English, which is the whole point of my Spoken Version following Christ's word order more exactly.

What We Know About Christ's Speaking

Some of Christ's words are captured in interactions, but most of them a presented in long discourses or sermons. This is especially true in Matthew, which contains the bulk of Christ's words. Most of these verses are parts of long sections of Christ speaking, "The Sermon on the Mount," "The Sending of the Apostle," "The Parables," etc.

What this how they were actually originally delivered?

We cannot know for certain, but there are many clues that this was not the way the people at the time heard these words presented. We have a number of tools.

We can compare Christ's words in the Synoptic Gospels with the how he speaks in John. There are differences. The most noticeable it that John's sentences are longer and more complex, more like a written work. In contrast, Christ's voice in the synoptic Gospels consists of pithy, short sentences. However, John has much more repetition, clarifying ideas. We see little of that in the Synoptic Gospels. In John, ideas follow in a logical way. In the synoptic Gospels, there are jumps from one subject to another that make the meaning almost impossible to understand.

Which is the real voice of Christ? Both and neither.

The words in the synoptic Gospels seem to be based on notes taken from Christ's live presentations. As such, repetitions would be left out. The pithier stuff captured. To those interested writing down Christ's words, many of the interactions that generate a given comment were clearly not recorded, though many are easy to imagine from the context. However, the writers of the Gospels didn't try to recreate the event of Christ's talking as much as simply present the notes recorded from his speaking. In the Gospels, we get the actual words but without the glue of interaction that holds them together.

John is different. It seems based on memory, an indelible memory. However, that memory was filtered by a man who was remembering what he heard, not necessary what was said. More importantly, this memory was written down so the writer would naturally conform to the standard of writing more than speaking. In John, we get a sense for how Christ sounded to his listened, at least to John. However, John seems to avoid the public Christ, who was recorded in the synoptic Gospels, so as to reveal the private Christ, interacting with his followers and people in private.

To summarize, what we can know about how Christ spoke is what we can infer from what has been written about him. John for how he sounded, especially when serious and in private. The others for what people wanted to write down based on his public presentation.

What We Can Infer

We cannot know exactly how Christ sounded. His timing, tone, volume, and so on. However, we can make guesses based upon several things.

First, we can infer that Christ did everything for a reason. In Greek generally, the "important" words (context and focus) are usually given in the beginning of the sentence. The end of the sentence is additional material. However, many of Christ's public saying do not work this way. Often the keywords are at the end, like a punch line in a joke, which many of them are. Much of our work in capturing the sense of Christ preserves his word order because that order works well in a spoken environment.

We can infer that if there is a sudden change in topic, there is a reason. Someone asked a question. Christ described his talking not as giving speeches, but as "teaching." How did people teach at the time? Not in long lectures, but in a dialogue. People would ask questions. He would answer.

If Christ uses the voice of another, speaking in the voice of a king or a child, he probably used a different voice for doing that. This is what people do when telling stories. Christ does this so often, it is easy for us to

If Christ uses strange or unusual words, he does so for a reason. He is often going for a play on words. However, he also does this to be specific. When he uses an uncommon word that means the same as a common word, he is normally not going for the meaning they have in common. If he wanted the common meaning, he would have used the common word. These uncommon words are meant to stand out because he wants to make his specific point clear.

In the Spoken Word translations on this site, we use these and other ideas to try and make Christ's meaning or potential meaning clearly.