In 2004 a user on the Greek and Latin forum Textkit posted the following question:

I have often read and heard that Greek (specifically thinking of Ancient or Koine) is the most exact language ever created. I guess my questions would be as follows:
Is that true?
If it’s true, then why is that statement true?

This question reflects one of those ideas which just don’t go away. Some people spread the idea that Greek is somehow a super-precise language and that is somehow relevant for God using it as the language of revelation in the New Testament.

Last month I had the opportunity to talk with Andrew Case, who is involved in Bible translation, about this very issue. Our conversation is available as a two-part podcast here (something like 1 ½ hours of total content). While you are there, check out some of the other awesome content which Andrew has been collecting relating to Bible translation and biblical languages.

Here I just want to provide a super-abbreviated outline of the main points I walk through in this discussion about the precision of Greek.

Greek’s reputation

I see three main streams supporting the reputation of Greek as a “magically precise” language:

  1. Greek’s position in Western culture as a prestige language for intellectual endeavors. The thinking goes, “If Greek is so great, there must be something special about it.”
  2. the tangential exposure in the church to Greek, usually taught in simplistic ways by people who don’t know very much Greek to being with
  3. certain theological commitments in certain quarters which find in the “precision” of Greek support for certain theological views

Of all these, I personally think the theological reasons are the biggest contributor to the on-going issue.

Why people call Greek precise

People point to two main factors to “prove” that Greek is precise:

  1. its complex word forms and complex syntax (by comparison to English…though the arguments are often specious). The thinking goes: more forms of a word must equal more precise.
  2. complex vocabulary. The thinking goes: multiple words for “love” must mean that Greek communicates in more precise ways than English.

On precision in a language

People who call Greek precise basically define precision as “does the sorts of things English does, only better.” Why should this be what precision in a language is? What about a language feature like evidentiality in a verbal system (where there are special verb forms or particles which indicate how the speaker knows the information he/she is saying)? Neither Greek nor English use it, but many languages do. Does this mean evidentiality is inherently imprecise, because Greek doesn’t do it, or should we rather say that someone who speaks a language in which verbs are marked for evidentiality will find Greek rather lacking in its precision? The point here is that precision is an undefined moving target and what we consider precise will largely be based on what we assume a language ought to do, thus based on the language(s) we know and speak, rather than any sort of profound criteria.

A typology of imprecisions in Greek

In the podcast, I lay out three classes of imprecision, with examples for each of them, that we see in Greek. The point of these classes is not to say that Greek is radically imprecise (whatever that would mean), but just to illustrate that Greek, like any other language, is often unclear and/or imprecise in the way it communicates.

  1. grammatical and structural oddities
  2. structural imprecision
    1. certain common grammatical structures in Greek are inherently vague (what linguistics would call “underspecified”) and the same content could easily be given in a less-vague way, if so desired
  3. imprecise precision
    1. there are a variety of instances when the morphological and syntactical precision of Greek actually leads to imprecise communication

A last category to add is that there are times where the original communication may have been very precise but we, due to the distance in time and culture, can only make guesses at what was intended. In other words, sometimes we just can’t know whether a specific passage involves precision or not because we are too far removed from the original context to be able to assess that.

Why does the view of Greek as “magically precise” stick around?

I see two big reasons why this view—despite being adequately debunked many a time before—sticks around:

  1. Education
    1. most people involved in NT interpretation, even engaged in the Greek text, do not know Greek very well and do not read Greek outside of the NT
      1. gives a very lopsided and simplistic view of the language
        1. the pastor in his study referencing Greek knows an English translation well and “reading” the Greek NT is often an exercise in discovering the translation which they already know, with a few slight tweaks that make the Greek somehow better than the lowly English
    1. most people who have studied Greek are impressed by the precision of Greek grammar as laid out in large tomes of grammar, but have probably never bothered to pick up a big grammar of the English language and try to come to grips with it
  2. Theology
    1. there are some theological reasons which support the view
      1. in certain contexts the “precise” Greek can cinch a theological point, giving a degree of authority
      1. precision of Greek is somehow a plank in a bigger complex of the doctrines of God’s word.
        1. it is comforting to believe that God’s word is precise and clear, and that the difficulties in it stem from translations rather than inhere in the original


This is a short summary of what we discussed. There is lots more details in the podcasts and I encourage you to check it out.