This morning’s lesson taught me something cool to tell you about!
I’m trying to learn ancient Biblical Greek. The ancient Greek language used 2,000 years ago is called Koine Greek. The modern Greek language has some similarities to Koine but modern Greek differs quite a bit.
When Paul wrote his epistles, Paul wrote them in Koine Greek. Koine Greek was the common Greek spoken. God is a great communicator so He inspired the New Testament writers to write mostly in Koine, the common language of the day.
Not School Again!
In learning a new language, even an ancient one, you must learn parts of speech. Knowing something about English grammar helps a little. All languages, for example, have nouns. So when learning about nouns in Koine Greek, we English speakers can relate to that part because English has nouns too.
Note: For any public school English teachers reading this, let me clear up your confusion. A noun is a person, place, or thing. Ask any home-educated child about nouns if you want to know more.
“Are you talking to Me???”
Most English speakers never need to learn about one particular form of a noun: when something is said directly to another person, the vocative noun form is used.
For example, if I tell Sally this:
“Sally, you disappoint me!”
then Sally is a noun that has taken on the vocative case. We know from the word’s placement that Sally is being spoken to here. Sally is a noun but in this case it happens to be a noun used in the vocative case.
In Greek, the vocative is often indicated by an omega letter of the Greek alphabet before the noun. The Greek omega character is this:
(Really, this gets cool in a sec!)
The little characters before the Omega are the tilde and breath mark but don’t worry about those. When ῏Ω appears before a noun there is special emphasis on the noun, often sort of a grieving emphasis. In Greek, the word for Paul is Παῦλος so if you ever see Παῦλος with the letter omega before it, like this:
then you know the writer is speaking to Paul.
In English, word order determines parts of speech many times. But in ancient English we used to represent vocative with a letter just as the Greeks did. That letter ancient English used was O – and O has the same sound as Omega in Greek!
So… in ancient English they would have written something like this:
“O Sally, you disappoint me.”
And that O in front of Sally made Sally a definite vocative! There was no question that Sally was being spoken to!
This is one reason to learn to read your Bible in its original language. Many translations omit the underlying language structure in an attempt to make it more readable to modern readers. This changes not only the content in some cases but the tone as well.
If you read, “Woman, …” that tells you the speaker is talking to a woman.
But if the translators more correctly leave the original and explicit vocative, you get this:
“O woman, …”
See the difference? More accurately, can you feel the difference?
You can feel the tone of the speaker! The speaker is probably emphasizing a strong emotion, or praising in a personal way, or grieving over something the woman did, and sure enough, in Matthew 15:28, Jesus says:
“O woman, great is your faith!”
Other translators might just say, “Woman…” and that just feels like a routine statement, or perhaps even a talking-down-to statement as opposed to the underlying original meaning which is more of a praising.
In 1 Timothy 6:20, Paul writes:
O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you, avoiding worldly and empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called “knowledge”
The underlying Greek text uses the ῏Ω before Timothy‘s name ( ῏Ω Τιμόθεε ). This implies stress, like a grieving or pleading. Read that 1 Timothy 6:20 without the O before Timothy and you’ll see that the tone comes across completely differently, sort of as though Paul was giving Timothy an order. By properly keeping the O Timothy, the obvious vocative, we see it’s more of a pleading tone.
So to badly paraphrase God: Don’t let your O’s be you’s and your you’s be O’s.