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Michael P. Theophilos, “On the Pronunciation and Interpretation of ‘Biblical Greek’: A Re-assessment in Light of the Papyri”

In Cambridge, Early Christianity, Michael P. THEOPHILOS, Oxyrhynchus, Papyrology, Samuli Siikavirta, Scribal habits, SEMINAR REPORTS, Textual Criticism on November 26, 2012 at 10:21 pm

This is a report on a paper presented by Dr. Michael P. Theophilos, Lecturer in Biblical Studies at Australian Catholic University, at the New Testament Senior Seminar, Cambridge, 6 November 2012.

Report by Samuli Siikavirta, University of Cambridge.

The programme of the New Testament Seminar at Cambridge can be found here.

One might assume that a Greek-speaking academic with the name Theophilos might be biased when it comes to the pronunciation of Koine Greek. Dr Michael P. Theopilos’ case clearly supported by manuscript evidence, however, made many convinced of or at least interested in the advantages of Modern Greek pronunciation over against the traditional Erasmian pronunciation (or, pronunciations) prevalent in Western academia.

Theophilos began with the common misconception that since we have no exact knowledge of how New Testament Greek was pronounced in its day, the default Erasmian pronunciation is our best option. He laid out some of the scholarship on Greek pronunciation, of which there is no lack. Many scholars, however, such as E.P. Petrounias, fail to note the witness offered by Egyptian papyri (‘The Pronunciation of Ancient Greek: Evidence and Hypotheses’, in A History of Ancient Greek: From the Beginnings to Late Antiquity [ed. A.-F. Christidis; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001], 545-555.). It is on the scribal spellings and their witness about first-century pronunciations of Greek that Theophilos’ paper focused. He noted that more philological evidence has been found in the Oxyrhynchus papyri in the last century than ever before.
Theophilos’ thesis maintained that pronunciation is fundamental in understanding the Greek language, that a pragmatic disinterest in it is naïve and misleading and that language is more than just grammar and vocabulary. Theophilos called to question the pedagogical validity of the Erasmian pronunciations of Post-Alexandrian Greek altogether, although he admitted that earlier stages of Greek may have been closer to the Erasmian pronunciation than Modern Greek. As an example, sheep in ancient texts say “βη, βη”, which in Modern Greek would be pronounced something like ‘vee vee’ instead of the more onomatopoeic ‘beh beh’ that was more likely the original. If each letter is made to correspond to a sound in NT Greek, however, homonyms are lost, which is pedagogically questionable. Theophilos wittily went through some of the oddities of English homonyms (e.g. cough cf. huff) and added that despite this kind of orthographic craziness, both English and Greek speakers are able to distinguish between sound and meaning. This ambiguity is reflected in Post-Alexandrian texts, as Theophilos clearly showed. There is no need to artificially “make sense of it” by creating a more phonetic pronunciation, he claimed.
As regards Greek pronunciation, the disputed letters in the period of the NT are the following:
Six consonants: β γ δ ζ θ χ
Three vowels: η υ ω
Seven diphthongs: αυ ευ ηυ αι ει οι υι
It remains uncertain how far the iota subscript was pronounced. In the correspondence in P. Oxy 744, Theophilos showed a curious case of an iota addscript: it reads τηΙ on the first line, while the second line has simply τη. (In the discussion following the paper, a question on the pronunciation of aspirations was raised. The presenter was inclined to say they were not pronounced anymore by the NT period, as manuscripts are inconsistent on them.)
Theophilos questioned C. Caragounis’ methodology in the way he uses the papyri to find out details of NT Greek pronunciation (C. Caragounis, The Development of Greek and the New Testament: Morphology, Syntax, Phonology, and Textual Transmission [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2006]). The papyri must be from the era under discussion – not, for instance, third century.
The paper went skilfully through some papyri of orthographical interest. Theophilos pointed out that examples of orthographical confusion due to similarities in the pronunciation of the aforementioned homonyms are not difficult to find. I list here merely a few examples. P.Mich. 1429, a private letter dated in the year 7 AD, is a good example of the confusion between Ε and ΕΙ. It supplies ΠΛΙΣΤΑ for ΠΛΕΙΣΤΑ, ΧΑΙΡΙΝ for ΧΑΙΡΕΙΝ, ὙΓΕΙΑΝΙΝ for ὙΓΙΑΝΕΙΝ, ΓΕΙΝΩΣΚΕ for ΓΙΝΩΣΚΕ, ΑΠΕΣΤΙΛΑ for ΑΠΕΣΤΕΙΛΑ and ΕΚΙ for ΕΚΕΙ. P.Princ. 2.66, another first-century letter, renders ΑΓΚΕΛΛΙΣ for ΑΓΓΕΛΛΕΙΣ, ΠΥΙΝ for ΠΟΙΕΙΝ, ΓΕΝΗΤΕ for ΓΕΝΗΤΑΙ, ΕΠΑΝΟ for ΕΠΑΝΩ, ΠΕΜΨΕ for ΠΕΜΨΑΙ and ΜΥ for ΜΟΙ – all within a half a dozen lines. These are examples of Ι being interchangeable with ΕΙ, Υ with ΟΙ, Ε with ΑΙ and Ο with Ω. P.Oxy. 38, in its turn, has an orthography, in which Η = ΕΙ = Ι. P. Tebt. 857 (from AD 162) has Y confused with Ι, Η and ΟΙ (ΤΥΣ corrected to ΤΗΣ and ΥΜΕΙΝ for ΗΜΙΝ). In P.Oxy. 46 (AD 124), ΗΜΕΙΝ is rendered instead of ΗΜΙΝ. Theophilos considered these examples to hail from the latest possible time when these orthographical shifts were occurring, as Η was substituted for ΕΙ in 270 BC already.
The presenter gave a list of several cautions when inferring pronunciation from papyri. (1) All arguments based on variation in spelling must take into account dialectical differences. Sometimes the manuscripts’ place of origin is hard to tell. (2) The possibility of haphazard spelling variations or errors (typos) exists, and thus, (3) patterns and themes need to be cited as the point of departure rather than individual instances. Little comprehensive analysis of such patterns has been undertaken, however. (4) The sample size of manuscripts needs to be statistically meaningful. (5) Finally, the effect of genre on the stability of spelling conventions is often overlooked and needs to be considered: does the identifiable school of a manuscript affect the manner in which one views them (e.g. legal documents vs. literary texts)? Theophilos noted that documentary texts are less stable. Scribes are more prone to produce sounds rather than correct spellings in them. It is also important to ask to what extent NT manuscripts were documentary or literary. Interestingly, Theophilos pointed out that the Pauline letters, or some material in them, resist this division, being a hybrid of both genres. Philemon is almost certainly not a literary text in the 1st century. Col. 4:16 and Rev. 1:11, for instance, indicate that there may also be a distinction between letter (correspondence between people) and epistle (intrinsically literary, intended for wider publication). (See Deissmann, Bible Studies: Contributions Chiefly from Papyri and Inscriptions [trans. A. Grieve. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1901])
The genre of NT documents will impinge on pronunciation, Theophilos maintained. If literary, the scribal activity is more likely to retain traditional spelling. If documentary, there are more likely to be phonetic substitutions in the texts. However, there are no NT manuscripts that are early enough to significantly contribute to the pronunciation in the 1st century. Theophilos suggested verse poetry as a good comparison: Isaiah and Job in the LXX, depending on the dating of the manuscripts, may be a good starting-point.
To move the debate forward, Theophilos called for a wider appeal to earlier manuscripts in the Mediterranean cultural sphere.
In his conclusion, Theophilos reiterated that academics are often prejudiced against Modern Greek pronunciation and simply set aside papyrological evidence in the debate. He summarised that a Neo-Hellenic pronunciation (1) does justice to the demonstrable literature of the period, (2) addresses adequately some of the causes of the variations (e.g. the famous case of Rom. 5:1, where the subjunctive and indicative would have been pronounced the same) and (3) points to the ambiguity of language and alliteration missed by the modern ‘Erasmian’. Theophilos used Matt. 5:3, 7 as an example of the liveliness of the sounded similarities between different homonyms (such as -ΟΙ and -Η), which may carry even an interpretive weight. Furthermore, (4) the genre must be taken seriously, (5) the recognition of patterns rather than individual instances offers an opportunity for linguists, historians and statisticians alike and (6) practitioners of NT Greek would benefit from introducing Modern Greek pronunciation to their students this to gain a deeper understanding of the texture of the language (syntax etc.).
In the lively discussion that followed, Dr James Aitken raised a valid point about the pronunciation of Classical Greek. If the Erasmian pronunciations are more truthful to the Classical Period, and if Classical Greek ought then to be pronounced accordingly, would it not be confusing to have two kinds of pronunciations for Greek in academia? Would Erasmian classicists and Neo-Hellenic theologians be able to communicate? Despite this confusion, Dr Theophilos, who himself knows both pronunciations, remained convinced of the benefits of his thesis.

  1. […] Review of Biblical and Early Christian Studies blog just posted a detailed summary of a recent paper presented by Michael Theophilos at a seminar in Cambridge. The paper appears to be substantially the same as the one he presented […]

  2. […] Michael P. Theophilos, “On the Pronunciation and Interpretation of ‘Biblical Greek&#8217… ( – Michael happens to be one of the people who originally taught me Greek many years ago. […]

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