Research for the
Prayer and its Translation

Here, we lay out the methodology used to produce the Lord's Prayer translation and the rationale behind it. We explain why The New Testament in the Original Greek by Westcott and Hort is the best available witness for the original Lord's Prayer and why Koine Greek was probably its original language. We present the rationale behind choosing the Lidell-Scott-Jones lexicon for translation, and we introduce the reader to the online tools used for translating. A final section addresses the growth of languages and the increased need for care in translating.

Ancient Texts

The oldest existing complete versions of the New Testament are the Codex Sinaiticus [1] and the Codex Vaticanus [2]. And they're different. The scholars Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort extrapolated backward to produce a common ancestor, The New Testament in the Original Greek [3,4]. It's treatment of the Lord's Prayer is as close to the original as anyone has been able to get.

One of the challenges faced by Westcott and Hort was just reading the ancient texts. They're faded to  to the point of being almost illegible. Beyond that, they were written in all caps, there were no spaces between words, and the diacritical marks found in later Koine Greek were completely missing. This fragment of Codex Sinaiticus illustrates the problem:

That the first Bible was written in Koine Greek may be surprising, given that Jesus and his disciples spoke Old Aramaic. But notice that Jesus and his disciples carried His teachings far and wide. It's unlikely they could have succeeded without having a common language that was understood wherever they went. Koine Greek was that language. It is a vernacular Greek dialect that evolved among the soldiers of Alexander The Great. He was from Macedonia, a kingdom in Northern Greece, and he recruited soldiers from all of the many lands that he conquered. For obvious reasons, they had to know Greek [6].

Lexicon Used for Translation

This translation of Greek words into English relies on the LSJ lexicon developed by Liddel and Scott [7]. Their work has served as the basis of all later lexicographical work on biblical Greek. Lidell wanted to discover the meanings that Greek words had at the time they were in use. Their approach was to see how each word was used in multiple secular documents written in Koine Greek – secular because Koine Greek was a vernacular rather than an ecclesiastical dialect. Happily, the LSJ and similar lexicons have been incorporated into the online tools of the Perseus project [3,8,9].

In contrast to the work of Lidell and Scott, some lexicons are based on a 'biblical' semantics designed to support the authors' understanding of the Bible. In some cases the intent is in the title: New Testament King James Greek Lexicon. A more significant example is Gerhard Kittel's brilliant 10-volume masterpiece [10,11]. It is widely respected, but there is reason for caution. Kittel was a prominent Nazi propagandist [12,13].

From Small Languages to Large

Words in old languages had broader meanings than they do today. So each word has more plausible translations with a greater need for relying on context to pick the right one. A basic rule of thumb is to avoid translations that sound goofy.

One theory is that words in old languages needed to have broader meanings because there were so few of them. In modern English, there are roughly eight times as many words in everyday use as there were in Koine Greek.

This factor of eight is just an educated guess. Today the average American has a vocabulary of perhaps 27,000 words [14], which gives an estimate for the number of words now in everyday use. The New Testament itself provides an estimate of the number of words in everyday use at the time the first Bible was written. It had a total of only 5,437 unique words [15], and roughly 2,000 of them were used only once [16]. So the ratio of new to old is not far from 27,000/(5,437 - 2,000) ≈ 7.9.

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    Since the West-Hort New Testament came out, additional ancient texts have turned up regularly [17] and have inspired newer efforts to find the original New Testament. Eberhard Nestle and Kurt Aland initiated a series of critical texts collectively known as the Novum Testamentum Graece [18]. The most recent effort along these lines is a product of the Tyndale House [19]. Happily, the Lord's Prayer is the same in this newest effort as in Westcott-Hort [19]. However, the new Tyndale House NewTestament does not yet have the automated support enjoyed by Westcott-Hort.

An enduring concern with Westcott and Hort lies not in the accuracy of their work but with their notoriety as heretics. They challenged the official view that the King James Version was the Living Word. Beyond that, there was a cultural heresy not unlike that committed by Charles Darwin twenty-two years before. These battles continue even in modern times [20,21].

    There is an academic debate as to whether the first New Testament was written in Old Aramaic or perhaps Hebrew [22]. But the issue may be moot. All existing Hebrew copies of the New Testament are translations from other languages. As for an Old Aramaic version of the New Testament, we would need a credible lexicon to know what it said. Lidell and Scott succeeded by looking at a large collection of Koine Greek secular texts. No similar collection is available for secular Old Aramaic. However, there are many imperial inscriptions, hence the term Imperial Aramaic.

References

1.    Project participants. Codex Sinaiticus. The Codex Sinaiticus Project,  written circa 600 AD, online 2008 July 24 and following. Website [homepage].

2.    Anonymous authors,  curated by Vercellonis C, Cozza J. Codex Vaticanus, released as Bibliorum Sacrorum Graecus. The Vatican, written from the 300s to the 1400s, published 1868. Manuscript [facsimile]. 

3.   Crane G, project  founder. "Brooke Foss Westcott, Fenton John Anthony Hort, Ed.," Perseus Digital Library. Tufts University, 1985 and following. Web tools [open to Matthew 6:9].

4.   Westcott B, Hort F. The New Testament in the original Greek. Harper & Brothers, published in 1881. Critical text [photocopy]. 

5.   Ruter R. Manuscript Comparator. Open Scriptures, online 2009 and following. Webtool  [opened to Matthew 6:9-13]

6.   WikiProjects Greece / Byzantine, Classical Greece and Rome, Languages, et al. History of Science. Koine Greek. Wikipedia, updated 2019 November 11. Exposition [full text].

7.   WikiProjects Books, Reference Works, Linguistics, et al. A Greek–English Lexicon. Wikipedia, updated 2019 November 12. Exposition [full text].   

8.   Crane G, project founder. "Greek Word Study Tool," Perseus Digital Library. Tufts University, 1985 and following. Lexicon [website].

9.   Autenrieth G. A Homeric dictionary for use in schools and colleges. Harper & Brothers, Published 1880. Dictionary [multiple formats].

10.  WikiProjects Germany, Biography. Gerhard Kittel. Wikipedia, updated 2019 September 30. Exposition [full text].

11.   Kittel G. Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament (Theological New Testament Dictionary). W. Kohlhammer, published 1932. Lexicon [multiple formats].

12.  WikiProjects Germany, Law, Human rights, Jewish history.Nuremberg Laws. Wikipedia, 2019 November 9. Exposition [full text].

13.  Daley-Bailey K. The Curious Case of Gerhard Kittel. Bulletin for the Study of Religion, 2012 May 31. Essay [full text].

14.  Greene R. Lexical Facts. The Economist, 2013 May 29. Research summary [blog post]. 

15.  Steimle D. Preliminary Biblical Studies, page 351. lulu.com, 2015 June 16. Compilation [multiple formats].

16.  Ellingworth P. The Epistle to the Hebrews  (The New International Greek Testament Commentary). Wm. B. Eerdmans, published in 1993. Scriptural analysis [ multiple formats].

17.  WikiProjects Bible, Christianity. Categories of New Testament manuscripts. , 2019 December 19. Tables [full text].

18.  Nestle E, Aland K, et al, Novum Testamentum Graece (The Greek New Testament). Multiple publishers and formats, 1898–2012. Critical texts [first edition ... 28th edition]. 

19. Jongkind D, Williams P, editors. The Greek New Testament. dagger-linkway, 2017 November 15.Wikipedia Critical text [in print, opened to Matthew 6].

20. Waite D. The Theological Herasies of Westcott and Hort. The Bible for Today, 1979. Critical text [full text].

21.  Waite D. Critical Texts. The Dean Burgon Society, 2012 - 2015. Essays [landing page].

22. Benner J. Greek and Aramaic Manuscripts of the New Testament. Ancient Hebrew Research Center, Accessed 2019 December 26. Essay [webpage].

What Did Jesus say? .
What the Lord's Prayer Once Said  .
The Takeaway  .
Historical Contexts of the Lord's Prayers  .

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