Grace Theological Journal 5.2 (1984) 197-203.
[Copyright © 1984 Grace Theological Seminary; cited with permission;
digitally prepared for use at
THE CASE FOR
MODERN PRONUNCIATION OF
GARY G. COHEN AND C. NORMAN SELLERS
In the majority of Christian educational institutions today artifi-
cial pronunciations for NT Greek and OT Hebrew are used--often
attempts at a recreation of the true ancient sounds. However, Modern
Greek and Modern Hebrew voicings are in reality the most effective
ways to teach these ancient biblical tongues. This is especially so
because within the last forty years (a) audio-visual teaching aids have
become available so that NT Greek can be taught as a living language,
and (b) OT Hebrew is actually living again in
mastered with a new thoroughness. One difficulty is that the current
generation of teachers was trained in the "older" pronunciations
themselves and are thus hesitant to make such a change.
* * *
EVERY foreign language offers unique learning experiences to those
who study it. Often these experiences are only indirectly related
to the actual study of the language and include the understanding
and appreciation of their cultures, modes of thinking, and a general
broadening of intellectual horizons.
Students of NT Greek sometimes encounter statements such as
"Say something in Greek," which are often the cause for some em-
barrassment and bring into focus certain problems with pedagogical
methodology often used in the study of ancient foreign languages.
How to respond to such a request is particularly a problem for the
student of NT Greek or OT Hebrew. The student might decline by
explaining that NT Greek is studied only for translation purposes,
not for conversation. But this sounds strange to anyone acquainted
with the study of modern foreign languages, and one must wonder
about a teaching method which prepares a student to verbalize little
more than a list of words from his grammar book or the Greek NT,
to say nothing of auditory comprehension or composition.
198 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
And it is not only the Greek student who is at a verbal or
auditory loss. Even after years of working with the language, and
after having mastered the translation and exegesis of the NT, many
Greek scholars would be incapable of communicating on the streets
This raises several serious questions: Have the scholars of biblical
languages always been content with translation alone? Have they
always neglected the learning of the language in a way that would
enable them to communicate with native speakers so as to benefit
from the native intuition of usage and syntax?
And what about students of biblical Hebrew? Is it not possible
that even more than in the case of Greek, Modern Hebrew offers
students an opportunity to understand their Hebrew Bibles better? Is
it not possible that the pedagogical methodology of American biblical
languages teachers is past due for extensive revision?
As A. T. Robertson said, "this is indeed a knotty problem and
has been the occasion of fierce controversy."l It is not the intention of
the writers to feed this controversy, but it does seem that something
needs to be said today in defense of treating NT Greek and OT
Hebrew as older dialects of languages which are still living today.
Invariably, when the subject of Greek pronunciation is broached,
this is the question: How did native speakers during the apostolic
period pronounce it? Robertson wrote that "we may be sure of one
thing, the pronunciation of the vernacular was not exactly like the
ancient literary attic [classical] nor precisely like the modern Greek
vernacular, but veering more toward the latter.”2 Howard recognizes
the complicating factor of dialects when he observes that "it is prob-
able that considerable differences existed between the Greek of Rome
It is generally recognized that it is impossible to reconstruct pre-
cisely the pronunciation system of 1st century Greek speakers. And as
a result some have preferred a reconstructed classical [attic] pronun-
ciation, while others have preferred to use a real pronunciation that is
capable of being tested by actual first-hand observation, the pro-
nunciation of Modern Greek.
It is Erasmus (1466-1536) who is generally credited with formu-
lating the reconstructed classical pronunciation, generally popular in
1 A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of
Historical Research (Nashville: Broadman, 1923), 236.
2 Ibid., 239.
3 lbid., 41-42.
COHEN AND SELLERS: CASE FOR MODERN PRONUNCIATION 199
the West today. At about the same time Reuchlin (1455-1522) intro-
duced the Byzantine (modern)
The debate over the relative merits of these two systems became
so heated in
to distinguish ai from e or ei and oi from i, under penalty of expul-
sion from the Senate, exclusion from the attainment of a degree,
rustication for students, and domestic chastisement for boys.”4
But in the end it was Erasmian pronunciation that won the day
in the West.
Comparison of the Two Systems
One might think that the differences between the two systems are
very large, but they are in fact less different than they are similar.
There are only six letters of the alphabet in which there are
b b -boy v -victory
g g -got g -got, but also y before e, as in yet
d d -dog th -the
z dz -ads z -zoo
h a -late ee -feet
The larger differences are found in the pronunciation of the
diphthongs, among which only ou is pronounced the same in both
systems. The differences are:
ei a –late/i -ice ee -feet
oi oi -oil ee -feet
ui uee -queen ee -feet
ai ai -aisle e -let
iu eu -feud ev or ef (depending on the following sound)
au ow -cow av or af (depending on the following sound)
In addition to these differences, two consonant clusters vary
between the two systems:
nt nt -sent nd -send
(e]ntolh< = entole) (endole)
mp mp -lamp b -biscuit
It is clear, then, that except for the diphthongs and these conso-
nant clusters, there is little difference between the two systems of
4 Ibid., 237.
200 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
Since one cannot reconstruct precisely the 1st-century pronuncia-
tion of NT Greek, one must make his decision about the system he
will use based on the relative merits of each. The Erasmian system is
based on the principle that each letter should be pronounced as dif-
ferently as possible from every other letter. This is its chief peda-
gogical advantage for beginning students, even though it is obviously
phonetically naive. The similarity between Erasmian b and English
"b" is pedagogically more simple to teach than the modern phono-
logical value, "v." The same is true of ai and English ai in "aisle."
Thus, if the student is not expected to speak to anyone in Greek, the
relative ease with which the transition from English to Greek can be
made is advantageous. But the advantage is very small indeed if in the
process the student is giving up the possibility of learning to speak
and hear the language--something which every modern foreign lan-
guage teacher would consider a sine qua non. It is not a great burden
to learn the extra few sounds necessary to make the transition from
English to Modern Greek pronunciation as opposed to Erasmian
pronunciation. After all, there are considerable differences between
English and either system which must be mastered in any event. The
supposed advantage of Erasmian pronunciation shrinks even further
when it is realized that there is no unanimity even among Erasmians
about how some of the consonants and vowels are to be pronounced.
For example, ei is long a to some and long i to others; o (omicron) is
long o to some and short o to others.
There are other more obvious advantages to using Modern Greek
pronunciation. One of these is that the student is learning the sounds
of a living language. A knowledge of the modern pronunciation will
make it possible for the student to converse with native speakers,
whether in his own country or abroad, and this will be a great source
of encouragement as he struggles to master the rudiments of the
Another advantage of the modern pronunciation is that it makes
it possible for the student to use a number of audio materials now
becoming available. Spiros Zodhiates, for example, has produced
cassette tapes of Machen's vocabularies and exercises, as well as both
the Koine NT and Modern Greek NT. Those who have actually
gained thinking, speaking, hearing, and composition facility in a
second language will recognize immediately that such kinds of audio
aids are invaluable.
Yet another advantage of the Modern Greek pronunciation is
that it makes much more possible an approach (however slight at
first) toward the acquisition of language intuition. Native intuition it
may never become, but the constant hearing and speaking of a real
pronunciation system will undoubtedly facilitate a better intuition for
semantic range and grammatical nuance.
COHEN AND SELLERS: CASE FOR MODERN PRONUNCIATION 201
Should One Change?
The circumstances today are much different from the time of
Erasmus and even A. T. Robertson. Access to study opportunities in
are more readily available. In light of the advantages of the modern
pronunciation and the easy access to modern Greek materials as well
as native speakers of Modem Greek, there seems to be no compelling
reason to retain the Erasmian pronunciation system.
Many of the arguments in favor of Modem Greek pronunciation
apply to the employment of Modem Hebrew pronunciation as well.
But there are some differences.
Hebrew is a Semitic language, is read from right to left, and has
gutteral sounds not regularly utilized by speakers of English. Its
alphabet is radically different from the Latin alphabet of English, and
Hebrew words cannot be readily associated with English vocabulary
for easy memorization. In general the mastery of Hebrew seems to
procede more slowly than Greek, and its biblical. literature is much
more voluminous (about 70% of the Bible) as well as more varied.
Professors of Hebrew, therefore, even more than those of Greek,
must try hard to find teaching methods which produce good results.
Some components which have proven to be highly successful in teach-
ing Hebrew are:
1. Adoption of the modem Israeli pronunciation.
2. Utilization of modern audio and video tools for learning.
3. Integration of simple conversation into first and second year bib-
lical Hebrew teaching.
4. Emphasis on reading large quantities of Hebrew, even if this
involves using some of the modern lexicon indexes, in contrast to
the much out-dated and pedagogically weak method of forcing
elementary students to spend the bulk of their time hunting for
words in the lexicon.5
What precipitates these suggestions? In the first place it needs to
be understood that Modern Hebrew was revived on the basis of
biblical models, and where these could not be found, Mishnaic and
later Hebrew models. Israeli Hebrew, thus, is much closer to biblical
Hebrew than Modern Greek is to Koine. In fact, the average Israeli
5 Using such helps, for example, as T. A. Armstrong, D. L. Busby, and Cyril F.
A Reader's Hebrew-English Lexicon of the Old
dervan Publishing House,
1980-); John Joseph Owens, Genesis (
Harper & Row, 1978); Bruce Einspahr, Index to the Brown. Driver, & Briggs Hebrew
and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody, 1976).
202 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
high school student can read the OT fluently and older children can
read it with better comprehension than some American Hebrew
scholars, to say nothing of college and seminary students. Hebrew is a
living language, which one can study and hear in the classrooms and
on the streets of the land of the Bible, and there is now available a
large mass of material from books to newspapers to tapes and records
and Ulpan courses of every description. Israelis teach in schools all
over the world, but for the serious student of Hebrew, the wise course
is to follow in the footsteps of Jerome, who in the 4th century went to
which is prepared for teaching Hebrew to all comers, and its teachers
are very good indeed.
American college and seminary students as well as teachers have
the opportunity to benefit from this new availability of resources for
learning the language of the OT. And Modern Hebrew provides the
essential, but often neglected, ingredients for any language learning
which will be truly meaningful: hearing, speaking, and composition.
To neglect these in favor of reading only puts the student of biblical
Hebrew at a disadvantage which slows progress immensely. If the
exegete realizes, as do the teachers of any other modern language
such as German or French, that all four aspects of language learning
(hearing, speaking, composition, and reading) must be incorporated
in the instructional process, he will immediately recognize the ad-
vantage of using Modern Hebrew. Protestant evangelical Hebrew lin-
guistic scholarship is far behind Israeli scholarship because it has
refused to recognize this basic fact of language learning: one cannot
approach native intuition (which should be the goal of all language
learning) unless he incorporates all four aspects of language learning.
The result is often a weakened understanding which sometimes results
in artificial exegesis and translation.
Modern Hebrew pronunciation follows the Sephardic (eastern
and vowels which differ from the pronunciation in the Ashkenazi
(European and eastern European) and "Rabbinic" systems. The system
has been adopted almost world-wide by Jews except in some syna-
gogues. The main differences between Modern and the other systems
is in the pronunciation of d, v, t, and the vowels A and a Israelis
pronounce d as "d" (instead of dh without the dagesh), v as v (instead
of w), and t as t (instead of th without the dagesh). Both A and a are
pronounced like "a" in "father." Other differences between what one
would hear in an American seminary and on the streets of Jeru-
nounced, and words pronounced in flowing speech and real phonetic
COHEN AND SELLERS: CASE FOR MODERN PRONUNCIATION 203
There is absolutely no compelling reason to continue the
"American-Protestant" pronunciation of biblical Hebrew, whose
original pronunciation cannot be accurately reconstructed in any
case. Modern Hebrew is the key to a whole new world of OT study,
and opponents only impoverish themselves and their students.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
On the basis, then, of the overwhelming advantages of using
modern living pronunciation systems for the teaching of biblical Greek
and Hebrew, we conclude that the path of the future ought to lie, and
indeed will lie, in that direction. The transition from the outdated
systems to the modern ones will require some patience and under-
standing, especially among teaching colleagues. But it is worth the
effort, for everyone will benefit: the teacher himself, the student, and
the future recipients of the student's exegesis from the pulpit and in
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
Grace Theological Seminary
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