A Brief History
On November 8, 1901, people once again proved that human beings are willing to riot over just about anything. This time it happened in Greece and was precipitated by the publication of the Gospel of Matthew in a translation from Latin into the modern Greek vernacular (demotic Greek). Known as “Black Thursday,” November 8, 1901 was the climax of the Gospel Riots and 8 of the rioters were killed. (We have previously published numerous articles about riots, so if you are interested in checking out some of these ridiculous and sometimes deadly events, please use the search function on our letterhead and type in “riot.”)
During the troubled history of Greece, the country had gone well past its Golden Age (500 to 300 BC) into a series of various periods of being ruled by outsiders and never truly regaining its ancient glory. The Greek people did not forget their storied past and yearned for the day that the Ancient Greek language (that Greeks call katharevousa glossa) would once again become the language of the people of Greece. Of course, languages evolve through the years, and just as we would not understand more than the occasional word of Old English, modern Greeks spoke a language far different from that of the Classical Greek.
Greek nationalism had flourished despite having a series of overlords, and in 1829 the Greeks won their independence from the Ottoman Empire. The debate that had started even prior to independence over returning to the Ancient Greek language picked up in intensity after independence. In the glow of independence in 1830, the written Greek language was altered to reflect the ancient heritage, which put it in contrast to the modern spoken language of everyday Greeks. Staunch nationalists, concerned about the “purity” of the Greek language bemoaned the “vulgar” form of spoken Greek that had evolved differently from the official written language. Despite attempts to force the use of katharevousa Greek on the public, the demotic Greek remained by far the most widely used form of the language, both spoken and written. (Apparently there are some problems with trying to adapt the Ancient written language to modern usage, something perhaps that a cunning linguist can explain.) Teaching only Ancient Greek in schools had failed to convert the modern language back to its roots, despite that tradition based on the practices of the Greek Orthodox Church, a major influence on Greek education and culture for centuries. In 1888 the great language debate took an important turn when writer Ioannis Psycharis published a work recommending that Greeks adopt demotic Greek for all spoken and written uses to better consolidate the language. Psycharis and his followers recognized the evolutionary nature of language and decided that such evolution was the natural course of language and should be left alone to evolve any way it would.
The original Gospels were probably written in Greek (Ancient Greek) from the start. Eastern (Greek) Orthodox Christian churches had not previously objected to translation of the Gospels into other languages than Ancient Greek including more modern forms of Greek, but when the 19th Century movement toward resurrecting the ancient language took hold such translations became somehow more or less blasphemous. The fact that some of those that were doing translations of the Gospel of Matthew into modern Greek were Protestants overlooked the fact that others that had performed such translations were Eastern Orthodox Christians.
The tipping point in the great language debate came about when Queen Olga Constantinovna (the Queen Consort of King George I of Greece, performed a translation of the Gospel of Matthew which was published in 1901 against the wishes of those that would demand only Ancient Greek be used for the Gospels. (Olga was a Russian that willingly learned the Greek language when she married George.) Olga’s Russian ethnicity became part of the whisper campaign against her and her ideas about recognizing “the language we all speak,” the demotic Greek that was actually in use across Greece. A woman interested in the welfare of the people, including public education, Olga was adamant about the Gospels being available linguistically to all people.
Public debate and unrest preceded the publishing of the translated Gospel in February of 1901, but the mood of the public only got worse with the passage of time. By November linguistic snobs and those preaching of scary “pan-Slavism” boiled over into demonstrations and violence, culminating in the riot of November 8, 1901 in which 8 demonstrators/rioters were killed. Those persons that were proponents of the ancient language ultimately lost their battle to elevate Ancient Greek to some sort of mythical high language fit for all things holy. Ironically, the idea that Ancient Greek was somehow a sacred and special language was not always the case, and that idea only formed since about 1800. Like all languages that remain in use, Greek continues to evolve today, leaving us with the historical legacy of one more weird reason to have a deadly riot.
Question for students (and subscribers): Do you know who wrote the Gospels and when they were believed to have been written? Why would the Gospels be written in Ancient Greek? Do you think the language of the Bible (or other holy books) should only be kept in the original language and not translated (as this could somehow corrupt the message)? How many new words are added to the dictionary each year? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Trivia: The author has visited Greece and found the people and the country to be a wonderful place. The food is great!
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For more information, please see…
Potter, Dean James. Matai: The Gospel According to Matthew. Dean James Art, 2014.
Taylor, Bernard, et al. Biblical Greek Language and Lexicography. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.
The featured image in this article, a contemporary lithograph of the Gospel Riots, Athens, 1901 from the National History Museum, Athens; wikipédia grecque, is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain in its source country for the following reason: this image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired and its author is anonymous. This applies to the European Union and those countries with a copyright term of 70 years after the work was made available to the public and the author never disclosed their identity. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.