J. H. Moulton and G. Milligan’s lexicon was among the first to interact with the thousands of Greek papyri, ostraca, and inscriptions discovered in Egypt during the mid- to late-19th century. These papyrus scraps and potsherds, which date from between the 3rd century BC and 8th century AD, are the written record of everyday life in that time. They are the business contracts, personal emails, office-wide memos, and legal documents of the day. Using this lexicon will help you see how ordinary people would have understood the words and expressions of the New Testament authors.
Moulton & Milligan used the papyri and other artifacts to show that New Testament Greek was not a special dialect (“Hebraic Greek”) but was rather the common or Koine Greek of the people who lived during this time. In fact, Moulton was an admirer of Adolf Deissmann, one of the first scholars to use the papyri in making a case for Koine Greek.
In writing the lexicon, Moulton and Milligan included numerous examples pulled from the papyri and ostraca that show how ordinary people used Greek in ordinary contexts—examples that will help you understand the New Testament as its first readers understood it. The authors quote heavily from the papyri and provide commentary on how those quotations inform our understanding of the language. Some quotations from the Greek papyri are translated, others are not.
If you use BDAG, you have seen the abbreviation ‘M-M’ at the end of many entries. This note, which appears some 4,700 times in BDAG, indicates that Moulton and Milligan’s lexicon also has an entry for that word. With an electronic edition of Moulton and Milligan, it is easy to continue your research into a given word by moving straight from BDAG to M-M.
The electronic edition from Logos includes Professor Daniel B. Wallace’s Scripture index that was created for the print edition. In the electronic edition, this index can also be used to search the lexicon for discussion of a particular verse or passage.
Many of the papyri referenced by Moulton and Milligan are scraps of ordinary, everyday documents from ancient Egypt. There are official documents such as judicial proceedings, contracts of marriage and divorce, tax and census papers; private letters revealing all aspects of ordinary family life; and papyri containing a mix of the two, such as an official death notice that a child turned over and re-purposed for a class composition.
These papyri serve to illuminate and confirm the spelling, meaning, morphology, and syntax of the Greek used in the NT. Thanks to Moulton and Milligan, the list of words considered unique to the New Testament has grown much shorter, and our understanding of the language is richer and more accurate.
In his introduction to the lexicon, George Milligan provides a slew of excellent examples of how the papyri solved textual riddles encountered in the New Testament. Here is just one:
In what are probably the earliest of his letters that have come down to us, the two Epistles to the Thessalonians, St. Paul finds it necessary to rebuke his converts for walking “in a disorderly manner” (2 Thess 3:11). The word (?τ?κτως), with its cognates, is confined to these Epistles in the New Testament, and what exactly is meant by it is by no means clear at first site. Is St. Paul referring to actual sin or moral disorder, or to something less heinous? The papyri have supplied the answer in a striking manner. Among them is a contract of AD 66 [P.Oxy.II 275] in which a father arranges to apprentice his son with a weaver for one year. All the conditions of the contract as regards food and clothing are carefully laid down. Then follows the passage which specially interests us. If there are any days during this period on which the boy “fails to attend” or “plays truant” (oσας δ??? ??ν ?ν το?τω ?τακτ?ση ?μ?ρας), the father has to produce him for an equivalent number of days after the period is over. And the verb which is used to denote playing truant is the same verb which St. Paul uses in connexion with the Thessalonians. This then was their fault. They were idling, playing truant. The Parousia of the Lord seemed to them to be so close at hand that it was unnecessary for them to interest themselves in anything else. Why go to their daily work in the morning, when before night Christ might come, they thought, forgetting that the best way to prepare for that coming was to show themselves active and diligent in the discharge of their daily work and duty.
As you can see, by comparing the Greek of the NT with that found in everyday documents, we are brought a step closer to the first-century Christian in our understanding of the language.
Milligan’s entire introduction (reprinted here) makes for some fascinating reading as he recounts the discovery of the Egyptian papryi, their physical composition, various types, and usefulness for NT studies. He also traces a line of comments from the likes of J. B. Lightfoot and Dean Farrar, which reveal the seeds of the Koine Greek concept that would blossom later in the work of Deissmann and Moulton:
“[I]f we could only recover letters that ordinary people wrote to each other without any thought of being literary, we should have the greatest possible help for the understanding of the language of the N(ew) T(estament) generally.”—Lightfoot to his students in 1863, 33 years before the Oxyrhynchus discovery
“In the papyrus rolls of the British Museum . . . there are forms and phrases which constantly remind us of St. Paul.”—Dean Farrar, 1884
1 Timothy 2:8 reads, “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling. . . ” The word translated “;quarelling” is the Greek word διαλογισμο? (dialogismou).
Moulton and Milligan’s lexicon has entries for both διαλογισμ?ς (dialogismos) and the related verb διαλογ?ζομαι (dialogizomai), and discusses the judicial nature of the term:
The verb and its derivative noun are conspicuous in Egyptian documents to describe the conventus, the judicial “circuit” of the Praefect.
In such instances, the word διαλογισμ?ς (dialogismos) describes the disputing or arguing that occurs within in a judicial court. Moulton and Milligan go on to note that Philippians 2:14 and 1 Timothy 2:8 are passages “where the thought of outward disputing and discussion is uppermost.” It is possible that the disputing, quarreling and questioning forbidden in these two NT passages is the kind of disputing that happens in a judicial context. This sort of bickering is not to be accepted, and is certainly not to have any part in the offering of prayers to God.
“In other cases, before the verso has been so used, the original contents of the recto have been effaced or washed out, a practice which adds point to a familiar verse. In Col 2:14, we read that our Lord ‘blotted out the bond written in ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us,’ and the verb used for ‘blotted out’ (ἐξαλείψας) is the technical term for ‘washing out’ the writing from a papyrus sheet. So complete was the forgiveness which Christ by His work secured, that it completely cancelled the old bond, that had hitherto been valid against us, for it bore our signature (χειρόγραφον). He made the bond as though it had never been (cf. Exod 32:32f.; Rev 3:5).” (Page viii)
“P Tebt I. 61 (b)289 (b.c. 118–7) ἐμπρήσαντο πυ[ρ]οῦ γενήματα, ‘burned the stores of wheat,” (Page 207)
“is used specially of the closest of all human relationships” (Page 351)
“The slightly developed meaning of δωρεάν ‘for nothing,’ ‘in vain,’ which Grimm notes as unparalleled in Greek writers, seems to be regarded by Nägeli, p. 35f., as sufficiently accounted for by the instances where it means ‘gratis’” (Page 174)
“Vocabulary.—It is, however, in the matter of Vocabulary that the new gains make themselves most fully felt, and prove most clearly that we are dealing with a book written in the common speech of its day.” (Page xv)
James Hope Moulton taught at Cambridge and at Manchester and authored the introductory and morphological volumes in the authoritative Grammar of New Testament Greek.
George Milligan taught at Glasgow and authored numerous works pertaining to the New Testament and the papyri.