Nature of Koine v. Classical?

On 6 Sep 94 Dan MacDonald said
> I also can't resist to suggest that there really isn't that much 
> difference between classical and koine greek ... Greek was still 
> pretty much Greek

I don't intend to "hit you over the head," but all the Koine scholars 
of the 20th century that I've read would disagree with you. (I take 
it you've heard that before!) 

For the "learners" who lurk here, I'll offer my observations. You who 
are "scholars" prob. won't learn much. :)

It may be that your statement is just a matter of terminology. 
Certainly Greek is one language in the sense that there has been 
continuity between the oldest forms of the Greek language (Mycean 
Greek and perhaps even earlier) and modern Greek. There were no 
abrupt, overnight changes into a drastic new language (even though we 
use the dates 330 BC-AD 330 to delineate Koine. The underlying 
structure and grammatical forms of the Classical period are very 
similar to the Koine, so it is not unreasonable that someone who has 
studied Classical (as yourself), can read Koine. Scholars have, 
however, defined things more precisely than that. 

The nature of the Greek of the NT was a debate that raged during the 
17-19th centuries. There were three basic answers offered. 1. The 
Hebraists argued that all examples of unusual constructions are due 
to the influence of Hebrew. 2. The purists said (much as you are 
suggesting, Dan) that all examples that seem unusual in NT Gk grammar 
and syntax are really good, classical Greek. They sought to find 
parallels for all such constructions in classical literature. 3. Some 
agued that NT Greek was "Holy Spirit Greek" (e.g., Cremer, Thayer). 
(See BAGD, xi-xii.)

The discovery and study of the papyri changed those conclusions 
substantially. There are currently three basic views among Koine 
scholars as to the nature of the Greek found in the NT. 1. Biblical 
Greek is standard Koine Greek: the ordinary, spoken Greek of the 
first century (Deissmann; see MHT 1:2P8; Colwell, IDB 2:486). 2. 
Biblical Greek is a unique dialect of Hellenistic, Koine Greek (Nigel 
Turner); this is similar to the older "Holy Spirit Greek" theory. 3. 
Biblical Greek is conversational Greek (Wallace).

Part of the confusion lies in the failure to recognize that in any 
language there are three "levels": the vernacular (the "language of 
the streets", popular" speech, rustic, colloquial), conversational 
(the spoken language of educated people; grammatically correct, but 
lacking the subtleties, etc. of literature), and literary (the 
polished Koine as written by scholars/academics; artistic expression 
in writing). Most NT writings fit the conversational category, though 
there are some that lean toward either end of the spectrum. The 
"mainline" group is represented by (most of) Paul and Matthew. On the 
edge of conversational, but leaning toward vernacular are Revelation, 
Mark, John, and 2 Peter. On the other side, leaning toward literary, 
are Hebrews, Luke-Acts, James, Pastorals, 1 Peter, and Jude. (This 
paragraph summarized from Wallace, "Exegetical Syntax," 8-23.)

As I understand it, there are three major characteristics of Koine 
Greek that mark it as distinct from Classical Greek. 1) Many words 
had changed meaning; 2) the grammar was simplified; and 3) 
expressions were phrased with greater clarity. (See Wallace, 9P11 for 
greater detail.)

1) Many words had changed meaning. E.g., lalew, at one point meant 
"to babble." In Koine it had become the normal word for speaking. 
Ballw used to mean a somewhat violent throwing, has been toned down 
to indicate, in some instances, simply "I put" or "I send." The 
prepositions likewise had begun to overlap. Classical Greek had made 
a clear distinction between eis and en. In the Koine eis had begun to 
encroach on the territory of en. (Cp. WestcottUs comments on John 
1:18; the papyri has shown than making fine distinctions between 
these two words is not legitimate.) Conjunctions also changed in 
usage. In Classical, hina always indicated result. In the Koine it 
may indicate content, result, and even a temporal "when" [Jn. 16:32].

2) The grammar was simplified. Koine is not as refined and polished 
as was Classical. The older language used a large number of 
conjunctions to express the most minute differences in the 
relationships between clauses. Koine has only a few, kai being the 
most common. Even word formation has been simplified. The older form 
had not only singular and plural forms, but also a dual which has 
disappeared in the Koine. Most of the older mi-verbs are gone, being 
replaced with the familiar omega forms. Syntax was likewise modified 
as shorter sentences replaced the long, complex sentences of 
Classical Greek (though Paul still manages some long sentences in 
Eph. 1!).

3) The Koine has also become more explicit and thus more clear. 
Compound verbs are more common. It is much more common to find 
pronouns supplied as subjects of verbs where they are not needed. 
Prepositions are being used more frequently in place of phrases that 
formerly used only the case to express meaning. Direct discourse is 
much more common than indirect discourse. There is considerable 
redundancy with expression such as "the very same," "each and every," 
and "very great."

I'm just beginning Stan Porter's collection of essays on the topic: 
"The Language of the New Testament: Classic Essays." JSNT supp. 
series # 60. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991. If there is interest, I'll 
summarize relevant portions of it in due time.


Rodney J. Decker
Assistant Professor of Greek and Theology
Calvary Theological Seminary, Kansas City
(94-95 sabbatical explains the Univ. of Wisc. address!)