Nature of Koine v. Classical?

The following is a summary of: Deissmann, Adolf. "Hellenistic Greek 
with Special Consideration of the Greek Bible." In The Language of 
the New Testament: Classic Essays. JSNT supp. series # 60. Edited by 
Stanley E. Porter, 39-59. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991.

[The original was published in 1899. The reprint in Porter's 
anthology is the first time it has been translated into English. Any 
pg. refs. not otherwise identified are from this article. My comments 
are included in <endnotes>, RJD.

Adolf Deissmann (1866-1937) is best known for his pioneering work 
in the papyri and his explanation of the nature of the Greek of the 
NT that resulted. His 1899 article in Hauck's "Realencyklopadie" 
presents a view of that language that is quite different than that 
which was traditional in his day. In the nineteenth century the 
generally accepted view in theological circles was that the Greek of 
the NT was a "Jewish Greek" different from that generally spoken by 
non-Jews. This was based largely on the fact that almost all of the 
material available to scholars throughout most of the nineteenth 
century were Jewish and Christian texts. As it relates to the NT, the 
views of Cremer and Thayer were quite popular; i.e., the NT was 
written in a "holy language" with specific rules and secrets--"Holy 
Ghost Greek," if you will.<1>

In linguistic circles (as opposed to theological) the philologists 
took a different view of Hellenistic Greek. They viewed it 
prescriptively as "bad Greek." It was not a matter of it being a 
different form of the language (descriptive), but was viewed as 
Classical Greek that needed the heavy-handed red pen of the 
schoolmaster to turn the vulgarisms into proper Attic prose.

The basis on which Deissmann challenges these views is the much 
more extensive evidence from all over the ancient world written in 
Hellenistic Greek. This became available only in the last part of the 
nineteenth century as the papyri began to be studied.<2> He prefers 
to refer to this evidence as "the Greek world language of the 
Diadochian and Imperial periods"<3> (or more simply "Hellenistic 
world language") rather than as Hellenistic Greek or Koine.<4> This 
terminology, although it has not been adopted by subsequent scholars, 
has the advantages of avoiding the "Jewish" connotations as well as 
delineating in a general way the chronological parameters of the 
period (300 B.C.-A.D. 600).<5>

Deissmann distinguishes (as a "foremost necessity") between the 
written and spoken forms of any language. "The literary language is 
by its nature something restricted, artificial, and regulated. The 
colloquial language, wherever it is spoken, is uninhibited, a wildly 
grown and wildly growing thing, unrestricted, receptive" (43-44).<6> 
The literary pieces of the Koine reflect a stronger Attic element 
than does the colloquial language. The "living character" of the 
language will be found in the colloquial form, not the literary.<7> 
Only with the discovery of large quantities of colloquial artifacts 
(inscriptions, ostraca, papyri) have scholars been able to examine 
this aspect of the language in detail. He concludes that the Koine is 
a melting of local languages and national dialects that smoothed out 
the peculiarities of each and created a homogenous language.<8> The 
Greek of the NT, then, is not a different language than that spoken 
by the remainder of the Roman world in the first century, but is part 
and parcel with the lingua franca. There may have been "provincial 
differences," but these are insufficient to form distinct dialects.

This conclusion is substantiated by a discussion of three aspects 
of the language: phonology and morphology, vocabulary, and syntax. It 
is the first of these that provides the "most obvious 
characteristics" of the Koine. The argument that the Greek of the NT 
is a different, "Holy Ghost" language is "shattered beyond repair" by 
an examination of its phonology and morphology. There are "hundreds 
of formal details" that are found, not only in the Greek of the NT, 
but also in the profane documents of the Koine.

Vocabulary does not provide as evident a proof of Deissmann's 
thesis, but even there the list of NT hapax is constantly dwindling 
as those supposedly newly-crafted words of the NT are found in the 
papyri. That a word has only been found in the NT to date is "by 
statistical chance alone."<9>

Syntax (as opposed to phonology, morphology, and vocabulary) 
offers more apparent evidence for proposing a special form of "Jewish 
Greek." This is true, however, only in the LXX and in certain 
portions of the NT, particularly the Synoptics.<10> Paul and Hebrews 
does not fit this pattern. Deissmann's explanation is based on 
Semitic influence. The Synoptics, e.g., are translations into Greek 
of material originally spoken (by Jesus) in Aramaic or Hebrew. 
Deissmann argues that this cannot be viewed as normative for a 
description of a living, spoken language of the first century, but is 
an artificial, "translation Greek." The numerous syntactical 
Semitisms are occasional, not characteristic of the translator's 
language. The fact that Paul, e.g., also a Greek-speaking Jew, does 
not write this way substantiates this conclusion. Not only that, but 
Luke's writings contain both styles: his prologue is standard Greek 
syntax, the remainder contains the syntactical characteristics of 
translation Greek. The same is true of the Wisdom of Ben Sirah. "In 
the prologue the authors write the way they speak; afterwards they 
depend...on a Semitic original.<11> The LXX displays this more 
prominently because it is translated from a written original whereas 
the Gospels depend on oral sources.


<1> Cremer's own explanation is as follows. "We may...appropriately 
speak of a language of the Holy Ghost. For in the Bible it is evident 
that the Holy Spirit has been at work, moulding to itself a 
distinctly religious mode of expression out of the language of the 
country which it has chosen as its sphere, and transforming the 
linguistic elements which it found ready to hand, and even 
conceptions already existing, into a shape and form appropriate to 
itself and all its own" (Cremer, Intro., "Biblico-Theological Lexicon 
of NT Greek," iv). In other words, the Holy Spirit changed the 
language of any people to whom he gave revelation so as to make it a 
suitable vehicle for communicating divine truth.

<2> The first papyri from Egypt was actually discovered near mid-
century, but its value was not realized and it was not studied until 
much later.

<3> Diadochian (diadochos, "successor"; diadechesthai, "to succeed") 
refers to time of the division of Alexander's empire into four 
kingdoms. (His four Macedonian generals were referred to as the 
Diadochi.) The term is also used in the introduction to BAGD (xii).

<4> Deissmann thought that Koine was too "uncertain" and vague since 
scholars used it in different ways. For sake of brevity and due to 
its common use today, the remainder of this paper will use Koine to 
refer to what Deissmann prefers to call "Hellenistic world language."

<5> The more common dates in use today are 330 B.C.-A.D. 330: the 
conquest of Alexander to the founding of Constantinople as the seat 
of Roman government by Constantine.

<6> This is very similar to what Saussure was later to distinguish as 
'langue' and 'parole': the "linguistic system in the consciousness of 
a community" (langue) and the "actual speech utterances of individual 
speakers" (parole) (M. Silva, "Bilingualism and the Character of 
Palestinian Greek," Biblica 61 [1980]: 208).

<7> "Characteristic of a distinct linguistic period--characteristic 
in a historical sense--are not the relics [i.e., the Attic elements 
in Hellenistic Greek] which are contained in it, but the seeds which 
it germinates" (44-45).

<8> This summary incorporates phraseology from Reuss and Kretschmer 
quoted by Deissmann (47).

<9> This judgment has been continually vindicated throughout the 20th 
century. Thayer's list of 450 words that occur only in the NT or LXX 
has now been whittled to about 60 (see BAGD, xix). "The fact that the 
advances in our knowledge have freed one after another of these words 
from their isolation and demonstrated that they were part of the 
living language forces upon us the conclusion that the great mass of 
biblical words for which we do not yet have secular evidence also 
belong to that language" (Ibid.).

<10> According to Wallace, Mark is the best example of this, followed 
by John; Matthew's syntax is much more like Paul, and Luke/Acts 
compares favorably with Hebrews ("Exegetical Syntax," see his summary 
chart on p. 23).

<11> Deissmann is not arguing for an Aramaic or Hebrew Vorlage for 
any of the NT books, as do, e.g., Black, Torrey, Segal, or Manson.

Summarized by:

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