Nature of Koine--Rydbeck summary

The following is a summary of:

Rydbeck, Lars. "On the Question of Linguistic Levels and the Place of 
the New Testament in the Contemporary Language Milieu." In _The Language 
of the New Testament: Classic Essays._ JSNT supp. series # 60. Edited by 
Stanley E. Porter, 191-204. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991.<1>

[My comments are included in the <notes> at the end. -RD]

The thesis of Rydbeck's article is that in the first century A.D. there 
was an intermediate level of Hellenistic Greek between that of the 
vulgar or popular Greek and the literary.

His discussion begins by critiquing the classification of vernacular or 
popular Greek as it is usually defined. The standard definition is that 
a grammatical phenomenon can be classified as popular when it, 1. 
appears in both the NT and the papyri<2> but not in classical Greek, and 
2. deviates from the norm of Attic usage. Rydbeck suggests that these 
are not adequate criteria for delineating a popular level of Greek.

The second section of the essay sets out Rydbeck's hypothesis of an 
intermediate level of Greek prose in first-century Hellenistic Greek. 
For support he appeals to the technical, scientific prose writers<3> of 
the early Imperial era, arguing that their style is neither that of the 
popular, spoken language of the time nor that of the literary writings. 
Their concern was not literary pretension, but rather a practical focus 
"to communicate facts, describe things, argue for or against something" 
(195). This was the language of the scientist as well as government. 
Both scientific and legal language of the Imperial age share 
distinguishable characteristics. This standard, normal prose is what was 
taught in the "pre-classicizing basic education...which children as well 
as adults enjoyed" (196). This situation changed in the second century 
"with respect to technical prose and also in general with the 
-definitive- breakthrough of classicism" (196).

The final section of the chapter proposes a number of conclusions and 
theses. First, study of the Greek language of the first century must pay 
greater attention to the technical writers. Second, there are 
significant  linguistic parallels between the technical writers and the 
language of the NT and the papyri.<4> Third, these parallels were once 
judged to be part of the popular language or viewed as Semitisms. The 
comparisons with the technical prose writers has disproved those 
conclusions.  Fourth, there is a "common grammatical system in the early 
Imperial period, a grammatical basis for the pre-classicizing language 
of the time" (198-99). There are differences in style between four 
groups that share this common grammatical system, and even within the 
four groups. The following diagram is adapted from the one given by 
Rydbeck (199). <10>

x       _____________________________________________
x       |  ______________          _______________  |
x       | | Papyri of    |        | Popular       | |
x       | | demonstrable |        | philosophical | |
x       | | linguistic   |        | literature    | |
x       | | competence   |        |               | |
x       | |______________|        |_______________| |
x       |        COMMON GRAMMATICAL SYSTEM          |
x       |  ______________          _______________  |
x       | | Technical    |        | New           | |
x       | | prose writers|        | Testament     | |
x       | |______________|        |_______________| |
x       |___________________________________________|

Fifth, neither the papyri nor the NT should be categorized as "popular 
texts in general" (199).<5> "The attempt to extract the living language 
from the written pieces of the past will always be an almost impossible 
task" (200). The essence of this argument is that it is difficult 
("almost impossible") to determine the oral speech on the basis of 
written materials.<6> Deissmann's work demonstrated that there was an 
overlapping vocabulary between the two, but this is only a superficial 
correspondence; it does not touch the level of grammar. "The Egyptian 
writers of papyrus documents, like the authors of the NT, did not learn 
Greek only by talking to and interacting with Greeks.... Through their 
basic education they acquired, grammatically speaking, a form of a quite 
homogeneous written language" (200-01).<7>

Sixth, There are no "really vulgar characteristics in the language of 
the NT" (201). The papyri does contain samples of this, but the NT is 
grammatically correct.<8> Seventh, future study must consider the 
technical prose writers of the first century before assigning the label 
"popular" to grammatical phenomena.<9>


<1> This article is translated into English for the first time from: 
Idem. _Fachprosa, vermeintliche Volkssprache und Neues Testament: Zur 
Beurteilung der sprachilchen Niveauunterschiede im nachklassischen 
Griechisch._ Uppsala, 1967, 186-99. It should be noted that this essay 
is one of the concluding chapters of Rydbeck's _Fachprosa_. As such it 
assumes detailed support from earlier chapters in several areas. The 
English reader does not have access to those portions of the discussion.

<2> He notes that the NT and the papyri are not undifferentiated text 
masses. There are differences between the two and with each group.

<3> Theophrastus and Dioscurides are cited as representatives of this 
genre. Some of the technical prose of Aristotle also borders on this 
type of writing.

<4> This is one area where the preceding chapters of the book would be 
necessary. Rydbeck summarizes only a few of the grammatical matters that 
he has developed that support his argument, including: new syntactical 
structure of the relative pronouns, the use of "hetis" instead of "he", 
"hoitines" instead of "Hoi{, "heos" with the pure subjunctive, 
"hoimoios" with the genitive, "hos hoti" with the superlative to express 
an elative idea, "heauto" = self, and "pro" with the double genitive 
(197, 198 n1).

<5> By this statement I assume that Rydbeck means that neither group 
should all be lumped into the popular category without distinction. Most 
of the two groups occupy a middle ground between the popular speech and 
literary writings. There is a small portion of the papyri that does, 
indeed qualify as popular, but he estimates that it is only about 10-15% 
of the published, non-literary papyri.

<6> This is similar to de Sassure's speech [parole] language [langue] 
distinction. Porter (_Verbal Aspect_, 145) suggests that Rydbeck has 
overstated his case at this point. "While exact details of pronunciation 
are not known, it is within reason to believe that the spoken variety 
was grammatically very similar to the written if account is taken of 
differences of register. By Rydbeck's reasoning, i.e. since no samples 
of spoken language exist no informal calculation can be made, nothing 
could be known about any language of the pre-recording device era."

<7> In an interesting note he describes the "condescending and also 
classicistic-polemical judgment" of the speech of common people of the 
first century by their more sophisticated peers and by later writers (he 
refers to both the comments of Celsus and to Acts 4:13). In contrast, he 
suggests that "if the customs officer Matthew is indeed the author of 
the Gospel of St. Matthew, he must have received more than "ta prota 
gr[ammata"; i.e., a basic education]. This shows in the 'clear and 
clever' Greek of his Gospel" (201 n1).

<8> Rydbeck has a lengthy note regarding the relationship of Semitisms 
to this judgment (201-02 n3), concluding that "linguistic phenomena of 
Semitic origin...never touch the fundamental grammatical structure of 
Greek but act as phrases that may affect style (as opposed to grammar).

<9> There is also an eighth point in which he suggests almost twenty 
specific grammatical  constructions that deserve future study. They are 
not included here as they do not contribute directly to summarizing his 

<10> The chart above is formatted as "ASCII art"--if necessary, change 
each line beginning with an x to a fixed-width font and it should 
display properly.

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!)