Re: Tense and Aspect / Action and States of Being

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Sat Sep 07 1996 - 07:05:39 EDT

At 11:59 PM -0500 9/6/96, Paul Zellmer wrote:
>General question to the list: Is it Koine in general that is exhibiting
>this characteristic of time being more a function of context than of
>verb form, or is it the biblical form of Koine only? If it is most
>frequently found in biblical Greek, I would see it as support for an
>underlying Aramaic or Hebrew form of the GNT. Also, if it is not a
>general characteristic of Koine Greek, then it would not be a general
>principle to be used throughout our examination of the Greek NT. To
>properly exegete texts, we should seek to determine which books might
>have been based on a Semitic language and which ones might have been
>Greek originally. Comments and help?

I think there is a perilous assumption or two here, a tendency to revert to
a conception of the Greek of the NT as something fundamentally different
from the Koine spoken and written throughout the Hellenistic/Roman world.
That is a long-since exploded notion, although perhaps here Paul is not
trying to argue for a "sacred" language that is different from secular
Koine. Surely there are Semitisms at several points in the NT texts and the
student who comes to read NT texts from reading classical Attic texts
previously does have to learn of some peculiar constructions that emerged
in the LXX translation from the Hebrew. These tend, however, to be
concentrated in the Synoptic gospels, for the most part. I'm somewhat
doubtful, moreover, that there was ever a time in the history of the
ancient Greek language when context did not play an important role in
defining (too strong a word?) the usage of a particular tense. That's
already true in the earliest literary Greek, the Homeric poetry; Homeric
poetry, moreover, shares with the NT texts an "international" character, in
fact an even more dialect-independent idiom (since the formulae of the oral
poetry derived from Aeolic, Ionic, and even Doric elements) that was not a
spoken language at all but rather an artificial language ("Kunstsprache,"
it is commonly termed) chanted and understood by people of different
dialect areas throughout the entire Greek-speaking world. I don't think one
can ever ignore context when reading Greek of any period, but the
fundamental aspect distinctions of the tenses are never irrelevant either.

It is a fact of profound importance that the NT, despite those elements
within some of its documents that clearly show forth concepts and speech
elements deriving from a Jewish milieu (and that milieu is not distinctly a
Palestinian Jewish milieu so much as a Diaspora Jewish milieu), survives
100% in Greek. The primitive Christianity that shaped the NT corpus so
quickly transcended Jewish ethnic boundaries and became an international
movement that we must attribute the bulk of the composition of the NT
documents to Gentile Christian writers. I'm inclined to think that even
Paul, so far as the Greek he spoke and wrote is concerned, should be
understood fundamentally within this Gentile Christian linguistic sphere
rather than in any sort of distinctly "Semitic" kind of Koine dialect.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, USA 63130
(314) 935-4018 OR

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