Language and Culture
Theology and Christian Faith
Was Koine Greek just a dialect of Classical Greek, or was Classical Greek already dead?
I have heard that the Koine Greek was the perfect language for the New Testament, because at the time of the N. T. writings, Koine was "static" and precise in its vocabulary and structures, with no exact synonyms, but did have some close synonyms that had distinct nuances in meaning, and could therefore be distinguished; it was considered "static" (I don't remember if that is the exact term) because, not long after that, it died as a spoken language, so its meanings were "sure" (?) (the form that was spoken after that was considered "pre-modern Greek" (not the term they used, I'm sure).
"Koine" (Greek for "common") is a term that came to designate that broad, common form of mostly non-literary Greek used by Greeks in common speech among themselves and with other ethnicities, and used by various ethnicities in their communication with other ethnicities. I find it commonly used as a technical term for a period in history roughly designating the 1st century BCE and CE (BC and AD). But it covers the early centuries of Christian development.
"Classical" Greek is a designation given to the writings of a particular period in the history of early Greek literature, including writing by Plato and other philosophers. "Classical" Greek also consisted of a variety of forms, that we could call dialects, with differences noted between the writings from different cities and regions.
Classical Greek did not die out – it just continued to change as every other language. Various Greek dialects from the ancient times continued to be used in various areas of the ancient world, from Hispania to China, from Central Asia to the Arabian peninsula.
Yes, in one sense, Koine can be considered a dialect of Classical Greek. But not in the normal sense of "dialect." Koine was not contemporary with the language of the "Classical" period, so was more like a descendant of the same clan as classical Greek, a distant younger cousin.
Keep in mind also that "Classical Greek" wasn't "classical" at the time it was spoken. It was just "Greek," or actually they called it Elenika. We refer to it now as classical only in light of the literature we have from that period and our knowledge of the language and its culture milieu. Greek was just Greek, with its variations from region to region, class to class and age to age.
The formal written forms we now call "classical" Greek were still the reference standard for written Greek in the first century AD, so written styles existed on a continuum between that older standard – set several hundred years before – and the current actual Greek language heard and used at that time in history. Virtually the full continuum of style appears in the New Testament texts.
These various forms of speech of the Greek family of peoples thrived and "competed." This rich, vibrant variety of Greek speech, across thousands of miles and hundreds of ethnicities, contributed to the broader common stream of Greek speech, which adapted to the normal, common challenges of change in culture and politics of the Greek and other ethnicities who used the language as an inter-language.
Koine Greek was fully a normal language with all the normal patterns and tendencies of any human language. I too have heard some extravagant romantic claims about the superiority of Greek in the Koine period. The Greek forms of the first century appear to be as varied as normal, literate trade languages are today and throughout history.
Koine was definitely not static – no language is ever truly static, unless nothing is happening in that language and culture! It is the character of human languages that they change and adapt as needed by the worldview and lifestyle of the speakers of that language.
Koine did not die out. On the contrary it grew in use and prestige, in fact, to become the standard form of Greek in the Middle Ages, becoming the reference form of Greek language as the general Greek population rapidly accepted Christian faith. Modern Greek remains very similar to Koine Greek.
Additionally, there is a wide range of Greek language in the New Testament. Luke is basically "classical," according to commentators, while Paul's letters are an articulate, educated version of Koine. Other writings vary to a conversational form of Koine. Many authoritative sources exist for the more technical details of language evaluation of the New Testament texts.
History and Character
You might like to look at a copy of A. T. Robertson's Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research. It is still the definitive word on the forms of Greek and the history and placement of the Koine language among Greek varieties.
This amazing work provides an astute, detailed analysis of the specific changes observable in the Greek of the period. He deals with the many varieties documented in available texts from all sources in a period of centuries before and after the Koine that appears in the Biblical texts.
Robertson deals with grammatical and syntactical character and processes, with possible meanings from a historical-comparative point of view, including references to the cognate languages: Sanskrit, Latin, Persian and other relevant examples. The edition I own is 1453 pages long, in big library size. I got my copy years ago in Mexico City, when several theological libraries were consolidating their libraries!
Also look for a book called Vox Graeca: The Pronunciation of Classical Greek, by W. Sidney Allen. This provides an analysis of the Greek language, focusing on the Classical and Koine forms, and how they affect current and later use.
Koine to Modern Greek
In general summary, Koine became the BASE for all modern Greek, superseding the classical forms, which already by the first century were being considered separate languages, and by the 3rd century were considered foreign languages.
Koine consolidated in the Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire), centered in Constantinople, in the early Middle Ages. Even modern Cypriots tell me the Biblical Greek is like a foreign language to them, which terribly surprised me, since I can read both, and they seem very similar to me!
(Greek has actually changed less since the first century than virtually any other European language. English speakers can hardly understand something written 400 years ago, like Shakespeare and the King James version of the Bible. Two thousand years ago, there was no such thing as an English language.)
The Common Greek language was a set of varieties, and, of course, continued to change. I did some study on this by visiting museums to read Byzantine manuscripts, like church edicts, ordination announcements, etc., but could not do a good scholarly job with the time I had.
You can see the gradual changes in grammatical and phonetic form over the centuries, just like in Spanish, French and English. The patterns of sound change, as well as grammar, are very similar to Latin.
In Greek, we see the common pattern of language change – things simplified. The current patterns of grammar and pronunciation in modern Greek have all developed systematically from the Koine forms, just as our modern languages have from their older forms.
The peripheral forms (dialects) died out, and major regional usages were absorbed into the general Greek language just as English dialectic forms have been accreted into the "standard" forms of English, giving us many forms of the same word with similar or different meanings. There are several dialects today, with some differences. Cypriot Greek is today the most like the first-century forms of Greek.
Robertson and other linguists of Greek give the same type of analysis of Greek as others did for all known modern languages with a literate history. Words overlapped in meaning and usage. Those who make the romantic claims of perfection for Greek appear to be unaware of the language itself and must make their claims up out of whole cloth, cut with crooked lines by dull scissors.
It is totally unbelievable to think that any human language is ever so precise as to defy human usage! A very characteristic of human speech is creativity and variety. Conformity also is a common feature of language, but innovation and conformity, or regularization, are both always going on at the same time, on different features of each language.
Shifts in Pronunciation
Thus pronunciation was shifting and uncertain in Koine Greek, indicated by the variety of spellings in borrowings in Aramaic, Latin, Egyptian, etc. Most notable is one of Jesus’ sayings on the cross, Eli, lama sabachthani, spelled by another gospel writer as Eloi. Eli and Eloi represent the same word, pronounced as in modern Greek “Eh-lee.” Which was the "correct" way to spell it? How do the Platonist Romantic spiritualizers answer that? Robertson has an amazingly detailed discussion of pronunciations, syntax and meanings which bring out the dynamic, living character of Koine Greek.
Greek was the best language because it was the most widely spoken at the time Jesus lived. If it were today, the language would be English. And one characteristic of being the "best language" is precisely – like English – that it did have such variations.
The variations added local color and maybe clarity. (For example, when Paul spoke to the Lycaonians, then they discussed it with each other in the Lycaonian language (Acts 14:11) – probably their local form of Greek, since some residents of that region would be Ionian Greeks. Robertson appears to think they were local non-Greeks, whose mother tongue might have been different. It is possible that they were Celts or even Hittite descendants.)
Always Varied, Always Changing
The term "koine" is used now in a technical manner to designate a period and set of language forms ("speech forms" or "speech varieties") related to the Christian movement in the Roman Empire. The textual core of this is the many documents that came to be collected in what Christians call the New Testament. A short time looking over these documents even in a cursory manner illustrates the variety of language involved.
The Gospel of Luke, for instance, is basically a contemporary version of Classical Greek. Second Peter looks like scribbled notes from a second-language writer, not a composed piece of literature, even in a "koine" of the time. Check this out from authorities in this topic.
Think ofthe New Testament "koine" (common language) documents as a snapshot that captures a still picture of one time in history of culture and language. The people, culture and language did not stop moving or changing, but our photo remains the same.
And most of the writers of those documents were bilingual or second language, and the forms represent a Jewish, though broad Mediterranean, context. It seems the Alexandrian context was the most influential, due to the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures and related texts in the era before the birth of Jesus.
Associated with the actual New Testament documents (several different "canons" or sets of documents according to several different historical traditions of Christian churches) and extensive body of related literature over the next four or so centuries.
Greek was always varied, and continued to change in various ways as it was used dynamically by a very diverse population across thousands of ethnities and commercial, geographic and political domains. In the small island of Cyprus where I lived for 3.5 years, there are 5 distinct dialects within a half-days drive from the capital city Nicosia.
The schools and broadcast agencies use a 6trh form, a standard formal form, following the preferred form in Greece. This enables the broader Greek-speaking world to remain in communication. Greek is jsut like English. Native speakers of different related speech forms need to lern a broader general "standard"form inorder to talk to each other.
There were numerous dialects of Greek as far back as they have any written records or inscriptions. Thus Greek was always varied – just like any language. The "Classical" is the most likely to have had standard unchanging forms, since the general analysis is that this was a formalized, artificial form of the language.
Classical Greek is over 400 years older that the language used in the first century Roman Empire,ofwhatever variety. The Greekshave to learn the "classics"as a foreign langauge. And modern Greeks inCyprus tell me they cannot udnerstand the original Bible texts. Koine was not a special, mystical language.
It was a regular language of real humans in a real, multicultural dynamic social and cultural Empire. VEry similar to our world today. Our documents from the Roman period "photograph" a time that we can treat on its own for academic purposes. But these documents were just a point in time in a living stream of culture and language.
Dialects, Languages and Ethnicity
Greek and Aramaic Among 1st Century Jews
How Words Develop Multiple Meanings: How Word Meanings are Negotiated
The Language Jesus Used
Koine Greek as a Mother Tongue
Meaning in Language - Word, Speech and the Role of Literature
Primacy and Possibility: Problems Facing Aramaic Primacy Claims
(Cultural Settings for Greek and Aramaic as Literary Languages in the First Century)
For More on Greek Language History and Dialects:
Alexander and the Language of the Southern Greeks
The Greek History of the Middle East from 330 BCE. Brief Historical Background To The New Testament
The History of Greek
The Role of Koine
Greek Language Gateway
Written 12 August 2003
Updated and Posted 21 November 2004
Revised 24 March 2006
Extensively revised 7 June 2014
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2004 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Please give credit and link back. Other rights reserved.