Thursday, October 16, 2014

Koine Greek: Quid Est? (With a Note on CASUS PENDENS)

Recent questions have arisen about the nature of the original NT texts and what counts as Koine Greek. To be honest, I have not devoted much time to this question in some time. But I've found old dialogues that might be helpful or that possibly show my progression of thought regarding the question. Here is one of those old discussions:

Dear [Fred],

You have asked for a definition of Koine. As I mentioned, I do not feel comfortable defining it, but would much rather describe it. A number of phenomena are akin to Koine, in this respect. Try to define "justice" or "beauty" in a non-circular way that attracts nearly universal consensus and see what happens. I submit that we face the same challenge when we try to define Koine Greek.

First, however, I will say that Greek was definitely undergoing a change from Attic to "Koine" prior to Alexander's attempt to Hellenize non-Greek peoples and impose a Weltsprache on them. History shows that from the fourth century BCE-fourth century CE, a type of Greek was introduced which differed from the Greek found in Plato, Aristotle, Isocrates or even in Xenophon. Yet, this developing form of Greek was used in different media, like any other language. Thus, one finds a higher register of Koine in Josephus, Philo and Epictetus than might be found in the Greek papyri; but the dialect is the same. It is still Koine Greek, identified by its syntax, morphology, phonology, and idiomatic use. Whatever one may think concerning the grammatical features of what I am calling Koine Greek, it seems hard to dispute Alexander's influence on Greek and how it began to change as Alexander and his successors sought to bring about a common Weltsprache.

At any rate, I offer two examples for starters to show the nature of Koine Greek. My initial examples will come from Colwell's work The Greek of the Fourth Gospel.

Some (e.g., Burney, et al) who believe that John was originally writen in Aramaic think that the construction classified as CASUS PENDENS evidently found in 27 Johannine passages (Jn 1:12; 1:18; 3:26, etc) is a "Semitic" construction (See Colwell, 37). However, the construction is found in Classical Greek (cf. Xen. Cyr II.3.5; Ec. I.14. See also Gildersleeve's Greek Grammar for examples from Plato,
Isocrates, Herodotus, Euripides and Homer) and it regularly occurs in the Greek papyri. Some examples that Colwell gives are:

1) BGU I, 19 (a lawsuit record dated 135 CE), col. II, lines 4f:

"hOSA PROSHNANTO PA[TRI?] KWN PERI TON PROKEIMENON APO THS EU [D] AIMONIDOS DIAQHKHS . . . TAUTA METEINAI TOIS EKEINOU TEKNOIS. Compare Jn 1:12 with BGU II, 372 (official decree, dated 154 CE), col II, lines 19f "where EAN TIS occurs in the same construction" (Colwell, 38).

Other Greek papyri containing the CASUS PENDENS construction are BGU II, 523 (a letter), P.Oxy. II, 299 (a letter dated 1 CE) and P.Oxy.II, 268, line 2 (a repayment of a dowry, dated 58 CE).

I also recommend Light from Ancient Letters (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986) by John L. White.


Duncan said...


Classical greek has a historical connection to hebrew. It can be seen in the characters used in the alphabet & also in the stories with common factors. Gideons 300 and Leonidas’ 300. There are many possible connections in literature so to separate the origins of a specific text is never going to be easy. What interests me is Vermes introduction to his last complete DSS and his comments on the number of texts that were not from the community but rather members in the vicinity of Jerusalem and the language of the majority of these texts.

Duncan said...


Thanks for this information. I will look at it in detail but let me point you to a Babylonian example as I have no Hebrew one as yet. See BM 35458 & 33769. School tablets from Babylon 50BCE - 50CE. I do not have it to hand at the moment but "who's who in the age of jesus" refers to a proclamation of mandatory Hebrew language education in Jerusalem dated to about 50CE. Never acted on since litteracy is still estimated at about 6% but demonstrating that Hebrew was still in use.

Duncan said...


Hebrew was still possibly a commonly spoken & used language up until the Bar Kokhba revolt.

Again not specific evidence but bear in mind the dating and original language of 1 Enoch & Ben sira which had always been assumed to be Greek in origin.

Edgar Foster said...


To be clear, I would not attempt to render a judgment on whether all four Gospels were written (originally) in Hebrew-Aramaic or Greek. It's possible that they were. However, my point is that the Greek found in the surviving MSS can be accounted for without resorting to such explanations.

Edgar Foster said...

While there are likely Aramaisms in Matthew, R.C.H. Lenski concludes:

"these few instances are scarcely sufficient to convince the thoughtful reader that Matthew's Gospel as we now have it is a translation and not an original production." (Qt. in John F. Walvoord's _Matthew: Thy Kingdom Come_. Pages 10-11.)

Duncan said...


Quoting the man that produced this book-

He requires a Greek understanding of the text to put forward his particular pesher (looks like he recognized Hubbert peak theory & overshoot).

I understand your position but for many your quote just provides fuel to the arguments put forward by Joseph Atwill.

Knowing that the evidence points to Hebrew still being the common language of the nation in Jerusalem in the first century why would we assume a Greek original. Did anyone propose that the Tanakh was originally written in Greek prior to such finds as the DSS?

Here is another example from Matthew-

Mat 5:3 The destitute folks [are] happy in spirit because the reign of the heavens continually belongs to them.

I do agree that other letters of the NT may well have been penned in Greek though, but certain verses of Revelation are lost on those without the understanding of Hebrew such as 1:8 & its translation (rather than transliteration of YHWH without vowel points.

I am not going to argue it any further but surely you can see where I am coming from - especially with Simon the LEPERS house.

Edgar Foster said...


I emphasize that I am not assuming a Greek original since Matthew just might have been written in Hebrew/Aramaic before it was rendered into Greek. My comments only pertain to the surviving texts. In other words, we don't have an original Hebrew/Aramaic Matthew (or any other Gospel) in our possession today. All we have are the Greek texts and derivations thereof.