In Post II I summarized a significant article by Suzanne Fleischman about linguistic analysis of older languages. She was speaking from her experience in this area studying Old French. In Part III.a I want to point out a few ways that the history of study of Koine Greek reveals similar practices and ideological commitments to those Fleischman pointed out in Old French. After spelling out a few of these points of contact, Part III.b will dive into two practical examples to drive home the way that this history and ideological commitments actually impact linguistic analysis of Koine Greek.

Fleischman and Greek

As I trust is obvious to those with a knowledge of the study of Greek in the Modern era, Fleischman’s analysis of the history of study of Old French easily maps onto Greek. Ignoring tons of details, I want to highlight three ways her analysis maps onto the study of Koine Greek, in particular. The first of these is the use of Attic Greek as a master ‘dialect’ for the description of Koine. The second and third are closely related and have to do with the copyists and the critics (textual critics, that is) and how their roles relate to the very important question, what exactly is the text we are reading?

Attic Greek as the standard

In Fleischman’s example, Old French is often described in terms of Latin or later periods of French. Koine Greek, by comparison, has longed lived in the shadow of its older cousin Attic Greek. One of the commonly used advanced Greek grammars in NT studies, Blass-Debrunner-Funk’s Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (affectionately called BDF) is a great example of this phenomenon.[1] It is a useful work, no doubt about that. It originated in German in the late 1800’s as the work of Fredrich Blass. Its aim: to be a grammar to help classicists read the NT. In this sense, it clearly acknowledges that there are differences between Attic and Koine Greek, as it tries to serve as a “translator” of sorts. What is noteworthy, for my point, is that Koine grammar is regularly explained in terms of its relationship to Attic grammar. This is common for the era even in grammars not written with the goal of making NT Greek make sense for Classicists. Today, even though many, perhaps most, scholars working with NT Greek do not approach Greek from a “classics first” educational background, we still regularly use a grammar that explains Koine Greek in terms of how it isn’t Attic Greek.

I use this grammar as evidence of a broader approach that has had far-reaching effects in the landscape of NT Greek study (which is just one part of Koine Greek study). While there is a great deal of interest in Koine Greek as its own distinct period of Greek today, driven especially by Greek departments’ newly found role as the guardians of the language with the longest written history and linguists’ current diachronic study interests, the grammatical literature is still full of assumptions foisted upon Koine Greek from Attic Greek which may or may not be true for Koine.

One very manifest way that the Attic-first mindset has influenced NT Greek study is in the spelling and accenting of words in our texts. Recovering original spelling of Greek from this period is difficult, for a variety of reasons. Given a great many of our manuscripts come from hundreds of years, or a millennium plus, after the original text, it is rarely apparent how the original would have spelled words. Further, given that Greek had a long and prestigious written history prior to the NT, it is sensible to assume that people who wrote in Greek were generally aiming to emulate the “better” Greek by using standardized spellings, to the degree that they could. So what should the words of the NT be spelled like? After all, you can’t practically print a Greek NT with each word spelled a variety of different ways. The solution found immediately at hand for those producing edited Greek NTs has been to spell (and accent) the NT as if it were written in perfect Attic Greek. Even if our oldest manuscripts pervasively spell the name “David” as Δαυειδ, virtually any Greek NT you pick up today spells it Δαυιδ. That is, our texts which we read show signs of habitual correction of our manuscripts in (at least some) matters of spelling where we have good reason to believe that the words were simply originally spelled differently than they would have been if written in good Attic Greek. To the degree that we are interested in studying the phonetic aspects of the text—like rhyme and word plays through look-alike or sound-alike sets of words—our investigations are actually hampered by this layer of standardization unnecessarily placed on top of the text.

Of course, neither of these are huge issues that are leading to drastic misrepresentations when carrying out linguistic study of the NT (unless one’s entire goal is in recovering pronunciation or related features from the text). I raise them more to establish a theoretical point: the texts that we use when we carry out linguistic analysis of the NT have been shaped to conform to standards which scholars have assumed they ought to be conformed to. While these assumptions are not nefarious, and probably are not very harmful, it is valuable to recognize them as assumptions which are used to norm the texts we actually read. This recognition leads directly to the issue of who produced the manuscripts we have access to today. After all, the manuscripts are our primary “native-speakers”[2], so where do they get their accent from?

The copyists: whose error is it, anyway?

Much like the Old French examples appealed to by Fleischman, the history of NT scholarship tends to denigrate the copyists. The NT is a prime example simply because we have the most amount of manuscripts for it. Other Koine Greek works show their own complex history of transmissions, good and ill. Regarding the NT, the thousands of different manuscripts extant and the myriad of readings they contain make it patently obvious that many copyists performed sub-par work, at least by the standards we wish to measure them by. But, there is a profound difficulty in how we relate to the copyists and the texts they produced.

As pointed out in Post 2, there are no native speakers of Koine Greek to ask questions of when analyzing the texts. The texts are our native speakers. Of course, outside of inscriptions and papyri, none (or precious few) of our extant texts are actually produced by native speakers of the period of Greek from which the literary work hails. In what sense is a manuscript copied by a Byzantine scribe in a monastery a native-speaking text of Koine Greek? The Greek-speaking monk who copied it spoke a form of Medieval Greek which is certainly closer to Koine Greek than if the monk spoke Old English, but such a copyist still was far removed from having “native-speaker” intuition about Koine Greek. It is also likely that some of our copies were made by copyists who did not really know Greek well or at all. As valuable of a service as the copyists did in fact lend to posterity (and more immediately, to those reading their texts in their own day), they leave behind a complex legacy. The further in time from the original writing that a copy hails from, the more difficult it becomes to consider the linguistic instincts of the copyist as being like those of the writer. This reality poses a problem which can be summed up in the following question: “Does the text a copyist produced evidence an “error” from the original author, or an “error” introduced by an error in the copyist’s performance of his task?” Certainly “errors” which slipped in over time based on what a copyist thought sounded right while copying are likely to become less and less like the original text and the things the author thought sounded right. In other words, it is difficult at times to be sure how much like a native speaker our native-speaker manuscripts actually speak.

None of these are surprising or new issues. Establishing the reading of a text has long required considering them. When reading about textual criticism, it is not uncommon to come across phrases saying something like “this is an impossible form,” or judgments where the validity of a reading is based on considering its grammaticality. This is fine, but it raises a question: on what basis are we deciding what is “possible” and what is “grammatical” for a manuscript? The general assumption seems to be a picture of a copyist sitting down to a text that was spelled perfectly, was grammatically flawless, and completely coherent as produced by the author, and then goofing it up. Might it be that some of the sayings and sentences in the NT, or other works, actually are grammatically aberrant or contained “impossible forms” of words? It is at least theoretically possible that the copyists accurately passed on a linguistic “goof” that belongs to the original text. But, more to the point, it is at least a partially open question about how we should relate to our manuscripts, and thus our copyists, in doing linguistic analysis. The manuscripts are the best “native speakers” of our text language. This raises a methodological question for the linguistic analysis of NT Greek.

The critics: (re?)constructing the originals

As a general rule, scholars do not carry out linguistic analysis of manuscripts, but of critical texts. That is, if someone wants to study conditional clauses in the NT, they pull up their bible software, do a few searches, collate all the data, and write up their results. But what exactly is the Greek NT that their software so effortless searches? Or, getting on even shakier ground, what exactly is that copy of Life of Adam and Eve, or collection of Josephus’ works, which they can so quickly search through? The answer is, in some sense, a figment of our collective imagination.

As a rule, the texts which we perform linguistic analysis on are critical editions. Critical editions come in a variety of shapes and sizes and have been made from a variety of methodological approaches and with different goals in mind over the years. What is often (though not always) the case, is that the text of the critical edition which is produced does not actually correspond to any manuscript which is extant, to greater or lesser degrees. This is true of the Greek NT.

The most relevant point to grasp is that the texts which scholars routinely use for analysis of Greek literary works are often not definitively known to have existed in the form in which we read them. This does not mean that they are wrong or that they misrepresent the original text in content, form, or even grammar. However, they are the creation of scholars who analyze a variety of manuscript copies and decide, for any number of reasons, which reading (or spelling) should be privileged. My aim is not to denigrate the noble and useful service of text critics, but to raise an important consideration which so often seems to be ignored: the texts critical scholars produce often (perhaps generally) are abstractions generated by their own work and based more or less on their often inscrutable judgments. The degree of influence a textual critic has over a text varies, of course, depending on a great many factors. But, unless they are simply copying and distributing a manuscript, text critics are never a neutral force in the equation.

Case studies

In Part III.b, I will move into more detail and look at two specific instances in which the application of linguistic methodologies to study and describe the text directly butt up against these forces arrayed to norm the texts we use and read. We will consider the usage of the article with proper names and the variation between the aorist and imperfect tense in historical narrative as a way to get specific and detailed in how these theoretical issues may actually come into play when analyzing the texts.

[1] This work has gone through many German permutations, and a few different English ones. I can’t speak for its influence in the German scholarly world, but given its 10 edition history, I assume it has long held a place as a tool there as well.

[2] In saying the manuscripts are our primary witnesses, this is only partially true. There is a great deal of extant primary source evidence in the form of papyri and inscriptions from the Koine period (roughly 300 BC – AD 300), scattered around the Greek-speaking world of the day. These texts allow us to get a first hand look at how Greek was actually being written in the era of Koine Greek. That picture is chaotic, at best. The fact that it is chaotic should at least cause us to question why all the texts we read are so nice. What these extant primary sources tend to lack, though, is extended narrative and expositional texts of the sort that most of the literary documents we enjoy reading are.