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Modern Greek versus the Koine Greek of the New Testament

Source: https://www.abarim-publications.com/DictionaryG/k/k-o-i-n-o-sfin.html

Some friendly thoughts on Koine Greek

— and the great journey from the profane to the holy —

Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary

κοινος

The adjective κοινος (koinos) means common, profane, unrefined, unspecialized and multi-purpose, and is the polar opposite of αγιος (agios), which means specific, holy, refined, specialized and single-purpose. The latter speaks of the result of a long selective process, whereas the former speaks of the absence of it: the raw material that consists of as much dirt as noble bits. But alternatively, the purpose of anything, and that includes anything holy — anything patiently refined to perfection — is to be applied. And the only application of anything holy is to be released into the profane: to serve it, or govern it, or perhaps even both.

Our adjective stems from the same Proto-Indo-European root "kom", meaning beside, by or with, as the familiar preposition κατα (kata), meaning down or onto. It may describe "common" hands (Mark 7:2), which are hands that handle all sorts of things and are thus not purified (literally: unwashed — compare Iliad.16.235 with Isaiah 52:7, Romans 10:15 and John 13:5-20) for the specific task of eating. But it may also refer to goods that are owned by all sorts of people and not specifically by one rightful owner (Acts 2:44).

Our adjective κοινος (koinos) is used 13 times in the New Testament; see full concordance. See below for its derivatives.

Some friendly thoughts on Koine Greek

As we discuss at greater length in our article on Hellas, the Greek alphabet was derived from the Semitic one in the late ninth century BC. But the Semitic alphabet itself had taken many centuries of painstaking development to mature. It was introduced to the Greek language basin relatively suddenly (Malachi 3:1), and was relatively swiftly adapted to suit the Greek language and mind. But arguably the most significant change was that the original Semitic read from right to left, whereas the Greek adaptation reads from left to right.

This is much more significant than it might seem because the right was widely considered holy and special whereas the left was associated with all things common and profane (see our article on the adjective δεξιος, dexios, meaning right). That means that Hebrew was written as a journey from the holy toward the profane (John 1:14, Philippians 2:7, 1 Peter 3:19-21), whereas Greek was written as a journey from the profane to the holy (Matthew 16:24, John 14:2, Philippians 2:12).

In Biblical times there simply was no language standard yet, and the Greek language existed in a broad array of local dialects — Attic (used around Athens, hence its dominance in Classic literature), Aeolic, Doric, Ionic, Laconian, and many more. Koine Greek — that is the kind of Greek in which the New Testament was written — is a kind of old-world creole, which developed mostly from the Attic and Doric dialects, and arose among the soldiers of Alexander the Great, who hailed from all over the known world and thus spoke many different languages and dialects.

For reasons of efficiency, lofty classical Greek was abandoned in favor of a much simpler, standard form of common, popular or vulgar Greek (hence the name, Koine), to make it easier for foreigners to understand and participate in the global goings on (Titus 1:4, Jude 1:3). That means that Koine was Greek specifically for non-native Greek speakers, very much similar to what Internet-English is today: meant to unite the world in a common market place (see our article on οδος, hodos, road or way), but certainly not to compose grandiose verse in (Isaiah 28:11). In daily life, written texts were very scarce and ordinary folks had very little exposure to written texts, or any need to be fluent in the world's global language. Those that did, commonly had no need for a vocabulary beyond a smattering of keywords and common phrases.

At first Koine was rightly regarded as a lesser form of Greek. Its authors were often non-native speakers or first-time literates, i.e. illiterate in their native language but literate in Greek, or semi-literate to the level at which they could understand road signs and simple instructions. That means that Koine texts were commonly rather curt and came riddled with errors — or rather "variations" since there was no spelling standard yet and there simply was no "wrong" way of doing it (apart, perhaps, from spelling so unusual that nobody understood what you were trying to say). The reaction of users of Classical Greek to Koine was in those days rather comparable to how in recent centuries past, English purists maintained that American English was inferior to British. But, in both cases, as the colonies matured and began to produce minds of comparable greatness, the vulgar derivatives grew likewise into the formidable media they remained.

But this also means that there is no "proper" pronunciation of Koine Greek for modern students of the Bible to pursue (which is an often expressed desire). Rather exactly like the Body of Christ (or even scientific canon or modern computer coding): the body of Koine users was marked by its international character, and was kept together by the written code. In other words: Koine Greek was like modern Twitter English: to the overwhelming majority of users it's a second language, used only for short messages that are written and rarely pronounced. Like English today, Koine existed in a vast array of dialects and there simply was no single proper way to pronounce it. If it ever was pronounced (because common letters were indeed read out loud; Colossians 4:16), the pronunciation depended entirely on the characteristics of the region's local language, which would have been Aramaic in Judea, and Egyptian in Egypt, and both accents may have been so thick that a native Greek would have been unable to understand either (which explains Acts 21:37-40).

Koine texts are two-thousand years old, which is four times as old as Shakespeare, and although we also don't know how Shakespeare sounded (we have no sound recordings from either period), judging from the way the Bard rhymed words, we can be sure it sounded nothing like modern English (but probably more alike modern German, with hard r's and hard ch's). There was also no spelling standard yet, which means that there simply was no right or wrong way to spell, as long as the recipient was able to understand what was being conveyed (likewise, "Shakespeare himself did not spell his own name the same way twice in any of his six known signatures, and even spelled it two ways on one document," says Bill Bryson in his ever delightful The Mother Tongue, 1990).

Koine relates to classical Greek the way JavaScript relates to Java. Albeit a slimmed down version of a brilliant original, Koine Greek was nevertheless a mere few centuries removed from the minds of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle, and the effects their works had on the general mind of the Greek population and ultimately the world at large — Isaiah's famous prediction (in the 8th century BC) that the Virgin would be with Child certainly referred to Athens (see παρθενος, parthenos, virgin). In a very similar way, a thousand years before Jesus, the Phoenician king Hiram and king Solomon of Israel had built the Temple of YHWH.

However, a mere four centuries after Hiram and Solomon built the Temple, the prophet Ezekiel could raise a well-earned lament over Tyre, and its fall from splendor (Ezekiel 26:1 - 28:19; also see the obvious play on Tyre's unfortunate colony Carthage in Matthew 15:21-28). Likewise, modern students of Koine, and particularly modern native Greek speakers, should recall that modern Greek is a whopping two millennia removed from ancient Greek, and has substantially changed in pronunciation, grammar, meaning of words, and, crucially, its innate intelligence: the natural association of words, style figures and archetypes.

Today, a modern Greek speaker with a creative imagination should be able to roughly follow a Koine text, but that doesn't immediately mean she understands it — or more precise: what lasting effects the original text would have had in the original audience (because that, and only that, is the "meaning" of a text). Any six year old can "follow" a painting by Rembrandt, but understanding its meaning (its lasting effects in a very broad international audience) simply requires more than color vision. Anybody can look up a word or two in any garden variety Biblical dictionary, but unless one is intimately familiar with the mind behind the words, one is trying to translate a woof into a noun, which results in a fictional fable rather than comprehension. Two-thousand year old texts in Koine Greek are simply wholly other beasts than anything written in modern English, and a paint-by-number correlation does not bridge the gap between these two states of mind.

As we discuss in our article on πνευμα (pneuma), meaning spirit: modern texts are speech-based and thus linear (elements appear in linear sequences of causality and their meaning is derived from the deterministic rules of language), whereas ancient texts are thought-based and thus non-linear (elements appear in vast multi-dimensional matrixes of associations, and thoughts are reconstructed from preferred pathways in the brain of the beholder). All this suggests that a modern native Greek speaker who tries to read Koine without a proper understanding of the limitations of her own native language, might actually be disadvantaged by a kind of verbal Dunning-Kruger effect.

Moreover, in our articles on the name Hellas and the noun κυων (kuon), dog, we discuss how the ancient Greek mind relates to the Hebrew mind the way a canine mind relates to a simian mind. This means that even to an ancient native Greek mind (and by extension the Christian dogmatic tradition), both the Septuagint and the New Testament would have sounded like variations of "sit! heel! roll over!". Many Christians today still believe that the Bible essentially conveys God's "will" in a series of laws and commands, which have been given for humans to obey.

But even though the New Testament was written in Koine, it was wholly based on the vastly superior Hebrew sense of literary depth. Its stories are neither linear journalism nor literary impressionism but thought-based synthetic constructions that tell of the natural patterns upon which the entire universe and all life and all spirit are eternally based (1 John 5:8), and through which they are forever governed (Colossians 1:16-17, Hebrews 1:3, Romans 1:20). The Hebrew perspective on the Bible is not about mere obedience to the commands of a much greater commander, but rather about understanding the ways of the commander, absorbing the ways of the commander, and so, in a way, becoming the friends (John 15:15) and colleagues (John 14:12) of the commander, whilst joining in his mission and purpose with full consciousness and enthusiasm (Matthew 5:9, Romans 12:2, Ephesians 5:1, Colossians 1:28).

Modern Greek relates to ancient Greek the way a Pomeranian relates to a Rottweiler, and the Greek Bible relates to the Hebrew Bible the way a sheepdog relates to the shepherd. Having said that, it's probably prudent to point the reader to Galatians 3:28, and to emphasize that dog is indeed man's best friend, and that the union of dog and very early humans made modern humanity possible (which in turn means that moderns dogs, sheep and tomatoes are as human as any song by Taylor Swift; see our article on θηριον, therion, beast).

One of the defining qualities that the literary character of Jesus of Nazareth signified was the transition from the Jewish effort to refine mankind's understanding of God's natural Law (as summed up by the unchanging Logos and embodied by the growing Jesus), to the global application of this understanding. Up until the ministry of the mature Christ, the words of YHWH were being refined like silver in a furnace (Psalm 12:6, see Psalm 2:12) and the Child (Isaiah 7:14) kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men (Luke 2:40, 2:52; see Luke 1:80 and 1 Samuel 2:26). But when maturity was reached, and childish things were surpassed (1 Corinthians 13:11), the promise that God had made to Abraham, namely that his seed would be a blessing for all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:3, see Galatians 3:9), could begin to be fulfilled (Acts 1:1).

Salvation is from the Jews (John 4:22) but for all mankind (Psalm 22:27, Isaiah 2:2, Zechariah 8:23), even the whole of creation (Luke 3:6, Isaiah 40:5, Romans 8:19-22).

The Jewish alphabet and Scriptures were perfected over the centuries since Abraham (Genesis 15:1, Psalm 16:10) until it found perfection in Jesus. And when this perfection was attained, it was immediately surrendered to the world at large (John 12:32, Joel 2:28). Whereas the Old Testament was written in the most sophisticated writing system the world has ever seen, the New Testament was written in the common tongue of the open market of the Greco-Roman world, spoken mostly by non-native speakers, who were therewith cut from their wild native trees and grafted upon the cultivated Tree (Romans 11:24).

From our adjective κοινος (koinos), common, derive:

  • The verb κοινοω (koinoo), meaning to commonize: to be, make or hold common or vulgar; to defile or surrender to common use. As discussed above, there's no simple paint-by-number correlation between holy and good and profane and bad, since the most holy thing has only been made holy specifically to be submitted to an unholy world, to serve it and possibly govern it (or said otherwise: there's no evil as great as uselessness, and satan is going to hell not because he lacks splendor but because he lacks application, and is thus literally good-for-nothing).
    When Jesus speaks of a man being made κοινος (koinos) by what comes out of him (Matthew 15:11), he does not necessarily speak of that man's vice but rather of his usefulness. Someone whose precise knowledge only applies to some very specific problem, isn't very broadly useful, but someone who has knowledge that applies to pretty much every situation (knowledge of fundamental principles of nature, that hence apply to science, logic, psychology and society) is always able to say words that help and solve practical problems.
    This verb is used 14 times; see full concordance.
  • The noun κοινωνος (koinonos), meaning a partner (of someone) or a partaker or sharer (in something). This word occurs 10 times, see full concordance, and from it in turn come:
    • The verb κοινωνεω (koinoneo), meaning to partner with, share in, or partake or participate in something. This verb is used 8 times; see full concordance, and from it derive:
      • The noun κοινωνια (koinonia), meaning participation. Specifically, this word may be translated with community or fellowship (Acts 2:42), or contribution (Romans 15:26), but with the emphasis on joining the defining goings on. This word is not about mailing lists and memberships, silent partners and best wishes, and certainly not about Sunday morning gatherings, listening compliantly to the guy up front or singing silly ditties about nothing at all. When Paul speaks of the fellowship of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1:9), he does not speak of joining an existing organization and singing along with the choir, but rather of becoming a molecule of the larger thing — and a molecule is the smallest bit of something that has all the qualities of that something, and which together with the other molecules form the greater whole, understanding that this greater whole would not exist if it weren't for its molecules doing their little things. Or said simpler: fellowship with Christ is being Christ, namely being Christ together with others who are also Christ, so that together we are Christ. This noun is used 19 times; see full concordance.
      • Together with the preposition συν (sun), meaning together or with: the verb συγκοινωνεω (sugkoinoneo), meaning to participate jointly or together with (Ephesians 5:11, Philippians 4:14 and Revelation 18:4 only).
    • The adjective κοινωνικος (koinonikos), meaning participatory, sociable, multiple-purposed, or prone to get one's hands dirty (1 Timothy 6:18 only).
    • Again together with the preposition συν (sun), meaning together or with: the noun συγκοινωνος (sugkoinonos), meaning a partner or fellow partaker. This noun occurs 4 times; see full concordance.