Ancient Greek Dialects

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Ancient Greek Dialects

Heinrich von Siebenthal, Ancient Greek Grammar for the Study of the Greek New Testament (2019), Peter Lang Pp. x-xxii; 1-738, reviewed by Darrell Sutton

The study of ancient Greek grammar is a specialism requiring particular powers of observation. An acquaintance with Greek dialects and their syntax, proficiency in sorting and classifying data, along with familiarity with various inscriptions and the ability to elucidate it all, are skills that are needed too. Delineating the formal structures of a Hellenic language that it is no longer spoken, and one that was modified through the centuries by individuals who used it for oral and literary purposes, is a complicated matter. The Greek of Homer’s tales was the original criterion, and in consonance with their style, Grecians of succeeding generations engraved their own ideas, imparting their thoughts orally, and where possible recording them. Ancient inscriptions were composed with the knowledge that future readers – and readers from other regions – would construe those texts devoid of further clarification from the original author. People of similar and dissimilar backgrounds expressed themselves in divergent ways. Analyses of these literary expressions are pivotal to parsing and clarifying what an ancient Greek person intended to say. As a consequence, assessments of words and language-rules are important.

Heinrich von Siebenthal’s (henceforth, HvS) project was ambitious. Progressive in his approach to the mechanism of language, in his own way he reacted to dull trends that still draw semantic distinctions from insufficient data. A product of decades of research, HvS’s book [AGG] is divided into four sections: (1) Writing System and Phonology, (2) Structure of Words – Morphology (3) Syntax and (4) Textgrammar. Two appendices follow: one on ‘Classical and New Testament Greek: Differences’; the other on ‘Word-Formation’. Indices, of References, Subjects  and Greek, are included. It is a comparative analysis. The Greek of the Septuagint/LXX is not neglected.

An Introduction of fourteen pages is preceded by a four-page Preface. The latter narrates the history of this volume’s composition. This English version is based on the author’s 2011 German book Griechische Grammatik zum Neuen Testament. His objective for issuing the 2019 edition is reasonable enough. He wants it “to serve as a tool for theologians and others interested in interpreting the Greek New Testament. It is a reference grammar that systematically covers all areas relevant to well-founded text interpretation including text grammar” (p.xv).

This volume will become a standard reference work for teachers offering instruction in colleges, universities, and seminaries. Seeing that it treats a few hundred specialized topics, only a few select statements are proffered for the benefit of the reader.

The Introduction contains a brief history of Greek that is satisfactory. No one knows how many dialects once existed among the ancient Hellenes. Four main dialects are categorized – Ionic, Doric, Aeolic and Attic, for the reason that these forms are extant in the classical Greek texts; but for close readers, similar orthographical characteristics appear in the earliest readings of the Greek New Testament too. Some are well known: a Doric form is visible in the text at John 7: 30 with πιάσαι; but an Ionic type appears in I Tim. 3:13/βαθμὸν, an Attic inflexion, accusative, is illustrated in Acts 19:1, τὸν Ἀπολλὼ.

Scholars will quibble over HvS’ explanations of historical events. Since HvS ties Hellenism to Alexander the Great, he asserts that, along with Christianity, [Hellenism] was “the principle driving force of western civilization”. The foundations of Western Civilization are broad and strong; but Hellenism is only a minor constituent among many components. Furthermore, it is misleading to speak of Alexander the Great’s conquest as disseminating Hellenism, which resulted from his control of “most of the Levant and the Middle Eastern countries” (p.1). The Arabian continent was never Hellenized in any meaningful way. The several trading posts established in the Gulf region (c.BC300), with their smaller number of families, did not modify the culture and customs of Arabs of Pre-Islamic Arabia.

In the paragraphs written in smaller script, HvS surveys various periods in the development of Greek language. He shows competency and writes without using technical jargon. Yet HvS takes on trust the idea that much of New Testament Greek is not on the level of an ancient educated Greek society (p.5). He offers no references to definitive studies of any kind on this matter. It is a nineteenth century oral tradition, continually passed down.

The New Testament is a potpourri of refined and unrefined language, of direct and indirect speeches. Tragic, comedic, and dramatic elements are included. Not a few Graeco-Roman writers preferred verbosity and literary flourish; but New Testament writers favored concision over prolixity. HvS is unaware of that stylistic difference. In appendix 1, on the differences between classical and New Testament Greek, he shows how elision emerges in the Greek sentence structure. But he does not go far enough. He must follow on to note how brevity, too, emerges in the assembly of Koine Greek sentences. New Testament textual critics notice this feature but, lacking grammatical and syntactical expertise, this aspect tends to mislead them into canonizing a belief that longer readings found in MSS are the ‘true’ readings and are superior to shorter ones, while they strenuously object to the use of conjecture.

HvS expounds the facts in detail, utilizing the formal method, in which locutions and forms are exhibited, then described in accordance with their positions in a number of carefully chosen proof-texts.

Below are chapter summaries provided by HvS, followed by  comments and observations, especially on the longest section:

(Pp. 1-37) ‘Part 1 deals with the elements of the lowest level of text structures: the letters of the alphabet, the sounds and syllables they represent, then diacritical and punctuation marks, finally “sound laws” that help to explain grammatical peculiarities more easily’ (p.15).

The coverage here in a few pages is better than what is found in standard Greek Readers. As well, he does a good job explaining vowel contraction and crasis.

(Pp. 39-174) ‘Part 2 deals with  the second level of the structure of texts: the structure of words. It is of crucial importance to text interpretation. Most importantly this part presents us with the various inflectional patterns (paradigms) enabling us to identify  the specific word-forms of a text and to connect them with the intended functionary category.’

Word classes and declensions are treated meticulously, included are the ‘Big Four’ lexical forms that end with the person-marker μι: τίθημι – to place; ἵημι – to send; δίδωμι – to give; ἳστημι – to set/place. Few readers are intrigued by morphology. However, it is a nexus between writers and readers because roots, prefixes, stems, and suffixes control how sense and meaning are formed in the readers’ mind.

(Pp. 175-567) ‘The focus of Part 3 is on the grammatical side of the third level of text structures, i.e. on the grammatical side of propositions, called “sentences”. Sentences are the most important structural components of a text; one of the greatest challenges of text interpretation is to understand these and to infer from them the content communicated by the text as a whole. Hence this detailed treatment of the syntactic regularities governing Ancient Greek, particularly of those relevant to the study of the NT.’

HvS goes on to say that “Prepositions are uninflected words (most of them originally being adverbs, some of them, however, adjectives or nouns). They typically stand in front of a noun phrase and determine ‘govern’ its case” (p.262). He does not get lost in a forest of statistics. He sees things clearly. In defining each pre-positioned word he offers a ‘core meaning’ and elucidates every prefix. Since they affect spatial and temporal relations, readers are shown the way through the wilderness.

His approach to explorations of New Testament Greek is appropriate. Rather than dislocating it from the wider spheres of Koine texts and inscriptions, it is studied along with the Greek idiom of various periods. HvS lists five case forms; some scholars sometimes list four. The older eight-case system long ago was supplanted, the labels ‘oblative’, ‘locative’ and ‘instrumental’ being subsumed in the other cases. Many New Testament Grammarians still maintain the five-case view. In this book, however, HvS at least acknowledges the obsolete forms, which possibly will give AGG wider acceptance and use. Mood distinctions degenerated in the English language. So he is correct when he says “very often Ancient Greek moods cannot be translated into English as a particular form of the verb in question”/his boldfaced (p.345).

Contrary to HvS’ claim in the first sentence to his summary of Part 4 below, this section, on syntax, is higher and greater import than the other three, which is why so much space is given to it. One’s understanding of the sentence affects how it will be translated, punctuated etc. And a proper knowledge of a writer’s style indeed influences how transpositions and conjectural emendations are made. Section 3.2.1.1, on Syntax of the Article, shows the ‘article’s various positions and functions. On the Adverbial Participle, his handling of the ‘six major adverbial nuances’ (p.391f.) is judicious. Greek participles, of every kind, are an indefinable genus. Their classification often leads to over-interpretation.

(Pp. 569-636) ‘Part 4 is about the highest level of text structures, that of the text. It is to show in what ways a text is different from the sum of its sentences/clauses as well as the ways in which the distinctive features of the grammatical and the content sides of the text structure relate to the coherence of Ancient Greek texts, especially of those in the NT.’

This unit contains his most speculative material: metaphysical syntax. Founded entirely upon abstract linguistic models, he argues that for a text to qualify as a text it must contain three distinctives: (1) an organized structure, (2) coherence and (3) recognizable communicative function. He begins with a test-case, but his detailed analysis and exegesis of Mat. 13:45 lacks depth and does not confirm his thesis. It is a method that guarantees indefinite or redundant interpretations. Of the Matthean text he concludes that ‘the main point of the text is… something so outstanding… that it is worth giving up everything else in exchange for it’ (p.578). Yet his system was not needed to uncover that truth. E.g., when someone reads a newspaper, either they understand what it states, or they do not. If a lack of understanding prevails, he or she can look up a word in a dictionary. Readers of newspapers never will ask the questions that he poses regarding the coherence of sentences etc. And if applied, strictly, to the text of his grammar, it would make nonsense of it all. The method of inquiry, albeit theoretical, initiates discussions that neither the author nor his earliest readers pondered and will produce answers that are beside the point.

AGG has its advantages. The table of contents is well ordered. English glosses of Greek terms are spot on. His subject matter is profusely illustrated. In the main, HvS explains difficult to grasp concepts thoroughly. As it should be, under each heading it is not hard to find problems mentioned and apposite solutions rendered. At p.304f., his consideration of tense-aspect is helpful. He builds it all upon foundations of ancient Greek in its various phases.

Some questions: rabbinic parallelisms aside, I wonder why ‘Semitisms’ (p.6) continue to be foisted upon the NT Greek text since so few scholars, in the past or present, have capably demonstrated their existence? The gist of any number of moral axioms and aphorisms can be converted into another language without disturbing the native characteristics of the receptor-language. Hebraists rarely control enough of the wider ranges of Greek idiom to be able to pronounce on the subject. The same judgement applies to Hellenists who have little Hebrew. Indeed everyone may not agree with HvS too that the genitive of quality was “Influenced by Semitic usage” (p.241). Some grammatical tags are ambiguous and rather awkward. Should not HvS find a better descriptive label than the cumbrous ‘means-focused manner clauses’ when treating the subordinators? (p.536).

Historical Perspectives: from the outset, HvS set his sights on new horizons, arranging his material innovatively. He applied modern linguistic theory to the study of ancient Greek and Hebrew. During the late 18th century Greek grammatical studies became a field of interest for German scholars. Their research and discoveries were ground-breaking. On the classical side, the studies of ancient Greek grammar conducted by Georg Curtius (1820-1885) were second to none. The first edition of Bernhard Gerth’s Ausführliche Grammatik der griechischen Sprache was issued in 1834-35 and was hailed as magisterial. It went through various editions and later it was expanded into four volumes (1890-1904) by Gerth, an eminent syntactician, and by Friedrich Blass (1843-1907), a prodigious classicist, whose Grammatik des neutestamentlichen Griechisch (1896), trans. A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, remains exceptional. In William E. Jelf’s (1811-1875) 2 volume publication, A Grammar of the Greek Language, chiefly from the German of Raphael Kühner (1842-45), Kühner’s work was brought to the attention of scholars in the British Isles.

In the United States, such works had a profound impact. Journals and reviews published notices of recent works. Several Presbyterian theologians examined them with acuity. None more so here in America than the professorial staff at Andover seminary. They promoted German biblical research and engendered wide interest in it. In the United States, the ripest fruit of German grammatical studies, Georg B. Winer’s Grammatik Des Neutestamentlichen Sprachidioms (1821-1894: 1st-8th ed), had a profound impact.

At that time, about two hundred years ago, American students sought to gain admittance into German classrooms. Nonetheless, New Testament scholars who were unable to read German had to wait for Moses Stuart’s (1780-1752) translations of 19th century German scholarship into English. A significant biblical scholar of the day, he composed A Treatise on the Syntax of the New Testament Dialect (1835). W.F. Moulton (1835-1898) likewise helped British New Testament scholarship with his translation, A Treatise on the Grammar of New Testament Greek, of the same title.

Individuals studying ancient Greek today need to remember the aforementioned names because without a solid grounding in grammar, exact interpretations are impossible. They performed enormous tasks with few philological resources to aid them, much of it done before the invention of the typewriter; and textual sources had to be confirmed through direct inspection. When Basil Gildersleeve (1831-1924) lamented the length of time it took for his Syntax volumes to be published, he knew the deferral was on account of the meticulous methods of C.W.E. Miller (1863-1934) in carefully checking and re-checking citations and references. So when he later stated that Miller knew as much about Greek grammar as he did, all parties involved knew the statement to be true to fact.

Complaints should not be made regarding the necessity of developing an understanding of the relation of words in a sentence. Without such knowledge, intellectual capacity is stultified. In his book Beobachtungen zu Aristophanes (1962), Eduard Fraenkel used his knowledge of grammar to open wider doors of understanding of Greek comedy. J.D. Denniston, too, spent years in study, researching the material of Greek Prose Style. Sir Hugh Lloyd Jones ensured that Dennison’s work was eventually published in 1952.

HvS writes within an enduring, but not particularly attractive tradition. In my opinion, the page layouts will addle the reader with all their congested materials: i.e., boldfaced letters, lightly shaded numbered fonts, italicized words, 10-12 point font script and smaller scripts interspersed throughout. This volume needs to be revised and divided into two volumes, with both appendices expanded to cover a material that will ensure its authoritativeness; but if Part 4 were deleted, few Greek grammarians would miss it. More attention could be directed to stress or accent (pp.22-23).

Grammars of this sort that contain hundreds of small sections on parts of speech do not lead to captivating  encounters with original sources. In fact, contrary to popular scholarly opinion and method, a good grammar should contain lengthy passages of 15 or more lines/sentences that are studied minutely in order to quickly introduce the reader to actual expressions. And grammatical descriptions should  derive from such study. It need not be  introductory in its outlook to perform this duty. Acquaintance with an author’s writing is of greater value than attempts at memorizing paradigms, diagrams, charts and defined descriptions of words.

Professors with little Greek and novices will be overwhelmed by the material presented. This volume, a formidable production and an exhaustive labor of love, is only suitable for use by discriminating biblical scholars. Pastors and theologians will welcome a work that aids them in the exposition of scripture and in the composition of their systems of divinity. Classicists likely will scan it to note the paths in which New Testament scholarship is moving. It was a pleasure to reflect on grammatical items and not be inundated in the text with an encyclopedia of facts and citations given by other grammatical authorities.  Ancient Greek Grammar is well-edited; but readers will need to spend considerable time mastering the various abbreviations on pages xix-xxii.

Darrell Sutton contributes articles and reviews to QR on ancient texts

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1 Response to Ancient Greek Dialects

  1. David Ashton says:

    Dramatic elements are very noticeable in the Fourth Gospel, sometimes proposed as a deliberate “counterpart” to Euripides. Scholarly support for John as a theatrical as well as a theological drama is colossal. Two films have been made, but there is a strong case for an original quality playhouse musical, i.e. a classical opera consonant more with J S Bach than A L Webber. See e.g. especially Oakeshott’s “Jesus on Stage” & Brant’s “Dialogue & Drama”.
    I approached John Rutter, who declined the invitation with friendly caveats; Roger Scruton died; James MacMillan is gate-kept by commissions; John Kersey was intrigued but too busy; Harrison Birtwistle is unsuitable.
    Any takers, or suggestions?

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