Hellenistic Greek outside the New Testament

In learning any new language, whether a modern one or an ancient one, reading widely in the target language is extremely important if you want to be literate in that language and have more than conversational fluency.

In the case of New Testament Greek, we are fortunate that there is a large body of writing from the same period that can help us with this. Here are a few of my recommendations.

Early Christian Literature

Of course the most important documents from early Christianity are those found in the Christian canon, the New Testament, but there is a significant number of other documents written by early Christians in Koine Greek.

The term “The Apostolic Fathers” covers a diverse collection of documents written by leaders in the Early Christian movement after the time of the Apostles, people like Clement of Rome, Clement of Alexandria, Ignatius (bishop of Antioch), Polycarp, and Justin Martyr. The collection also includes a number of documents of uncertain origin but from the same general era, and clearly written by Christian authors: the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache (also called the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles), The Martyrdom of Polycarp, the epistle to Diognetus, and others.

Apostolic Fathers, Volume 1
Volumn 1

The value of these documents for language acquisition is that they are written in Koine very close to what we see in the New Testament. Because they deal with different contexts, though, you will increase your Greek vocabulary by reading them and perhaps come to understand some of the vocabulary you already know in new ways!

Volume 2

The two LOEB volumes on the Apostolic Fathers do not include all of the them, but they do include a large sample. The newest edition includes an updated and much improved translation by Bart Ehrman.

I find the LOEB volumes helpful because of their small size and the convenience of having a translation on the facing page to avoid having to look up unfamiliar words in a lexicon. That allows for more fluent reading with an occasional glance at the translation if help is needed.

Early Jewish Literature

There was a very large number of Greek-speaking Jews in the Hellenistic world, and they produced literature in Koine Greek that is well worth reading. While there were Jewish communities in most cities of the Roman Empire, the bulk of the literary production came from Alexandria, Egypt and certain locations in Palestine. Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, were written in Greek.

What is usually meant by Jewish Koine, or Hellenistic Jewish Greek, is not a separate form of the language, but a body of literature written by Jewish authors in Greek between the death of Alexander the Great (323 BCE) and the end of the second century CE.

The Septuagint (LXX)

By far the most widely read text from this category is the Septuagint (LXX). Copies are readily available in digital form from both Logos and Accordance. If you’re like me in that you want your own physical copy to annotate with marginal notes, I recommend the printed edition from the Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft Stuttgart (German Bible Society, Stuttgart). Two volumes in one in a 7.5 x 5 in. (19 x 13 cm) binding, it is easy to carry with you to have available for downtime reading.

Deuteronomy 32, Rahlfs LXX Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft Stuttgart

A new critical edition of this text was released in 2007 with a very large number of corrections based on research since the previous edition.

While the LXX is written in Koine, it is important to keep in mind that most of it, though not all, is a translation of a text originally composed in Hebrew. Reading it is good practice, but phrasing can sometimes be a little odd in comparison with other Hellenistic texts.

You can listen to Benjamin Kantor’s reading of the first chapter of Genesis from the Septuagint here. Unfortunately, because of the way his site is configured, I cannot link directly to the page with the recording. If you click the link, you will be taken to a general page with all of the audio recordings his site offers, and you can choose “Genesis 1” from there.

Philo of Alexandria

All twelve volumes the LOEB Classical Library’s collection of Philo’s work are available freely online from the Internet Archive.

Philo was a Jewish author living in Egypt where there was a very large Greek-speaking Jewish community. He used allegory as a means of merging Jewish thought with Greek Philosophy. While his work was not widely accepted in the Rabbinic tradition, some argue that this synthesis had a significant influence on Early Christian thought.

The language used in Philo’s writing is a good example of literary Koine and can provide great exposure to the way Greek was used in Egypt at the time of early Christianity.

Hellenistic Greek outside the Judeo-Christian Tradition

Outside the religious texts written by early Christians and Jews there is a wealth of material written in outstanding literary Koine. There are also many examples of letters and other common documents that were not intended as literature.

Diodorus of Sicily

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Diodorus of Sicily (Diodorus Siculus) lived from around 80 BCE to 20 BCE during which time he wrote forty books that he entitled Βιβλιοθήκη Ἱστορικῆς (Library of History), and the majority of this monumental work survives. The books are arranged in three groupings. Books 1 through 6 cover mythological history up to the destruction of Troy. Books 7 through 17 cover the period from the Trojan war to the death of Alexander the Great (323 BCE). The final group of books, 18 through 40, covers the Hellenistic world to roughly 60 BCE.

Books 1 through 5 and 11 through 20 survive intact. The other books each have lacunae. I have recently been reading books XVI.66 through XVII, and the missing sections are not difficult to overcome. They’re frustrating, but not enough so to discourage reading.

This section of the Library of History covers conflicts in and outside Greece, then the expansion of the Macedonian Empire under Alexander. Book 17 ends with his death. The Greek text is an excellent example of literary Koine.

Arrian’s Ἀλεξάνδρου Ἀνάβασις (Ascent of Alexander)

Written in the second century CE, this somewhat oddly titled collection in seven books is the fullest surviving account of Alexander’s conquest of the Persian Empire. The title is odd because ἀνάβασις‚ was not used in the sense of an ascent to power, or rising in any metaphorical sense. It was used to describe a more literal going up from a shoreline into the mainland. It is likely that Arrian meant it as an echo of Xenophon’s Anabasis of Cyrus (the younger), who did indeed ascend from the shores of Asia Minor to the heart of Persia, where he was defeated and died. That earlier work by Xenophon is similarly structured into seven books.

By the time Arrian wrote this work, the Atticising movement had begun. He writes in Attic, but not so purely as to make reading very difficult for one who reads Koine. If you can read Luke, Acts, and the Letter to the Hebrews with relative ease, you will be able read this with some work. You will note immediate differences, of course, such as the regular use of ἐς (the Epic and poetic Attic form of εἰς), ξυν- where you might expect συν-, frequent use of τε, and frequent unfamiliar vocabulary.

The LOEB Classical Library includes two volumes of Arrian’s historical work. The first (above right) covers books 1 through 4 of the Anabiasis, while the second volume (left) covers the rest of the Anabasis as well as the Indica, which is written in the Ionic dialect.

Arrian, Τῶν Ἐπικτήτου Διατρίβων (On the Discourses of Epictetus)

Discourses 1

While the same Arrian published the Discourses of Epictetus, he claims not to have composed Epictetus’ words, but to simply have put on paper as closely as possible what he heard Epictetus say. He was a pupil of the great teacher.

Discourses 2

When Arrian writes as the narrator in his own voice, we see clear Attic elements, but when he’s quoting Epictetus, it’s nothing but clear conversational Koine. Here is what Arrian says in his introduction about the process he used, appearing apologetic for the unpolished style of Epictetus’ words:

Οὔτε συνέγραψα ἐγὼ τοὺς Ἑπικτήτου λόγους οὕτως ὅπως ἄν τις συγγράψειε τὰ τοιαῦτα οὔτε ἐξήνεγκα εἰς ἀνθρώπους αὐτός, ὅς γε οὐδὲ συγγράψει φημί. ὅσα δὲ ἤκουον αὐτῦ λέγοντος, ταῦτα αὐτὰ ἐπειράθην αὐτοῖς ὀμόμασιν ὡς οἷόν τε ἦν γραψάμενος ὑπομνήματα εἰς ὕστερον ἐμαυτῷ διαφυλάξαι τῆς ἐκείνου διανοίας καὶ παρρησίας.

I myself did not compose the words of Epictetus as someone might compose such things, nor did I myself publish them; I declare not to have composed them. Whatever I heard him saying, those very things I attempted writing only in those exact words, as a memorial for myself in the future, to preserve his way of thinking and free speech.

Whatever we may think of the reliability of these comments, when reporting the words of Epictetus, Arrian writes in Koine as one may have heard it spoken on the street in the first century.

Originally the Discourses contained 8 books, but just 4 have survived intact, and we only have small fragments of the rest.

Arrian, Ἐπικτήτου Ἐγχειρίδιον (Handbook of Epictetus)

The second LOEB volume of Epictetus’ Discourses also contains the Encheiridion (Handbook). This is a brief distillation of the main points of Epictetus’ philosophy.

Chariton, Callirhoe

Chariton’s Greek is an educated Koine. Written in the middle of the first century BCE, Callirhoe predates the Atticist movement.

The author calls his novel a πάθος ἐρωτικόν (a love story), the category “novel” not existing yet. The fictional tale is about a woman from Syracuse named Callirhoe who is described as astonishingly beautiful, but Chariton never actually describes her, and the story is quite circumspect.

Reading the story in Greek will undoubtedly expand your Koine vocabulary. Keep in mind, though, that this is a novel from roughly 2000 years ago. There are sexist statements scattered throughout the text.

γυνὴ δὲ εὐάλωτόν ἐστιν, ὅταν ἐρᾶσθαι δοκῇ.
But a woman is an easy victim when she believes she is loved.

Callirhoe 1.4

The story reads like a comedy of errors, with constant twists of fate.

Conclusion

I recommend reading as widely as you can to develop a broad vocabulary and see the way words you encounter in the New Testament text are used outside that context. There is little you can do that will help you more.

What do you think? Other readers and I would love to hear from you.

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