Greek Language, Early Christian and Byzantine

views updated

GREEK LANGUAGE, EARLY CHRISTIAN AND BYZANTINE

At the beginning of the Christian era, Greek was widely spoken in the Mediterranean basin. In morphology, syntax, and vocabulary it was derived from the Attic-Ionic dialect, but it bore the imprint of subsequent linguistic developments. Contacts with other languages and cultures in the Hellenistic world left their mark, especially in vocabulary and syntax. Two factors in particular helped mold this spoken Greek into the vehicle for the dissemination of Christian teaching.

Basic Elements. First, the Septuagint (LXX) translation of the OT crystallized Greek terminology for theological concepts completely foreign to ancient Greek, added Hebrew and Aramaic loanwords to the vocabulary, and through literal renderings of the Hebrew, introduced Semitisms into Christian Greek. Second, the books of the NT, deeply influenced by LXX terminology, gave specifically Christian meanings to current words and coined words to explain new concepts. Other formative elements of early Christian Greek are the language of the early liturgy, the terminology of the mystery religions, and the ethical and moral contexts of pagan philosophy. The earliest extant works of Christian literature outside the NT, those of the Apostolic Fathers and their immediate successors, were written primarily to instruct Christian converts. In language and style they generally echo the OT and NT. Rhetorical figures and balanced sentence structure, characteristic of classical Greek, yielded to an almost unmitigated parataxis. This unadorned diction became the norm and was later approved in the dictum of Isidore of Pelusium (d. c. 435): "If they seek elaborate diction let them know that it is better to learn truth from an unlettered man than falsehood from a sophist" (Letter to Theognostus, Patrologia Graeca, ed. J. P. Migne, 161v. (Paris 185766) 78:1124).

Apologists. The apologists of the 2nd century addressed a different audience, their non-Christian contemporaries, and defended Christianity against its enemies. Accordingly, the content rather than the literary style of their works was affected. St. Justin Martyr is not conspicuous for style or orderly arrangement of thought, but he knew Homer, Plato, Euripides, and Menander. The notable exception to the usual disregard of style, the Supplication for the Christians of Athenagoras of Athens addressed to Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, in spite of its literary merit, was soon forgotten in Christian antiquity. The apologies, ranging from friendliness to open hostility toward the content of Hellenism, made a contribution in theology but not in the development of an artistic Christian Greek literature. This literary development did not appear before the beginning of the 3rd century.

Christian Literature. As Christianity penetrated the ancient world, it gained more converts from educated circles. The need for teachers competent to instruct such catechumens on a level commensurate with their culture gave rise to the catechetical schools. The most famous of these was at Alexandria, where Eastern, Egyptian, and Greek cultures had long ago met and commingled. Here the LXX in large part had been translated. A Hellenistic Jewish literature flourished and culminated perhaps in the works of Philo, who exerted a great influence on early Christian writers. Such a cultural environment conditioned the Alexandrian catechetical school for an interest in the philosophy of Plato, the allegorical interpretation of Scripture, and the metaphysical investigation of the content of faith. The content of Hellenism soon appeared in Christian writings that began to rival ancient artistic prose. This was the age of Clement, "the pioneer of Christian scholarship," and of Origen, whose influence extended to Asia Minor, Syria, and Palestine where he founded the famous school of Caesarea. Christian Greek was indebted to Eusebius of Caesarea more for an encyclopedic learning that preserved excerpts from pagan and Christian works no longer extant than for his literary excellence. Chronologically he falls in the age of Constantine, but he was not significantly influenced by the new literary developments characteristic of that period.

Epideixis. Pagan Greek was dominated by the New or Second Sophistic with its emphasis on pure Attic diction and its preoccupation with rhetorical devices and adornment. The influence of the New Sophistic was felt in Christian Greek at the time of Constantine and reached a climax in Basil the Great, the two Gregories, and John Chrysostom (d. 407), all of whom had studied at famous pagan schools of rhetoric. When Gregory of Nazianzus became bishop of Constantinople (c. 379), hostile factions objected to his sermons, which were richly adorned with pagan rhetoric. Gregory's answer, it may be noted, implied that the rhetorical devices compensated for his lack of the gift of miracles (Oratio 36, Patrologia Graeca, 36:266). A generation later Christians expected to hear a display of oratory in church, at least in the larger cities, and applauded the speaker when the rhythmical cadences of his sentences pleased their ears. Chrysostom says that he met opposition when he sought to ban applause and that many speakers deliberately sought acclaim and keenly felt the lack of approval from their hearers (Homilia 30 in Actus Apostolorum, Patrologia Graeca, 60:225,266). The impact of pagan epideictic oratory on Christian Greek was certainly paramount. Other pagan literary genres, however, such as the letter, the dialogue, and the consolation, were also cultivated. In artistic form they rival, and in content surpass, their pagan counterparts. Gregory of Nazianzus, the "Christian Demosthenes," is known also for poetry of genuine feeling and beauty. Gregory of Nyssa, the "Father of mysticism," illustrates how Christian ascetical authors pressed into service Platonic and Neoplatonic terminology.

Thus was Hellenism Christianized. The masters of Christian Greek were profoundly influenced by Hellenic thought and culture; consequently, Christian Greek literature cannot be appreciated apart from the Hellenic background against which it was written.

Bibliography: j. quasten, Patrology, 3 v. (Westminster, Md. 1950), in progress. 1:186-253; 2: 1152. w. schmid and o. stÅhlin, Geschichte der griechischen Literatur (Munich 1924) 2. Teil, 2. Hälfte 11051492, esp. 110622 and 1274. l. r. palmer, The Greek Language (2nd ed. London 1980). l. radermacher, "Koine," Sitzungsberichte der Akademie der Wissenschaften in Wien 224 (1947) 1:74. g. bardy, La Question des langues dans l'église ancienne, 2 v. (Paris 1948) v. 1. e. schwyzer, Griechische Grammatik, 3 v. (2nd ed. Munich 195053) 1:116130.

[h. dressler/

f.t. gignac]

About this article

Greek Language, Early Christian and Byzantine

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article