The following article attempts to set up an argument for a particular method of the study of the Greek of the New Testament. In order to reach my conclusion I’ve made use of several arguments which build upon one another, ending eventually with the examination of Relevance Theory, a tool employed by linguists in the study of language and its cognition. I begin with an analysis of a classic argument put forth by Adolf Deissmann on the commonality of New Testament Greek in first century Roman Palestine. Then, building upon that, I analyze James Moulton’s argument for the spoken value of the New Testament, especially with regard to Paul’s epistles. Finally, I examine a recent thesis put forward by a University of Edinburgh scholar of Hellenistic Greek (κοινή) for the value of the linguistic tool of Relevance Theory as it relates to the particle ἵνα ("hina"). This paper is a very brief introduction and therefore moves rather quickly through the arguments here employed. I hope to continue this project as I move forward with my study of the New Testament and it’s language and social setting.
Before the late decades of the 19th century nearly all who read the Greek of the New Testament assumed it to be a phenomenon distinct from any other of the same language family. Scholars of New Testament and Septuagintal Greek usually came to the Books with experience only of the Classical dialects and lacked any significant evidence from other Greek writings of the early Christian period and “thought that the canonical writings should form a subject of linguistic investigation by themselves” (Deissmann 64). But, during the 19th century the evidence pool of the Greek of the Hellenistic period increased greatly, and in 1895 Gustav Adolf Deissmann published the results of his research in Bibelstudien (Bible Studies) on the comparison between the Greek of the New Testament and that which was found in papyri and on inscriptions in the Eastern Mediterranean region, opening the way for an entirely new way of reading the New Testament. “The early Christian writings, in fact, must be taken out of the narrow and not easily-illuminated cells of the Canon, and placed in the sunshine and under the blue sky of their native land and of their own time” (Deissmann, 80). For the first time it could be reasonably argued from evidence that the "language of the Holy Spirit" may have been, simply, the common tongue of the day—albeit with a few newly developing forms and flourishes, similar to what happens in any language employed by such a seismic movement.
Since the publishing of Deissmann’s book at the end of the 19th century there have been countless articles and books and sermons arguing for and against his conclusions. Indeed, all research of New Testament Greek must, in its course, confront Deissmann’s argument. This is so because (if he was correct), in order to make claims about the usage of this or that Greek particle or verb form, one must investigate and compare not only the literature within the canon but that without, which is found in the ever growing stack of relevant papyri and inscriptions.
Taking Deissmann's argument further, James Hope Moulton, an early 20th century Cambridge lecturer, argued that the language of the time of Christianity’s rise was so homogeneous that “pronunciation apart, it seems clear that a Hellenist like Paul would have provoked no comment whether he preached in Tarsus or in Alexandria, in Corinth or in Rome” (Moulton, 468). If there is a flicker of truth in Moulton’s statement that Paul was understood equally throughout the whole Greek world, a statement which he based both upon Deissmann’s findings and upon his own supplementary research, then the linguistic “Relevance Theory” will be of great benefit to the study of New Testament Greek.
The linguistic tool, Relevance Theory (RT), asserts,
that humans speak and listen to one another because they believe, instinctively, that what they are communicating has relevance for the reader or hearer. ‘Relevance’ indicates that what is being communicated gives information which a hearer or reader wants or needs to hear, in that it confirms what she knows already, or causes her to reassess her existing assumptions…. A further prominent claim of RT is that language is underdetermined: speakers do not say all that they ‘mean’ but rely on inference to communicate. Inferencing relies on knowledge which is common to both parties, both contextually and in terms of shared world view. (Sim, 35)
In 2006 Margaret Gavin Sim finished her doctoral dissertation at the University of Edinburgh under the guidance of Professor Larry Hurtado and Dr. Ronnie Cann, both widely recognized for their scholarly contributions in their respective fields, New Testament Studies and Linguistics. Sim argued that RT could and should be employed in the study of κοινή Greek. By looking again at Moulton’s argument one is certainly confronted with the necessity of coming to terms with RT: “[Paul’s] letters are in colloquial Greek for the best of reasons—they were spoken and not written, and they reflect in every line the impetuous utterance of one who never dreamed that his unstudied words would survive all the literature of his time” (Moulton, 482). If this is indeed the case then Paul must have assumed, consciously or not, the relevance of his words for his hearers and must have relied on their inferencing for the success of his communication.
Sim looks at the development of the particle ἵνα, and argues that by the time of the Greek New Testament it had evolved into something quite different from its original Classical meaning of “in order that.” The argument developed in Sim’s thesis,
is that by using the particle ἵνα and a verb in the subjunctive mood the writer is not only selecting a particular grammatical form, but is doing this having in mind the cognitive effects which his readers may expect to receive from such use. This particle leads the reader to expect a particular type of information which might be informally described as a representation of the subject, or speaker’s, attitude. (Sim, 34)
Sim moves away from the grammatical form and argues that the particle gives the hearer a verbal cue that the following statement will be a representation of the speaker or subject’s thought(s), generally involving a desired outcome rather than an actual outcome as was generally the case in Classical usage.
In summary, the language of the New Testament was, by the reasoning in this very brief introduction, a common tongue spoken and heard by the common population of the Eastern Mediterranean region. Therefore, an analysis of the ways in which language is processed cognitively is requisite for a proper study of the New Testament, including, especially, its theological claims. Relevance Theory claims to allow us to do just that. The particle ἵνα and the way it was cognized by hearers can be understood through the lens of Relevance Theory, in that it was a signifier of a relevant upcoming statement which was to be cognized in a certain way, relying heavily upon the inference of the hearer.