Grammatiki Karla on Ancient Greek Popular Literature: Language and Style

Writing Biography in Greece and RomeSeeing that I will be comparing the NT Gospels to the genre of Greek popular-novelistic biography in my Ph.D. dissertation, a major component of this project will be identifying the features and characteristics of “popular literature.” Fortunately, a new academic book on Greco-Roman biography just came out this year (published just last May) which deals with this topic–Writing Biography in Greece and Rome: Narrative Technique and Fictionalization. There is a collection of chapters in the book, written by different authors, on a variety of issues pertaining to Greco-Roman biography. Luckily, the book deals with Kleinliteratur, in addition to elite and scholarly biographies, and so there is a chapter on the Life of Aesop

The chapter about the Life of Aesop is written by Grammatiki Karla, and is titled “Life of Aesop: Fictional Biography as Popular Literature?.” As the title suggests, Karla’s chapter deals with the defining attributes of “popular literature” and how they can be identified in the Life of Aesop. Although Karla’s chapter only briefly mentions the Alexander Romance (pg. 49) and the Gospel of Mark (pg. 56), many of the attributes that are discussed likewise bear heavily upon these texts. In this post, I will summarize Karla’s discussion of “popular literature,” particularly under the first subsection, “Language – Style,” and how I think that her analysis can be applied likewise to the genre of the Gospels.

Karla (pg. 49) begins the chapter by noting that there were no terms for “popular” or “folk” literature in the ancient world. These are modern literary definitions, but there are linguistic and stylistic features that we can identify in ancient texts, which meaningfully differentiate “popular” literature–directed toward a wide and less educated audience–from the elite, scholarly, and technical literature of antiquity. Karla (pg. 51) quotes a general definition of “popular literature,” provided by William Hansen (Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature, pg. xvii), in order to introduce the concept: 

“The popular aesthetic, as expressed in literature, manifests itself typically as writing that is easy to read, quickly and continually engaging, and replete with action and sensation. Its opposite is literature that is aesthetically or intellectually demanding, inviting the reader to savor its texture or ponder its implications. Naturally the extent to which a piece of literature should be regarded as demanding is relative to culture and time.”

This kind of literature consists primarily of simple language, as well as simple characters and situations; although it would be a mistake to assume that it has no didactic or ideological (or theological) function. Rather, popular literature is meant to get its point across in a straightforward and comprehensible way, while inviting less reflection on its choice of words, rhetorical polish, and the literary talents of its author. In fact, a major characteristic of ancient popular literature is formal anonymity, which contrasts it from the kind of authorial control seen in elite literature, in which the author’s possession of the text and particular style receives greater attention.

A major consequence of formal anonymity is multiformity and textual fluidity. Works like the Life of Aesop and the Alexander Romance functioned as ‘open texts,’ which means that their material was freely adapted and redacted by subsequent authors. Such overt borrowing of material would have likely been seen as plagiarism in the elite literature of antiquity, but since texts of this kind were not seen as the discrete possessions of individual authors, there was greater liberty for borrowing their material. This kind of formal anonymity is likewise seen in the Gospels, which fall under the general title “the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (το ευαγγελιον Ιησου Χριστου), and are only ascribed “according to” (κατα) their traditional authors. As Martin Hengel (The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ, pg. 49) explains:

“The unusual titles of the Gospels already indicate that the evangelists are not meant to appear as ‘biographical’ authors like others, but to bear witness in their works to the one saving message of Jesus Christ …  The real ‘author’ of the one Gospel was Jesus Christ himself.”

As such, the authors of the Gospels (especially the Synoptic Gospels) freely adapt and redact the material of earlier texts and sources. This is similar to the Life of Aesop, which Karla (pg. 49) explains is “notable for the stratification of the various sources, the fluidity of the narrative structure, [and] the abundance of translations and versions.” The open textuality of popular literature, however, may not fully explain why it was “popular.” Rather, Karla (pg. 49) argues that the term “popular literature” focuses more on the audience and reception of a work:

“It is clear that the borders between the two categories, the ‘open text’ and popular literature, are extremely fluid and that in most cases these categories overlap. In my view, the basic difference lies in how one approaches texts. If one views them as ‘open,’ the texts themselves are given a central position; if one views them as ‘popular,’ their reception is the focus.”

And so, in most of the following analysis, Karla focuses on the aspects of popular literature that made it suited for a wide audience and geographical distribution. In the first subsection of the chapter, Karla deals with the language and style of popular literature.

Language – Style

First off, Karla (pg. 51) points out that the Life of Aesop is written in the Koine dialect, which is considerably more simple than the Attic dialect, used for much of the elite literature during the Second Sophistic. The Gospels of the New Testament are also written in Koine Greek, as is the Alexander Romance. The Greek word koinós (κοινος) means “common” or “ordinary,” and so it was typical of popular literature; although it should be noted that more sophisticated biographical authors, such as Plutarch, used the Koine dialect, as well. To distinguish the language and style of popular-novelistic biography from elite biographers, such as Plutarch, therefore, further distinctions need to be drawn than just dialect.

Karla (pg. 52) further points out that the sentence-structure in the Life of Aesop tends to favor shorter sentences, and also tends to use coordinating conjunctions (e.g., and, or, but) more frequently than subordinating conjunctions (e.g., because, since, although). This means that there are fewer subordinate clauses in the text, and instead a rapid rhythm of brief sentences dominates, in place of the longer periodic sentences seen in elite literature. This is also typical of the sentence-structure in the Gospels. Take the following example from Mark (1:28-30):

And (και) news about him immediately (ευθυς) spread everywhere over the whole region of Galilee. And immediately (και ευθυς) leaving the synagogue, they went with James and John into the home of Simon and Andrew. The mother-in-law of Simon was in bed with a fever, and immediately (και ευθυς) they told Jesus about her.”

Notice how this passage consists almost entirely of verbs joined by conjunctions. There are few participles and no subordinate clauses. This kind of sentence-structure is not typical of elite biographers, such as Plutarch, who tended to enlarge and ornament their sentences with more causal, concessive, and conditional clauses. Most of the passages in the Gospels are written like the one above, though there is one major exception at the beginning of Luke. The author of Luke begins his gospel with a long periodic sentence, which is characteristic of the prologues in ancient Greek historiography. Compare the opening sentence of Luke (1:1-4) with the passage from Mark that I quoted above:

Seeing that (επειδηπερ) many have put their hands to compiling a narrative about the matters that have been fulfilled among us, just as (καθως) those who were eyewitness from the beginning and servants of the word handed them down to use, it seems fitting for me likewise, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that (ινα) you may know the certainty of the things, which you have been taught.”

Clearly, the second passage that I have quoted is considerably more sophisticated than the first. Ancient authors would add subordinating conjunctions, such as “because” or “although” or “if/when,” in order to add greater nuance and complexity to their narration. It can sometimes be a subtle detail of ancient texts, but it’s important to pick up on when doing genre criticism. Educated readers, who were trained in rhetoric and oratory, would have certainly noticed the difference between texts comprised almost entirely of brief sentences with coordinating conjunctions, versus texts comprised of long sentences, replete with subordinating conjunctions and subordinate clauses. And it is likewise significant that the opening verses of Luke, which I have quoted above, are atypical of the Greek sentences elsewhere in the gospel. As the Oxford Annotated Bible (pg. 1827) explains:

“The initial four verses of the book are a single Greek sentence that forms a highly stylized introductory statement typical of ancient historical writings … After this distinctive preface, however, the narrative shifts into a style of Greek reminiscent of the Septuagint.”

As such, even though the opening verses of Luke are characteristic of elite historiography, the rest of the text more closely resembles popular literature.

Another way that conjunctions can be indicative of literary genre is in their relative level of specification. There was a wide variety of conjunctions in ancient Greek, and some of them were longer and more specific than others. Take the conjunction epeidéper (επειδηπερ = “seeing that”), for example, which I quoted in the passage from Luke above. This conjunction is actually formed from three separate words! The Greek conjunction epei (επει) means “since” or “when,” but it has been enhanced by the particle (δη), which adds greater exactness and means something like “indeed,” in addition to the enclitic per (περ), which adds greater force and emphasis to the word it follows. You could translate epeidéper more literally as “seeing as this is really the case.”

This kind of lengthy conjunction is not typical of popular literature, however, and instead you more often find shorter and less specific conjunctions in texts like the Life of Aesop and the Gospels. Karla (pg. 52) notes that the Greek word kai (και) is heavily used as a conjunction in the Life of Aesop. The word kai is the most simple way to say “and” in Greek, and it usually joins two things in the same sentence (e.g., “James and John”), rather than two different sentences (“and immediately news about Jesus spread, and immediately he left the synagogue”). In popular literature, however, kai is used more frequently to join multiple sentences, especially when they are short sentences. In contrast, the ordinary way to join two sentences in more elevated Greek was through the conjunction de (δε), which is often left silent in translation, and even more nuanced was the conjunction oûn (ουν), which means “then” or “therefore.”

In fact, German scholar Marius Reiser has done a statistical analysis of the comparative use of kai, de, and oûn between the Alexander Romance and the Gospel of Mark. What Reiser has found is that popular texts like these use kai most frequently. Below is a table that Reiser provides in “Der Alexanderroman und das Markusevangelium” (pg. 136):

και δε ουν %
AR (β) 1.1-14 124 78 14 57:36:7
Mk. 14-15 101 41 0 71:29:0

As can be seen, both the Alexander Romance and the Gospel of Mark use simpler conjunctions, which is a sign that they belong to popular literature. What is particularly characteristic of Mark is the joining of kai (και) with the Greek word euthus (ευθυς), which means “immediately.” As S. Scott Schupbach (“kai euthus as Discourse Marker in the Gospel of Mark,” pg. 11) explains, “Of the 41 instances of euthus, 24 of them are preceded by the work kai.” And so, the phrase “and immediately” is used all throughout Mark. A text that is written along the lines of “and immediately Jesus did this, and immediately Jesus did that” certainly does not reflect complex narration, but instead represents a more popular narrative style.

Above I have discussed perhaps the more technical elements of popular literature, in focusing on things like conjunctions and sentence-structure. But popular literature also made use of a characteristic set of literary devices. Perhaps the most typical of the genre is metaphor. Popular literature, in its didactic aspect, would frequently employ imagery drawn from everyday life, in order serve as a metaphor for greater philosophical and moral lessons. As Karla (pg. 52) explains about the use of metaphor in the Life of Aesop:

“Metaphorical language is employed more frequently, but, again characteristically, the metaphors are simple images drawn from daily life. For example, in chapter 26, Aesop, in his attempts to show Xanthus that external appearances are not excessively important, uses the image of a wine shop: ‘when we go into a wine shop to buy wine, the wine jars appear ugly, but the wine tastes good.'”

Once more, there is another parallel here between the Life of Aesop and the Gospels. In the Synoptic Gospels, specifically, Jesus frequently uses parables as a rhetorical device. A parable is a short tale or example that is designed to illustrate a universal truth. In doing so, the subject of the parable serves a metaphor for a greater philosophical or moral lesson. What is especially interesting about the example of wine above is that Jesus employs a very similar metaphor, using the image of wineskins, in the Synoptic Gospels! In the Gospel of Mark (2:21-22), Jesus tells the following parable (which also appears in Matthew 9:16-17 and Luke 5:36-39):

“No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.

Jesus’ use of parables is very similar to Aesop’s use of fables, and both these kinds of metaphor are highly characteristic of popular literature. Fables are likewise short tales that are designed to illustrate a universal truth, but they tend to use the the imagery of animals more frequently than parables. You can read a list of Jesus’ parables here, and a list of Aesop’s fables here.

-Matthew Ferguson

This entry was posted in Ancient Biography, Ancient Novel, Classics, Dissertation, Reviews and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Grammatiki Karla on Ancient Greek Popular Literature: Language and Style

  1. Reblogged this on Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin and commented:
    An interesting comparison of the ~Gospels and other Greek biographies.

    It could unsettle some,as it means the Gospels are not totally unique but similar to other writings of that time.

    That is fine by me

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