Saturday, March 8, 2008

Biblical Greek: From When It was Greek to Me

As I mentioned in my first post, I learned the Greek alphabet by the time I was nine years old (by dint of repetition, not a deliberate attempt to memorize it). However, it was some years before I started studying the language in earnest. The moment finally arrived when I was a senior in high school. By this time my family had moved to Del City, Oklahoma. A big turn in my spiritual life led me to have an intense desire to study New Testament Greek.


I found a textbook at a local Christian bookstore (Ray Summers, Essentials of New Testament, 1950). It was a reasonably good introduction to the language (although better texts have come out since). The one thing to which I vigorously objected even then, and to which I even more vigorously object now, was a statement in the introduction. I no longer have the book, so the following quote is only approximate, but the meaning is unaltered: "It was logical that God should have used Greek as the medium for the New Testament, for it is the most expressive language known to man." For a person with an appreciation for the range of human languages, this last clause is heresy! Even at the age of 17 or 18, when I got this book, I was appalled by the smugness and ignorance displayed by this statement. There simply is no such thing as "the most expressive language known to man." The most expressive language known to any person is usually his or her first language, whether Sipakapense, Chinese, Xhosa or Spanish... or Greek! Greek was used for the composition of the New Testament because it was the language of scholarship and commerce in the eastern Mediterranean region. The Greeks had been colonizing that area for centuries, and the conquests of Alexander of Macedon ("the Great") spread Greek even farther and cemented its status as a language of government administration. People spoke many languages throughout this large geographical area, but Greek was a language they all had in common. It was likely the native tongue of Paul of Tarsus and the gospel writers who came after him. These men were well prepared to compose the documents that came to form the New Testament in the language in which they could most readily gain wide circulation.

Having gotten past that myth (which I hope is not still circulating in seminaries!), let me tell a bit about how I slowly got to know Greek. I started plodding through Summers' book on my own. I got fairly far along, but I remember that understanding the nature of Greek participles was beyond me at the time. Whether it was a poor exlpanation in the book or simply my own inadequate comprehension of the explanation, I cannot remember. From time to time as an undergraduate I returned to Greek. Bits and pieces kept sinking in, but much still eluded me.

Some time after I started my linguistic studies at the Summer Institute of Linguistics in the fall of 1981, maybe even a year after that, I briefly joined a Greek reading group composed of three or four students. I still had trouble making much sense of connected text. Some verb forms stumped me and the syntax (by which I mean word order) was often incomprehensible. But overall, this exposure did more good than harm.

A Breakthrough: Hepatitis

In 1989, while I was living in Guatemala, I got hepatitis. To make good use of the time as my body slowly recovered, I undertook the study of Russian. It turns out that Russian has a system of participles that is very similar to that of Greek. Somehow, as I studied the books from Moscow, participles finally clicked! Basically, they are verbs turned into adjectives which, like all adjectives in many languages, can also function as nouns. Hurray! I was finally over one of the most daunting hurtles in my acquisition of Greek.

Eventually I found myself in Florida, starting in 1990. A few years after I got a job as a Spanish editor at a Christian publishing company (Editorial Vida), I finally decided that my hankering to be able to read the New Testament (and the Septuagint) in Greek was not going to be satisfied until I actually started applying myself to the task. No thunderbolts of knowledge from heaven were going to suddenly put it in my brain! So I went back to reading the NT on my own, with help from a lexicon and maybe even some help from that crippler of language learners: an analytical concordance. (I know, it's embarrassing to admit it, but even at that late date I may have sometimes given in to the temptation to go back to the linguistic equivalent of bottle-feeding.)

Consolidation: My First Class in a Seminary

Finally, after my company was acquired by another one that offered educational benefits to its employees, I was able to enroll in a local seminary (Knox Theological Seminary, Fort Lauderdale) and take a second semester Greek course (Spring 1997). This was just what I needed at the time. About the time I began the course, I finished my first reading of the entire New Testament in Greek. While there was still plenty that I didn't know, I had at least become somewhat familiar with how the Greek writers expressed themselves. Greek II helped me nail down various of the verb and noun forms that had been hovering on the periphery of my knowledge. Somewhere over the course of the next few years, I finished reading through the NT again, this time with much more appreciation of the style of the language and the idiosyncrasies of the various authors. I still had to look up some words, and Hebrews and 2 Peter continued to be exceedingly difficult syntactically, but I had definitely gotten past the "decipherment" phase to the phase of reasonably fluent reading.

Pedal to the Metal: Greek with Frank

After my second reading of the NT, I very occasionally read a chapter in Greek, but my attention to it was very sporadic. Finally, in the fall of 2006, I began my studies at the Catholic University of America. One of the requirements for all students in the Semitics department is to take two semesters of Advanced Biblical Greek. This I did during the 2006-07 school year. I thought I would die that first semester! I have boundless admiration for my professor, Dr. Francis T. Gignac (JEEN-ee-ack), who likes to be called just "Frank" by his students. He is a Jesuit about my father's age. He is very friendly, very erudite and very demanding of his students.

In the fall semester, our reading consisted of all the genuine Pauline epistles. This meant two chapters every class day (Monday, Wednesday, Friday). We all had to be prepared to translate the entire text of the two chapters. About two weeks into the course, Frank informed us that we would be expected to be able to produce from memory every principal part of every verb. Yikes! That meant up to six forms of each of hundreds of verbs. Also, on the exams he would put a passage from one of the books we had read up to that point and we had to be able to translate it with no reference to a dictionary. This meant some serious vocabulary memorization. I knew most of the words that occured 50 times or more in the NT, but there were plenty that were less frequent than that, so I had to start making cards for all the ones I either didn't know or wasn't quite sure of. Thus my commutes by bus and train to and from the university were largely taken up with studying the seemingly endless lists of words and verb forms. This, combined with my other courses, demanding in themselves, made me feel like I was drowning.

I learned from a student who had introductory Greek with Frank that his first semester is known as "boot camp": he takes the beginners through the entire introductory textbook (which he wrote) in about six weeks! They have to learn all the principal parts of all their verbs. This is the amount of grammar and vocabulary commonly covered in a full two semesters of seminary courses. My friend told me that the beginning students felt like they were drowning too. But, he said, it was extremely satisfying after this very intense period of study, to be able to open the Gospel of John in Greek and find he could read it with ease.

Well, by the time I finished that first semester of advanced Greek, my "okay" knowledge had been whipped into shape and could perhaps even be called "good." But there was more to come! In the second semester (which I was in just a year ago!) we read parts of the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX), that is, the Greek translation of the Old Testament done a couple of centuries before Christ. In that course, we had to keep an eye on the Hebrew text as well, to see how the Greek differed from the Hebrew. We also found that the quality of translation varied wildly, from good renderings in some books to horrible renderings in others, ones so bad as to be virtually incomprehensible, unless you already knew what the Hebrew said. Once again, there were many principal parts and many new vocabulary words to learn, as well as various grammatical peculiarities of LXX Greek that set it apart from both Classical and New Testament Greek. On our tests, we had a passage to translate from Greek to English, but also one to translate from Hebrew to Greek! My Hebrew is only middling, and composing coherent text in Greek was a big challenge, but I survived. I am grateful to Frank for pushing us to learn as much as we did; my Greek would never have reached its current reasonably good level without him, I'm sure. But whew! What a lot of work!

Why Do Semitists Learn Greek?

Since Greek is an Indo-European language, like English and Spanish, rather than a Semitic language, like Hebrew, Syriac and Arabic, you may wonder why Semitists have to study it. Here is the answer.

If you aim to become a scholar of Old Testament Hebrew, you will have to be able to use the Septuagint as you study matters of textual criticism. The Septuagint is the earliest translation of the Hebrew text and sometimes witnesses to a version different from the current Masoretic text.

If, as I am, you are a student of the Semitic languages of the early centuries of the Christian Church (Syriac, Arabic and Coptic [though this last is not quite Semitic, as I explain here]), you will find abundant Greek loanwords, often key theological terms. Also, many Greek theological writings were translated into these languages and exercised a profound influence on how writers of these languages formulated their own theological expressions. Particularly in Coptic, you would be hamstrung without a knowledge of Greek.

What Textbook of New Testament Greek Do I Recommend?

There are a great many possibilities out there, and I am not familiar with them all. Of the ones I am familiar with, though, the one I recommend is the one I used at Knox: David Alan Black's Learn to Read New Testament Greek. Dr. Black shows an awareness of linguistics, and he happily debunks some of the ridiculous myths about Greek that have circulated for generations in seminaries. My favorite is his refutation of the utterly baseless notion that the "aorist" is a kind of magical "once-and-for-all" tense. In the first place, it is not a tense (absolute time reference), but an aspect (indication of the speaker's point of view). In the course of his explanation on page 50, Black says, "Hence, the 'once-for-all' nature of the aorist, so often celebrated in sermon and commentary, is little more than nonsense if one is arguing that it is the aorist tense per se that proves the nature of the action behind it." Amen!

Frank Gignac's book, An Introductory New Testament Greek Course, is a bit more heavy duty. He includes information on the historical development of the language and even on its Indo-European ancestry. If you have a knack for languages and an interest in the history of Greek, you could start out with this book. Otherwise, start out with something like Black and use Gignac for review and expansion of your knowledge.

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