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What Greek Teachers Won’t Tell You

Rod Decker has provided this list of thirteen things Greek teachers won’t tell you from Dave Black’s (non-permalink-able) blog:

1. Greek is not the only tool you need to interpret your New Testament. In fact, it’s only one component in a panoply of a myriad of tools. Get Greek, but don’t stop there. (You’ll need, for example, a Hebrew New Testament as well.)

Actually, you won’t need a Hebrew New Testament, as these are modern Hebrew translations of limited exegetical value for uncovering the meaning of the Greek text (as Charles Halton has already noted). Better to say, you’ll also need a basic familiarity with the cultural contexts—both Jewish and Greco-Roman—of the New Testament world, including anthropological concepts such as patronage and honor and shame. A serious biblical student should also have familiarity with a number of other modern languages in order to compare translational possibilities. One or two ancient languages can also be helpful for digging into the history of textual transmission and early interpretation: Latin for sure, but also Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, etc., if you can. (This is an area where I personally wish I had much greater proficiency than I do.)

2. Greek is not the Open Sesame of biblical interpretation. All it does is limit your options. It tells you what’s possible, then the context and other factors kick in to disambiguate the text.

Greek is also prone to expand your options by revealing unseen ambiguities in the text, not to mention possible textual variants.

3. Greek is not superior to other languages in the world. Don’t believe it when you are told that Greek is more logical than, say, Hebrew. Not true.

4. Greek had to be the language in which God inscripturated New Testament truth because of its complicated syntax. Truth be told, there’s only one reason why the New Testament was written in Greek and not in another language (say, Latin), and that is a man named Alexander the Great, whose vision was to conquer the inhabited world and then unite it through a process known as Hellenization. To a large degree he succeeded, and therefore the use of Greek as the common lingua franca throughout the Mediterranean world in the first century AD should come as no surprise to us today. I emphasize this point only because there are some today who would seek to resurrect the notion of “Holy Ghost” Greek. Their view is, in my view, a demonstrable cul-de-sac.

I don’t hear 3 or 4 much these days, but I’ll be somebody out there is still saying them.

5. Greek words do not have one meaning. Yet how many times do we hear in a sermon, “The word in the Greek means…”? Most Greek words are polysemous, that is, they have many possible meanings, only one of which is its semantic contribution to any passage in which it occurs. (In case you were wondering: Reading all of the meanings of a Greek word into any particular passage in which it occurs is called “illegitimate totality transfer” by linguists.)

Related to illegitimate totality transfer is my favorite linguistic fallacy, that of the “root meaning.” Words do not have a “root meaning” that is always discernible in every possible occurrence.

6. Greek is not difficult to learn. I’ll say it again: Greek is not difficult to learn. I like to tell my students, “Greek is an easy language; it’s us Greek teachers who get in the way.” The point is that anyone can learn Greek, even a poorly-educated surfer from Hawaii. If I can master Greek, anyone can!

7. Greek can be acquired through any number of means, including most beginning textbooks. Yes, I prefer to use my own Learn to Read New Testament Greek in my classes, but mine is not the only good textbook out there. When I was in California I taught in an institution that required all of its Greek teachers to use the same textbook for beginning Greek. I adamantly opposed that policy. I feel very strongly that teachers should have the right to use whichever textbook they prefer. Thankfully, the year I left California to move to North Carolina that policy was reversed, and now teachers can select their own beginning grammars. (By the way, the textbook that had been required was mine!)

Some students struggle with Greek because they never learned how to learn a second language, and because they don’t have a firm grasp of the mechanics of their own. There are ways to make up for these deficiencies, and I would recommend you begin with Barry Farber’s book How to Learn Any Language. Some Greek teachers do, however, get in the way. Or so I’ve heard.

8. Greek students think they can get away with falling behind in their studies. Folks, you can’t. I tell my students that it’s almost impossible to catch up if you get behind even one chapter in our textbook. Language study requires discipline and time management skills perhaps more than any other course of study in school.

Amen.

9. Greek is fun! At least when it’s taught in a fun way.

Furthermore, all things are better in Koine.

10. Greek is good for more than word studies. In fact, in the past few years I’ve embarked on a crusade to get my students to move away from word-bound exegesis. When I was in seminary I was taught little more than how to do word studies from the Greek. Hence, I thought I had “used Greek in ministry” if I had consulted my Wuest, Robertson, Kittle, Brown, Vincent, or Vines. Since then I’ve discovered that lexical analysis is the handmaiden and not the queen of New Testament exegesis. Greek enables us to see how a text is structured, how it includes rhetorical devices, how syntactical constructions are often hermeneutical keys, etc.

11. Greek can cause you to lose your faith. It happened to one famous New Testament professor in the US when he discovered that there were textual variants in his Greek New Testament, and it can happen to you. When the text of Scripture becomes nothing more than “another analyzable datum of linguistic interpretation” then it loses its power as the Word of God. That’s why I’m so excited about my Greek students at the seminary, most of whom are eager to place their considerable learning at the feet of Jesus in humble service to His upside-down kingdom.

Let’s face it: serious biblical study of any kind can cause you to lose your faith. Or it can make your faith stronger than it has ever been. As a general rule of thumb, if you can be talked out of your faith, you probably should be.

12. Greek can be learned in an informal setting. The truth is that you do not need to take a formal class in this subject or in any subject for that matter. I know gobs of homeschoolers who are using my grammar in self-study, many of whom are also using my Greek DVDs in the process. If anyone wants to join the club, let me know and I will send you, gratis, a pronunciation CD and a handout called “Additional Exercises.”

13. Greek is not Greek. In other words, Modern Greek and Koine Greek are two quite different languages. So don’t expect to be able to order a burrito in Athens just because you’ve had me for first year Greek. On the other hand, once you have mastered Koine Greek it is fairly easy to work backwards (and learn Classical Greek) and forwards (and learn Modern Greek).

That is Dave’s list. You might also want to read about how All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Greek.

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