Sunday, March 13, 2011

“Keep Your Greek”

I’d like to make a little disclaimer at the outset. The Koinonia Blog, published (I think) by the good folks at Zondervan, announced that it was sponsoring a “Keep Your Greek Blog Tour”. Bloggers who would be willing to review the small work, Keep your Greek: Strategies for Busy People, could get a free review copy of the book.

So I took them up on it. And really, knowing Biblical Greek does play a big role in the subject matter that we’ve been discussing. (I don’t discuss it much because I don’t know that much about it).

We live in an amazing time. Thanks to the Internet, a run-of-the-mill guy like me, with a wife, six kids, a job as a marketing writer, an hour-long commute, an iPhone, and an internet connection, can have [generally free] access to some of the finest scholarly resources available. Given that I am now 50-something years old, I’ve made a conscious decision to use those resources to try to understand one facet of the real world that we live in – arguably the most important – and that would be, the Scriptural nature of the one true church of Jesus Christ.

Contrast that with the kind of thing that Erasmus had to go through in order to understand the Greek language – and to re-assemble the first Greek New Testament of the Reformation era. Or worse, what Reuchlin had to go through in order to learn Biblical Hebrew.

The Reformers, then, building on this knowledge of Biblical languages, were able to go back to the sources (“ad fontes”). That’s something their immediate predecessors (as theologians of the church) could not do. I’ve already said a lot about the fact that the endless (and competing) appeals to authority seem to do little to accomplish anything in these discussions. It was the ability of the Reformers to go back to the original Biblical sources and take a stand on things where older, Medieval writers were stuck in a “he said, he said” kind of log-jam that characterized so many of the Medieval discussions of theology.

When I was contemplating leaving the Roman church, the kind of thing that really sealed the deal for me was when someone like James White would say, “Here’s what the text actually says…” The original languages of Scripture provide us with a very secure footing that the Medievals (working from an error-filled Latin text) never had.

The resources that we all have access to today are simply incredible.

Learn Greek
At one level, learning Greek is not that hard. Using a system of “cognates,” that is, words that look the same in both English and Greek, and have similar meanings, it seems to me that anyone, with minimal instruction, can gain a basic understanding of how simply to recognize what a Greek word says when you see it (to be able to sound it out, if not to be able to take the meaning of the word).

For example, I started with some not-so-Greek words, using basic Greek lettering:
β ε δ
β α τ
κ α τ
κ α β
δ ο τ
You can probably recognize some of those words, even though I’m using Greek letters. Some Greek letters sort of look like English letters. From here you go on to adding some words with Greek letters that you don’t know: for example:
λ = “l” (as in “leg”)
γ = “g”
ω = “long ‘o’”
σ and ς = s
And before you know it, you are coming upon Greek words that you know, like:
αγγελος = “angels”
αποστολων = “apostles”
This is how I came into the language, and I didn’t find that part of it too oppressive. What really is difficult, though, is that, as Mounce puts it, “For whatever reason, many do not know enough English grammar to learn Greek grammar” (Basics of Biblical Greek, Third Edition, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan ©2009, pg 22).

The grammar is the hard part. Without going into too much detail, we have three noun “cases” in English: subjective, possessive, and objective. In Greek, this expands out a bit into nominative, genitive, accusative, ablative, dative, locative, instrumental, and vocative (that last being rarely used, but hey, it’s in there). And verbs, too, may be identified by person, number, voice, tense, aspect, and mood. At some point, you have to learn what all of that means in English, before applying it to Greek, and I think that’s what some of the major challenge is.

Most Seminarians are required to take Greek (and Hebrew). And from what I understand, many recoil from it. But there’s something that a Seminary student has access to, that I don’t have, that many of us don’t have in our day, and that is, a disciplined, regular schedule.

So while I was able to learn a lot of things “about” Greek on my own, I have not yet been able to get into the language in any real way. And that’s the point of this little book. Learning Greek, while not overly difficult, is the result of a disciplined, regular schedule of working at it and expanding your knowledge base in a way that gives you that “sure foundation” that most of us don’t have access to. And that’s the purpose of this little book, and of my appeal here.

Keep Your Greek
Given all that it takes to learn Greek, you have a tremendous incentive to Keep your Greek. The author makes that point early and often: “
If you’re a teacher of God’s Word, the main reason to keep your Greek is the same reason that led you to study it in the first place. Greek gives us certain insights into the text of the New Testament [and the LXX Old Testament, as well as the writings of the early Greek church fathers] that are impossible to achieve any other way. This goes well beyond looking up particular words in the original, even though that is useful. It includes understanding the syntax and structure of sentences, so that we can discern what the author is drawing attention to and how all the parts relate to each other (from the Introduction).
This last item came home to me in a recent Seminary lecture on Christology. The introduction to the Gospel of John reads like this:
Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Greek is a language that is “highly inflected,” and so word order is critical to meaning, far more so than in English. “This means that in Greek the relationships between words are shown more extensively by changes in the forms of words themselves than by their relative positions in sentences,” according to one workbook that I have.

So look at these two phrases:
καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν / and the Word was with God
καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος / and the Word was God
You’ll note in that second phrase, the word order of λόγος and θεόν / θεὸς are reversed. There are also varying definite articles:
ὁ λόγος = “the Word”; τὸν θεόν and θεὸς (no definite article) = “God”
All of these things, and more, are conscious choices made by John as he wrote this Gospel – each adds a new facet to the Trinitarian structure of the relationship between θεὸς and λόγος that gives an incredible meaning to that one verse, that you just can’t get by reading it in English (even the best English translation available).

The bottom line is that understanding of Greek helps you to better understand the Biblical text.

From there, the author proceeds to give a number of practical strategies for getting back into the language, none of which, he maintains is going to “improve your Greek dramatically overnight.” Instead, the focus is on principles and motivations for staying with it on a regular basis. Of not losing what you’ve got.

* Develop a habit of reading some Greek every day
* Don’t become dependent on certain crutches, such as your Interlinear Bible
* Use Bible software wisely
* The importance of studying vocabulary
* Reviewing verb paradigms
* Tips and tricks for regaining understanding as you re-approach Greek texts
* And of course lists of resources, both online and off-line

This is a short work, less than 100 pages. And except for a brief passage from John 5 (the purpose of which is to demonstrate how one of the author’s techniques, “skimming the text,” will help you pick up some of the nuance that you may have forgotten), there is not much Greek in it at all.

But I found this work helpful from the point of view of reminding me why I wanted to try and study Greek in the first place: “Keep in mind that you want to know Greek so that you can teach God’s Word with depth of understanding, observing its subtleties and nuances, many of which cannot be conveyed in translation” (pg. 83).

The Reformers understood the value of knowing Greek and Hebrew. It enabled them to change the world, and more importantly, it enabled them to bring the one-true-church back to better understanding of its Lord. So often, the Lord said, “It is written…” For most of us, it was written in Greek.

I’d like to thank Turretinfan and Rhology for helping this Luddite to get as much Greek into this post as he did.


Rhology said...

Not that Rhology knows any Greek. I know a pretty cool site - Unbound Bible.

John Bugay said...

You've bailed me out a number of times with my "language needs". And I appreciate it.

James Swan said...

Thanks John for this post- plus, you need to give our Roman Catholic friends a day off now and then (:

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Hey John,

Great post! As I am considering learning Greek too! How's it going for you so far? Sounds like you're doing pretty well!

John Bugay said...

Hey Truth, thanks, It's taken me a long time to get this far.

I found the "bat kat" stuff in a workbook, "Basic Greek in 30 Minutes a Day", (which appeared to have been self-published) by a guy named Jim Found. You won't find that one on Amazon any more, I don't think. That must have been 2006. Then in 2008 I took some private lesssons through an individual I met at Reformed Theology Institute, a lightly-attended discussion group of mostly older individuals. (But the founder, a former Jesuit, is now a Reformed believer!)

It was the instructor I met here who knew Raymond Brown, and he would wax about the old days when he was more of an active Biblical scholar himself. He taught Greek and Hebrew through private lessons.

I took some lessons from him in 2008, but then I was laid off from a pretty good job. You would think you'd have more time to study when you're unemployed, but it didn't work that way with me, and I soon dropped out of those lessons (regrettably).

In recent months I have managed to cobble together some Mounce stuff (Basics of Biblical Greek), and I've even found some video lessons from Dallas Theological Seminary through iTunesU. But I can't follow those very well while I'm driving.

(I'm working through Systematic Theology by Dr. Douglas Kelly of RTS -- he's a fine old Southern Presbyterian gentleman who studied in Edinburgh, Scotland under Dr. T.F. Torrance -- that's an interesting mix to be sure. But it's a great, if long, set of courses. As I mentioned, I've got a long commute!)