Good and Bad Goals for Studying New Testament Greek

You want to study New Testament Greek? I talked last week about good and bad motivations for the work. Now let’s get more practical and talk goals.

If you set unrealistic goals you’ll never arrive at them. You’ll get discouraged and give up, and you won’t want to try again. And if you set goals that are too low, you’ll be missing out on some Bible study riches.

So set the right goals. Let me suggest three goals you should not set, and three goals you should.

1. Don’t aim to make the Greek Bible your main bible.

My editor studied Greek in seminary and says he made this his goal—and was immediately discouraged. I came into Greek study with a smattering of Latin and a good bit of Spanish. I could communicate in Spanish, but the easiest things to do were to listen to it and read it. Those are probably not practical goals to set for Greek study. At least not yet.

Spanish is close enough to English in structure and vocabulary that a fairly beginning student can gain some genuine reading fluency quickly. Greek is further from English, especially in its case system and the resulting flexibility in its sentence structures. Smooth reading of Koine Greek is not a practical goal for most people studying on their own.

2. Don’t aim to learn Greek in six months.

What does it even mean to “learn Greek”? To learn Greek well enough to use it effectively at a basic level will probably take the average person with a full-time job and a life at least a year. Consider setting at least a one-year time horizon. You can evaluate at that time whether or not you have met the other goals you’ve set—or if you’d like to set more.

3. Don’t aim to contribute to Greek scholarship.

Let’s just get this one out of the way for now. You’re free to add it back in later, because it’s not a bad goal in itself. But with rare exceptions—people who already know who they are—you can’t know now whether contributing to the scholarship on Koine Greek is your calling until you dig into it further.

Now three good, practical goals:

1. Do aim to read Greek words out loud.

Here’s a realistic, attainable, and excessively practical reason to study Greek: try to get to the place where you can read Greek words out loud—I mean recognize and pronounce words written with Greek characters, whether or not you’ve learned them.

If you can’t read Greek words, a section of the New International Greek Testament Commentary on Colossians will look like this to you:

Even if you have no idea what the Greek words mean, being able to read them “out loud” will help you follow the argument. You’ll see that one word gets repeated three times.

But, really, learning to read the Greek words out loud will make the section look like this to you:

Can you see how one skill alone would enable you to access Bible study resources and follow arguments that are opaque (or fuzzy) to you now?

2. Do aim to learn all the vocab words used over 100 times.

That’s 173 words, common words (by definition) from “the” to “God” to “through” to “give” to “speak” to “age” to “put”—the last of which happens to occur exactly 100 times in the New Testament (an exciting factoid useful at parties when it’s time for the guests to go home).

How many Facebook friends do you have? Do you know most of their names by heart? Yes? Then you can learn 173 words. Doing this will keep you from having to look up every last word you come across. In a way, you’ll learn more words, too—because you’ll start seeing roots that are used elsewhere. Ballo means “throw,” and ek means “out,” and these are part of the 173. So guess what ekballo means? It’s not on your vocab list (it occurs only 81 times in the NT), but you’ll get it immediately if you learn the words that are on the list: ekballo means “throw out.”

3. Do aim to use Logos to do Bible study with Greek.

You can search for Greek words using Strong’s numbers even if you can’t read those Greek words. But just reading Greek words and having a basic grasp of vocabulary will make it much, much more comfortable for you to use Greek in Logos Bible Software.

Logos, for example, makes it easy to search for every instance of any given Greek word in the New Testament and in the Septuagint. And tools that do this work, such as the Bible Word Study, are much more accessible when you can read the Greek words in the middle of the ring graphs:

Logos also has tools for learning those 173 vocab words you’re going to learn.

And Logos makes it dead simple to look up in a lexicon (a dictionary) whatever Greek word happens to be underlying whatever English word you happen to be studying. If you can right-click, you can use Greek in Bible study.

There are riches in them θάρ hills. Go East, young man.

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Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as an Academic Editor at Lexham Press, the publishing imprint at Faithlife. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible.

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Comments

  1. Jim Stowe says:

    So…are you going to publish the list of those 173 Greek words (or at least tell us how to easily get that list from Logos).

    Thank you!

    • Perhaps, it could be shared as a word list? That way we could make use of it in conjunction with an interlinear.

    • Jim and Liam, I’d feel bad giving you a fish when I could teach you how to fish on your own!

      Just use the Concordance tool. Here’s how you set it up to find all the lemmas (words) that occur 100 times or more:

      • Thanks, Mark. Is there a way to export concordance data as a word list?

      • Jim Stowe says:

        That works great, and I see that it can be exported to an Excel spreadsheet. However, when it comes into Excel, only the Greek word and the word-count are included, not the English translation. Is there any way to get that to export also?

        Jim

  2. Dr. Ward.
    Excellent article! Since you have done work with the KJV, is there a book on Early Modern English grammar? If not, write one with some friend from the English Department. This would be a great help!

    –MDI

  3. Peter Krause says:

    The Lord bless you and keep you Mark! Thank you for your follow-up and instruction on this post!

  4. Hamilton R. says:

    Hi Dr. Ward:

    Nice article and nice tips.

    In your knowledge, has anyone one done a comparative study book of the grammars of:

    modern English, Spanish, and German with Koine Greek?

    I would think that by knowing what is common to all, and then understanding where each is different, it would facilitate the basic grasp of the other language’s grammar.

    Related to the above, in your knowledge is there a resource that uses clause, phrasal and concept constructions (a la Louw NIda) to group under one concept related words, phrases, thrusts, etc.?

    Finally, do you think that due to the different grammars and worldviews, do theologians in different languages (English, German, Spanish, French), develop theological constructs that are very different even if they start from the same original languages (Biblical)?

    Thanks ahead of time for any input on the above.

    • Boy, I can’t say I’ve heard of such a comparative study. =) I’m afraid the only way to really do what you’re describing is to learn those languages. The only other recommendation I have is to read up in the area of linguistics more generally.

      And your Louw-Nida parallel isn’t calling anything to mind, either, I’m afraid…

      Finally, however, I think I can speak with some confidence on your last question. No, I don’t think theologians in different languages develop different theological constructs solely due to their language. A few pieces of evidence:

      1) Whenever I’ve picked up evangelical books written from a different cultural perspective or in a different language, I look for the insights that their perspective will add to me. My impression—and maybe I’m guilty of insufficient sampling—is that they are reading the same Bible I am and bringing traditions of interpretation to it that are recognizably part of my own North American world. The people who feel more foreign (though not always) are the ancients, the church fathers. And it’s hard to pin their differences from me on language.

      2) The “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” has been discredited in its strong form. I mean, what affect does English have on the worldviews of its speakers? Seems to me that two English speakers can hold vastly divergent worldviews, even when they are next-door neighbors, let alone when they hail from different countries.

      Does that help?

      • Hamilton R. says:

        Yes, thank you for the input.

        I got the idea about comparative grammar from:
        http://www.german-latin-english.com

        On further investigation, it seems that one can gain a reading ability in German without having to speak or understand it when being spoken.

        I did notice that many German ideas, categories and concepts are way different to English and Spanish ones, and I was wondering if worldview, language, culture, etc. had something to do with it.

        https://www.logos.com/product/33539/modern-theological-german-a-reader-and-dictionary

        My question about Louw Nida parallel is because I noticed that certain key concepts are not treated as main categories (e.g. covenantal compliance).

        I looked in the “Theological German dictionary” for it and found nothing. In Ancient Israel, covenantal compliance was very important, and it was associated with the concept of righteousness.

        On another web page, I read that Spanish is the closest grammar to Koine Greek’s. That gave me hope, that maybe I will be able to learn Koine Greek after all (Spanish being my first language).

        Too bad that Spanish speaking evangelicals are not counting with the amount of resources available in other languages to study Koine Greek.

        It would be awesome to have a book also taking into consideration Spanish in the line of:

        https://www.logos.com/product/41549/english-grammar-to-ace-new-testament-greek

        I would imagine that English, German, Spanish, Latin, and Koine Greek have some commonalities, that would aid in the acquiring the ability to read them all to a level sufficient for basic research.

        Maybe that is a good project that you can explore for further development.

        I got German silver package based on the different way they go about studying some details of Koine Greek (as mentioned in previous blog posts).

        So due to the rich German theological tradition, the amount of resources in English and the similarity of Spanish grammar to Koine Greek, now you can see why I am interested in such cross study.

        Blessings.