What’s the First Thing You Need to Know About NT Greek?

I’m in the middle of a series of posts on learning Greek, and each time I write I find myself wanting to start by holding up a warning sign. Here’s the last one, I promise (sort of): “Greek is not math.”

The first thing you need to know about New Testament Greek is that it was a normal human language spoken by real people in all social strata throughout the ancient Western world during the three centuries on both sides of Christ’s birth. These speakers and their language are now dead, but they left a whole lot of important writing and unimportant writing—which is important.

Koine Greek is actually a lot like English in all these respects, except for its being dead. Because we have a lot of unimportant writing in each language, it’s fairly easy to figure out what words mean—because usage determines meaning, and the more usage you have, the easier it is to figure out meaning. And because we have all that Greek writing, we know that the Greek of the New Testament was just the same as that being spoken by non-Christians.

Greek is not the perfect, hidden code of God through which readers may access the irrefutably true and absolutely correct interpretation of the New Testament. It is, again, like English: English is a wildly successful means of communication—the most popular one in America, I believe. But it consistently fails to reach the level of precision so many pedants demand of it. Likewise, Greek has all the strengths and weaknesses of any human tongue. Think about it: If Greek were as straightforward and perfect as algebra, wouldn’t all the major interpretive controversies among Christians be solved by now? It’s 2018! Wouldn’t everyone have come to see that my theology is the right one?

Learning Greek will give you all the help and clarity God intended, but it won’t solve all your theological problems. Greek is not math.

Second sign

But I’ve got a sign in my other hand, too, and it says, “Studying Greek Is Awesome!” Let’s now turn to that one for the remainder of my posts in this subject. And let’s reask our titular question: What’s the first thing you need to know about NT Greek—once you get past the warning signs? Here are three first things:

1. You need to know the Greek alphabet.

The first thing you need to know is the alphabet. Alpha (α), beta (β), gamma (γ), delta (δ), epsilon (ε), zeta (ζ), eta (η), theta (θ), iota (ι), kappa (κ), lambda (λ), mu (μ), nu (ν), xi (ξ), omicron (ο), pi (π), rho (ρ), sigma (σ), final sigma (ς), tau (τ), upsilon (υ), phi (φ), chi (χ), psi (ψ), omega (ω).

But if you need a little more help, you can pick up Dr. John Schwandt’s new Interactive Greek Alphabet Course. It’s a great way to get your feet wet with New Testament Greek. Logos Bible Software also includes a Greek Alphabet Tutor you can use for practice.

2. You need to know how to pronounce Greek words.

The second first thing you need to know is that there are different traditional ways of pronouncing Koine Greek words. I’m as interested as the next nerd in finding out The One True Pronunciation System, but since it appears to be disputed, I default back to a different approach, one I now suggest to you: use whatever system your “teacher” teaches you.

I like the Erasmian system I was taught because it gives a distinct sound to every Greek letter. I think that has value for all learners—especially those who will be using Greek to study the New Testament (as opposed to, say, digging into textual criticism or starting a Koine Greek singing group).

But linguists have worked hard to reconstruct what Koine would have sounded like in New Testament times, and future textual critics will indeed profit from learning this pronunciation system.

Regardless, just do what your teacher—book or person—says. Don’t get stressed about pronunciation; it’s only a big deal for a small crowd, mainly PhD students.

That Interactive Greek Alphabet Course I recommend offers both Koine and Erasmian pronunciation. Logos Bible Software also comes with a Pronunciation tool that distinguishes the three major Greek pronunciation systems. Click a word, and you’ll hear an audio clip recorded by an experienced Greek teacher.

Note: there are “living-language” approaches to learning Greek, and I think they’re fascinating. It’s amazing to go on YouTube and see a whole class using an ancient language to converse (even if it’s just, “Sit in the chair”). I haven’t had the opportunity to learn via this method, but its major value appears to be teaching people implicitly that Greek is not math, which you already know. It does also engage other aspects of the brain’s language-learning capacities through listening and speaking, but the anecdotal evidence to which I have access suggests that this method has not been the panacea we’d all love to discover. (And I can’t shake the feeling that if actual Koine speakers heard one of these classes they would double over with laughter. When people learn a language without access to native speakers, they’re bound to create some linguistic oddities.)

3. You need to know which study program to use.

The third first thing you need to know is which Greek study program to use. You need to find that teacher who will be your guide.

And I’m duty-bound to mention yet another alternative method before I get to my recommendation. I know of several Greek teachers around the country who are trying to use second-language acquisition research to make NT Greek instruction more effective. Their work looks exciting to me, and I’ll put you in contact with these profs if you ask. But I’m not aware that their work is available to a wider public. I think their work is mainly aimed at doing more with the shrinking formal instruction time seminary deans are allotting for Greek. The traditional methods, it seems to me, get you to the same place; they just take a bit longer. (Forgive me, friends who are at the forefront of Greek pedagogy, but I have to recommend what’s available.)

And I’m going to go right for the people I trust, using the same methods that worked on me. Again, I recommend the work of Dr. John Schwandt, my coworker at Faithlife and a long-time Greek teacher at the college level. He now offers the Biblical Greek Foundational Certificate Program.

This is a bundle of resources offered through Logos Mobile Ed that includes everything you need for learning to read, translate, and understand the Greek of the New Testament:

This Biblical Greek Foundational Certificate Program qualifies you to earn a Logos Mobile Education Certificate of Completion. After working through GK101, simply submit your own translation of the first 18 verses of the Gospel of John to programsofstudy@faithlife.com to earn your certificate.

Conclusion

Studying NT Greek is a privilege that carries a responsibility. James 3:1 warns that not many Christians should become teachers, and learning NT Greek almost necessarily makes you one. Once they find out you know Greek, people will ask you what you think about countless passages. If you don’t take their view of that passage, they still won’t listen and may even resent you for knowing more than they do, but at least they’ll ask!

You’ve got to show yourself over time to be a faithful and edifying interpreter if people are going to come to trust you. You’ve got to do work in the study that shows up silently in the sermon or Bible lesson (or email or blog post or Facebook comment, etc.). You’ve got to demonstrate, without a shred of pride, that your study of Greek has given you some treasures to share with others.

This is all best done without even mentioning that you know Greek, and we’ll get into that in a future post. It’s kind of funny, actually, that the more you know, the less you will find yourself showing it off. It will provide an all-important foundation for you, however: You will know that you are coming to your interpretations with greater confidence and insight, and people in whom God’s Spirit resides will come to be built up over time, perhaps without really knowing what makes your teaching/Bible interpretation different from others’. Studying Greek is awesome.

Comments

  1. Larry Armstrong says:

    Hi, Mark! I like your two signs. They make me think.

    First, Greek is not math, but math itself is a language. It’s a language because it follows (at its root) human mental processes that are agreed upon by human beings. 2 + 2 = 4 but it could just as easily have become “two plus two = quiznikel,” if human beings had agreed to consider it so. In Spanish, it’s “dos y dos esta quarto.” Math has its foundation in human communication; therefore, language.

    Your point is well-taken. Greek does not function as addition, subtraction, etc. Usage determines meaning. But isn’t this true for the foundation of mathematics, too? What can be done with the language of mathematics is far different from what Greek can accomplish, but human communication lurks beneath the surface of both.

    Second, Studying Greek Is Awesome. What amazes me is that God chose to speak to humans beings in a way they intimately understand. This is based on his image within us, yet we have developed language into a highly sophisticated human tool, which has limitations growing out of our humanity, as well as strengths. Still, God chooses to speak to us in words we concocted!

    Being God, he could use other means, perhaps via direct imagery or electrical impulses to our brains. But he chose to use the best and most awesome human trait–linguistic communication–to tell us of his love. And his concern for our failings. He interprets us to ourselves via our wonderful invention–language. (Even if he had to confuse us by dividing our communication tool into various dialects at an ancient tower in Shinar.)

    • This gets profound, man. But I’d quibble. I’d quibble. It’s my job. The concept we call “two” exists whether two-year-olds have a name for it or not. And, yes, “four” could have a different name. But, like the colors on the spectrum that linguists like to jaw about, the concept of amount is so concrete as to feel like a different category than a word like, say, category. Colors and amounts are natural kinds. Category isn’t. I imagine there are languages that get along without it.

      But where I’d really quibble, where I’d outright pettifog, is in saying that humans “invented” language. We didn’t! It was a divine gift that existed prior to us. In a sense, every English speaker is slowly reinventing the next English all the time. So, yes, humans “invented” the English we have now. But language, the capacity, we didn’t start. Languages don’t be; they become. But their becoming began at creation and/or Babel.

      But I love the first line of your last paragraph: God could have chosen/invented other means of communication, surely means we couldn’t even conceive. I’m glad he gave us language. I never stop being fascinated by it.

      • Larry Armstrong says:

        Yes, languages always fascinate me, too. And I’m happy for God’s gift of the capacity.

        I wasn’t thinking deeply enough. I forgot the faculty for language. It is, indeed, a gracious given of the human condition. God wanted us to communicate with him and each other. Imagine that!

        I was at the level of how we utilize the gift. We humans do take God’s graces too easily without considering them.

  2. Here is an off the wall question, do the scriptures ever show us that Yahusha spoke Greek?
    I know He was born a Hebrew, from the tribe of Judah, “I came only for the lost sheep of Israel”, when He spoke to Saul on the road to Damascus, He spoke to Saul in Hebrew, I think all His disciples were from Judah.

    “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, Thy kingdom done, Thy will be done, ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN” ( no I am not yelling, just pointing it out).
    Do you think they speak Greek in heaven?

    I know we inherit a lot of bad traditions from Rome!!

    Just asking, if I am missing something,

    I think I even read somewhere, that a Jew would rather eat pig, than speak Greek!

    • Let’s see if I can get any comments here!

      13 We will add from the same writer some other extracts concerning them, which run as follows:
      “They have treated the Divine Scriptures recklessly and without fear. They have set aside the rule of ancient faith; and Christ they have not known. They do not endeavor to learn what the Divine Scriptures declare, but strive laboriously after any form of syllogism which may be devised to sustain their impiety. And if any one brings before them a passage of Divine Scripture, they see whether a conjunctive or disjunctive form of syllogism can be made from it.
      14 And as being of the earth and speaking of the earth, and as ignorant of him who cometh from above, they forsake the holy writings of God to devote themselves to geometry. Euclid is laboriously measured4 by some of them; and Aristotle and Theophrastus are admired; and Galen, perhaps, by some is even worshiped.
      15 But that those who use the arts of unbelievers for their heretical opinions and adulterate the simple faith of the Divine Scriptures by the craft of the godless, are far from the faith, what need is there to say? Therefore they have laid their hands boldly upon the Divine Scriptures, alleging that they have corrected them.
      16 That I am not speaking falsely of them in this matter, whoever wishes may learn. For if any one will collect their respective copies, and compare them one with another, he will find that they differ greatly.
      17 Those of Asclepiades, for example, do not agree with those of Theodotus. And many of these can be obtained, because their disciples have assiduously written the corrections, as they call them, that is the corruptions,6 of each of them. Again, those of Hermophilus do not agree with these, and those of Apollonides8 are not consistent with themselves. For you can compare those prepared by them at an earlier date with those which they corrupted later, and you will find them widely different.
      18 But how daring this offense is, it is not likely that they themselves are ignorant. For either they do not believe that the Divine Scriptures were spoken by the Holy Spirit, and thus are unbelievers, or else they think themselves wiser than the Holy Spirit, and in that case what else are they than demoniacs? For they cannot deny the commission of the crime, since the copies have been written by their own hands. For they did not receive such Scriptures from their instructors, nor can they produce any copies from which they were transcribed.
      19 But some of them have not thought it worth while to corrupt them, but simply deny the law and the prophets, and thus through their lawless and impious teaching under pretense of grace, have sunk to the lowest depths of perdition.”
      Let this suffice for these things.

      Eusebius of Caesaria. (1890). The Church History of Eusebius. In P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), A. C. McGiffert (Trans.), Eusebius: Church History, Life of Constantine the Great, and Oration in Praise of Constantine (Vol. 1, p. 248). New York: Christian Literature Company.

      I think Rome was very smart, they changed things and then around 1200 AD, made a canon, that any non clergy caught with scripture, was burned at the stake.

      Do you think they changed Matt 28:19? father son and holy spirit
      Or did the disciples just not listen to Yahusha?

      • Hamilton R. says:

        Real cool quote Will. I think I read somewhere that Eusebius was very concerned that Atanasius was altering Scripture (most likely Mat 28:19), but I have not been able to locate that article again.

        As far as other topics in this thread: You could be real close to the worldview of the age in which a work is written, and still get it wrong.

        Through the years, many traditions think that the Holy Spirit used one of Mary’s ovums to incarnate Jesus. This seems improbable, because Jesus is not of this creation, He was more likely in the type Adam was before the fall.
        Some men of God have concluded that there is a good chance that the whole zygote was placed in Mary’s womb.
        The reason for that conjecture, is that John was told that the person on whom the Holy Spirt came down and remained was the one appointed to take the sin away.
        The Holy Spirit cannot remain on a “fallen creature” before the atonement because that person would die.

        Did persons in years 150 + AD knew what a zygote was? probably not, they walked in the light that they had available.
        God is a God of progressive revelation, and as more knowledge is acquired through HIs good will, more can be understood of the events depicted in the Scripture.

        Another problem with language: unfortunately, language is a poor substitute for experience. You can describe what you experience, but if you do not experience something yourself, you can only imagine (and could be very wrong) what it is like.
        Sample I can describe what it is like ( to me) to ride in a roller coaster, you can imagine what it is based on my description, but you will not know what it really is like until you get on one.

        Same when Isaiah talked about being in the presence of the Lord, we can imagine what it is like, but is not the same that the Holy Spirit indwells you as a tongue of fire coming atop your being.

        The number two (after the atonement) mission of Jesus was to baptize with the Holy Spirit. It was like getting the Shekinah back that was lost when Adam and Eve lost it through disobedience.
        It was that Holy Spirit that allowed them to have g:koinonia with God.

        Jesus came to restore that. Many persons back then and now a days miss that important part of Jesus mission.

        What is incredible is that regardless of the language you speak, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is for all those that enter the New Covenant, but to experience that, you have to comply with the stipulations set by God to that effect:
        Read / listen / understand, repent, confess Jesus as Lord and Savior, baptize as per Acts 2:38, receive the Holy Spirit, and walk humbly with your God, doing as He indicates, so that you, fully prepared for all good deed, walk in those good deeds prepared by God before the foundation of the world for you to walk in them deeds. Then get in with the great commission according to your gifts, helping look for the lost.

        Blessings. (interesting thread).

        • Good to hear from you, Hamilton!!

          Here is a youtube talking about Eusebius, I do not have the references.
          Although, it does go with what I quoted above.

          My main support, would be it is never done in all the scriptures.
          Scripture tells us to look for 2 or 3 witnesses, I have not found any.

          We need to stay true to His Word!
          Will Scholten

  3. Christian says:

    I love the statement, “You’ve got to demonstrate, without a shred of pride, that your study of Greek has given you some treasures to share with others.”

    I don’t like the statement, and the sentiment coming to be popular, “This is all best done without even mentioning that you know Greek.” I think people have come to that conclusion because preachers use their Greek with pride. But if we do it without the pride, I actually think it is VERY important to tell people what ideas you are getting from Greek translation, because they should know that the authority is in the text, not you. If you preach something because of your translation and understanding in the Greek that seems different than what they have in English, are they supposed to believe you because you are the authoritative preacher? I don’t think so. I think we have to show them the evidence in the text, including the Greek, and say, basically, “I interpret this passage this way, because of this evidence. And you can take the evidence, both from what you have in your English, and what I have presented to you, and decide.”

    I agree Greek does not solve all interpretive issues or debate. But the authority resides in the text, even if we have various interpretations. So we have to give people textual arguments and evidence for interpretation, and that includes Greek.

    I don’t just teach my kids all the wisdom I have from the Bible and act like it all came from me. I want them to know where I got it from. Why wouldn’t we want people to know where we got insight from, namely study in Greek.

    And how are new generations of people going to get interested in studying Greek, unless they see in practical ways – like the great insights they gain through their teacher/pastor – how Greek can help them interpret. I took up the study of Greek because me pastor’s preaching helped give me more insight, including insights from the Greek.

    • Some good thoughts, and I’m so glad your pastor’s example encouraged you to study Greek! I don’t want to be doctrinaire; I admit there are some circumstances when mentioning Greek is appropriate.

  4. J. A. Wilkins says:

    Wouldn’t it be, “Dos y dos son quatro,” or “Dos y dos es quatro,” using ser for a permanent condition rather than estar for temporary or variable state of being?

    Just asking.

  5. In your recitation of the Greek Alphabet, you missed a letter.

    • Also, there are 13.2 million native born speakers of Greek, so it is not a dead language. Most speakers of Greek can understand the New Testament without any problem. Greek has 3400-3500 years of continuous use. Koine speakers may be dead but Greek is not. You might consider also that most Greek speakers do laugh when hearing non-Greek speakers attempt to “reconstruct” Greek pronunciations. You know a language is ancient when the “Modern” pronunciation dates back essentially to Alexander the Great. I have an American born friend who is a Greek Orthodox priest. His entire first year of Seminary was intensive Greek because all the rest of his Seminary education was in Greek (including New Testament and Septuagint.)

    • Φιξεδ!

    • Chris Williamson says:

      Thanks for fixing that!

  6. Saludos…
    Lo que J. A. Wilkins dice es correcto. Dos y dos ‘son’ cuatro. (Plural).
    The word ‘es’ is singular… Example: El es ‘uno’ solo. (He is only one).
    The word ‘son’ is plural…
    According to my wife, who is a Spanish expert!

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