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.
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:
- The Interactive Greek Alphabet Course, which I’ve already mentioned
- Introduction to Biblical Greek (GK101), which uses the Koine pronunciation and walks you through the basics of Greek grammar and syntax. You’ll learn vocabulary and the various parts of speech while also learning to translate the New Testament.
- An Introduction to Biblical Greek, an introductory Greek grammar with exercises—to supplement the courses
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 firstname.lastname@example.org to earn your certificate.
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.