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How NOT To Learn Biblical Greek

by Stephen Hebert on Friday - 13 July 2007

in Biblical Studies, New Testament

In a recent article I alluded to some issues with language study in modern theological training (though, for more on this, you should hop over to Ancient Hebrew Poetry and the conversations going on in and around there). So, I thought I’d just list out some of the major problems that I saw amongst my fellow students at the University of Texas and Harvard.

(1) “Reading” Through Perseus

By far, the most egregious error that students make is the extensive use of sites like Perseus, or software like Logos or Accordance.

DISCLAIMER: I am not at all saying that these are useless tools or that they shouldn’t be used.

What tends to happen is this. New students of these languages stumble upon these tools and realize that they have a cheat-sheet at their disposal. Rather than taking the time to properly learn the language, they run rough shod through conjugations and declensions and end up in the world of the text without anything firm to latch on to. Essentially, they fake their way through class, which leads them to fake their way through interpretation in “the real world.”

I have seen this from just about every level of student: total newbies all the way up to folks working on their dissertations (and, to be honest, even professors at major universities).

(2) Study for the Exam

When studying a language like ancient Greek it is totally possible to study just before a quiz or exam, and then faithfully reproduce all of the appropriate endings of such-and-such declension, resulting in a fat ‘A’ on the ol’ report card. I know this because I did it for my entire first year of Greek! Man, that was a mistake…

The reality is that if I had studied correctly the first time, I would not have had to go back and relearn so much in my second year. When I crammed for the test, I came out of the test with a great result on paper, but I immediately lost whatever it was I had “learned.”

We’ve heard it a million times, but it’s true: you retain so much more information when you study it several times over a long period of time. Set aside time each day to study. Drill grammar and vocabulary into your brain everyday—not just for the test.

(3) Skip to Koine

Now, there are some different schools of thought on this issue, but this is mine: the best place to start your study of ancient Greek is with the Attic dialect.

Here’s the thing, the New Testament was mostly written in a type of Greek known as “Koine.” This is an “easy” Greek (for the most part), a low style. So many students go straight to Biblical Greek, bypassing Attic (the Greek dialect prevalent in and around Athens during the time of Aristotle, Plato, and the like). The result is that when they are faced with a difficult Greek passage, they don’t know what to do (“what the heck is an optative?!?”).

When I was learning guitar, I very much wanted to learn on an acoustic guitar before moving to an electric guitar. Why? Well, the strings on an acoustic guitar are heavier and more difficult to push down against the fretboard. Consequently, I was really building the little muscles in my fingers. When it came time to wail on the electric axe—no problems. If I had learned first on an electric, then moving to the acoustic might be difficult because my fingers might not have been strong enough to play the notes.

Likewise, we should build our Greek muscles by learning a more difficult form of the language and then moving to the easier form.

“But, Stephen,” you might say, “I am interested only in Christianity. Why do I need that Attic stuff?” Well, that’s a great question. In the 2nd century AD (CE for my PC friends), a movement began in various parts of the Roman Empire to revive the style of the hallowed Greeks. This is a period commonly referred to as “The Second Sophistic.” What does this have to do with Christianity? Quite a lot! Many important church fathers write in a high “atticized” style. If you want to learn anything about them or what they thought about a particular text, you’ll need to have some Greek skills.

Conclusion

No matter what you do, practice is essential. I strongly suggest using flash cards and daily schedules. Treat it like exercise. Heck, get religious and fanatical about it. Do it with friends if that motivates you. Just find some way that keeps you doing it day in and day out.

Now that I am out of school, this is the hardest part for me. So, what did I do? I started blogging!

Update(s)

  • John Hobbins has posted a sister-article on Ancient Hebrew Poetry: “How NOT To Learn Ancient Hebrew.”
  • A thread about this post has been started over at B-Greek. There are some yea’s and nay’s there. Specifically, some folks think I’m a little too harsh on the use of aids (such as Perseus, or interlinears or whatever). First of all, let it be known that I myself use these! However, if I had known about them when I first started learning Greek, I could easily have seen myself falling into the trap of an over-reliance on them. Thanks for all the comments!

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