Why Learn Greek

As I’ve said before on the blog, I’m going to be teaching a Greek class this Fall here in the Dallas area. And I’m still open for applications. Of course, the question of "why" has popped up. That’s reasonable. Here is why I really think Greek is a very useful thing to know when studying the NT, and some thoughts on what we ought not to be using it for. And I present this in the manner of Paul. Sorry, this is going to be very long...

What shall we say then, that those who don’t know Greek cannot understand their New Testament? Certainly not! For there are many things in the New Testament that we don’t need to know Greek to deal with. That being said, there are some issues where a knowledge of Greek is very useful, even on a practical level. Say a Jehovah’s Witness person comes to your door and wants to talk about John 1:1 and how everyone else has translated the text wrongly. Being able to say “I know it shouldn’t be translated that way because of ‘x’” is a much better argument than “so and so told me it shouldn’t be translated that way”. Very useful in debate.

What then? Is the only reason to have a good argument with heretics? Certainly not! Sometimes it is useful in determining the meanings of passages, for many interpretations hinge on rightly understanding the syntax. It is not just a tool for defending your favorite doctrines, whether they are true or not. It is a generally useful interpretive tool. The previous is mentioned because it is a very obvious case for the benefit of Greek knowledge in conversation.

What shall we say then? Shall we learn Greek so we can solve all of our interpretational problems and know all things? May it never be! The understanding of Greek is but one tool in the interpretive arsenal. Knowing Greek but having no knowledge of the historical backdrop of the first century will still leave you high and dry when it comes to some matters of interpretation. It ONE of many useful tools of interpretation. It is not the key to all knowledge. And besides, on the level of Greek studies there are lots of unresolved issues.

So let us learn a little Greek, just enough to use some new tools. Certainly not! Don’t you know that lots of people learn just enough Greek to be able to talk over their own heads? In doing so they deceive themselves and others into thinking some thing when in fact it is as faulty as their lack of discipline to learn. Learn it not as a bag of tricks to use in an argument. Most don’t know enough Greek to know such a person is an idiot rather than a learned person. This is unfair, untrue, and dishonoring to God. Learn it not just for the ability to say "I know Greek". Learn it, and learn it well. Only when you know it well can you use it with proficiency and accuracy.

So then, if someone does not know Greek well, he will always be unable to understand the Scriptures. No! But his knowledge will be much more limited than those who do know it. It is the same with not understanding the life of a shepherd and understanding Jesus’ parables. Or how could we claim that we understand Paul’s arguments in Galatians if we don’t understand the historical backdrop of the thinking of Judaism at the time? How can we hope to understand Revelation if we do not understand the historical circumstances and theological backdrop behind the symbols. Salvation can come to those who do not have full knowledge, and indeed that is the case for everyone. But understanding the New Testament will always be more difficult for those who do not study the languages, the writings that are contemporaneous to those who lived at the time, and the backdrop of the Old Testament.

Okay, so that may be annoying to you. So here’s some simple prose.

Does this greatly benefit the devotional life? Not in the way you might think. You’re not going to get through a first year Greek class and be oo-ing and ahh-ing over every word you read because you get so much more nuance or something. I’ve heard people say that, and I think they’re just being wierd or are reading in a bunch more than they should. Greek is not a magical tool to find multiple levels of nuance in every word you read. Devotionally it is valuable, though, because it is an aid in interpretation. And that is definitely valuable devotionally.

It is also useful in light of the insufficient nature of translation. Sometimes there really is more nuance in the Greek than there is in most English translations simply because making readable English means not emphasizing certain aspects of the original and perhaps overemphasizing others. This is the nature of the work. I’ve read attempts to translate the "full Greek meaning" and they turn out to be absolutely pitiful translations that are only of dubious value when it comes to interpretation. Some study Bibles try to make up for this by using notes, like the NET Bible, but this still has its limits.

I really, truly, completely, utterly, detest attempts to learn Greek just to defend certain points of view, like the Trinity (which I believe in), Calvinism (also believe that), Arminianism (obviously don’t believe that), Dispensationalism (really annoyed by that), etc. Don’t learn Greek for that. Learn Greek to understand the NT better. Sure, there will be times where it will be useful in a discussion about the nature of God. Sure it will be useful sometimes in understanding passages about predestination. But please, PLEASE, don’t learn Greek as something for your bag of tricks when talking to people you don’t agree with.

I’ll end on two personal notes. I spend a lot of time in the New Testament. Because of that, I personally could not fathom trying to interpret some of this stuff without knowing Greek. Sure, there’s lots of passages where the typical English translations are just fine, but there are a number of issues where they are simply not sufficient. So give me some Greek!

And, finally, I just really get some satisfaction over being able to read some great literature in its original language. I know that won’t appeal to many, but I like it quite a bit.

So why do I value knowledge of Greek? Because it helps me understand the New Testament better. And I’ll take all the help I can get.

Comments

Zack Hubert (8/14/2005 9:45 AM)

Very tricky question to answer, as one route leaves the student with doubt as to their translated Bible and the other route makes the class size dwindle. Well done.

One more piece that I’ll throw into the mix, that is, sometimes I read it for the intrinsic beauty of the language. Experiencing their words, their thoughts, untranslated allows the reader to pick up on their favorite words or coined words...to get their distinctives. It’s a friendship of sorts.

Certainly not an ooh’ing and aah’ing over ever word, as just as frequently I am stunned by Paul’s clarity as I am by his opacity, but it’s a different kind of appreciation which is very rewarding.

Luke Hartman (8/14/2005 11:42 AM)

Thanks for this article. I intially thought that by taking Greek I would ‘know the answers.’ I found, instead, that Greek opened my eyes to options and difficulties.

I have a greater respect for those who work hard to put Greek into legible English. I am also glad that several years of Greek gives me the ability to study and critique such translations.

I hope your class goes well and that your students learn a lot from it.

luke

Wayne Leman (8/14/2005 2:05 PM)

I enjoyed your post, Eric. It was fun to read the Gringlish (sounded like the book of Romans) in the first few paragraphs. I have just linked to your post from my blog, and commented further on the topic. Say, you might want to consider adding Trackback to your blog. I gave directions for doing that a couple of days ago on my blog. It would enable others to ping your blog telling you when they have linked to one of your posts, and from exactly which of their posts.

Brian (8/14/2005 2:43 PM)

Eric,

I have taken on the challenge to learn Greek on my own for the very reasons you stated in your post. However, I am a self-learner so I am not looking for a classroom setting.

So, I ask you...what is the best book to start with and then what is the next book you would recommend.

I have read that the best book to start with is "Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar" by William D. Mounce.

Though "Learn to Read New Testament Greek" by David Alan Black was also mentioned.

Some have recommended "New Testament Greek for Beginners" by Machen, however, I have also been told that it is outdated and that Mounce’s book is much better.

Also mentioned were a couple audio CD’s by Jonathan T. Pennington...
Readings in the Greek New Testament and New Testament Greek Vocabulary.

At any rate, I would appreciate any input you have on book recommendations.

AMDG

Kenny (8/14/2005 6:37 PM)

If I can throw in a word or two on Greek textbooks: far too many Greek textbooks, grammars, and lexica are written just specifically for the NT and often the theological tradition they come from flavors the information they give you. I reccomend starting with a textbook of Attic (classical) Greek and moving to the NT from there. A very good and very widely used text on Attic is Greek: An Intensive Course by Hansen and Quinn. Attic is somewhat more complicated than Koine; for instance you can skip over the section on conditionals, as Koine pretty much only has two of those, as opposed to Attic’s 8ish (depending on whose list you look at). Additionally, the examples and vocabulary early on are not geared toward reading the NT, but because the book was intended for people learning to read Plato and Euripides, you can rest assured that the information being presented is not slanted by anyone’s theological position. AND you’ll be able to read Plato and Euripides :)

Brian (8/14/2005 9:25 PM)

Kenny,

What would you suggest book wise? As I stated the goal is to learn Greek to further understand the NT and "just because". Limitation being that I do not plan on going to a classroom to learn it. I need to learn it on my own time reading books (which I am very accustomed to in the tech world).

AMDG

Eric Sowell (8/14/2005 9:50 PM)

Thanks for the flood of comments.

Zack, I feel the same way. Thaks for bringing it up.

Luke, thanks for the encouragement. As for knowing all the answers, you’re absolutely right. There are so many things that you don’t even realize are an issue UNTIL you learn Greek. It just opened up a whole new world of issues for me.

Wayne, yes, I would like that feature. I’ll be sure to read your post.

Brian (1), I would choose Mounce over Machen for sure. I haven’t looked at Black much, though. However, I do favor a more inductive approach to learning the language than what Mounce offers. A really good example of this is Athenaze, but that is for classical. But, actually, starting there probably wouldn’t hurt, and might help. But, if you did want to start with NT Greek, Mounce is a decent place. I’m not going to be using it for the class because the class is going to be much broader in its choices of texts to translate (LXX, Apostolic Fathers, Pseudepigrapha, etc.) but that’s for another post.

Kenny, I very strongly agree and disagree somewhat at the same time. I haven’t ever noticed theology as something that scewed the materials in a NT textbook, though that is certainly conceivable. But there really is something to not starting on NT Greek that is very beneficial. Knowing NT Greek will help someone learn Classical, though I think the other way around would be more effective if you wanted to learn both. My reason for that will have to wait. I don’t really want to type all of that in a comment. I like Hansen and Quinn, though I personally prefer Athenaze because of the approach, despite the fact that my initial training was very deductive-heavy.

Brian (2), if you want to stick with NT Greek, like I said above, I would probably go Mounce unless someone comes up with something better, and that is certainly possible. But I would also recommend starting with non-biblical Greek, and Athenaze is a decent start.

Thanks to all for your comments.

Ai (8/14/2005 4:25 PM)

Greek is awesome!! Wish I could learn it.

Brian (8/14/2005 13:31 PM)

Anyone tried Greek To Me by Professor Story?

http://home.regent.edu/lylesto/resources.shtml

I have read some pretty good reviews.

AMDG