On Learning New Testament Greek and English Text Familiarity

Nathan is learning Greek. Good for him. I recommend it highly myself! He’s been pondering the best course for a while, and just posted again about how he’s thinking of moving forward. He’s considering Athenaze, and I think that is a grand idea if you want to learn to read the New Testament. On the surface this doesn’t make any sense as Athenaze is for learning Classical Greek. But it is, and here’s why.

Most people who want to learn to read the Greek New Testament only want to study and read New Testament Greek. I don’t feel the same way myself, but I can see where they are coming from and understand that. However, I think learning NT Greek through only reading NT Greek is a very bad way to learn Greek, and the reason is very simple.

Most people who want to learn NT Greek are already very familiar with the NT. Frequently they will be translating a verse and about a third or half of the way through they’ll be thinking "hey, I know what this says" and at that point their brain starts using their knowledge of English to guide their reading. That is not going to help you learn Greek! I saw this in me when I first started learning Greek. I’ve seen it in so many other beginning Greekers. When that English gets applied to the sentence your brain doesn’t have to wrestle with the language anymore and you’re just using your knowledge of English to substitute understanding the text. Your knowledge of the translated NT has become your mental interlinear and you can’t look at the Greek text without thinking of the English.

This will at some point be inevitable. After all, when we’ve gained some proficiency in Greek, we’ll probably want to start comparing translations and study various language-related issues related to understanding the NT. That’s not bad...at the end. But it is horrible in the beginning of the learning process. That’s when you most need to start trying to think in terms of Greek, and if your English keeps poking its head in you will probably never leave the English well enough alone to understand the Greek by itself.

So what is a fella to do? Ideally there would be a really awesome grammar for learning Hellenistic Greek that would work great in a self-study that had the student read a lot of Hellenistic Greek, including the NT. This would be great for the study of the NT because they would get to read some of the NT in Greek as they progressed, but would have to spend plenty of time in texts they are unfamiliar with that are similar in dialect.

But, as far as I know, that doesn’t yet exist. So what’s the next best thing? Well, this is what I would do if I knocked my head on something, forgot all of my Greek, and had to re-teach myself. I would actually learn from two textbooks simultaneously, alternating chapters in each. I would pick a NT Greek textbook and a Classical Greek textbook (Athenaze and JACT are popular options, but there are others) and work through both. Studying the first would keep me in the NT text, which I would of course like. Studying the second would actually force me to learn the language. The first would also be beneficial with the second since there are some forms that are different in the time of Koine than in the time of Classical Greek, and you would definitely want to know them. And don’t forget the vocabulary differences either. Studying a NT Greek book will help you with vocabulary that had a different flavor in Hellenistic Greek in general or NT Greek in particular.

Would tackling two grammars at the same time be confusing? Possibly so. That’s why a Hellenistic Greek grammar would be better. But if you took the time to learn the material well, I think you would find yourself learning both better. Getting different explanations of the same phenomena can also be a great help for learning...as long as they don’t disagree all of the time.

[Update: Apr 13 2008, 7:24 AM] One reader pointed out a possible exception to the no grammar of Hellenistic Greek point, and that is the material done by Randall Buth which you can find on the Biblical Language Center website. I haven’t seen or heard any of it so I can’t vouch for it. If I had a copy I would review it and let you know. Maybe I’ll have to use some of my tax return money...[/ End Update]

I recently started reading the JACT volumes. However, now I’m considering coursework at the University of Wales Lampeter, and they use Athenaze. So I think I’ll be switching to that. I spent time with it a couple years ago and really liked it, so I’m looking forward to the experience myself. I know that I will understand the language a lot better with more time in Greek text I know nothing about.

And, if it helps, I’m not the only one who sees this problem with learning Greek. Carl Conrad on the B-Greek mailing list frequently recommends the reading of large portions of unfamiliar Greek text for this reason. He does it all of the time. If he weren’t 100% right it might get annoying! But he is right, so I’m glad he keeps saying it. More should take his advice.

Anyway Nathan, that’s my two cents.


friend (4/13/2008 5:38 AM)

> But, as far as I know, that doesn’t yet exist.

Actually, there is a not-widely known pedagogical set at www.biblicalulpan.org. Living Koine Greek. Their Part 2b is supposed to be out this month and very Hellenistic with papyri, Hermas, Aesop, and LXX, and much material that is not exactly GNT. (I’ve seen the table of contents.) The pictures are fun to do, and everything is recorded.

Eric (4/13/2008 7:17 AM)

I’ve heard of it, but wasn’t sure of the contents and if it would work for self-study. I’ll have to go ahead and buy me a copy and check it out for myself.

Chuck Grantham (4/13/2008 2:27 PM)

Seems to me reading the Apostolic Fathers and Septuagint in Greek would be the obvious way to have your "Bible" and still be forced to actually translate. Unless you were already very familiar with them, which, let’s face it, so so many of us aren’t.

This then could build your Greek, your familiarity with the early church, and variant textual traditions. Seems a win-win scenario to me.

Mark (4/13/2008 2:57 PM)

Familiarity is not all bad, especially in the early stages. After all, when learning we move from the familiar to the knew. But I agree that there has to be unfamiliar material to keep you honest. One could learn on a classical grammar--Athanazae is a good one; or one could supplement a NT Greek grammar with snippets from another grammar. Greek An Intensive Course has a lot of one-liners, epithets, etc.

I have my second-year NT Greek class read Lysias I, On the Murder of Eratosthenes. It keeps them honest, it is not impossibly difficult, and the content gives them something to practice rhetorical and historical analysis on.

Nathan Stitt (4/13/2008 3:42 PM)

Thank you for the reply. This is exactly the type of information I’ve been seeking. I’m currently planning to get Dobson and Mounce initially. Once I’ve been immersed and have some idea of what I’m doing I think I’ll add Athenaze into the mix. I haven’t used my BAGD yet but I’m assuming it includes vocab besides what is in the GNT. My long term goal is to be able to read the GNT, LXX, Apostolic Fathers, Josephus etc. I don’t see the point in learning Koine Greek and then limiting myself to just the GNT. By the way, I’ve finished reading 1 Clement (in English). Thanks again, and I look forward to your series.

Eric (4/13/2008 4:30 PM)

Chuck: I think throwing those into the mix would be enough, yes, though each of the two for completely different reasons. You could just use the Apostolic Fathers alongside the NT and solve this particular problem just fine because virtually no one has read them extensively (or at all). I would throw in the LXX as well, but not for the same reason. Since everything but the deutero-canonicals is translation Greek, they would not be what I would think of as ideal for prep for reading the NT, but useful nonetheless because of the huge impact of the language of the LXX on the language of the NT. But if you’re going to read outside the NT, why not reach wider? :) It wouldn’t hurt...

Eric (4/13/2008 4:37 PM)

Mark: Absolutely. There’s no harm in translating NT texts from the very earliest stages in learning. It is only a problem when those are the only texts one comes into contact with. You need others to, as you say, "keep you honest". As for "Greek An Intensive Course", do you mean the UT Orange volume by Hansen and Quinn? I’ve got it but haven’t spent much time in it. Does it work well for students? Any thoughts on that volume would be appreciated.

Eric (4/13/2008 4:42 PM)

Nathan: Well, good luck! Hope it works out great for you. Yes, BAGD (and BDAG) include vocab from outside the NT. It contains all you should need for the Apostolic Fathers, though having a copy of LSJ wouldn’t hurt. It does not cover LXX and Josephus exhaustively, however, so you will need other tools. LSJ is a good choice, or there is at least one LXX-specific lexicon. I’m not sure what the best lexicon is for Josephus. If I had to guess, I would say LSJ.

Quixie (4/14/2008 0:14 AM)

Thank you very much for posting this. It’s just what I needed to read.


Eric (4/14/2008 0:24 AM)

Glad I could help.

Chuck Grantham (4/14/2008 2:13 PM)

Actually, the Loeb Josephus looks interesting. But my tax refund will soon be gone if I buy everything I like in the blogs. About four new books of interest just today!

Eric (4/14/2008 7:55 PM)

So many books, so little time and money. Josephus would be a good choice for reading, though. I’m planning on doing some of that myself soon.

David (9/13/2008 10:20 AM)

I would be very cautious about learning classical and koine Greek together. I am a psycholinguist and polyglot and have found significant problems learning/using two (modern) foreign languages at the same time. Learning the two variants of Greek is like trying to learn English and Pidgin at the same time, or German and Dutch - there are lots of similarities and it becomes difficult to keep the languages straight. For example when I am conversing in Dutch, I understand them but they tend to say "sorry I don’t speak German". (Note that technically, koine is quite a different language/grammar, notwithstanding the common lexical base, being a creolization based on many dialects of Greek and other languages that developed in the armies of Philip and Alexander.)

But the idea of using koine literature, including the LXX and contemporary and later writings is highly appropriate - the best way to learn a language is to read widely in it. But it is best to start with text that is familiar - I’ve learned many modern languages by reading the bible in them, and this saves a lot of digging in the dictionary.

The classical language teaching paradigms developed in the late 60s early 70s in Cambridge and Reading are based around only reading actual literature, and avoiding the pernicious construction of artificial sentences by NOT translating into the dead language which nobody really knows well enough to write in or speak accurately.

A NT Greek textbook that was developed along these lines (Reading school) is Ward Powers "Learn to Read the Greek New Testament" - www.wardpowers.info/LTR.htm - and when I struggled with Greek I found this much easier than working with the conventional grammar set by the theological college (both of which shall remain unnamed).

K. (11/13/2008 2:32 PM)

I’m going to learn Greek the same way I learned English as a 2-year-old, by listening and speaking. After hearing a phrase I then read it. It’s much easier to read after I have first heard it in an audio recording. I have been posting some of this online if anyone is interested. See the audio files with matching Greek text at www.BiblicalGreekAudio.com