13 Things Your Greek Teachers Won’t Tell You

NT Resources blog has an interesting post from David Alan Black, professor of NT and Greek at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (where Dr. Maurice Robinson also teaches). I thought I’d share it here as most of the contributors and many of the readers of this blog, know some Greek. And all of us know a little Greek who has a shop around the corner. (Lame attempt at a joke is over, please read on.)

The latest issue of The Reader’s Digest has an interesting article entitled “13 Things Used Car Salesmen Won’t Tell You.” Here are “13 Things Your Greek Teachers Won’t Tell You”:

1. Greek is not the only tool you need to interpret your New Testament. In fact, it’s only one component in a panoply of a myriad of tools. Get Greek, but don’t stop there. (You’ll need, for example, a Hebrew New Testament as well.)

2. Greek is not the Open Sesame of biblical interpretation. All it does is limit your options. It tells you what’s possible, then the context and other factors kick in to disambiguate the text.

3. Greek is not superior to other languages in the world. Don’t believe it when you are told that Greek is more logical than, say, Hebrew. Not true.

4. Greek had to be the language in which God inscripturated New Testament truth because of its complicated syntax. Truth be told, there’s only one reason why the New Testament was written in Greek and not in another language (say, Latin), and that is a man named Alexander the Great, whose vision was to conquer the inhabited world and then unite it through a process known as Hellenization. To a large degree he succeeded, and therefore the use of Greek as the common lingua franca throughout the Mediterranean world in the first century AD should come as no surprise to us today. I emphasize this point only because there are some today who would seek to resurrect the notion of “Holy Ghost” Greek. Their view is, in my view, a demonstrable cul-de-sac.

5. Greek words do not have one meaning. Yet how many times do we hear in a sermon, “The word in the Greek means…”? Most Greek words are polysemous, that is, they have many possible meanings, only one of which is its semantic contribution to any passage in which it occurs. (In case you were wondering: Reading all of the meanings of a Greek word into any particular passage in which it occurs is called “illegitimate totality transfer” by linguists.)

6. Greek is not difficult to learn. I’ll say it again: Greek is not difficult to learn. I like to tell my students, “Greek is an easy language; it’s us Greek teachers who get in the way.” The point is that anyone can learn Greek, even a poorly-educated surfer from Hawaii. If I can master Greek, anyone can!

7. Greek can be acquired through any number of means, including most beginning textbooks. Yes, I prefer to use my own Learn to Read New Testament Greek in my classes, but mine is not the only good textbook out there. When I was in California I taught in an institution that required all of its Greek teachers to use the same textbook for beginning Greek. I adamantly opposed that policy. I feel very strongly that teachers should have the right to use whichever textbook they prefer. Thankfully, the year I left California to move to North Carolina that policy was reversed, and now teachers can select their own beginning grammars. (By the way, the textbook that had been required was mine!)

8. Greek students think they can get away with falling behind in their studies. Folks, you can’t. I tell my students that it’s almost impossible to catch up if you get behind even one chapter in our textbook. Language study requires discipline and time management skills perhaps more than any other course of study in school.

9. Greek is fun! At least when it’s taught in a fun way.

10. Greek is good for more than word studies. In fact, in the past few years I’ve embarked on a crusade to get my students to move away from word-bound exegesis. When I was in seminary I was taught little more than how to do word studies from the Greek. Hence, I thought I had “used Greek in ministry” if I had consulted my Wuest, Robertson, Kittle, Brown, Vincent, or Vines. Since then I’ve discovered that lexical analysis is the handmaiden and not the queen of New Testament exegesis. Greek enables us to see how a text is structured, how it includes rhetorical devices, how syntactical constructions are often hermeneutical keys, etc.

11. Greek can cause you to lose your faith. It happened to one famous New Testament professor in the US when he discovered that there were textual variants in his Greek New Testament, and it can happen to you. When the text of Scripture becomes nothing more than “another analyzable datum of linguistic interpretation” then it loses its power as the Word of God. That’s why I’m so excited about my Greek students at the seminary, most of whom are eager to place their considerable learning at the feet of Jesus in humble service to His upside-down kingdom.

12. Greek can be learned in an informal setting. The truth is that you do not need to take a formal class in this subject or in any subject for that matter. I know gobs of homeschoolers who are using my grammar in self-study, many of whom are also using my Greek DVDs in the process. If anyone wants to join the club, let me know and I will send you, gratis, a pronunciation CD and a handout called “Additional Exercises.”

13. Greek is not Greek. In other words, Modern Greek and Koine Greek are two quite different languages. So don’t expect to be able to order a burrito in Athens just because you’ve had me for first year Greek. On the other hand, once you have mastered Koine Greek it is fairly easy to work backwards (and learn Classical Greek) and forwards (and learn Modern Greek).

Okay, I’m done. And yes, I’m exaggerating. Many Greek teachers do in fact tell their students these things. May their tribe increase!

Now who wants to tackle “13 Things Your Hebrew Teachers Won’t Tell You”?

[The only way to distinguish blog posts at Dave Black’s blog is by date. This post comes from: 9/30/2010, 12:20 PM.]


7 thoughts on “13 Things Your Greek Teachers Won’t Tell You

  1. Chris Cole October 7, 2010 / 9:17 am

    I took Greek in college. We used the Machen textbook. And I admit, I found it easier than my French courses. However, I found Hebrew MUCH easier still. Different strokes for different folks, obviously.

  2. Nazaroo October 7, 2010 / 2:33 pm

    I have to agree to disagree with points 4. and 11.

    4. “…there’s only one reason why the NT was written in Greek…, and that is a man named Alexander the Great, whose vision was to conquer the inhabited world…. To a large degree he succeeded, and therefore the use of Greek [was] the common lingua franca throughout the Mediterranean…”

    This is a classic case of mistaking the means for the cause.

    Alexander was the means. God was the cause. The point about Alexander has no effect on the claim or doctrine of “Holy Ghost” Greek. God’s providence must be acknowledged to have been at work, and God’s choice must be recognized as divine.

    In the 20th century, we have been brought up in a ‘scientism’ culture, which emphasizes science as an explanation for everything. But this popular notion is bankrupt, and this is acknowledged even by most scientists, who dismiss the ability of ‘science’ to explain *cause*. Science today is looked at by scientists as ‘descriptive’, and not ‘explanatory’ in the sense of causality, only explanatory in the sense of *means*.

    11. “Greek can cause you to lose your faith. It happened to one famous NT professor in the US when he discovered that there were textual variants in his Greek NT, and it can happen to you.”

    Clearly by Bob’s own short description, the “cause” (instrument) was not Greek at all, but an entirely different subject, Textual Criticism. Greek the language cannot be faulted for (Ehrman’s?) apostacy, which is more likely to be traced to his own lack of scientific acumen.


    • Erik DiVietro October 7, 2010 / 3:46 pm

      I think his point on #4 was that God didn’t choose Greek because of its syntax and structure. If that had been God’s criteria, he probably should have chosen something like Euskara or Sanskrit. Their structure is much more detailed, capable of conveying differences and nuances of meaning that Greek, Latin or Hebrew are incapable of conveying.

    • Steven Avery October 8, 2010 / 12:05 pm

      Hi Folks,

      “It happened to one famous New Testament professor in the US when he discovered that there were textual variants in his Greek New Testament, and it can happen to you.”

      This reference to Bart is misplaced. Many folks who do not know Greek get buffeted by precisely the same problems of an unsure text “no verse is sure”, contradictions in their versions like the swine marathon, and other difficulties that are due to the variant and corruption issue, but essentially independent of Greek savvy.

      Steven Avery

  3. Bill Brown October 16, 2010 / 11:03 am

    We need to be fair here. For starters, my Greek professors at Dallas Seminary (Jay Smith, Joe Fantin, Buist Fanning, Dan Wallace, David Lowery) have ALL said at least some (and in most cases next to all) of those. But the reference to Ehrman is wrong. When one reads “Misquoting Jesus,” in the paperback, Bart is clear that his agnosticism is drawn NOT from textual variants but from the entire “God and evil” dichotomy. Yes, he does leave the impression – and he played it up for the masses on NPR, etc – that textual variants caused it. But he acknowledges that it was the “how can God be real if evil is in the world” issue that got him.

  4. Bob Hayton October 16, 2010 / 11:07 am

    I’m not necessarily agreeing with all of Professor Black’s points, but many are helpful. Sorry for the lack of posting around here, a new series will be starting soon.

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