Wednesday, July 19, 2006

On the Joys of Greek study

Today is a day for Greek.
  • A day for trying to memorise 50+ verbs and their principal parts.
  • A day for realising you've forgotten more Greek vocabulary than you thought possible.
  • A day for subjunctives, perfects, articular infinitives and participles of attendant circumstance.
The hottest July day on record and I'm inside studying Greek (ok, so I'm about to go outside and study, not the hardest afternoon of my life for sure, but I'm going for the sympathy vote here). A good day for remembering why studying NT Greek is worth it. Here are six reasons (if you are disappointed I couldn't get seven, you need to get out more) I can think of off the top of my head for three years of Greek-graft.

1. Knowing Greek means I can access, understand and evaluate the more technical commentaries on the market.

2. Knowing Greek means I am no longer a victim to those who do know Greek and use it for their wily purposes (I can make a measured assessment when someone 'pulls Greek' to try and prove a point).

3. Knowing Greek means I am more likely to spot the nuances even in english translations of the New Testament and understand the translation choices they've made (why do/don't they translate a particular phrase in a particular way etc.).

4. Knowing Greek should help me spot the particular emphases and stylistic properties of the different NT authors (e.g. what are Paul's favourite words and why?) and the different NT books (e.g. what phrases/grammatical constructions keep cropping up in Hebrews) in ways that english translations simply cannot.

5. Knowing Greek was apparently one of the boosts to the Reformation (studying Romans in Greek helped Martin Luther rediscover the gospel) and the achievements of the Puritan century and a half that followed.

And, in my view, the clincher...

6. Knowing Greek makes sense given the reality of a personal walk with the Lord. If I were married to someone from Estonia, you can bet I'd make the effort to learn Estonian, even if my wife spoke great english, simply because there would be a level of understanding my wife that would be unavailable to me except in Estonian, given that her thought patterns, humour etc. would all be shaped by that particular language. In the same way, although God does not 'speak Greek' in the same way (it's not his 'native tongue' - I don't think all the business of heaven is conducted in 1st century AD Greek), in a very real way God does 'speak Greek' - he has chosen to use Greek, with all its particularities, idioms, peculiarities and thought patterns, for his written revelation of himself.

Conclusion - Knowing Greek is by no means an essential for gospel ministry (but then again, the absolute bare essentials are really very few). That said, the real advantages are many. As in all things the issue is not 'what is the bare minimum on which I can get by in serving God?' but 'how far can I reasonably go in serving God?' - we should strive for godly excellence not mere survival. Since I am somebody who can do foreign language learning I should learn Greek since, whatever the trials along the way, it will be worth it.

Rats, that means away from the computer and back to the books...


Ros said...

But surely that's even more of an argument for learning Hebrew since God spoke so much more of it?

And your first five points all apply at least equally (and some much more) to Hebrew than Greek.

So it seems to me that the only reason to prefer Greek is that it's (in some ways) a bit easier. Though for anyone who's learned the huge table that constitutes the relative pronoun in Greek, you may be interested to know that in Hebrew it's a single, undeclinable word.

Or maybe it's more worrying than that - it's a reflection on the subtle Marcionitism that afflicts so much of today's church. If the NT is more important, then obviously learn Greek first. But since the whole of the bible's God's word, why does Greek always seem to come first?

So, I should declare my vested interest as an OT scholar here, but still some questions to be answered?

Pete said...

I would like to say how much I agree with you about study of Hebrew. I actually prefer Hebrew study to Greek in terms of the language itself (probably why I haven't had to blog to avoid it/persuade myself to do it!) but also feel there's a lot more to be 'discovered' since the church by and large hasn't been as hot on it as Greek, making it an exciting prospect. Many a lunch time has been spent trying to persuade 'Greek-onlyers' to take the narrow road that leads to glory.

Also, is it marcionitism or a form of dispensationalism (are the two the same in essence?) that has caused the neglect of the Old Testament do you think? Or is it the reformed baptist's fault since it was they who started messing around with the covenants? Or is it something rather more sinister, in that neglecting the OT allows us to read the NT badly too - our subtle deceptive hearts finding new and creative ways to 'do an Adam and Eve' on God's word?

Perhaps you could blog on the virtues of Hebrew and OT study and I'll link to it on my blog.

Ros said...

Back in February I wrote a detailed and incisive post on the subject:

I like your point about neglecting the OT allowing us to do poor NT exegesis. A particularly striking example of this last summer was Steve Motyer, speaking about the nature of the atonement in Hebrews, who began by pointing out that Hebrews was all about the contrast with the OT sacrificial system and therefore he wasn't going to bother about what the OT system actually was for. A stunning piece of exegetical trickery allowing him to make Hebrews say exactly what he wanted (no penal substitution).

Matt said...

are you goona learn me then?

Neil Jeffers said...

Much as I long to rant in agreement with Ros's and Pete's comments about Hebrew, may I offer one possible historical explanation for the neglect of Hebrew compared to Greek?

By the 4th C AD, the church was frequently debating the relative places of the Septuagint and the Hebrew text (most notably Jerome, in favour of Hebrew, and Augustine, who argued the LXX could be used to 'correct' the Hebrew text). Augustine largely won the argument, hence one could learn only Greek without 'neglecting' the OT. Of course, as Jerome's translation (from the Hebrew) was the Vulgate, perhaps he won the argument. And by the time the Vulgate was exalted in the church, you didn't need Gk or Heb, just Latin.

However, as I haven't heard many modern evangelical ministers arguing for LXX supremacy, perhaps it is Marcionitism, or laziness!

Ros said...

Yes, and I don't know any preachers who base their OT sermon prep on the Greek of the LXX. Which makes me think laziness is more likely to be the answer.