I began teaching two modules on ‘Koine’ (pronounced as ‘coin-eh’, meaning ‘common’) Greek at HTC this week. Koine Greek is the form of Greek commonly used in the Mediterranean world following the expansion of the Greek Empire under Alexander the Great (approximately, 300BC to 300AD). It is the form of Greek used in the Greek Old Testament (the ‘Septuagint’), the New Testament, and various early Christian writings. The students do not learn to speak modern Greek. The primary task is to read and understand written texts. One module will introduce the grammar to beginners. The other will be more advanced, with an emphasis on reading selections from the Greek New Testament (and a little from the Greek Old Testament) and discussing significant grammatical features. I am particularly excited to try out this new book from B&H Academic as the core textbook for the more advanced ‘Greek Texts’ module.
The more I have taught Greek over the past twenty years, the more I have grown to love it. I am always pleased when students choose to take Greek as part of their degree and I am looking forward to working with the HTC students in the months to come. During the past few months, however, I have enjoyed a different experience of teaching Greek, working with a group of friends at my church. While some of the group have done some theological studies previously, almost all of them were completely new to the study of Greek. I have loved the opportunity to introduce them to this remarkable language. The enthusiasm of this class has convinced me that Greek is not just for theological students!
But is it worth the effort? Like most people who consider learning Greek, at the start of my theological studies I wondered if it was worth the time and trouble. In fact, after a semester of Greek in university, I dropped it and only came back to it a couple of years later. I’m glad I did! So here are a few reasons why you should consider learning some Greek.
- Because it introduces you to some remarkable literature that has shaped human society: Whether you accept the writings of the Bible as authoritative ‘Scripture’ or not, there is no denying that these documents have had an immense impact on the shape of human thought and society. While many people will associate the study of Greek with the New Testament, we should also remember that the Jewish Scriptures in Hebrew and Aramaic had been translated into Greek during the centuries prior to the time of Jesus. The ‘Septuagint’ is itself a very significant literary treasure, probably the largest translation project of its era. But once you begin to take notice of the language of the Greek Scriptures, you may well find yourself drawn to the writings of Homer, philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, and other writers such as the historian Thucydides (see this article by Mary Beard). You may also discover the ‘Apostolic Fathers’ and later Christians writers such as Athanasius and John Chrysostom (‘golden mouth’). Even a passing encounter with such ancient texts, still being read and studied two thousand years and more after they were written, is likely to ignite an interest that will last a lifetime.
- Because it introduces you to a fascinating language that has influenced many other languages: The benefits of learning a foreign language are well-known and frequently rehearsed. Many of these are experienced by students of Koine Greek. Although the letters of the Greek alphabet are generally unfamiliar in form, the fact that several are widely used in maths and science means that the alphabet is not quite as unknown as might be first thought. Once a student begins to learn vocabulary, however, the sense of familiarity starts to increase as it is discovered how many English words have Greek roots: Archaeology, Biology, Catastrophe, Diagnosis, Energy, to name only a tiny handful. As knowledge of Greek grows, it becomes a marvellous means of figuring out the meaning of numerous words in English for which the basic meaning may be deciphered by identifying the Greek roots. For many students of Greek, an additional benefit is a deeper understanding of the way in which a language functions, including their own home language.
- Because it is the language of Scripture: For Christians, Greek has a particular significance. This is not because the Bible can only be read or understood in Greek. In fact, the very existence of the Septuagint indicates that translation of the Scriptures of Israel from one language into another was considered appropriate well before the time of Jesus. A similar determination to translate the Scriptures into the languages of the people is seen from the time of the early Christians right up to the present day. Modern readers of the Bible in English have access to a remarkable range of high-quality translations which, although they differ somewhat in their philosophy of translation, provide reliable access to the biblical documents. Yet recognition that the New Testament was originally written in Greek and that the early Christians largely read the Old Testament in Greek helps the modern reader to appreciate the historical particularity of God’s revelation, in its specific linguistic form as well as its content.
- Because it can help you to read more carefully: Some learners of Greek may feel frustrated that it takes a long time to read a short passage of Greek. That may well be true, particularly in the early stages of learning, but that may actually prove an advantage, rather than a disadvantage. A reader of Scripture may skim through a familiar passage in his or her home language. A reader who has learned Greek as an adult will probably have to work through the text much more slowly, and, in doing so, will likely notice features of the text that might otherwise have been missed. Reading the biblical text in Greek will heighten a reader’s awareness of literary features such as assonance, word-play, and Greek sentence structure. As I indicated in point 3 above, these aspects of the text are not to be disregarded as irrelevant cosmetic features. They are part of the God-breathed character of Scripture. If reading in Greek slows your reading to the point where you become more attuned to these characteristics, that is a reason for thankfulness!
If these comments have prompted you to decide to learn Greek, let me encourage you enthusiastically to do so! If you live in the Scottish Highlands, please do get in touch. Perhaps you can join our class!
One last thought: If you have already studied Greek but you now feel that it has become rusty and you wonder how to revive it, why now consider leading an informal class in Greek? You might find some people who would be interested in learning the language and you could work through a textbook at a gentle pace. I cannot imagine a better way to deepen your understanding of a subject than to teach it to others.