“insofar as we love the gospel, to that same extent, let us study the ancient tongues.” (Martin Luther)
Let me begin with a disclaimer:
Though I enjoy studying the New Testament in its original language, I do not profess to be a Greek scholar. In fact, I probably only know enough to be dangerous. I’ve come to believe that a little knowledge of Greek can not only puff up, but can sometimes lead to incorrect exegesis as we preach and teach God’s inspired Word.
You undoubtedly know that the etymology of a Greek word is NOT a good way to determine that word’s first-century meaning in a particular verse of the New Testament. The context in which the word is used is much more important. One of the worst examples of this error was in a book I started reading last year. It was about Judas Iscariot. The author, in trying to point out why God showed Judas grace, said that the word for “thief” in Greek is kleptes. He went on to write that this is the Greek word “from which we derive the word ‘kleptomania.’ According to the Random House College Dictionary, a person afflicted with kleptomania has an ‘irresistible impulse to steal, stemming from emotional disturbance.’ Labeling Judas a ‘kleptes’ may infer that he was a kleptomaniac with a reoccurring compulsion over which he had little, if any, control.” … After reading this and a couple of other things, I put the book aside.
If you desire to grow in your knowledge of the language, as I do, I recommend this 226-page book by Constantine R. Campbell. Dr. Campbell is an Australian scholar who currently serves as associate professor of New Testament at our EFCA seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL.
In his introduction the author writes, “Whether one knows it or not, everyone interested in the Greek New Testament needs to become familiar with the discussions that are included here. The issues are important. They are not esoteric discussions about linguistic mumbo-jumbo that have no connection to the interests of normal people. Rather, I have been careful to select discussions that have some kind of direct bearing on the reading of the New Testament. If you think reading the New Testament is important, then you should regard these issues as important.”
Writing about this book, well-known New Testament scholar Moises Silva makes this assessment, “A brilliant idea, successful executed! Anyone interested in grasping key issues in the modern study of New Testament Greek can do no better than read this clear and excellent survey.”
In the foreword, D.A. Carson, New Testament professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, writes, “This book is not for beginners, but it will prove enormously useful in helping scholars, advanced students, and serious pastors to find out what is going on in the field of New Testament Greek studies.”
Table of Contents
Advances in the Study of Greek: New Insights for Reading the New Testament deals with some of the most recent and, at times, hotly contested issues in the study of New Testament Greek. To give you an idea of what is included, take a look at the table of contents:
- A Short History of Greek Studies: the 19th Century to the Present Day
- Linguistic Theories
- Lexical Semantics and Lexicography
- Deponency and the Middle Voice
- Verbal Aspect and Aktionsart
- Idiolect, Genre, and Register
- Discourse Analysis I: Hallidayan Approaches
- Discourse Analysis II: Levinsohn and Runge
- Teaching and Learning Greek
Though at times Advances in the Study of Greek was over my head, by going over it twice I gleaned numerous insights to help in the reading and exegesis of the Greek New Testament. For example, I learned that Greek scholars today agree that time is NOT indicated by the tense of the verb (present, aorist, etc.). Some present tense verbs express past action. Some aorist tense verbs express present or future action. Temporal expression is instead a pragmatic category. In other words, it must be discerned in context.
I also learned that we must be very careful about comparing features of one language with another because languages are structured differently. Comparing features of Greek with Latin has caused some significant problems over the centuries. The most important is deponency, i.e., the idea that certain verbs in their middle or passive voice are active in meaning. In addition, what most of us were taught years ago about the perfect tense may not be accurate according to the best recent scholarship. This, too, comes from reading koine Greek through the lens of Latin.
One of the most fascinating things I learned, though not of great importance to the exegesis of the New Testament, is that I, along with most other Greek students up until very recent years, have been taught the wrong pronunciation of New Testament Greek. Because of the revival of Greek study, largely due to the scholarship of Dutch humanist Erasmus (1466 – 1536), it has been determined that centuries of students have been taught to pronounce koine Greek like classical Greek. However, in actuality the pronunciation of the language had become more like modern Greek by the first century. Scholars discovered this by reviewing thousands of phonetically based spelling mistakes in the papyri of the period.
Reading Advances in the Study of Greek convinced me that I need to keep reviewing my Greek, as well as to go deeper in my understanding. In addition, I came to see that correctly understanding koine Greek is an ONGOING STUDY by a number of scholars. In recent years, they are going back to the New Testament, the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament), and other Greek writings of the time to really fathom the intricacies of the language. Not only do they do research, but they meet together to share the fruit of their labors and debate their findings and proposals at the annual conference of SBL (Society of Biblical Literature). I am personally thankful for their labor of love on our behalf.