Why you can’t learn NT-Greek

by Luca Quaglierini,
MA in Classics (Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany)
Head of Studies for Latin and Greek at the
Swiss Institute of Theological Education 

I have spoken to many people in both Europe and the USA over the past few years and have often heard this complaint: I have been studying Bible Greek for a long time now, but I am not making any headway. I will try to describe here where the main problems are, and which solutions are possible.

Why you can’t learn New Testament Greek

Problem 1: You cannot learn a language from a book that you already know by heart in translation. 

Every theology student or fully trained theologian already knows the New Testament by heart in one or more translations. Every time you read a sentence in the original, your head goes straight to the translation, which you know by heart. So, you can't focus on the original text, which becomes irrelevant to the exegesis or is twisted to fit your standard translation. This is exactly the opposite of a scientific method.

Problem 2: You can't just learn "koine Greek".

The Greek language has a historical development of several centuries. Koine Greek is only a later phase of this development. To understand koine Greek properly, one must know its origins. The best definition of Koine Greek is Attic Greek without Atticisms. That is, you can only gain a full understanding of Koine Greek by first studying Attic Greek, the dialect in which the fundamental works of Plato and Thucydides are written. It is proven that Paul the Apostle had a solid education in (Attic) Greek literature and philosophy. If you don't know this background yourself, you will never really be able to deal with the original of the New Testament.


If you haven't started learning Greek yet

then stay away from all the books written especially for theologians! Learn Greek with general textbooks based on the Attic dialect with an emphasis on the active use of the language. The best book that you can currently find is Athenaze (in the Italian or Spanish edition!), which unfortunately is not designed for absolute beginners in self-study. You either must attend a course or take this book for retraining if you already have basic knowledge.

If you have already had a full course in Biblical Greek 

and are therefore unable to understand anything on your own, you can retrain yourself with good books for classical scholars which encourage active use of the language, because no real reading comprehension is possible if you don't have an active command of the language to a certain extent. Your presumably great experience with morphology and your (just as presumably) tiny vocabulary can be reused. You can work through the already mentioned Athenaze (volume 1 at least). You can work through books like Greek Prose Composition because it's extremely important to activate your passive language skills. An interesting read is The Greek War of Independence, a textbook written using vocabulary and idioms from Thucydides' work, with a storyline running through it and exercises, which ask you to traslate from English in Greek. The difficulty of the chapters is graded, and extensive notes help the reader in self-study.

Conclusion: don't work harder, but work smarter.

Which means here, aiming for and achieving the right sub-goals with the right materials, so that nothing stands in the way of your main goal, a well-founded and solid exegesis of the original texts of the New Testament.

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