Do You Really Know Greek?

I’ve been having some fun reading papyri lately. I started reading Ephesians in P46 but got distracted in verse 14 on the second page with ἀρραβὼν. I didn’t know this word because it occurs only once in the New Testament. Knowing the verse in English, I thought up a non-Elizabethan sounding gloss and was ready to move on. However, the verse came up in a message I heard on Sunday. Interested, I ran down the extra-biblical sources that BDAG listed and learned a lot.

One of the resources I used was Grenfell and Hunt’s The Oxyrhynchus Papyri. The first fifteen volumes are available for free download at Google Books and the Internet Archive. I found many of these printed Greek texts surprisingly difficult to read despite having spent years studying Greek and making good grades throughout. I can do a tolerably decent job sight reading the NT. What was my problem with these Koine Greek texts?

I can’t fake knowing Greek when reading things I haven’t memorized.

Perhaps “fake” is too strong a term, but it’s not far off. I really wonder if I can truly say I am literate in Greek. It seems my Greek level is somewhere between true literacy and how my daughter pretends to read books. My daughter can identify the meaning of words on the pages of her favorite books, but hand her a new book and you’ll quickly discover that she doesn’t know how to read.

I am occasionally asked in missions questionnaires how many times I have read the entire Bible. Honestly, I’ve lost count. I usually say “seven” because I’m pretty sure there have only been seven or eight times that I have actually read every word of Leviticus. However, like many Christians, I’ve read the New Testament literally hundreds of times. When I “read” my Greek NT, vocabulary gaps and unfamiliar syntax are usually filled by my knowledge of the English Bible.

Greek classes in seminary tend to reinforce dependency on English translations. Virtually every translation assignment Greek students receive comes from the New Testament, a text that most of the students have almost memorized already. Rather than teaching a true literacy of Greek, seminary Greek classes tend to create a hybrid literacy that relies upon established translations for meaning then supplements that knowledge with enough Greek proficiency so that students won’t miss anything important. However, an unintentional side effect of this hybrid literacy seems to be that students catch and emphasize details that the text does not.

Think about it. I just used an imperative. I wonder if the NT writers were really jumping up and down, waving their arms, and shouting “get this” every time they used an imperative. I wonder if obscure lexical connections sprung to the original recipients’ minds as they read Paul’s letters. I wonder if we really know Greek as well as we would like others to think.

Between the LXX, extra biblical papryi, and Greek fathers, Greek students could be assigned more unfamiliar texts to translate. Students would miss out on some of the exegetical practice that translating NT texts afford. However, they might also learn to read Greek better. Perhaps students could then begin treating NT Greek more like a real language and less like a code.


2 thoughts on “Do You Really Know Greek?

  1. Pingback: do we really know the bible languages | συνεσταύρωμαι: living the … |

  2. From a struggling Greek novice (got through Mounce BBG) I applaud your observations. I think that many times teachers/preachers “over-emphasize” things in teaching or study (I am sure I do) that was not likely something the original readers did.
    I also think that learning the vocabulary using primarily NT texts and not seeing the usage in other 1st century texts (both Christian and secular) obscures what the original readers would have thought and understood as well.

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