Tuesday, June 07, 2016

It's all Greek to me

I'm old enough that I notice younger folks using grammatical constructions that would have been considered ungrammatical when I was their age. The English language undergoes continuous evolution, even within my own lifetime.

I say that to say this: there are Catholics and especially Eastern Orthodox who claim the Greek Fathers had a built-in advantage when reading the NT. After all, Greek was their native tongue.

In some respects, that can be advantages, but in other respects that can be disadvantageous. To begin with, Greek Fathers like Chrysostom, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Cyril of Alexandria, and Theodoret wrote much later than the NT. So you must make allowance for how the Greek language changed over time. 

In addition, they were well-educated in Classical Greek. But that's   quite different than 1C Koine Greek. In addition, we have to take into account differences in social class. Language varies according to region and social class. In general, NT Greek is less sophisticated than Josephus. 

For instance, American working-class English is very different than, say, John Henry Newman. Or consider dialectical variations, like Black English. 

Ironically, this can lead a native speaker to misconstrue usage in ways that someone who learned it as a second language might not. A native uses the language of his own time, place, and social class as his frame of reference. But that can be the wrong frame of reference when dealing with a text produced in a different time, place, or social class milieu. 


  1. Steve,

    Thanks for this post. Just a comment. I think learning to read Greek is preliminary to exegeting, not part of it. A twenty-first century English-speaking believer can interpret the Bible better than a first-century Koine speaker. So its not about knowing how to read Greek, but knowing how to interpret it. It's like when an evangelical meets a modern Hebrew-speaking Jew, they think that person possesses some automatic insight into the Old Testament. They don't.

    Seminaries limit linguistics to the morphological Greek (i.e. first year Greek) which leads seminarians thinking they can "interpret" the Greek Bible. Even second year Greek is not sufficient. Only on the advanced level of Greek Discourse Analysis will the interpreter begin to exegete the Greek Bible the way it needs to.

    Did first year native Koine-Greek Christians have an advantage? Only in the sense they possessed the condition to _begin_ to interpret, not to mention the cultural context.

    In short, seminaries need to move away from the morphological-atomizing level and add required advanced courses on the level of actual discourse. This of course is my pipe dream since seminaries are moving the other direction by jettisoning all their language requirements and producing linguistic-millennial ignoramuses.

  2. One other poignant reason why I think there is a devaluing of Greek in evangelical seminaries is that you will be hard-pressed to find Greek teachers who actually have their specialty (dissertation research) in Greek linguistics.

    I recently inquired into a very conservative evangelical seminary in MN about a Greek teaching position. The NT department has about seven NT profs, and not a single one of them had their area in Greek linguistics. I pointed this out to them and they seemed not to care much about this point. Typically, teachers who teach Greek did their studies, not in Greek, but in the Gospels or Paul or Biblical theology.