Going Deeper with New Testament Greek

Going Deeper with New Testament Greek

One of the distinct deficits in seminary training has long been the methodology employed in teaching the Biblical languages. Introductory materials are numerous, but advanced studies often rely heavily upon resources that are either out of reach for the average student or are inadequate for the task by virtue of their simplicity. In reality, most seminary students who take Biblical languages rarely use what they have learned.

Greek is not a complex language, but it can be intimidating. There are a couple reasons for this. Since modern Greek bears only a passing resemblance to the koine used by the New Testament authors, the student has to learn how to read without any real auditory interaction with the language. Also, since the New Testament does not record normal, conversational language, what the student is exposed to is sometimes awkward, advanced syntax. Consider if someone were attempting to learn English by reading Herman Melville or J.R.R. Tolkien. Certainly, they could get something of the language from their study but it would not reflect the language as it was spoken by people. It would reflect the structure they observed on the page. Constructing a grammar from works of literature would be equally daunting.

When I took intermediate Greek, our professor used Daniel Wallace’s The Basics of New Testament Syntax. This is an abridgement of the much more extensive Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics which Wallace had prepared in response to requests from professors who claimed the larger work was too difficult. Only one week into the course, I ordered a copy of Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics because I found the smaller book to be completely useless. Overall, the issue was not the abridgement. At times, Wallace seemed to make grammatical or syntactic distinctions which meant little to nothing and in at least one instance, I believed were completely unfounded. (Incidentally, our professor agreed.) In his efforts to be exhaustive, I get the impression that he manufactures concepts and obfuscates simplicity with complex, multi-syllabic terms that are not really necessary.

IMG_3264Over the years, I have accumulated a number of Greek and Hebrew grammars. A good Hebrew grammar is hard to come by, but Greek grammars abound. Wallace’s is the standard intermediate text, although Dana and Mantey’s A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament was the standard for decades. In fact, Wallace relies on them at certain points. These grammars handle the basic elements of the language well, but when dealing with advanced material, the impression I get is that they devolve into academic exercises rather than true language learning. I keep buying grammars in the hope of finding “the one” that does not fall into this trap and deals with intermediate Greek study clearly and concisely.

 

Going Deeper with New Testament Greek is an intermediate Greek grammar composed by three eminent scholars at Southern Baptist seminaries: Andreas J. Köstenberger and Benjamin L. Merkle of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Robert L. Plummer of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The authors’ intent was to create a readable grammar, a resource which students could journey through rather than simply taking notes and acquiring information in preparation for testing (p. 2).

The structure of Going Deeper is similar to other intermediate grammars. The authors deal with the noun (ch. 2-4) and verb systems (ch. 6-11), as well as the articles (ch. 5) and other parts of speech (ch. 12). One area which sets Going Deeper above other grammars is the time spent on both textual criticism (ch. 1) and discourse analysis (ch. 13). These are two key components of a well-rounded study of the language, and they are also areas in which practical aspects of nuance can be examined.

Textual Criticism

Going Deeper does not have an in-depth exploration of textual criticism, which is understandable given the breadth of the subject.The section is not over-simplified, although it does deal with quite a bit of material. The basic elements of why certain readings are preferred is in keeping with other mainline works on the subject. It is not an original perspective as much as an amalgamation of existing materials, chiefly The Text of the New Testament by Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrmann. It was good to read an updated perspective on the Nestle-Aland 28/UBS 5 text as well as an introduction to other eclectic text editions such as the SBLGNT, the ECM and the IGNTP (pp. 32-33). The authors are quick to note that their brief summary only touches the basics of textual criticism. Unfortunately, many seminaries do not have courses on textual criticism, which leaves the student only with the limited knowledge acquired in an intermediate Greek course and perhaps their New Testament survey or hermeneutics courses. (I know the seminary I attended did not have a course on textual criticism.)

Discourse Analysis

It is in the consideration of discourse analysis that Going Deeper does more than most grammars. It is the first time that I have seen a discussion of this important approach to the text in an intermediate grammar. At its course, discourse analysis looks for meaning in  communicative acts rather than sentences or words. Therefore, it requires what I would call a “grey reading,” not deciding on the meaning of a passage until the whole thing is in view. Certainly, you need to diagram and comprehend sentences as grammatical units; but those units fit within something bigger – the discourse. The section is small, but at least it is there.

The Didactic Method

Unlike other grammars, Going Deeper engages the student in more than simply reading and translating. Every chapter begins with a challenging text and ends with a few (probably too few) exercises to drive the ideas home. What Going Deeper lacks is a workbook or guided reader of the New Testament to accompany it. The more exposure the student gets to the text in situ, the more apparent the principles and concepts will be for them.

Conclusion

While Going Deeper is not a perfect textbook and lacks some of the resources of other textbooks which serve as the core of a comprehensive course, it is an excellent textbook. It deals with the matters all grammars must deal with, but it does so in a readable, accessible way. It will take some more perusal and checking to form a final opinion, but I am impressed at first reading.

 

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2 thoughts on “Going Deeper with New Testament Greek

  1. I’m no linguistic expert so I’m confused that Wallace’s book references only the NT to support its conclusions about Greek grammar. To draw from your comment, isn’t this similar to writing an English grammar that cites only “Moby Dick”? Contrast a typical Latin grammar, which will commonly cite several sources to prove a point. It seems to me that Wallace’s book isn’t so much a Greek grammar as it is a study of NT syntax. I don’t dislike the book, but I’d be more confident in his conclusions if he supported a few of them occasionally with examples from, say, Xenophon, or from an Eastern Church father or two. You know more Greek than I; am I missing something here?

    • In fairness, Wallace’s book is subtitled “An exegetical syntax of the New Testament” but the point is a good one. Trying to build a grammatical study of the NT using only the NT creates a bit of a confirmation bias.

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