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.

 

Some Background on Gedara and the Windstorm

Jesus’ encounter with the demonic forces on the Lake Gennesaret (Sea of Galilee) occurs as he is trying to get to the region of Gedara. The name of the city itself means “border country” and it is essentially the eastern edge of Jewish influence.

Beyond Gedara was the Decapolis, an entirely new municipality founded by the Greek rulers who followed Alexander the Great and then rebuilt and expanded by Pompey, the Roman consul. The Decapolis had no historical precedence, and as such was not tied to the ancient traditions of the region.

No self-respecting Jew or Galilean went to the Decapolis even though it bordered Galilee to the east and the north. It was a wholly Greek region and therefore, in the minds of Jews and Galileans alike, was a pagan place. They welcomed the Romans and as a result, the Empire invested heavily in the development of the region. Throughout the Decapolis, local deities had been fused with the Greek pantheon and even the Roman reverence of the emperor as a god.

Invading the Pagan Stronghold

According to Luke, Jesus sailed for the Decapolis. He was intentionally headed for enemy territory.

Luke is the only writer to refer to Jesus as epistatē, a Greek title for a military commander. There are only two reasons a commander heads for enemy territory – to surrender or to invade. In this case, Jesus was headed to the Decapolis to invade it.

Standing on the shores, the demoniac saw Jesus coming his way and the demons called Legion (which means there were thousands of demons) is set to stop him from invading their turf. They send a raging windstorm that Luke calls lailaps.

In Greek mythology, Lailaps was the name of a dog that hunted the Teumessian Fox. The name came to be used as a metaphor for something inescapable, an inevitable disaster. It was sent by the gods.

In the same sense, Luke sees this windstorm as inescapable and supernatural. It is opposed to Jesus coming to the Decapolis and has been sent to prevent Him – to destroy Him.

When Jesus stands and rebukes the wind, he literally puts it in its place. The Greek word is epetimaō, which is again a military term. In this case, Jesus the epistatē tells the wind to get back in line. The demons of Legion have attempted to overstep their bounds against the commander of all, and at his command, the lailaps cowers.

According to the Greeks, not even Zeus could command the lailaps. Instead, he had to turn Lailaps and the Teumessian Fox into stone – freezing their struggle for all eternity. But Jesus can simply command and lailaps must obey.

This is why the demoniac comes to Jesus asking, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me!” (Luke 8:28) The demoniac knows the tortures that the demons have put him through and he assumes that Jesus must then be the demons’ master and assumes he is just as cruel as the demons. He is commanding the demons, silencing the lailaps. Nothing the supernatural powers of the land throw at Jesus has any effect on Him.

Jesus is YHWH

I have to be honest. This entire scene gives me goosebumps.

This is one of Jesus’ most powerful moments in the entire gospel of Luke. This moment reveals true power and absolute sovereignty. He is, in this moment, revealed to be something OTHER – absolutely and entirely. He is greater than the natural and supernatural forces, greater than the pagan gods, greater than the demonic forces.

And that is Luke’s intention. Throughout his gospel, he has been revealing Jesus as Savior of all mankind. Now, he reveals Him as Master as well. He is the master of all the gods and forces of any culture or religion and again asserted as YHWH, the God of Israel (Psalm 95:3).

IKON

At Bedford Road, we finished up Luke 5 yesterday. To be honest, I am still a little surprised that it took me so long to work through the chapter but there is just so much depth to these first encounters with Jesus. The way Jesus turned these people’s lives around, and then he encounters a group of self-righteous, religious bigots and shakes his head saying, “Once you drink the old wine, you won’t like the new.”  That’s master teaching, right there.

In the message yesterday, I mentioned that Luke does a little word play with the Greek words for good and Christ, so I thought I would put them up here for you to see.

Good = χρηστός
Christ = χριστός

And like I said on Sunday, both η and ι are pronounced as a long e sound in Greek, so the pun is complete. It is one of those things that really makes you shake your head and wonder if Jesus was speaking Greek or if Luke noticed the pun when he was composing his gospel and chose to insert it.

Reading Greek

The New Testament was written in koine Greek – a loose term used to describe the various forms and dialects of Greek used in the eastern Roman Empire during the time of the early church. The word koine itself means “common” or “shared”. It was not the classic Greek of Homer or the unified Greek of the Macedonian empire. Instead, it was a group of transitional forms which were all mutually discernible.

Many people are intimidated by Greek because it looks different from English. Although Greek is significantly different from English, it is not really a difficult language to learn. Most of the letters are similar, with a few exceptions, and the pronunciation and accents are relatively easy to learn.

When I read Greek, I use a modified modern pronunciation. Not everyone does this, especially in seminary circles, but I find it is convenient and since the koine has been a dead language for over 1,500 years, there really is no way to know exactly how it was pronounced. (For some reason, seminaries will apply this logic when reading Hebrew, but not Greek.)

Here is a simple sentence in Greek – the first line of the Gospel of John:

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.

Now, I will transcribe it using English characters:

en arkee een ho logos, k-eye ho logos een pros ton the-on, k-eye een ho logos.

  • ν looks like our English letter v but it is the letter nu (pronounced nee).
  • ρ is the letter rho (long o) and is pronounced like our letter r.
  • χ is called chi and is pronounced like a k but a little further back in the throat, like the Scottish word loch.
  • η is the letter eta (long e) and is pronounced like a long e. In koine, it might have been a long a sound.
  • This symbol – ῾ – is called a hard breathing mark and makes the h sound at the beginning of a word.
  • λ is called lambda and is pronounced just like our letter l.
  • γ is called gamma and has three pronunciations. Most of the time, it is pronounced as a g but it can also sound like an h and an n in certain situations. Don’t worry about those just yet.
  • π is called pi (pronounced PEE) and you should be familiar with it from math class. It is pronounced as the letter p.
  • θ is the letter theta (with a long e and short a) and is pronounced as th.

Once you know what the letters sound like, it is easy to sound out the Greek.

But what does it mean? If you were any good at vocabulary as a kid, or if you took a lot of science classes, many of the words might be familiary.

αρχη means “first.” We have it in English with words like archangel and hierarchy – both words that came from Greek.

λογος means “word” and we use it every day. Any word that ends in -logy comes from this word – biology, theology, mythology.

θεον (or θεος) is another word that is common in English. Theology is a combination of this word and λογος, so it means “the word about God.”

The only other significant word in the verse is προς, which means “with” and it also appears in English in words like prosthetic.

Just knowing these four Greek words gives you enough of an understanding to read the verse.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

It does not take much work at all to read it.

Of course, some Greek is not this simple, but about 30-40% of Greek vocabulary is familiar to the educated English-speaking person, but they don’t know it. This is because Greek and Latin were required languages for education during the Renaissance and early Modern era. As a result, most sciences and technical fields incorporate a lot of Greek, and that filters down into every day language.

I’ll write more next week as we “read Greek.”