Ἀγωνίζομαι is a Greek word commonly abused by Bible interpreters; and I think it raises an interesting test case for what to do when major Bible translations differ. In this post, I want to try to discern what that word is used to mean in its various contexts. [Read more…]
The High Definition Commentary on James has just been released.
Here’s what I like about the idea of the High Definition Commentary, which focuses on the field of “Discourse Grammar”: this field (and this commentary) does for a somewhat unfamiliar set of grammatical features what we need our grammatical labels to do. It helps us really see things we only intuited before.
You have always known what nouns and verbs are, because you have never really mixed them up after age four (?), except perhaps on purpose. Ever since you were a little kid, you said, “That’s a very big ___________,” and you never stuck a verb in the blank (“That’s a very big jumping”). You said, “I saw Johnny _________ into the street,” and you never stuck a noun in the blank (“I saw Johnny truth into the street”).
But being taught the labels “noun” and “verb” that fateful day in second grade gave you clarity on what you already intuited, making it much easier to parse the meaning of your own sentences—or those of others you were reading or listening to. This parsing serves your own understanding, and it gives you a greater capacity to explain sentences to others.
This is what the High Definition Commentary (HDC) does, but not with “nouns” and “verbs.” You already have those down. The HDC does this with Discourse Grammar. As with nouns and verbs, you have been intuiting (English) discourse markers your whole life. But if you didn’t have labels for them, you didn’t notice them in quite the same way, or to quite the same degree.
Take, for example, this first paragraph from the HDC volume on James 2:1–13 (releasing tomorrow, remember). I have accentuated every insight which is based on Discourse Grammar.
James signals the shift to a new topic through the use of redundant address (“my brothers”) and an exhortation not to hold our faith with partiality. What does this mean on a practical level? James uses a very complex set of “if” conditions that stretches all the way through the end of verse 4 to make one important “then” statement. These conditions evoke a vivid scenario that he uses to critique the entirety of the situation. He accomplishes the same task as that we do when we say, “Let’s suppose that someone enters your assembly in fine clothing, and you look favorably on the one…” The conditions do not mean that this exact scenario must occur before we make a favorable distinction; it is simply a common strategy in Greek for signaling a hypothetical situation.
You can see this “complex set of ‘if’ conditions” without the insights of Discourse Grammar. But, as with nouns and verbs and prepositions and genitive uses and all the other labels we’ve agreed upon for parsing our speech and writing, you see more clearly when you have the label.
My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:1–4 ESV)
Author Steve Runge (Faithlife Scholar in Residence) is doing what scholars serving the Christian church are supposed to do: he is popularizing the insights of some rather difficult academic research into how we “mean” with sentences.
The commentary also includes helpful illustrations you can use in teaching or preaching.
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People interested in careful study of the Bible often use Logos Bible Software. Our free 30-Day Challenge will show you how to use Logos while walking through the exegesis of a portion of Matthew 4. Learn more about the training, or sign up below.
The languages of the world are often represented in a family-tree diagram in which “parent” languages such as Proto-Slavic branch out into “child” languages such as Russian, Polish, and Croatian. Just as in real-life human lineages, the parents may die, but they live on in their offspring.
Image © Minna Sundberg, Hivemill
The family tree is a helpful model, but as with many models, the reality is far more complicated. That’s because some “parents”—and even “grandparents” are still living, though in altered form, long after even some of their “grandchildren” have died. And languages are not self-contained or hermetically sealed. The influence of a parent on a child doesn’t end when the child is “born.” And other languages can mess with its “genes” even after the child has grown up.
We’re accustomed to recognizing that individual words cross language boundaries. We say capeesh and apparatchik and tsunami; and my feel is that those words still carry with them the rich fragrances of Italian, Russian, and Japanese, respectively. Half the fun of using those words is that we’re borrowing other people’s stuff. And other languages borrow our stuff, too. I did a double-take the first time I heard a Spanish speaker use “Okay” in the middle of an otherwise fully Spanish sentence.
Because of the vagaries and contingencies of history (though all these are within God’s good and all-powerful hands), languages even make repeated cross-border incursions. The French phrase avant-garde has come into English twice. First it came in a literal sense in the late 1400s: vanguard, as in the first troops in the line, the “advance guard.” Then around the turn of the 20th century it came again in a metaphorical sense, meaning “art which pushes cultural boundaries.”
There have even been times when words leave one language and come back to that language in a different form. This actually happened with Greek, which is not a surprise given the major influence Greek has had on the world scene: Greek gave κίνημα (kinema, “movement”) to French as cinema[tographe], and when the Greeks found out how much fun the cinema was, they took their own word back as σινεμά (sinema). (ix)
Isn’t language cool?!
Knowing How Language Works
I write all this because of a burden I have for all Bible interpreters: you need to develop a feel for how languages come into being and how they develop before you can trust yourself to use New Testament Greek responsibly. I don’t mean you need to know all the etymologies of the Greek words of the New Testament; I actually think you need to be studiously ignorant of those etymologies—just as Κοινή speakers were. But if you will start to grasp in general how Κοινή Greek formed, you’ll be less likely to treat New Testament Greek the way some Christians have: as a special Holy Spirit language not beholden to the normal rules of human written communication.
I’ve been reading up a little on the history of Greek, and at least one scholar with expertise in the field believes that as much as 50% of Κοινή vocabulary is non-native. Just like English, ancient Greek was a big time borrower of other people’s stuff (18–19)—and for some of the same reasons English is. This same scholar believes that two major forms of linguistic influence operated on Greek: 1) “substrate” influence and 2) cultural contact.
When conquerors arrive in a new land, they may not have words for the local flora, fauna, and they won’t necessarily care to invent brand new place names for every city, brook, and hill. So they borrow all those terms from the so-called “substrate” languages, those spoken by conquered or minority people groups. This appears to have happened in Greek. (19)
And in English. There are no “opossums” outside North America; the word was introduced into English during the opening years of the Jamestown settlement in Virginia (1607–1611). Where did these earliest Americans get the word “opossum”? From the local Algonquian tribal people’s word “opassom,” which meant white (“op”) dog (“assom”).
But when you comment on a dead opossum on the side of the road, do you ever intend to communicate anything about Algonquian? Do you have any conception in your mind, at that moment, of white dogs? Never. You just use the word that comes to mind, unselfconsciously and straightforwardly. If anything, “opossum” (or, rather, “‘possum”) may conjure up a few feelings about the redneck South, but not anything about the first peoples of Virginia.
It is wrong, therefore, to look at any of the Greek words in the New Testament and try to push them back to a time before they became what they were for the New Testament writers—let alone to push them forward to what they became some time afterwards! Ἀγωνίζομαι didn’t mean “agonize” to Paul; that’s what the word has become for us. No, ἀγωνίζομαι meant to Paul what it meant in the mouths and pens of his contemporaries: “compete” (athletically) or “fight” (and by metaphorical extension, “struggle”).
Nor did it necessarily mean to Paul whatever it meant before his time. BDAG tells you at the end of each entry whether or not a given word can be found in “DELG,” Pierre Chantraine’s Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque. You can now freely look up any entry in that etymological dictionary, including the one regarding ἀγωνίζομαι. There’s plenty of interesting information there that a creative person willing to brave the French could use for a sermon or Bible study lesson. For example, the root word ἀγών, DELG says,
means the result of an ἀγείν and serves properly to mean “assembly, gathering.” Homer uses it of the assembly of the gods…, [and] the gathering of ships. But the most frequent sense in Homer and later convention is assembly for games, and, by extension, combat.*
So when Jesus says, “Strive (Ἀγωνίζεσθε) to enter through the narrow door” (Lk 13:24), what he really means is that the assembly of the gods will gather people like ships to the gate of the kingdom where they will then compete for entrance…
Don’t laugh. I’ve heard this sort of thing done in real life. I can’t honestly tell you that ἀγωνίζομαι is the result of “substrate influence” (I was not able to find out with certainty), but it’s still an instructive example, I hope, of a word that meant what it meant to Paul, not what it meant to Homer—or to Ari Onassis.
As Moisés Silva said in his introduction to the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis,
Prior meanings, if different from contemporary usage, are irrelevant unless there is reason to believe that the speaker/hearer is aware of them. (1:9)
For a discussion of cultural contact, check back for part two of this blog essay.
For now, I invite you to do three things:
- Run this search for all forms of ἀγωνίζομαι in the NT; and take a quick look at two of the seven contexts in which it is used, Luke 13:24 and 1 Cor. 9:25. I’m going to examine these more closely in a future post, but note how the context in each verse clearly calls up one sense or the other of ἀγωνίζομαι. Note, also, how each context limits the possible meanings of the verb. No ships, no gathering, no white dogs.
- Buy the Brill Greek Reference Collection if you feel you are ready to use etymologies responsibly; or read Calvin and the Biblical Languages if the complexity and difficulty of a post like this has almost dissuaded you from trying to study Greek or Hebrew at all.
- Place both hands on your computer screen (or tablet or phone, if they’ll fit) and, if you haven’t already done so, absorb via Internet osmosis the deep interest in language that I can’t help but have. I’ve got interest to spare, and I hope you will, too. Language really is so cool.
*I confess that my French translating skills may not be up to par; that’s part of my point. Ignorance of what’s really going on in language can be a poisonous temptation to creative persons.
I was somewhat surprised, after I posted about Jesus’ use of the diminutive κυνάριον in his delightful conversation with the Syrophoenician woman (Matt 15:26–27), to have several people make comments like this one:
Was the historical Jesus really speaking Greek with the woman? If not, then many things change about your study and conclusions.
The other language many people think Jesus might have been speaking is Aramaic, a language related to but distinct from Hebrew (and even more distinct from Greek). I answered the commenter this way:
The Aramaic question is totally fair, but it’s one I find never has any firm answer and never gets me anywhere exegetically. When it does get me somewhere (as with some interpretations of “Thou art Peter and upon this rock…”), I tend to think of it as cheating, special pleading. I agree with [the other commenter] that the final form of the (Greek) text is what I have to deal with.
I admit I’m suspicious of the whole question. What effect can it have other than to destabilize the Greek text we in fact have? When will we ever be able to uncover an Aramaic Vorlage (source text) with any certainty—much less one that actually helps us understand the words of Jesus in the New Testament? I’m already too good at evading what Jesus told me to do (“Love your enemies,” “Give to him that asks of you”). I don’t need a temptation to doubt that the New Testament faithfully records Jesus’ words.
But it’s not right for me to simply wish for Jesus to speak Greek because that would make me feel safer from challenge. So I did some study in my journals in Logos—this is precisely the kind of question that is too complicated for commentaries to handle and too narrow for monographs. So to journals I turned. And I was happy to see one of the premier New Testament scholars of the day directly taking up my question: Stanley Porter, in “Did Jesus Ever Teach In Greek?” (Tyndale Bulletin 44, no. 1 : 199–235).
I’m not going to do original research for this post; Porter’s command of the primary sources far exceeds my own. But I’m going to list in detail the major reasons why Porter’s answer to his own titular question was “Yes.” Jesus did most likely, at least on occasion, teach in Greek.
Porter says that “evidence is increasing that [lower Galilee] was the Palestinian area most heavily influenced by Greek language and culture.” Porter cites several books, as well as this interesting article by eminent Roman Catholic Joseph Fitzmyer (who writes, “There are some indications that Palestinian Jews in some areas may have used nothing else but Greek”), but Porter also points to evidence within the text of Scripture. We’ll start there.
- “One indication of the pervasive influence of Greek [is that] in Acts 6:1 (cf. 9:29) a distinction is made between Ἐλληνισταί and Ἑβραῖοι, probably a linguistic distinction made between Jews who spoke mainly Greek and those who spoke mainly Aramaic or who also spoke Aramaic. Before the third century A.D. these terms were virtually exclusively linguistic terms referring to language competence. To distinguish those outside Palestine as Greek speakers would not have been necessary (it would have been assumed), but apparently there was a significant part of the population that spoke mostly Greek even of those resident in Jerusalem.”
- “The seven men appointed in Acts 6:5 to serve the Greek-speaking constituency all have Greek names.”
- “Referred to as the ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ in Matthew 4:15, lower Galilee was a center for trade among the Mediterranean, Sea of Galilee and Decapolis regions. Galilee was completely surrounded by hellenistic culture.”
- “Matthew (Mt. 9:9; Lk. 5:27-28) or Levi (Mk. 2:13-14), the tax collector in Capernaum, would probably have known Greek in order to conduct his duties with the local taxpayers and the tetrarch Herod Antipas’s officials. Many of Jesus’ disciples were fishermen who worked the Sea of Galilee, including Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John. They almost assuredly would have needed to conduct in Greek much of their business of selling fish.”
Porter also points to evidence from outside the Bible.
More impressive than what is known even of Galilee for establishing the probability that Jesus spoke Greek is the epigraphic and literary evidence for the widespread knowledge of Greek throughout Palestine including Galilee…. That Greek was used not only in the Diaspora but also in Palestine, even for composition by Jews of distinctly Jewish literature including much religious literature, indicates that Greek was an important and widely used language by a sizable portion of the Palestinian Jewish population.
Porter gives several examples of literary evidence for the use of Greek:
- “There have been a number of papyrus texts (including a number of fragments) found in Palestine written in Greek by Jews. The papyri of the Judaean Desert include a wide range and variety of artifacts, such as commercial transactions, fiduciary notes, contracts of marriage, and fragments of philosophical and literary texts, among others.”
- “So far as Jewish literature is concerned, there is also significant evidence of composition being done in Greek in Palestine by Jews for Jewish audiences. For example, the book of Daniel, besides using Greek names to refer in 3:5 to three musical instruments (lyre, harp and pipes [NIV]), and being composed in Hebrew and Aramaic, in its deuterocanonical form includes additional sections composed in Greek (Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Children, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon).”
- “Worth noting as well is the fact that, although 2 Esdras and Judith were written in Hebrew, they survive virtually entirely or at least in significant part in Greek versions, quite possibly reflecting Jewish linguistic priorities for preservation of religious texts.”
Porter also gives examples from inscriptions.
The inscriptional evidence points in the same direction…. There are a number of crucial texts that do point to the early and sustained, widespread use of Greek in Palestine and in particular in Galilee.
- “Kee notes that ‘when the synagogue movement began to flourish and to take on architectural forms in the second century C.E., the inscriptions were in Greek, even in Jerusalem.’”
- “The best indicator of the language of the common people is the sepulchral inscriptions, and the evidence certainly indicates a widespread and constant use of Greek in Palestine, including especially Galilee. To put the evidence from funerary inscriptions into its proper context, it is worth noting that, according to the latest statistics on published inscriptions, 68% of all of the ancient Jewish inscriptions from the Mediterranean world are in Greek (70% if one counts as Greek bilingual inscriptions with Greek as one of the languages).”
Porter concludes from the above:
In the light of this accumulated evidence, which is overwhelming when compared to the equivalent Aramaic evidence, it is surprising that many scholars have not given more consideration to the hypothesis that Jesus spoke and even possibly taught in Greek.
So what about Jesus’ own speech as recorded in the New Testament? Does it point in the same direction?
Evidence from the Recorded Speech of Jesus
Porter thinks so. He offers this evidence from within Jesus’ own words in the New Testament:
- “The first and most important example, and the one that sets the tenor for the subsequent treatment of passages, is Jesus’ trial before Pilate (Mk. 15:2-5; Mt. 27:11-14; Lk. 23:2-5; Jn. 18:29- 38; cf. 1 Tim. 6:13). It is highly unlikely that Pilate, the prefect assigned to this remote posting in the Roman empire, would have known any Semitic language. No translator or interpreter is mentioned for the conversation that occurs between Jesus and Pilate, making it unlikely that Latin or Aramaic was used. In fact, the pace of the narrative, in which conversation is held between not only Pilate and Jesus but Pilate and the Jewish leaders, Pilate and the crowd, and the Jewish leaders and the crowd, argues against an interpreter intervening. It is most likely, therefore, that Jesus spoke to Pilate in Greek.”
And that brings us back to the diminutive κυνάριον and Jesus’ conversation with the Syrophoenician woman. Porter actually cites this very passage as a reason to believe that Jesus spoke Greek:
- “The first example of a passage in which Jesus may well have spoken Greek is Mark 7:25-30, when Jesus travels to the area of Tyre. A woman with a daughter possessed by an evil spirit hears of his presence there and begs for Jesus’ help. The woman is called in Mark’s Gospel a Ἑλληνίς, a Συροφοινίκισσα by birth, i.e. a gentile (7:26). Even though the indigenous language of the area was Semitic, this area had long been under hellenistic influence (and antagonistic to the Jews; see Josephus, Ag. Ap. 1.69-72) and evidenced widespread use of Greek, as has been noted above. The description of the woman in the Gospel makes sure that the reader knows that the woman was a Greek-speaker despite her birth. Otherwise the reference is gratuitous. There is no indication of an interpreter being present.”
Did Jesus speak Greek? The New Testament doesn’t directly answer all the questions we like to ask it. But when combined with archaeological evidence, Porter concludes that
the evidence regarding what is known about the use of Greek in ancient Palestine, including the cosmopolitan hellenistic character of lower Galilee, the epigraphic and literary evidence, including coins, papyri, literary writers, inscriptions and funerary texts, but most of all several significant contexts in the Gospels, all points in one direction: whereas it is not always known how much and on which occasions Jesus spoke Greek, it is virtually certain that he used Greek at various times in his itinerant ministry.
We’ve put one of Stanley Porter’s books on linguistics on special sale for the next week. Click here to get Biblical Greek Language and Linguistics: Open Questions in Current Research for $9.99, 64% off.
The newly updated New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis was updated because of the assiduous work of one man, Moisés Silva, whose work I have admired for a long time. Because of that admiration, I was both excited about the update and curious to know what it entailed. So I emailed Dr. Silva with a personal note:
I learned from you (and Barr, et al.) that theological lexicography is bad.* So when I see promos for the new NIDNTTE that say, “This volume…includes in-depth treatments of theologically rich words,”1 my eyebrows are raised. When I hear, “learn how many Greek words can be used for ‘love’ and what is the proper way to distinguish their nuances,”2 my eyes threaten to roll.
But then I see your name as editor and Carson and Wallace as blurbers—and then I remember an exchange I had with you a few years ago when you sent me the ἀγάπη entry from the upcoming NIDNTTE.
I suppose I’m just asking you to allay my skepticism and assure me that the NIDNTTE was revised according to your linguistic principles, which I uphold.
I said “theological lexicography is bad” with my tongue trending toward my cheek, but I should have been more careful. Silva graciously responded,
Thanks for your note, Mark.
It is true that in Biblical Words and Their Meaning I emphasize the pitfalls that TDNT and its users face, but that’s a little different from saying that “theological lexicography is bad.”
Now the original NIDNTT sought to provide a methodological improvement on TDNT by grouping words according to concepts. The revised NIDNTTE goes beyond that. Here let me quote the relevant section from the Introduction:
Unfortunately, the adoption of a new structure by the Theologisches Begriffslexikon, and thereafter by NIDNTT, was not sufficient to transcend the basic problem. Some of the articles did have helpful introductory paragraphs, but these were much too brief and sketchy. In addition, the concepts that served as entries were merely German/English headings, not true semantic fields, while the number of Greek terms discussed under each concept was much too small, and the Greek terms chosen were not always semantically connected but had some other kind of association (e.g., the adverb ὀπίσω, “after,” was discussed under the heading Disciple). Most important, the articles themselves, with rare exceptions, discussed each term (with its cognates) in isolation from the other terms listed under the concept; in fact, different words within the same semantic field were usually treated by different authors. What we find, therefore, is largely a physical, not a semantic, grouping of the words discussed. Moreover, the reality is that most users of so-called theological dictionaries of the Bible are motivated by interest in a particular word at a time, and many of them find the conceptual grouping an inconvenience in locating the discussion of that word.
The present edition reverts to an alphabetical organization, but it preserves—indeed, enhances—the distinctive interest in conceptual groupings by several new features.
(1) In the first place, the body of the work is preceded by a comprehensive List of Concepts. This register parallels the organization of the material in the first edition, but with three significant improvements: (a) it provides a fuller (though still not exhaustive) catalog of concepts; (b) it includes a much larger number of cross-references that lead the user to antonyms and to other terms with looser semantic associations; and (c) it lists, under each concept, a far greater number of Greek terms (plus a brief English gloss), with a link to the appropriate articles in the case of terms that receive separate discussion. It should be noted that this list provides a modest catalog of semantic fields, though with no pretensions that it is a scientific arrangement (such as is attempted in J. P. Louw and E. A. Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, 2 vols., 2nd ed. , a work that contributed greatly to the present dictionary). Moreover, the list can serve, again in a modest way, as a partial English-Greek dictionary of NT terms.
(2) In the body of the work each article lists all cognates found in the NT, followed by an indication of the concept(s) to which the word group belongs. This information is linked to the List of Concepts so that the user can quickly identify the other word groups that either occupy the same semantic field or are otherwise related to it.
(3) To a greater degree than is usual in theological dictionaries, the articles themselves from time to time call attention to semantic relationships between the word group being discussed and other lexical items. For practical reasons these comments are usually brief—and often merely suggestive—but in selected articles substantial discussion of synonyms is provided (see, e.g., ἀγαθός, ἀγαπάω, καινός).
Later in the Introduction I mention the perils of theological lexicography and then say the following:
It can hardly be doubted, however, that TDNT and comparable reference works continue to provide a distinctive and valuable approach to the study of Scripture. The challenge is to minimize its problems. The present edition seeks to do so not only by the attention it pays to broader semantic relations (see above, 2. Structure) but also by the way the material is covered. While avoiding an artificial separation between linguistic and conceptual data, the two are distinguished as carefully as is feasible—e.g., by separating them in the presentation of the data when appropriate, by making a special effort to avoid ambiguity in the discussion of specific instances, and occasionally by alerting the user to invalid inferences.
The question remains, however, whether it is justifiable to produce theological dictionaries in which most of the terms covered are not theological at all. A relatively small percentage of the NT vocabulary consists of terms that have developed a specialized Christian sense (e.g., ἁμαρτία, “sin”; σάρξ, “flesh”; χάρις, “grace”). The same is true of specialized vocabulary in other bodies of literature (e.g., only a fraction of the words used by Plato may be regarded as technical or semitechnical philosophical terms). Specialized terms are highly referential (cf. proper names, whose semantic value is not strongly affected by how they are used); as such, they are able by themselves to convey a considerable amount of semantic information, as in the case of νόμος when this word has the specialized sense “the Mosaic law.” (See further Silva, Biblical Words, 101–8.)
While most of the words in the NT are not of this type, even nontheological terms are often found in theological contexts. The value of a theological dictionary is that it can offer exegetical discussion of such contexts by focusing on one word at a time. The point, then, is not necessarily that the word in question has acquired its own theological significance, but rather that there is a special benefit in assessing how that word is functioning in theological contexts. Good commentaries, of course, include discussions of this type through a running exposition of the passage. A theological dictionary, by bringing together the theological passages where the word is found, is able to provide a richer, more systematic exposition of the lexical data.
In addition, there are many other kinds of revisions in the articles. It is my hope that users will take the time to read through the Introduction carefully, since doing so will be a great help to them in using the material profitably.
Thanks a bunch for your interest.
Silva also clarified later:
Mark, no additional contributors were involved in the work of revision, but the word revision is important here. Even though I did quite a bit of rewriting and even fresh writing, most of the material comes from the original contributors. My responsibility was to bring more consistency to the work, to omit and add material as necessary, to do some selective updating, etc. Because the changes were so numerous and sometimes so substantial, it would have been less than candid to retain the names at the end of each article. However, I should add that the Introduction includes this caveat: “(Although the revising editor assumes responsibility for the final form of this edition, readers should not infer that the views expressed throughout the work necessarily reflect his own opinions.)”
This is what a true Christian scholar does: he serves the church with a careful appropriation of the work of others and a diligent effort to make it available to the church. Whereas I was tempted to take Silva’s critiques of theological lexicography as a reason not to use theological dictionaries at all, he was judicious enough to give a balanced appraisal of the value of that work.
I still believe—as I’m confident Silva does—that there’s no replacement in biblical studies for understanding the way language works, and that any good resource can be misused by someone who doesn’t grasp basic linguistic principles. But with a man like Silva attached to the NIDNTTE, I’m no longer a skeptic as to its value. Buy the NIDNTTE today for $50 off the cover price.
I’m going to give you two sets of overlapping opinions on this issue, one set you should listen to and then my own set.
This post is aiming mostly for the person who has no opinions on the issue, and was only dimly aware that opinions existed. You need to know there’s disagreement, and you need to have a basic grasp of why that is.
An Accredited Opinion
For a fully accredited opinion, let’s turn to trained linguist, long-time Greek teacher, published grammarian, and author of an excellent first-year grammar, the late Rod Decker:
The pronunciation of Greek in its various historical stages is debated by scholars. Several proposals have been made. This textbook provides two choices. One is a form of what is called Erasmian pronunciation. This is usually selected for its pedagogical value, not for historical purposes. Some form of Erasmian pronunciation is fairly standard in academic circles. It is not what Greek sounded like in the Koine of the first century, but it has the pedagogical advantage of distinguishing vowel sounds, many of which have similar pronunciations in other systems. Some people think Modern Greek pronunciation should be used to teach Greek, but that is anachronistic and certainly not accurate, though it may be closer to Koine than Erasmian. Others have proposed what is probably a fairly accurate reconstruction of first-century Koine. One of the better-known proposals is Randall Buth’s “Reconstructed Koine” (for further information on this system, including audio material, see his Biblical Language Center). That would be a better option than the modern system, and your teacher may prefer that you use it. If so, see the alternate pronunciation given in chapter 1 along with whatever supplemental materials your teacher may provide.
For students learning to read Koine Greek for academic or ministry purposes, pronunciation is mostly (but not entirely) a convenience. Personally I use a traditional Erasmian system, freely acknowledging that it is not an accurate representation of exactly what Jesus and Paul sounded like when they spoke Greek. If you were learning to speak Greek (either Koine or modern), then pronunciation would obviously be far more important.
Linguists such as Geoffrey Horrocks have done unbelievably detailed work in diachronic linguistics (tracing the form of a language through time) to figure out what the predominant Κοινή pronunciation rules were in given time periods. But Decker basically argues that pedagogical and ministry purposes trump strict accuracy, and I think his advice is sound. That’s a big reason Erasmian pronunciation has stuck around since Erasmus: it has demonstrated its utility, given the church’s most common purposes for learning Greek. Decker contributed to a (pricey) book of essays called Linguist as Pedagogue which deals in greater detail with the issues involved in teaching Greek.
An Overlapping Opinion
Now my idiosyncratic, loosely accredited opinion. By reading on, you agree to the terms and conditions associated with loose idiosyncratic accreditation.
Other things being equal—and they’re not—I would tend to prefer to pronounce μονογενής the way John did and δικαιοσύνη the way Paul did. I think there may be hidden value for textual criticism in the careful study of pronunciation. Just as, to this day, if I produce a typo it’s likely to be a homonym or malapropism of what I meant to say, I believe that some errors of ancient copyists might be more explicable to the amateur textual critic if he or she knew how that copyist pronounced Κοινή.
I also think, though I register Decker’s misgivings (not quoted), that Κοινή Greek should be spoken—or at least read out loud—more often than it is in American classrooms. I think there are hidden benefits for exegesis that come from knowing in one’s bones that Greek Is Not Math.
But there are natural limits to the confidence we can have in the way we’re pronouncing Κοινή. Imagine being a Swahili-speaking scholar in the year 2790, after the Great Conflagration has burned up most English literature. You will be able to provide some answers to the question, “How did English speakers of the 21st century pronounce their O’s and their R’s?” But you may miss out completely on the vocal fry of the Valley girls, the finely articulated drawl of the Charlestonians, and any other kind of dialectical (or idiolectical!) speech that somehow doesn’t survive in archaeological remains.
I applaud those who are resurrecting conversational Κοινή, but at the moment I end up going with my pragmatic American instinct. Erasmian punctuation makes it easier for English speakers, at least, to learn the language, and there are no native Κοινή speakers around to wince or (as the French are famous for doing) look down their noses at our mistakes. If teaching Κοινή Greek as a spoken language takes off, I’ll be glad to amend my opinion. But for now I’ll stick with the tried, even if we know it’s not true.
Plenty of Bible interpreters treat New Testament Greek the way my three-year-old girl treats my one-year-old boy: with well-meaning, blundering over-attention that ends up making him cry. Evangelical scholar and linguist Moisés Silva has a hilarious little piece in Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation in which he shows what this over-attention looks like by applying it to English (you just have to read it).
People, Silva says, find a lot of meaning that isn’t there in vocabulary, syntax, and verb tenses. They treat Greek like it’s a math problem: they assume that if they plug in the data and turn the crank they’ll get a definitive answer to whatever interpretive question they’re asking. I’ve heard numerous such exegetes say that Greek is the most exact, unambiguous language ever invented.
Μὴ γένοιτο. I do believe that the Bible gives definitive answers to human questions, but I don’t believe that Greek is math. Koine Greek, like Hebrew and English and Swahili and Old Norse, had to be used by regular people (Koine means “common”) who didn’t have vast education and couldn’t hold on to all the fine shades of meaning often supposed to be hidden in Greek. I’m not saying there are no subtle nuances in the Greek New Testament, only that the path to finding them doesn’t end with parsing and case uses.
Here’s my point: you need exegetical tools that will help you remember that you’re dealing with a human language and therefore achieve the level of interpretive certainty the text actually justifies. We cannot forget that good interpretation weighs various factors; it doesn’t just count them.
Let me make a recommendation if you’re learning Greek: your ears are two of your most valuable tools in language acquisition, and they will help you—on an almost subconscious level—to remember that Greek is a genuine human language and not math. Logos includes easy access to Greek audio pronunciations in several key places where you’ll be working as you learn.
And another recommendation: make general study of linguistics, and study of Greek linguistics in particular, part of your Greek study from the beginning. Some resources I and the other Logos Pros recommend:
- I think it’s especially important to learn Greek from someone who knows linguistics in general: David Alan Black’s Learning to Read New Testament Greek fits the bill.
- Faithlife’s own Learn to Use Biblical Greek and Hebrew is one of our most popular products. This course teaches you principles of biblical Hebrew and Greek while teaching you how to use Logos Bible Software.
- Faithlife scholar-in-residence Steve Runge has produced a Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament that you should also check out.
One of the things that really fascinated and even awed me after I asked for comments from readers of this Greek email list is that so many of you have taught yourselves Greek.
Now, my experience is not universal, but I judge learning languages on one’s own to be, let’s say, uncommon. When I tell people that I speak Spanish tolerably well, every one of them without exception says, “I took Spanish in high school, but I don’t remember a word of it.” (High school Spanish teachers, could you not at least get hola into their heads?)
I’m in print arguing that the real motivation most people have for learning Spanish, French, German, or Chinese is what sociologists who have studied second-language acquisition call “money.” But knowing Κοινή Greek is unlikely to bring fortune, as I know all too well.
So why do people who are done with school study a language whose native speakers are all so dead? What makes people turn off the TV—a choice that probably ought to be investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee—and instead pull out a Κοινή Greek grammar book? Why do people learn Greek?
Because God spoke it.
Now I know it’s not quite that simple; I’m an ICBI kind of Christian familiar with the necessary theological distinctions. I know that God didn’t dictate the Bible to scribes but used the personalities and experiences and even the literary proclivities of the Scripture writers. I know that at least in books like Deuteronomy he used an editorial process (Moses didn’t write about his own death and burial). I also know that, as the KJV translators said,
The very meanest translation of the Bible in English, set forth by men of our profession, … containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God.
Christians do not view the Bible the way Muslims view the Qur’an—as valid only in its original form. English (and Spanish, and French, and German, and Chinese) versions carry God’s authority.
But people who want to get closer to God, to understand him better, sometimes feel an impulse that nothing but the study of Greek (and Hebrew) can fulfill. They are frustrated when the precise import of a particular turn of phrase in Peter’s second epistle eludes them—because what God says matters to them. And they don’t want to teach the Bible to others without the particular kind of confidence that only comes from parsing the participles for yourself.
Luther took Greek and Hebrew so seriously that he said, “We will not long preserve the gospel without the languages”! In a letter “To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools,” Luther wrote,
The languages are the sheath in which this sword of the Spirit [Eph. 6:17] is contained; they are the casket in which this jewel is enshrined; they are the vessel in which this wine is held; they are the larder in which this food is stored; and, as the gospel itself points out [Matt. 14:20], they are the baskets in which are kept these loaves and fishes and fragments. If through our neglect we let the languages go (which God forbid!), we shall not only lose the gospel, but the time will come when we shall be unable either to speak or write a correct Latin or German.
Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 45 : The Christian in Society II, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 360.
I’m wary of claiming too much for Greek and Hebrew, and so is Luther:
A simple preacher (it is true) has so many clear passages and texts available through translations that he can know and teach Christ, lead a holy life, and preach to others. (Ibid., 363)
But Luther’s 500-year-old opinion is still, it seems to me, valid today:
But when it comes to interpreting Scripture, and working with it on your own, and disputing with those who cite it incorrectly…; that cannot be done without languages. (Ibid., 363)
I care about linguistic minutiae in the Greek New Testament, but not as ends in themselves. Sometimes it helps to remind ourselves what our goal is in our work.
New Greek students, remind yourself why you’re slogging.
Experienced exegetes, remind yourself why you slogged.
If you’re studying on your own and want some help, Learn to Use Biblical Greek and Hebrew with Logos 6 is now available.
I have a friend who began college as a religion major because he didn’t know what else to do, but who is now pursuing a PhD in English. He wasn’t much of a reader in high school, kind of a slacker, really—until one day in a freshman Old Testament class he sat transfixed as his professor performed a literary analysis of a biblical text. It was an epiphanic moment: “That’s what I want to do,” he told himself. He had found his true calling, and he now applies his literary skills to everything from the Bible to Kurt Vonnegut. There are massive differences between those two anthologies of literature, of course, but an important similarity: both are in fact literature. Both use literary devices; people can hardly write without them, whether they’re divinely inspired or not.
Leland Ryken’s book Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible contains foundational words of wisdom for anyone who wants to study Scripture faithfully and carefully using the insights of literary study.
Ryken starts, however, with a complaint:
Traditional biblical scholarship has combined theological and historical approaches. It has been preoccupied with questions of authorship and origin. It has tended to break a biblical text into fragments and has been alarmingly indifferent to preserving the unity of passages. Theological approaches have been preoccupied with reducing the Bible to abstractions and propositions. Historians have been preoccupied with questions of the accuracy of the Bible’s references to events. (20)
Ryken doesn’t deny that questions of theology and history are important when it comes to Bible study, but he proposes that they have tended to obscure a “literary” approach to Bible interpretation, one which recognizes the meaning embedded in literary forms.
A literary approach to the Bible….is concerned not only with what is said but also with how something is expressed. In fact, a literary approach refuses to separate meaning from form (broadly defined). After all, everything that is communicated in a piece of writing is communicated through the form in which it is embodied. (20)
Ryken comes at the study of the Bible from his own field of literature. He is a sensitive reader who discerns literary devices such as metaphor, metonymy, understatement, and zeugma. There is no substitute for reading Ryken’s book, but this very day in your Bible reading you can use the wisdom in this paragraph:
Literature has its own forms and techniques, and its own way of expressing truth. Stories, for example, tell us about life through setting, character, and action. We cannot get the message of a story without first interacting with the settings, characters, and events that make up a story. Poems communicate their meaning through images and figures of speech. As a result, it is impossible to determine the meaning of a poem without analyzing figurative language. A literary approach is thus characterized by a focus on the form and characteristics of a passage as the key to what it says. (20–21)
One of the strengths of Ryken’s book is that he performs literary analysis of Bible texts “live,” as it were, and one of the first passages Ryken tackles in Words of Delight is the story from Judges of the Israelite hero Ehud and the oppressive Moabite king Eglon. Ryken’s literarily trained eye notices details many other eyes won’t. And isn’t that what we’re interested in as Bible readers? We want every scrap of meaning God has revealed, because even in a story about a fat king being assassinated, God is telling His people something about himself.
If literary analysis is not in your toolbelt, or if you need strategies and examples to help you teach it to others, then I encourage you to buy and read Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible.
Here’s a great question for you Greek students to ask, and a helpful (I hope) answer for you Greek teachers to give. J.H. writes:
I am a second-year student in [a theological seminary] in Nigeria. I am presently taking Greek Grammar 1. My challenge after each lecture is forgetting the endings I learned previously as a result of the ones learnt anew. I would be grateful if you could provide some tips to enable me to keep up.
I’ll give three answers: theological, a practical, and a technical.
1. Theological Answer: Love and Self-Control
Love for something will motivate you in all your learning—love for pleasing your teacher, for besting your classroom nemesis, for impressing a potential mate, for good marks. You should be motivated by the highest and best loves: love of God and neighbor. (See the earth-shakingly good C.S. Lewis essay “The Weight of Glory,” which probes the issue of motivation better than anything I’ve ever read outside Scripture.) Pray for Spirit-filled love for God’s Word and love for the people you’ll serve with your education (Galatians 5:22). Pray also for Spirit-filled self-control in times of drudgery (Galatians 5:23). Interestingly, even the secular language-learning textbook I’ll reference in point 3 spent significant time discussing the “affective domain,” motivations for language learning. Christians, ideally, ought to have the best motivations.
2. Practical Answer: Language and Life
Pedagogical experts have observed that people have different learning styles. But everybody on earth initially learns language—and was designed by God to learn language—the same way: by listening to it being used in daily speech. No two-year-olds have ever successfully been made to learn language via parsing charts. The written form of an established language like English or Koine Greek is going to be somewhat different from the spoken form (we write things we would never say, and vice versa), but don’t let the death of Koine as a spoken language sever the link between Greek and real life. In other words, try to read real-life Koine Greek as soon as possible, to see how it gets used in the New Testament and other Koine literature, even if you have to look up every single word. It will help if you are reading something like the Apostolic Fathers in Greek, which comes with English translation.
3. Technical Answer: How to Learn a Second Language
I am by no means an expert in the process of learning languages, but having acquired a few of them at varying levels of proficiency over the years, I have some reflections. I also did some digging in one of the most recent textbooks on SLA (Second Language Acquisition)—the rigorous Teacher’s Handbook, Contextualized Language Instruction. I could go into a lot of detail, but the upshot dovetails quite nicely with my previous paragraph: language acquisition is “socio-cultural,” requiring a range of competencies that go far beyond memorization of paradigms and declensions. Here’s a line from the book that shows a little of what I mean: “Neither the knowledge of [a grammar] rule, nor the use of the rule when consciously constructing sentences, directly contributes to [language] acquisition—only the repeated use of the resulting utterances serves as the input from which linguistic competence is implicitly abstracted.” (21) Koine Greek is no longer a spoken language (though there are some very interesting attempts to resurrect it as one). But if you can work with a study group, pronounce words out loud, and even try to form sentences of your own, research shows that you’ll come out ahead.