Four Reasons to Master Koine (and to Leave Attic Alone)

Learning to read Koine (or biblical) Greek is essential, if you are training for church ministry, an academically focused career in biblical studies, or simply as a means to reading the New Testament in its original language.

Even while I was in seminary, however, there was pressure to learn to read Attic, or Classical Greek. I was inspired to expand my narrow horizons beyond the NT, to begin reading Homer, Sophocles, and Plato. Indeed, even on this blog, we recently posted an article encouraging people to read widely throughout the corpus of Classical Greek literature.

Certainly there are benefits to expanding one’s knowledge of Greek outside of the NT, including an expanded vocabulary in Greek, a better grasp of syntax in general, and a familiarization with common idioms and rare turns of phrase.

But there is also a case to be made for restricting oneself, intentionally, to the limited corpus of Koine.

Four reasons to master Koine

Here are four reasons why you should consider going deeper into biblical Greek:

Grammar is king

As of this posting, there are nearly 100 Greek grammars available in Logos 7.1 Imagine if you were able to spend a few minutes a day bolstering your grasp of the syntax of the NT (and other Koine texts). How much might that improve your reading ability and the quality of your exegesis, and therefore your preaching and research? Could you even exhaust 100 grammars in your lifetime? (Whether you want to is another question.)

My favorite and most challenging class in seminary was an exegesis course covering Romans 1–8. Every Thursday, five of us nerdy language majors were required to show up to class with an entire chapter of Romans fully translated (in our heads!), as well as intimate knowledge of every reference to every verse in that chapter as found in Dan Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. The prof would then call on us at random to sight-translate an entire verse out loud, followed by identification of every nuance of syntax that Wallace had referenced in that verse (and if we misidentified any instance of indirect discourse, he would fling his ID card on the desk in front of us; let those who have ears to hear…).

My Greek NT is still marked up on every line in Romans with tiny number symbols above the text, indicating the page numbers in Wallace where certain words or phrases were used as an example to demonstrate a point of syntax (see header image). I learned to read Romans fluently through that class, and began the long road of mastery of the syntax.

You can do the same thing yourself with a little bit of discipline, and a plan. Choose a book of the NT. Start with Wallace or Siebenthal’s Griechische Grammatik zum Neuen Testament, using the index in the back as your guide. Don’t shy away from marking up your physical copy (the next GNT edition is always just on the horizon), or take advantage of the notation tools in Logos. Repeat, this time with a different NT book and another grammar, such as BDF. Repeat, and smile; you’re mastering Greek!

[callout img=”https://files.logoscdn.com/v1/files/7159948/content.jpg?signature=j5H8_dG2mFUwOiwZ0T9inj93M1A” text=”Start your mastery of Greek (and Hebrew, Syriac, and Latin) with” link_url=”https://www.logos.com/product/51515/grammars-collection?utm_source=academic.logos.com&utm_medium=blog&utm_content=2018-02-23-four-reasons-to-master-koine-greek&utm_campaign=promo-logospro2018″ link_text=”the 94-volume Grammars Collection”]

The nuance of semantics

How many glosses of NT words do you know? How many hapax legomenon have you memorized, not just with one gloss, but the two or more others found in BDAG or LSJ? While reading outside of the NT will help expand your Greek vocabulary, ask yourself which Greek is appurtenant. Koine, Classical, Medieval, Modern?

I suggest focusing on one, specifically Koine, with the lifelong goal of truly mastering this particular type of Greek as thoroughly as possible. Stop relying on translations to make lexical and syntactical decisions for you (but don’t discount them as a guide). Professional Bible translators always have to make tough choices about which gloss out of many to put down as the “standard” text for each edition they work on, and even those can change with later editions. Don’t rely on other people’s color choices; expand your own palette and brighten the canvas in a new way.

A related benefit of a singular focus on the semantics of Koine is an increased facility with linguistics. You also end up gaining better access to an entire other corpus of texts and vocabulary outside the NT, namely, the Greek translation of the OT Scriptures.

The LXX and more

This may be one of the strongest arguments for zeroing your efforts in on Koine Greek. You will have immediate access to an immense body of Koine Greek texts that are directly pertinent to your study of the NT—the Septuagint.

Some have even made the case that knowing the OT in Greek is of greater value to scholars, pastors, and exegetes of all varieties than the Hebrew. Whether you agree or not, it is worth considering how often the citations of the OT by NT authors were pulled seemingly verbatim (or nearly) from the Greek Scriptures.

Granted, you will need to grab another lexicon or more in order to tackle the LXX. And you may want to pick up some grammars specific to the syntax found in the LXX, such as Conybear’s Grammar of Septuagint Greek.

I suggest joining an LXX reading group, such as the popular Greek Isaiah in a Year. No small feat, to be sure, but imagine where you will be come January 2019, when your Koine vocabulary is vastly improved, your grasp of Paul’s liberal use of Isaiah in Romans is sharper, and you’ve gained new friends united by a love for God’s word.2

Not only that, but mastering Koine grants you access to the Church Fathers, Philo, and Josephus. So you may not be able to fly through Homer, but you’ll have an open door to contemporaries of the apostles.

Enrich your theology

Gaining the facility to read quickly and naturally through both the OT and NT in Greek means you can spend less time on parsing and looking up words, and more time in deep thinking about the meaning of the text. Or to put it another way, you can do more theology.

The greatest theologians in the history of the church were also masters of the biblical text in the original Greek. There was none of this modern bifurcation of “biblical scholars” and “theologians,” as if those two categories could be separated. Aquinas was a genius whose logical approach to the teachings of Scripture marked the advent of what we know as systematic theology. He was an undeniable master of Greek. Luther is known for the sheer brilliance of his theological musings, but also for his insistence on the necessity of mastering the original languages, both Greek and Hebrew.

If you are spending more and more time reading into the the vast corpus of Ancient Greek literature outside of the NT, there is no doubt that you will be enriched personally and intellectually. But I doubt that you will find the spiritual benefit that is readily available in the Greek Scriptures, for these other writings are not ζῶν, ἐνεργὴς, τομώτερος ὑπὲρ πᾶσαν μάχαιραν δίστομον καὶ διϊκνούμενος ἄχρι μερισμοῦ ψυχῆς καὶ πνεύματος.

Hebrews 4:12 in Sinaiticus (א)

The bottom line

Here are two takeaways I want you to consider:

First, think hard about your personal “economies of reading.” In other words, plan out your reading and see if you actually have time to add Attic Greek to your study of and reading in Koine texts. If you do have a time surplus in your schedule, consider utilizing that time for further pursuit of true expertise in Koine. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Engage in the (oftentimes) tedious work of reading through a grammar.
  • Challenging yourself with lexicon quizzes (flip to a random page and try to identify the first word you see using 2–3 glosses).
  • Read up on the latest discussion of verbal aspect.
  • Watch videos on discourse analysis by Steve Runge.

Above all, be creative and get accountability. Remember that this type of work is best done with others.

Second, ponder deeply the benefit of concentrated focus on Koine Greek for other people. The strength of the argument above is not primarily in the personal benefit you will derive as an individual pastor, scholar, or student. Rather, your commitment to determined, disciplined prioritization of Koine will reap spiritual fruit for your family, your church, your students, and even non-believers.

Think about that. Those precious minutes of spent laboring over the nuances of grammar, learning and applying discourse analysis, comprehending verbal aspect, and memorizing glosses will serve other people. Quoting Euripides is cool, but Paul is sublime.

Finally, for those of you still not convinced by my plea for Koine, consider a closing analogy. Imagine that you have devoted your life to the mastery of Bach on the piano. Would you then carve out time each day to also practicing violin? To put it bluntly: do you wish to be a dilettante, or an expert?3

What other reasons can you think of to focus on Koine? Or what compelling reasons do you have for mastering Attic as well? Comments welcome below, as always.


Logos 7 is packed with resources, tools, and guides to help you maximize your study of Koine, but we highly recommend that you consider adding the following resources and collections to bolster your Greek tool set:

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  1. 89 to be exact.
  2. Another idea is to attempt to read the Greek Psalter in a year. That’s just one Psalm every other day.
  3. This very question was asked of me by my doctoral supervisor when, at the beginning of my PhD, I expressed my eager desire to learn Aramaic, Ethiopic, Qumran Hebrew, and Latin, in addition to the requisite German and French. He conceded on Latin, but only because I needed it for my research.
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Written by
Tavis Bohlinger

Dr. Tavis Bohlinger is Editor-in-Chief of the Logos Academic Blog and Creative Director at Reformation Heritage Books. He holds a PhD from Durham University and writes across multiple genres, including academia, poetry, and screenwriting. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three children.

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9 comments
  • Great article! Every once in a while, I need to go back to something like Robertson’s “A Minister and his Greek New Testament” for encouragement. This article bumped up my Koine Greek ‘excitement’ a few notches!

    Thanks!

    • Thanks, Dwayne! My own enthusiasm for Koine was increased just writing this one up. There’s really nothing better than beginning the day by reading a chapter of the GNT.

  • Agreed. I would develop one point further. The indispensable key to a profound mastery of the GNT is a detailed knowledge of the LXX (in the original). But the LXX is large enough and difficult enough that it is a lifetime’s work, with focused study. Thus, if a profound mastery of the GNT is one’s goal, one’s life is easily swallowed up in total immersion within the Greek Bible. That precludes spending much time elsewhere.

    Bill+

  • “Mastering Koine grants you access to the Church Fathers, Philo, and Josephus.” No offense intended, but that seems very naive. There is simply so much, both grammatically and lexically, in Philo and Josephus alone that does not occur in the NT. And you definitely forget most of the church fathers too, many of whom were writing in Atticizing Greek. I get your sentiment: better to master the “central” text than to sample everything, and the challenge of Attic can certainly be daunting. But I have a hard time believing that reading through 100 grammars would make you a better reader of the New Testament than reading through 100 books of non-NT Greek.

  • I understand the point you are arguing. But, reading only one period of a language leaves one with a very limited understanding of the language. I would suggest that reading all periods of Greek literature (GNT – Koine period; LXX – Hellenistic period; Plato – Classical period) enhances one’s understanding of the language of the GNT. Unless a person has learned to read all periods of the language, their knowledge of the GNT is so limited that it could be dangerously wrong and cannot be relied upon.

    To read and interpret the GNT, one must know the language — and to know the language requires reading the various periods of the language. To do anything less is to have a partial ability in reading Greek.

    There are NT scholars who have attempted to argue points about the GNT that are wrong — if they had a better understanding of the language such mistakes likely would not have been made. Seminaries are breeding ground for such errors — because the students often only learn one book in the language, then purport to claim to be a scholar in the Greek language. It simply isn’t true.

  • Can I just call out Masterntgreek.com as a direct application of this. The programme covers the whole GNT (including mastery of all the vocabulary) reading through Wallace together with accountability groups and monthly calls.

    Here’s a testimonial – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pAxJWa24tU

    It takes about three years to complete, with a solid mentor, a group of people and all the help you need.

    Fred

  • I think there are several elements to this question. As scholars of the ancient world, I think our question and ultimate goal with language always has to be, “Can I put myself in the shoes (or sandals) of an ancient Christian in Ephesus or of an ancient Jewish believer in Jesus in Palestine?”

    In other words, when reading the New Testament, I want to know linguistically what its original readers/hearers knew.

    In that sense, expertise in Koine is obviously the first priority. On the other hand, even the Rabbis several centuries later in the Amoraic period seem to have been familiar with Greek literature such as Homer. Moreover, even though authors like Josephus, Philo, and the church fathers wrote in Koine, they were probably familiar with works of Classical Greek. That means that, in order to have a good grasp of the register of language during the Koine period(!) one should understand at least a bit of Classical as well.

    I would agree that Koine greek should be prioritized for sure. I actually run a website to help people learn Koine Greek: https://www.KoineGreek.com

    However, many Koine Greek speakers of the first century were probably also familiar with classical texts. That is worth considering in how we study.

    I would note that truly mastering Koine—and not just the Greek of the New Testament, which tends to be more simple than some other Koine Greek literature—would actually result in a fairly robust understanding of the language that would not make it hard to transfer to classical slowly. However, I must stress that Koine Greek and New Testament Greek are not the same thing.

Written by Tavis Bohlinger
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