When an excited student of the Bible decides to go to college because they want to learn more about the Bible (both NT and OT), they most likely have many wildly unfulfillable expectations. But that’s not what they think. Some students have already picked their majors, others, not so much. In most colleges (at least in my time), a person needed to have some many credits in different dispersions of academic focus: physical education, language, mathematics and science, philosophy or religion, culture and sociology, among others. Early on, a person may have only one or two open slots to fill, and so they decide to take a class in Koine Greek, the language of the NT. Secretly, they think they might even get a minor or even major in it. How cool would it be to be able to read the NT in Greek! They may have had Spanish in high school, and depending on how they were taught, could probably converse with co-students who spoke Spanish as their native language. They are convinced, of course, that the college that they are attending is teaching the latest and greatest, the best method, after all, with Rosetta Stone and other software language learning is now soooo easy.
When they get to their first class, they are very excited. They learn the alphabet is different. They don’t hear their teacher say any Greek words other than χαῖρε. They are told that Koine Greek, the language of the Bible is a dead language. No one speaks it. They are also told that Modern Greek is very different from ancient Greek; It is by a factor of 70%, a different language, and would be little help to them in understanding any biblical Greek. Their professor, who has a passion for Greek, is filled with enthusiasm, telling the students that learning ancient Greek, a dead language is not quite the same as learning a modern spoken language. “We will be talking about Greek in English, for the most part, and after several years, you may be able to read a couple of verses, translating them into English, word by word. I know it is a lot of hard work, but believe me, the reward is far beyond all comprehension. You are reading the very words which were penned by Paul, Peter, James, Mark, and the other writers of the New Testament.”
The alphabet lesson went well. The student has been given a one-to-one corresponding sound for letter phonology mapping. Greek is much easier than English, when it comes to spelling. His teacher tells him that the pronunciation he uses is used by all of academia and was codified by Erasmus, almost 800 years ago. They are also told that modern Greek is very different than Koine Greek, and is impossible to be used when reading NT Greek). Modern Greeks use a different NT than we are using (modern evangelical or secular scholars who use the critical apparatus Nestle-Aland / United Bible Societies versions of the NT.)
The second lesson, the student being primed….”I’ve learned every letter and its sound.” is about a chart that is written on the board. “Before we can start reading any Greek, we need to learn many different nouns. Greek has about 23 different ways to form nouns, but don’t fret, this is easy. Almost all nouns are either 1st or 2nd declension. These nouns are easy and predictable. The word ἔστιν means “is.” A βίβλος ἐστὶν A BOOK. What am I holding? Yes, a BIBLOS. Very good, my student.
As the quarter progresses, the student learns that the only way he can understand an ancient language is to translate every word into English. This happens word by word. “You have to be especially careful and diligent and pay attention to different spellings,” says the teacher. “We want to exegete the NT. Every word has a different form and thus a different meaning. When you learn forms, you learn meanings. You need to memorize the forms of βίβλος.” The teacher reads the Greek words with a consistent sound rendition, but is totally oblivious that he is not accenting the words as the word is written. (The student is unaware of this.)
As time passes, the student is repeatedly made aware of the fact that Greek is a DEAD language. No one speaks it. You cannot learn a DEAD Language like a modern spoken language. You must learn the paradigms and declensions. “You have to be able to spit back out the Nominative, Genitive, Dative, Accusative and Vocative forms of any word, both in the singular and plural. When you read a sentence, search it for the main verb, this may take a little bit of time, but remember the forms. You can recognize these words. I have confidence in you.”
When a student has master these forms, and can find the main verb in a sentence or clause, and he/she has gained the teacher’s approval by getting them correct on a test. the student is empowered. “I’m getting a hang of this.” They begin to think. “If I can just get my declensions (for nouns and adjectives) and paradigms down (for particlples and verbs), I can learn to READ the NT.”
The next five classes are classes where the teacher introduces many new charts. Its only one chart a week. Then he gets to the imperfect, 2nd aorist and 1st aorist. They are taught the Imperfect first, even though it occurs 80% less than aorist forms. At the seventh week, the enthusiastic student starts becoming overwhelmed by the number of charts he is expected to have under his/her control. It’s now up to 13 charts of 8-9 items each. That means that the student now has to have immediate recall of about 117 forms. In another five weeks, the student has been given another 12 charts to memorize. Now there are about 200 charts to memorize. He/she is told that “If you have these charts memorized, you will be able to identify them when you read any given word, and learn to associate that word with one of those patterns. It takes a while, but your mind will learn to associate these forms with the meaning the forms encompass.”
The student, formerly enthusiastic, now begins to think that ancient Greek is way more difficult a task than he/she first thought. “If I have to make 15 decisions about every word, how will I ever be able to read even a couple of words? “ they ask themselves. By the 20th week, and another 15 charts, they are told, “You already know these forms. You just have to interpolate them against the other forms you already know.” At this point, the enthusiastic achiever begins to think and doubt that they could ever learn to read with any degree of fluency, “It’s a dead language, after all. What was I thinking?”
At 25 weeks out, they make a decision, “This reading the NT in its original Greek is only for scholars who have years to prepare for this. I have to learn a skill and be able to provide income for me and my family. If I get some time, I really want to be able to learn how to read the GNT in Greek, but that is something that would take me 5-10 years to do. It’s going on hold, until I have more time.” Many of these students never come back. Many just settle for English translations. ‘MY PROF SAID IT WAS DIFFICULT. I WAS NEVER MEANT TO BE ABLE TO READ THE GREEK NT. I’M STICKING WITH TRANSLATIONS. THERE IS NO SHAME IN THAT, TRANSLATIONS ARE NOW SO MUCH BETTER THAN BEFORE. AND IF I REALLY WONDER WHAT THE GREEK REALLY MEANS, I CAN CONSULT AN INTERLINEAR.”
Do teachers of New Testament Greek really have to settle for this somewhat typical scenario? Is this scenario stilted to the left and misrepresents teaching in colleges and universities?