The perceived authority, role and difficulty of Greek

Anything related to Biblical Greek that doesn't fit into the other forums.

The perceived authority, role and difficulty of Greek

Postby Stephen Hughes » March 3rd, 2014, 8:11 am

This is in the "other" pile of the forum for good reason. I'm interested in the role that Greek plays in the dynamic of the local congregation. It is a bit of a subjective question to "discuss" (share observations and opinions on).

I have noticed two quite strong feelings exhibited towards Greek.

On the one hand there is a great respect for Greek and especially for having an understanding of Greek. From time to time in sermons, there is a reference to words in Greek, which supposedly give a better understanding to the Bible verses that are under the microscope in that sermon. As a visible "representative" / "face" to that authority of the scriptures in Greek is a senior Bible college student preparing for ministry who is known for his knowledge of Greek, and he is mentioned when Greek is invoked, "In the Greek the words is τοῦτο καὶ τοιοῦτο, as xxxx would know, the Greek means ..." (and he sheepishly nodds).
  • I feel that quoting a Greek word in the middle of a sermon in English to aid understanding of the text is a little odd, actually. One of my best friends is a Brazilian living in China. When we converse in Chinese, he might throw in an English word when I can't understand his Chinese, or me a Spanish one (I don't know Portuguese). That is because we are trying to aid communciation. That is different to the case where a discussion among people who know Greek get a better understanding of what the text says.
  • The words that are often alluded to in Greek are not ones that many people would know in Greek anyway - like ἐμβριμάομαι which really means "snort like a horse"** [I don't believe that that is the meaning here]

The second feeling, is that it is difficult. It should be avoided. Candidates for ministry choose their course structure so as to avoid or minimise the amount of Greek that they will have to deal with, and preferably to avoid it entirely. Those who do do it, store up so many negative experiences that they actually come to resent Greek and the process by which it is learnt. How can people decide before hand that they will be unsuccessful?
  • I think that to get one's Greek up to a level where it is truly useable level is difficult. The New Testament is recorded in a language as it was used. There are no graded reader of Koine Greek - a learner has to jump in the deep end from the beginning
  • Having that unsimplified literary goal is a far cry from learning travel language skills and that is daunting
  • But still, a beginner's course has a limited (too limited to be practical) list of words, a simplified grammar (the easiest parts of it) that have to be learnt, and some very simple passages to decode, and not a very high level of utility after taking the course either.

Has anyone else noticed this or other attitudes towards Greek?
Stephen Hughes
"If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself."
(Attributed to Albert Einstein)
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Re: Perceived authority, role and difficulty Greek

Postby cwconrad » March 3rd, 2014, 8:34 am

Stephen, you are opening not one but two cans of worms at the same time. Both of them have had some airing over the years in this electronic community; perhaps they should be split, if this/these discussion(s) are to proceed:

(1) What do we think -- how do we feel -- about preachers elucidating a Greek word or phrase in a sermon?

For my part, I almost always cringe when I experience it, and all the more if I'm challenged to concur with what the preacher claims. I think it's a form of grandstanding that tells the congregation to admire the preacher rather than to contemplate the text. That doesn't have to be the case, but it usually is, in my experience. I remember George Buttrick doing it successfully at Harvard Memorial Church, but Buttrick was perhaps the single most powerful preacher I've ever heard.

(2) What does a study of Greek and some knowledge of the Greek Biblical text do to equip a pastor to teach and to preach in a congregation?

That's an immense question, and I suspect that there's not one single answer that is universally applicable. I honestly think that there are many fine pastors who have no Greek at all or no useful grasp of either the language or of the Greek Biblical text. Perhaps for those who cannot achieve sufficient mastery of language and Greek text to assist their grasp of what the Biblical text is saying, it is enough to have a sense of the complexity of the texts and translations through which the content of the Bible gets communicated to believers: it does make a difference, I think, to take seriously the fact that a believer confronts the Biblical text through the efforts of translators.
Carl W. Conrad
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ὁ ἀναγινώσκων νοείτω
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Re: The perceived authority, role and difficulty of Greek

Postby Stephen Hughes » March 3rd, 2014, 9:25 am

I put these things together to look for a place for Greek in the church now. I'm sure others would have discussed these things - I'd be surprised if they hadn't.

Using Greek as power and authority in the congregation will have a detrimental effect in our times I think. The academic gowns and dog-collars have in many places been replaced by a less formal attire. The role of minister / priest as the store of knowledge is all but gone, and Greek, I'm afraid to say was part of that.

I think that people who value Greek need to re-invent its relevence to the modern church. The age of secrets went out with television and the age of expert knowledge went out with the internet. What is left for Greek now that it can no longer fit within the rhetoric of expert knowledge? As it was mentioned by David today non-experts have access to expert knowledge (if they could be bothered to access it anyway).

What was the role and place of Greek in the Church before the techological revolution, what is it now, and what an achievable goal for it to be in the Church as it moves forward from now?

cwconrad wrote:For my part, I almost always cringe when I experience it, and all the more if I'm challenged to concur with what the preacher claims.

You as a professor of classics wouldn't be able to keep what you (were presumed to) know secret. I have no such impediment to avoiding that role in the Church. What is interesting is that there is a need for that role - someone other than the homilist / preacher to confirm the Greek (is it confirming the authority or supplying the role of the chorus in Greek drama that gives a comment from the audience's or congregations point of view). Greek is definitely used with some relationship to power - and that is more clear to us now that we live in a knowledge economy.

Not being in the role where the little Greek I know would be involved in the power structure has been a good thing, I think.
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Re: The perceived authority, role and difficulty of Greek

Postby David Lim » March 3rd, 2014, 10:09 am

Stephen Hughes wrote:Not being in the role where the little Greek I know would be involved in the power structure has been a good thing, I think.

That's what we all hope for, I think, but unfortunately I suspect that things are not much different now than it was before, because it's easy to imagine that we know something just by being able to read about it, regardless of the veracity of the source. And the internet is a cacophony of choruses cheering everyone on. ;)
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Re: The perceived authority, role and difficulty of Greek

Postby Stephen Hughes » March 3rd, 2014, 10:18 am

It is very difficult to teach skill over the internet by just reading about something.

Imagine I could read widely and know as much about what happens in open-heart surgery as a surgeon does, but would you let me operate on you?
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Re: The perceived authority, role and difficulty of Greek

Postby ed krentz » March 4th, 2014, 12:10 pm

I agree with Carl Conrad on this. Usually there ks an over generalization and a lack of true insight into how language operates. Meaning occurs in sentences, not in individual words. It is usually individual words that get a comment

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Re: Perceived authority, role and difficulty Greek

Postby Jonathan Robie » March 4th, 2014, 1:52 pm

cwconrad wrote:(1) What do we think -- how do we feel -- about preachers elucidating a Greek word or phrase in a sermon?

For my part, I almost always cringe when I experience it, and all the more if I'm challenged to concur with what the preacher claims. I think it's a form of grandstanding that tells the congregation to admire the preacher rather than to contemplate the text. That doesn't have to be the case, but it usually is, in my experience. I remember George Buttrick doing it successfully at Harvard Memorial Church, but Buttrick was perhaps the single most powerful preacher I've ever heard.


I agree - with rare exceptions. Ed Hobbs managed to get away with discussing the shorter ending of Mark in edifying ways. Mark Goodacre manages to discuss the meaning of Greek words without losing the audience - in fact, he did so when he preached at our wedding, but I have to admit that I cringed when he started talking about Greek, and was very much relieved when it turned out to be a great sermon.
ἐξίσταντο δὲ πάντες καὶ διηποροῦντο, ἄλλος πρὸς ἄλλον λέγοντες, τί θέλει τοῦτο εἶναι;
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Re: The perceived authority, role and difficulty of Greek

Postby Barry Hofstetter » March 4th, 2014, 2:04 pm

When I came to seminary after putting some time into classics, I was very interested in the use of Greek (and Hebrew) in sermon prep and came in wondering why I so often failed to see it the same way as the preachers did when I checked their Greek. Fortunately I had Moises Silva and Verne Poythress as professors, who were very up on the proper use and understanding of the languages from a linguistics perspective and who helped me conceptualize what I had been feeling intuitively up to that point, that what most pastors were doing in the pulpit was for the most part simply fallacious. I was also encouraged not to argue with the text I was preaching from, unless it was absolutely crucial to understanding the text. In other words, the translators have done a pretty good job, and work with what they've done, not against it. I have religiously :roll: avoided referring to the Greek or Hebrew when I've preached, but found more creative ways to work in any exegetical insights derived from the original, and in a way that makes it clear that it is consistent with the English text. One thing I was taught to avoid was the Gnostic or priesthood approach (commonly understood, no offense hopefully to anyone reading this). The idea is to clarify and apply the text, not to impress the οἱ πολλοί. I think this is in fact the way that many pastors actually like to use "the Greek," to create an air of authority and even mystique, when, in my opinion, the authority should be vested in the text, and the preacher should recede as far as possible to let the text speak.
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Re: The perceived authority, role and difficulty of Greek

Postby Jonathan Robie » March 4th, 2014, 2:14 pm

Barry Hofstetter wrote:The idea is to clarify and apply the text, not to impress the οἱ πολλοί. I think this is in fact the way that many pastors actually like to use "the Greek," to create an air of authority and even mystique, when, in my opinion, the authority should be vested in the text, and the preacher should recede as far as possible to let the text speak.


Most of the time, the insight you get from the Greek is also available in the English translation, there are at least hints you can bring out. I've known several preachers who have deep insight into Greek but do not refer to it, painting the picture instead. I can sometimes imagine lexicon entries or commentaries or articles they may have used to prepare a sermon, but those things are not needed to deliver the sermon, and they usually get in the way.

I do want a preacher who understands the original text. I don't want a preacher who beats me over the head with it.
ἐξίσταντο δὲ πάντες καὶ διηποροῦντο, ἄλλος πρὸς ἄλλον λέγοντες, τί θέλει τοῦτο εἶναι;
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Re: Perceived authority, role and difficulty Greek

Postby Shirley Rollinson » March 4th, 2014, 2:50 pm

cwconrad wrote:Stephen, you are opening not one but two cans of worms at the same time. Both of them have had some airing over the years in this electronic community; perhaps they should be split, if this/these discussion(s) are to proceed:

(1) What do we think -- how do we feel -- about preachers elucidating a Greek word or phrase in a sermon?

For my part, I almost always cringe when I experience it, and all the more if I'm challenged to concur with what the preacher claims. I think it's a form of grandstanding that tells the congregation to admire the preacher rather than to contemplate the text. That doesn't have to be the case, but it usually is, in my experience. I remember George Buttrick doing it successfully at Harvard Memorial Church, but Buttrick was perhaps the single most powerful preacher I've ever heard.

(2) What does a study of Greek and some knowledge of the Greek Biblical text do to equip a pastor to teach and to preach in a congregation?

That's an immense question, and I suspect that there's not one single answer that is universally applicable. I honestly think that there are many fine pastors who have no Greek at all or no useful grasp of either the language or of the Greek Biblical text. Perhaps for those who cannot achieve sufficient mastery of language and Greek text to assist their grasp of what the Biblical text is saying, it is enough to have a sense of the complexity of the texts and translations through which the content of the Bible gets communicated to believers: it does make a difference, I think, to take seriously the fact that a believer confronts the Biblical text through the efforts of translators.


For myself, neither ordained nor a "regular" (every week) preacher, but a licensed lay pastor, I use the Greek/Hebrew text as a preparation for a homily or for leading a Bible study, or for my teaching. It forces me to slow down and think about the deeper meaning of a text. The text in our native language tends to be so familiar and well-worn, that we skim over it without really grappling with it - "The Lord is my shepherd" (warm fuzzies). But take it one word at a time in Hebrew and (for me, at least) it goes deeper. Then, without giving the Hebrew or Greek word (which is so often mispronounced and stumbled over in sermons) one can explain to the hearers that the sense of the Hebrew/Greek text is (whatever). For instance, in the account of the Transfiguration (which was last Sunday's lectionary portion) it probably does not mean that Jesus' face had a nice beaming smile and looked well-scrubbed, and his clothers were just like the detergent ads describe things - but that there was something which brought to the minds of the witnesses the power of the sun in full force, and the power of a bolt of lightning.

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