Thursday, March 1, 2007

Getting started in Greek

I promised a post for folks who may be a bit daunted by advanced syntactical discussions. Here it is.

Teachers counsel different approaches to starting the study of Greek. Go through a grammar, learn vocabulary, etc. All of that makes sense. My own approach was different.

The Lord saved me when I was a senior in high school. I had been a completely undisciplined student. If a subject interested me, I applied myself... a bit. If it didn't, or if it was hard, I didn't.

My conversion ruined every career plan I had, and slapped my aimless worldview around, so everything was a-jumble. I knew I was filled with a burning desire to know the Word, do the Word, communicate the Word to others. I wanted my life to count for the glory of God.

A pastor I knew told me he believed I was gifted to become a pastor myself, and invited me to join the training school he was starting. I was overwhelmed. It made perfect sense of my desires -- but there was that whole study thing. The thought of hard, continuous, disciplined study was very daunting.

And particularly, I knew I'd have to master Greek. He stressed that. It made sense to me. After all, how could I teach a book written in Hebrew and Greek, without knowing Hebrew and Greek?

So I decided to get a head start. I got a Machen grammar, as this would be our text. From it, months before school started, I learned the alphabet—just the alphabet. How to write it and say it, how to read and say words written in Greek.

Then I went to our public library, and found the Greek section. It had a Greek New Testament. I sat down with it, figured out how to find passages I knew, and read them.

This was over thirty-three years ago, and I still remember it vividly. I strained to say those words. I think I even broke out in a sweat, it was so hard to begin with. But there, in John 1:1, was that word λόγος. I recognized it from other words like logic, and I think I'd heard the pastor talk about it. Then there was that word θεὸς. I knew that! It was like in theology! This was exciting. Before too long, I'd read my first whole verse, in Greek.

I kept that up as Greek classes approached, looking up favorite verses, picking out Greek word-equivalents. I continued the same practice as I began Greek. I followed along in my Greek NT during sermons. It made Greek alive and exciting to me. I picked things out that translations didn't quite communicate -- tenses, numbers, prepositional phrases. The more I learned, the more I saw. The rewards increased as my knowledge deepened.

And so, when I've taught Hebrew and Greek, I've encouraged my students to do exactly that. Don't wait until you've had a year of the language to start looking at the testaments. Get the alphabet down cold, and start looking at the original texts now. You'll start noticing things early-on. The study will start rewarding you, right from the beginning.

That taste will help keep you going when you get to irregular verbs, hapaxes, and prepositions with scores of possible meanings (did someone say ἐπὶ?).

This also gives me the opportunity to stress one more time the importance of learning the alphabet. I encountered the greatest resistance to this in teaching Hebrew, because its alphabet is so much stranger to English readers than Greek is. Too many students treat the Hebrew alphabet as if it's a series of coded symbols. They only learn it well enough to find them in BDB, not well enough to read them. This guarantees failure.

If you're starting, start with mastering the alphabet, and reading the actual Greek NT aloud. It isn't essential that you understand it at first; it is essential that you get your brain used to it. Then the rest will come much more easily.


Frank Martens said...

If you don't mind Dan, I'm going to post a resource for the beginners who read this...

Personally I need a class to keep me disciplined, but there are the occasional few who are willing to step out and learn on their own. If that's the case, Bill Mounce has online lectures that can be downloaded here. You will need his book Basics of Biblical Greek and the workbook that goes with it. In-fact, I recommend getting both anyway, even if you are taking a class with a different textbook, Mounce is genius in his delivery and how he setup the workbook. The first 10 chapters were a bear, but once you figure out the system (of how to study and what he's doing) things start coming more naturally.

However Dan, I wish I had started doing what you mentioned above before taking the class... I think that would have helped a hundred fold.


Connie said...

Finally--a post here that didn't make my head explode! :-)

I'd like to add that the edition I have of Mounce's grammar came with a CD-ROM that has been helpful (pronounciations, vocabulary, etc.).

My vocab. flash cards (little white bus. cards strung on a metal ring) have been a good companion over the years, too.

DJP said...

Excellent, Connie.

Oh, I agree that taking a class is absolutely preferable. (I'll retell a story one day that hints it may not be essential.) I'm just talking about a good prelim warmup, and a way to stoke enthusiasm during.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the encouragement, and thanks for your blog! I am indeed a lowly beginner, doing just as you said. I'm going through and old CD-ROM program my pastor gave me as well.

Your blog, though I don't understand it all (and feel , like Connie, that my head might just explode), is fascinating. Thanks!

DJP said...

Glad you're here, Michael. I'll do the blog a little like I preach. I try to lay out a smorgasbord, a little something for everybody. I don't want anyone either bored or overwhelmed. If today's doesn't float your boat, come back tomorrow. (Or, possibly, the next day.)

Stephen Newell said...

Speaking of CDs, how do you feel about Greek Tutor? I got one for Christmas a few years ago (incidentally I got Hebrew Tutor the very next Christmas too) and never really could get into it. I'm the same way--I gotta have a class.

Stefan Ewing said...

Dan, anything you do is okay. I like the variety of different topics and levels of treatments. It welcomes all comers. In short, this blog is οι πυτζάμες της γάτας.

DJP said...

οι πυτζάμες της γάτας—now there's a name for a blog!

Stefan Ewing said...

..."The pyjamas of the cat," in case any neophytes like me are wondering. It took me half an hour to work it out and verify the grammar.

Connie said...

Is that anything like "the cat's meow"? Sorry, couldn't resist--it's late...

BTW Dan, I dusted off (literally) my copy of Mounce today, organized my flashcards, recited the Greek alphabet several times (still sing it thanks to my college days)--I must be insane!

DJP said...

That's great news, Connie. Thanks for sharing that with me! Do keep sharing what you learn and see, as we go along.

What I hope to hear again and again in the months to come is that people are also telling their pastors about this site, and that it is serving to encourage and/or reawaken in them the joy of reading God's Word as given, in Greek. The more who read Greek, the better; but especially pastors, who God longs to see working hard in the Word and doctrine!

To be sure I'm as clear as I can be, I'm in no way saying nor thinking, "Not you, but them." I'm saying, "Praise God that this is having this impact on you. Now let's pray and work that it has the same on pastors, as well!"

Andy Kaylor said...

Hi Dan. I just came across your blog by way of the b-greek mailing list.

I've been trying to learn Greek from Mounce's book for about a year (on and off). Happily from the beginning I've been doing just what you suggested about reading from a Greek NT without really worrying much about understanding. As I picked up vocabulary and grammar, it was an amazing experience. It was like stumbling through a dark jungle and suddenly the lights start coming on.

I've also been working on writing a couple of Pocket PC equivalents of the Teknia programs that come with the Mounce book, and I've found that the data entry portion of this has been quite helpful. Having to type out a paradigm in a new format and think through what's what and which forms are duplicates of others is quite useful.

David said...

Any suggestions for materials for homeschoolers to learn Greek?



Becky Schell said...

I ran across this site on the net recently and am wondering if it is good. It looks so to me, but (as it is all Greek to me at this point) I can't be sure.

(I am assuming you get a notice when a new comment is made and that, though this is an older blog, you will see this one.)