Thursday, October 17, 2013

Back to the Greek

One Saturday morning a few years back (I keep Saturday morning as shabbat, my quiet time), when most people might be sitting down to have lunch, I was still in breakfast mode, so I made myself a light breakfast and, as usual, grabbed a book off my shelf at random to read while I ate. It happened to be my old college book, New Testament Greek for Beginners, by Machen. I will show the other books I am about to describe in this post, but this old text book has an unremarkable blue-green cloth cover, not worth showing. And besides, I am not recommending this book to anyone; the others I am. (Be sure to click on the book images for larger views, especially the sample pages of the Greek NT.)

Greek Orthodox Divine Liturgy
As I perused the book, at once I was hit with the reason why I never learned New Testament Greek, that is, koiné, in college. It was boring! Stock memorization of word forms we would never use. It was being discouraged from reading Greek out loud by the professor's very reticence about pronouncing it himself. Isolated words and maybe a phrase or two were ventured to be spoken in the learning process but to actually speak koiné Greek as if it were a living language—unheard of!

Nearly twenty years after my first encounter with the Greek New Testament in this academic environment, I encountered it again in—of all places—the Church! At the age of 37 my pilgrimage to Orthodoxy came to an end—I was home.

Home, where the Word of God that I had come to love more than anything else was also loved in a way that I could relate to. Better yet, I was finally in a place where the original language of the scriptures was not an academic exercise, but rather the medium of the exercise of both worship and study.

Greek Bible, I Aghía Graphí
Greek, I was delighted to discover, is not a dead language, not even the koiné (which I now learned was pronounced kee-NEE with the accent on the final syllable). What's more, all those syllables which seemed so unnatural-sounding and impossible to say out loud in the college classes, well, they weren't pronounced that way at all. The people with whom I started going to church were speaking it fluently all the time in the services and in bible studies; it literally rolled off their tongues, and after not even a year, it was rolling off my tongue too.

Greek New Testament
(Alexandrian Version)
Greek is a language that has somehow managed to keep growing, yet keeping all its parts intact. The everyday Greek of the household is a different dialect, but the scriptural Greek is pronounced the same way and has been, from the time of Christ and the holy apostles. When we read the New Testament writings aloud, we are actually hearing what the writers wrote as they spoke it. As a collector of Greek coins of the Roman emperors, I found out this was indeed true. When the emperors' Latin names were written in Greek letters on the coins of the Greek-speaking provinces, they were spelled phonetically, showing that koiné Greek was pronounced approximately the same as Greek is today.

Gospel according to St John, Nestle-Aland edition
Where I am going with this ramble is to encourage anyone who can, to learn to read and understand the New Testament in the original language. (Yes, I am what one can call an ‘original languages Bible man.’) From my experience, I think that learning New Testament Greek from grammar books is backward and prevents one from picking up and internalising the language—which is the only reason for learning it at all—so that we can read and understand without translating what the Word of God actually says.

Majority Text Interlinear
You can get an entire Greek Bible, called Η Αγια Γραφη, í Aghía Graphí, the one with the black cover, and the Old Testament part will be the actual Septuagint translated by the Greek-speaking Jews of Egypt two centuries or more before Christ. But it's really best to start, and even maybe stay, with the New Testament. There is an excellent edition of the Alexandrian New Testament (Nestle-Aland edition) that also includes a dictionary, the one usually published in a flexible red plastic cover.
Gospel according to St John, Majority Text edition
The Majority Text Interlinear by Thomas Nelson is the other Greek New Testament I have used, and though some like it because it has all its ‘helps’ right there on the same page, I still prefer the Alexandrian text.

If you must have a grammar book, the very best and easiest to use and understand is Learn New Testament Greek by Rev. John Dobson. He minimizes grammarian complication and makes you go straight to the scriptures where you belong. He still uses the non-Greek pronunciation of Erasmus and the academics, but that doesn't keep you from learning much and quickly from his book. He also does the same thing with Old Testament Hebrew. The man is a genius and a great lover of God's Word, and finally we have some grammar books that make you learn to speak what you read.

Now, where to find the correct pronunciation? That's the question.

Best thing to do is to simply find a local Greek Orthodox church (one that still uses Greek in the services, some do not) and start attending some of the services. No one will pressure you to join or anything like that. You just tell them why you're there, and they'll not only understand but they'll admire and approve of your aim. This is the best way, unless of course you have a Greek friend like Romanós who is all fired up to read Greek with you at the coffeehouse. If you can't find a Greek church and have no Greek friends nearby, you can still find videos of Greek services on YouTube, and there are also audio versions of the Greek New Testament on CD—be sure the version you get is the koiné dialect version, not modern Greek; both exist.

Ah yes, and last but not least, there is my unfinished, but still useful, Greek New Testament blog with audio clips of the writings of St John, and also the letter to the Hebrews, read aloud, slowly and (hopefully) clearly enough for you to follow the text, once you've learned to read the Greek letters. Click HERE to go to Η Καινή Διαθήκη, and listen to some Greek New Testament!
Η Καινή Διαθήκη

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