Re: Classical Greek, etc. (long)

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Thu Sep 28 1995 - 22:21:01 EDT

At 4:37 AM 10/8/95, Eric Weiss wrote:
>I took/am taking (this is my 2nd year) NT Greek because I want to read the
>Greek New Testament. Various posts in the past have indicated that it is
>good to precede Hellenistic/NT Greek with a year of Classical and/or Attic
>Greek, though I don't think all seminaries do this.

Is there any seminary that does this at all? And are there not still
seminaries that offer a 3-week crash course Koine for incoming students who
have never studied it before? Has anyone on the list started Greek that way
and continued on?

> - How crucial is knowing these earlier forms of Greek to understanding the
>Greek New Testament?

Crucial is a loaded word. Can you understand the Greek NT without knowing
any earlier Greek? Certainly, and I'll venture to say that there are many
participants in this list who have never studied earlier Greek. The real
question is: how much better would you understand the Greek NT if you DID
know earlier Greek? and then: how much earlier Greek would you have to
study for it to make a real difference in how well you understand the Greek
NT. I don't know if this could be measured in quantitative terms, but maybe
that's why I'm very definitely a philologist and very definitely NOT a
linguist. I love words and their histories and nuances--their distinctive
personalities, and the distinctive ways in which the different crafters of
Greek literature have stamped them with unforgettable overtones by means of
the metaphors they've used them in and the contorted syntactic structures
they've wrenched them into. So mine is a philologist's answer rather than a
linguist's: the more of the Greek language and the ways in which it has
been used between the era of Homer and today you come to know, the better
you'll understand the Greek NT. Again the quantitative question is
unavoidable: what's the critical mass? One year, two years, more? To which
I can only answer that one year of earlier Greek is better than none, two
are better than one, and so on. Of course this is true not only of the
Greek language; the more you know about antiquity the more you'll
understand about the Greek NT. Is it obvious that I'm a philosophical

> - What have those of us who have only taken NT Greek missed by not taking
>these earlier forms of Greek?

Chiefly the best years of the Greek language's life. That is an
exaggeration and a grossly unfair statement--but I have never ceased to
admire a gutsy colleague's course description for his class on 'Mycenean
Society': "The student will come away from this class with a taste of what
it was like to live in the last great age of Western Civilization." Let's
say, then, SOME of the best years of the Greek language's life. And it's
not just a matter of a richer and more flexible instrument of
expression--something that you could learn (as I don't really think was
intended to be an adequate answer to the question raised) by having a copy
of H. Weir Smyth's _Greek Grammar_. Rather it's a matter of coming to
appreciate how the language has been wielded by Homer and Aeschylus and
Pindar and Sophocles and Herodotus and Thucydides and Plato and Demosthenes
and Theocritus and others.

If you want this put in a more practical formulation, then I think you
should be aware that if you want to read patristic Greek of the second and
third centuries, you will be reading works that are consciously and
deliberately written in the idiom of classical Attic Greek, even if with a
somewhat different vocabulary. And if you want to have a sense of how the
style of Luke is different from (and, strictly in terms of stylistic
excellence) far superior to that of Mark, you're going to need to have a
standard against which to measure good style. Where do you go for that?
Well, it wouldn't hurt to read some Philo, who is roughly contemporary with
the earlier NT documents, but I guarantee that Philo will be very difficult
if the only Greek you've had previously is the Koine of Paul and John and
the Synoptic gospels. That means that you probably ought to have read some
Plato--at least the Apology and one or more of the longer dialogues.

> - Should we somewhere down the road take a course in these other forms of
>Greek even though our main interest is in reading and understanding the New
>Testament, not Homer, et al?

Yes! Yes! And Yes indeed! Read some Homer (I'm doing it now with a
third-year class of eight, more than half of whom are students at Concordia
Seminary here, and pretty good ones--of course, the classical curriculum is
one of the best things going for Missouri Synod Lutheran colleges); probe
the archaeology of the Greek language with old genitives in -OIO, -AO, and
-EW, old infinitives in -EMEN, -EMENAI, duals in -W and -OIN and -TON,
-THN, -SQON, -SQHN, short-vowel aorist subjunctives functioning as futures,
etc., etc. Along the way you might just discover that Homer (whoever he may
have been or how many generations of minstrels he may represent) is by no
means so primitive in his view of the human condition as you might have
supposed. Read some Herodotus and you'll find that it won't take very long
to master his Ionic dialect (that it's akin to Koine in some ways, even),
and moreover that he's fun to read--you'll go on reading him because you
can't stop.

> - Are there good grammar books on Classical/Attic Greek that would be easy
>for someone with 1-2 years of NT Greek to pick up and read that would fill in
>the gaps we supposedly missed by not learning these forms of Greek?

Other teachers of classical Attic might not agree with me, but I honestly
believe that a person with one or two years of Koine will be able to move
along readily through either of two courses that are constructed similarly:
the Cambridge (also called JACT, "Joint Association of Classical
Teachers"--a British institution) Greek Course in two volumes entitled
_Reading Greek_ and another course that's pitched at a somewhat lower
student level (I think) but still quite good, the Oxford Greek Course,
entitled _Athenaze_ ("To Athens"). The thesis on which these texts is based
is that continuous discourse -- paragraphs of continued narrative in which
constructions recur again and again and cumulatively build up until one is
reading almost unaltered original Attic texts. If you're willing to read
lots of Xenophon's Anabasis, as late Victorian students both British and
American were doing about the same time they were excelling in
Bulwer-Lytton's Boy Scouts, Crosby and Sheaffer can still be found in
second-hand stores and may even still be in print--but I and most readers
nowadays don't find the Anabasis the most exciting subject matter one could
cut one's Greek teeth on. A still simpler work is that of Melluish and
Kinchin-Smith in the [British University?] "Teach Yourself" series, _Teach
Yourself Ancient Greek_ (but be careful, there's also a _Teach Yourself
Greek_ which deals with Modern Greek--still, eventually you'll want that
too!). And there are other good books too. These are just a few that seem
to me worth mentioning.

> - What "gaps" do we have (i.e., what areas of understanding are we ignorant
>of) because all we have learned is NT Greek?

When Moses asked how he could be sure that the mission on which he was
being sent was really a divine mandate, he was told that, after he had led
the children of Israel out of Egypt and crossed the Red Sea, he would
worship YHWH "at this mountain." That is, he wouldn't know for sure until
he had completed the task with which he had been entrusted. However
irrelevant that may seem, I think there's a meaningful analogy in the
answer to your question: you won't know what you're ignorant of until after
you've learned it. I can mention a few things, but they are only
illustrations:(1) how did the optative function before it became Paul's way
of saying (MH GENOITO), "Hell, No!"? (2) why are there so many pesky types
of hINA-subjunctive clauses, and how are they genetically related to each
other? (3) why are second-aorists sometimes conjugated with O/E-endings and
sometimes with A-endings? (4) why can't articular infinitives fall into
neat, easily-comprehensible categories? (5) why can't I read the Letter to
the Hebrews even though I know Machen backwards and forwards? (6) how is it
that Paul can interpret the sentence, hO DE DIKAIOS EK PISTEWS ZHSETAI to
mean something that could only legitimately mean what he wants it to mean
if it were written, hO DE EK PISTEWS DIKAIOS ZHSETAI? i.e. why doesn't the
Greek of OT quotations and much of NT narrative follow the rules of Greek
syntax that you have learned?

But the best thing of all: you'll start reading classical Greek with an
ulterior motive of understanding the Greek NT -- that's the only thing you
really want to understand, after all -- and you'll end up being hooked on a
literature and a culture that can stand up all by itself and sing its
bewitching siren song to you. Be careful! In the course of some thirty +
years of teaching Concordia Seminary students who just wanted to continue
with classical Greek while taking their B.D., I've seen a few get so hooked
on it that they've not pursued a ministerial career after all. One of those
was the late John Hollar of Fortress Press, who did a Ph.D. dissertation
with me; another who got a Ph.D. in Greek at Washington U. not long before
I got there is Edgar Krentz, who can speak for himself to this list. I can
say all this because I myself was an undergraduate at Tulane once with
every intention of going into the ministry, but before I got that far I was
hooked on Classical Greek.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, USA 63130
(314) 935-4018 OR

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