Classical Greek

From: Edward Hobbs (
Date: Sat Sep 30 1995 - 17:55:55 EDT

Eric Weiss asked (very sensibly) about the problems raised by the comments
some of us have made about the benefits of studying classical Greek as well as
the New Testament language. Carl Conrad wrote so eloquently, and so rightly,
that I could not improve on what he said. Perhaps I can try to say (more
prosaically, I realize) a bit concerning the crucial reason for the importance
of going beyond the Greek New Testament itself.

Of course, the more one knows about Greek the better. (As Doctor Johnson said,
everyone treats Greek as one does lace: one gets as much as one can!) But this
can expand infinitely, and time is not always available to do what is ideal.
So let me be clear that there are several benefits to classical Greek which
are nonetheless not crucial for understanding the Greek of the New Testament.
To know the history of the language is a wonderful asset, and to know what the
grammar(s) of earlier stages in the language was/were can assist in many ways.

But the key thing to remember is this: The New Testament is a VERY tiny body
of literature. We cannot really construct an adequate grammar, nor adequate
principles of interpretation of the language, based on this minuscule
collection of short pieces. A single section of the Sunday New York Times
usually contains many more words than the whole New Testament. Imagine
scholars in the year 4000 having no trace of English except one section of the
TGimes, and trying to settle issues of meaning, usage, grammar, events,
intentions, etc., on the basis of this one collection of articles by a number
of different people.

The only way to treat this tiny body of Greek texts with genuine competence is
to know a great deal more literature in this general language. If one were to
read a few thousand pages of Hellenistic literature, one might well omit
learning the earlier (greater!) period of Greek literature. But people who
skip learning the older literature rarely immerse themselves in the works of
the Hellenistic era. Constantly I read postings on this List which assert that
such-and-such "always" or "never" means this or is used thus -- and yet anyone
who reads widely in ancient Greek knows it just ain't so! And constantly one
sees statements about what a certain tense means, or how a preposition is used,
or the like, which relate to very little Greek literature; these pronouncements
usually derive from some of the textbook-style "grammars" of New Testament
Greek which were written by teachers of the New Testament whose command of
wider Greek literature was virtually nil. (Some such instances are notorious,
others just funny.) The great New Testament scholars of the past had this
command of Greek. (The reason Debrunner's grammar is so difficult for many
to use is that it assumes you already know classical grammar--it merely shows
you the differences, or the oddities, in the N.T.)

My own advice, then, would be to learn what one can. If you can study a great
deal of Greek, wonderful. If you can't, then be modest! Don't assume that
quoting Julius Mantey has much to do with knowing Greek. But if you have more
than a very little time, even if not enough to study the classics, then spend
as much time as you can reading other literature of the post-classical period.
If you want easy, read Philo (you'll also find out how a great Jewish thinker
contemporary with Paul wrote theology); if you want to read Greek worse than
anything in the New Testament, you can find it in Josephus. The Apostolic
Fathers (another very tiny collection) has a range of levels of Greek, and if
you move into a later century in Patristics you will begin getting some real
"classical"-style Greek (of course it isn't, but they tried, like people today
trying to write like Shakespeare). The papyri are really fun, but one deals
mostly with bits and pieces.

READ OUTSIDE THE NEW TESTAMENT, in other words -- the more the better. Don't
try to become an expert on one section of one Sunday's New York Times.

Meanwhile, listen to scholars like Carl--he really HAS read all this stuff!

Edward C. Hobbs
Wellesley (but no longer Chicago, Berkeley, Harvard, or even young)

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