[b-greek] Re: Attic and Homeric Greek vs. Koine

From: Carl W. Conrad (cwconrad@artsci.wustl.edu)
Date: Fri Feb 22 2002 - 08:41:24 EST

At 7:31 AM -0500 2/22/02, Stephen Y. Duncan wrote:
>I am just beginning to learn NT Greek. How much of a stretch will it be
>for me to read Attic and Homeric Greek? Are the differences similar to
>the great differences of OE, ME, and Mod. English? Thanks for your help.

It's a good question, and it's been addressed previously on this list over
the years; below I'm going to cite my own response from 6+ years ago to a
much younger Eric Weiss who is still a B-Greeker, I believe, and with whom
I've had a very nice rapport over the years; I trust he won't mind my
citation of his questions as well as my answers from long ago.

The differences are very real; in terms of your analogy, I think one might
compare Modern English vis-a-vis Chaucer as comparable to Koine Greek
vis-a-vis Homer, and perhaps Modern English vis-a-vis Shakespeare and
Milton to Koine Greek vis-a-vis Classical Attic of the 5th and 4th
centuries BCE.

I've also noted here before that I myself began with NT Greek in my first
year of Greek (back in 1952!), then moved on to Homer in my second year, to
Aristotle and Sophocles in my third year. I have wished later that I had
started with Classical Attic and then learned the earlier and later forms;
nevertheless, although it was a hard learning experience, it was a good one.

>Date: Thu, 28 Sep 1995 21:21:01 -0500
>To: Eric Weiss <eweiss@acf.dhhs.gov>
>From: "Carl W. Conrad" <cwconrad@artsci.wustl.edu>
>Subject: Re: Classical Greek, etc. (long)
>Cc: b-greek@virginia.edu
>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


Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University (Emeritus)
Most months:: 1647 Grindstaff Road/Burnsville, NC 28714/(828) 675-4243
cwconrad@artsci.wustl.edu OR cwconrad@ioa.com
WWW: http://www.artsci.wustl.edu/~cwconrad/

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