This year I committed to reading through the entire New Testament in Greek. I count myself blessed to have received six years of some of the world’s best training in Greek, both in university and seminary. So I was eager to give it a go and with just half a month left in 2023, I’ve almost completed the challenge. There are always spiritual benefits you’ll gain from studying God’s Word in any language. However, in this post let me share a few linguistic insights I’ve gained in my year with the Greek NT.
First, there’s quite a difference between a gloss and a translation. While you could think of a gloss as a kind of translation, it’s something far rougher which just provides the basic gist. When I read the Greek NT, I’m not at that stage where I could only have the Greek in my mind and understand it like a native reader might. No, I have to convert it into some rough form of English, oftentimes in my mind providing more than one word for the equivalent Greek word. Compared to translation, glossing is relatively easy. When someone translates a passage for an English reader, there are several other complicating factors which come into play. A translator sometimes feels compelled to make definite interpretive choices – when the Greek says “the love of God” does that mean “the love God has for us” or “the love we have for God”? Also, a translator has to generally choose one term. For example, the Greek word parakletos in John is used for the Holy Spirit. It can be translated as comforter, helper, counsellor, or advocate. You can’t use all of them. So translations pick one and perhaps relegate the others to a footnote. But when I’m reading John in Greek, I see parakletos and gloss it in my mind with all of those meanings.
Next, I wasn’t prepared for the variety in Greek style and, connected with that, the differences in difficulty. I’ve always known that some books of the NT have easier Greek than others. But it wasn’t until I’ve read through the whole thing that I’ve realized how easy the Greek is in Mark and John compared to Hebrews or 2 Peter.
That directly ties into my next point: when teaching introductory classes about the Bible I’ve often said that the human element in the text is a lot more evident in the original languages. So, if a writer was a relatively uneducated person, his writing in the original language would reflect his ability in Greek – whereas our translations smooth out many of those differences. But then I was reading through the epistles of Peter. Peter’s letters are far from the easiest Greek in the New Testament. They read like they were written by someone quite advanced in their grasp of Greek. While it’s true that Galilean fishermen would have had to know some Greek to carry out their trade, it’s hard to imagine that such an “uneducated common man” (as Luke called him in Acts 4:13) would be able to communicate at this high linguistic level. So how can we explain this? It’s possible that Peter’s grasp of Greek became advanced through the years. But then there’s also the issue that 1 Peter and 2 Peter are stylistically different from each other. The answer, as far as I can tell, probably has to do with the use of an amanuensis or secretary. Peter would likely have dictated his letter to someone else who wrote it down for him. It’s even possible that he dictated in his native tongue (probably Aramaic) and the amanuensis translated into Greek. The amanuensis could have been quite skilled in his use of Greek. The stylistic difference between 1 Peter and 2 Peter could be accounted for with the use of different amanuenses. We can’t be dogmatic about it, but those are some possibilities.
My final observation is that language skills are highly perishable. If you don’t use them, you start to lose them. I’ve been preaching for 24+ years now and every time I prepare a text-based sermon (as opposed to a catechism sermon), I’m using either Greek or Hebrew (and, rarely, Aramaic). But even then it’s in short spurts and there are some grammatical features that are comparatively rare that I started to forget about. When I began this journey in January, I also made it a point to do a thorough review of a Greek grammar textbook. I definitely needed it! I also needed a couple of other tools. When I really got stuck with the grammar, this website usually helped to clear the confusion. While my knowledge of NT Greek vocabulary is still quite passable, it sure also helped to use A Reader’s Greek New Testament – every word that occurs less than 30 times in the NT is briefly defined in a footnote.
If you’ve studied NT Greek, I definitely recommend doing this. I followed this plan here from Timothy Paul Jones. And for 2024? I plan to read through the Torah (Pentateuch) in Hebrew. Perhaps I’ll let you know how it went a year from now.