Monday, May 16, 2005

Ruminations on Learning NT Greek --- Part 2

Student Days

I threw myself into Wenham's book. If memory serves me correct, I was pretty much finished with the bulk of my dissertation, so I had the luxury of actually having enough time to learn something well. Following the classical approach to learning a new language, I spent many hours memorizing paradigms and such, often reciting them silently to myself in such silly places such as the waiting room at the dentist, the supermarket line, and during very dull sermons by the minister.

Wenham's book had not only the usual translate-Greek-to-English exercises, but it put a good deal of emphasis on translating English to Greek as well. Now from a practical standpoint, this sounds silly, as nobody speaks in NT Greek today, let alone write in it. But in reality, those English to Greek exercises probably accounted for the bulk and solidity of what I had learned. [I notice that many Greek books (most?) forsake English to Greek exercises. I wonder how much retention there is if the student isn't trained in two-way translation.]

In about three months, I had finished Wenham and every exercise therein. The progress was exceedingly quick, and it made me think that perhaps I had a calling in languages. Perhaps more of the credit goes to Wenham's style.

By the way, the bad thing about learning language in a memorize-the-paradigm way is that one has to frequently review the paradigms. I try to hit Wenham once per year just to review, but now and then I'll still forget the form for, say, an 2nd person plural aorist subjunctive. =D

The Rubber Meets The Road

I picked up my Greek New Testament full of optimism and a very healthy sense of naivete. At last, I could see for myself the answer to every doctrinal dispute, in particular, the question of the deity of Christ would finally be put to rest. Also, the plan was to see if the Lutherans were right, or perhaps the Arminians. I'd settle the whole dunk-or-sprinkle baptism question.

As the skater kids across the street would say: Yeah, right.

There was the issue of actually reading the text. The letters of John and the fourth gospel were not particularly trying, but, then again, they constitute the "novice" material for the Greek NT. However, reading an epistle such as Romans or Hebrews was quite a different affair. The hermetically-sealed atmosphere of the textbook exercises was now replaced by an atmosphere where the ease of the student and pedagogical development were not foremost on the author's mind! Throw in the fact that Paul is not particularly easy, even in one's own tongue, so imagine taking that and putting it in a new language.

Knowing that 80% of the word occurrences in the NT were under my belt really didn't ease what seemed like the feeling that I spent more time in the lexicon than the actual text itself, and often I still struggled with irregular verbs.

On top of that, there were lots of constructions and idioms with which I didn't feel comfortable.

So much for getting to the bottom of deep theological questions, such as the deity of Christ. I still was in literacy limbo!

Back in the Shop

Fast forward six months or so to late 1997 or early 1998. I had graduated, and was basically killing off time while looking for a university position somewhere. The question was whether to spend a few more hard months in the Greek shop getting to a functionally literate stage, or whether to give up the endeavor.

Staying with Greek was a pretty easy decision. I enjoyed it --- not in the sense that I enjoy playing basketball or something fun --- but in the sense of learning something intellectually stimulating.

The best thing to do seemed to be as follows: buy a second introductory book and then hit the text again. This time I bought William Mounce's Basics of Biblical Greek. Now I prefer Wenham's book out of purely subjective preference, but the workbook that accompanied Mounce's book had its large selection of exercises taken straight from the Greek NT itself. This would, so it was hoped, lead to a smoother gradation from student-level exercises to the thoughts of the Apostle Paul himself.

The approach yielded an appreciable amount of fruit. Perhaps this is due to the sort of passive learning that takes place when something rattles around in the back recesses of one's mind, often while one is not even aware. But, it was more likely attributable to just having more practice.

The Greek Student Unleashed on the World

Go to around mid-1998 now. I was able to slowly get through the "tuff stuff" such as Hebrews, the Petrines, Jude, etc.

However, the deeper truths sought out were not obvious. The Greek, by itself did not solve exegetical questions. It could answer the more egregious and irresponsible appeals to the text, but it didn't settle anything.

(1) RCH Lenski, a conservative Lutheran commentator, found nothing indicating immersion in the text. AT Robertson, Baptist scholar [whose large grammar sits proudly on the PP's shelf], saw immersion in the Greek text.

(2) Orthodox Christians see the Greek text of John 1:1c as implying the full deity of the Word. Unitarians and Watchtower folks in particular see the construction in John 1:1c as implying a lesser deity for Christ.

(3) Dittos for Titus 2:13, II Peter 1:1, Rom 9:5, and 1 John 5:20. Even in orthodox translations, the Greek would be seen as not giving full deity to Christ.

(4) Is Peter the rock on which the Church is built? A solidly Lutheran pastor [a conservative, not one of those logically challenged liberal Lutherans!] of mine gave a Greek-based argument that Peter is not the referent. On the other hand, other commentators without a bone of sympathy for Romanism had no problem saying that the Greek text implies that Peter is most likely the rock on which the Church is built.

Far from having my questions about the deity of Christ answered definitively, all that effort in learning Greek went towards pushing back the question one stage, but certainty and such was still lacking. The Watchtower folks would come over, and they would say that the Greek text means something other than what orthodoxy would state. Again, my quest was to get to the bottom of it, though there was a bit of frustration in not having a question related to a central doctrine answered to my satisfaction after all that work!

Next: Part 3 --- Jesus is God After All


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