The languages: the dread of every new seminarian. You think you’ve come to seminary to be a Serious Theology Student, but suddenly you’re back in kindergarten again — reading an alphabet aloud and slogging your way through the Koine equivalent of “Jane throws the ball”. It’s even harder to learn ancient languages that are no longer spoken in their biblical form. Jesse Stewart, who is working toward his Th.M. in biblical theology, has helped lots of students wrestle the monster of Elementary Greek. Here are few ways he can help you.
Back to elementary school
When embarking on the sometimes-treacherous journey that is the study of Biblical Greek, it’s important to have a survival guide. A tool to help you navigate the journey from ignorance to competence; from inexperience to proficiency. The road may be difficult, but the rewards are far-reaching and more than outweigh the suffering experienced on the expedition. The following are some survival tips for novices to language acquisition – and particularly to first-semester Greek students. May this guide help you survive as you engage in the blessed struggle that is learning Biblical Greek.
Do your Homework
This may seem obvious, but it is often overlooked by students trying simply to pass Elementary Greek. Your professor has assigned you the weekly workload necessary for your success. So, let your homework determine your pace for this first semester. Trust the homework. Give yourself to the homework. Complete all of your homework. And don’t think yourself wiser than your professor by neglecting the homework. There’s no squeezing by without it. Do this, and not only will you thank yourself during your next quiz, but you’ll set a healthy rhythm and pace for the rest of the semester.
Make (Studious) Friends
“Birds of a feather flock together.” Don’t flock with those of the lazy feather; rather, intentionally flock with those of the studying feather. Study buddies can be an incredible asset if they give themselves to their work, but they will be a damaging distraction if they’re simply trying to pass the course. Remember that lazy company corrupts good study habits.
Memorize Vocab in Small Time-Chunks
Incremental studying is a time-tested method for acquiring vocabulary. When there are natural lulls in the day, review your vocabulary cards (i.e. during breaks between classes, lunch breaks), or have a friend review you while you’re driving. Do this for 5 minutes, 2 to 3 times per day. This study method takes patience and pace, but yields substantial results.
Slay the Greek Verb Monster
My Elementary Greek professor in college called our unit on the verbal system, “the Greek Verb Monster.” He explained that the Greek verbal system is multifaceted and complex, and if one is to understand the language, he must overcome the all-important hurdle of the Greek verb. When translating, I always focus on the heart of the sentence first — which is typically the verb — and then work out from there. One of my very successful classmates called the verb “the glue that holds everything else together.” I’ve lived by that phrase. If you can slay the Greek Verb Monster, you can slay everything else. Well, maybe not everything. But you’ll have slain the biggest giant you’ll face.
Study Deeply & Widely
Deep study: memorization of words, forms, grammar, and paradigms. Wide study: reading and translating.
Mix your deep study with your wide study as much as you possible can. Often, we can treat language as a science to the neglect of language as an art. Your deep study will help you dissect the meaning, but your wide study will help you achieve the sense of what is being said in context by immersing yourself in the world of the text. Don’t treat language as a mere code to be deciphered; it is a work of art, and it carries contextual meaning.
Read, Re-Read, and Re-Re-Read
Read, re-read, and re-re-read a text in its wider context to best grasp it. Remember that each sentence is part of paragraph, and each paragraph is part of a larger chapter or book, rather than being a fragmented thought. When you start to think this way, you will find yourself mindful of the sense of the overall passage, which will help you see the sense of the specific text you’re translating. Sometimes context can even help you guess at unfamiliar vocabulary.
Bring Quandaries to Class
Your professors are academic tools provided for your success. Use them! They want to help you, and can best aid you if you know what quandaries you’re facing. Don’t be embarrassed to bring up these questions in class. It is almost certain that someone else in your class is facing the same issue and will be helped by the professor’s answer.
Take a Daily Dose for Maintenance
Robert Plummer has an excellent program here called “Daily Dose of Greek.” You can watch these 2-minute daily videos for free. He takes a passage from Scripture and walks through the Greek fundamentals required to translate each passage.
Also, as soon as you’re able, read Greek as a part of your daily devotional time with the Lord. Language acquisition is all about immersing yourself, so plunge yourself daily.
A Final Word
If you think you can “work smart, not hard” to acquire Biblical Greek, you’re fooling yourself. You need to work smart and hard. This journey takes time, effort and persistence. So keep persisting, and I promise you that the trees will give way to the forest, and you will see glories in the text previously inaccessible to you.
Live by these tips for your first semester and you will survive Elementary Greek – and perhaps even set the stage for a lifetime of competent translation.
Jesse Stewart is available for personal Greek tutoring at the SBTS Library. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.