Learning a Little Greek

One of the major problems with seminary study of Biblical languages is that it is often short term and shallow. The seminarian, required to take a certain number of hours or just get by a particular test focuses all his efforts to getting past the hurdle. Precious few such students ever gain a real facility with the language. Some will have an exaggerated view of their own skills based on that study, but most will abandon what they have learned. Others will pop Greek and Hebrew words on their congregations, normally gleaned from commentaries and various articles of, often of questionable validity.

In general, when you hear a pastor say “what the Greek really says,” prepare to be deceived. Not intentionally–the preacher really believes he knows, but actually he is probably missing the point. I have heard sermons in which the Greek word was completely wrong because the preacher simply provided the wrong Greek word. At other times, the error was one of context, when the preacher used a definition for a Greek word that was valid in some context, but not in the particular context in question. In one case, I heard a speaker recite the “real Greek” of a verse in four words. The only problem was that the verse was not, as he claimed, four words long in Greek, and not one of the four Greek words he used were actually in the verse he cited. I could just barely tell I was looking at the right verse based on the interpretation.

I have a book in my library from the infamous Dr. Floyd Jones of KJV-Only fame. In the front of the book, on a page titled “TO THE READER – THE SOUNDING OF AN ALARM,” he cites a number of Hebrew words from Isaiah 14:12, in which he is giving the alarm regarding mistranslation. He should, however, be giving the alarm about his disastrous ignorance of Hebrew. I count no less than 8 errors in Hebrew in the course of a single paragraph. Now the KJV-Only position is so discredited that one might wonder why I bother to mention it. The reason is that most of the errors noted in that paragraph appear to result from the use of an interlinear in order to find the Hebrew form that is cited. Transliterations don’t match the Hebrew, though the translations match in the way an interlinear would.

In both KJV-Only debates and discussion with lay “experts,” I have also encountered work done from Strong’s concordance. While it is more difficult to work with Strong’s than with an interlinear, it is even easier to be in error. Strong’s definitions are often out of date, and in fact they are generally not definitions at all but rather lists of glosses. I once was presented with a possible translation of a Hebrew text in which not a single word was translated correctly. On careful examination, however, every single word was translated by some word from Strong’s, and what was more, the resulting sentence was comprehensible in English though a bit stilted. It simply had no relationship to the meaning of the source text in Hebrew.

We’ve probably heard that “to err is human, to really foul things up requires a computer.” Well, enter Logos Bible software, now with reverse interlinears (HT: Metacatholic–I recommend you read his entire post). Now don’t get me wrong. I own Logos with all the Biblical languages extensions I can get my hands on. But many wonderful tools have potentially bad uses.

When a student uses tools that allow him to look up words more quickly so as to cover more ground in reading that’s a good thing. One way to actually gain facility in a foreign language is to work with it. Many students plow through one or two verses at a time and never go beyond that. They become specialists in individual leaves on individual trees, but they have no sense of how Greek or Hebrew reads or feels. Tools such as reader’s lexicons–works that give glosses by verses–can be very useful for rapid reading. But they don’t teach you Greek. Neither do interlinears, and neither do reverse interlinears. (Everything I say here about Greek is equally applicable to Hebrew.

I have to discipline myself to spend time reading without the tools to prevent dependence. Especially in reading the Septuagint, I like to go into Logos so that I can quickly look up some of the words that I don’t know from my New Testament reading. But to really dig in and learn the material, I need to read without those tools from time to time. Now I have taken an different approach from the normal seminarian (whoever that may be!). I started in Biblical languages as an undergraduate. I had several years of Greek before I got to Seminary. I had three years of Hebrew. I actually read the passages I use when I prepare sermons first from the original languages. I use all the Logos tools constantly–except for anything resembling an interlinear. That is something I won’t do to myself.

The writer of the post on the Logos blog bemoans the passing of original languages requirements in seminaries. But I would suggest that it will not be an improvement if people who are not competent with Biblical languages start substituting their judgment for that of the trained translation committees and reviewers that produce our modern English versions.

For more on this topic see my series Word Study Dangers and my post on my Threads blog What the Greek Really Says.

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  1. Henry,
    Thank you for the informative post. As a begging Greek (self-study) student, I am working through Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek (and the workbook) and have also started using the ESV Reverse interlinear for my daily N.T. devotional reading. Do you think reading along in the interlinear in this way would actually be damaging to the learning process? If so what might you recommend as a better approach?

    Thanks for your advice.

  2. Do you think reading along in the interlinear in this way would actually be damaging to the learning process?

    I think it is potentially dangerous. There is the basic problem of learning glosses rather than definitions. This is shared by both traditional learning methods. But it also “glosses” i.e. provides a single English phrasing for Greek forms.

    You avoid part of the problem by working through Mounce and the workbook, which I have used in teaching. There are some weaknesses there, but it is pretty good. You are to be congratulated if you can do it on your own.

    The other part of the problem is one of habit. You train your mind to think in the English equivalents given by the interlinear without processing the Greek. To truly read Greek, the processing of the Greek forms needs to become automatic.

    If so what might you recommend as a better approach?

    I’m glad you asked! I do a small amount of teaching, even though my work with lay members gives me only limited opportunities to do so. Here’s what I recommend to my students:

    1. Start by studying through the passage, identifying forms, and so forth. Since you can’t get together with a native speaker of Biblical Greek, this will have to do. This is essentially what you will do in much of the workbook.

    2. As soon as possible, with Mounce certainly after you complete Lesson 15, start reading some New Testament. Divide your reading into two extremes. At one extreme, take a hard copy New Testament (not Logos with nifty Keylinks), use a decent lexicon, such as BDAG, and keep your grammar handy. When you look up a word, don’t just scan the lexicon entry for the gloss you need. Get an overview of the word and the grouping, and then fit in the word. Obviously this will go slowly. At your other extreme, use a Reader’s lexicon (Kubo & Specht for the NT), which has glosses by verse. This gives you the opportunity to see a quantity.

    I prefer the reader’s lexicon to the interlinear because you do not have the grammatical forms equated to a single English translation. There is still a danger of getting in a bad habit of depending on the reader’s lexicon, but the temptation is less.

    I hesitate to mention this since you’re working on your own, but as soon as possible, probably after you’ve completed Mounce, take a look at the Septuagint and a little bit of early Christian literature. New Testament Greek students get stuck on just the forms they find in the NT, and often have trouble with the same vocabulary in a slightly different context.

    I’m probably forgetting some things, but if I am, someone will surely remind me!

  3. Thanks for the tips. I think I see the distinction you’re making between an ‘automatic’ one for one translation and actually getting familiar with the word-concepts and how they are constructed. Thanks for the insight.

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