Keeping Your Greek (or Not)

Via Dave Black, I came across this review of the book Keep Your Greek: Strategies for Busy People. I’m going to try to get a copy of this book at some point, as I deal with many people who would like to keep some Greek but really haven’t.

Dave comments:

In the teaching world we often speak of “outcomes” when we write our syllabi. Here’s what I tell my Greek students: “By the end of the course you should be able to read your Greek New Testament with the use of a lexicon.” Now, many different roads can lead to this outcome. The most important is probably grammar; then comes vocabulary (which unlocks the door to rapid reading). But should students be discouraged from using other helps in their pursuit of this objective — interlinears, for example? Looks like one writer thinks so — that students should “burn their interlinears” (see Mark Stevens’ review of Con Campbell’s book Keeping Your Greek.)

I respectfully disagree. It is a day of conformity. Individuality is being erased until we all are like eggs in a carton. It is amusing to me to hear people proscribing tools that get students into the text. There is freedom in Christ, and it is unrealistic to think that our graduates will always master the languages to the degree we want them to. I’ve quoted it before, but the words of an old preacher bear repeating:

Halitosis is better than no breath at all.

Isn’t that great?

I must respectfully agree with Dave, though my disagreement with Mark Stevens and the book itself must be very respectful, as I’ve had some nasty things to say about interlinears myself.

I work largely with people who are either learning Greek for their own use, or who are in great need of keeping their Greek or Hebrew. Their primary need is to keep the tool available for their own use in teaching or sermon preparation. They’re not looking to pass a Greek proficiency exam (though I’ve had the pleasure of helping some people successfully for such), nor are they looking to doctoral studies.

What they need to do is maintain enough proficiency with the language in general so that they can study specific things they need to study.

I think there are two elements to this:

1) Learning Greek or Hebrew as a language in the context of the texts we have available. By this I mean not learning it simply as a set of rules which you can apply to a text, but getting to the point where you see meaning in the text without processing every detail consciously. If you don’t get to that point, maintenance will always be incredibly difficult.

2) Maintaining exposure to quantities of the language. We don’t remember our English vocabulary because we memorized lists. We remember it because we make use of it. The same thing goes for grammar.

In order to accomplish these goals, I strongly recommend reader’s lexicons. I was introduced to these by my teacher in third year Greek exegesis class, Sake Kubo, co-editor of A Reader’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. These allow reading quantities of text provided you have a minimum vocabulary (words over 50x memorized, which is a good idea in any case), and know enough basic grammar.

Now when I’m teaching, I don’t like students to use interlinears, but used correctly, I think they can be of benefit. You need to use it to provide quick glosses to let you cover a quantity of the text. Reading quantity gives you context. If you’re getting dependent on the interlinear, then you need to spend some time away from it.

Don’t use it in your detailed study of a text. The gloss provided by an interlinear is not enough to give you a serious understanding of a particular word or form. The same goes for the Reader’s Lexicon, however. But the either of these tools can help you get an overview of a passage, after which you apply your more detailed study techniques to specific portions as necessary.

There are two dangers in this, I believe. First, you may get the idea that the interlinear’s gloss is the meaning, and thus become a person who studies in English but cites Greek words. Second, you can become lazy, and never get to the more serious study. But I think you can avoid both of those problems.

I see the interlinear as a good tool for the fastest reading. The reader’s lexicon is the next level. Following that, you can get into detailed, word-by-word study. Hopefully after that you’ll get to the point that you can burn your interlinear (or give it to some poor soul who is not so far along).

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  1. I have found that if I combine the study of culture and history to my language reviews, it gives me a context for the words. Like a setting for a jewel, allowing me the mental imagery I need to grasp a fuller meaning of each word.

    The word for word approach of the interlinars never take us into this amazing realm of study. Thanks for reminding us we need to cut the cord.

  2. I think you bring out a good point when you say that the gloss provided by the interlinear can easily be confused with the actual meaning of the text.

  3. Readers’ lexicons are the way to go. For anyone who has an iPhone, I’ve put together an app to assist in doing a little bit more Greek more regularly. It’s a readers’ lexicon (i.e. a verse-by-verse lexicon of rare Greek words), so you can read your GNT and spend less time looking up words that you are unlikely to ever remember. Choose your level of NT Greek proficiency, then start reading.

    Hope it’s helpful to a few more people than just me. 🙂

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