Sundays with Silva: On the Study of Greek

It surely no secret to anyone who has been reading this blog for more than two minutes that one of its chief purposes is to spread the knowledge of the infallibility of Moisés Silva throughout the land. I have therefore decided to institute a new occasional feature like unto the Saturday à Machen, and dedicated to share with you, my genteel gazelles, choice quotations from Silva’s admirable writings for your edification.

Our Silvanic golden nugget for today is buried in a footnote, but deserves wider exposure:

“Ideally, students learning biblical Greek should do so only within the context of learning Hellenistic Greek generally (with at least a smattering of the late classical period). Of course, such a program would easily require a tripling of the time and effort nowadays devoted to the subject, and it would be virtually impossible to persuade students (or even faculty and administrators) that one needs to ‘waste time’ with Plato and Polybius and Plutarch in order to understand the language of Paul. But can one imagine a person with two years of college French daring to translate (or write an exegetical commentary on) the plays of Molière?”

Moisés Silva, “Are Translators Traitors? Some Personal Reflections,” in Glen G. Scorgie et al. (eds.), The Challenge of Bible Translation: Communicating God’s Word to the World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), page 49 n. 12.

Having presciently heeded Silva’s advice on this matter, I can only say that I am all the richer for having spent a few years pursuing the study of late Classical and Hellenistic Greek, and I encourage all who have the opportunity to do so to take advantage of it. Sometimes I have the feeling that we haven’t really overcome Hermann Cremer’s notion that the Greek of the New Testament is some kind of “Holy Ghost language.” The difference is that, instead of saying that the Holy Spirit created a theretofore unattested special language for revelatory purposes, some are now saying that the Holy Spirit doggedly stuck to a non-literary variety of the language for revelatory purposes. The first error was dispelled by the pioneering work on papyri and inscriptions by the likes of Deissmann, Grenfell, and Hunt; the second will only be laid to rest by increased exposure to Greek literature contemporary to the New Testament.

[For other wondrous Silvanic quotations, see here, here, here, here, and here; and for some links of articles by Silva conveniently available online, see here.]

17 responses to “Sundays with Silva: On the Study of Greek

  1. Do you think it is better to learn Hellenistic Greek before focusing in on the differences of Koine Greek, or is is better to learn Koine Greek and then jump into Hellenistic Greek?

    Also is there any method you know of for learning Hellenistic Greek like it were a living language so that you can speak it and think in it or do you need to lean Modern Greek too for that?

    A while back I decided to give up going through what ever Koine Greek book I was using at the time and I picked up Athenaze instead but then I got into wanting to learn to actually speak the language instead of just reading it so I put Athenaze down hoping to find another method.

    Bryan L


  2. Of course, the other sticky issue where Biblical Greek is concerned is, how much influence from Semitic Languages are we dealing with? Still not exactly Holy Ghost Greek (well, aside from Hebrew being God’s language), but it does mean we should expect some uniqueness in the fine details.


    You should check out Randall Buth’s Biblical Ulpan. I know of no more valiant attempt to do the very thing you are looking for. But without having tried it (beyond the intro book), it still seems like something that must be to a significant degree artificial. On the other hand, I’m not sure exactly how much more helpful it would be to study Modern Greek first. Undoubtedly, it is of significant use–probably more so than knowing Modern English before studying Chaucer–but without careful attention to the differences in the language over time, I imagine it would be misleading for much of what people intend to do with Biblical Greek.


  3. Esteban> You have no idea how much I simply long for the time to sit and work on my Ancient Greek!

    Bryan L> It is my conviction that everyone should at least learn Modern Greek pronunciation, so they don't sound absolutely ridiculous when reading Ancient Greek or Koine aloud.


  4. Para estudiar el periodo tardío del griego clásico, koiné y el helenístico hay una palabra clave: tiempo. ¡Sí que lo vale!


  5. Bryan L:

    Koine and Hellenistic are essentially the same thing. They both refer to the post Classical time period of Greek.


    I like this new series. I will be a very avid reader. This quote is exactly why I appreciated the Greek program at Moody Bible Institute: 3 years of Greek – year 1 was grammar, year 2 was exegesis, year 3 was advanced reading in the NT, AF, LXX and other Hellenistic texts.



  6. Trevor:
    Buth is what originally got me thinking this way. Unfortunately his program is a bit pricey and it’s only focused on Biblical Greek.

    Yeah I had to unlearn the Erasmian pronunciation. I wish I had Zodhiates’ audio Greek NT to listen to.

    I guess I was thinking about the more limited vocabulary of Biblical Greek (what I referred to as Koine) versus the wider Hellenistic literature. Do you know if there are any grammar and syntax differences?

    Bryan L


  7. “and it would be virtually impossible to persuade students (or even faculty and administrators)”
    ¡Esto es lamentablemente cierto! Pues, los cursos de griego y hebreo apenas si sobreviven en el programa curricular en pocos seminarios, y en otros lugares ya desaparecieron (hablo desde mi contexto). Me impresiona lo que Mike dice del instituto Moody.


  8. Bryan> As Mike has noted, "Koiné" and "Hellenistic" are synonymous, but of course, what you're asking is whether would be better to start with NT Greek and work your way to the extrabiblical Hellenistic Greek literature, or viceversa. My experience suggests that students have a harder time moving from the NT to other literature than the other way around. Part of the reason for this, as Silva notes in the same article quoted above (pp. 42-43) is that familiarity with the contents of the New Testament give students the impression that they are far more proficient in Greek than they actually are. This ends up causing acute frustration when students are finally faced with other literature in Greek, and many simply abandon the project declaring it impossible.

    My recommendation, like Silva's above, would be to attempt to gain as wide a grounding in Hellenistic Greek as you can as the context for your learning the language of the New Testament. Of course, the reverse course to Classical and Hellenistic Greek isn't impossible: already H. P. V. Nunn, in the preface to his Brief Syntax of Attic Greek, noted that those who has finished his Elements of NT Greek (later to be replaced by Wenham) could comfortably read Luke-Acts and from there move on to Freeman and Lowe's excellent little Greek Reader for Schools, which contains graded and annotated selections from Aesop, Theophrastus, Lucian, Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, and Plato. Anyway, if you were to start with Classical and Hellenistic Greek, the syntactical peculiarities of the NT vis-à-vis the broader literature are not such that you would fail to understand Matthew of Paul, but they do deserve, of course, detailed attention at the more advanced levels of the study of the language.

    I am unsure what the best way to go about learning Hellenistic Greek as a living language would be. I am only aware of Randall Buth's Biblical Ulpan, already mentioned by Trevor, and which you already know. But I do think that, in the end, learning to "speak Greek" would have to involve studying the modern tongue. What benefits this would afford someone when it comes to reading ancient Greek (because reading it is about all we can do), well, I'm not sure (pace Caragounis, Gus Portokalos, and their ilk).

    I agree with Aaron, though: adopting a living thing like Modern Greek pronunciation is very beneficial in that it makes you sound like a normal human being speaking an actual language. Many students have remarked how much more natural it seems to read this way.

    Trevor> For a start, Slavonic is God's language. More on that anon. ;-)

    As for semitisms and semitic enhancements in the NT, you are absolutely right, of course. But the point remains that the language of the NT is more like the wider Hellenistic Greek than it is unlike it. And even where there are cases of semitisms and semitic enhancements, we are not infrequently dealing with a literary feature–as, for instance, with the Book of Revelation, whose peculiarities, I am increasingly convinced, are the result of its consciously affecting a "biblical" (i.e., Septuagintal) style.

    Aaron> Well, maybe when your thesis is done! I can't imagine you'd have a terribly difficult time.

    Manuel> ¡Sí, lo vale! Yo pasé tres años tomando cursos de estudio supervisado en los que leí y analicé gramaticalmente una amplia gama de novelas helenísticas, sendas secciones de la Septuaginta, y la «Sintaxis» de Apolonio Díscolo. Es una de las mejores decisiones que he tomado en mi vida. Además, el primer año traduje de rabo a cabo, por mi cuenta, la excelente «Primera antología griega» de Galiano y Adrados (Gredos). ¿La conoces?

    Jeff> Tough luck, buster! You might like being a gentle snowflake better, but at the moment, there's too much snow for me to associate that name with be anything good. ;-)

    Mike> I agree with Manuel: what you say about Moody is positively impressive. Kudos to them for doing things right, and shame on everyone else for taking miserable shortcuts.

    And I knew you'd appreciate the new feature! I think that, starting with the New Year, I will do Machen and Silva quotes on alternate weekends. I've always worried that people would tire of a weekly Machen quote, but Machen AND Silva–who can tire of that?! ;-)


  9. Bryan: I was going to answer your question, but Esteban did for me – and said exactly what I would have said.

    Esteban: Unfortunately, the number of students who actually take all three years is depressingly low. There are generally only a very small handfull students for the third year. This is how it works:

    There are four or five first year classes that all contain about 25-30 students. About a fifthof these burn out after the first semester. For the second year, the five classes are reduced to three of roughly the same number. Then in the second semester, at least 10% drop because they’re pastoral majors who are only required to take 3 semesters. And then very few do the third year, partially because most students don’t begin Greek until their junior year and can only do two.

    Nonetheless, for those who make it for all three (I didn’t, I must confess, I didn’t change to a Greek major until my junior year), it is an incredible program. The professor who teaches the third year has the entire Loeb series both Greek and Latin in his office. Its beautiful.


  10. Mike> Your agreement with my comments above assuages my fears and assures me that I am not completely crazy. Obviously, though, the editor nodded frequently — my apologies to all for the copious typos!

    The attrition pattern you describe for Greek classes at Moody is identical to that I witnessed at UPR, proportionally speaking; the same is true of both Christian colleges I attended. I think you'd find that to be the case almost everywhere.

    Anyway, even if the number of students who go through the three full years is low, it is remarkable that such a program is available to any student who wishes to avail him or herself of it. Further, I can't imagine that a school like Moody would ax it on the account of "pragmatic relevance" or any such nonsense.

    And that IS a beautiful thing indeed! It would be far more beautiful, though, if the entire Loeb series were on OUR respective shelves. ;-)


  11. Thanks Esteban for the advice (and you too Mike since you would have said the exact same thing ; )

    I’ve been trying to figure out whether it’s worth learning Ancient Greek like it were a living language. I considered starting with Modern Greek and then working my way backwards (I have the Pimsleur series). Although I do wonder whether all I really need to do is read it and become very familiar with it. I’m still up in the air on it.Thanks for giving me some things to think about.

    Bryan L


  12. I would consider learning Modern Greek a worthy aim – though I’m not in full agreement with Caragounis on this one (and I’m sure Esteban is happy to hear that).

    The value in knowing Modern Greek for understanding Hellenistic is the same as the value of knowing any closely related language. Slavic languages are also important as well for understanding the processes and developments of Greek historically. Besides there’s a huge amount of linguistic scholarship on Classical and Hellenistic Greek that we do not have access to without knowledge of Modern.

    I actually plan on learning Modern through Rosetta Stone in the next year or so.


  13. Well, for all of you who have never looked into Modern Greek before, let me be the first to point out just how ridiculously easy it is!


  14. It is now my turn to agree with everything Mike wrote. And yes, I am very pleased to hear that, Mike! All the best with your study of Modern Greek.

    Aaron, I will take your word for it! I look at it, and even though I’ve been studying Greek since I was 13, have even undertaken graduate-level study in the language, and can work comfortably with anything from the Classical period down to late Byzantine times, I can barely understand the modern tongue. I should get a book and have you tutor me!

    Meanwhile, I’m deeply disappointed that no one has commented on my putting Caragounis in the same category as the Dad in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. ;-)


  15. Esteban,

    Do check out (if you have not already) Mr. Silva’s iTunes U lectures on the Westminster Theological Seminary page in iTunes.



  16. Cliff> Yes, I’ve been meaning to post about that, but the infirmities of the flesh have, alas, laid me low for a couple of weeks. Please keep me in your prayers!


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