Note: this is a presentation I gave in Jan, 2019 at the “Greek and Hebrew for Life” conference at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. It is a long read (~7000 words). Here is a .pdf version.
Before proceeding, try this following “test” (no one is grading it, so don’t worry). Hopefully it is amusing and instructive to you. Following is a selection of 200 words of Greek text, taken from various sources. Take 5 minutes to read through and see what sense you can make of the following passages:
ΙΓΝΑΤΙΟΣ ΠΡΟΣ ΦΙΛΑΔΕΛΦΕΙΣ (Ignatius, to the Philadelphians)
7.2 τὸ δὲ πνεῦμα ἐκήρυσσεν, λέγον τάδε· Χωρὶς τοῦ ἐπισκόπου μηδὲν ποιεῖτε· τὴν σάρκα ὑμῶν ὡς ναὸν θεοῦ τηρεῖτε· τὴν ἕνωσιν ἀγαπᾶτε· τοὺς μερισμοὺς φεύγετε· μιμηταὶ γίνεσθε Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, ὡς καὶ αὐτὸς τοῦ πατρὸς αὐτοῦ.
Testament of Joseph 1.6
μόνος ἤμην, καὶ ὁ θέος παρεκάλεσέ με· ἐν ἀσθενείᾳ ἤμην, καὶ ὁ κύριος ἐπεσκέψατό με· ἐν φυλακῇ ἤμην, καὶ ὁ σωτὴρ ἐχαρίτωσέ με· ἐν δεσμοῖς καὶ ἔλυσέ με.
4th Baruch 1.1-2
1:1 Ἐγένετο, ἡνίκα ᾐχμαλωτεύθησαν οἱ υἱοὶ Ἰσραὴλ ἀπὸ τοῦ βασιλέως τῶν Χαλδαίων, ἐλάλησεν ὁ θεὸς πρὸς Ἰερεμίαν λέγων· Ἱερεμία, ὁ ἐκλεκτός μου, ἀνάστα, καὶ ἔξελθε ἐκ τῆς πόλεως ταύτης, σὺ καὶ Βαρούχ· ἐπειδὴ ἀπολῶ αὐτὴν διὰ τὸ πλῆθος τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν τῶν κατοικούντων ἐν αὐτῇ. 2 αἱ γὰρ προσευχαὶ ὑμῶν ὡς στῦλος ἑδραῖός ἐστιν ἐν μέσῳ αὐτῆς, καὶ ὡς τεῖχος ἀδαμάντινον περικυκλοῦν αὐτήν.
The Old Roman Creed (The Roman Symbol) The Greek text is from Migne, PG, Vol 42 Col. 384, found in the apologia of Marcellus of Ancyra
Πιστεύω οὖν εἰς θεὸν πατέρα παντοκράτορα·
καὶ εἰς Χριστὸν Ἰησοῦν, τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ, τὸν κύριον ἡμῶν,
τὸν γεννηθέντα ἐκ πνεύματος ἁγίου καὶ Μαρίας τῆς παρθένου,
τὸν ἐπὶ Ποντίου Πιλάτου σταυρωθέντα καὶ ταφέντα
καὶ τῇ τρίτῃ ἡμέρα ἀναστάντα ἐκ τῶν νεκρῶν,
ἀναβάντα εἰς τοὺς οὐρανούς
καὶ καθήμενον ἐν δεξιᾷ τοῦ πατρός, ὅθεν ἔρχεται κρίνειν ζῶντας καὶ νεκρούς·
καὶ εἰς τὸ ἅγιον πνεῦμα,
If you read through these in 5 minutes that would be equal to a reading speed of 40 words/min, which is really slow. You probably read in the neighborhood of 200-300 wpm in English (if you are an educated native speaker, that is). It is not that reading slowly is a bad thing: some people read fast, some read less fast (my wife reads way faster than I do, for instance). However, eventually you are moving through a text far too slowly for your mind to hold thought-units together, which thoroughly compromises your ability to comprehend. In other words, you really can’t understand something that you read at 40 wpm without relying on a host of secondary strategies (translation into English and writing things down, being the main ones you probably use in this case) to compensate for the fact that you are not really reading.
I hope this exercise accomplished 3 goals. First, that it encourages you that there is easy Greek out there to read (comparable to the New Testament) that won’t require too terribly much in terms of learning new grammar and vocab in order to get reading outside the New Testament (NT).
Second, I hope it has pointed out to you a gap in your knowledge of Greek. These texts all use common words from the NT and common grammatical constructions. If you struggle with understanding them then it points in the direction of the following conclusion: you know the English NT much better than you know Greek. When you “read” your Greek NT what you are doing is often little more than an exercise in projecting your mental English NT onto the Greek text rather than reading the Greek. The above texts are all very manageable if you have a solid grasp of the Greek of the NT. They are similar in vocab and grammar. As soon as we put the words and grammar that we “know” into sentences communicating something that you don’t already know, suddenly your “understanding” of Greek evaporates or is compromised. This indicates that you don’t know Greek very well.
Lastly, a 3rd minor goal of this exercise was to introduce you to the concept of reading rather than translating Greek via baptism by fire. If you actually took only 5 minutes to look at these passages you likely didn’t have time to work through them slowly and carefully, looking up words, consulting grammars, etc. I intentionally gave you more text than you would have time to work through like that (unless you are really fast with a lexicon and a grammar). There is also no space provided to write down a translation or many notes. In your Greek learning journey, I hope you come to see that translating vs. understanding are not the same thing (which is self-evident if you already know another language). For this exercise I gave you enough time to read through the passages (indeed, you could read through them a few times in 5 minutes!), get the big idea of what they are saying, make some educated guesses, etc., but not enough time to “translate.” This concept of “reading” rather than “translating” is one we will return to.
Why Read Outside the NT?
Before proceeding further, I want to entertain a question that will doubtlessly have arisen in the minds of many a student learning Greek in the seminary context: why read outside the NT? If it is already hard enough to work with what we already have, why add more? I will answer this through a simple thought experiment.
Imagine for a moment a person whose only exposure to the English language was the ESV New Testament. They have a reasonably good grasp of how to gloss the English words of the ESV NT in their native language. They can consult a grammar about how to translate the ESV New Testament into their native language. They can work through a few sentences, or maybe even paragraphs of the text at a time and figure out more or less what it means in their native language.
I pose the question to you: would you, as an English-speaker, say that this (imaginary?) person knows English?
In one sense, they do. After all, they are able to work with text in English, generate understanding from it, and discuss its meaning in their own language. However, in another sense, they are profoundly ignorant of English. Not only do they know nothing of the world of English that exists outside the NT (which is massive), but also they do not really have enough knowledge of English to make good sense of what is in their NT and why things are the way things are. They can get by, to some extent, by relying on grammars, but this only allows them to turn English into approximations in their own language, not to understand English.
I trust this parable is completely transparent. It describes our engagement with the Greek NT (at least almost all of us). We ‘know’ Greek very little because we engage with such a small chunk of the Greek language (even sometimes getting very proficient with that small chunk) and the knowledge we build tends to be cut off from the rest of the world of Greek. Yes, as reader of the Greek NT we have great tools at our disposal to facilitate or work with the Greek text. But even these tools—our lexicons and grammars, encyclopedias, etc.—tend to lose value because the tool-user does not know the language well enough to use them to their greatest effectiveness.
So, I re-pose the question: Why read Greek outside the NT?
Given that you came to this session, I don’t expect you need much convincing that reading outside the NT is a valuable way to better your knowledge of Greek. Still, it is worthwhile to spend a little time thinking about why it is worthwhile reading outside the NT, especially considering that we are all busy and pressed for time and stepping outside the bounds of the NT will bring work and difficulties that are not faced in the familiar passages.
My answer to this question can be summed up quickly by describing my journey down the path of extra-NT Greek reading.
Most of what I am going to tell you here has grown out of my experience. I attended seminary with one big goal—learn the languages. I figured that I would never have another period of life post-seminary where I would be able to devote substantial effort to the endeavor, so I worked like crazy at the languages.
After finishing Seminary, I began to notice a few things. First, that my reading of Greek was basically a long and difficult way around to end up with a butchered version of an English rendering of the passage that I already knew. In other words, I noticed that I was not reading Greek, but going the long way around to put the English translation I vaguely knew onto the Greek text. This is fine, since the translation is good, but it is a far cry from reading Greek. I wanted to actually read and understand Greek and do NT exegesis in the Greek text, rather than a butchered Englishcized NT text that was neither good English nor a good understanding of the Greek.
Second, I noticed that my ability to ‘read’ NT passages depended on how well I knew the English, not how difficult the Greek was. I would find Colossians far easier to read than the Gospel of John. Anyone who has read these texts in Greek knows that John is actually far easier Greek than Colossians. What was the explanation? I had Colossians memorized in English, but not John. This same phenomenon would repeat itself in passages that I knew better than others. Basically, this was solid evidence to me that my “reading” of Greek was more an exercise in retrieving English I already knew.
Third, I noticed that whenever I tried to remember what a Greek word for an English word was, I would remember something in German instead. For example, say I wanted to think of the Greek word for ‘walk’. The first word that would come to mind was not περιπατέω, which I had dutifully memorized in Elementary Greek, but spazieren, which I had learned a half-decade earlier in a college German class that I really had not put that much effort into. Something had clicked in my exposure to German that had not clicked in my exposure to Greek.
Reflecting on these developments, I came to the conclusion that, despite my great efforts in Greek study, I really had not learned Greek. I had becoming mildly proficient at turning a Greek sentence into something that resembles English by the use of various tools and mental gymnastics, but I certainly did not know Greek. I had basically learned how to use tools to mathematically turn a Greek sentence into an English one, and since I already knew what the English should be, I could always be right. This process was self-evidently a far cry from reading and understanding Greek.
With this realization in hand, I set out on the journey of trying to learn Greek. This journey has involved a number of different things, but the backbone has always been the same: reading (not translating) Greek texts that I have never seen an English translation of (or, in the case of the LXX and some early church writings, texts that I was not intimately familiar with the English translation). What I want to talk about in the rest of our time is some of the things I have learned along the way that have proved helpful in my on-going journey of learning Greek better. Finally, I will point to some practical resources to get walking down this new byway in your Greek journey.
Roadmap forward, or, how to get going with reading outside the New Testament:
Embrace not understanding
The first and most important foundational commitment for this endeavor is simple and counterintuitive: you must embrace not understanding. That’s right. Give yourself permission to not understand. You are going to not understand a lot of what you encounter as you read various Greek texts. Over time as you keep working you will, of course, understand more and more, but there is always going to be something you don’t understand in what you read. That is OKAY. It’s still Greek to me, too.
In my experience, at the outset of your quest few and far between will be the pages, the paragraphs, often even the sentences or clauses where you already know all the words or have no need to consult a grammar for giving a precise translation. Your experience learning NT Greek has not really prepared you for reading Greek. That’s okay. If you keep up with your reading, you will find more and more often that you can actually understand what you just read, but this takes time and effort. So it really is important to give yourself permission not to understand what you are reading. If you expect that you will understand everything in a passage of Greek you have never seen before and have little to no idea what it says in advance, then you will quickly get frustrated and give up. We are beginning an overwhelming task on this journey and “The normal reaction to tasks that overwhelm us, either because we cannot see how we can ever finish them, or because the level of difficulty is way beyond us, is frustration. Frustration breeds procrastination and welcomes distractions.” (Sachs, How to Remember Anything)
You cannot and will not understand everything that you read because you don’t know it yet! One of the paradoxes of learning is that to learn something well you already have to know it. This makes it very frustrating to be in the beginning phases of learning because you don’t know much of anything and you are not well positioned to learn. Eventually, your brain will put together enough partial understandings to make a robust one, but it takes time and effort. So don’t make it more frustrating for yourself by expecting to understand what you are reading as if you are reading English.
Part of learning any new language is embracing a great deal of lack of understanding. Rather than focusing on what you don’t understand, focus on what you do get from a passage and think about how much more of it you will understand next time you make your way through this passage. Giving yourself permission to not understand is foundational for language learning. This is one of the true benefits that children have as language learners over adults. They don’t understand tons of the things they hear and see and read, and it doesn’t seem to phase them at all! Five years later, something might click without them ever having thought about it in the meantime. The journey of reading Greek needs to be playing the long game. Don’t think of learning Greek as a one or two semester deal where you work hard and then “know” it. It is a lifetime journey, so find a way to keep walking. The way to win in the long haul is not to get mired in the details at the beginning. What we need is to get a lot of Greek into our minds, and that takes a lot of reading, and if you never read a lot because you are so focused on the things you don’t understand than you will never get off the ground.
Develop tools to mitigate your lack of understanding
Of course, it would be pointless to just read reams of text that you don’t understand at all. That would get you no where. Once you have given yourself permission not to understand, we need to think about some actual tools and strategy to leverage the understanding that we do have to make our reading more worthwhile.
Develop the fine art of guessing
When reading a Greek text which you don’t know full of words you don’t know, you have a distinct disadvantage of not knowing many things. However, as a human being with experience in the world and some sort of knowledge of ancient cultures and practices, you have a distinct advantage. You are full of reasonable expectations about how the world works which can guide you as you try to make sense of the text in front of you. So when you see a word for ‘boat’ and the people are in a different place in the next sentence, then that verb you didn’t recognize probably means some something like ‘sailing’ rather than ‘investing.’ You can learn to use the power of guessing in repeated contexts across various texts to start building up an organic understanding of Greek.
Guessing what is going on in a sentence, a paragraph, what a word must mean, who must be doing what to whom, is one of the strongest tools in your toolbox as you venture out into the world of Greek texts which you don’t yet know. (One major caveat here. Guessing from context is generally not a very effective strategy for learning the meaning of words. What I am advocating is not the attempt to learn the meaning of isolated words; rather, the attempt to create a generally cognizant mental representation of what the text is about. It will be fuzzy and often times obviously missing major components, but you can often generate a good enough mental vision of a text to grasp its main events even when you have missed a fair amount of what is in the text). So when you are reading a passage and you see a big long list of words that look like nouns in a sentence whose main verb is one about getting dressed, just guess that these are words for different articles of clothing. Of course, you could stop and look them all up if you wish or need to, but that will likely take most of your time you have set aside for reading that day. Make an educated guess and move on. Check your educated guesses periodically.
A critical sub-skill of “the fine are of guessing” is to learn to pay attention to the context in order to understand what is happening. The way most of us were taught to do NT Greek reading is so focused on tiny bits of text and tiny bits of grammar that we have little chance to develop a habit of paying attention to the larger context in the Greek, to the flow of thought as clause is stacked onto clause and sentence onto sentence. We need to build up this skill, probably from scratch. Practicing reading a lot of text quickly enables you to keep track of what is happening in the context; reading through a text too slowly makes who is doing what to whom become really fuzzy. A big part of what you will be doing is simply forcing yourself to read the Greek text in big chunks. I would say you should aim at least for paragraphs, and never read it is less then sentences. Didn’t catch what the verb of that sentence was? Keep going. You will come back and fix things you missed latter. To learn how to attend to bigger chunks of text requires forcing yourself to do it. It does not happen by accident.
Lastly, work to develop the fine are of rewriting your understanding on the fly. When reading quickly through a text, you may get to the end of a paragraph and realize that the guy you thought was talking actually was the one who got killed. That’s okay. It is not a crisis that requires giving up what progress you have made. Simply take a brief moment to mentally re-write what went on, glace back over the passage, and then keep moving forward.
Embracing not understanding frees us up to engage lots of Greek text, rather than getting mired in the difficulties that will always be there when you zoom in and focus on a passage. A Greek text is like a minefield. There are always mines waiting to blow up in your face when you poke around carefully in the text. What I am advocating here is adding a discipline of reading that is like taking a hover craft over the minefield. The goal is not to figure everything out, but to get the lay of the land and move on. Once we mentally embrace habits of reading that allow us to engage with larger amounts of text, what should we do?
Key Practices for Massive Reading
Read, read, and read some more! (and translate less)
The core practice to cultivate is really straight-forward: read, read, and read some more! There is a key caveat that I strongly support, namely, translate less! The rationale behind this practice is rather simple. As you learn Ancient Greek, the basic problem you face is this: you can’t understand Greek because your brain does not have enough Greek in it to make sense of it! Your brain is a pattern-making machine; give it enough data and it will make a pattern, detect a pattern (even if one isn’t there). Your biggest problem in Greek learning is a deficit of Greek in your brain. If you are like most learners, most of your Greek learning in classes has likely been focused on learning English terms and ideas through which to describe Greek rather than learning Greek. Of course, this is valuable and has it place, but by itself it does not do much to prepare you for actually reading Greek. In fact, paired with a general lack of reading much Greek in NT Greek courses, this emphasis on how to describe Greek grammar leaves you with a pretty small stockpile of Greek in your mental banks to draw on. No matter how many grammar rules you memorize, no matter how many paradigms you memorize, you simply don’t have enough Greek in your brain to make sense of it in actual Greek texts. So you need to read more. But how on earth will that happen?
Practical steps for reading more Greek
The way you are going to read more Greek is this. First, set up a disciplined time and amount of Greek to read daily. Naturally, you can always read more on days where you feel like it, or have some extra time. The idea here is to pick a target amount of Greek to read that you can actually do on a normal, busy day. The sort of day where you would rather sit down and watch YouTube videos than pull out a Greek text and lexicon and go to town.
For example, back when I started the personal emphasis of reading more Greek I had a simple goal: read 1 chapter of the Greek NT every day along with one paragraph of something I had never read before (something from the LXX, apocryphal gospels, church fathers, etc.). Over the years since then I have upped my reading goal to 4-6 chapters (2 from the NT; 2-4 from the LXX) per day along with one paragraph of something I haven’t read before. My reading speed has increased dramatically, so I can often read all those chapters in less time than 1 chapter used to take. If you call it “NT Greek” you probably learned Greek primarily for the purpose of reading the NT. That make sense. Keep it as the core point in your reading plan. Adding the goal of 1 paragraph of something you have never read before aims to do two things: 1) get exposure to Greek outside the NT so you have more room to grow in your knowledge of Greek (rather than jog your memorized English NT translation in your mind), and 2) give a big enough chunk of Greek text so that you can actually read something within its flow of thought. I would discourage you from aiming to read 1 sentence a day. If that is all you can do, than by all means, do it. However, reading 1 sentence at a time does not really build up the skills necessary for reading with understanding.
So, make your decision. Aim for reading 1 chapter, or as much as you can read in 15 minutes, half an hour, or whatever. Pragmatically, decide on a time and place where you are going to do your reading, as this will make it far more likely that you actually will do so. This daily reading is going to be the backbone of your efforts. It is really quite astounding the ground that you will cover in a month, a year, five years, if you simply read one new paragraph of Greek each day. As you keep this practice up, you will start to collect a body of texts that you have only ever read in Greek. It is okay, give yourself on notch on your belt for each one. Celebrate your growth in knowledge of Greek.
Periodic sustained reading
On top of the daily reading, you should periodically plan in time for sustained Greek reading. Long sustained reading with just you and the Greek text in front of you is where you will likely feel the biggest advances in your Greek understanding, in my experience. What do I mean by sustained reading? Reading one paragraph likely feels like sustained reading for many of us. Well, for example, the first time I read Revelation in the NT in Greek, I read the entire book in one sitting. That is sustained reading. Perhaps that is more than you are ready for. That’s okay. Work up to it. But start off with reading twice as much as normal, then maybe three times as much, and so on. My experience (and anecdotes from others) tells me that it is in reading large chunks of text that a lot of the disparate things you have half learned start to come together. Remember, your brain is a pattern-making machine. By design, your mind craves patterns and seeks to overlay patterns on everything in the world. Working through long stretches of text periodically gives your mind a chance to start making some big-picture sense out of the language that you will never get if you only read a few verses at a time. A pragmatic suggestion: once you have read through a noteworthy portion of text in your daily reading—all of a book, half of a book, one major section, etc.—set aside a time to read through it all in one sitting.
The bottom line: make sure you are doing consistent reading work on a daily basis of an amount that is doable and that does not induce panic or other unwholesome feelings. On top of this, plan to periodically binge read some Greek. Doing both of these will really help you out.
If you are going to make this reading outside the NT work, you need to be smart about what you read. If you get bored with what you are reading because it is too hard, too easy (there may come a day when you experience Greek that strikes you in this way), too unrealted to what you are interested in, or just not hitting your buttons right now, then you will give up. Few people have the iron will it takes to keep effectively doing a task that they find boring. So here is a little tip: don’t read something that is boring you! Be kind to your mind, put down the mental cheese grader you are rubbing across your brain, and go try reading something else. The point is that you need to be disciplined to read every day, but don’t stick with something that is boring you into giving up.
Is Infancy Gospel of Thomas not doing it for you right now? Try Didache? Not Didache? Go read 2 Kings. You get the idea. Switch up what you are reading and be creative. Spend your discipline getting yourself to read, not reading something you aren’t interested in at the moment. You can always come back some other time when you are interested or have learned more.
Besides not forcing yourself to read something you are finding dull at the moment—remember, this whole journey is your choice and for your benefit, not something forced upon you—one other practical suggestion in the interest of growing your understanding of Greek: periodically push your abilities. Don’t always go for the text that are the easiest to read. Use those. Read them a lot (it will actually be really helpful). But remember this: if all you ever read is Fun with Dick and Jane you will never have the cognitive ability to effectively interact with books on grow up ideas, like the NT. So toggle back and forth between texts that are easier and texts that are harder. Push yourself to get both a lot of Greek (in easy texts) and harder Greek (in harder texts) so that you will learn Greek better.
How to use Grammars and Lexicons
At this point, I want to step aside and address a pertinent issue how to use grammars and lexicons in your reading. If you have learned Greek academically, grammars and lexicons probably play the central role in your thinking about Greek. They are great tools and the wisdom of the ages handed down to us. Rejoice in them. Learn how to use them. BUT don’t become a grammar aficionado who does not actually read Greek.
One of my early steps in my own journey of trying to learn to read Greek on my own was to read through Dan Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics from cover to cover. I’m not going to say this was a waste of time. I certainly learned things. Part of the reason is simply because there is a lot of Greek text in the grammar that I read. However, reading grammars like this is not the most beneficial endeavor for at least two reasons: 1) it is very dull for 99% of the people on the planet (including myself, a Greek scholar), and 2) it is also not very insightful. Not that there isn’t a lot of fantastic information in grammars to learn. That is exactly the problem! There is simply too much data to take in for most human beings. Rather than trying to read a grammar, try to spend more time reading actual Greek text.
So, what should you do with grammars and lexicons? Learn to use them for answering specific questions raised by what you are reading and as periodic resources to help you learn the big-picture patterns of the language with more precision than you will get from just reading by yourself. If you see a sentence pattern a couple times in a text you are reading, go looking for it in a grammar. Learn a better way of understanding what you are encountering in the text. Struggling to find where to look in the grammar for answers? Go ask someone who knows. Seriously. That is by far the best idea. The Greek grammatical tradition is a mess and you will save yourself a ton of time and effort better spent reading Greek by just asking someone. Don’t have a resident Greek expert as your friend? Go ask someone the B-Greek online forum, where a variety of resident Greek experts (or at least wanna-be experts) will happily share their knowledge with you).
The same thing goes with lexicons, with some modification. Do you need to look up and learn a lot of words to improve your Greek reading? Yes, yes, and a thousand times yes. If you don’t know the words, you can’t read the text, no matter how much grammar and morphology you know. However, if you spend all your reading time flipping through a lexicon you will basically waste your time. Not only will you not read very much actual Greek text, but, let’s be honest, you aren’t going to remember those words you spent your time looking up either. Learn to view lexicons as tools to solve a specific problem: learning a word you don’t know. This means making a flashcard of it and learning it. Thumbing through a lexicon is a valuable endeavor, and sometimes it is absolutely necessary for making any headway in a passage. On occasion you may have to dig through a huge lexicon entry to find out what you are missing. These excavation projects are well worth it. But don’t turn what could be a mind landscaping adjustment into a strip-mining operation, metaphorically speaking. Most trips to the lexicon should be short and sweet. Be careful that you don’t spend all your time with the lexicon and none of your time in the text.
One practical approach I often took in the early phases of learning was to print out the text I wanted to read. I would read through it the first time without stopping. As I read the text, I marked words that were important for understanding the text that I did not know (that does not mean every word you don’t recognize). Then I would look them up, write a gloss in my print-out, and re-read the text. Its not perfect, but it was helpful and getting a lot of reading in. Now I am often able to pre-game vocab I will need to read a new text and make Anki cards of all of it so that I am ready in advance. This is a good strategy.
So, what should a normal day of reading look like? practical guidelines
Let’s say you have decided to read through The Infancy Gospel of Thomas at a rate of one paragraph a day (remember, you can and should always do more if you have time, but don’t do less!). What should you do during your reading time?
First, review what you had read yesterday. Hopefully you find you can read through it relatively quickly and with good understanding.
Second, read the whole passage you have set out for the day. I mean read it. Go straight through from start to finish. No stopping. No going back to mull over something you didn’t get. Rely on your guessing skills. Simply embrace that you didn’t understand something and keep moving forward.
Third, go back and look up anything you need to to understand the passage. This is where you pull out your lexicon and grammar as needed to make sense of the passage. Parse words you need to (don’t bother with parsing everything, just what you need), decide what class conditional things are in, etc. Look up every word you don’t know, if you want, or just enough to make sense of the passage. This is the phase where you would translate phrases/clauses/sentences that you don’t understand. However, if you have a reasonable grasp of what the Greek said, then don’t bother translating. For this sort of reading translation is a last resort to understand some Greek that simply is eluding your best efforts. Remember, not only does translation take time, but it also takes you away from the Greek text into the world of English resources. Try to spend as much time in the Greek text. You are not preparing a translation for the benefit of others, you are not going to be tested by a teacher on the text you are reading, you are reading for personal enrichment.
Fourth, having done enough excavation work to gain a rough-and-ready understanding of your passage, re-read the passage several times for understanding (think 1-6x, depending on how difficult it was, how much you had to look up, etc.). The aim is to ingrain the patterns of the language, the meaning of the words in context, the writing style of the particular author, the specific content of this passage, and so forth into your mind.
Fifth and lastly, be done for the day. Celebrate your growth in Greek knowledge, enjoy what you have read, etc.
Once you have worked your way through the whole Infancy Gospel of Thomas (or whatever else you decided to read), or just a big chunk of it, set aside some time to read through it as fast as possible in as big of chunks as possible. As you read through, rejoice in the things you have learned rather than dwelling on the words and grammar points you look up but have forgotten already. You will see progress if you carry this out. And it will be sweet.
You should primarily read narrative texts
What should you read on this new journey? For purely practical reasons, you should aim primarily at reading narrative texts (that is, texts whose main point is to tell a story rather than to argue a point or teach, etc.). In narrative, a text is generally easier to comprehend since there are a variety of cues about when and where things are happening, scene changes, changes of character, who is doing what to who, and so forth. There is usually clear demarcation of action and of times. If you struggle with one passage, generally you can get by with the next section of the narrative anyways. Expository texts, by contrast, tend to be much more demanding on how much of the text you have to understand and hold in your mind in order to make sense of what is going on. Narrative is just easier to build up your reading skills on. So default to reading easy narratives.
Don’t stop learning vocab (but primarily while reading and in order to read specific texts):
Vocab learning will become a lifelong avocation if you are going to read much Greek. That is simply what is necessary. You will likely discover that many of the words in the NT that you “known” you don’t actually know when you encounter in a non-familiar context. This means, among other things, that you don’t really know what said word means and this sort of non-NT reading will actually be what is helping you learn it
Remember the Goal
We’ve covered some ground in which I have argued that in order to read the Greek NT with comprehension you actually need to know more Greek than just the NT. This means that you have to actually read Greek outside the NT and grow your general Greek reading skills. This requires a lot of work. There is no way around that. I have laid out a variety of disciplines and practices that will help make that work well spent and, hopefully, a little easier.
In finishing, it is important to refocus on our aim. Our aim in this entire endeavor is to better understand the NT, to do better exegesis, to know God’s word better. Yes, this will help you learn Greek better, which is cool to certain people and in certain sub-cultures, and a great life achievement, but the big goal for those of us involved in the study of the NT is to better understand the NT. In order to understand the Gk NT well you need to know more Greek than what is in the Greek NT! There is no way around this. So get out there and read some Greek.
Resources to know about
Following are a few (of many) resources that you can find that are helpful for reading more Greek, especially Greek you probably have not read before. These are suggestive and not meant in any way to be exhaustive.
P.S. You probably can’t buy everything. You should check out if your local library participates in Inter-library loan. It is one of the greatest institutions ever.
- Ehrman, Bart D., and Zlatko Pleše. The Apocryphal Gospels: Texts and Translations.
- Septuaginta: A Reader’s Edition. Edited by Gregory R. Lanier and William A. Ross.
- Discovering the Septuagint: A Guided Reader. Edited by Karen Jobes.
- The Septuagint with Apocrypha: Greek and English. By Lancelot C. Brenton.
- McLean, B.H. Hellenistic and Biblical Greek: A Graduated Reader.
- Geoffrey Steadman’s Xenophon’s Anabasis Book 1: Greek Text with Facing Vocabulary and Commentary. (free pdf on his website, or you can buy the book from Amazon)
- see also his work on the Cebes Tablet, also pdf
- Holmes, Michael W. The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, 3rd ed.
- Decker, Rodney. Koine Greek Reader: Selections from the New Testament, Septuagint, and Early Christian Writers.
- The Apostolic Fathers Greek Readers Series.
- The Online Critical Pseudepigrapha (website)
- Perseus Greek Word Study Tool
- access to LSJ (the lexicon you need) and Smyth (the grammar you will probably need)
- B-Greek: The Biblical Greek Forum (http://www.ibiblio.org/bgreek/forum/index.php)
- Akropolis World News (akwn.net)
- Early Church Texts (earlychurchtexts.com)