The Role of Greek in Theological Education

“How to translate a Greek text into English is altogether secondary to reading a Greek text in order to understand it.” ~ Carl Conrad

Although Greek is fading from seminary curricula, evangelicals that strongly emphasize inerrancy or have ties to historic Protestantism usually require divinity students to have at least some proficiency in it. No consensus exists regarding the reason for this requirement, the goals of the courses, or the level of proficiency that should be required. For example, some schools aim merely to equip their students to glean “exegetical insights” (whatever that means) from electronic and print resources. Greek appears to be a tool, almost a technique, that allows students to crack difficult passages in Scripture. Armed with Strong’s Concordance and Vine’s Expository Dictionary, they hunt for “nuggets” to flavor their sermons.

Against this approach, I argue that learning Greek does nothing other than enable one to read—in Greek. Reading is reading, whatever the language. “Exegesis” is just a fancy term for attentive, analytical reading. Most Americans think they know how to read, and on one level, they do. But many do not know how to read on an analytic level. (That’s why there are books with paradoxical titles like How to Read a Book, a very useful help in this area.) Imagine that a bright 12-year-old girl, a sophomore English major, and literary critic Harold Bloom were all assigned to read Twilight and sketch the main character. The tween might enjoy the book the most, but we all know that the most insightful commentary would come from Bloom, assuming he had the fortitude to complete this agonizing task. All read the same book, but they did not all read the book the same.

If someone is a poor reader, learning Greek will provide almost no benefit. A poor English reader makes a poor Greek reader. Greek does not provide magical solutions to difficult passages. It does not furnish isolated nuggets of exegetical power. It does not compensate for underdeveloped thinking skills. It is a language, and in text form it exists to be read.

Now, if someone is a good reader, Greek has much to offer. Penetrating the veil of the translation, the reader of the Greek New Testament can interact with the text without potentially misleading English connotations. She can grasp the structure of a passage, often obscured in the translation to shorter English sentences. She can weigh areas of interpretive ambiguity, instead of settling for a translation’s questionable interpretive choice or overly literal non-choice. In short, she can apply all her powers of reading to the Greek text.

However, before even a good English reader can read Greek analytically, she has to be comfortable in the language. Analysis is a layer added on top of casual reading. If a student can’t read casually, make out the text and give its basic sense, she is in no position to go mining the depths of verbal aspect, causal participles, or obscure genitive uses. Crawling must come before running.

Here’s where many seminaries fail. Impatient to produce profound interpreters of the Greek New Testament, they rush through producing readers of the Greek language. The movement is away from learning a language to merely learning a text. But reading doesn’t work like that. What would we think of a Russian speaker who wanted to study the novels of James Joyce, but who started writing critical articles before being able to read Joyce without two grammars, a dictionary, and a Russian translation in hand? Also, he speaks and writes almost no English. We would not expect any quality work. We would rightly suspect that those critical articles really cover the Russian translation of Joyce, with just enough English references worked in to make the author appear conversant with the English.

This is what most seminarians do. After a year of beginning Greek, which often consists of pages of charts and paradigms rather than any real Greek, the student enters an “exegesis” class, in which he is expected for the first time to read more than a sentence-length segment. Even after several years, few can sit down, open up their GNT, and simply read. Obviously, these students are not nearly capable of exegeting Greek. Since they cannot actually read and understand Greek, they craft clunky, overly literal English translations and exegete those. In short, Greek exegesis classes are self-congratulatory smoke-and-mirrors shows.

If we believe that Greek really does benefit the student of Scripture, as I believe it does, the standards must be raised. Students must become competent readers, then competent Greek readers. It’s not impossible. It’s just that after a century of atrophy, it’s hard for the seminaries to remember the feeling of strength. Below is a college entrance exam from 1897. It requires students to translate an English paragraph into Greek. Most seminary graduates today could not even read the Greek text of Xenophon on which this paragraph is based. But they could once, so there is hope for the future if we are willing to embrace the hard work.

Published in: on February 23, 2011 at 2:13 pm  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] the whole post here. He articulates many things that I wholeheartedly agree with, and hopefully I will be able to work […]

  2. I agree, one has to learn to read first. How can one hope to understand what an author is saying if one doesn’t understand the language they are writing in? But, as you say, one gets the impression that students in theological colleges and seminaries are being trained in so-called exegesis from the Greek New Testament before they can read it. This is so obviously absurd that it is quite difficult to explain why, to those to whom it is not at all obvious, and you have done a good job of spelling it out. Andrew

  3. Illud, quod dicis, plane tibi assentior; sunt enim tempora -ut verbis Augustinianis utar- laboriosa, tamen lyceorum et universitatum studiorum etiamque seminariorum Catholicorum professoribus persuadere debemus, ut ne suas disciplinas ipsi crudeliter et paulatim interficiant discipulosque syntaxi et dictionario pertaesos non studiosos, sed maximos linguae Latinae et Graecae osores reddant. Est enim altera via, methodus humanistarum vel Obergiana et Athénaze ab Vivario Novo in lucem prolata, qua possimus ad textus ulla sine difficultate Latine vel Graece accedere, tamen id perpaucissimi in Academiis incuria summaque negligentia compertum habent. Aliud est locum antiquum scientifice -ut philologi et Sacrae Scripturae enarratores aiunt- perscrutari, aliud lectione cottidiana perfruari et discere, quod licet et (praesertim) decet.

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