Monday, November 11, 2013

Some Thoughts On Teaching And Learning New Testament Greek

I just read an essay by Raimo Hakola and Jarmo Kiilunen about teaching the biblical languages. Let me share just a couple of paragraphs with you, followed briefly by some commentary.
"In every classroom there are always those whose passion for reading Biblical writings in their original languages is real, but, unfortunately, there are also those who take the easy way out and only aim at passing the final examination. It is a continuing challenge for the teacher to drive home that the studying of these languages is not an aim in itself but a necessary tool for a deeper understanding of the Biblical writings and their surrounding culture and world. The teacher has to take pains to show that even a basic knowledge in Hebrew and Greek makes a real difference in the exegesis of the Scriptures and is an indispensable and valuable part of the education of every theologian" (676-677).
I suppose there are a few ways that students can enter into their first ever Greek course.  One might enter entirely sold, convinced that a knowledge of Greek will deepen and enrich the ministry in which they serve. He or she has seen the benefit of the languages firsthand, perhaps through the ministry of one of their elders as he teaches the Word of God faithfully week after week. Another student might walk through the door--to use a term popular in the miraculous-gifts debate--"open-but-cautious." He or she is not sold that it is really going to make all that much difference. They walk into the classroom ready to be shown, ready to be proven wrong, hoping even to be convinced of its usefulness. There is another type of student, one who comes to class saying, "I can't believe I have to take this class. Let's hurry up and get this over with." I once talked to a student who approached his first Greek course like this. I asked him, "Why are you so convinced that Greek isn't going to prove all that valuable for local-church ministry?" Guess what? He had a pastor who told him Greek was the biggest waste of money he ever had in seminary. His pastor said, "Just push through. Once you are done, you'll never touch that stuff again." His pastor said, "Greek is for seminary, not for ministry." Nothing could be further from the truth. I agree with Raimo and Jarmo! The teacher has to show the students how valuable a knowledge of Greek is in the classroom. And it starts on the very first day. As teachers, we have to show the import into local-church ministry. Only by meeting this need will all three students be satisfied beyond the completion of their seminal studies.

The authors continue with this thought:
"The principal aim of Biblical language study, however, is to understand the writings of the Bible in their original languages and to interpret their text using necessary aids and guides. This aim means that the study of the grammar has a different and evidently also more prominent role than it may have in the study of modern languages. In the field of modern linguistics, it has become clearer and clearer that a person can learn and use a foreign language without being consciously aware of the complete grammatical system of the language. However, the situation is not the same in the case of Biblical languages, because students of these languages 'are not so much interested in 'using' these languages as they are in understanding how they have been used at particular times in particular situations; this argues for a conscious, rather than--or in addition to--an unconscious, grasp of the grammatical system of the language'" (677-678).
The aim is to understand and to interpret. Did you see how that sentence ended? " . . . using necessary aids and guides." If we expect our students to be using the tools, I think we have to incorporate the use of those tools as soon as possible.

Elsewhere the authors describe a Greek teacher as "one who supports and guides the learning process" (679). The teacher isn't the sole disseminator of information. The students are not reduced to mere "note-takers." The teacher knows more than the content. He knows where each student is--their readiness, their needs, and their interests. He knows where they are serving in ministry, and, knowing this, he is able to tailor each class to meet the student's needs and personal interests in local-church ministry. In traditional settings, students have been hoodwinked into thinking that translation equals success in the classroom. Depending on the professor, that might be true. Doing the translation work, in almost all of my Greek courses, was nearly everything I needed to pass the class. But you know what? I wasn't taking Greek because I wanted to be successful in seminary. I was taking Greek because I wanted to be successful in ministry--successful, that is, by God's standards. Being able only to do translation work just doesn't cut it in a local church. It wasn't until later during my studies in seminary that I was shown the way. And I thrived. I had been waiting for someone to take me from text to teaching. When I finally found myself under the professor who required us to think "ministry" when it came to Greek, I finally found the motivation that I had once lost after a couple of rote-memorization courses.

When it comes to the biblical languages, I can think of no other motivation greater than ministry. "I want to be able to read my Greek New Testament." Great aspiration, but I've seen many people who shared that same goal, and I've seen it fizzle away after a few years when they still couldn't read every single word they encountered in the New Testament. You know what, though? Ministry! As long as you are alive, this side of heaven, walking in obedience with the Lord Jesus Christ, there is ministry everywhere. Elsewhere, I've called this an "others-centered approach" to learning Greek. And, whatever the ministry God gives you, using your Greek will be of great benefit. And you know what else? When you use it, you don't just keep it. You actually continue to grow in your knowledge of the grammar. And as your knowledge of the grammar continues to increase, your capacity to more effectively and more efficiently use the tools increases as well. Real fast let me give you just a few things that, in my opinion, constitute "using" it:
  1. Taking your Greek New Testament with you everywhere you go. On Sunday morning, you're heading to the gathering. Yep, take your GNT (and I don't mean your Good News Translation). Heading to a morning prayer breakfast at the local Chick-Fil-A, yep, take it. When everyone turns to John 5, go ahead and turn there in your GNT. Sure, you can open your English translation up, too. Who says you can't? If you have your GNT open and someone asks you to read a passage, what if you can't read that passage? No problem. Just set it down and pick up your English. We're not trying to impress anyone. It's okay to not know. I repeat, it's okay to not know.
  2. Be a good friend to your introductory and intermediate Greek grammars. What kind a friend hangs out with someone just because they have to, and then when it's all over, they just completely disappear. Spend some time with them. Every passage you are preparing each week, consult the grammars. Look in the indices at the back, and just check to see if they reference your passage. Even if they don't, no worries. Go to the chapters you need to. Got a participle, take a few minutes and consult the different ways participles can be used.
  3. Diagram the passages your are studying. Nothing gets you looking at the Greek quite like a structural analysis.
  4. Keep reading your Greek out loud. The more senses you get involved, the better it is. (Diagramming gets you writing it.)
  5. Quit Facebook, and try your Greek book. Okay, I bet that got your attention. You might have even been on board until right then. Let me explain what I mean. I'm not imposing my non-Facebook lifestyle upon you. I simply mean we should take an inventory of our lives, especially concerning how we are spending our time. If there is anything in your life that is consuming hours from your schedule yet not leaving you edified or maximizing your life for the sake of the gospel, cut out or cut back the silly stuff and replace those minutes with something that is a better use of your time.
  6. Flip through the pages of a specialty study from time to time. Read an essay on semantics, the use of πᾶς, verbal aspect. Something. I don't know exactly what this does, but it helps. Maybe it's because it takes you into territory you aren't used to. Maybe because it's a little more challenging, so it stretches you mentally. Maybe it just makes you appreciate your old friends, the introductory and intermediate grammars, and how much you can count on them. I don't know. But give it a try.

Hakola, Raimo and Jarmo Kiilunen. "Teaching and Studying Biblical Languages in the Classroom and on the Web: Developments and Experiments at the University of Helsinki since the 1960s." Pages 671-686 in Scripture in Transition: Essays on Septuagint, Hebrew Bible, and Dead Sea Scrolls in Honour of Raija Sollamo. Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism 126. Edited by Anssi Voitila and Jutta Jokiranta. Leiden: Brill, 2008.

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