Wednesday, September 21, 2011

On teaching Koine Greek

On his και τα λοιπα blog, Daniel R. Streett has been running a great series on teaching Greek. 
He's not done yet, but he's been building up an argument for an immersive, oral/aural, 'communicative' approach to learning Greek. His next post will be on how such an approach might be integrated into a typical seminary curriculum. I'm anxious to see what he proposes, because this is where I've been challenged. (I've replied to a couple of his posts, and I'm quoting large parts of my comments here.)

Back in the day when I was learning Greek at seminary (~1980), the Greek requirement was basically 2 years worth with follow-up in required exegetical courses. The result? I would estimate that at least 90% of pastors were no longer using Greek within 5 years of graduation from seminary. Why? They never achieved a level of competence to allow for truly “reading” Greek. In the seminary where I teach now, the Greek requirement has been reduced to about 1 year with follow-up in in required exegetical courses. There is absolutely no way I can teach students to “read” Greek. I have, therefore, had to change my goals. I try to create a foundation of Greek vocabulary and grammar, but I reduce the amount of vocab memory and analysis to a minimum. Instead, I focus on grammatical significance, syntax, using lexical tools, and learning ways of working with the Greek text. This also means, as you might guess, that Bible software becomes very important. I encourage students to use software about 2/3 of the way through the course. This also means that my quizzes and tests (apart from some foundational memory aspects) are usually open resource (i.e., they can use book, notes, software), based on biblical texts, and ask the students to compare English translations and then consult the Greek to analyze what is going on.

That was my early response to Streett's postings, but in his latest post he points out the challenge of using a 'tools' approach and just learning enough Greek to become 'dangerous' with it. He also sets up the admirable goal that we are helping students become biblical scholars, and argues that just learning 'tools' will not accomplish that. I'd like to think I'm doing something different. Here's why:
  1. Given the year of required dedicated Greek course work plus follow up in exegetical classes, we can get deeper into Greek than simply going with a one semester tools course.
  2. Almost all my students are planning to become pastors, not biblical scholars. Yes, I realize that sounds very bad, but the reality is that they want to be able to engage the Bible to support their ministries. They are not doing ministry to support their biblical scholarship. It's simply a matter of priority. They most certainly want to be fully aware of the Bible and to interpret and communicate it faithfully and with integrity, but the ultimate goal is to become a pastor or teacher in the church, not a biblical scholar. Those two things are certainly (and hopefully!) not exclusive, but priorities will dictate where time is spent.
  3. As I think about it, there is probably more than just 'tools' or 'reading' levels of competence. I would be more comfortable defining my approach as something more like 'faithful engagement' with the text, a level somewhere between tools and reading. (I'll say more in a moment.) We should probably also note that there is a 'translator' level beyond the 'reader' one. Students sometimes think they will learn to 'translate' the Greek, but that is a far more complicated task. None of my students (and I will also include myself here) is likely to come up with a better translation than the leading English versions which are products of committees of scholars who know Greek and linguistics better than my students or I.
  4. Given #3, one of the first things my students come to realize, however, is that no translation is perfect. Every translation is making some kind of compromise or is stuck trying not only to render Greek words into English but also to capture a whole culture, context, and tradition of their use.
  5. Because of #4, I have found that one of the best ways for my students to get at the Greek is by looking at a range of English versions. This approach highlights the places where the translation committees were having the most difficulty getting it right, and these are the places where they need to look more closely at the Greek. Here, then, is where the tools start to come in to play. Are the differences the result of text critical issues? Is it a lexical matter? A grammatical matter? The tools will provide the lexical and parsing and analysis and such, but you will still actually need to know some Greek to figure out what a circumstantial participle is, and how it works in Greek, and what difference it makes that it is present and not aorist. At this point, they should also be able to understand what is being said about the Greek text in the more technical commentaries like ones in the NIGTC series. (I don't know that a simple 'tools' approach would achieve this level of competence.)
As I hope you can see, students actually have to learn some Greek in my classes. No, they will not be able to 'translate' nor even 'read' the Greek. They will, however:
  • understand something about how Koine Greek works grammatically, 
  • have a grasp of syntactical features of Greek, 
  • be able to use tools, especially Bible software,
  • know how to make sense of a lexical entry in BDAG (a simple tools approach can't do this either),
  • understand discussions about Greek texts in commentaries or the footnotes of the very helpful NET Bible, and 
  • evaluate the relative merits of English versions. 
All of this can be accomplished in a year. I’d love to think I could use a more ‘communicative’ approach (though we do sing Greek songs, recite the Lord’s Prayer…), but given the time constraints imposed by our curriculum, I am taking an approach that I think (and early feedback is tending to confirm) will allow students to “use” Greek with integrity for the rest of their careers.

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