by Todd Clary, Ph.D.
This post is written for students who primarily want to learn to read the New Testament in the Koine Greek it was first written in, but who have doubts as to the best approach to learning this “New Testament” Greek. Many college and university Classics departments offer Ancient Greek, but most of them start by focusing on Attic Greek, and later cover canonical authors like Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus and Homer. The basic fact is that these authors are considerably more difficult than the Greek of the New Testament, so students find themselves asking: why should I put all this time and effort into learning to read Classical authors, when all I really want to do is read the New Testament? Wouldn’t it be easier to focus only on Koine Greek and just read the Bible?
The basic answer to this question is, yes, it would a lot easier. But an anecdote from the life of the Irish author and playwright Oscar Wilde suggests that this easier path may not lead to the most rewarding reading of the New Testament in Greek.
Oscar Wilde was an extremely talented Classicist. He enrolled in Trinity College, Dublin, at the age of 17 and soon after earned the school’s top prize in Greek. He then went on to study Classics at Oxford, earning a bachelor’s degree with top honors in classical moderations and classics in 1878. During his time at Oxford all evidence suggests that Wilde read widely and thought profoundly about an impressive assortment of Ancient Greek authors, including, but by no means limited to Homer, Euripides, Aristotle and Plato. In short, he was thoroughly trained and versed in not only Attic but also Homeric Greek.
Eventually, in order to graduate from Oxford, Wilde was required to take a vive voce (oral translation) exam. In this exam he was given a New Testament passage from the Passion and began to translate fluently and accurately. The examiners had heard enough to pass him, and asked him to stop, but he kept on translating. Finally, they asked him to stop again and succeeded in getting him to stop translating. At that point, however, Wilde pleaded: “Oh do let me go on! I want to see how it ends.” (There are actually several versions of this story. To read them see Gardner, 124-5)
Now the obvious point here for would-be students is that training in Classical Greek results in easy fluency in New Testament Greek. But I believe we can learn a more important lesson from this anecdote. Wilde’s biographers find it impossible to believe that he had never been exposed to the entirety of the New Testament at least in English translation. The point of his statement that he wanted to “see how it ends”, was based in the fact that he had never read this particular passage in Greek. Wait a minute, now, you might be saying, if he knew the story in translation wouldn’t he know how it ended? The answer must be emphatically no!
Wilde wanted to stress to his examiners that this was the first time he had ever read this passage in its original language, and the reason he didn’t know how it ended is that any text in translation is drastically different from that “same” text in its original language. Anyone who has done any translating knows that all sorts of nuances are irretrievably lost because of the basic necessity of rendering one word from one language into one word in another. The Greek words in the New Testament did not emerge from a vacuum; the vast majority of them have long recorded histories in hundreds of years in Greek literary and philosophical language. Oscar Wilde was in a position to understand these word histories and it made his reading of the passage from the Passions an experience distinct from reading the same passage in an English translation.
The Oscar Wilde anecdote therefore suggests that taking the difficult path through Attic and Homeric Greek to New Testament Greek results in a reading of the Bible that is quite distinct from reading it in translation, or for that matter, learning only Biblical Greek and using a New Testament dictionary. In the end, it is difficult to imagine an independent reading of the New Testament not based on an extensive understanding of the thousands of years of Greek language that lead up to it being chosen as the best available venue for the Gospels at the time of their being committed to writing.
Gardner, Helen. 1982. In Defence of the Imagination. Cambridge, MA.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Todd Clary, a specialist in the Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit languages, holds a Ph.D. in Classics and Indo-European Linguistics from Cornell University, where he now also works as a professor in the Classics Department. He has taught “Homeric Philology”, “Latin Comparative Grammar”, “Archaic Latin and the Italic Dialects”, as well as all levels of Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit. Dr. Clary currently tutors Latin, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit for Carmenta Online PhD Tutors.
Click here to see Dr. Clary’s full profile on the Carmenta Faculty Page.