Book Review: Learn to Read New Testament Greek

Learn to Read New Testament Greek, 3d edition by David Alan Black

B&H | Amazon | CBD

Thanks to the kind folks at Broadman & Holman for this review copy!

Of the making of Greek grammars there is no end! Thankfully, as with the seemingly endless production of commentaries, each grammar has the potential to offer unique insights and strategies for learning the language of the New Testament. David Black is an experienced teacher of Greek and the fact that his primer is now in its third edition is a testament to its usefulness for learning the Koine of the NT. Though this update is now five years old, its usefulness has hardly subsided.

One of the most debated elements concerning ancient dialects of Greek is pronunciation. Thanks to Erasmus of Rotterdam, most students learning Greek (at least in the West) adopt the pronunciation scheme he conceived and which was perpetuated by his academic descendants. I myself learned Greek this way and still default to it for the most part; however, I have modified that approach a bit (whether for ill or gain). Black confesses that the scheme adopted in his book (Erasmian) is a compromise between how the letters were probably pronounced and the way they are spelled (2). His approach is largely pragmatic—students will learn each letter with a distinct sound rather than shared sounds (e.g., ο and ω are pronounced with short and long “o” sounds respectively).

Every Greek grammar I’ve read through over the years takes a slightly different path on the way to introducing the various elements of Greek. Once the alphabet is covered, what comes next will depend on the strategy of the book’s author. Here, Black offers a “bird’s-eye” view of the Greek verbal system and introduces the present and future indicatives first, arguably the simplest of Greek forms to learn. Expectedly, he does not delve much into matters of morphology, except when it is necessary to explain changes in form that might be unexpected. Following this brief discussion of present and future active verbs, Black introduces nouns, beginning with the second then first declensions. Following that is adjectives which are then proceeded by remaining verb forms and other primary components necessary to build a foundation upon which more complex matters of syntax and exegesis may be learned. Black’s linguistic knowledge also shows throughout the book, though he keeps such references to a minimum and only includes them when it helps explain. Another helpful element included here is the last chapter in which Black offers helpful suggestions for reading the GNT. After all, the book’s approach is not learning to speak Greek, but to read and understand it and this short chapter is helpful toward that end.

One thing I like about this volume more than others is that it is rather concise. Black provides enough information for the reader to understand the very basics of learning to read Koine Greek and doesn’t belabor points, neither are his pages festooned with sidebars, charts, and other informational tidbits. Looking at Mounce’s third edition, it comes near to information overload. While all is intended to reinforce the section’s most important points, Mounce’s book is distracting at times; Black’s is not—it is simple and to the point. Presumably Black’s volume is intended for classroom use primarily as such brevity throughout is likely meant to complemented by the instruction of a prof/teacher to answer questions not explicitly answered in the book. This could also serve as the book’s primary weakness. If someone interested in learning Greek picked up this volume, I am confident that it would serve them well as a foray into the language, but without supplementary instruction and/or discussion, concision could work against them.

In sum, I think Black’s volume will continue to be a helpful and accessible guide to learning NT Greek. The essential elements of the language coupled with a straightforward presentation without gimmicks and unnecessary verbiage make this an excellent starting point for learning the language of the NT, to which its to which a third edition attests.

Αυτω η δοξα

Blogging through The Lost World of Scripture: Proposition 3

Part 1, Proposition 3 – Effective communication must accommodate to the culture and nature of the audience

Walton here tackles the prickly issue of accommodation, an area in which he has greatly helped me in my understanding of Scripture me over the years. Essentially Walton argues that God has accommodated the medium of human communication as the avenue of interaction between Himself and His creation. In so doing, God has chosen a means that would in some respects be temporally and culturally bound. This is an unavoidable tenet of communication since people are a part of a culture in which language, customs, and other elements change over time. Walton cites Kenton Sparks here, who says “in many cases God does not correct our mistaken human viewpoints but merely assumes them in order to communicate with us” (40). This is the nature of accommodation—the communicator must speak in terms that are relevant to the recipient if they desire the communication to be important and to evoke a response.

Because some elements of the beliefs held by the ancients were bound by their time and culture, readers/hearers of the Bible’s accounts must be conscious of them and interpret them in light of the culture they depict. One of the ways Walton suggests interpreters do this is through Speech-Act theory, which basically suggests that “communication is an action with particular intentions” (41). There are three levels at which speech works in this theory: locution, illocution, and perlocution. The gist is that elements of the text, e.g. genre, words, sentences, rhetorical structures, etc., or locutions, embody illocutions, and this is where the question of inerrancy should be addressed. Walton (not surprisingly) offers the example of cosmic geography to illustrate his point: “God may well accommodate the communicator’s view that the earth is the center of the cosmos. But if God’s intention is not to communicate truth about cosmic geography, that accommodation is simply part of the shape of the locution—it is incidental, not part of God’s illocution” (42).

In general I think that Speech-Act theory is helpful as one tool in the interpreter’s bag, though various approaches and methods should be employed to get to the meaning in the text (Walton doesn’t suggest Speech-Act theory as the only method). At the same time, there is a balancing act here. This allows interpreters to hold to a high view of Scripture without attributing historicity or scientific accuracy to accounts in the Bible; yet, if taken too far one could be left with a collection of stories that have been gutted of their value as truthful historical accounts (albeit often told with a theological slant). As with most things, the devil is in the details.

Whether or not one accepts Walton’s arguments thus far, he has done a service for the larger community of interpreters, though his refrain will echo more loudly in evangelical circles. If nothing else, Walton helps readers of Scripture to understand better how communication works between differing cultures, a matter that becomes highly complicated when you toss in the idea of divine inspiration of texts that purport to record such communication. Walton doesn’t seek to end the debate over inerrancy and authority, but seeks to shine much-needed light on the discussion of these important matters, and this he does well.

“We are not free to take the communicator’s locutions (whether considered divine or human) and use them to formulate our own fresh illocutions and associated meanings—authority is compromised at best or lost entirely when we do that” (42). 3

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Proposition 1, 2

Signs of the Times

I was flipping through the eight edition of Turabian’s style guide and something caught my eye. I flipped back and I had seen it. There, listed in the index, was the section number for how to cite a text message. A text message! I couldn’t imagine what sort of paper wherein a text message would qualify as a reference, but Turabian has it listed under the section concerning interviews and personal communications, so I guess it’s not too unusual. So, should you ever need to cite a text message and do so to conform to Turban style, they’ve got it covered. Signs of the times in the technological age.

Αυτω η δοξα

Cover Art

Despite the recurring admonition to refrain from judging a book by its cover, I routinely do just that. When it comes to books, movies, TV shows, musical works, etc., the artwork is an important element for me. Obviously the contents are of greater importance than the artistic veneer; yet, I think sometimes the art is passed over all too quickly. Again, the treasure of a good book or musical work is in its innards–not exterior components– and I would never pass up a good book or album just because I don’t like the cover. If that were the case, then many a great title on my shelves would be elsewhere right now!

The cover art is in many ways the first impression you have of a work (not always, obviously)–it can say a lot or a little, can draw you in or turn you away.

Musically, there are simply too many examples I could point to, but this is one of my favorites in recent years: Strongarm’s Atonement.  strongarm atonementNot only was this one of my favorite albums musically when it came out, but the artwork has always struck me. It’s incredibly simple, but the message is clear, especially if you read the lyrics. And it’s not just the message the image communicates that has endeared it to me, but the particular style of art it is–it looks like a painting. Many of my favorite album covers are similar to this one.

For books, one of my favorite covers belongs to a volume edited by Richard Horsley, several sections of which I read last year: In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance

Here I not only love the helmet, but again the simplicity, the connection the art makes with the title.

I’ll also mention another recent book cover I love for pretty much the same reasons–it’s Mark Reasoner’s Roman Imperial Texts: A Sourcebook.

The cover of this book is superb–the black background provides excellent contrast for the for the statue and the font is perfectly suited both in style and color. This jacketing is also my favorite–that soft, almost velvety feel (perhaps someone could tell me what that technical name is for this kind of paper?).

So, these are just a few examples of covers that have caught my eye. What about you–what are some of your favorites?

Αυτω η δοξα

Book Review: When God Spoke Greek

When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible by Timothy Michael Law

Oxford University Press | Amazon | CBD

When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible by Timothy Michael Law

Many thanks to the kind folks at Oxford University Press for this review copy. I received this copy free of charge in exchange for an unbiased review.

Students in the field of biblical studies probably know Timothy Michael Law as a Septuagint scholar. If I remember right, he even quipped once that he wouldn’t rest until everyone had a copy of the LXX in their hands. In his latest effort, Law seeks to cast a larger spotlight on the LXX for those whose expertise lay outside of specialized LXX studies or even biblical studies in general.

Law’s work/s rests upon four primary points of importance. First, because the LXX sheds light “on the development of Jewish thought between the third century BCE and the first century CE,” “the New Testament cannot be read apart from its context in Hellenistic Judaism” (4) and study of the LXX is necessary for properly understanding the bible used by the earliest followers of Christ. Second, the NT authors and early Church most often used the LXX, thus allowing for tremendous potential for expansion because the scriptures were available in the language of the Mediterranean world (5). Third, the theology of the earliest Christians was shaped by the LXX and not by the Hebrew Bible (5). Fourth, the LXX sometimes preservers an alternative, older form of the text (6).

Chapter two, the official foray into matters set out in the introductory chapter, covers the Hellenization of the biblical world as a consequence of the conquests of Alexander the Great. It seems in biblical studies Alexander’s introduction of Greek culture to those he conquered is a given, assumed from the outset; however, I appreciate Law’s brief survey of this history-changing feat and its importance for setting the historical backdrop for the genesis and development of the LXX.

In chapter three, Law delves into what is basically a history of the Bible’s textual development. He discusses the textual base of the Hebrew Bible—the MT, LXX, Samaritan Pentateuch, Dead Sea Scrolls, etc.—and how the Hebrew Bible came to be. The convoluted history of the canonical Hebrew text found in our Protestant translations is succinctly covered and Law’s discussion, though comparatively brief, is nevertheless helpful in orienting the reader to the trajectories along which the text ultimately moved.

Chapter four covers the genesis of the LXX with much of the chapter devoted to the infamously legendary Letter of Aristeas. Law discusses the letter and some of the critical opinions of it, ultimately siding with those who are unable to determine with any certainty the usefulness of it. The Letter of Aristeas, then, serves to illustrate the difficulty of ascertaining the precise origins of the LXX. Outside of the probability of an Alexandrian provenance in the Hellenistic period, the rest remains a bit of a mystery. As an aside, I want to note one of the more memorable comments made: “If a translation is done accurately, the new audience can peer into the original; if it is done poorly, it could start wars” (33).

Chapter five focuses on the uniqueness of the LXX, namely in terms of how various texts in the LXX differ from their Hebrew counterparts. Law discusses examples from each of the three major sections of the Hebrew Bible and briefly shows how they differ and a very brief note of its significance.

Chapter six covers the apocryphal texts of the LXX and is ample in its usefulness as an introductory treatment of these fascinating books. Law provides a brief synopsis of the problem of canon and the apocryphal works followed by a discussion of each book’s contents.

Chapter seven concerns the various “streams” that flowed into collection of Jewish texts that would ultimately comprise the canon. Law also discusses some of the problems in seeking to understand the process of canonization of texts and traditions. Like other chapters and within the purpose of the book, this chapter will serve as an intro to the subject and Law does well here.

Chapter eight turns attention to the use of the LXX in the NT. Law tackles a handful of problems that arise here, one of which I’ll highlight with a quote: “For the New Testament authors, finding the ‘original text’—a modern, often apologetically motivated concern—was not a priority” (86). There is some carryover from the last chapter in terms of canonicity of particular books. Law goes on to discuss (briefly) various texts in the NT that demonstrate the NT’s dependence on Jewish literature and highlights some particular points of contention, excellent fodder for further reading and study. Akin to this section, chapter nine is essentially a continuation of discussing the LXX in the NT, only here Law devotes most of his attention to the Gospels and Paul.

The next chapter revisits (by way of reference) the previous discussions on the process of creating a canon and tackles in more detail the problems that have attended both the process itself and the subsequent discussion of it by later examiners of the scriptures and history.

The last three chapters move out of the first century into the patristic era and well beyond, discussing at some length the importance of the LXX to a number of significant interpreters, e.g., Josephus, Philo, Jerome, Augustine, Tertullian, Origen, Constantine, and others. Law discusses their use of the NT documents (which obviously employ LXX readings more than MT) and the struggles that these early interpreters faced when attempting to sort of some of the problems that arose.

In sum, Law’s book is extremely well written and should serve as a go-to introduction for the subject. One of the aspects of this book I appreciate most is that the chapters are relatively short thus making the work of reading less arduous. Most works on the LXX are dense and verbose, necessarily steeped in esoteric vocabulary and scholarly banter. Because Law’s work is aimed at a more generalized introduction, he keeps the verbiage at a manageable level without dumbing down the discussions. One way in which this is accomplished is the inclusion of Hebrew and Greek terms as phonetic English equivalents, e.g., asereth hadevarim for עשרת הדברים and deka logos for δεκα λογους. While I appreciate this effort, I find that rendering words phonetically or transliterating them does not help—either you know the language as it was written or you don’t. Again, I think this is part of Law’s effort to keep the text manageable for those who may not have facility in biblical languages and as such I don’t find it a terrible detraction from the work. I’ll also note that the notes are banished to the back of the book in the form of endnotes and I only found one typo—p. 85, “usedvarious” with no space.

Law provides enough information to prime the reader on principal elements for beginning to understand the LXX and its role in the formation of both the Bible and Christian theology (and Jewish theology for that matter). This book is also laced with humorous analogies and witticisms that make for an even more enjoyable journey through the jungles of LXX studies. For example, Law makes the following statement: “So on the one hand nothing in the Septuagint will grab headlines for proving Solomon was celibate, that Elijah lived on a tract of land that would become Colorado, or that Adam and Eve were duped by a clever monkey instead of a serpent” (44), and later “Timothy was not sat on his grandmother’s knees reading out of a Bible published by the Palestine Bible Society” (89). His chapter titles are also clever:  Gog and His Not-So-Merry Grasshoppers (ch. 5), Bird Droppings, Stoned Elephants, and Exploding Dragons (ch. 6), and The Man with the Burning Hand versus the Man with the Honeyed Sword (ch. 13).

Let me also say something concerning the aesthetic of this volume. I don’t what kind of paper was used for this book for the covers, but it’s my favorite kind. It’s not glossy, thus not subject to dulling and fingerprinting, nor is it ordinary matte. It’s got a soft feel—again, I don’t know the technical name—and I love it.

This is a fine volume and would recommend it to all seeking to learn more about the LXX.

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