Book Review: Learn to Read New Testament Greek

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

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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.

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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

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?

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Blogging through The Lost World of Scripture: Proposition 2

Part 1, Proposition 2 – Expansions and revisions were possible as documents were copied generation after generation and eventually compiled into literary works

This section practically reads like a primer on textual criticism, at least a couple of its components. Essentially Walton considers the role of the scribe in the transmission of what would become the canonical text. Here he asks an important question, one whose answer still evades satisfactory explanation: “Which version of a tradition found its way into a document?” The discussion here revolves around, as mentioned above, the role of the scribe. Walton suggests that scribes had a measure of latitude when it came to copying texts, though this varied depending on historical factors in the culture and the scribe’s level of accomplishment. Many of the changes made in the text over the centuries were what Walton describes as updates—language and place names, explanatory glosses, added sections, updated formulations, and integrated revisions to address new audiences (33–34). These are indicative of the changes that occur in language and the community in which the oral tradition is circulating. Beyond this, there were more significant changes that were introduced to the text, a phenomenon Walton describes as “innertexuatlity”—actual changes within the tradition itself. This might include new laws, wisdom sayings, narratives, etc. Here I wish that Walton would have provided concrete examples of such additions.

Walton makes an important point in this section. He suggests that changes that were introduced by the scribes would not have been seen as “destructive, deceptive, or subversive” (34), but rather advantageous. This is so because they (the scribes and the community they served) did not see their work as tampering with authority. Since authority resided in the authority figure who inaugurated the tradition, updating the text to be relevant to an ever-changing culture was necessary and would preserve the core of the tradition, though it would be couched in different language than that of its original form.

Walton continues (with many before him) to dispel the notion that the canonical text is indicative of word-for-word preservation of what Abraham, Moses, or others actually said. The distance between the origin of the oral tradition and its transcription into a document is simply too great. For Walton, this does not diminish the authority or importance of the text we have, but serves as a reminder that the text is the product of a culture that was only much later oriented around a written text. As such, the original form of the tradition recorded would have been quite different, though this is not seen as a detriment to the current text.

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Proposition 1

New Eerdmans Catalog

For bibliophiles, new catalogs are always a treat! Eerdmans just released their new fall academic catalog–check it out here. There are many fine offerings, but two caught my attention:

Reframing Paul: An Epistolary Biography by Douglas Campbell

After creating somewhat of a furor with his offering on Paul and Romans (The Deliverance of God), Campbell will surely upset some apple carts with this volume. According to the blurb, “Though figuring out the authorship and order of Paul’s letters has been thought to be impossible, Campbell’s Framing Paul presents a cogent, innovative solution to this long- contested puzzle.” Color me skeptical, but this seems a bit ambitious; yet, Campbell is a provocative scholar and writer, so this should be an engaging read whatever the theses and arguments may be. 

A second volume of interest is Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: Greek and English by Craig Evans and Daniel Zacharias. Eerdmans just released volume one of Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: More Noncanonical Scriptures last year and now this beauty is slated for release in January. The primary difference here (presumably besides different texts that are included) is the availability of the Greek texts. This will be a boon for students who wish to have more access to the original texts (sketchy as some may be) behind these important works.

A number of other promising volumes are also included: Pandora’s Box Opened: An Examination and Defense of Historical-Critical Method and Its Master Practitioners by Roy Harrisville, The Text of the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Biblia Hebraica (3d ed) by Ernst Würthwein, The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus by Michael Bird, The Many Faces of Herod the Great by Adam Kolman Marshak, and the revised edition of Gordon Fee’s commentary on 1 Corinthians in the NICNT.

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Blogging through The Lost World of Scripture: Proposition 1

The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority

By John H. Walton and Brent D. Sandy

I must say that when I received a copy of this title from the always-generous folks at IVP, I was excited. John Walton and Brent Sandy are two scholars whom I hold in high regard. Walton was helpful for me in sorting through interpretive issues in Genesis 1 related to cosmology through his treatments on the subject (here and here) and Brent Sandy’s work on apocalyptic language was likewise a helpful guide in dealing with enigmatic imagery in scriptural texts. Now Walton and Sandy turn their attention to a matter that has been the subject of renewed discussion and debate—the transmission of biblical texts and the question of inerrancy. From the outset, Walton and Sandy make it clear that they hold a very high view of Scripture—it is “God’s self-disclosure” and a “literary deposit of divine truth” (12). They also affirm the Scriptures to be inerrant (12). However, W and S are clear that any terminology used to discuss inerrancy is ultimately inadequate (13).

This book is arranged in four parts, each of which contains a series of propositions. Each proposition details an element of the process of the biblical text’s transmission and how one should approach the text in light of that. Part 1: The Old Testament World of Composition and Communication; Part 2: The New Testament World of Composition and Communication; Part 3: The Biblical World of Literary Genres; Part 4: Concluding Affirmations on the Origin and Authority of Scripture.

Part 1, Proposition 1 – Ancient Near Eastern societies were hearing dominant and had nothing comparable to authors and books as we know them.

Initially, the suggestion that ancient societies like those of the ANE had no books and authors sounds somewhat silly. In the days since Gutenberg’s printing press made mass publication even possible and especially in this age of technology, it’s almost unthinkable to imagine a time when books were a rare commodity for a select few who were privileged enough to possess copies of their own. However, books and other forms of printed media are a comparatively modern luxury.

The first proposition is largely introductory (naturally) and serves to orient the proceeding discussion in the fact that ancient cultures, particularly those in the ANE, were hearing-dominant and not text-dominant. Walton discusses a number of issues why this is so, most of which should be intuitive to anyone who stops to think about a world 2,000 years removed from our own. Walton argues that reading and writing were limited to a small number of people who practiced these for very particular reasons. For example, he argues that documents were produced for archives, libraries, for school texts, to be read aloud, and as symbolic expressions of power (23). However, we could easily take these purposes and transport them to the modern world, though of course our reasons of reading and writing surpass these. I think that writings as expressions of power is intriguing and I am hoping he discusses that more. I also wonder how much of the writings from the ANE comprise this category.

Another intriguing point, which is derivative of the discussion that preceded it, is the fact that the ancients didn’t consider books and authors the way we do. As Walton notes, concepts such as plagiarism, intellectual property, etc., were notions completely foreign to the ANE. Instead, there were only “authorities, documents, and scribes” (25).

So far, I’m intrigued as to how this will flesh out in following propositions. Due to space limitations, this introductory chapter is necessarily selective in terms of examples and references to primary sources, so the discussion feels a tad truncated. However, I imagine the whole book will be this way as it is not meant to be an exhaustive tome that analyzes the numerous data on the subject, but rather serves as a springboard into the discussion.

Memorable quotes:

“Literacy is not necessarily absent in hearing-dominant societies; it is simply nonessential” (18).

“[P]reserving an oral tradition in a document will not obscure the characteristics of orality” (24).

“Authority was not connected to a document but to the person of authority behind the document when that person was known, or to the tradition itself” (27).

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Blogging through The Lost World of Scripture

This blog (obviously!) has been rather sparse in terms of new content over the last year or more. Life is busy with family, work, and school, and any down time is usually gobbled up by some other necessary chore (ask our DVR!). However, I’ve given some thought to doing something I’ve not done before–blogging through a book. This strikes me as both a fun outlet for not only reading and discussing books but also a tremendously likely failure–time simply hasn’t permitted me much in the way of leisurely reading and blogging.

Thanks to the always-generous folks at IVP, I received a copy of John Walton and Brent Sandy’s recent venture–The Lost World of Scripture. The matter of biblical authority and its derivation from Scripture has a long history and its enjoyed a fair bit of attention in recent years. So, as I mentioned, this would be good fodder for discussion methinks, so we’ll see how long I can keep it up.

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