Book Review: Hellenistic and Biblical Greek

Review---Hellenistic-and-Biblical-GreekHellenistic and Biblical Greek: A Graduated Reader

by B. H. McLean

Cambridge University Press | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

McLean adopts a “historical” Greek pronunciation scheme, which is quite similar to the modern way of pronunciation, but varies on several letters. This is hardly a criticism as it does not ultimately affect how one reads and retains the texts, but I thought it important to note.

This book includes a number of elements that are helpful for reading the texts therein. In the front matter, in addition to the groups of abbreviations, McLean includes a section on frequently occurring grammatical constructions, a nice touch considering the volume is designed for those who have had one of more years of Greek. Unless you read a lot of Greek on a regular basis, there are constructions that you just don’t see a lot and the inclusion of such an element will prove helpful for many. Each section also includes its own vocabulary list. McLean has in bold print those words he thinks necessary to memorize, a call which is obviously subjective, but could be helpful nonetheless. The vocabulary lists included in Part 1 (pp. 13–67, “basic level” texts) is built on the assumption that the reader has learned all the words in the Greek NT that occur fifty times or more—these words are not included in the glossary after each text. Each subsequent section then builds on the assumption that the reader has committed to memory the bold type vocab from the previous section. My assumption then is that these words are not repeated section to section, though I did not look into it. For those who may forget words as they work from section to section, there is a glossary in the back that includes all words that occur fifty times or more in the GNT as well as all vocabulary found in the texts. Additionally, McLean has included in the back additional helps, such as a summary of verbal paradigms, cardinal and ordinal numbers, alphabetic numerals, names of the months, Greek currency names and their monetary equivalents, and terms used to narrate the approval of decrees, all of which are immensely helpful, especially for those who don’t encounter these elements enough to immediately recognize them or simply have never memorized them.

This book reinforces an old dictum I heard when first learning Greek—mastery of vocabulary will make all the difference. As I worked through early sections of the book, I found that it wasn’t the syntax that was tricky, but simply vocabulary I either didn’t know or had forgotten along the way. Naturally, the biblical texts I knew better than non-biblical ones, but the vocabulary was definitely the sticking point for some sections. Overall, the graduation of difficulty will vary for each reader depending on their familiarity with the text at hand. As I mentioned, the biblical texts were a little easier for me because I was familiar with them and the particular author’s style, even though they were later in the book and thus were deemed more difficult than previous chapters. For example, in the intermediate-level section, Gal 1:1–2:20 is coupled along with a letter of introduction to Zenon, a family letter of an army recruit to his mother, and some other biblical and non-biblical texts. Again, familiarity can be a welcome help when dealing with syntax and vocabulary and these non-biblical texts were about the same level (inasmuch as I’m able to make such evaluations), but knowing the biblical passages enabled me to work much more quickly through them. At the same time, given that texts are grouped according to their grammatical and vocabulary similarities, being familiar with the biblical text did help work through the others.

There a couple of typos that stood out in the front matter, both involving font changes that escaped the typesetter’s eye. On p. xxx, the text reads “The days from 2 to 10 were counted as the ‘rising’ (iJstamevnou)”. Similarly, on p. xxxi, the text at the end of an example with a clause from Matt 5:20, after the last word Φαρισσαíων, reads “Farisaivwn (Matt 5:20)”.

Perhaps the most salient takeaway from this book is it enables the reader to experience the importance of reading outside of one particular corpus. For the majority of seminary students who take/took Greek, their exposure to the language is almost exclusively the Greek of the New Testament. Granted, the GNT exposes readers to a variety of literary styles and their inherent differences, but many students who take NT Greek do so with varying degrees of familiarity with the Bible. This can be an aid when translating, but it can also become a crutch. Thus, books like this fine work of McClean’s are essential, I think, to strengthening one’s grasp of the NT text in general, but also helps one gain a much better knowledge of how Greek of the period works. My only complaint about this book is not related to content, but a layout issue. There were a number of times when I would look at the sectional glossary for a term only to find that it was on the next page. I don’t know if this could have been avoided—perhaps there were spacing issues that prevented it—but I found this to be an annoyance. However, let me say that this minor issue in now way detracts from the overall quality and usefulness of the book. If I were teaching any class that required reading of Greek texts, this would be atop the list.

Take a look inside here or download a sample chapter here.

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