Ellipsis Omnibus

Disillusioned but not disenchanted…

Why Study Greek

There are few disciplines as neglected in the lives of Christians as the study of the original languages in which their Scriptures were written, such as Greek. Yet even a basic understanding of these Biblical languages is invaluable in both the academic and devotional aspects of their lives, as well as in the pastoral life of those called into the ministry. This can be achieved through knowledge as simple as vocabulary, knowledge of tenses and moods, as well as points of emphasis.

Perhaps the greatest example of how a knowledge of Greek may be helpful is in emphasis, which was noted both in class as well as in Mounce’s textbook. In both cases it was pointed out how the word order in Greek emphasizes certain points; while grammatically word order isn’t important in Greek the word order does show emphasis, with the words which come first in the sentence containing a stronger impact. As was discussed during the first few weeks of class and in Mounce’s textbook (p.27), John 1:1 is a prime example of this phenomena. Here the text is seen stating that kai qeoj en o/ logoj. logoj, due to the presence of the article o/ is the subject of the sentence even though it does not come first, thereby emphasizing that the logos is God, while the lack of the article on qeoj also tells us that the two are not identical. Thus, a proper understanding of the Greek grammar allows us to avoid both the heresy of Arianism (since the logoj is God) as well as Sabellianism (since the logoj and God are not merely the same).

An example of how knowledge of Greek may be helpful is in knowing how the words have become loaded with time. Thus it was noted that in the Greek, the word grace (xarij) in Chapter 11 of Mounce’s textbook, is neither seen capitalized as a proper term nor does it have the weight of modern theology, hence it’s alternate meanings simply translate as ‘favor’ and ‘kindness’. This effect can also be seen in the word faith (pistij) – also from Chapter 11 of Mounce’s textbook – the secondary meaning of which is simply ‘belief’ and as was noted in class is a simple an idea as ‘trust’.

Another good example of where one might find Greek helpful is in the passage of 1 John 3:9. Here many insights can be drawn through knowledge of the Greek. One of them is the note that when it is said that “whoever commits sin is not born of God,” the verb here is in the continuous aspect. Thus, it is not saying that if somebody commits a sin they can have no salvation. Rather, it is saying that if somebody continuously sins – that is, never stops sinning – that they cannot be born of God.

Another such example from class where the mood or sense of the word gives radical insight into the text can be seen in the passage Luke 1:29 where Mary is contemplating the words spoken to her by the angel who had called her the favored one. Her pondering of this phrase is shown in the optative mood, which is in contrast to the subjunctive mood. The subjunctive mood shows probability or possibility, as opposed to actuality, and is therefore one step removed from reality. The optative however is two steps removed from reality, indicating more of a wish. This means that as regards Mary’s pondering the optative mood indicates that it’s highly unlikely she could have actually figured out what the angel had meant.

Yet another example from class which shows the value of even a basic level of Greek is in regard to the feeding of the five-thousand in John 6. Through the knowledge of Greek vocabulary, it can be seen that the baskets (κοφίνους) which were left over from feeding the five-thousand were of the same sort of basket which was used to let Paul down outside the city in Acts 9:25. This means that when it says that there were twelve baskets left over from the feeding of the five-thousand it is referring to a basket big enough to hold a grown man, amplifying just how much food it is that is told as having been left over.

Perhaps a final example from class can be seen when John talks about the return of Christ. He technically remarks that “if ever Christ returns” and his words are in the subjunctive mood. As was noted above with Mary, the subjective mood represents a probability or possibility, thus is sounds as if John is implying that Christ will only possibly return. In point of fact the only reason the phrase is in the subjunctive is because it is, as noted with Mary, one step removed from reality. Since Christ’s return is not at present a reality it must be put in the subjunctive mood, not because it is only a probability, but because it has yet to occur.

Perhaps one of the most valuable insights regarding why even a basic understanding of Greek is valuable can be found in Mounce’s textbook in Chapter 4 on punctuation. In the Exegetical Insight section of this chapter Mounce points out how the original text of the New Testament was written without punctuation marks. It is often noted by pastors that the chapter markings in Scripture were placed later and are therefore fairly arbitrary, however the fact that the punctuation was added later is not noted nearly as often. The point Mounce makes from this fact is in how where the translator places the punctuation, where they break up trains of thought, can often show their theological leanings.

It is thus that even a cursory knowledge of Greek may serve the Christian well. On the one hand it will provide them with an ample arsenal for combating heresy (such as Arianism or its cousins in Mormonism). On the other hand it will allow them to see better the thrusts of the sentences, as well as avoid simple misunderstandings. This is helpful both for the individual devotional and study life of the average Christian, but is especially pivotal for the one who intends to lead their fellow Christians through pastoral service. Knowledge of the Greek is invaluable for pastors in interpreting the texts properly, giving both the pastor and the layperson a much more vital and close connection with the actual text.

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"The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man."--G.K.Chesterton

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"This world, after all our science and sciences, is still a miracle; wonderful, inscrutable, magical and more, to whosoever will think of it... It is by not thinking that we cease to wonder at it."--Thomas Carlyle, 'On Heroes & Hero Worship'
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