Personal Tips on Getting Back Into Shape, Greek-wise

If you’re like me, you may have spent 3 three years in Greek classes in college, and used Greek fairly extensively in your pastoring, but once you don’t have a sermon or Sunday school lesson to prepare regularly (and perhaps sometimes not even then), it becomes easier and easier to leave the Greek behind.

But you don’t want to waste all that education and work. And, once again if you’re like me, you remain impressed by those professors who brought only their Greek New Testament to your exegesis classes and worked straight from the Greek, translating on the fly. (Oh, sure, I know they prepped prior to class, but, still, they weren’t working from cribbed notes.) That’s the gold standard that stays in your brain and drives you on: I want to be able to “throw out” all my English translations. (Not really, but you get the point.)

Furthermore, you might, like me, have moved on from koine Greek to “classical” (Attic Greek) without the benefit of a “classical” (Attic) Greek class or formal training in such. And, like me, you might have in the intervening years since graduation become convinced that NT Greek classes should not teach koine Greek as if it’s its own language, but teach Attic and then talk a bit about how koine differs. And, more to the point, you might now be attempting to ply your trade in philosophers who wrote Attic (not koine) Greek. And you really, really want to be able to work directly with the text without toting around Little Liddel or even Middle Littel, and especially not your Smyth grammar.

On the other hand, spending even just a few weeks “reviewing” your Greek grammar, and maybe your class notes, or doing some flashcard work is utterly demoralizing. You’re NOT a first year Greek student, even if you can’t sight-read any passage in the GNT or Plato, and to sort of “start over” is not what you’re looking for. You just want to read the Greek every day.

So, what to do?

Well, I’m not an expert in linguistic paedegogy, let alone Greek language paedegogy, but I know what has worked well for me, so I’ll share it.

Here it is: Read. Greek. Every. Day.

That’s it.

Well, okay, here’s some other tips that can help.

First, DO NOT have an English translation open, or even close by, as a crutch. Kubo’s reader’s lexicon (or the Attic equivalent) is okay, but vow to toss that to one side after a month.

Secondly, READ OUT LOUD. Say the words as you read them. Now you may have to whisper them, as I do in my living arrangements with a small apartment and a wife and daughters I need to keep from disturbing at various points, but say it out loud nonetheless. Vocalize it.

Thirdly, DO NOT TRANSLATE WHAT YOU READ, even in your head. If you see entelecheia, DO NOT think “actuality.” That’s translating. As best you can, when you see entelecheia let the exact same concept that comes to your mind when you see the English “actuality” (or Sachsian “being-at-work-staying-the-same”) come to your mind when you see the Greek. This is very difficult to do, and takes real concious and concerted effort. Your first several sessions will go very slowly as you try to disabuse yourself of the mental translation habit. But it will pay off huge if you keep at it.

Fourthly, do not worry about comprehension levels. Read the same paragraph a few times to try to make the concepts come up into your mind, but if it doesn’t happen, MOVE ON. Keep reading the Greek and keep avoiding mental translation. You will find that comprehension sort of turns itself on as you keep at this.

Fifthly, DO THIS EVERY SINGLE DAY. Don’t even take a break for the weekend or for Sunday. After you’ve done this for a few months, then you can take a break.

Sixthly, have a standard or measurement of progress in place prior to beginning and then stick to it as best you can. Some are fine with reading a page or two a day. Some work better with a chapter or two a day. Some need to tie specific readings with dates on the calendar. Others get discouraged and bogged down if they miss a date and feel like they have to “catch up.” What works for me is to have specific chapters/sections listed, but not tied to calendar dates, and then check off, or date stamp, each reading as its completed. That way if I do miss a day, I don’t feel like I have to “catch up” but on the other hand, if I have the time and want to do so, I can “catch up.” But I have a standard by which I can measure my progress. Something different will work for others. But the point is to be able to say: “The bookmark has moved this far,” or “I have read X chapters thus far,” or “I have only 72 more days to go.”

Seventh: Grammar and vocab will come with reading, so it’s not necessary to review or practice these prior to or in addition to your daily Greek reading. That said, it can’t hurt. But make it secondary not primary. The primary thing is to read the Greek every single day. Not to be grammar experts or claim you know 10,000 distinct words.

This is what I’ve found to be helpful to me.  Unfortunately I have not read Greek every day since I graduated (and completed my third year of Greek) nearly sixteen years ago.  I have had periods of several weeks to a few months when I have read Greek every day.  And to get back up to speed quickly–which rewards daily diligence, and at this point it’s not about knowledge it’s about behavior–I haven’t found anything that works better than the above.  Of course: Your mileage may vary.

4 thoughts on “Personal Tips on Getting Back Into Shape, Greek-wise

  1. Well said. I never got to this point with Greek, but while in college I got good enough at Hebrew, through vocabulary drilling, reading aloud, and especially English-to-Hebrew translating, that I could read a sentence in Hebrew without having to translate it into English in my head. It’s a great feeling to know a language that well. (Well, it _was_ a great feeling.)

    So then, having known Hebrew so well, I go and join a Church for whom the canonical Scripture, both Old and New Testament, is Greek. *sigh* I never cared for Greek that much.

  2. And I thought I was doing good finding my Moulton’s analytical lexicon, my Wigrams, and my old college flash cards when I was at my parents’ house over the last couple of weeks. Actually I found all my language stuff, but those were the only ones I had rooom or weight allowance to bring back to the UK. But then I only had a year of Greek and a year of Hebrew, so I’ve never been able to sight-read.

  3. I don’t have time to use language resources when I preach. It’s a great sadness to me. The only way I engage that homiletical font is if the commentary I am using does so.

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