How To Learn Greek And Latin

Every once in a while friends and acquaintances approach me and ask what books they should use to learn Greek or Latin. Oddly not many ask me how to learn the language, which to me misses probably the more important issue. I decided to do something I don’t do anymore, blog, in order to lay out a thorough answer to this question that will be all in one place for convenience. My hope is that these will be useful to anyone wondering about Greek or Latin, whether that’s Classical or Ecclesial/Theological, though I will mostly be addressing students of theology and pastors directly.

I studied Greek and Latin at the University of Minnesota. Before that I did some work in biblical languages at North Central University. In addition I’ve done a semester of German and a summer intensive in theological German. None of which is to say I’m an expert, but it is to say I’ve been taught languages in different ways from different establishments with different books. At North Central I learned Koine through induction with a textbook composed by the professor. At the U of M I learned from Classical scholars educated in traditional methods, which is to say more deductive, yet the textbooks for each language were quite different. While I admit there are a variety of learning styles, as there are merits to different pedagogical approaches, I will say off the bat that I found the systematic and brutal method of the U of M far more effective for retaining what I learned, even to this day when I am not currently as active working in the languages.

For the first two semesters we were in class five days a week and at least two hours of homework were expected of us every night. We learned all the nuts and bolts of fundamental morphology and syntax which was then progressively expanded in later semesters. The third semester jumped right into unaltered primary source texts in prose. In Latin Cicero and Caesar, in Greek Plato and Lysius. Class met three times a week but there was still a great deal of homework expected. Fourth semester was poetry: Virgil and Homer (The Odyssey, thank the gods). Classes after this varied according to the desires of the teachers but were graduate-level. I was lucky enough to have a class reading The Venerable Bede and unlucky enough to have one on Tacitus. Plato’s Republic, pseudo-homeric hymns, and byzantine poetry filled in my major on the Greek side. Classes still met thrice weekly and pretty much only majors and grad students were left at this level.

What did I learn from this?

To learn an ancient language you must take the time, over and again, for several years in order to become proficient at reading.

You’ll always need access to lexicons, especially in Greek, but if you are gonna look at a word and be able to tell that it’s part of an articular infinitive you can’t get by with a semester or two, doing as little homework as possible, and meeting but a couple times a week.

It is for this reason that I am sympathetic with seminaries that struggle with how to teach or if to require, Greek and Hebrew. It’s been my experience that a little bit of knowledge in a language is a dangerous thing, leading to ridiculous and untenable interpretations. For many, therefore, it may be best to stick to a translation and regularly refer to commentaries of many kinds in order to inform their work.

And yet – but first a story. My best friend is a Hebrew Bible Phd student at Harvard. We were recently chatting and he told me about his experience taking a NT course. “It’s interesting to see the differences between the OT and NT students”, he said. “How do you mean?”, I replied. “Well, the NT students don’t really know that much about the NT and barely know the languages. They know plenty about French philosophers but not much about the Bible.”

“Theology” surely is an extraordinarily large umbrella that can include a nearly endless assortment of methods approaching an equally infinite number of topics, but I still believe that Scripture is the primary source from which theologians and pastors ought to draw. If your task is to preach from it every week, or if it’s yours to compose books and essays that draw out its implications, I can’t imagine why the study of its texts should be viewed with such skepticism. And if Scripture is entirely dispensable for your work, then we probably have different views on many things. Though scholars who don’t approach Scripture from faith arguably take the original languages far more seriously than anti-intellectual pastors. Maybe instead of cutting Hebrew, seminaries ought to drop a couple of those four required homiletics courses?

Next post we’ll move to books and specifics.

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