Book Review - Greek for the Rest of Us

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Bob Hayton's picture
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Book Review - Greek for the Rest of Us

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Image of Greek for the Rest of Us: The Essentials of Biblical Greek
by William D. Mounce
Zondervan 2013
Paperback 320

Have you ever wanted to learn Greek? A good number of Bible students and faithful church attenders have given a yes to this question. But these same people are often perplexed as to how they can actually learn Greek, Some may find themselves overwhelmed in a intorductory Greek class and conclude that it will have to always be “just Greek to me.”

Bill Mounce, perhaps more than anyone else, has made it his mission to make the study of biblical Greek accessible to everyone. Not content to be the author of the most widely used introductory Greek textbook (Basics of Biblical Greek), Mounce has provided a wonderful resource for those of a less scholastic bent with his excellent book Greek for the Rest of Us: The Essentials of Biblical Greek. Now in its second edition, Greek for the Rest of Us is more useful than ever and comes complete with a host of online and additional resources to guide the reader into a greater understanding of biblical Greek.

Why study Greek?

Some may wonder why all the fuss about Greek. If the English of the King James Bible was good enough for the Apostle Paul, why do we need to study Greek? In all seriousness, why exactly should we bother with the study of Greek? Mounce sees at least five benefits from the study of biblical Greek:

  • making sense of the information that Bible software shows
  • finding what the Greek words mean
  • seeing the author’s flow of thought and his cental message
  • understanding why translations are different
  • reading good commentaries and using other biblical tools that make use of Greek (p. viii)

Three books in one

Mounce’s plan of attack is to teach the reader just enough Greek for what they need. His book is divided into three sections which will teach the reader foundational Greek, church Greek, and finally functional Greek.  Those making it through the entire book, with the online homework assignments, will actually cover the equivalent of two years of Greek. But many will not need that level of detail. Here is how Mounce delineates what each level of Greek will cover:

  • Foundational Greek teaches you enough Greek so you can use the Bible study software, understand a Strong’s Bible, and do Greek word studies.
  • Church Greek teaches you more Greek so you can understand a reverse interlinear and use better reference works, especially commentaries.
  • Functional Greek teaches you even more Greek so you can be comfortable working with a traditional interlinear and go even deeper into the best commentaries. (p. viii)

Greek on the bottom shelf

Mounce is a teacher extraordinaire. He has a gift in bringing concepts down to the bottom shelf where anyone can understand them. Illustrations, charts, pictures and examples abound. In everything he stays very practical and helpful. The layout of the book is easy to read and clear. He gives sample entries in Greek dictionaries that are recommended for those in foundational Greek. He provides screenshots from a variety of Bible software programs (some accessible freely online) and explains how to use them. And he covers interlinears and references a host of Greek tools that would be a benefit for those aiming to keep their Greek. 

One of the best features of this book is his development of phrasing. He shows how to break down a passage of Scripture into meaningful phrases and examine how they are strung together in the text. As the level of Greek understanding grows, he returns again and again to the phrasing model adding more and more to the exegetical strategy he is teaching. Finally he provides a wonderful group of semantic tags for the functional Greek student to use in selecting which relationships different phrases have to each other in a given text. This method has immediate relevancy for Bible teachers, students and pastors.

Helpful cautions for the budding scholar

Along the way, Mounce offers careful cautions to those just stumbling into the stimulating world of Greek. He reins in the tendency to find meaning in a word’s etymology and make too much of word studies divorced from the actual context of a given passage. He also provides some helpful thoughts as he begins to expand on verb tenses:

[After covering this material,] does this mean you can look at a verb and decide for yourself what its nuance is? Probably not…. Does this mean you can argue with a commentary or translation based on your knowledge of Greek. Absolutely not. You just don’t know enough Greek…. Will you be able to see why translations are different and be able to follow the discussion in commentaries? Yes. (p. 126)

He also gives a thorough treatment of Bible translation differences and the differences between the different Greek text families (Byzantine manuscripts vs. Alexandrian, etc.). There again he cautions those who are not fluent in Greek from presuming to know more than they do when it comes to the realm of textual criticism. As a Bible translator himself, he explains how all Bible translations are interpretive by their very nature and highlights the difficulties inherent in translation. Even so, he does not recommend dynamic translations for serious Bible study (p. 268).

Mounce also details what to look for and how to use good Bible commentaries. In short, Mounce doesn’t leave you with Greek on the brain, but brings you to where you can apply the Greek you have in ongoing Bible study.

Evaluation

This book is the most helpful introduction to Greek I’ve seen. It can be used for a wide variety of contexts, and would make a perfect resource for a church-led Bible institute class. It would allow some to be exposed to Greek and give others the tools to pursue it at a greater level. There is also a nice laminated resource sheet with declensions and common vocabularly words that is available along with this title and would make a great learning aid suitable for such an institude class.

The book would also serve well as a reference tool in its own right for those trying to remember some Greek fact which has been muddied by the passage of time. There are online tools and even vidoe sessions that go along with the book, making it ideal for personal study, and it could even work for a homeschooling family aiming to introduce biblical Greek to their children.  

One point to bring out here, is that this book will highlight differences in BIble translations and while it doesn’t answer every question raised, his explanation does favor the modern scholarly consensus favoring the Alexandrian texts. It can still be used with great benefit by those favoring a Majority text view, in my opinion, however. There may be various points where one may disagree with Mounce’s approach, but in the whole he is to be thanked for giving the church such a useful resource.

About the author

William D. Mounce (PhD, Aberdeen University) lives as a writer in Washougal, Washington. He is the President of BiblicalTraining.org, a non-profit organization offering world-class educational resources for discipleship in the local church. Formerly he was a preaching pastor, and prior to that a professor of New Tetament and director of the Greek Program at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is the author of the bestselling Greek textbook, Basics of Biblical Greek, and many other resources. He was the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version translation of the Bible, and is serving on the NIV translation committee. See www.BillMounce.com for more information.

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T Howard's picture
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Maybe Helpful / Maybe Not

I've heard enough "Greek experts" in the churches I've attended to know that a resource like this can be both a boon and a bane. I used to be one of those people... spouting out Greek words that I learned in commentaries or in my Strong's Concordance, talking about how a verb's tense-form meant such and such, etc.

Then I went to seminary and learned Greek.

If I recommended this resource to someone in the church, I would also recommend they read Carson's Exegetical Fallacies. I imagine most lay people aren't using the latest exegetical commentaries, and thus are still using resources that rely on pre-verbal aspect understandings Greek verbs and pre-Barr understandings of Greek semantics. If they want to use Greek successfully in their studies, they'll need help from Carson, Black, or Silva.

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Good point, Mounce makes the

Good point, Mounce makes the very same points. He points out how Vine's Expository Dictionary is often not helpful and off base. He recommends better commentaries and encourages that you read Exegetical Fallacies by Carson, as well.  Even with the potential dangers, there are rich blessings from studying Greek. Mounce will guide the newbie to an appropriate application of Greek learning - and of course in the context of a local-church sponsored institute class, other teachers would stand alongside this resource to help the outcome be as good as can be.

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

T Howard's picture
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Resources Still Used by Fundamentalist Lay Persons

Bob, that's reassuring to hear.  In the churches I've been to, lay teachers (and even some pastors) are still relying on the resources they can get for free (e.g. Strong's, Thayer's, Matthew Henry, Barnes, JFB, etc.)  These are notoriously bad in how they handle the Greek.

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Please No

Anyone who wants to teach someone "just enough" of a language to exegete ancient texts (!!) has a really terrible idea. "Functional" Greek would be trying to order souvlaki at a Greek restaurant. Textual exegesis is a higher level of language. Most people graduating from seminaries are really not proficient enough in Greek, so lowering the bar yet farther is ridiculous. The only possible use for something like this is as a get your feet wet intro.

Can you pick up a Greek text and read it without helps, aside from the occasional vocab check? If not, you don't know Greek. 

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T Howard's picture
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Charlie wrote: Textual

Charlie wrote:

Textual exegesis is a higher level of language. Most people graduating from seminaries are really not proficient enough in Greek, so lowering the bar yet farther is ridiculous. The only possible use for something like this is as a get your feet wet intro.

One of the reasons for this is that many seminaries no longer require their students to learn Greek and Hebrew, or if they do it's only at a first-year level. That being said, the most helpful courses I took in seminary were the practical theology classes and the Greek exegesis classes. The exegesis classes taught me how to do exegesis using the original languages, how to spot exegetical fallacies within the commentaries, and how to avoid committing them myself.

If I were to teach beginning Greek to people at my church, I would also spend time working through how to do exegesis.  It's more than just parsing verbs and knowing vocabulary. A book that helped me tremendously was Text-Driven Preaching, particularly David Alan Black's chapter (really anything from Black is good). Good exegesis must involve more than just word-level or verb tense-form analysis; it must look at the overall structure and organization of the surrounding context. You must be able to trace the author's argument throughout the literary unit.

In English class, this is called reading comprehension. The problem I've seen (even at seminary) is that the Greek prof has to teach seminary students basic English grammar and comprehension concepts before the student can grasp Greek grammar concepts. So, before someone learns Greek, he or she should brush up on his or her own language.

 

Charlie wrote:

Can you pick up a Greek text and read it without helps, aside from the occasional vocab check? If not, you don't know Greek. 

It depends who wrote it...

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Good point

T Howard wrote:

Charlie wrote:

Textual exegesis is a higher level of language. Most people graduating from seminaries are really not proficient enough in Greek, so lowering the bar yet farther is ridiculous. The only possible use for something like this is as a get your feet wet intro.

One of the reasons for this is that many seminaries no longer require their students to learn Greek and Hebrew, or if they do it's only at a first-year level. That being said, the most helpful courses I took in seminary were the practical theology classes and the Greek exegesis classes. The exegesis classes taught me how to do exegesis using the original languages, how to spot exegetical fallacies within the commentaries, and how to avoid committing them myself.

If I were to teach beginning Greek to people at my church, I would also spend time working through how to do exegesis.  It's more than just parsing verbs and knowing vocabulary. A book that helped me tremendously was Text-Driven Preaching, particularly David Alan Black's chapter (really anything from Black is good). Good exegesis must involve more than just word-level or verb tense-form analysis; it must look at the overall structure and organization of the surrounding context. You must be able to trace the author's argument throughout the literary unit.

In English class, this is called reading comprehension. The problem I've seen (even at seminary) is that the Greek prof has to teach seminary students basic English grammar and comprehension concepts before the student can grasp Greek grammar concepts. So, before someone learns Greek, he or she should brush up on his or her own language.

 

Charlie wrote:

Can you pick up a Greek text and read it without helps, aside from the occasional vocab check? If not, you don't know Greek. 

It depends who wrote it...

This is an excellent point. My original languages skills are weak at best, but I am an English teacher. What I discovered upon reading Carson's Exegetical Fallacies long ago is that much of what he says is, pardon the expression, "common sense" if you just apply what you should know about how our own language functions!

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