Greekatron – How do I get Koine Greek?

GreekI’ve been reticent about writing a post about learning Koine Greek because a) I don’t think many people will be that interested and b) I don’t want to look smug.

But I’m going to do it anyway, and twist my rickety sail between these two perilous crags.

Koine Greek is the language that the New Testament was written in originally. Lots of people learn this language because they want to be able to understand the Bible better.

I long desired to be one of those people. I looked at these linguists in awe, and wanted to be like them. How I longed for it.

This was a few years ago now. I wasn’t in a position where I could learn Greek in some kind of ‘class’, or be taught it by some kind of ‘teacher’. The situation was clear: if I wanted to learn Greek, I would have to do it myself.

The following (roughly) was the advice that I was given, and this is the advice I would give other people who are thinking about learning Greek but don’t know how.

Firstly, buy a grammar and workbook, and use it to learn the grammar.

Secondly, buy a reverse interlinear New Testament, and a Greek New Testament, and try to use them as much as possible.

I did these things, and through ups and downs, over a period of a few years, I have managed to get a reasonable grasp of the language, though I still have a long way to go.

For the first point, I’ve used Bill Mounce’s Grammar and the accompanying workbook. You need the workbook because it’s got the exercises which help you to learn the grammar. This laminated study aid is incredibly helpful, and I’m so glad I bought it, even though I didn’t really know what it was at first. It’s well-worth a fiver.

Bill Mounce is clearly a very gifted teacher, and I have found his grammar very easy to use, encouraging, and interesting. For solitary Greek learning, I think you need a grammar like this.

For number 2, I bought the ESV reverse-interlinear, which I have used throughout my time learning Greek and still do. The reverse-interlinear gives you the English translation with the corresponding Greek words below. The Greek words are out of order, but are numbered to show their original order. This helps you to see which English words are used in a specific translation for the Greek originals.

I also bought this Reader’s Greek New Testament, which is what I use a lot now. It’s the Greek text with a lexicon on each page, helping you with words that occur 30 times or less in the New Testament. It helps you to read the New Testament well even if your vocab still needs strengthening.

What’s it been like?

Sometimes lonely, sometimes boring, sometimes hard work. Sometimes I just didn’t do it because I didn’t feel like it. But on the whole I’m glad I have. I don’t speak or read any other languages, so I can’t compare my experience. I’m pretty sure Greek is quite a hard language because it’s so highly inflected. (For example, we’ve got one way of saying ‘the’ in English. In Greek there are 24.)

I think that learning a little bit is helpful – learning the alphabet for example, can give you access to more technical commentaries and various things. On the whole, the thing that I find most pleasurable is the experience of reading the text in the original language. Before I ever began, someone told me this Tom Wright quote that went something like: reading an English translation of the New Testament is like drinking wine through a tea bag. I’ve thought about that a lot on my journey, and I think I’m beginning to understand what he means.

Is it too late?

You might read this and think something like, ‘I’m too busy to learn Greek.’ Or, ‘I’m too old.’ Well, in response to the first objection, I heard someone say, ‘You can learn a word every day, can’t you?’ And you can. The point is that you can learn slowly. There’s no rush. But what you can learn slowly is helpful.

And for the second objection, I suppose I’d put it like this: in a couple of years time, would you rather have no Greek or some Greek? Possibly even a lot of Greek? I agree with C.S. Lewis, who said, ‘You are never too old to set another goal or to dream another dream.’

I hope you feel encouraged to enter the exciting world of Koine Greek!


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