Greek, How Should a Knowledge of It be Viewed?

by Don Martin

We do not have the original New Testament today, but manuscripts that have come down to us, copies of the original writings. What we have today is a translation or, to be more precise, about seventy extant English translations of the Greek texts. Some preachers and Christians today possess varying degrees of knowledge of Greek, while many others have no knowledge at all. I am reading more articles of late regarding a knowledge of Greek that very much disturb me. While I agree with a number of the statements being made such as, "one does not have to know Greek to be saved," "a beginner Greek student pretending to be a Greek scholar is dangerous," etc., I do not agree with the sentiment in general being expressed. Also, I find fault with only mentioning possible objections to a knowledge of Greek, while not mentioning any of the attendant benefits. Upon reading some of this material, one would think it is a sin to be conversant with New Testament Greek and to use it in the pulpit, such is unthinkable! I am watching for a return of the old, "God guided the translators of our translations and we must not attempt to do any Greek exercises, albeit cautious, ourselves." One member argued thus with me, "The King James is from God and man today has no business involved with the Greek." I am especially alarmed to read what I am from the key board of some preachers, warning others to beware of any who use Greek in their teaching.

The Greek New Testament. The Greek found in the New Testament is an interesting study. Of all languages, Greek is most impressive. It is the language that the Holy Spirit elected to use to articulate the last will and covenant of God to man. Greek, in its formative stages, can be traced back to about 1500 B.C. However, most think of Homer and the 900 B. C. period Greek. Dana and Mantey wrote of the Greek language in general, "Greek is the most literary of all ancient languages" (A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, pg. 3). The period between 300 B.C. and 300 A. D. generally represents the stage of the Greek language that is of the most concern to the serious Bible student. It is the Greek of this period that is referred to as Koine or universal. Papyri documents and letters indicate that a portion of the Greek grammar in which the New Testament was written was a general or widely used language. In actuality, the grammar and vernacular of the New Testament consists of both koine and classical Greek (a fact not often stated). Many New Testament books present common or general Greek (books such as Mark, First and Second Peter) and others, such as Acts, Luke, Hebrews, and the epistles of Paul provide an example more typical of classical or formal Greek than the Greek seen in the papyri writings. In addition, the Greek making up the New Testament possesses, in some cases, peculiarities in vocabulary and grammar, another fact not always admitted. Some Greeks through the years have taken my Online Greek Course and they and I have compared some of the characteristic grammar differences between the Greek of the New Testament, Koine in general, and "modern" Greek. This is why the grammar of the New Testament to some extent is a restored grammar.

Some glory in marginal literacy. It seems we are seeing a resurgence of the old, "Ignorance is godliness" thinking and, "the learned are all atheists, beware!" Allow me to immediately say that secular education can be dangerous if it causes one to rely on it and reject God's wisdom (I Corinthians 1-4). However, the thinking that a workable knowledge of Greek is a disadvantage and liability is rooted in shallowness of thought and arrested intellectual development. Let me clearly say that God expects man to acquire a certain amount of literacy. Hear Paul:

"Whereby when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ" (Ephesians 3:4).

Regarding literacy, we are reminded of the man from Ethiopia. The historian wrote thus:

"Was returning, and sitting in his chariot read Esaias the prophet. Then the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join they to this chariot. And Philip ran thither to him, and heard him read the prophet Esaias, and said, Understandest thou what thou readest?" (Acts 8:28-30).

Hence, literacy or the ability to read is seen in this case and also the matter of comprehension or understanding what is being read. (I concede spiritual comprehension is primarily meant, but literacy is also involved.)

The New Testament is comprised of individual words given by the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 2:13). These words are positioned in Greek grammar (features and constructions that influence meaning) and the grammar is situated in syntax (the relationship between words, phrases, and clauses and how they influence one another). Greek Nouns involving cases and declension, verbs in their various conjugation forms and other grammatical particulars provide the setting whereby the idea and meaning of a word, group of words, or general syntax can be determined and ascertained. This has been the work of translators and also the exercise of Greek students in considering the Greek words and grammar provided by the Spirit. One with even an elementary knowledge of New Testament Greek marvels in the precision and beauty of the language God selected to convey His last will to man. Greek Grammarian A. T. Robertson wrote thus of the Greek of the New Testament:

"Most perfect vehicle of human speech thus far devised by man is the Greek" (The Minister and His Greek New Testament, pg. 28).

Notwithstanding, some today view one who has a working knowledge of Greek as "suspect," to say the least. At most, such a one is considered "as a false teacher and deceiver of the common man." Again, I acknowledge that Greek can be misused and that it is not to be presented in a manner to promote an esoteric climate. I would also be the first to say that the common problem is not the absence of the knowledge of Greek, but basic honesty in reading and applying English translations. However, I will now make a statement with which many will disagree (see addendum) and that is, without a knowledge of Greek grammar, one is limited as to the gradation of knowledge they attain! Put another way, a working knowledge of Greek grammar opens the door to a greater degree of study and understanding ability.

A. T. Robertson issues some challenging statements in his work, The Minister and His Greek New Testament, statements, I might add, with which I agree. I offer some quotations in an effort to challenge some today who engage in deprecating a knowledge of Greek.

"I do not say that every preacher should become an expert in his knowledge of the New Testament Greek. That cannot be expected. I do not affirm that no preacher should be allowed to preach who does not possess some knowledge of the original New Testament ... But a little is a big percent on nothing..This is preeminently true of the Greek New Testament.

"There is no sphere of knowledge where one is repaid more quickly for all the toil expended..But the chief reason why preachers do not get and do not keep up a fair and needful knowledge of the Greek New Testament is nothing less than carelessness, and even laziness in many cases" (pg. 15, 16).

Robertson concludes some of his remarks by saying, "The preacher who ridicules word-studies merely exposes his own ignorance" (Ibid., pg. 22). Yet, the attacks, suspicion, and assignment of bad motives continue. Some capable men who have been dedicated students of the Book and, yes, New Testament Greek, are looked over for those who disparage these capable men and present themselves as some how unusually and favorably endowed of the Holy Spirit.

The very argument and appeal that studying Greek and the appropriate introduction of Greek into one's studies and presentations is automatically disadvantageous is essentially flawed. Granted, there are abuses and misuse, however, why would we think that a knowledge of the Greek text is not an advantage and does not present higher levels of study and more thought provoking teaching? The old, "If one must resort to Greek, one has a weak position" and "If Greek is mentioned, one is rejecting the English" are statements characterized by ignorance. Notwithstanding, such thinking persists. One of the first things that I did upon becoming a Christian was start a study of Greek grammar. I received very little encouragement, but I was told many times that I should not do such. I have now studied Greek for over forty years and taught it for over twenty, still I encounter fatuous thinking, such as I am addressing.

Practical application of Greek. The practical application of Greek is basically seen in Greek word study and careful grammatical exegesis. I personally almost never engage in a study of a biblical topic without such a study involving Greek word consideration and usually a more serious view of Greek grammar. All Bible classes that I teach involve a study of pertinent Greek grammar. According to some, I should repent for such a practice.

I shall now present two examples, the first is simple and most of the same truths can be reached from seriously considering a good English translation. The second instance involving I Corinthians 7:15 is a little more graduated and illustrates how familiarity with Greek not only enforces a good English translation, but actually does clearly present information that is highly informative in arriving at the resident truth and in refuting extant error regarding the verse.

Consider Paul's statement to the Christians residing at Thessalonica:

"Prove all things; hold fast that which is good" (I Thessalonians 5: 21, Greek: panta de dokimazete to kalon katechete).

The Greek word for "prove" is domimazo (the word in our verse has a different grammatical posture; hence, while the same word, the spelling differs) and it means, "To test, prove, etc." (Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words by W. E. Vines). Some insert "with the expectation of approving," as this seems to be the fundamental idea in I Thessalonians 5:21 (Ibid.) The word dokimazo is rendered "discern," "approvest," "examine," and "trieth" (Luke 12:56, Romans 2:18, I Corinthians 11:28, I Thessalonians 2:4). Dokimazo in the expression "prove all things" (panta de dokimazete) is second person, plural, present tense, imperative mood, and active voice. Hence, "prove all things" is not an option but an actual command, required of the Christian (imperative mood shows this). The fact that the tense is present indicates it is an ongoing command.

Now consider Paul's statement in I Corinthians 7:15:

"But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace."

There is much controversy regarding this verse and a myriad of consequent views. I Corinthians 7:15 contains what has been called "the Pauline Privilege." Many religionists tell us that there are two allowable cases for divorce and remarriage when there is a living mate. Adultery and desertion, they explain based on Matthew 5:32; 19:9, and I Corinthians 7:15. Is Paul actually introducing a second reason?

Paul is addressing the situation of a believer and unbeliever being married (vs. 12-16). Hence, there is immediate restriction and limit regarding an application of "not under bondage." Also, remarriage is not even being discussed in the passage. "Not under bondage" is from the Greek dedoulotai. The grammar posture of dedoulotai is "3 person, singular, perfect tense, indicative mood, and passive voice" (Analytical Greek Lexicon, pg. 85). The perfect tense is, "the tense is thus double; it implies a past action and affirms an existing result" (Moods and Tenses in New Testament Greek, by Ernest Burton, pg. 37). If "bondage" means marriage, as some insist, Paul is saying the believer is not and has not ever been in bondage (married?). Paul has argued that the believer is bound (marriage bond) to the unbeliever (vs. 12, 13). Deo, the word for the marriage bond, is used 44 times (see Romans 7:2, I Corinthians 7:27, 39). However, deo is not used in verse 15. Also of interest in establishing the exact scenario of the verse, "depart" is chorizetai and is present tense (ibid., pg. 440).

Are some issuing all these warnings about "Greek-itis" out of ignorance, because of perceived and actual dangers regarding Greek in the hands of a tyro or do some of them hold error and do not want the devastating destruction that a good knowledge of the scriptures and Greek can place on them?

Rather than obscuring and contaminating truth, a good knowledge of New Testament Greek fully and in detail reveals the truth. Take, for example, Jesus' statement in John 3:16, the proof verse to teach salvation by faith only and once saved, always saved:

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16).

The verse says, "...that whosoever believeth in him should not perish..." "Perish" is an antonym for "everlasting life." The negation "should not perish (KJV, me apoletai) is literally translated "may not perish" (Marshall in Nestle's Interlinear Greek-English New Testament). This lack of permission to perish, however, is conditional (see later).

The opposite of perish is, "...have everlasting life." There shall only be two classes of individuals, "And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal" (Matthew 25:46, aionios, everlasting, is applied to both the saved and lost). Jesus presents in detail the two classes (Matthew 25:31-46). "Everlasting life" is indicative of the grandeur and bliss which awaits the saved (II Corinthians 5:1-9, Revelation 20-22). "Everlasting life" is the inheritance which is reserved in heaven for the saved (I Peter 1:4, Titus 1:2).

The condition to possessing everlasting life is: "... that whosoever believeth in him should not perish ..." Let it be immediately understood, that the contemplated "belief" is not a dead, inactive faith (James 2:14-26). The faith which avails is "faith which worketh by love" (Galatians 5:6, I John 5:3). "Faith only," as such, never saved anybody (James 2:19).

We know "believeth" is active and obedient from the teaching of various verses, some just noted, but now consider the Greek grammar. "Believeth" is translated from pisteuon. The grammar of pisteuon ("believeth") is important: nominative case, singular in number, masculine in gender, participle, and present tense (The Analytical Greek Lexicon, pg. 326). The participle and present tense is describing ongoing, continuous action. One expanded translation renders it, "whosoever believes in (trusts, clings to, relies on)" (The Amplified New Testament). Marshall accents the participle, "everyone believing in him." (Interlinear Greek-English New Testament).

Those who believe in him (present tense) are those who live a life of acquiescence to Jesus' directives. These who believe will then add all the virtues (grow) and in so doing, "if ye do these things, ye shall never fall" (II Peter 1:5-10). However, one can elect to cease believing (Hebrews 3:12-19).

One could select about any verse for a detailed study and would further illustrate the value of Greek grammar.

When I became a Christian and started to seriously study the scriptures, wanting to reach greater and greater levels of understanding and exploration, I was told by some to, "stop such studies, such will only result in frustration and sin." I then inquired how they would recommend I study (these people had been Christians for many years, some of whom were preachers). The reply was, "Read a verse and then close your Bible and let the Holy Spirit tell you what the verse means." Ignorance abounds on every hand, even in the Lord's church. A resentment toward a study of New Testament Greek is reflective on a high level of such ignorance. It is sad that some preachers not only have absolutely no appreciation for in-depth study that necessarily involves linguistic exercises, but they condemn and ostracize those who thus engage.

A story told in a biography by Robert Mackenzie that was originally published in 1918 has always emotionally moved me and I would like to share it with you in closing. The biography is about John Brown. He became known simply as John Brown of Haddington (Haddington, Scotland). John was born in a state of poverty in 1722. To make matters worse, John's father died when John was eleven and his mother soon followed, leaving John an orphan. He sustained himself by serving long hours as a shepherd boy. John became religious at twelve years of age and realized the need to educate himself (religion and true education go hand in hand). He obtained some Latin books and through long, laborious hours taught himself basic Latin. He then turned to Greek and began the same type of assiduous study. When John was sixteen, he learned that a book store in a town twenty-four miles away had a copy of the Greek New Testament, which he direly wanted. He found another shepherd boy to fill in for him and John walked the twenty-four miles and, sure enough, the book store of Alexander McColloch possessed a copy of the Greek New Testament. John handled it, looked through it, and highly prized it. He had worked for years in studying and teaching himself Greek and now he actually held in his hands the epitome of all his efforts. Biographer Mackenzie tells how on that occasion, there were several Greek professors in the book store. They all, along with the book store owner, watched the young boy clad in ragged cloths and obviously of a background lacking erudition and wondered what John was going to do with the Greek New Testament. One of the professors, Professor Francis Pringle, it is believed, asked the bookseller to bring the copy of the Greek New Testament and placing it on the counter said, "Boy, if you can read that book, you shall have it for nothing." John reportedly eagerly took up the copy and read a passage to the amazement of those in the book store. Later that same day, John resumed his work of being a shepherd boy back in the hills of Abernethy and he continued to pursue his studies, having now the valued copy of the Greek New Testament!

Some of the local "learned" preachers who were too lazy to seriously engage in such studies as characterized the poor shepherd boy John Brown of Haddington, ridiculed and resented John's knowledge. They accused him of being demon possessed, the devil provided John's outstanding knowledge, said they. John had to endure much petty envy and malicious slander; however, he continued his course and made a number of academic achievements which have gone done in history.

The story of John Brown of Haddington is very motivational and upon reflecting on it through the years has both prompted me to want to accomplish more and also has shamed me. Tears even now come to my eyes as I relate the story of John Brown, I am so moved by his love of knowledge, sacrifice, and determination. The hindrances and lack of conducive circumstances, all of which he overcame are unbelievable. The story also illustrates the prejudice and envy that even to this day too often prevails.

Paul issued a statement that while applicable to an attitude being discussed in the considered milieu of I Corinthians 14, it is also applicable today. It is considered to be a shocking and rude statement. Hear it: "But if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant" (I Corinthians 14:38). There were those then as well as now who glory in their ignorance and not only resent knowledge, but attempt to circumvent it all they can. "Increasing in the knowledge of God" at some point and on some level, involves such study as being addressed in this material, especially on the part of preachers whose vocation it is to study and teach the word (Colossians 1:10).