Studying Greek–Beginners' Pitfalls (Part 1)

A few months back, Randal asked me to take on the challenge of writing about some of the pitfalls which beginning Greek students make in an effort to learn the language. I thought that that would be a good thing to do and having made several mistakes myself in the process of learning (and continuing to learn) the language, I wrote down a few thoughts in that regard. So while this particular article is not going to focus upon any particular aspect of the Greek language, per se, it will, I believe, help the Greek student to handle his Greek wisely and not to be labeled as one who “knows just enough to be dangerous” (some may yet classify me as such!).
1. Using Grammar to Interpretationalize the Text
Perhaps one of the most tempting pitfalls of studying the Greek language is the tendency to use grammar to interpretationalize the text. By interpretationalize, I mean to unnecessarily apply an interpretation based upon one’s understanding grammar. This is not to say that grammar does not influence interpretation; obviously it does. However, interpreting what a sentence means or implies often depends upon more than mere grammatical concerns. What adds to the pitfall is that words often used to describe Greek grammatical constructions which are intended to have grammatical significance are often taken to have more significance than they really have. One such example comes from what is labeled the “habitual imperfect.” The beginning student might take that to mean that anytime one sees the habitual imperfect, that it was a habit of the individual to engage in such and so action. That’s not necessarily the case. The habitual imperfect is called that because the action in the imperfect is being repeated iteratively. The habit is not associated with the individual being described, but with the action in the verb. It would be an interpretationalization to suggest that the habitual imperfect “he was praying” meant he prayed every day habitually. It could just mean he prayed one prayer after another iteratively in the same day.
2. Force an Interpretation in Spite of Grammar
Somewhat opposite to the above pitfall is to ignore the grammar of a text entirely and opt out for one’s own specialized understanding of a passage. This generally occurs when someone already has their mind set on a particular doctrine or teaching and is not willing to conform his doctrine to the dictates of the grammar in the passage. One such example is found in Matthew 28:19-20. The main verb of this passage is “make disciples.” The two modal participles in this passage (baptizing and teaching) describe just how to complete the action in the main verb. The Greek participle does not contain a grammatical time of its own. It gets its time from its relationship with the lead verb. In Matthew 28:19-20, the time of the participles occur contemporaneously with the time of the lead verb. That grammatically implies that a disciple isn’t made a disciple until he is both taught and baptized. That is to say that the actions of teaching and the baptizing both must occur within the context of the action of making disciples. One who doesn’t believe that baptism is necessary to become a disciple would have a theological problem with the grammatical construction of this verse, but that doesn’t change the grammar.
3. Assume that There are No Exceptions to the Grammatical Rule
Some rules of grammar are more or less absolute. For example, the Greek language is written and read from left to right. While there may be some intended exceptions to that rule, we recognize them as obvious aberrations. On the other hand, some rules in Greek are not as cut and dry as beginning grammars lead a student to believe. Take, for example, the combination of an aorist participle with an aorist verb. Most beginning Greek grammars will state that the time of the aorist participle is antecedent (happens before) the action of the main verb. However, more advanced grammars will clearly state that this is not a good rule to follow when it comes to the aorist participle, but rather, that such grammatical constructions should be taken on a more or less case-by-case basis. Then why do the beginning grammars say such? A good question. Most beginning grammars don’t want to confuse a beginning student with advanced linguistic ambiguities. Hence, they reveal the language in as simplistic terms as possible, allowing the student to get the “gist.” We do the same thing with our children when they learn language. We teach our children what the basic rule is first. One such example occurs with regularly formed verbs. We’re all familiar with small children who understand that the suffix “-ed” is added to a word to indicate past tense. They assume all past tense words are like that, so they say things like, “I eated in the cafeteria today.” They add “-ed” to the verb “eat” because this is the standard rule. They have to be taught as they get more advanced in the language that “eat” is an irregular verb, the past tense of which is “ate.” And believe it or not, adults learning a new language do this too! Greek is no exception to this rule.
More to come…

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Kevin Cauley

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