Think you know Greek?

Think you know Greek?  Here is and interesting quote by the dean of scholars F. F. Bruce on language and lexicons.

As for lexicons, those by Brown-Driver-Briggs, Buhl and Baumgartner serve me well in the Hebrew field, supplemented by M. Jastrow’s Dictionary for post-biblical Hebrew. Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon deals primarily with classical Greek, but no student of the New Testament can afford to ignore classical usage.

I have met students who claimed to ‘know Greek’ on the basis of their acquaintance with the Greek New Testament; even if that latter acquaintance were exhaustive, it would no more amount to a knowledge of Greek than acquaintance with the English New Testament would amount to a knowledge of English.

There is a story told of A. S. Peake writing a Greek word on the blackboard of his Manchester classroom, and one of his students saying, ‘You needn’t write it down, Doctor; we know Greek.’ To which he replied, ‘I wish I did.’ To know a language, even an ancient language, involves having such a feeling for its usage that one can tell, almost as by instinct, whether a construction is permissible or not, or whether a translation is possible or not. Translation is not simply a matter of looking up a word in a dictionary and selecting the equivalent which one would like to find in a particular passage.

It is this manifest mastery of Greek usage which makes William Kelly’s New Testament commentaries, especially those on Paul’s epistles, so valuable. ‘And you know what is restraining him now,’ says the RSV of 2 Thessalonians 2: 6, following some earlier interpreters. This construing of ‘now’ with ‘what is restraining’ Kelly describes as a solecism, pointing out that the ‘now’ is ‘simply resumptive’. Kelly is right. But how did he discover that the construction of the adverb with ‘what is restraining’ is a solecism? No grammar-book or dictionary would tell him that; it was his wide and accurate acquaintance with Greek usage that made it plain to him, an acquaintance which is the fruit of long and patient study.

F. F. Bruce. In Retrospect: Remembrance of Things Past/Posthumous Edition (London: Pickering & Inglis, 1980), p. 293.

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4 responses to “Think you know Greek?

  1. I was in a workshop a couple months ago when Tessa Rajak did something that amazed me. Another professor was discussing possible Greek words translated into Hebrew in some rabbinic texts and wrote two Greek words on a whiteboard that may have been the source for a bizarre Hebrew word he found (he got the two words from another publication). Rajak immediately pointed to one of the words and said “But that’s not a word in Greek.” It looked like a perfectly fine word to me, but she insisted that no such word existed in the Greek language. I and another guy looked on the TLG and couldn’t find it. It wasn’t a word in Greek. She knows the language so well that she knew this innocuous looking word simply was not a part of the ancient Greek lexicon.

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