Why and how can we learn New Testament Greek?

Ian Macnair wrote what I decided when teaching was the best book for teaching introductory NT Greek, which continues in print as Teach Yourself New Testament Greek. I had the chance to ask Ian about the book and his approach to learning.

IP: Most people think that learning Greek is just for academics reading the New Testament. Do you agree? If not, why not?

IM: There are areas of study which only academics are equipped to handle but I’m convinced there’s also a level of competence which should be possible for anyone who wants a deeper understanding of the New Testament and its message. For me, there’s a difference between being expert in Greek grammar and being able to read the text with understanding, similar to the difference between qualifying as a car mechanic and being able to drive. We need mechanics but most people just want to be able to drive.

I studied French Language and Literature at school and university. It was an academic course and there was no question of tackling the set texts in an English translation. For a real understanding they had to be in French, of course. Now here’s the thing. I don’t speak French. I have never visited France. (Really!) And yet my first degree includes a French element. Compare that to the many people I know who don’t have a degree in French but who have visited France, who are fluent in the language and at home with its culture and people.

The first half of that paradox is certainly reflected in theological education where most students simply abandon their Greek after graduating but I’m sure there has to be a viable way for ordinary people to enjoy the riches of the New Testament in its original language.

IP: How did you start your own journey into learning Greek?

IM: My journey started at school where I opted to do Latin and Greek. The first New Testament book I attempted to read in Greek was 1 John and it was much more exciting than Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. When I went as a student to LBC (now LST) my options enabled me to focus on Hebrew and Greek and Wenham’s Elements (J W Wenham, The Elements of New Testament Greek, Cambridge University Press, 1965) was the Greek grammar along with set texts.

IP: What led you to write a textbook for learning New Testament Greek?

IM: I returned to LBC as a tutor in 1983 and proceeded to teach Greek in the way it had been taught to me. Fairly early on I was approached by a couple of students who were experienced in teaching English as a foreign language. Very graciously they opened my eyes to the shortcomings of my methods and introduced me to the colourful and engaging methods of modern language learning.

A couple of generous sabbaticals enabled me to explore these modern methods and think about how they could be applied to New Testament Greek. I had no intention of writing yet another Greek grammar but I was invited to do so by HarperCollins who published Discovering New Testament Greek in 1993 with Thomas Nelson issuing the American version Teach Yourself New Testament Greek in 1995.

I began by asking where we were going wrong. The traditional approach is illustrated in Wenham’s textbook. In many ways it compares favourably with other books of the same kind, well organized, with an excellent reference section, always legible, even though it doesn’t come anywhere near the illustrated splendour of most modern language primers. However it has several drawbacks, which are typical.

Firstly, the approach is grammatical. It involves learning the technical terms of grammar, both English and Greek: nouns, adjectives and pronouns with case, number and gender, verbs with tense, mood and voice as well as person and number, participles with case, number, gender, tense and voice, and so on. When you put the flesh around this skeleton the whole thing becomes extremely complicated.

Students spend months learning the regular verb, only to find that the number of regular verbs they will encounter can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Greek grammar is governed by rules, of which the most important is: To every rule there is an exception, even this one. I can confirm Colwell and Tune’s observation that ‘the modern student lacks a knowledge even of English grammar and possesses little or no grammatical vocabulary’ (E C Colwell & E W Tune, Beginner’s Reader-Grammar for New Testament Greek, Harper & Row, 1966)

Notwithstanding that fact, a lack of grammatical expertise does not hinder the average reader from understanding books, newspapers and other media communications. When you read the daily paper you don’t ask, ‘Where is the verb? Now, where is the subject? Does it have an object, an indirect object?’ No, the text contains embedded signals, clues to the meaning, which we have come to recognize by practice.

All of us have learned our native language at a very early age and with absolutely no knowledge of grammar. It must be possible to identify the signals which Greek uses and train ourselves to recognize and interpret them. Sadly we don’t have the vocabulary to use New Testament Greek as a spoken language, but the equivalent activity is reading the text, which is relatively short. When we do so we frequently discover the unexpected fact that New Testament writers seem unaware of the ‘rules’ so fervently taught by modern grammarians.

Another complaint with traditional grammars is that the approach is bilingual. The student must learn to translate from English to Greek as well as from Greek to English. The result is a weird pseudo-language which would almost certainly have been incomprehensible to a native user of Koine.

Examples and exercises are almost exclusively artificial. Not only are students expected to compose something which is not real language, the material written in Greek to be translated into English is no better. There is little motivation in such sentences as these: ‘Does she judge words? You are seeking a world. Another child throws himself into the sea. (Always relevant when Wenham chapter 16 is reached!) They know about clothes from the teaching of the book. The virgins who were eating the bread were not judging themselves.’

It is an accepted principle in the teaching of modern languages to adults that people learn best when they find the material interesting and relevant. This is a factor which seems strangely to have eluded the teachers of New Testament Greek. The thing which will motivate and excite students is to get into the text of the Greek New Testament itself as early as possible.

Some argue that it is impossible; the Greek of the New Testament is too difficult for a beginner. I disagree. A book like 1 John contains sentences and structures that are relatively easy to follow. Think again how we learn our native language at an early age. The input we receive contains very simple words and phrases, but we are also bombarded by a stream of full-blown adult competence, and educators have realized that this exposure to ‘untidy input’ is just as important for the learning process as the ‘tidy input’ of baby phrases and simple one-word identifications. It is never too soon for an adult learner of New Testament Greek to be exposed to the real thing.

Wenham’s approach, which is not untypical, is like a painter dividing a canvas into 44 squares, which he then proceeds to paint one by one, each in complete detail. By the halfway stage the painting is half finished but the other half is completely empty. What is needed is an outline in broad strokes using the whole canvas, so that the shape of the final picture is emerging right at the start. The fine details can be added later.

A final criticism of the traditional approach is that it is adversarial. Writers of New Testament Greek Grammars seem to delight in making the subject as difficult as possible, providing exercises that are filled with every imaginable type of linguistic booby trap, designed to produce in the student feelings of inevitable failure and discouragement.

Where a teacher takes in exercises to mark there may be a time lapse of 24 hours or more. During this time it is the wrong answers which are in the student’s mind and which are being reinforced deep in the subconscious. Such an approach is excellent for testing Greek but a disaster for teaching it. What is needed is a thorough reinforcement of what is correct before it is tested so rigorously.

IP: What is there that is distinctive in your approach—why did you tackle the task the way you do?

IM: In the light of these failings I mapped out these new aims.

a. Avoid the technical terms of grammar as far as possible.

b. Work towards recognition rather than memorization.

c. Concentrate exclusively on Greek to English.

d. Use authentic texts from the New Testament itself which motivate learners and encourage them to ‘listen’ to the language rather than analyse it grammatically.

e. Explain concepts as they arise, but saying only as much as the learner needs to know at that point. For example it is a short and simple step from λυω to ὁ λυων, ὁ ἀγαπων.

f. Build confidence by giving as much information as is needed, and allowing the learners to check their own progress.

g. Create opportunities for the learner to be actively involved in the learning process in as many ways as possible so that it is stimulating and obviously relevant. That will include reading, writing, speaking, listening, discussing, choosing between options, and applying what has been learned. It means moving from the ‘what?’ to the ‘so what?’ Grammatical analysis is not the end of the road. To know that something is a perfect participle passive answers the question ‘what?’ but what difference does that make? What information does it give us that we could not have picked up from an English translation? That is the ‘so what?’

IP: What are the secrets to learning Greek well—and continuing in its use and learning?

IM: Make it fun.

Don’t neglect to master the sight and sounds of the Greek alphabet. Most are easily recognizable but there are a few tricky ones.

Study little and often, giving your conscious mind a rest and your subconscious mind time to assimilate. If you don’t know the answer look it up—there’s no such thing as cheating. It’s what’s known as learning.

Concentrate on passages you’re familiar with in English, such as The Beatitutes, The Model Prayer, John 3:16, etc. Don’t start on 2 Corinthians or Hebrews!

I’ve found it useful to create diglots, passages set out in sense lines (that is, short units of information two to five words in length) with a literal English translation in one column (such as the ESV) and the equivalent Greek text in the opposite column. It’s much more effective in developing skill in reading and comprehension than laborious grammatical analysis.

IP: What new resources are now available alongside your book?

IM: Nearly 30 years have passed since I began to search for a better way to teach – and learn – Greek. The biggest change is the massive explosion of resources on the internet, some rather expensive but many entirely free. These include the Greek text itself, from which you can copy and paste, for example, to create diglots. Biblegateway.com has a wonderful array of searchable translations in English and other languages.

Tyndale House Cambridge have produced excellent resources including their own edition of the Greek New Testament (available from Biblegateway and ESV.org) and the very useful STEPBIBLE.org.

Perhaps I could be permitted to plug my own free self-study course Reading the Greek New Testament, available from my Google site. Because my textbook was written to accommodate more than one type of syllabus it was not possible to stretch my aims as far as I would have liked. Since then I have had more experience in writing distance learning material for LST and retirement has given me the opportunity to develop materials closer to my goal of ‘Greek without the grammar’, also known as ‘Greek with a Scottish accent’.

Ian Macnair, now retired, worked mainly in Christian ministry, as a baptist minister in Orkney, lecturer at Birmingham Bible Institute and London Bible College (now LST), and pastor of Bethel Church in Coventry.

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19 thoughts on “Why and how can we learn New Testament Greek?”

  1. Am I a heretic? I reckon that learning a working knowledge of NT Greek should be compulsory for ordination training. This is more use than all the trendy things which are “needed”. For myself I read John easily, Gospels OK and struggle with some other parts


    • Or perhaps clergy should rely on the competence of translators…

      I doubt if God views understanding NT Greek as necessary to be a good minister.

      • You’re right, Hebrew is the native language of heaven. Best to learn it now, otherwise the first few years of Paradise will be hard going.
        Every translation is also an interpretation. Having some competence in the language helps us to understand why the interpreters come to the conclusions they do.

        • But that’s my point. The conclusions have already been drawn by competent translators – yes there is interpretation, but that is inevitable when translating from any language to another – even if they occasionally differ on the precise meaning of a particular word or phrase. Clergy should be spending their time doing other things, not having to learn a foreign language.

          That’s my tuppence worth.

    • Oh, yes please. Sitting in church down the years one’s had to wince at dodgy exergesis that could have so easily been avoided. Mind you, producing ordinands who are biblically literate would be nice.

    • Over and over again I am reminded of the quip, “Many heresies have been born out of an exegesis of the ENGLISH text.”

      That being repeated, this requirement could be said to combat rather than advance heresy.

  2. Makes me grateful for an education which meant I was learning Latin from the age of 9 and Classical Greek from the age of 11. So Greek was a break from Latin which was dull. And Koine was a walk in the park compared with Classical Greek which I took to O level. I was also blessed with a school chaplain (former Ridley tutor(!)~ John Pridmore) who sat with me and got me translating passages not only the easy ones in Mark but also the epistles. I also had a brush in my mid 20s with modern Greek so learned to the modern stress based pronunciation as well as the eastern prononciation of NT Greek which is different from the Western one I had learned – many different approaches then but it endorses what you are saying. don’t be technical – just dive in and keep doing it and try a variety of approaches. I wish I had had the same way in to Hebrew!

  3. A good article, thank you. My experience of teaching Greek is minuscule compared to Ian McNair but I’ve also taught a good bit of Latin and Hebrew over the years. I found Dobson’s Learn New Testament Greek an excellent resource (his book on Hebrew is good, too). The one thing I would add is the necessity of reading aloud – and trying conversation as well, if possible. It needs to be stressed (as I always did in teaching Latin) that this was a living language, spoken and heard, and the rhythms of speech really do reinforce understanding. A second excellent resource for the intermediate or more advanced reader is “A Reader’s Greek New Testament ” published by Zondervan, with every word that appears fewer than 50 times in the New Testament given at the bottom of that page. This has been my vademecum for years now, as well as the Hebrew Bible. I was delighted to read once that in the 18th century (I think) the President of Yale addressed the graduating divinity class in Hebrew and they understood him!

  4. I too learnt Greek via Wenham and was competent enough in the language to study it for four years at Uni. As a secondary school teacher (not languages!) I have sometimes observed language lessons and methodology for teaching them has changed dramatically and for the good with much greater emphasis on enjoyment and celebrating what you do know rather than being left demoralized by teachers who just made you aware of what you didn’t know. Also technological changes (videos, mp3s, internet, CDs) have massively enhanced enjoyment and accessibility, in recent years I have enjoyed the Daily Dose of Greek https://dailydoseofgreek.com/.
    I do wish however that I could have learnt NT Greek as the flowing language spoken in modern day Greece rather than the rather static northern European Erasmian version that I was taught.

  5. Oh, yes please. Sitting in church down the years one’s had to wince at dodgy exergesis that could have so easily been avoided. Mind you, producing ordinands who are biblically literate would be nice.

  6. To those who say, “Why not leave translation you the experts?”, I say that that would possibly be OK if English wasn’t constantly changing. How can we accurately read scripture if we are reading the English translation of a previous generation? I try to be literate in Greek and Hebrew because I love to get a deeper understanding of what God has caused to be recorded by people a lot like us who happened to speak another language.

    • I dont think English changes that much. And you seem to imply that expert translators arent aware of such changes, which is hardly true. And these days, it is surprisingly easy to look up different possible meanings to specific words using the dreaded internet.

      Such a mindset also encourages a division between clergy and laity, where only clergy have a ‘deeper understanding’ of what God has to say because they have studied Greek and Hebrew. Sounds depressingly similar to the Catholic church in days gone by. Thank God He opened it to all, as it was always intended.


  7. I did Classical Greek at school for a couple of years and promptly forgot most of it – and then 3 years compulsory greek for my undergrad degree (now sadly you only need a term). I was near the top of my year in Greek/NT exegesis papers and yet felt even then really ‘amateurish’. I have continued to use my Greek in sermon prep on NT passages for 25years & its useful for working with the technical commentaries & lexicons. But I suspect one has to be an expert at PHD level to be able to read it really well and rub shoulders with the collective world class translation scholars working on the official translations. Some commenting here will be among such, but for the average Christian minister, let alone church member, ‘mastering’ Greek is an exotic unnecessary, accessible to the gifted few.

    Far from getting me one step nearer what the Lord may be saying, mere passing competence in Greek pushes good translation one step farther away. And, dare I say, I also wonder if there isn’t something subtly elitist here & most un Protestant – we had a Reformation, in part, to put the Bible in the language & in hands of the people.

    • Don’t sell yourself short. If you resolved to read a chapter of Greek each day in your daily devotional- and to read it out loud catching the rhythms and sounds of the language – you would be very pleased, in the right sense. The trick is not to translate but to start thinking in Greek. Plenty of solidly Protestant sorts lke D A Carson would be unapologetic about this approach. The meme goes that it takes 10000 hours to be expert in anything. That equates to five years’ fulltime work, which is obviously out of the question. But 30 years’ commitment- a long obedience in the same direction- is a life transforming journey. Texts like ‘A Reader’s Greek New Testament ” make this goal doable.

      • Thanks for the implicit confidence in my ability not to be humiliated by such an endeavour – My first panic attack occurred being called upon to translate in the round in Margaret Embury’s Greek NT class in autumn 1991 – it’s haunted me since 🙂

        Brian – you weren’t there in those days doing s PHD in Chronicles were you?


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