27 September 2009

'Does Anyone Speak English, Or Even Ancient Greek?'

My daughter attends a Christian classical school here in town, and in a recent discussion with the fellow in charge of the secondary school curriculum development, I was asked to put in writings some thoughts I expressed about the direction I felt a prospective course in Greek ought to take. As this little essay was intended merely for informal circulation among those at the school who would be involved in such things, I did not document the quotations I used, but I’d be happy to track them down for any interested readers.

For the Christian considering the study of the Greek language, the greatest possible benefit is, naturally, the possibility of studying the New Testament in its original language. As St Maximus the Confessor has written, ‘The divine reading of the sacred Books reveals the counsels of the most holy God.’ The Scriptures are the ‘Great Book’ of the Church, and in the words of the great Presbyterian scholar, John Gresham Machen, ‘Every scientific student of the New Testament without exception knows that Greek is really necessary to his work.’

As central as they are, however, the Scriptures are not of course the sole object of education. Though we constantly return to them in our various fields of inquiry, it is the aim of a proper education to acquaint us with a broad range of thought and literature. In the West, this has traditionally begun with the Greeks. Homer in particular was long the sine qua non of a liberal education, and along with the great philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, he could fairly be said to constitute the foundation of Western man’s understanding of himself. Nearly all of the important writers through the twenty-three or so subsequent centuries presuppose some knowledge of these three.

Even the New Testament itself, long believed to be philologically sui generis, is coming increasingly to be seen within the full context of Greek language and culture. Although St Paul’s quotations from Empedocles and Menander are well known, my point goes much deeper than this. Consider, for instance, the extensive use by the NT writers of the Septuagint. C.H. Dodd, among others, has done extensive work on the LXX vocabulary in relation to previous Greek culture going all the way back to Homer. The LXX translators, who were working after all in the center of Hellenistic learning, Alexandria, chose Greek words to represent Hebrew theological categories in full cognisance of their use in the older writers. Even the choice of Theos to refer to the one, true God of the Jews can be seen to have been anticipated as it were by Homer.

Thus, if we are properly to understand the NT itself, much less the rest of the Greek corpus, pagan or Christian, we must start with Homeric Greek. The renowned evangelical scholar of the LXX, Moisés Silva, has observed, ‘Ideally, students learning biblical Greek should do so only within the context of learning Hellenistic Greek generally (with at least a smattering of the late classical period).’ Similarly, in his essay, ‘Homer and the Study of Greek’, Clyde Pharr has written a classic apology for this approach to the language, arguing:

It is generally recognized that for the best results in the study of the New Testament, students should read a considerable amount of other Greek first. In the whole circle of Greek literature the two authors most important for the student of the New Testament are Homer and Plato.

But there are strong reasons for going even further than Silva cautiously suggests. A great deal of Pharr’s argument of course rests on the point that Homer prepares the student for the study of the Attic writers and for the NT, while the reverse is not true. The student of Koine who then turns to Plato or Homer is apt to find himself somewhat dismayed. In the first place, the grammar is a good deal more difficult, even if one has mastered the Koine grammar. In the second place, the student of Koine is unlikely to have mastered even that grammar so well as he believes. The great likelihood of familiarity with the NT in translation gives the student a false sense of confidence when he turns to the Greek text. A smattering of basic vocabulary is enough to make it clear to him that, for instance, the passage before him is Christ’s parable of the vineyard, or the list of the deeds of the OT saints in Hebrews, and he feels that he has ‘read the Greek,’ however poor his grammar may in fact be. Confronting the classical authors will make clear to him exactly how well or how poorly he has learned the grammar.

But Homer is to be preferred as a starting point even to the Atticists, of whom the first to be encountered has long been Xenophon, through the Anabasis. As I have said, Homer is a propaideutic to them, both linguistically and and in a literary and philosophical sense, and they assume familiarity with him all the time. Pharr notes that—

Homer and the ideas he represents are infinitely more important for the student of the NT and of the early church than is Xenophon; and if one can study not more than a year or so of Greek before taking up the NT, he should by all means have some Homer followed by Plato.

Furthermore, Homer is more capable than Xenophon of inspiring the beginning student, and the younger the latter is, the more true this becomes. For some time now, Homer has not been opened until after the student has been made to trudge through a writer whose works, in Pharr’s words, ‘are all too often found to be tedious and dreary,’ and ‘are not of a nature to fire the imagination and stir the hearts in the breasts of our youth, as can be, and is, done by the great masterpieces of Hellas such as the Iliad and the Odyssey.’

It is my belief that a classical school is in a unique and wonderful position to prepare students for college to a degree and by a standard otherwise unknown in our day. Greek was once a ubiquitous feature of secondary education. Today it is rarely studied, even in college. Those students who find themselves as undergraduates suddenly interested in pursuing the Classics and ancient history on the one hand, and Biblical studies, Church history, and patristics on the other, end up having to do a good deal of remedial study in the necessary ancient languages, not to mention any modern languages that may be needed for scholarly research. Think of what an advantage, even an inspiration, it would be to potential philologists to already have been given the basics in this respect! But of course, even those who do not go on to do such specialized work will find themselves in possession of enormous advantages over their peers even in the core curriculum of the standard liberal arts college or university.

Fortunately, I have already received the helpful comments of Esteban Vázquez on this essay, and thus I append them here:

The only thing I would have added if it had been my position paper to write would have been the obvious pedagogical advantage of starting with Homeric Greek, inasmuch as the students are blissfully unaware of its ‘difficulty’ when compared to, say, Plato. (Of course, this difficulty is only a perception on the part of students that have become accustomed to the niceties of Attic composition.) Further, moving from Homer to Plato (or, God forbid, Xenophon) could illustrate well to students the organic development of languages, especially if from the beginning they have learned a living pronunciation of Greek [Which I have not mentioned above, but certainly advocate for any class in ancient Greek!—Aaron].

One thing I would caution you about is the emphasis on Homer’s ability to stir the imagination of students. After all, your audience is likely to have read St Augustine’s comments on the matter in his Confessions, and therefore also likely to object that it is no better to weep for Dido than it is to weep for fallen Troy.


orrologion said...

For the Christian considering the study of the Greek language, the greatest possible benefit is, naturally, the possibility of studying the New Testament in its original language.

Lot of good koine or 'byzantine' Greek will do you in the taverna on Mykonos - or in Astoria.

I proposed the idea of an Athenaeum to my parish as the end goal of any Greek school or pre-school. That is, not simply a celebration of Hellenism, but the values underlying Hellenic and went far beyond Greek language and culture. Stress would be placed on the humanities and true religion (Orthodoxy).

It never went anywhere. After all, "Lot of good koine or 'byzantine' Greek will do you in the taverna on Mykonos - or in Astoria or with yia-yia."

DNY said...


On the very rare occasions when I have to do my own textual exegesis based on the Greek, I approach the Scriptures armed not with a specialized Greek Lexicon colored by its editors' theological commitments, but with Smyth's Greek Grammar and Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon, mainstays of student of Attic or Homeric Greek.

Subdeacon David [Yetter]

aaronandbrighid said...

Christopher> I know what you mean. Thanks to God, the kids at this school won't be interested primarily in going to Mykonos or Astoria, and the only 'yia-yia' to darken the doors there is my mom, who couldn't say 'ευχαριστώ' to save her life!

Subdeacon David> I do the same thing. Very helpful!

orrologion said...

To be fair, Astoria has two great beer gardens - though one is Czech and the other is hipster. It is also nice to at least see Orthodox clergy and monastics on the street now and again (I think most of the time they are Old Calendarists, though). It's also nice to have a church to stop by on my way back from parking the car out there - I stopped in to venerate the icons at St. Demetrios Cathedral on the Feast of the Cross. I definitely like that Greek churches tend to be open during the day more often than other jurisdictions' churches in case you want to venerate icons or light a candle.

Of course, that's very church focused - typical convert.

C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

I have been reading Sophocles (in greek), on off, for twenty years. Last night as I was contemplating some difficult lines in a long speech by Ajax when it struck me that the honor and shame framework that Ajax reflects in his desire to rescue his name from infamy is seriously at odds with Jesus teaching. I find it quite easy to slip into the worldview and values of Homer and the Tragic playwrights where making name for yourself is the final verdict on a life well lived.

aaronandbrighid said...

Mr Bartholomew> Have you heard of Louis Markos? His book, From Achilles to Christ addresses just that issue rather well, IMHO. It is of course one of the great pitfalls of reading the pagan writings. St Basil warned us to practice discernment as we make our way through them.