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In Bible,Justin Wishart

It’s All Greek to Me

By Justin Wishart

Do you want to learn enough Greek to increase the depth of your Bible study? While our modern English translations are, for the most part, excellent renderings of the Greek,[1] so much can be learned if you have a basic understanding of the Bible’s original languages. For example, in John 1:1 we read, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (ESV). What does it mean to say that God was a “Word”? Which “Word” is God? Is God a collection of letters? Or, did John mean to communicate something much deeper and much more profound?

This post aims to show you how you can become more familiar with the original languages to significantly deepen your own Bible study. It’s important to note that you will not become a Greek scholar by following my recommendations, but you will gain much insight to the biblical text. I also want to show you how you can do this on a budget. Be warned: becoming familiar with another language is hard work, particularly if you are not immersed in the language and culture. The good news is that if I can do this, then most of you can as well.[2] God has graciously revealed Himself to us through the Bible, and if we want to be followers of Him, learning about Him becomes critical. Plus, in-depth exegesis of the biblical text is often fundamental to apologetics. In short, it is well worth the effort.

The first issue I would like to address is Bible computer software. Many fantastic programs are available, with the top three possibly being BibleWorks, Logos, and Accordance. I will not be covering these programs as they are expensive, and one goal of this blog is to show how to learn Greek on a budget. There are some good, free Bible programs, but to my knowledge they don’t deal with the original languages in depth. While you get worthy commentaries and dictionaries with these free programs, they won’t help us much with our goal of interacting with the Greek text.

First, I recommend purchasing William Mounce’s book, Greek for the Rest of Us.[3] This is a fantastic book, which aims at assisting the church in learning enough Greek to greatly deepen Bible study. Mounce says in the preface to the book: “I came to the conclusion that if people knew a little about Greek and a lot about how to use the good biblical study tools, they could in fact glean much from the Bible and from other resources that are otherwise beyond their grasp.”[4] This will be my only recommendation for which a purchase is required, although I will offer recommendations for other helpful purchases. The book is primarily a Greek grammar book, but also has great discussions on English translations and a great study method called “phrasing.” At times it is dry, as one would expect of a grammar book, but Mounce does a good job at making it relevant and interesting. Working through this book will require some dedication and mental sweat. However, Mounce provides some great, mostly free, online support to help people through it.[5]

The main goal of the book is to allow readers the ability to use traditional and reverse interlinears as focal points of their biblical study. What is an interlinear? Instead of explaining what it is, we will quickly work through one together at the Bible Hub online Bible study site.

Screenshot of John 1:1 on Bible HubNotice that the main part of the interlinear is the Greek text. Look for the Greek word Λόγος. Above this word is the English transliteration: the sounds of the Greek word written in the Roman alphabet (Logos). This will show you how to pronounce the word. Below it is the translation of Λόγος into English, which here is rendered Word. Below the English translation is what is called parsing (N-NMS). Parsing is simply the way you can know how this particular word fits in with the rest of the sentence. Click that letter sequence and you see what each letter represents. Studying Mounce’s book will teach you these parts of speech of Greek grammar. With this knowledge you will have come a long way in understanding various words and how they fit in with the rest of the passage.

Above the transliteration, you will see a number (3056). This is called a Strong’s Number. Nearly all the original language words in the Bible were given a number by James Strong (1822-1894), which corresponded to a dictionary definition. This system has been used by later scholars to tie in their work with the original language. If you click on that Strong’s number, it will take you to a page discussing the corresponding Greek word from various scholarly helps. As you scroll down, you will see that there is a lot of information on what Λόγος means. This indicates that Λόγος has a very rich meaning, and to fully understand what John is saying here, you must study this word carefully. Is John picking one narrow definition from a word which has a large semantic range, or is he trying to encompass the whole idea of the word? Regardless of the answer, you should see that that translating the Λόγος as Word may obscure the actual meaning of the word for us today. We generally understand Word differently today than a Greek speaker in the 1st century would have understood Λόγος. Interacting with the Greek helps deepen our understanding of what John, or the Holy Ghost, meant by using that word. In all the scholarly work shown on this page, you will probably find many terms and expressions puzzling. However, after you study Mounce’s book you should understand them well.

Reverse interlinears differ from traditional interlinears by making the English translation the main section of the interlinear instead of the Greek.[6] This makes using them more intuitive for English speakers. For example, Greek does not put as much importance on word order as English does. Words can be liberally swapped around in Greek, but in English the meaning of the sentence becomes lost. This makes it difficult for an English speaker to understand what is being said at times, even when the traditional interlinear provides the word equivalent. At times it’s kind of like reading Yoda, only worse. Reverse interlinears solve this problem.

It is important to note that the resources available on the Bible Hub site linked to Strong’s numbering system are older ones. This is why they are free. These resources have served the church well. However, Greek scholarship has advanced since they were published. This site does not compete with the Bible software I mentioned earlier, which has the latest and greatest books. Still, the site is very valuable to the beginner in Greek, and it is accessible anywhere there is an Internet connection. Plus, you can’t beat the price.

I hope that people reading this, who want to know God more, are encouraged to begin learning the Bible’s original languages. It’s easily worth the effort. There are awesome tools available to make Scripture more understandable and all you have to do is learn how to use them. If some of what I wrote is confusing to you, studying Mounce’s book should clear up the confusion. The information I have provided should get you on your way to reach your linguistic goals. Who knows? Maybe taking this path will deepen your appreciation for Greek and turn you into a legitimate Greek scholar!

[1] I would argue that the modern English Bible represents the greatest translation work in human history.

[2] I failed two French classes growing up before I dropped out. I thought I simply couldn’t learn another language.

[3] William Mounce, Greek for the Rest of Us, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013). There is also a Hebrew for the Rest of Us written by Lee Fields (Zondervan, 2008).

[4] Ibid., viii.

[5] “Greek for the Rest of Us (second edition),” Teknia, accessed January 15, 2015, https://www.teknia.com/greekfortherestofus. Many of the resources here are free, but for a nominal fee you can get access to all the resources.

[6] The ESV Bible Online offers the ESV translation of the text. You can purchase, for a nominal fee, the ESV Greek Tools app, which works with the online Bible. One of the app’s options is a reverse interlinear.