The late Rod Decker was a fine and outstanding academic, teacher, and although I never met him or had any interaction beyond his writings, I held him in considerable respect. His passing earlier this year was a loss for us, but great gain for him! I was grateful, then, that his “Reading Kine Greek: An introduction and integrated workbook” was able to be brought to publication by Baker.
In this post and some subsequent ones I will offer a review of Decker’s new Koine Greek textbook. I am generally sympathetic, though obviously I have some methodological issues with the whole approach. In the first post I want to engage with some of the Preface (pages xix –
The first thing I appreciate about Decker’s work is that on page xx he up-front ‘outs’ himself as a Christian “who accepts Scripture as an authoritative text.” This, as he notes, has no particular bearing on his teaching of the Greek language, but at the same time he readily submits that even in a textbook on Greek language, some of his (theological) opinions on Koine texts will be apparent. If only more ‘content’ focused texts included a statement from the author claiming their subjectivity instead of pretending to impossible ‘objectivism’.
Decker has chosen to include more material from the LXX as well as other non-NT texts in his volume, again a very commendable feature. Students of Koine, especially those in seminaries, too often narrow their gaze down to only the canonical NT texts. It’s very good to see an introductory text broaden that back out again.
I’m very glad also to see the presentation of “Reconstructed Koine” presented alongside traditional Erasmian as a pronunciation scheme. As the author notes, pronunciation is best learnt by simply asking what one’s teacher prefers and hearing it from them. All attempts to reproduce pronunciation values with “__ as in English” are stymied by the significant variation in Englishes anyway. The decision not to simply eradicate Erasmian altogether no doubt reflects that Decker himself utilised Erasmian, and a great many places still do.
On page xxii Decker begins A Word to Teachers. He notes that this text follows the ‘traditional approach’ of up-front grammar and exercises. He then points to two ‘alternatives’ that have emerged – the push to use contemporary SLA techniques for the goal of oral fluency is the first. In Decker’s view, such would only be possible if (a) the program were “to be a major in Koine Greek alone” (xxiii). He writes, “I do not think it is possible to provide sufficient instruction to reach the level of oral fluency within the limits of an undergraduate major or a seminary MDiv intended for ministry preparation.” (xxiii).
I agree, though I disagree more broadly. I agree that communicative approaches are better suited to a major in Koine Greek. However, very few such programs, if any at all, exist. Nor are they likely. This is problematic in itself. If no one is teaching Koine Greek for the purpose of oral fluency, we will never have programs producing students who have actually acquired the language. Research masters and Doctoral candidates, in my view, must be required to have active fluency in the language of their target documents. Anything less is an ongoing farce. And, if such students come to graduate research via means of, not a Koine Greek major, but a seminary-type program, when will they acquire such language competency?
I have written elsewhere about the sheer problem of time – it requires very large amounts of time of comprehensible input in a language to achieve reasonable communicative competency. I agree that this is, generally, not possible in typical seminary programs. However, I think it’s a mistake to keep thinking and talking as if the current model of Grammar-based instruction somehow achieves “more” in the lesser time it is granted. Teaching a grammar-based approach is not a short-cut, it’s a different race altogether.
Decker goes on to explain the other approach new on the field – the attempt to basically teach students ‘enough grammar’ to make sense of Biblical software tools (e.g. Accordance, BibleWorks, Logos). In his view, this only teaches “information about Greek” rather than teaching Greek per se. I suppose that my rebuttal to this would be that in essence, teaching Greek via the so-called traditional method is actually the same – it teaches about Greek. The prime difference is that it commits a great deal of that information ‘about Greek’ into the brain’s memory instead of leaving it on the computer’s hard drive.
To return to Decker’s method, he does not that he has attempted to modify his approach, to learn from the failures of the ‘traditional’ method. So, he attempts a more inductive approach, uses more real-Greek examples instead of ‘classroom Greek’, and attempts to integrate more dealing with Greek on its own terms. We’ll consider this approach as we delve further into the textbook.
Further on in the preface, Decker explains why his grammar is so large. This is because (a) it includes a lot of ‘workbook’ material, and (b) he treats some topics that are more often deferred to intermediate texts/grammars. I think this is greatly to be praised. He notes that students often turn first to their introductory textbook when dealing with ‘unknowns’ later on anyway, so it’s best to have this information included. My own experience confirms this – I and others will default to an introductory textbook to search out grammatical information. Withholding this information to an ‘intermediate’ textbook almost never aids. Especially since it’s not clear what slot such intermediate textbooks are supposed to fill in the curricula ecologies.
So much for the preface! In the next post we will go on to consider some of the content and methodology of the actual textbook.