Review of “Going Deeper with New Testament Greek”

All textbooks have flaws, and this one does too.

When I studied Koine Greek in a seminary context, the 2nd year course was given over to working our way rigourously through Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, a scary book.

In recent times two texts have appeared attempting to capture this kind of intermediate/2nd year/Greek grammar market for evangelical seminaries, Elodie Ballantine Emig and Dave Mathewson’s Intermediate Greek Grammar: Syntax for Students of the New Testament (a book I have no personal knowledge of), and this volume, Going Deeper with New Testament Greek, by Andreas J. Köstenberger, Benjamin L. Merkle, and Robert L. Plummer.

The Preface sets us firmly in what I consider a slightly odd context for a language textbook – this is a grammar textbook written for not just students of New Testament Greek, but seminary students of an evangelical persuasion looking at NT Greek. I’m very sympathetic to that group of people, but I have reservations about whether what they need is a view of Greek that’s any different from anyone else’s view of Greek. Language is not religious.

This feeds into a more general criticism I have of the book, which emerges in a few places below – while the new testament may be viewed as an authoritative religious canon, it does not follow that you can make theological arguments about linguistic principles. New Testament Greek has the unfortunate ‘history of scholarship’ that continues to isolate it from broader studies of linguistics, and even Ancient Greek itself. This reveals itself in quotations, with approval, of texts like Dana and Mantey’s 1927 grammar. Really, no better source of fundamental linguistic concepts than a 90 year old NT grammar?

Chapter 1 is devoted to an overview of a history of the Greek Language, with not very much there, though why a student interested in expanding their Koine knowledge to classical is encouraged to pick up a 1961 textbook also bewilders me (p 21). So too, collapsing everything between 2230 and Modern Greek as ‘Byzantine’ (p 23) is a disservice. The very brief note on pronunciation (p24) continues to recommend Erasmian, as favoured by “the vast majority of NT professors”; that is only the weight of an erroneous consensus.

Textual criticism deserves its section, though really a student should have recourse to a more comprehensive treatment than this half chapter. Although I don’t have any particular sympathy to the Byzantine priority position of Robinson, et al, the authors don’t do enough to undermine their own guilt-by-association of this position with the KJVonlyism they mention (even though they do specifically disassociate it, they undermine this disassociation by repeatedly associating them).

Coherence Based Genealogical Method (CBGM) is summarized briefly (p 28), which is obviously difficult, but since it is such an important development it should have perhaps been given more space (because of the difficulty in grasping what is occurring, and the way it challenges and makes problematic traditional TC practices as practiced by students).

Chapter 2 moves on to the case system, and the main practice of the book: to provide as many (and no more) labels for grammatical usages as necessary. This ‘label’ approach has its own pedagogical problems, but that is a debate for another day.

I am surprised that any space is given to outlining, even if they dismiss it, the 8-case system (p 51-2). 8 cases is arbitrary, based on notions of PIE, and not good practice, it doesn’t need even a dismissal (in my view).

Another odd feature appears in the treatment of the nominative, with the suggestion that the nominative somehow mystically emerged to specify the subject of 3rd singular verbs (p 52). Black is cited in connection to this, which is surely insufficient. It reveals a view of language in which verbs head everything, and nouns modify. Is this any more fundamental than viewing subject-nouns as fundamental and everything else as ‘predicate’? I feel like some grammatical essentialism is lurking under the bed. Citing Dana and Mantey to suggest that the Nominative as Subject is somehow Appositional does nothing to allay my concern.

Categories in general are treated reasonably well, though with much simplification from, e.g., Wallace (who honestly had too many categories). Again Dana and Mantey are cited to suggest the accusative is “probably the oldest” case (p 63). Is a 1927 grammar our best source on this? The collapse of two accusative structures (personal object + impersonal object) and (object + accusative predicate) into a category of “Double Accusative” is, I would say, confusing for the sake of simplification. Those structures are different enough that a student doesn’t gain that much pedagogically by having a single label. Meanwhile, relegating lesser-used accusatives to a footnote (p68, n69) and then including one in the practice exercises (p 72) is poor pedagogy.

The Genitive case gets a whole chapter (3) as it should since its usage contains the most variation and categorization is difficult. Indeed, the exercises for this chapter (p 108) had the most number where I felt the answer could be debatable. (And indeed, what on earth you get for exercise 8 when you split τοῦ ἀνθρώπου of from τοῦ υἱοῦ is particularly questionable, if not headache inducing). The dative similarly take a chapter (4), and has similarly difficult overlaps of usage (sphere vs reference vs respect?). Also, what they mean by the dative of possession being a “unique construction” (p 126) evades me – unique in relation to what? Other languages? Because that’s factually false.

When we get to verbs, it seems odd to me to start with an overview, and then turn to subjunctives and imperatives first. Perhaps they chose to do so because they have less categories. At least there is a section recognising that deponency is done and dusted, though it appears the authors rely heavily on Pennington alone, . Footnote 27 on p 197 points to Pennington’s sources, but the authors of this book do not appear to “dig deeper” themselves. One of the reasons the chapter sequence seems odd at this point is that a discussion of tense and aspect is delayed until the next chapter 7. There we get a discussion of aspect, largely informed by discussions in the NT grammatical field. The book adopts the view from Ellis and Dubis, that the perfect tense-forms are stative, and that this is “combinative”, combining perfective and imperfective. Personally I think this is problematic, because while “stative” may amount to the same thing as other ways of thinking about perfects, calling it a combination of perfective and imperfective seems to confuse the perfect tense-forms as some kind of simple combo of the other two aspects, instead of a genuine 3rd aspect.

Much of the verb chapters are taken up by identifying the “Type of Action” of indicative verbs. I suppose this is something close to Aktionsart. This leads me back to one of the main criticisms of this kind of book for 2nd year Greek students: they can’t read Greek anyway.

Most 2nd year Greek students went through a crash course of basic NT Greek grammar, learnt to parse a whole bunch of forms, and have to play “decode the verse” when they encounter Greek, helped by a good dose of English Bible knowledge. Then they get to 2nd year, and instead of being trained to read Greek, they get this whopping dose of Grammar Categories. Suddenly they’ve got a big bag of labels, and they’re told, “Okay, now (i) parse everything, (ii) label it with these fancy new categories you’ve got”. But the labels in the second box are driven by meaning – the only way you really know that an Imperfect is ‘Tendential’ (hey, what happened to Conative?) instead of ‘Inceptive’ is if you can read the Greek. Labelling doesn’t help you work out what things mean, it just lets people who understand meaning put labels on it.

To be fair, knowing what possible meanings there are for a structure does help, but that’s not what this book does, and it’s not what most NT departments are doing. I suppose it’s worth saying that this book includes “guided readings” at the end of each chapter. But these are really grammatical commentaries on NT texts. I’m not sure they rise to the level of what I’d call “training in reading”

Back to the book. Participles are in chapter 10, and it’s a disaster. There’s no discussion of participles in predicate position, even though this is surprisingly common. Instead they’re broken down into Adjectival vs. Verbal, and the main category of Verbal is Adverbial. But all the Adverbial examples I can see are nominative. So students get to the end of this chapter having no clue how to read an anarthrous participle in an oblique case.

Particles get shoved into two pages (420-421), which is a shame because learning to read particles well is a really important skill. Discourse Analysis almost gets a run – well it’s there in chapter 13, but it reads to me like, “hey, there’s this thing called DA, and it’s really cool. you should read about it, like in Runge or something” (p461).

There’s also a whole chapter devoted to word studies. My goodness, haven’t we killed them yet? I know word studies used to be a big thing, in certain circles, and I suppose that’s why there’s a chapter here. Even in Mongolia I had to deal with students doing word studies, using Strong’s usually. At least this chapter has some helpful advice on how not to overinterpret your word study conclusions.

Finally, there’s a chapter about “Continuing with Greek”, which I think every textbook ever written ought to have (mutatis mutandis). There are some good suggestions here, but oddly enough none of them are “learn to read Greek without analyzing grammar to death”, “learn some classical Greek”, or even “read outside the New Testament corpus”.

We all know I have my biases, and if you’ve made it this far in my review, you probably knew them before we started. Is this a better replacement than Wallace? Probably not. Yes, it does update the things from Wallace that need updating, but (a) its attempt to simplify categories often comes at the price of precision, and collapsing things into categories that don’t belong together, or else relegating them to difficult to find footnotes; (b) it’s not clear to me that the simplification of Wallace’s categories is a successful improvement.

Perhaps my major criticism is that I simply don’t believe that this kind of grammar instruction makes better readers of Greek, NT or otherwise. Its deliberate isolationism from broader Greek, even Koine, continues a worrying trend in NT Greek books. Its presentation of aspect is reasonable, but a choice among competing views (not the worst option, though!), and leads to a new death-by-category of subjecting students to the definitely-subjective death-by-category labelling of Type of Action.

5 thoughts on “Review of “Going Deeper with New Testament Greek”

  1. Hey, thanks for this review. It’s good to read this review from someone competent enough with Greek to actually critique the book. Having finished elementary Greek, would you suggest any particular Greek grammars/authors? Just start reading Greek? Where should I begin in moving out to classical Greek?

    Thanks for any help. It’s appreciated.

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  2. Hi Spencer,

    I’d say just get on with reading a lot of Greek, as much as possible. If you’ve finished elementary (NT) Greek, then start working at reading the New Testament, as much as possible. Start easy – John, Mark, and get to harder texts later. Try out Reading in Threes (https://thepatrologist.com/2017/05/22/reading-in-3s/). Then branch out to the Apostolic Fathers, they are a good bridge out of New Testament Greek.

    At some point, depending on your goals, it’s worth branching into some Classical. In terms of texts, anything on Geoffrey Steadman’s site (geoffreysteadman.com) is great. A grammar is not a terrible idea, but for now I’d just say read, read, read.

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