The Intermediate Koine problem

You may have heard of ‘the third year problem’. It’s the problem of getting through two years of Latin, through ‘all the grammar’, and working out what to teach school students in order to transition them to ‘genuine’ Latin. It’s not really that simple a problem either, because getting from a grammar background to genuine unadapted texts as taught in upper high school is a tremendously difficult problem.

Anyway, there’s a similar problem that besets most students who have come out of a theological background and want to read broader Greek. Let’s call it the ‘intermediate Koine’ problem. Most seminary students these days, if they are fortunate ones, get 2 semesters of grammar, and then 1, 2, 3 or perhaps 4 ‘exegesis’ courses in which they are expected to work through a New Testament book in Greek. Which, in theory, might leave them with a 6 semester series of Greek courses, but that is definitely the upper end. (well, I must confess, I did 1 year of grammar, followed by 3 years of texts, so 8 courses really).

But my experience of moving into Patristics was… probably not very standard. I was already doing Latin, and I started taking a couple of Classical Greek classes on the side, went to some short courses, and read a lot of extra Greek. And then I tackled Chrysostom in my Masters.

I have met more than a few students interested in Patristics, or even just some broader Greek reading, who don’t know who to bridge the gap between their seminary-Greek and broader Greek literature. (Classical Greek students normally don’t have this same problem. They have other problems though, so don’t let them get too snobbish about it).

Here’s my generic advice if you’re in this situation:

  • The New Testament is relatively easy Greek. Take advantage of that and make sure you’ve read it all. And familiarity with the NT and with the LXX is going to serve you well if you do go onto the Fathers, because they are all familiar with it. It’s their Bible.
  • But most of the Fathers were educated in Greek, and they are generally writing in higher registers than the NT, and they are often imitating a more classicising style.
  • For which reason, you are well advised to spend some time working through a Classical Greek textbook. It will fill in the gaps that a NT grammar left out, broaden your vocab and exposure to Greek, and give you some more tools in the bag for difficulties.
  • At the same time, you want to start reading more broadly. The Apostolic Fathers are a very good set of texts to transition with, because they are building on the New Testament in style and vocabulary, are moderately more difficult, but much will be familiar. If you’re after something more generic to read, Xenophon or Lysias are good choices. Between those two, I prefer to recommend Lysias.
  • Ultimately, the main factor that is going to contribute to crossing the rather long intermediate plateau, is a commitment to reading more and more Greek. So don’t be afraid to go where your interests lie. Motivation to keep reading and understanding is important in the long run, to keep you in this game for the long run.
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