The New understandings in Greek, Part 4: Voice

This week we’re going to talk about voice in Greek and ‘deponency’. In some ways this is the most radical element of the new understandings, for those training in a traditional scheme. And yet, on the other hand, it is one of the elements about which there is the most consensus.

Here’s how traditional grammars tend to teach voice, overly simplified to what students normally take in.

Active voice refers to sentences where the Subject does the action of the verb.

I study the Greek language. (study is a verb in the active voice).

Passive voice refers to sentences where the Subject receives the action of the verb.

The Greek language is studied by me. (is studies is a verbal phrase in the passive voice).

So far so good, for English anyway. But when we take students to Greek we have the disconcerting problem that there appear, in some tense forms, to be not 2, but 3 voices.

The aorist, in particular, has three voice forms, traditionally labelled active, middle, and passive.

That middle voice is the one hardest for English speakers to grasp, and it’s often taught as ‘kind of in the middle between active and passive, with some idea of the Subject doing the action with some kind of respect to themselves and please figure it out from context.’

Then you have two more features that appear as problems: (1) Quite a few of the tense-forms, including the present, have no distinction between so called ‘middle’ and ‘passive’ forms. (2) Important verbs appear with a middle but no active voice form. ἔρχομαι is a very good example. Traditional grammars borrow from Latin and have called these deponents, meaning a verb that is active in meaning but uses a middle/passive form for the active.

This may well describe how you were taught Greek. Here are the bombshells if you’ve never heard this before:

  • The primary voice contrast in Greek is between ‘active’ and ‘middle’, not ‘active’ and ‘passive’.
  • There are no such thing as deponents.

I would say that the consensus, more or less, is that Greek developed with two voices, one of which we could call ‘active’, though ‘default’ or ‘common’ would also describe it. The focus, if there is any, is on the Subject rather than the action per se.

The second is the middle, which we could also call ‘subject involved’ or ‘subject affected’. The Subject is involved in the action in some way that affects themselves. The focus tends to shift from the subject to the action itself. The subject may or may not have an active role.

The passive, as a voice (not as a morphological set of forms) exists and develops as a subset of the Subject-Affected voice. It is one possibility for it.

Furthermore, the θη forms of the aorist are not strictly passives, and do not always ‘maintain clear boundaries’ between themselves and the aorist middle forms.

Forms that we have traditionally labelled ‘deponent’ did not lose an active, they generally never had one. They might in some cases develop active forms. But the reason they are ‘middle only’ or Subject Affected-voice only is because inherent in their meaning is something about subject-affectedness. To return to ἔρχομαι, it’s one of a number of movement verbs that ‘involve’ the subject in their own propulsion. That’s why the Greek language consistently treats it as middle.

Often this understanding of Greek voice is difficult to show in translation. Because however well you understand Greek voice, if you’re tasked with translation to English, you still have to translate into an English active or passive. So don’t feel like you somehow need to preserve ‘Subject-affectedness’ at all costs. You don’t.

But realising this about Greek voice opens up the possibility of understanding Greek better as Greek and reading middles more ‘naturally’. Get used to their Subject-Affectedness. Dwell in it. Learn to love it.

Two final things:

  • If you want a bit of a map to the different kinds of middle usage in Greek, here’s a link to my summary of Rutger Allen’s work.
  • If you want some further reading on the deponency issues, here’s a list:

Review of Advances in the Study of New Testament Greek (C. Campbell)

This is a relatively short volume from Campbell, which can easily be read in a few days. It is pitched at what I would call the ‘Seminary and Biblical studies’ market. That is, seminarians, pastors, and others involved in biblical studies at a degree level or higher. It generally doesn’t reach the depth needed to engage those already involved in Greek scholarship at a significant level, though depending on their area of expertise, some elements of Campbell’s book will be of interest. It is, on the whole, very introductory in its level.

The book grew out of Campbell’s class Advanced Topics in Biblical Greek and Exegesis which he taught at Moore Theological College. Although I was there for some of the time Campbell taught there, he did not start this class until after I had finished, so I did not have the benefit of that. I have had some association with Campbell in the past though.

The book contains 10 main chapters, including a (quite) brief combined history of Greek studies and Linguistics to the present day (1); an overview of the field of Linguistics (2); Lexical semantics; the Middle Voice; Aspect and Aktionsart; Idiolect, Genre and Register; two chapters on Discourse Analysis; a chapter on pronunciation issues; and a chapter on pedagogy.

The first chapter is quite brief, and very introductory, but it does do its best to set up the rest of the book. For those with little knowledge of a history of either Greek scholarship or Linguistics, it will give them a sense of the field that the rest of the book builds upon. But it does not pretend to do more than that, and it doesn’t. However, I don’t want to fault Campbell for not doing things he wasn’t trying to.

I will critique the introduction to chapter 2 though. Campbell distinguishes between ‘the study of language and the study of linguistics’ (emphasis his), and quite rightly. But, and I will return to this point under chapter 10, the way that the traditional method of grammar-translation teaches is in fact to teach about language, not to teach language. In this, I would disagree that ‘Language study is simply the study of the “content” of a particular language’, precisely because there is a large gap between what’s going on in biblical Greek studies programs, and what anybody else in language education thinks language study is. Of course, this is one of my hobby horses, so let’s move on.

Campbell’s overview of Linguistics in general is relatively good, though I think his own preference for Functional Linguistics tends him to treat Generative Linguistics too briefly and set it aside too quickly.

For anyone unfamiliar with Lexical Semantics and Lexicography, chapter 3 is not a bad introduction. but it is a relatively brief chapter and amounts to little more than ‘lexicography is hard and a lot of it has been poorly done’ alongside ‘people don’t really understand how hard it is and have a bunch of unexamined fallacious ideas about meaning and lexemes’. Both of which are true and need to be fixed! I suppose my complaint is that there was simply not more content in this chapter.

Chapter 4 turns to deponency and the middle voice. This chapter looks briefly at the history of the discussion, and notes the contribution of major authors to dismantling the idea of deponency, and more importantly reconfiguring our whole notion of the voice system in Greek. This is truly an area where there is an ‘advance’ – there is a considerable consensus on the core issue that there isn’t such a thing as deponency, and quite a bit of consensus about how to reconfigure our understanding of the active vs. middle voice dichotomy. Helpfully, Campbell includes some discussion of remaining issues in this area towards the end of the chapter, ‘mixed deponents’ and ‘passive deponents’. Indeed, working out these two areas will greatly clarify our understanding both of voice in Ancient Greek, and of diachronic changes in the language.

Campbell’s own main area of scholarly work in Greek linguistics has been in dealing with (Verbal) Aspect and Aktionsart, and so it’s not surprise that chapter 5, on this topic, is the longest, most in-depth, and probably best-written section of the book.

Here, Campbell carefully delineates the distinctions between tense, aspect, and Aktionsart. He then offers, again, a brief history of contributions to the issue. Campbell surveys debate over whether tense per se is cancellable or uncancellable (semantic vs pragmatic), and then moves on to outline the dominant understandings of the Perfect tense-form (Traditional, Fanning, Porter, Campbell).

All this is pretty fine. I want to critique some of the next section, in which Campbell offers a compact version of his simplified method for dealing with Aspect and Aktionsart drawing from his Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek. To summarise, this involves a four step process:

  1. Identify semantics: aspect? spatial value?
  2. Lexeme: punctiliar? stative? transitive? etc.?
  3. Context
  4. Work out Aktionsart.

I have a few problems with this. And my first issue is that we need to talk about verbs and predicates more clearly. A verbal lexeme, I would suggest, allows and disallows a range of predicate possibilities:

John walked, John was walking, John walked to the park.

‘walk’ is not stative. That’s a feature of the lexeme. It’s uncancellable and its semantic. But ‘walked’ and ‘was walking’ are both activities, while ‘walked to the park’ is an active achievement. The addition of ‘to the park’ modifies the verb, so that the whole predicate becomes telic. In sentence (3) ‘walked’ is the verb, but ‘walked to the park’ is the predicate.

My point is that steps 2 and 3 of Campbell’s approach need to be integrated better, because the semantics of verbal lexemes are not enough to establish Aktionsart, they must be integrated directly with other elements of the context to establish the Aktionsart of the predicate, not the verb alone.

My other criticism is that Campbell considers ‘Aktionsart’ to be a description of the type of action ‘out there in the world’, so objectively. It’s not that I necessarily disagree with this, but I suspect more nuancing of how Aktionsart itself is a term susceptible of various meanings would help.

Chapter 6 deals with Idiolect, Genre, and Register. This is another relatively brief chapter, which mainly serves to introduce these terms and concepts to those totally unfamiliar with them. it does that, but not much more, and I am not sure the introductory student of this level will necessarily know what they should do with this information, except read the Further Reading suggestions.

The fact that two whole chapters are dedicated to Discourse Analysis demonstrate its importance as one area of emerging work in Greek studies. The first chapter deals with Halliday in particular, and gives a reasonably good overview of Halliday’s approach to DA. If I had a criticism of this chapter it’s that Campbell repeatedly draws attention to the fact that Halliday and Hasan’s approach has yet to be properly applied to Greek, or Koine Greek in particular. I suspect the reader will end this chapter wondering why Halliday’s approach is so significant and what value it has, particularly since coherence and cohesion are yet to appear as particularly interesting topics to most of those engaged in exegesis.

The second of these chapters focuses on Levinsohn and Runge, work much closer to home for most Greek students/scholars. Campbell’s chapter offers a fairly thorough and condensed overview of both of these authors, and again I am left wondering why, but for a different reason. Essentially, Campbell works through Runge’s Discourse Grammar in a chapter overview manner, much like this review. Wouldn’t it have been better to perhaps overview a little more, and provide some pointed examples, and convince the reader that they needed to read Runge, rather than what Campbell does, which is overview, exemplify, and give a virtual contents list of Runge’s whole Discourse Grammar? My second criticism of this chapter is that the main problem that Campbell raises, from Porter, with Levinsohn and Runge is that they are mainly confined to the sentence level, rather than larger discourse blocks. This is a weak criticism, because it is really just a complaint that their work didn’t do something else which it wasn’t doing anyway. Both scholars readily acknowledge the need to move from what they have done so far, to larger units in the work of Discourse Analysis. This is a mis-aimed criticism.

Some will wonder why a whole chapter of this volume needed to be given over to pronunciation, but Campbell is right that it has been a hot topic for a little while among Greek scholars. He gives a historical treatment of how the Erasmian pronunciation came about, the evidence against it for Koine, and a presentation of Lee’s reconstruction of Koine Greek, ‘essentially that of Modern Greek’ (p198). I would have liked Campbell to more clearly outline the three positions of Erasmian, Reconstructed Koine (Buth, et alii), and modern (Caragounis, Lee, et alii), but he treats Buth as virtually modern.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Erasmian should be abandoned, and there is virtual agreement amongst scholars in the field, as evidenced at the 2011 SBL conference. It is very difficult to defend the continuing practice of Erasmian, despite Wallace’s best efforts to do so on the grounds of ‘convenience’.

The final chapter deals with ‘Teaching and Learning Greek’, obviously a field I have long had an interest in and have a bunch of informed, but quite firm, opinions about. Campbell demonstrates some familiarity with emergent approaches in the field, including ‘fresh ideas for traditional methods’, and the contrast with what he calls ‘Immersion method’. Personally, I don’t think that’s the best descriptor for Communicative based methods, but it’s not terrible. I disagree that this movement traces its roots to French immersion for English-speaking Canadians in the 1960s, this is a rather truncated history of second language acquisition theory and application, and somewhat erroneous (I’m not doubting that it happened, I’m just doubting that this is the origin of communicative approaches overall); I suspect this is because of the choice to think of this methodology as primarily about ‘immersion’.

Campbell treats Buth primarily, as the best known representative in this field, with some awareness of Halcomb, and draws on material from Daniel Streett on his blog. All good sources, but again this appears to be a field where Campbell is not himself well educated, and so there is some deficiency, i would say, in his depth of knowledge of the area of SLA.

His main criticism is the difficulty in making this work on a large scale, and on a long scale. It is the critique of ‘this is too idealistic’, but also a hope that maybe it could possibly work.

The last section of this chapter deals with Greek retention, with a nod to Campbell’s own book Keep your Greek: Strategies for Busy People, a volume that I am still bewildered every became a print book, since it’s more or less a glorified collection of blog posts with a bunch of hints that you could probably brainstorm yourself if you had some time. I’m not sure this section adds much to this book either, since it appears to be a description of the other books contents and a mild plug to buy it and keep reading Greek.

Overall, Campbell has succeeded in this volume to do what he set out to – introduce some issues of current Greek scholarship to those who ought to know about them but perhaps do not and furthermore, need a helping hand to even start to approach these areas. However the book as a whole lacks some depth, and parts of it appear too cursory, perhaps too surface overall. Campbell’s book is to be applauded for indeed finding and filling a hole, and we can only hope that these areas of research reach a broader audience.

Review of Decker’s Reading Koine Greek, Part 4

In this fourth and final part of my review of Decker’s book, I cover chapters 21-33, the Appendices, and some concluding comments.

On p386, introducing participles, Decker gives the example text “I will be heading to bed right after the game. (This verbal form has a subject, so it is not a finite verb)”. Firstly, this example is of English –ing forms that are not participles. Decker is presenting the view concerning English that heading in this use should be considered part of a tense/mood finite verb construction: future progressive. However I would parse that out differently and say that the English future progressive is formed with the active participle. Secondly, the text in brackets seems to just be a mix-up, it has a subject, therefore by Decker’s scheme, it is a finite verb. Perhaps he meant to write, “it is not a non-finite verb”. This is actually an error in the text (one of very few I have found).

In chapter 27 we get to the Genitive Absolute. In this I think Decker is a little bit behind the eight-ball, since he continues to list (p447) no grammatical relationship to the rest of the sentence as one of the normal elements. However he does note (p448) that this element is the one most often missing, however “[t]he function of the participle is to change the reference of the subject”. In this, even if Decker maintains the idea of absolute, his attention to the actual usage of Koine and familiarity with function and discourse, helps the student to see what a genitive absolute phrase is effecting in the discourse of the text.

I often wonder about the arrangement of textbooks. It’s not until chapter 28 that we reach the Subjunctive mood. Does that reflect usage? Or does it reflect a progression through forms for grammatical-pedagogical reasons. I also found it amusing how many times Decker reminds the student that there is no future subjunctive. No doubt Decker had many a student who regularly keep parsing verbs as Fut Subj!

Likewise, chapter 29 introduces the imperative and optative. A different philosophy of language instruction would probably introduce the imperative earlier. I cannot agree with the suggestion on p490 that third person imperatives should avoid translation with “let…” (in order to avoid the idea of permission) in preference to “must” language. While “let” for permission is common in English, the only option for formal equivalence is the slightly archaic “let…” construction, introducing a necessity construction does not alleviate the issue, it just replaces one misrepresentation with another.”

The optative is rare enough by the Koine period that it rightly takes up little space in a Koine grammar. Decker spares the student by teaching only what is essential for recognising them.

I was interested to read the historical divergence between Goodwin and Gildersleeve in describing Greek conditional statements, on p499, and glad for its inclusion. The section on informal conditions in the following chapter will also be of great help to students.

Another question about sequencing arises when we finally reach the –μι verbs in ch.32. Decker even discusses the question about how much attention they need, and so his decision to leave them towards the end and give a more general survey. While a few –μι verbs are quite important, and quite frequent, they are so only in a restricted range of forms; right through this chapter and the following Decker often gives frequency data for forms of the word appearing in the NT, which assuages the student that for reading the NT and LXX a full knowledge of every theoretical form is not necessary.

Appendices

Decker includes several appendices, all of great utility. He first gives reference charts, which are exactly what you expect them to be. While generally laid out well, I do find that Decker’s idiosyncratic use of extreme abbreviation sometimes makes charts less ‘sight-readable’ than preferable. Similarly, while the Morphology Catalog (App B) could be useful, it just reads like a string of words with arcane abbreviations; I’m unconvinced this is really useful compared to other tools (i.e. computer based ones). App D (the vocative case), and E (Greek numbers and Archaic Letters) are both informative and useful. Especially the frequency data and forms for vocatives in the NT.

Some Concluding Thoughts

It’s difficult to assess a teaching textbook without actually teaching from it. However Reading Koine Greek represents a decisive and new contribution to the Koine Greek textbook selection. It includes up to date insights and approaches from linguistics and Greek research, incorporates and employs frequency data in a pedagogically helpful manner, as well as showing the wealth of experience Decker held in teaching Koine Greek. I hope the text sees widespread adoption. I know I will be using it for reference and to refer others to.

Reviewing Decker’s “Reading Koine Greek”, part 3

It’s not my intention to give you an exacting series of comments on every chapter, so I’ll move a little quicker now and spend more time discussing points of interest.

I was interested to see that in chapter 11, p200, Decker includes in his definition of χάρις “A disposition marked by generosity, frequently unmotivated by the worth of the recipient”; just the other day I was discussing with someone the view that Paul’s novel view of χάρις in the NT is precisely that God shows χάρις to the unworthy, not the worthy, in contravention of Graeco-Roman norms. The question then becomes, “does one include this in a definition of χάρις in Koine Greek, in NT Greek, in broader Greek?” For if we enter it into our definition, we would perhaps miss what Paul is doing and perhaps misread what non-Christians authors were doing with the word, but if we do not we are left perhaps to define all Koine words deliberately disregarding, say, NT usage. Thus the conundrum of lexicography.

Chapter 13 deals with “Verbal Semantics” in which we get to see the outcome of more contemporary approaches to Greek linguistics played out in an introductory grammar. As in several grammars (Mounce springs to mind), Decker illustrates concepts such as person, number, voice, mood, with English examples first. On p219 he does say that “imperatives do not have subjects” whereas I think they do, but that is neither here nor there. When he comes to discussing tense and aspect we see what we’ve longed for – a clear introduction in an introductory grammar to

  1. tense forms encoding aspect primarily, time secondarily
  2. an explanation of aspect for learners

Although Decker retains the term “verbal aspect” which is only really a phrase used in Koine circles. Decker adopts the mainstream and uncontroversial aspect scheme of Perfective (Aorist tense-form), Imperfective (Present and Imperfect), and Stative (Perfect and Pluperfect). He does not include the future since there is no consensus on it! Instead deferring discussion to chapter 19. Decker also includes a brief paragraph explaining Aktionsart and referring the student to a more advanced Grammar for that.

We also see a re-casting of the issue of Voice. Decker, in part drawing on Conrad, contrasts situation-focused verbs with subject-focused verbs and then subdivides the second category into middle and passive. He does not bother at this point to explain how this newer view overturns traditional categories or do away with deponency, either from a desire not to confuse learners by introducing a concept that is not accurate, or else seeing no need to accommodate the fiction any longer.

Chapter 13 is central, not for learners, but for those with an interest in Greek text books. To see come on the market an introductory text that incorporates contemporary debate and findings in a clear and accessible way, not deferred to intermediate texts, and not requiring teachers to ‘unteach’ what their students learnt in first-year Greek, is most welcome.

Chapter 14 returns to the Present tense-form, with the information covered in 13 now in view again. Decker makes a strong effort to demystify the idea of the middle, though in a sidebar on p236 he does this by pointing to other languages with a middle voice. His aim is to make it ‘less weird’, but when he says that Classical Mongolian has 5 voices, this is not the best corollary, in my view, since Mongolian ‘voices’ are simply agglutinative suffixes that are not exclusive. One can stack 2 or 3 of them onto a verb.

In chapter 15 he discusses middle only verbs, (p252) which replaces the category of deponents with no comment on that terminology. Decker writes, “This is a set of verbs that typically has an inherent middle meaning in the very lexis of the word itself.” This is a much more helpful approach to middle-only verbs than the traditional one.

When introducing the Imperfect tense-form, Decker focuses on it differs from the present tense in terms of “remoteness” (p263), and “often has a discourse function in narrative: it supplies background information or sometimes introduces dialogue or summary statements” (p263). He then goes on to illustrate this. It’s, again, very pleasing to see this kind of material in an introductory Koine text. It also showcases Decker’s goal of teaching students how Greek conveys meaning. Similarly in chapter 17 Decker gets rid of the idea that the Aorist is ‘punctiliar’ in and of itself, or that the Aorist has any sense of “once for all” that yields exegetical ‘gold’.

When we reach chapter 19 we reach the unsettled waters of the Future. In the introduction to this chapter, p309, Decker remarks that “The Greek future tense-form is actually more closely related to the category of mood than of tense”, followed by a footnote that the same might be true of English. Likewise, Decker takes its aspect as “vague” (p310, following Porter. A footnote details some of the debate, with a nod to Fanning and Campbell).

As an aside, I appreciate that Decker notes at many points either “You need to memorise this”, “You don’t need to memorise this”, and “Your teacher may tell you otherwise”. He highlights what is essential for this approach, includes explanatory information while releasing the average student from overwhelming memory work, and defers to the reality of classrooms where instructors have preferences of their own. Related to this, Decker chooses to relegate the Pluperfect to ‘Advanced Information’ at the back of chapter 20, on the basis of it occurring only 86 times in the NT, and similarly few occurrences in LXX, OT Pseudepigrapha, and Apostolic Fathers. The very low frequency does indeed mean that mastering the pluperfect is less essential than other items.

Reviewing Decker’s “Reading Koine Greek”, part 2

You can read the first part of this multi-part review here.

In this second part of the review I offer thoughts and comments on the first 10 chapters of the text.

 

Decker demonstrates a great ability to write clear and communicative introductions to ideas that will strike English monoglots as ‘new’. This is a testament to his pedagogical experience and acuity. In the first actual content chapter, he introduces the alphabet. One pleasant feature is his inclusion of a sample of his own handwriting to give students an idea of what they should ‘aim for’ and ‘exceed’! In dealing with accents, he gives beginning students enough to know what they are doing, a little bit of history to contextualise them, and relegates more detailed rules to an appendix to the chapter. Wisely, he suggests that a student’s teacher will tell them how much detail they need to know.

Also in this chapter he discusses the difference between analytic, agglutinative, and synthetic languages. Although, I think he is confused, or writes a little confusingly, in that not all agglutinative languages are limitless in their construction, and agglutination is itself a form of inflection. Anyway, his introduction here sets the reader up for the syntax versus morphology ‘shift’ that English learners need to face.

A further very commendable feature of Decker’s volume is the decision to include actual definitions rather than simply glosses for vocabulary. While Decker doesn’t have much more to add to vocabulary acquisition beyond ‘memorise this’ and ‘flashcards have worked for lots of people’, the actual presentation of vocabulary for rote-memorisation is very well done.

Chapter 2 covers the Nominative and Accusative, Chapter 3 the Genitive and Dative. Excellent features in Decker’s introduction to case includes a good, linguistically grounded, introduction to the idea of grammatical gender, reading exercises that mix Greek and English words for the very beginner student; his treatment of the Genitive is well-managed. He avoids treating it as simply equivalent to English possessive or worse, ‘of’. Instead he spends time explaining how it functions to modify or restrict a word in relation to another. He spends a good deal of time showing the range of relationships with English examples and Greek ones. Also through these chapters he begins to teach a way of doing grammatical diagramming. Many teachers employ such a technique, although personally I do not find it very helpful, I am glad to see it taught within an introductory textbook from the start.

Chapter 4 moves on to personal pronouns, and Decker includes a well-rounded discussion of issues surrounding the third-person pronoun, gender, and generic pronouns. Although I think he is slightly misinformed in thinking that singular “they” is a relatively recent innovation, his insistence that contemporary translations aim to represent the antecedent accurately, in a way that is comprehensible for contemporary usage, is spot on.

Chapter 5 moves on to verbs. Unlike the (now) venerable Mounce who pushes verbs halfway back to his book, Decker deals with them almost as soon as possible, which I suspect will allow the text to construct or offer more meaningful example texts sooner. Decker opts for tense-form in place of the traditional term tense, showing his sensitivity to contemporary debates about tense and aspect.

As the chapter proceeds, Decker’s approach is not to introduce complete paradigms for every type of verb, rather to give a reduced set of charts to memorise (personal endings, for instance), and morphological formulae for each tense-mood-form. This is, in my view, a much sounder way to teach if one is adopting a deductive grammar approach. At least this way students are analysing each word for its distinctive markers.

I suppose this is as good a point as any to put in a mild criticism of the whole grammar approach. On p81 Decker proposes that learning the Present Active Indicative of λύω is so vital that one should be able to phone the Greek student at 2am, hear an immediate recitation of this paradigm, and then go back to sleep. In contrast, an oral communicative approach would never demand this. But presumably if I rang a student in the middle of the night and told them to open the door, they should likewise respond immediately – understanding and responding, rather than reciting rote material.

Anyway, Decker is certainly right that for someone taking this approach, they really should have such a degree of rote memorisation locked away.

Chapter 6 introduces Adjectives and Adverbs. At this point I began to feel that some of the chapters were quite long. I am not sure we needed both of these together. I was also a little surprised that comparatives and superlatives were relegated to an ‘additional information’ section towards the back of the chapter.

Chapter 7 then returns to verbs, and introduces the First Aorist Active Indicative. I think this is a real point of favour to Decker – the decision to introduce the Aorist as the second verb form learnt is a recognition that it is, as he says, “the most common verb form in the NT and in the LXX” (p117), it carries the main story-line, and is relatively ‘default’ or ‘unmarked’.

Chapter 8 moves on to introduce conjunctions, and as throughout the book contains some distinct ‘snippets’ that really enrich the book. For example, p144 he gives the text from Mark 2:1-5, with a translation that utilises (&) as a marker for untranslated καί which is so frequent in Mark. Then on p145 he gives an LXX selection and explains a feature of LXX syntax. Especially the attention given to LXX ‘oddities’ is most welcome in an introductory textbook.

I thought the amount of information included in chapter 9, on prepositions and the article, probably too much. It is at this point that one feels the divergent pulls of “introductory reference text for beginners” and “introductory teaching teach for beginners”. In a chapter supposedly introducing prepositions, the great bulk of the chapter seems concerned with uses of prepositions and articles, before the vocabulary on p166-7 which really gives the student some prepositions.

I have nothing too much to say about chapter 10, which deals more with pronouns, except that it too seems a little long and might have benefited from being a number of shorter chapters.

Overall my impression from the first ten chapters is favourable. There is a pleasing layout, clear explanations, though they do err to the ‘explaining too much’ side with concepts that will only be understood from later chapters, good illustration from a range of texts, and many interesting side-bars. It’s a little difficult for me to judge whether the exercises are sufficient for a learner, but my sense is that there is not quite enough for the ‘workbook’ element. These exercises would help a learner understand the information present, but not necessarily master the content for long-term usage.

Reviewing Decker’s “Reading Koine Greek”, part 1

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.