Book Review: Advances in the Study of Greek

Greek"Those within Greek scholarship often lament that students, pastors, professors, and New Testament commentators seem out of touch with what is going on in Greek studies." (from the Introduction, 20). Thus begins this important work by Constantine Campbell and after reading this book, it is no wonder we seem out of touch. It seems to me that ignorance might just be bliss. I jest, of course, because this is a very important book and I hope it receives a wide audience, future updates, and reprints. It is technical and a times heavy, but a slow reading will be helpful and since I'm of the opinion that more preachers ought to be studying directly from the Greek, I highly recommend this book to preachers even if scholars and students are also in the primary audience.

Two stories will introduce my thoughts. I was engaged in a conversation today on Facebook–the pinnacle of good, scholarly atmosphere and advanced learning–when a commenter made a rather startling statement. I had posted something about a political candidate published in a popular magazine and someone commented and said something about like, "well if by such and such you mean…" I responded, "'you'? I didn't write this." My friend wrote back, "This is why I love Koine Greek, so much easier to write what you mean." The timing most certainly was providential, but I'm not sure that my dialogue partner has spent much time actually reading about the advancements in Koine Greek scholarship if he thinks it is easier to write what you mean in Greek than, say, English. Or maybe he has and it is. The simply word 'you' managed to cause some misunderstanding–although I was playing funny with him–and we had a good laugh. Still…

Back in the day, when I was still an undergraduate, I spent my Fall and Winter semesters hunkered down in the confines of Ray Summers' Essentials of New Testament Greek. I did this for three years, a total of six semesters. We weren't always in Summers' book after my first year (we used other primers and books too) but when it came to mastering paradigms, my professor insisted we study Summers. I remember those days fondly–working through paradigms, plowing through the translation of Johannine literature (the 'easiest'), learning vocabulary, struggling to get the concept of the deponent verb, mastering participles, periphrastics, and genitive absolutes. Ah, good times indeed. But we spent most of our time mastering paradigms and translating text.

Come to find out, 20 some years later, there was far more nuance to the Greek of the New Testament than I ever thought imaginable. Who knew that behind closed office doors, or in the midst of a conference only attended by a relative few, or in the finely tuned pages of a peer reviewed journal smeared with publishing blood, there was so much debate going on about whether or not Greek verbs actually carry tense or that aorist verbs might not always indicate straight forward punctiliar moments in past time? (Summers: "The function of the aorist tense is a matter of tremendous importance. The time of action is past. The kind of action is punctiliar." 66)

Turns out, Koine Greek–what I was taught was simple 'market place' Greek–is not, after all, so simple and easy and uncomplicated.

To be sure, the study of Greek at the undergraduate level is relatively easy when compared with the depth of conversation that is, evidently, engaged at higher levels of education by linguists and as is represented in this book by Constantine R Campbell. There are debates about everything one can imagine when it comes to Greek, the parsing of nouns, mood, verbs, deponents, tense, perspective, indicatives, perfects, and, when it is all said and done, translating the actual text into something that is both faithful to the Greek and readable by the general church. It is a chore–but I suspect more a labor of love. Campbell is correct: I am hopelessly out of touch. This book is an excellent corrective.

Maybe the undergraduate level study of Greek needs to be a little more intensive (maybe it is now; it's been 20 years since I was an undergraduate) or maybe our definitions are just too simple. I'm not a Greek scholar or a linguist, so setting the tone for undergraduate level study of Koine Greek is not high on my list of things to do. I have Summers' book sitting just above my head on my desk, but after reading Advances in the Study of Greek, I'm wondering if it might be time to purchase a new primer because I'm sure that if I learned anything from this book by Campbell I have learned that a lot of developments have taken place in our understanding of Greek since Summers published in 1950. And who would have thought that? 

Changing gears for a moment, I note that there are a lot of decisions that go into the translation of the New Testament into other languages. We have been blessed here in our time to see the publication of about a thousand different versions of the Bible and I have always asked myself, with each new translation: why? I think I now know why. It is not just so simple as translating one word in Greek into another word in English. There are levels of nuance, interpretation, and decisions that have to be made by the translator for every single proverbial jot and tittle. Frankly, it is staggering to consider what goes into translation and I suppose to this point every translation is, at some level, a paraphrase. It may have been unintended, but this book gave me a deep appreciation for those who do the work of translation of the New Testament into other languages (even English)–especially in cultures where there is no written language. 

Key to this book is the subtitle: New Insights for Reading the New Testament (my emphasis). This book is not just about translating, it is, or at least purports to be, about reading the Bible. It does make one wonder just how much of our reading is done incorrectly. On the other hand, the author has limited his audience because there are not many people sitting in the pews on Sunday with a copy of Nestle-Aland in their hands or on their Kindle. But as DA Carson points out in the Foreward, "This book is not for beginners, but it will provide enormously useful in helping scholars, advanced students, and serious pastors to find out what is going on in the field of New Testament Greek studies–especially if they are tempted to think that advances cannot be made" (17).

The book is broken down into 10 chapters and covers the following areas of concern:

1. Short history of Greek studies; 2. Linguistic Theories; 3. Lexical Semantics and Lexicography; 4. Deponency and the Middle Voice; 5. Verbal Aspect and Aktionsart; 6. Idiolect, Genre, and Register; 7-8. Discourse Analysis I (Hallidayan) and II (Levinsohn); 9. Pronunciation; 10. Teaching and Learning.

Obviously, some aspects of Greek study have been left out due to space considerations, but what Campbell does cover in 200 some odd pages is breathtaking. Within each of these sections is detailed study of some of the things that, perhaps, some have taken for granted (aorists, perfects, for example). What is also helpful is that he includes an Expanded Table of Contents where the reader can find reference to specific scholars or topics covered in the book. I found this to be an especially helpful feature–along with the index and lengthy bibliography located at the end of the main text.

Another aspect of this book that I like is that Campbell includes plenty of examples to help the reader understand where he is going with his argument. Sometimes seeing an argument is makes it easier to understand and I found this to be a great feature of the book. To the uninitiated who wish to venture into this book, there will be challenges. You need a fairly serious working knowledge of the Greek even to understand the examples he gives to explain certain concepts.

The only problem I see with the book is that with so many theories and scholars and divergent points of view, it seems that at some point, and at some level, some conclusions are purely subjective and speculative. Campbell might agree with that assessment given that even DA Carson, who wrote the Foreward, notes he isn't always convinced by Campbell's arguments. The world of Greek semantics is a complicated and without a trustworthy guide it can become a Gordian Knot. We must tread with humility and caution and I'm convinced that Campbell is cautious and open to dialogue and exploration of his ideas and thoughts. This is no scholarly puff piece. This is just an excellently written book.

I think Campbell tries to maintain a fine balance between scholarly integrity and depth and faithful, Spirit led exegetical thoughts. At the end of the day, Greek exegesis will take the scholar or preacher so far, but I think there must be some dependence upon the Spirit to lead us into truth–I don't think Campbell would disagree, but that is clearly not the purpose of his book and this is not the place to make the argument. This is not to say that rigorous work with the Greek text is unnecessary. I stand firm that I think more preachers ought to be engaged in the study and use of the original languages as much as possible. It's also my opinion that some preachers ought to simply put the Greek New Testament away or go back to school given the way they mangle it in the pulpit or the flimsy observations they make based on what this tense means or that verb means. Campbell does a good job warning us of the dangers of careless use of the Greek.

This is an accessible book for those in advanced study of Greek and one that I think preachers ought to give serious consideration to reading. The breadth of resources Campbell discusses and engages has given me some ideas for further study–in the hopes of replacing my worn out Summers primer (whose work did not make the pages of Campbell's early history in chapter 1). It has also inspired me to start applying some serious effort into my study, comprehension, and retention of Greek.  Applying the thoughts practically in the final chapter (Teaching and Learning Greek) was especially helpful and I am glad that he did not leave us hanging on wondering what to do with all this information.

This is an exciting book. I highly recommend it and warmly award it 5 stars.

5/5 Stars 

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase Advances in the Study of Greek Amazon (Kindle, $19.99)  CBD ($19.49) Zondervan (Pre-order for $34.99)
  • Author: Constantine R. Campbell
  • Publisher: Zondervan
  • Pages: 250 (paperback)
  • Year: 2015
  • Audience:Pastors, linguists, preachers, college professors, students of New Testament, students and professors of New Testament Greek, translators
  • Reading Level: College Level
  • Disclaimer: I was provided a free reader's copy courtesy of Zondervan via NetGalley.

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