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How speaking Koine Greek with a toddler made me a better exegete ...

We all have a number of imaginary interlocutors in our heads against whom we argue our new ideas and before whom we justify ourselves; these can be friends, colleagues, professional rivals, or others. The resemblance that such interlocutors show to their real-life counterparts is often dependent on the effort we’ve exerted to understand opposing views, the degree of discipline we exercise over our thoughts, and the general fairness of our minds. If one can carry on such debates fairly, they prove invaluable for sharpening one’s own arguments and understanding.

All of this is merely a preamble to introducing one of my own imaginary interlocutors with whom I converse regularly, a prominent New Testament scholar who once told me ...

I just don’t think that [learning Koine Greek as a living language] makes you a better exegete.

I am always on the lookout for examples that, to me, seem to disprove the claim that speaking Koine Greek will not make me a better exegete. Reformulated as the positive: I am always on the lookout for examples that help answer the following question:

How does speaking Koine Greek as a living language make me a better exegete?

Rather than be my own judge in such debates, safe within the confines of my own mind, I thought it would be appropriate to provide an answer to this question in a more public setting, namely, this blog. A recent linguistic experience with my son forms the kernel of my answer.

I have been making an effort to speak in Koine Greek with my son just about every day since shortly after his first birthday. He turns two in September. At this stage, I would probably say that he has a passive vocabulary of several hundred words and an active vocabulary of a fraction of that. He is a smart little guy :)

Although there is a degree of subjectivity in my linguistic choices with my son—I’m not going to be perfect—I have tried to make my linguistic choices on the basis of attested phrases in authentic Koine texts. The colloquia of the Hermeneumata Pseudodositheana have served as one of my main influences in this regard. They provide plenty of material for talking about everyday activities in Greek.

In any case, I want to share an example below of how speaking in Koine Greek with my son has made me a better exegete. Note how I said that it makes me a better exegete. I am not saying that my insights are impossible to discover without speaking the language—far from it. More traditional approaches yield similar results. However, in my own personal experience, I would not have seen these exegetical insights if I had not been speaking Koine Greek.

ἔρχου vs. ἐλθέ in Matt. 8.9

In Matt. 8.9, we find the following passage about the commands the centurion gives to those under his authority (imperative verbs in bold):

Καὶ γὰρ ἐγὼ ἄνθρωπός εἰμι ὑπὸ ἐξουσίαν, ἔχων ὑπ᾿ ἐμαυτὸν στρατιώτας· καὶ λέγω τούτῳ, Πορεύθητι, καὶ πορεύεται· καὶ ἄλλῳ, Ἔρχου, καὶ ἔρχεται· καὶ τῷ δούλῳ μου, Ποίησον τοῦτο, καὶ ποιεῖ.

What is particularly interesting here is that two aorist imperatives (πορεύθητι, ποίησον) flank a “present” imperative (ἔρχου), even though the set of three imperatives are clearly presented as parallel to one another.

The question, then, is why is ἔρχου alone in a “continuous” aspect (i.e., the present) rather than a “perfective“ aspect (i.e., the aorist)?

A possible solution to this problem came to me one day while I was out walking with my son. I had gotten in the habit of always saying ἐλθέ to him when I wanted him to come to me. Typically, I would be standing or sitting in one place and beckon him to come. On this particular walk, we were heading to the bike locker to go on a bike ride. Like many his age, my son got distracted and was tarrying behind. As I turned back to beckon him to come, it just didn’t quite feel right to use ἐλθέ. Suddenly it hit me, “Now is when I should use ἔρχου!” I didn’t just want him to come to me in that moment, but I wanted him to “come with me” or “come along” or “come (so that we could go on a bike ride)” as we made our way to the bike locker.

Coming back to the New Testament, it seems that just such an explanation might work for Matt. 8.9. The centurion is not just commanding his soldier/servant to come to him, but to “come along” with him or perhaps “come (to fulfil another subsequent task)”. This may suggest that the beckoning of a servant was conceptualized not as an end in itself, but as something that was part of a larger command, whether “come along” or “come (to do this other thing)”. In fact, such logic may just explain the formulaic language in idioms such as ἔρχου καὶ ἴδε ‘come and see’ (note that the second imperative is aorist).

In fact, after all of this, I cracked open BDF to see what they said about this form in Matt. 8.9. Remarkably, their conclusions were quite similar to my own:

(1) Πορεύου is used at times even where the destination is stated: A 22:10 ἀναστὰς πορεύου (‘go on your way’) εἰς Δαμασκόν (‘to Damascus’), κἀκεῖ etc.; cf. 8:26, 10:20. Mt 25:9 πορεύεσθε πρὸς τοὺς πωλοῦντας (‘here and there, wherever you may find one’) καὶ ἀγοράσατε (goal) ἑαυταῖς; cf. 25:41 (a punctuation mark is to be placed after κατηραμένοι). Cf. Epict. 1.25.10 πορεύου πρὸς τὸν Ἀχιλλέα καὶ ἀπόσπασον τὴν Βρισηΐδα. Lk 5:24 πορεύου εἰς τὸν οἶκὸν σου (more direction than goal; whether he arrives or not is beside the point); Jn 20:17. On the other hand πορεύθητι A 9:11, 28:26 OT, Mt 8:9 = Lk 7:8 (πορεύου DX in Lk. Command of the centurion to his soldier; it is a question of coming or going in itself. Ἔρχου in the same vs. could mean ‘come with me’ [cf. Jn 1:46 ἔρχου καὶ ἴδε, v. 39, 11:34] or ‘come back’ [as the passage from Epict. referred to above continues: πορεύομαι. ‘ἔρχου’. ἔρχομαι]. Ἐλθέ Mt 14:29 means ‘come [back] here’; also Jn 4:16 and Homil Clem 9.21 in quoting Mt 8:9).

You don’t have to speak Koine Greek to see this point, but I’m not sure that I would have seen this if I had not been speaking in Koine Greek with my son. This reiterates the point that, while it is possible to gain the same or similar insights without speaking Koine Greek, speaking the language may help you to see more than you might otherwise.

What advantage then hath the modern Koine-Greek speaker? Or what is the profit of spending hundreds of hours developing spoken fluency in a “dead” language?

Much every way: chiefly, because spoken proficiency forces you to make hundreds of “authorial” decisions on a weekly (if not daily) basis that mirror the very same compositional decisions of the ancient authors of the New Testament.

What is exegesis if not an attempt at understanding the authorial decisions and their significance for any given passage?

Even if I am wrong in a particular linguistic choice I make when speaking Greek, the very fact that I am making hundreds of such choices on a regular basis—and encountering other instances in which I have no linguistic choice—will help me to understand the right (and wrong) exegetical questions to ask about the ancient author’s text.

In this way, speaking Koine Greek has made me a better exegete.

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