Updated: Dec 27, 2019
As many of my readers know, I have been speaking in Koine Greek with my son since he was about one year old. This does not mean that I have been speaking to him only in Koine Greek, but it has been a regular part of our relationship. Though English is spoken most of the time, there are indeed days where Koine Greek is the medium of most of our communication. How I have managed to do this and how he has been able to become a learner of Koine Greek is a blog post for another day (I would be happy to blog on this if people are interested).
Speaking Koine Greek in daily life with my son has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. There are scores of examples I could share to illustrate this, but one in particular struck me recently as especially important for the wider field of Biblical/Koine Greek pedagogy.
It all started one day several weeks ago when I was playing 'pretend eating' (προσποιεῖσθαι ἐσθίειν) with my son on the couch, during which we made believe that we were eating some toy pieces of food that we have, such as a pomegranate (ῥόα). When I wanted to say that I was 'licking' the food, I realized I did not know—or did not remember—the verb for 'to lick'. I quickly pulled out my phone to look up the word and found λείχω 'I lick' in the dictionary, the aorist of which is ἔλειξα 'I licked'. I started saying it out loud to describe what I was doing with the food just to get practice myself and drill it into my own memory. Little did I know what would happen next. The dialogue proceeded something like this:
'λείχω ... λείχω τὴν ῥόαν' 'I am licking ... I am licking the pomegranate'
'hmm ... what is the aorist?'
[scrolls down in the dictionary and finds it]
'ἔλειξα ... ἔλειξα τὴν ῥόαν' 'I licked ... I licked the pomegranate'
'-ἔλειξεν τὸ πῦρ' [while turning and looking up at me]
'τί εἶπας?!?' [while turning my head quickly]
'-ἔλειξεν τὸ πῦρ' [with perhaps a bit less confidence based on my reaction]
I don't remember exactly what I said at this point, but I think I exploded with astonishment and joy as I realized he was quoting the Septuagint version of the very end of 1 Kings 18.38, which recounts the fire of God descending from heaven and consuming Elijah's sacrifice in his contest with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (emphasis mine):
καὶ ἔπεσεν πῦρ παρὰ κυρίου ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ καὶ κατέφαγεν τὸ ὁλοκαύτωμα καὶ τὰς σχίδακας καὶ τὸ ὕδωρ τὸ ἐν τῇ θααλα, καὶ τοὺς λίθους καὶ τὸν χοῦν ἐξέλειξεν τὸ πῦρ.
'And fire from the Lord fell from heaven and devoured the whole burnt offering and the split wood and the water in the trench, and the fire licked up the stones and the dust.'
Granted, it is only three words, and my son did leave off the first part of the verbal form (i.e., ἐξ-), but I was still quite impressed. My son had instantly, without even pausing to think, connected me saying ἔλειξα 'I licked' on the couch with a pomegranate to the phrase ἐξέλειξεν τὸ πῦρ 'the fire licked up' that he had heard in 1 Kings 18.38. You may ask at this point, 'How did your two-year old son know 1 Kings 18.38 in the Greek Septuagint?'
I must confess that my son and I are some of the most frequent visitors to KoineGreek.com. One of his favorite cartoons to watch recently has been 'Elijah and the Prophets of Baal in Koine Greek according to the Septuagint (LXX), 1 Kings. 18.16b-40'. Go to timestamp 4:55–5:08 to hear and watch 1 Kings 18.38. I'm not sure how many times my son had watched that video by the time he was ready to quote this last bit of verse 38, but let's just say it was more than a few.
What is my point in sharing all this? I want to share just one more example before getting to that:
A few days later, we may have been doing make believe or pretend or something like that. I asked my son if he was really doing something as opposed to just pretending, using the word ἀληθῶς 'truly' in my question. Surprisingly, my son started to correct me saying, 'Not ἀληθῶς — ἀληθῶς κύριος!'. After my experience with ἐξέλειξεν τὸ πῦρ, I had a better idea of what to expect at this point. I racked my brain for a second trying to figure out what he was referencing. After a bit, I realized that he was quoting 1 Kings 18 again, this time verse 39, in which the people confess that YHWH (κύριος in the LXX) is the one true God after seeing the fire consume the sacrifice [timestamp 5:11–5:19]) (emphasis mine):
καὶ ἔπεσεν πᾶς ὁ λαὸς ἐπὶ πρόσωπον αὐτῶν καὶ εἶπον Ἀληθῶς κύριός ἐστιν ὁ θεός, αὐτὸς ὁ θεός.
'And all the people fell on their faces and said 'Truly the Lord is God, He is God.'
Once again, the nature of the"quotation" does not necessarily convey anything more than that my son merely recognized the same word in two separate contexts and made the connection. It does not mean that he fully understood the meaning, but I do think that him experimenting with the connections shows that he was trying to grasp the meaning of the word he saw in the cartoon by comparing it with how I used it in our daily life.
This is really the main point that I want to make in the rest of this blog post. It may not be immediately apparent, but the more I have thought about these experiences with my son, the more I have realized how relevant they are for informing how we learn and teach the biblical languages in our classrooms.
As far as I understand it, my son had encountered certain words only (or at least primarily) in his Septuagint (LXX) cartoon, which itself is a literary text. The moment he heard me use those same words in a real life context, he immediately made the connection and wanted to experiment linguistically to find out what they meant and/or get a better sense of their use. To put it as elegantly and alliteratively as I know how, I might say that ...
Literature leans on life
Literature is not to be read, understood, or appreciated in isolation. Even though we all may acknowledge that literary texts are written in a style and/or register distinct from our everyday speech, there is something in us that still expects them ultimately to be based on something more relatable and quotidian. Whether we realize it or not, even when we lift our minds to the loftiest of literary works, our reading and proper comprehension of language ultimately relies on years upon years of everyday linguistic interactions. In fact, the very category of a higher (and distinct) language register in itself requires a much more common everyday speech to even be felt. To put it somewhat bluntly and crudely, without the sort of talk that took place in the public toilet in Ephesus—I just mean everyday speech, since this was a common setting for friendly chatter—the literary gems housed at the Library of Celsus down the road might not have seemed so special. Moreover, when one is first introduced to high register literature in school, one's only means for approaching it is one's vernacular. This may be evidenced by the fact that among the school papyri, for example, we find lists of Koine Greek glosses for difficult Homeric words to help students read the Iliad.
All of this is to say that when studying an ancient language based on a defined and limited corpus, such as the New Testament or the Septuagint (LXX), we want to avoid making certain mistakes. A few of the most common mistakes, which I think my experience with my son helps underscore, are as follows:
A FEW COMMON MISTAKES ...
Calling what we study Biblical Greek or New Testament Greek: This is not by itself wrong—I myself use these terms occasionally—but calling the language that we study 'New Testament Greek' or 'Biblical Greek' can lead us to approach language learning the wrong way. These terms can trick us into thinking that learning all the grammar and vocabulary of the New Testament (without reference to other texts) is all we need to do to master the Greek of the New Testament. This could not be further from the truth. If literature is always leaning on (everyday) life, then we need to be careful not to lean only on literature. Like any ancient text, the New Testament was written in a much wider linguistic (and socio-linguistic, cultural, etc.) context. In order to really understand and appropriately feel each grammatical structure and vocabulary item used in the New Testament, you also need to have a good idea of the structures and words the author could have used but didn't as well as which of these might have been more common and which of these might have been more rare. While this is not always possible—based on the extant data—at least being aware of these considerations is important.
Attributing undue significance to a hapax legomenon (i.e., linguistic frequency): Frequency is actually a very important factor for explaining different linguistic phenomena. However, one has to be very careful when interpreting frequency in a limited corpus. Frequency in language in general is very important; frequency in a limited corpus, while important, can also be arbitrary. For example, the word ἀπομάσσω 'I wipe off/away' happens to be a hapax legomenon in the New Testament (Luke 10.11). In daily life, however, it must have been very common. For example, I use it all the time with my son, based on the fact that it is used in the colloquia of the Hermeneumata Pseudodositheana to refer to acts of daily hygiene/grooming like drying your face after washing it.
Making the first 500 words you learn the 500 most common words in the New Testament: This last one is, admittedly, going to be a bit controversial. So let me first begin by saying that there is actually a lot to commend in an approach like this. I have taught Biblical Hebrew like this before (but with the most common words in the Old Testament) and it does empower students to feel comfortable in the biblical text (in a way). And, because both the OT and the NT are decently sized corpora, there are not going to be too many problems here. At the same time, however, we must realize that starting our students off with learning (as their basic vocabulary) the most common words in a unique corpus like the NT is ipso facto going to give them an unnatural sense of the language. Moreover, it will give them a linguistic competence that is unlikely to mirror the linguistic competence of any Koine Greek speaker from history at any stage of their language progression. I still remember sitting in a third-year intensive Arabic course discussing something complex like international politics when my classmate wanted to make an animal reference, became puzzled, and suddenly blurted out with exasperation something like, 'I know how to talk about international relations and the United Nations in Arabic, but I don't know how to say monkey!?!' In the same vein, one might wonder if it makes sense to learn how to say 'I love righteousness' before one learns how to say 'I'm washing my hands' or 'I'm getting dressed'. If we really want to appreciate the language of the New Testament as ancient Koine Greek speakers would have, it is worth being patient enough to advance through our language learning in a more natural progression.
In conclusion, when learning and teaching Koine Greek language through texts like those of the New Testament, we always need to remember and take into account the full breadth of language out of which the language that populates the pages of our New Testament came. In particular, we need to consider how literature ultimately grows out of and exists in relation to the speech of everyday life. Or, in other words, we need to remember that literature leans on life. Having patience enough to really take these sorts of things into account in our learning and teaching will eventually lead us to a much better understanding of the language on the page, which is, after all, what we are after.