Why Learn to Speak a Dead Language?

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Why would anyone in his or her right mind want to speak a "dead" language, a language that no one speaks? The answer: Because only by speaking a language does one internalize it, and it was high time, Randall and I felt, having tasted fluency in Hebrew, that we should gain an active knowledge of Koine Greek.

You might inquire, “Now that you’re a pensioner, what, for Heaven’s sake, do you do with all your spare time?” Well, other than playing with my four grandsons, ages 7, 5 and 3 (twins), I don’t have much to do. ☺

Of course, I do have to spend a few dozen hours a week maintaining the website, and a few dozen more researching and writing articles. In addition, at my age, one shouldn’t forget that regular aerobic and strength conditioning is important. With so little to occupy my time (smile), I decided to devote several hours a week to learning to speak Koine Greek, the Greek that was spoken in the Mediterranean world at the time Jesus lived.

Following the lead of my colleague, fellow Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research member and JerusalemPerspective.com author, Randall Buth, I began trying to internalize ancient Greek by speaking it and hearing it spoken, rather than just passively reading the text of the New Testament.

Why would anyone want to do that?! Why would anyone in his or her right mind want to speak a “dead” language, a language that no one speaks? (Modern Greek speakers cannot understand their ancient tongue.) The answer: Because only by speaking a language does one internalize it, and it was high time, Randall and I felt, having tasted fluency in Hebrew, that we should gain an active knowledge of Koine Greek.

When we started this endeavor, Randall and I had been studying and reading Greek for approximately thirty years; however, we still didn’t have the active command of the language that a New Testament scholar should be expected to have, so that if someone were to have asked us to tell in Greek what we were doing last week we wouldn’t have been able to do it. That situation, although not uncommon among New Testament scholars, is intolerable. (See my blog, “My Knowledge of Greek: An Embarrassment for Too Long!“)

Randall explains all this on his website, BiblicalLanguageCenter.com. See his article there that explains how he determined the Greek pronunciation used in the first century (which we would later use as our pronunciation). He’s created textbooks (the series is titled Living Biblical Greek) and recordings. View a sample lesson from his Koine Greek course. His Biblical Language Center offers summer and spring-break Greek programs here in Israel.

Randall, I and a few other similarly “mad” students meet each week to read and discuss Koine Greek texts. Over the last eight months we’ve read The Shepherd of Hermas (a work of the Church Fathers) and we’ve just completed (end of May) reading The Testament of Abraham, a book belonging to the Pseudepigrapha.

Since January, the Biblical Language Center has held three- and four-day retreats every five to six weeks at Beit Bracha in Migdal, overlooking the Sea of Galilee. During these mini-retreats we allow ourselves to communicate only in Koine Greek. Last summer, Randall, I and three other students spent two weeks on the Greek island of Cos (see Acts 21:1) listening to and speaking only ancient Greek.

We make slower progress than we would were we learning to speak a modern language, because, for one thing, we lack native informants. We have no one to ask, “How do you say this or that word in Greek?” but, thanks be to our Heavenly Father, we’re slowly becoming στωμύλοι (stomyloi, fluent). In fact, our improving ability to “read between the lines” of the New Testament is very exciting! Almost every week we notice points in the text that had escaped our attention during previous years of study.

For example, when Paul arrives back in Jerusalem (Acts 21:17) at the end of his third evangelistic journey, the very next morning he reports on his work among the Gentiles to James (the brother of Jesus) and the other elders (Acts 21:18-19). According to the NIV, the Jerusalem elders say to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law.” However, the Greek text doesn’t read “thousands [χίλιοι],” but “tens of thousands [μυριάδες]”—Greek, like Hebrew, has a special word for “10,000.” The NIV is not alone in rendering μυριάδες as “thousands.” Most English versions of the New Testament, including KJV, ASV, RSV, NLT, NRSV, NAB, NASB, REB, TEV, AMP, ESP, GWORD and NET, translate “tens of thousands” as “thousands.” The NKJV and YNG translate with the word “myriads,” while the MESSAGE renders “thousands upon thousands.” Only CEV and CJB render μυριάδες literally as “tens of thousands.” While μυριάδες, like the English “myriads,” can sometimes be rendered “innumerable,” the English reader is unaware that the Greek text literally reads “tens of thousands.” (Notice that translators render μυριάδες literally in Acts 19:19: “five tens of thousands.”)

Suffice it to say, there’s a great difference between 7,000-8,000 and 70,000-80,000 Jewish believers in an estimated mid-first-century Jerusalem population of 250,000! Could one out of every four or five people on the streets of first-century Jerusalem have been a follower of Jesus? Translators of the New Testament have decided for us that Greek myriads couldn’t possibly be understood literally—there couldn’t have been that many Jewish followers of Jesus at that time. Without a note from the translators indicating they’re not translating the literal meaning of the word, the English-speaking reader is oblivious to other translation possibilities. (See my four-minute video, “How Many Jews Followed Jesus: ‘Many Thousands’ or ‘Many Tens of Thousands’? (Acts 21:20).”)

Is learning to speak Koine Greek worth it? Yes! For someone of my age? Yes! Τοῦ θεοῦ θέλοντος (Lord willing), my improved understanding of the Greek text of the New Testament will be apparent in my interpretations of the living words of Yeshua.

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  • David N. Bivin

    David N. Bivin

    David N. Bivin is founder and editor of Jerusalem Perspective. A native of Cleveland, Oklahoma, U.S.A., Bivin has lived in Israel since 1963, when he came to Jerusalem on a Rotary Foundation Fellowship to do postgraduate work at the Hebrew University. He studied at the Hebrew…
    [Read more about author]

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