Don’t Lose the Languages
As a teacher of Greek the question I get asked most is definitely: “how do I keep my Greek?” I have to restrain myself from rolling my eyes at this point because the answer is so simple, and because the person asking the question already knows the answer. There’s only one way to do it. There’s no shortcut, no trick, no special preservative. You can’t wrap up the languages in shrink wrap and stick them in the refrigerator.
The only way to keep your Greek and Hebrew is to read Greek and Hebrew.
I think you probably already knew that was the answer. You just didn’t want to admit it. But the languages are just like everything else: if you don’t use it, you’ll loose it.
There are a lot of parallels between language learning (or learning in general) and exercise. The only way to retain muscle strength is to continue to use those muscles. If you fail to exercise, your muscles will atrophy and your gains will be lost. The result: dad bod. Correspondingly, if you want to gain muscle there’s really only one solution: progressive overload. You have to push your body and increase the normal amount of stress you apply to those muscles.
Greek and Hebrew are the same way. If you want to keep them, you have to use them. If you want to get better, you need to read more widely and more deeply. So what we really need is not a trick or a gimmick, but a reading plan. In the rest of this post, I will offer two. The first is designed for maintenance–we’re aiming for “just enough” to keep what we’ve already gained, but recognizing that there’s limited time in our busy schedules. In the second plan we are aiming for gains; how can we make progress in our understanding of the languages (without reverting back to the “bad old days” of route memorization).
All Day Pace
The trick is to keep things manageable. You want to set a pace that you can maintain, but one robust enough that you accomplish your goal.
First, get a Greek Reader’s NT and a Hebrew Reader’s OT. These versions of the Bible provide definitions of rare words, uncommon parsings, and other resources in the footer of the main text. That allows you to “keep reading” without having to grab a lexicon or grammar when you get stuck. You’ll also want a grammar cheat sheet; often you can find versions that fit snuggly in the binding of your Bible.
Now set a reading goal. This will depend on your skill level and available time. Even a verse a day can be helpful. And on that note, definitely sign up for A Daily Dose of Greek and A Daily Dose of Hebrew. Start by seeing how much you can translate in about 30 minutes from a Reader’s Bible in a “moderately difficult” passage. The Gospels are a good place for Greek, and Ruth for Hebrew
Third: stop using commentaries that aren’t anchored in the original languages. At least don’t make that your main usage case. Use commentaries on the Hebrew and Greek text, both because this is what you should be doing anyway (perhaps I post on that will be forthcoming), and also because it will help you develop in the languages. You will learn what scholars think is important (which is often, but not always, actually important), what debates are out there, what’s relatively sure and what’s relatively unknown about the text. You get to enter the conversation around the Greek and Hebrew, and that’s a good thing. What is more, this synergizes with preparation for teaching and preaching and Bible study, so it’s kinda like “free points.”
Finally, and this is another “free points” tip, whenever you are preparing for a sermon or for teaching, prepare at least a subset of verses from the original languages. You may not be able to do this for the whole passage, but perhaps there’s a particularly important verse that you are addressing. Or perhaps there’s a point that requires the translation to look a certain way. Check the originals and translate them from scratch.
Setting a good “all/every day pace” will help you maintain what you’ve already learned, and you may even see modest improvement. But what if you want to “get gud?” Just like with exercise, progressive overload is the key. Here’s what you can be doing to stretch yourself and make some significant gains, roughly in order of importance. Of course, you may run into periods of time when you simply can’t work out this much, in which case just go back to the “every day pace” plan for maintenance.
First, every time you work on a sermon or other project, translate the key passage from scratch and keep a running document of your translations. I have a multi-column word document that I use for this. Each book gets a separate document, each verse has its own row, and the columns are various exegetical notes and a finished translation. (By the way, this will help you figure out your own translation “style,” though I recommend aiming at highly readable). There are of course other ways of doing this–journaling Bibles, free hand notebooks, etc., but I like my document approach because it’s searchable and easily extensible.
Another great thing to do that synergizes with regular study is to do syntactical and discourse diagramming using the Hebrew and Greek. If those words mean nothing to you, then welcome to a new and exciting world of exegetical nerdom. There’s a lot of good resources to get you started, but give biblearc.com a try for starters.
Third, work through your original grammar again, this time slowly and looking up all those verses that are referenced.
Fifth, read around the Bible. Read non-biblical works that are written in the Biblical languages, starting with material closest to Biblical “sphere” and then moving outwards in concentric circles. So for Greek, start with the Septuagint. Hey! There’s even a Reader’s Version published by RTS faculty! Then move to the early Fathers, like 1 Clement. Give the apocryphal literature a try. Then dive into the classics: Herodotus is a fun place to start, or Euripedes if you’re read for a real challenge. Sadly, your options are more limited for ancient Hebrew, but there’s also a wider array of Biblical literature here. If you want to stretch yourself you could always dive into Aramaic, or other cousin languages like Ugaritic.
Finaly, though if you’ve made it this far, you’re probably already doing this, dive into specialized topics in the languages. Subscribe to blogs like Koine Greek. Read secondary literature on topics you’re interested in like verbal aspect theory, or constituent postponement in Hebrew, or advanced studies in the article. Your grammar will highlight some of the most significant resources, and I’m sure your original instructor in the languages would be happy to nerd-out with you.
Back to the main idea, though: there’s no substitute to just reading. There are some secondary tools, but the goal of these is to make reading easier and more productive. They are supplements to reading, not shortcuts. So it’s really easy: if you keep reading, you’ll keep the languages.