“When one returns to the Greek it is like going into a garden of lilies out of some narrow and dark house.”
– Oscar Wilde, De Profundis
I was fortunate enough to take both Koine Greek and biblical Hebrew while at Pensacola Christian College. But as anyone who has taken a foreign language knows, if you don’t use it then you lose it. It has been fifteen years since I took biblical language classes and, in the intervening period, I have kept up with my Greek far better than I have with my Hebrew. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, when I was a youth director I taught and preached more often from the New Testament, and so while my Greek muscles received regular exercise, my Hebrew ones didn’t. Second, Greek came to me more easily than Hebrew did, though I have no idea why. I had to work hard at both languages in college but especially hard at Hebrew. Even today in my capacity as the Amateur Exegete I use Greek far more than I use Hebrew. But this doesn’t mean I’ve lost all of my skills. Here are some things I do to try to maintain my fluency in Greek and Hebrew.
Read, Read, Read!
First, I read often in my Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament. Of all the things to do to keep up one’s fluency in these ancient languages, the reading of original language texts is far and away the best thing to do. To that end, a while back I purchased reader’s editions of Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia and The Greek New Testament (United Bible Societies 5th edition). More recently, I purchased a reader’s edition of the LXX. A “reader’s edition” is a version of the original language text that is noted in such a way that unfamiliar terminology appears in a running dictionary at the bottom of each page. The advantage here (for amateurs like myself) is that vocabulary or verb forms that I cannot quickly identify can typically be found just by finding the correct footnote. Consequently, I save time and can do more reading since I’m not having to flip open a separate lexicon every time I’m mystified by something in the text.
If you can’t afford any of those tools, there are other ways to read and enjoy the original language texts right from your Internet browser. For example, the German Bible Society has put out a website where you can read from BHS, GNT, Nestle-Aland (28th edition), and more. If you encounter any vocabulary or verb forms you don’t recognize as you read these texts online, you can always run over to biblehub.com, type the verse into the search bar, click on “Greek” or “Hebrew,” and check to see what you’re looking at.
Another tool I regularly use in my reading, particularly for maintaining Hebrew, is Daily Dose of Hebrew. Not only is there a series of videos introducing biblical Hebrew, but there are scores of videos going verse-by-verse through biblical passages in Hebrew. Here’s an example from Genesis 1:1.
There is also a Greek counterpart called Daily Dose of Greek which I also recommend.
The key is to read, even if for only a minute or two each day. Seeing how words are connected in larger contexts helps you see what a biblical author is saying. If the original languages are an ocean, even just wading ankle deep in the waters will be beneficial in the long term. At least, that has been my experience.
Second, I study vocabulary. In college, we were required to use the third edition of Bruce Metzger’s Lexical Aids for Students of New Testament Greek (Baker Books, 1997). I can’t for the life of me remember what we used for Hebrew but about a decade ago I picked up Miles Van Pelt’s and Gary Pratico’s The Vocabulary Guide to Biblical Hebrew (Zondervan, 2003). More recently, I’ve begun taking the vocabulary lists from these two volumes and using Quizlet to create vocabulary sets from which I can quiz myself. There is a Quizlet app for iPhone and with it I can turn my phone into a really expensive set of vocab cards. I’m also able to take tests that include written, multiple choice, and true/false questions.
Another helpful tool along these lines is one I’ve only recently discovered. Over at YouTube there is a channel by the name of Aleph with Beth, run by two Bible translators who work for Wycliffe. Their approach to teaching Hebrew is similar to how a child learns to speak and read in their own native tongue. Here is the introduction video from their channel.
In these lessons, you learn vocab, grammar, and even syntax the same way you did growing up. I sure wish I had access to this series when I was taking Hebrew in college!
Third, I translate. This (for me) is different than reading. While I obviously translate as I read, here I mean that I pick apart a verse and then translate it as if I were creating my own translation of the Bible. At the moment, I do this only with Greek though I hope to expand it to Hebrew later down the road. The process I use is based on one I learned in college and involves a word processor, a Greek New Testament, and a lexicon. First, at the top of the page I put a single verse reference (e.g. John 1:1, Mark 3:4) and then the text of that verse in Greek. Next, I create a table with the following columns: word, source, part of speech, tense, voice, mood, person, case, gender, and number. I then take each word or phrase and insert them into each row and identify the major nouns or verb forms I find. Finally, I translate the verse and make any notes of things I find interesting. Here’s an example from Mark 1:16:
Some readers may remember that a while back I posted my translation of Mark 1. This is the process I used to create that translation with notes. I don’t get everything right but this method sure does help!
It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint
These are just some of the things I do to keep up my fluency in Greek and Hebrew. I don’t do each of them every day since, like most of you, there just isn’t the time. But as long as I can do a little here and a little there, I find it helps to maintain what little skill I do have. For those of us who are interested in reading the original language texts, it helps to remember that keeping up with biblical language fluency is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.
 Oscar Wilde, De Profundis, in Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, J. B. Foreman, ed. (HarperCollins Publishers, 2001), 929.
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.