For busy seminarians who are preparing for an even busier life in the ministry the prescription above will doubtless sound quite unreasonable. It requires plenty of time as it is to learn New Testament Greek, so why take even more precious time to learn classical Greek first? Reaching some degree of proficiency in New Testament Greek is regarded by many candidates for the pastoral ministry as a daunting intellectual challenge and anything that would make it even more difficult or time consuming is going to be viewed with extreme suspicion -- even by those who advocate the study of Greek as a continued requirement in Lutheran theological education. If the point of learning Greek is to be able to read the New Testament with some kind of minimal competency, why not adopt whatever means will get us to that end as quickly as possible?
The idea that the study of the ancient languages is little more than a means to an end is not a new one. Even the redoubtable C.F.W. Walther referred to the mandatory study of Latin and classical Greek in his own day as “the Court of the Gentiles,” that is to say, close but not all that close to the Holy of Holies. As J.P. Koehler, an appreciative, if not uncritical student of Walther’s, once observed, “many of his students misunderstood this to mean that the only purpose of such study was to prepare the student for the reading of the Bible in the original tongues and of the Latin church fathers” [The History of the Wisconsin Synod, ed. Leigh Jordahl (Sauk Rapids: 1981, 2nd edition), pp. 138-9.]
Koehler goes on to observe that this same rather dismissive attitude was often applied also to Luther’s famous advice in An die Ratsherren: “As we love the Gospel, so let us cling to the study of the ancient languages.... These languages are the scabbard which sheathes the sharp blade of the Spirit; in them this precious jewel is encased.” The scabbard is not the sword, to be sure, but it would be a mistake to view the study of classical Greek or any other language as nothing more than a propaedeutic tool, a means to a greater end. After all, jewelboxes and scabbards are objects of beauty and value in their own right. Museums are full of them. And they are absolutely necessary. Not to press Luther’s analogy too far, but swords need scabbards. They can do a lot of unintentional damage to the swordbearer and others if they are not sheathed properly. Precious jewels are much more easily lost once they are removed from their containers.
Real language study involves far more than simply memorizing conjugations and declensions and vocables. Language is an essential part of human culture. The ability to understand and employ language is indispensable for the serious practice of theology, because theology is language, too. The effective “servant of the Word” must be able to read and interpret and expound words, sacred and otherwise, with deep linguistic, historical, and rhetorical understanding. In the preface to his study of Isaiah, Luther wrote: “Two things are necessary to explain the prophet. The first is a knowledge of grammar, and this may be regarded as having the greatest weight. The second is more necessary, namely, a knowledge of the historical background, not only as an understanding of the events themselves as expressed in letters and syllables but as at the same time embracing rhetoric and dialectic, so that the figures of speech and the circumstances may be carefully heeded” (LW 16,3).
For American students at the college level today who are learning how to read a complex literary text in another language, no responsible pedagogy suggests that they should only aim to learn just enough so that they can make it through that one text, no matter how important it may be. German majors, even those who want to concentrate on contemporary Germany, read Luther and Nietzsche, not just Günther Grass or Der Spiegel. Prospective high school English teachers study Chaucer and Shakespeare even though one unfamiliar with both authors would still be able to read Hemingway or The Onion. When learning a foreign language, as in other areas of study, it is a pedagogical mistake to aim at achieving only the bare minimum. As I once heard a veteran professor of German language and literature say: “If you know enough German to be able to read Goethe, you will also be able to order a sausage and beer when you get to Frankfurt. But if you only learn enough German to be able to order a sausage and beer in Frankfurt, you will never be able to read Goethe.”
Koine Greek evolved directly from the Attic dialect of Greek which rapidly spread over the ancient Mediterranean world after the conquests of Alexander the Great, so students who can already read Plato discover that it is even easier to read the New Testament. What a great position for such students to be in! To know where the language you are studying came from; to know way more than enough Greek instead of struggling to get by. And this amplitude and depth of linguistic understanding enriches the work not only of beginners in Greek but also of those who have persisted in its study. Long after their training days are over, serious students of the Bible should continue to improve their understanding of the language in which “the precious jewel is encased” -- for the rest of their lives. After all, nobody thinks that you’re finished learning the English language just because you passed a required freshman composition class or graduated from college. Native speakers continue to deepen their understanding of their own languages until they die.
There are introductory classical Greek textbooks today that focus on helping students to gain the ability to read ancient Greek, whether classical or New Testament, with some facility as quickly as possible. My personal favorite right now is Athenaze (two volumes; Oxford University Press) which I have used for several years. Its instruction in grammar and syntax is thorough, but the textbook’s chief virtue is that it gets students reading actual Greek texts (simplified at first, of course) drawn from a wide variety of classical authors (especially Herodotus) as well as passages from the New Testament (the Gospel of John at first). Along the way, Athenaze helps students to consider aspects of Greek philosophy, Mediterranean religions, art and architecture, social institutions (e.g. slavery), healing and medicine, trade and travel, the theater, in other words, much of what Luther calls “the historical background” and “the circumstances” of the ancient Mediterranean world into which the incarnate God entered and dwelt among humans.