9 Tips for Learning Biblical Greek from Bill Mounce
William D. Mounce loathes the popular cliché "It's all Greek to me." As the author of the bestselling Greek textbook, Basics of Biblical Greek, and a former director of the Greek program at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, he's heard it said by too many overwhelmed first year language students.
According to Dr. Mounce learning Greek is simply a matter of putting in the time and plodding through the basic steps. After years of teaching the language, Bill claims that if you truly want to learn Greek, and you’re willing to put in the time, you will learn it.
In his online biblical Greek course, Bill Mounce shares some of his best tips for new Greek students who actually want to learn the language.
9 tips for learning biblical Greek from Bill Mounce
If you really want to learn Greek, you’ll need a long-term strategy, practical methods, and the stamina to stick it out. If you’ve developed bad study habits, they’re going to be magnified as you set out to learn Greek. So let’s create some good habits and address bad ones along the way.
Here are some of the things all Greek students should know:
1. Remember why you’re learning Greek.
For some people, learning a language is an end in itself—and that’s fine. But that’s not how I approach it. I approach language as a means to an end. Language is a tool that helps us understand what the Bible is talking about.
I teach language as a ministry tool.
Almost all the best commentaries and biblical studies require some knowledge of Greek. Without it, you will not have access to the lifelong labors of scholars who should be heard. I have seen a rather interesting pattern develop.
The only people I’ve heard say that Greek is not important are those who do not themselves know Greek. Strange. Can you imagine someone who knows nothing about tennis say that it is unnecessary to take tennis lessons? Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?
The main purpose of learning Greek is to understand better and communicate more clearly the Word of God. Keep this in mind at all times.
Your goals should motivate you, encourage you when you are frustrated, and give you perspective when you think you are going to crack. Remember what you’re working towards: a clearer, more exact, and more persuasive presentation of God’s saving message.
2. Understand the importance of memorization
In order to learn any language, memorization is vital. For Greek you will have to memorize vocabulary words, endings, and various other things. In Greek the only way to determine, for example, whether a noun is singular or plural, or if a word is the subject or object of the verb, is by the ending of the word. So if you haven't memorized the endings, you will be in big trouble.
Along with grammar, you’ll be memorizing a lot of vocabulary. There’s little joy in translating if you have to look up every other word in the lexicon.
3. Use mnemonic devices
When memorizing words, use mnemonic devices. For example, the Greek word for “face” is transliterated as prosōpon, so it could be remembered by the phrase, “pour soap on my face.” It seems that the sillier these devices are the better, so don’t be ashamed. You can find a number of these mnemonic devices in my course or online, but try to come up with your own as well.
The important thing to remember about mnemonic devices is that they have to work for you. Some people prefer long, complicated mnemonic devices, and others benefit most from simplicity.
4. Write clearly
You must pronounce Greek consistently and write it neatly. If your pronunciation varies, it is difficult to remember the words.
You’re already learning a new language—don’t make it harder by forcing yourself to translate bad handwriting.
5. Say the words and endings out loud
Say the words and endings out loud. The more senses involved in the learning process the better. So pronounce the words, listen to them, and write them out so you can see them. Don’t assume it’s enough to just read them.
6. Students: treat exercises as tests
If you’re taking a course on biblical Greek (like mine), the greatest motivation comes during the homework assignments. Because most of the exercises are drawn from the New Testament, you are constantly reminded why you are learning the language.
Be sure to treat the exercises as tests. Learn the unit, do as many of the exercises as you can, then work back through the unit and do the exercises again. The more you treat the exercises as a test, the better you will learn the material and the better you will do on actual quizzes and exams.
I used to see students in class read the textbook, and then they open up the workbook and they’re working, and they get stuck, so they go back to the textbook and look up the answer.
That’s exactly the wrong way to do it. Do everything you can to learn the textbook. Read the book. Listen to the summary lecture. Go through the full lecture. Do your memory work, your vocabulary, and your paradigms and grammar—do it as well as you can. Then shut your textbook and do your workbook.
If you get stuck, skip it and move on. Go back when you’re done and review it in the textbook, and then go back and do it in your workbook.
If you want to make sure that you never learn Greek, then as you’re going through your workbook just check the answers all the time. If you have the answers open as you’re doing the workbook—I guarantee it, you will not learn the language. You may be able to fake your way through some of the exercises, but when you get to the test, you’re simply not going to pass.
But that being said, a good student, when they’ve done the best job they can, it’s OK for them to check it and say, “Hey, I got it right!” or “Oh, I made a mistake—what did I miss?” and then go back and fix it.
But please don’t deprive yourself of one of the greatest experiences of your life—and I mean that—in learning the language of the New Testament. Don’t cheat your way through this, but use the resources and use the answers in ways that will really help.
7. Spend time every day
There’s something you can do that will make Greek the absolute worst experience of your life: be inconsistent with your time. There’s nothing worse when it comes to language learning than inconsistency.
I would encourage you to make sure that you’re spending time with the Greek language every day. Maybe you want to do major reading on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, with a vocabulary review on Tuesday and Thursday (also on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday).
Very few people can “pick up” a language. For most of us it takes time, lots of it. Plan for that. Remind yourself what you are trying to do, and spend the necessary time.
But along with the amount of time is the matter of consistency. You cannot cram for tests unless you’re just linguistically brilliant. Greek will not stick, and in the long run you will forget it. I’ve had students who would cram sometimes for the first test, and they would get through okay, and then they would flunk every test after that because they weren’t being consistent in their time.
Spend time every day—getting to know the language of the New Testament deserves at least that. Remember, “Those who cram, perish.”
If you are regular, consistent, and diligent in your studies, you can learn this language.
8. Learn Greek with other people
Few people can learn a language on their own. For sake of illustration, let me quote the story of John Brown as told by the great Greek grammarian A. T. Robertson:
“At the age of sixteen, John Brown, of Haddington, startled a bookseller by asking for a copy of the Greek Testament. He was barefooted and clad in ragged homespun clothes. He was a shepherd boy from the hills of Scotland.
‘What would you do with that book?’ a professor scornfully asked. ‘I’ll try to read it,’ the lad replied, and proceeded to read off a passage in the Gospel of John. He went off in triumph with the coveted prize, but the story spread that he was a wizard and had learned Greek by the black art. He was actually arraigned for witchcraft, but in 1746 the elders and deacons at Abernethy gave him a vote of acquittal, although the minister would not sign it.
His letter of defence, Sir W. Robertson Nicoll says (The British Weekly, Oct. 3, 1918), ‘deserves to be reckoned among the memorable letters of the world.’ John Brown became a divinity student and finally professor of divinity. In the chapel at Mansfield College, Oxford, Brown’s figure ranks with those of Doddridge, Fry, Chalmers, Vinet, Schleiermacher. He had taught himself Greek while herding his sheep, and he did it without a grammar. Surely young John Brown of Haddington should forever put to shame those theological students and busy pastors who neglect the Greek Testament, though teacher, grammar, lexicon are at their disposal.” —A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research
This story points out how unusual it is for someone to learn Greek without the communal help of the class. Find a partner, someone who will test and quiz you, encourage and support you, and vice versa.
9. Use discipline
There are no magical solutions to learning Greek. It is achievable if you want it. It comes at a cost, but the rewards are tremendous. So get ready for the journey of your life as you travel through the pages of the Greek Testament. Enjoy the excitement of discovery and look forward to the day when it will all bloom into fruition.
You may be tempted to cut corners or skip parts of the learning process—don’t. If you think “I’m not going to do the chapter that’s due today because I need to work on the previous chapter,” it just doesn’t work. You need to keep plodding forward, giving your brain time for the previous chapters to sink in.
You can do this.
“Run in such a way as to win the prize.”
Learning biblical Greek will change the way you read and understand the New Testament. You’ll notice new insights. You’ll make new connections. And most importantly, you’ll see new ways to apply the Word of God to your life.
As you struggle through your first few encounters with Greek, focus on what you can accomplish with this new tool you’re learning to use. Hold onto your wins, and push through your failures. It’s not about having “a knack” for language. It’s about having the determination to learn, and the willingness to put in the work.
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Bill Mounce's online biblical Greek course will teach you how to read the New Testament in Greek. You'll get 8 hours of video lessons, full access to Bill's textbook, The Basics of Biblical Greek, assessments, review tools to help you really learn the language, and much more. Take a look at this short preview of the course:
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