Douglas Estes – Greek Students, Sell Your Kidney! Why you need to read Christidis
I was a terrible Greek student in seminary. Not grade-wise, perhaps, but I found it incredibly boring (no offense to my professor). I preferred Hebrew because my professor in that class was originally in a 60’s rock band and would occasionally bring his guitar and rock the Baptist casbah I attended. While nothing says fun quite like declining Greek nouns, overall Greek seemed perfunctory and pointless. Let’s fast-forward a few years. Now that I’ve taught Greek, it hasn’t changed a bit. I’ve used Mounce’s excellent Basics of Biblical Greek and Dan Wallace’s awesome Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. As a full-time pastor, I have experienced how absolutely, positively necessary understanding the original languages is for anyone who deigns to stand up and teach others with any hope toward real spiritual formation. But as the influence of language study (and seminary) wanes, and the number of Greek textbooks grows, there is a new kind of Greek textbook every Greek student should beg, borrow or sell a kidney to get a copy of: A.-F. Christidis’ A History of Ancient Greek: From the Beginnings to Late Antiquity.
Before I tell you the great, let me tell you the bad: Christidis’ book, published in English translation by Cambridge University Press, is 1600+ pages and retails for $277. Good thing that kidneys go for a little more than that; you’ll have just enough money left over for an espresso to stay up all night reading it. I’m not a publisher, but I do think it is a crime for CUP to make the book so terribly expensive as to be inaccessible to just about everyone not willing to part with a body part. But A History of Ancient Greek is a book that can help turn the functional into the fun (for Greek) by opening a whole new dimension of understanding.
A History of Ancient Greek focuses on what and why the ancient Greek language is the language that it is. Like Math, Greek can be so much about plug-and-chug that you not only miss the application of it but even more so never learn the story of it. Unless you’re a graduate student or above, skip past the first couple hundred pages on linguistics in History—they’re important but terribly arduous—and there you will find a book whose cover says "encyclopedia" but whose content compiles several hundred tightly-organized and easily-understood essays about the story of Greek: where Greek came from, how it evolved, and why it is the way it is. Because each essay is very short, well-written and neutrally introduces the reader to issues in understanding Greek, it allows me for the first time ever to use the words "encyclopedia" and "engaging" in the same sentence. The book is a buffet of every "but why" question you’ve ever wanted to ask in Greek class, and then much, much more.
There are essays on the different dialects and languages that came to be known as Greek, how Greek writing came about and where it came from, peculiarities that Greek language has in it when compared to other languages, and how Greek fit into the ancient world. If you’ve ever wondered about the relationship of Greek and Thracian, why Homer used certain words, what the Septuagint looks like from a Greek perspective, or how to speak as a child or in proper Barbarian the next time you want to IM a classmate in Greek class, it’s in there. Best of all, almost all of the essays are around 15 pages, meaning you could read one chapter before class every day, or even as a part of a year-long ‘Greek devotional study.’
To be clear, Christidis’ book deals with the whole panorama of ancient Greek, not just the Biblical Koine dialect; those who see Koine as a miraculous Holy Ghost intervention and invention won’t find much of it useful. But if you’ve ever sat in a Greek class and wondered about where Greek came from, why it is the way it is, how all those Spartans and Athenians communicated so well as to allow the Septuagint and the New Testament to be written in Greek, and what in the world a digamma is and where it came from, this book is an incredible expedition into the expansive world of ancient Greek, well worth the journey. (But Zondervan’s lawyers have asked me to say: read the book but please find a way to keep your kidney).
[For those interested in a more formal review of the book, I reviewed it for SBL’s Review of Biblical Literature, posted here.]
Douglas Estes is Adjunct Professor of New Testament at Western Seminary-San José and Lead Pastor at Berryessa Valley Church, San José, California. He received his PhD in Theology from the University of Nottingham, UK. His publications include The Temporal Mechanics of the Fourth Gospel: A Theory of Hermeneutical Relativity in the Gospel of John (Brill, 2008) and SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World.