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The History behind Basics of Biblical Greek (Monday with Mounce 32)

Categories Mondays with Mounce

Monday With Mounce buttonI know this is a bit off topic, but someone asked the other day about the history behind Basics of Biblical Greek and suggested that people might be curious. So for what it’s worth, here it is.

Rote memory has never been my strong suite. In high school I memorized tons of poetry and found it easy to do, but when it came to just individual words, well, I’m not wired that way. This made high school Latin especially difficult. What I discovered about myself, however, was that I like charts; and if I could lay things out visually in a way that made sense to me, paradigms and the such were much easier to learn. So I became the chart maker in Latin, and many of my fellow students adopted my charts in preference to our text.

I learned Greek at Western Kentucky University with a totally inductive text, reading the gospel of John. I enjoyed the exposure to the biblical text, but the lack of structure was the undoing of the class. Midway through the first semester we switched to Machen’s text and used both texts to get through the two semester class. And once again I started making charts.

When I started teaching Greek at Rockmont College (now Colorado Christian University) in 1982, I used Machen. It is a really good book, but I quickly learned that the students Machen taught were not the same as the students I was teaching, most notably the lack of general English grammar.

I went the next year to Azusa Pacific University (I was the token Calvinist in a Wesley school — which is a practice I recommend to Reformed schools as well). I tried Machen, Wenham (who does a great job at teaching English), and a few others, but went back to Machen. And as is often the case with Greek teachers, I started making my own supplementary materials. After a few years my syllabus was larger than Machen itself, and with a grant from the school I decided to start writing my own grammar, again, another thing that most Greek teachers have done.

I tried to meld the best of my experiences into one teaching method. Among others, this meant teaching English first, trying to write a text that could teach itself if necessary, be sensitive to the common struggle with rote memory, to constantly remind students why they are spending all this time, and to have some fun in the process.

When I approached Zondervan with the product, it was met with some hesitancy. I still remember sitting in a restaurant next to APU with Stan Gundry (now an executive VP at Zondervan) and Ed van der Mass, my editor, talking through the needs of the market. Stan said that he wasn’t sure the market needed another Greek grammar — a statement I have often used in teasing him — but with strong support from Ed, Zondervan agreed to publish the book.

It was in a sense the perfect storm. The timing could not have been better for me. Machen was the dominant grammar (and was very good), but he was addressing a type of student that no longer existed (for the most part). Machen did not have to deal with students who barely knew what a dependent and subordinate construction was. Secondly, computer-aided learning tools were just becoming a possibility, and FlashWorks and ParseWorks were inviting tools for weary teachers (along with all the sample quizzes and tests). Thirdly, the price of Machen’s book was sky-rocketing without any revisions or additions; teachers were frustrated with the publisher’s policies. And finally, Jack Kragt, the person at Zondervan who marketed the book, tried a new method of getting the word out. He was much more aggressive and innovative. All of this went together to make a very successful rollout of the book.

This was 1993. A few years before, I had left Azusa, moved to Spokane, WA, so I could focus on writing and computer programming. I went to Gordon-Conwell five years later, and this was the first time I was able to teach with the published book. A second edition came a few years later, and there are now some incredible things coming down the pike (hint hint).

I have been thankful to Zondervan for their great publishing efforts, to Jack and the other marketers who let people know about the book, to the professors who were willing to try a new approach; but there is nothing I enjoy more than notes from students who were thankful for the book and how it helped them learn the language. About 200,000 copies of the book have been sold — or as it has come to be known, the “Blue Hymnal” — and it is sobering to think that I have had a hand in teaching so many people.

About twelve years ago ETS was held in the Boston area, and I had the opportunity to do something rather unique. We invited the entire Zondervan team (and friends) to a formal sit-down dinner at our house. There were about 40 people there, and many of my Gordon-Conwell students lent a hand. On the door I posted a sign: “Welcome to the house that Zondervan built.”  During dinner I retold the story of Stan’s hesitancy at publishing the grammar, and we all had a good chuckle about it. I am so thankful for my many years of association with this company. I have found them to be the most godly, loving, caring group of people I have ever worked with, and it is my privilege to be part of their family.

MounceWilliam D. [Bill] Mounce posts every Monday about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and general editor for Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation. Learn more and visit Bill's blog (co-authored with scholar and his father Bob Mounce) at

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