Prior knowledge check: The Greek Alphabet
This post is going to be a long one, and may introduce a lot of unfamiliar territory for many people. For that reason, I want to begin with some encouragement before I dive into some fundamental concepts in New Testament Greek. To do that, I want to talk about guitar players (of all things)!
One of my favorite guitar players of all time is Preston Reed. I sort of discovered him by accident on Pandora by listening to artists like Antoine Dufour and Andy McKee. What I later came to find out is that these artists were actually using a method of guitar playing that was pioneered by Preston Reed.
I later found out that there’s a TED video of Preston Reed playing a song of his with the young Uzman Riaz. (Go watch it, seriously.) How did Uzman learn to play like this guitar master? He literally learned by watching YouTube videos over and over again and imitating those he was learning from. Really, he is an example of how anybody can learn to do just about anything FOR FREE on the Internet these days. In our day and age, we are beyond excuse when it comes to learning.
The same goes for biblical Greek. If you really want to learn this language, you will need to get a Greek textbook, just like how Uzman had to buy a guitar. But you can learn a lot by just listening to the lectures by Dr. Bill Mounce on the Language Tools page for Greek. If you listen to these lectures while going through his textbook (Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar) at your own pace, you will be able to learn first-year Greek.
You can do this because God created your mind. Theology is everybody’s business. Now let’s get started.
Greek and English Parts of Speech
The parts of speech of a language fall under its grammar. Recall from this post that the term “grammar” refers to how words relate to one another in a sentence. (For an excellent discussion on some of the parts of speech in English, see this page on the Purdue OWL.) Here’s my brief explanation of each of the important parts of speech in English (and in Greek) that you should be aware of.
- Noun: A word that is used to stand in for a person, place, or thing. The sentence, “John went to London to see Big Ben” has three nouns, and one of each type: John (person), London (place), Big Ben (thing).
- Pronoun: A word that stands in for a noun. Let’s modify the previous sentence a little bit: “He went to London to see that famous monument.” The word “he” stands in for John, and the word “that” stands in for Big Ben. The word “that” is being used as special kind of pronoun called a demonstrative pronoun. Imagine standing in London with Big Ben in sight and pointing at Big Ben and saying “that famous monument.” Well, a demonstrative pronoun “points out” a particular noun being referenced.
- Adjective: A word that further describes a noun or pronoun. In a previous example, the word “famous” in “that famous monument” further describes the noun “monument.”
- Verb: A word that indicates an action in a sentence, or that indicates a state of being. An action, of course, is something that is being done by or to the subject (or subjects) of a sentence. If the subject(s) are performing the action, that verb is an active verb. If the subject(s) are having the action done to them, it is a passive verb. Modifying our previous example, we might say “John went to London to been seen by Big Ben.” It’s kind of a silly sentence, but you can tell the difference. John does the going (active verb), and receives the “seeing” by Big Ben (passive verb).
To understand what I mean when I say a word indicates a “state of being,” I have to explain the age-old distinction between the subject and predicate of a sentence. It’s quite simple: the subject of a sentence is what the sentence is talking about, and the predicate is what is being said about the subject. In the sentence, “John saw Big Ben,” John is the subject and “saw Big Ben” is the predicate.
Now, a verb expresses a state of being by using the various forms of the verb “to be.” For example, we can say “God is love” (1 John 4:8). The word “is” there is a form of the verb “to be,” and connects the predicate (“love”) with the subject (“God”). Love is “predicated” of God in this sentence. This is just one example among many.
- Adverb: A word that further describes how an action is being performed. If we say “John quickly went to London,” the word “quickly” is describing how John went to London.
- Preposition: A word that indicates a relationship between two things. These are words like: over, under, beside, around, in, toward, out of, toward, etc. Prepositions are VERY important in Greek, and we can’t assume that each one has only a single meaning.
- Definite Article: An “article” is a word that indicates whether or not a particular noun (or pronoun) is being referred to. The definite article picks out a particular thing that is being discussed. Suppose you are on a hike with a friend and say “I can’t wait for you to see the view.” Well, on a hike there’s certainly many views that your friend might see, but there is a particular view in a specific location you are excited for them to see. That’s what you mean when you say “the” view. That’s the definite article.
Suffice it to say that the Greek definite article is one of the most important things you will learn about when you learn this language. By the way, if a noun (or pronoun) has an associated article, it is called an articular noun (or pronoun). If it doesn’t have an associated article, it is anarthrous.
- Indefinite Article: The indefinite article, in contrast with the definite article, does not pick out a particular noun that is being discussed. Think back to the hiking example. Part way up the incline your friend asks you for “a” granola bar (and you have more than one). In this case, they don’t care precisely which one you give them. They just want any of the ones you have. That’s how the indefinite article works.
NOTE WELL: Greek does not have a word for the indefinite article. A noun (or pronoun) cannot be indefinite if it has an associated definite article (i.e., is articular). But if a noun lacks one (is anarthrous), that doesn’t automatically make it indefinite. The syntax and context of the passage you are reading will help determine whether or not the noun is indefinite.
- Participle: Simply put, a participle is a type of modified verb that can either be an adjective or an adverb. In English this is often accomplished by adding “–ing” to the end of a word. If a participle is trying to indicate a particular noun, it is adjectival: “The man giving the speech is boring.” If a participle is trying to say something about an action, it is adverbial: “While he was giving his speech, the man was boring.”
Again, note that all of the above parts of speech appear in Greek with the exception of the indefinite article.
Now I’ll say a bit more about the basics of the Greek noun and verb systems, starting with nouns. For more information, refer to pp. 72-75 of The Hermeneutical Spiral, and chapters 5-9 of Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar. You may also find lectures 5-9 in the Language Tools page for Greek instructive.
There are five cases in the Greek noun system. A case is a way that a noun can function in a sentence. I’ll give a basic description of each of them.
- Nominative: This case is used to primarily indicate what the subject of a sentence is. There are times that a nominative is used to say something more about the subject of a sentence. These nouns are called predicate nominatives. For example, John says that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). In Greek, both “God” and “love” are in the nominative case. But because God has the definite article in that sentence, we know that God is the subject, and love is the predicate nominative.
- Genitive: This case further describes or defines something. For example, to refer to Simon’s boat, the Greek places the word in the genitive case (Luke 5:3). When a genitive indicates possession like, it is often translated with either an “apostrophe+s” (‘s) at the end, or as “of” something. So, we can translate Luke 5:3 as either “Simon’s boat” or “the boat of Simon.”
There are many more uses of the genitive in Greek. My purpose here is to just give the most basic example of the case. If I refer to another usage of the genitive, I will explain what I mean.
- Dative: This case often refers to a person or thing that is indirectly affected by the action of a verb in a sentence. In other words, whatever is in the dative case is often the indirect object of the verb. So, when the slave in Matthew 18:26 says “I will repay you everything,” the indirect object is “you.” The object receiving the action (“repay”) is “everything.” And this “everything” is given to “you.” That’s why “you” is the indirect object of that sentence.
Just like the genitive, the dative case has many more uses in Greek. I will refer to any of the ways the dative is used with the technical terms scholars use to describe that usage, I will explain what I mean.
- Accusative: This case often indicates which noun is the direct object of a verb. John says that “The Father loves the Son” (John 3:35, NET). In the Greek, the Father is in the nominative case and is therefore the subject of the sentence. The verb “loves” is an active verb, meaning the Father is the one who is doing the loving. The Son in this verse is in the accusative case, and is hence the direct object of the Father’s love.
- Vocative: This case doesn’t occur much in the New Testament, but it is the case of direct address.
There are three more basic ideas to understand about nouns in Greek. The first is number. This is simple: a noun is either a single object (and therefore singular) or several (and therefore plural). A noun is either singular or plural in number.
The next is gender. Greek uses the masculine, feminine, and neuter genders. There’s a really important distinction to grasp here to avoid confusion, though. That’s the difference between natural gender and grammatical gender. If a noun refers to a specific person, that noun will match the real-life gender of that person. If that person is Jesus, for example, when a definite article is used next to the word “Jesus” in Greek, it will follow the masculine pattern since Jesus is a male. That is natural gender. On the other hand, the word “love” in Greek is a feminine word, but that doesn’t mean it only has to do with women. It follows grammatical gender because the definite article follows the feminine pattern when used with this word.
Greek verbs have a number of important ideas that need some explanation as well. For more information, see pp. 68-71 of The Hermeneutical Spiral , and chapters 15-16 of Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar. You may also find lecture 15 in the Language Tools page for Greek instructive.
There are seven concepts that you should be aware of:
- Person: A verb can either be in the first, second, or third person. This has to do with the perspective of the individual who is writing. The first person is used when the author himself (or herself) is the one speaking (“I”), or is included in a group of those doing something (“we”). The second person is used when another thing is addressed (“you”). The third person is everything else (“he/she/it,” “they,” etc.).
- Number: Just like nouns, a verb can either address a single subject (singular) or multiple (plural). A verb always agrees with its subject in person and number.
- Tense: The form that a verb takes in Greek to indicate both time and aspect.
- Time: When the action of the verb takes place. A verb takes place in the past, present, or future.
- Aspect: The aspect of a verb describes what kind of action is involved in a sentence. Consider the difference between the sentence “I am studying” and “I studied.” In the first sentence (“I am studying”), the aspect of the verb “to study” is continuous. The verb doesn’t indicate a time that it ended. But in the second sentence (“I studied”), the aspect of the verb “to study” is undefined. We don’t know, based on the use of that form of the verb, precisely how the verb occurred or if it continued to occur. We just know that it happened.
- Voice: This is the technical term for whether or not a verb is active or passive. I explained the difference above. In Greek there is also a voice called the “middle,” but because it can be complicated I won’t attempt to explain it here. Just be aware that it exists.
- Mood: The mood of a verb indicates “the relationship between the verb and reality” (BBG, 124). The most common mood is the indicative mood, which describes something that is the case. There are other moods in Greek that indicate way may (optative) or might (subjunctive) happen. Those are the basics on the Greek mood.
Parsing Nouns and Verbs
Parsing a noun or verb means that you give all of the relevant information about that word from the Greek so that you can translate it into a receptor language (in our case, English) properly. There will be times on this website that I will need to parse a word, so I need to explain how I’m going to do that.
When parsing a noun, we give the case, number, gender, lexical form, and inflected meaning. “Lexicon” is another term for a dictionary. (It’s actually more complicated than that, but it’s not wrong to think of a lexicon this way.) Lexicons list nouns in the nominative singular to identify the word. So, when we give the lexical form of the noun, we are giving the nominative singular of that word that we find by looking the word up in a lexicon. The “inflected meaning” of the noun is how you would say that same thing in English.
Example: Parse the word logos (λόγος) from John 1:1a — Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος
Answer: Nominative, singular, masculine. From logos, meaning “word.”
When parsing a verb, we give the person, number, tense, voice, mood, lexical form, and the definition of the inflected form. Except for older lexicons, the lexical form of verbs is always given in the first person active indicative. By “definition of the inflected form” I mean a definition of the form “to X,” where X is the meaning that fits with the context of the word you are translating.
Example: Parse the word ēn (ἦν) from John 1:1a — Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος
Answer: Imperfect, active, indicate, third person, singular. From eimī (εἰμί), “to be.”
This post has covered a lot of ground. I’ve written it so that I can refer readers back to these concepts without having to explain them all the time, and to get readers to begin learning Greek on their own using the Language Tools page I’ve compiled.
Like many other things, Greek is a tool for learning how to study what God has revealed to us in Scripture. Those who want to love God with all their minds would do well to learn at least the basics of biblical Greek. If you get discouraged, just remember Uzman Riaz!