After having studied biblical Greek and Hebrew in my M.Div., I am convinced that knowledge of the biblical languages brings such a richness to Bible study that I would recommend any Christian who has the opportunity, that they pursue learning the biblical Greek and Hebrew. To that end, I present you with a review of a book that offers practical wisdom to anyone engaged in or planning to pursue such study.
What It’s About
Greek for Life by Drs. Benjamin L. Merbler and Robert L. Plummer, published in 2017 by Baker Academic, is the most practical book on New Testament Greek that I am aware of. Without context, the title sounds like something a drunken frat boy might yell whilst wearing a bedsheet toga, but the subtitle clarifies the purpose and content of the book, “Strategies for Learning, Retaining, and Reviving New Testament Greek.” This is really a book for anyone interested in NT Greek, whether they are exploring it for the first time, they’ve learned it and lost it, or are already proficient in the language. It’s not a work book, lexicon, or grammar, but rather an intensely practical guide on where to start, what resources to use, and how to stay motivated in your studies.
The book divides into eight chapters:
- Keep the End in Sight
- Go to the Ant, You Sluggard
- Review, Review, Review
- Use Your Memory Effectively
- Use Greek Daily
- Use Resources Wisely
- Don’t Waste Your Breaks
- How to Get It Back
The authors are critical of the drive towards what they term the “tools-approach” to language study. That is, simply teaching people how to use a lexicon or Bible software (12). I would have to agree with this assessment. Some of the works kinds of teachers are those who have just enough Hebrew or Greek to be dangerous. They use that limited knowledge to draw wrong conclusions and convince others they know what they are talking about when they really do not. Nothing can replace the investment of time and energy that genuine language proficiency requires. But the book insists that that is time well spent.
The Productivity Angle
One of the reasons I thought a review of this book would be appropriate for this blog is that the authors have some great insights on time management and productivity. Though their thoughts on these matters are in the context of language study, the principles are applicable more broadly as well. The second chapter in particular “Go to the Ant, You Sluggard” is quite a kick in the pants. One of my favorite quotes in the book is found here, “Though we each have our own personality, predilections, and background, we can all learn how to manage our time better and commit more faithfully to things we truly value” (19). That is exactly correct. Becoming better stewards of the time God has given us should be a lifelong pursuit.
There’s also great insight on habits, routine, and time management (24–26). The authors are clearly students of productivity authors, citing Matt Pearman and Cal Newport among others. They even offer examples of certain rules, similar to what I recently wrote about regarding my own smartphone usage, that others have put on themselves to limit their distractibility (29–33).
They really cast a vision for what a life organized around God-honoring priorities could look like. While reading this book I kept pausing to imagine how much better I could know my Bible if I made the concerted effort to maximize my time and apply myself to a closer study of the original languages. “Just one or two strategic changes in the way you spend your time will give you the minutes you need to regain Greek” (125).
Where it Shines
This book majors on the inspirational and the practical. By inspiration, I mean that with every page you read of this book you want to set it down and start reviewing vocabulary or pop open a Greek grammar and start digging in. It gets you pumped up to apply yourself. And that’s a good thing. The prospect of studying a dead language is pretty daunting, so any book that can turn that fear into excitement has accomplished a truly laudable achievement.
By practical I mean that the authors really get down into the nitty-gritty of what it looks like to set up a routine for daily growth in New Testament Greek. Suggestions like “you should not study right after a meal” or the instruction to read the Greek out loud as you study were the kind of practical nuggets that are just so helpful for me (41, 44). You can save yourself a ton of time by learning from the wisdom of these authors and the teachers of the past whom they cite, instead of having to make those mistakes for yourself.
There’s even a chart on page 67 which lists New Testament books from easiest to hardest by vocabulary and syntax. This chart alone is worth the price of the book for a person looking to learn NT Greek on their own. There is also a table on page 88 listing free online resources for students. Additionally, the authors give their opinions on what paid print works or Bible software packages are worth owning and guide you through where to begin and what works to progress through as you grow in your understanding.
The intended audience is people in ministry, teachers, and those training for ministry, but the advice in this book is applicable for any Christian who wants to pursue learning New Testament Greek. If you have even a passing interest in studying New Testament Greek, or if you simply want some great advice on time management and productivity from a Christian perspective, I heartily commend Greek for Life to you.
I leave you with this quote from the reflection questions at the end of chapter 2, “Over the next few decades, do you want to fritter away thousands of hours of your life in mindless distractions? If not, what are you going to do to focus your time and abilities on what really matters?”