Literacy has been an obvious concern in the Judeo-Christian and Western intellectual traditions since time immemorial; those who would be students of these cultures, would be literate.
The critical event in the development of literacy to this end is the ability to read. Reading comes first after speaking and before writing, and only when one can read—and read well—is a world of understanding open which would otherwise be closed: a world of understanding books. This remains true today in critical ways with modern languages–despite the rise of audiobooks and podcasts–but it is especially so of historical and ancient books.
But there, in the annals of history, we encounter a great obstacle: ancient script and foreign language. The earliest fragments of the Bible, for example, come to us in Ancient Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic. And there’s more: other languages populate the relevant literature of the Classical world and Near and Middle Eastern civilizations: Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Hebrew, Akkadian, Ugaritic and so on. Beyond this, when—stepping out on that pathway back in time—you reach for sure contemporary guidance, you find yet more languages (they, in complex ways, arise alongside our own): German, French, Italian, Spanish. These languages vie for the attention of the would-be student who by now not only wants to read original texts, but who also wants to read texts about original texts in their various expressions.
Eager and serious students will not need to be convinced that the way forward is to know multiple languages (which ones? more on that another time).
Yet, for the student of the Bible, and especially the student of the New Testament, one language reigns supreme: Ancient Greek. What’s more, Ancient Greek (whether in its pre-classical dialects, classical Attic, or Hellenistic [“koine”] dialect) asserts itself as the quintessential language to be learned not only by biblical scholars and scholars of the early Christianity, but by classical scholars and ancient historians of a number of stripes. Other languages share the podium, sure (some mentioned above), and depending on one’s focus Greek may fall to second or third (!) place, yet as far as “old western culture” is concerned—and a healthy swath of eastern culture besides (“eastern” with respect to Christendom that is)—Greek stands highest on the podium.
This is because in many cases, for almost every contemporary discipline or field of study, the first proper book/synthesis in that field was written in Greek. Were there other sayings and writings in other, earlier, contemporary, and disparate cultures? Independent of those by Greeks? Yes. But the first book, and the first great works accessible to us, are almost always Greek: The Poetics of Aristotle (literary criticism), the Elements of Aristoxenus (musical theory), the works of Hippocrates (medicine), of Galen (sciences), the Elements of Euclid (mathematics), the surviving works of the pre-Socratics, the works of Plato and Aristotle (philosophy, politics, and culture). Beyond these, the foundation texts of Western civilization, history, and culture, come to us in various Greek dialects: The Iliad, The Odyssey, and the histories of Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon.
Greek, however, will not only give you access into this Classical and broadly Hellenistic pillar of the past, but also—and I think crucially—it will give you access to the New Testament. It will also give you access to the Bible of the New Testament authors and early church fathers: the Septuagint, and to the early Fathers themselves (not to mention other religious thinkers and cultural historians like Philo and Josephus). These Christian texts in particular occupy a fulcrum-point in the development of subsequent Western (and eastern-Christian) culture: in various ways (not all in agreement) they give assent and substance not only to the Judaic/Semitic religious tradition, but also to the Greek philosophical tradition. And while to some it’s nigh verboten, dare I say they fulfill them.
Greek is there, then, as the language at the heart of Western culture and the cradle of our civilization. The language of the great epic storytellers, of the classical and later philosophers, and of historians; the lingua franca of the speakers and authors of the New Testament. Jesus spoke Greek, and the Hellenistic Greek of the Roman period was the first language of that great letter writer and apostle, Paul.
What’s a would-be student of the New Testament and ancient world to do when faced with this Hellenism that cannot be ignored? You could say “it’s all in translation,” and go on your merry way in your mother tongue. You’d be wrong—it is certainly not all in translation—but on a “good” day you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s unnecessary. Here, however, a paradox emerges: the less you “need” a language to study a history/field (by virtue of vast amounts of translation) the more you should see your need to learn it. In other words, if you find a particular area of study focused on and cared for to such a degree that a plethora of its original texts have been translated into many modern languages, chances are that culture is important; highly important.
If you will see this, your foot is in the door. If you subsequently realize (with lament) that that the act of translation is a mediating enterprise—a pact with an unfortunate reality (that we can’t all learn every language)—you’re on your way in. If you finally consider that treasures uncovered are there for the taking if you only knew the key to the puzzle, then you might well be on the other side of the door, ready to do all you can to get it. . .
No, “we cannot get into the real forest of the past,” (CS Lewis) but we can traverse space and time to some degree through the doorway of language. It is through ancient languages that we have made sense of and connected the ancient relics and remains which exist to this day; it is through language that we have otherwise constructed the storied ancient world which we so often try to visit in translation.
But must we be limited to the visitor’s bus and the travel guide? We’ll not neglect the learned guide, and translation is a wonderful enterprise and must not be denigrated. Yet to stay there is to never get off the bus; to never to get face-to-face, as it were; to always encounter as behind a veil. It is perhaps like never learning the native tongue of a lover, who thus only communicates with you through translation.
Is that really all you’re looking for?
Consider a different kind of visitation:
Machiavelli, having been expelled from the world of politics, describes the consolation he finds in reading the ancients. . . the books stand in for the authors, alive and well despite their temporal remove, and his study becomes the magical
“[…] once properly attired, I step into the ancient courts of ancient men, where, a beloved guest, I nourish myself on that food that is mine alone and for which I was born; where I speak to them without inhibition and ask them the reasons behind their actions; and in their humanity they reply; and for four hours I feel not a drop of boredom, think nothing of my cares, am fearless of poverty, unrattled by death; I transfer all of myself into them.”(Letter to Francesco Vettori, December 10, 1513) ~ Gardini, Long Live Latin, 2016.
C. S. Lewis, in his introduction to On the Incarnation by Athanasius speaks of the sickness of the present, and one’s inability to escape present concerns, prejudices, and even error. To visit the future would be a remedy, but alas an impossible one. He concludes that
The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us.C. S. Lewis, Introduction to On the Incarnation
It’s true that under the umbrella of “old books,” many fit and most are not Greek. But if you could seek one major source of great and old books, and know them as they are, wouldn’t it be a good in itself? Wouldn’t you become someone different than you are? For students of the New Testament and early Christianity (and for many others), there is no question: they are Greek books, and their claims and invitation are to the transformation of a life.
Have I been bit dramatic? Maybe. Yet, I think that the mind needs to be kindled and excited unto learning, rather than stuffed with inanimate information. Desire will eclipse even the best of schedules and programs and curricula. However, to embark on a quest which has as its goal and end the free and fluent reading of Ancient Greek in its major dialects is no simple task: plans are needed (and they are so often woefully insufficient), and through planned effort—inevitable setback—and sure victory, the quest will yield for you the greatest gift a course of learning can: a face-to-face encounter with another world.
In a word, understanding.
I’m certainly not where I want to be, I don’t think most eager students are. So, I press on.
Are you intrigued?
I’ll post in the future about ways and resources for study. Feel free to contact me personally for more help or more information.
If you liked this post, subscribe!