Singing Greek Prayers for Greek Learning

‘Kumbaya’ is that old campfire song that has been sung so much that it tends to usher forth groans. But many Papua New Guineans also know the song, at least in the pidgin version. And so we sing it in Greek as a prayer at least a couple times a day to let Jesus know that his presence is welcome in our study of Greek. He is Lord of the beginning, middle and end, just as we started singing from Revelation 1:8 on the first day of class. And so we also invite Jesus to come and be present with us in our study of Greek:

ἔρχου ὧδε κύριε, (3x)
ὦ Ἰησοῦ κύριε

Come here Lord, (3x)
Oh, Jesus Lord.

Having the guitar close by to sing these songs is a good tool for when we need to maintain our focus on learning Greek as a spiritual discipline. It can be easily forgotten when we’re learning to recognize and write a new alphabet, forcing our tongues to make new sound sequences, and trying to distinguish between all those little diacritical marks that we see in the text.

Luther and Hafemann on Studying Greek

When I first found out that I would be teaching the introductory New Testament Greek course to national Bible translators and pastors in Papua New Guinea this month, I had to write my former Greek teacher, Scott Hafemann, right away. He was the first one who ever thought I would be doing this. Back when I was taking his classes for the Wheaton College Graduate School in 1998-99, I knew I was studying Greek so I could be a better qualified advisor to national Bible translators. But he was confident that I would be training mother tongue translators to use the Greek text for themselves.

So when I wrote to Scott with the news, he immediately made available to me the CD for his soon-to-be-released online course for distance learning through the Semlink Office at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

In the first lesson on the CD, Hafemann reminded me of a quote from Martin Luther that he had recited for us in class in 1999. Luther talks about how important the study of Greek is…

Insofar as we love the gospel, to that same extent, let us study the ancient tongues. And let us notice that without the knowledge of languages we can scarcely preserve the gospel. Languages are the sheath which hides the sword of the Spirit, they are the chest in which this jewel is enclosed, the goblet holding this draught. Where the languages are studied, the proclamation will be fresh and powerful, the scriptures will be searched, and the faith will be constantly rediscovered through ever new words and deeds.

I explained Luther’s images of the sheath, the chest, and the goblet so that my English-as-a-second-language students could fully grasp the word pictures. Papua New Guineans frequently use ‘tok piksa’ in their daily conversations. Judging from the nods and groans that accompanied the teaching, I believe Luther’s message spoke powerfully to the students. One student even came and asked for the quote after class. He got the following quote from Hafemann as a bonus.

Echoing Luther in his online course, Hafemann states:

Our study of the Greek language is not an end in itself, but we study Greek for the sake of knowing scripture, and we know scripture for the sake of understanding God’s self-revelation to us, and we want to understand God’s self-revelation to us that we might live in relationship with him. So Greek for the sake of scripture, scripture for the sake of knowing the Lord, and knowing the Lord for the sake of living in relationship with him. Greek and the gospel: inextricably linked…

It’s a spiritual discipline. Learning Greek is not simply an academic exercise. It’s a calling and it’s a privilege. It is a spiritual exercise like any other spiritual exercise, whether it’s prayer, fasting, worship. I would like you to think about Greek as loving the Lord with your mind in the same way that you engage in loving the Lord with your heart and your soul and your strength in all the other pursuits of your life.

That is what I am asking my Greek students to do here in PNG. Throughout the 6 hours that we have together each day, we intersperse the lectures and group activities with prayer, singing, Christian greetings, and lessons from God’s word that illustrate the Greek material. They are used to hearing explanations of God’s word through two or three subsequent translations, and they said “maybe something has gone missing.” So they are motivated to learn Greek so they can really hear God’s message to them and live in relationship with him.

Learning Greek is a Spiritual Discipline

My passion for Greek was ignited in 1998 when I started graduate school at Wheaton College and took classes from Dr. Scott Hafemann. His teaching was a model for academic rigor that is not divorced from a life of faith lived in service for others. His challenge was that the study of Greek not simply be an academic exercise, but a spiritual discipline in which we love God with our minds (cf. Mark 12.30). This was a challenge I needed to hear.

So, this is how I seek to teach my intensive introductory New Testament Greek course to Papua New Guineans this month. One of the things we are doing as we learn Greek is to learn Greek scripture songs.

We started with the alphabet. In Revelation 1.8 we read that “Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the one who was, and is, and is to come, the ruler over all things.” So Jesus used the Greek alphabet to explain his sovereignty. He is ruler of all. And that means he is ruler over this Greek course. An intensive NT Greek course that meets for 6 hours a day for 6 weeks is difficult! But Jesus is ruler of this course as well.

So the first song we learned goes like this:

Alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon,
Zeta, eta, theta, iota,
Kappa, lambda, mu, nu, xi, omicron,
Pi, rho, sigma, tau, upsilon,
Phi, chi, psi, omega,
Ἰησοῦς ἐστίν τὸ Ἄλφα καὶ τὸ Ὦ
(Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega)

It sure is pretty powerful to hear a room full of Papua New Guineans belting this out full voice on the first day of class. Although it seems a little bit like 1st grade with the alphabet in big letters up on the wall across the length of the room, it’s not just an academic exercise. Even the foundational lesson on the alphabet is a spiritual discipline of singing praise to Jesus as Lord.

Teaching New Testament Greek – Guiding Principles

Tomorrow I start teaching New Testament Greek to 19 national translators and pastors in Papua New Guinea. Here are the guiding principles that I included in the syllabus:

  1. The study of New Testament Greek is a spiritual discipline. We learn Greek in order to know and understand the New Testament scriptures better. We study the scriptures in order to know God more. Therefore, the study of Greek is one way that we love God with our mind.
  2. The study of New Testament Greek is a tool for ministry. We learn Greek not simply for our own good, but to love and serve others. The New Testament was written in Koine Greek. Koine means ‘common’ – it was the language of the common people. We learn Koine Greek not to raise ourselves up above others, but to become better equipped to communicate God’s message to all people.
  3. The study of New Testament Greek is foundational for independent exegesis of New Testament texts. We learn Greek not to strengthen our own biased interpretations of the text, but to better understand the range of possible and probable meanings that can be derived from the language used. Therefore, the study of the Greek language goes hand in hand with understanding general principles of interpretation.
  4. The study of New Testament Greek is inseparable from our knowledge of other languages. Knowledge of other languages aids the student in learning Greek by recognizing the similarities and differences between languages. Such cross-linguistic comparison also aids the student in communicating the meaning of Greek texts into other languages, whether that communication occurs in oral or written explanation or in translation.
  5. The study of New Testament Greek is necessary for understanding secondary literature about the New Testament. In order to follow the discussion in commentaries, theologies, and translation helps, one must be familiar with the patterns of Greek language and standard grammatical terminology. Even if a student is not able to master the Greek language, familiarity with the standard terminology will be helpful in using exegetical resources and translation helps.
  6. The study of New Testament Greek is a valuable discipline to pursue in a pattern of continued lifelong learning. In a 6 week course, one can only be introduced to the Greek language. However, skills and resources that will help the student to continue making progress in the study of Greek will be introduced. Self-discipline is key to the ongoing learning process.