Reviewed by Markus Klausli
Story has it that a former Greek professor of mine would begin his third semester Greek class with the words, “You’re forgiven!” The gesture was a kind of preemptive absolution offered to course participants with guilty consciences, because they had not kept up their language studies over the summer. As his practice indicates, motivated and well-intentioned students of NT Greek often find themselves swamped by the tyranny of the urgent, causing the skills that both sides of the lectern worked so hard to establish during the semester to remain on the shelf of good intentions. As the first words of the preface to Greek for Life: Strategies for Learning, Retaining, and Reviving New Testament Greek indicate, both professors and students have now at their disposal a resource that was written specifically to keep this kind of “linguistic apostasy” (ix) from happening: “We want you to love the Greek New Testament. We want you to read, study, and enjoy the Greek New Testament for the duration of your ministry. We want you to look back at the end of your life and say, ‘I was faithful with the knowledge and training the Lord gave to me’” (ix).
To accomplish this goal, Greek scholars and professors of New Testament Benjamin Merkle and Robert Plummer divide their insights into eight well-written chapters. In the first two, the authors provide both inspiration to invest in the biblical languages (Chap. 1: “Keep the End in Sight”) and admonition to not lose the ground that one has gained (Chap. 2: “Go to the Ant, You Sluggard”). Especially insightful in this latter chapter is their realistic view of the challenges that theological students face to make using their Greek a priority. They wisely note that in a sinful world “we will constantly fall short” and that our work will be “incomplete” (22). Nonetheless, this should not cause us to “squander our opportunities” but aspire “to be … responsible [people] before God and others in the work and opportunities put before us” (22-23). To drive this point home, they provide a plethora of ideas on how to make good use of time and technology, drawing on illustrations from athletes and musicians.
In the next four chapters, the focus changes from inspirational to practical. For example, Chapter 3, “Review, Review, Review,” explains the importance of continual reflection on the building blocks of language and combines these with many suggestions how to do so. Ideas include things like “have short study times” (39) and “review using all your senses” (49). The fourth chapter, “Use Your Memory Wisely,” continues this discussion by providing a wide variety of hands-on techniques taken from research and the authors’ own pedagogical experience. Interested readers will surely find something that they can put immediately into practice. In Chapter 5, “Use Greek Daily,” Merkle and Plummer take on the challenge of helping students make reading their Greek New Testaments an everyday habit. An important feature of this section is their intentionality to help students move away from tools that build dependency on English (such as interlinears and diglots) toward materials that enable them become independent readers (such as reader’s Greek texts or reader’s lexicons). Along the same lines in Chapter 6, “Use Resources Wisely,” the authors provide helpful guidance to assist “the ordinary student or pastor make sense of the avalanche of Greek resources” currently available (88). In addition to paper and electronic helps, they also encourage students to cultivate “human resources” for learning Greek, what they refer to as “communities of accountability” (92).
In the final two chapters, Merkle and Plummer close their 140-page volume with some motivation and ideas for the road ahead. Using the pattern of summer reading programs, in Chapter 7, “Don’t Waste Your Breaks,” they give students realistic steps for maintaining skills during times when they are out of the classroom. The final chapter, “How to Get It Back,” addresses what will probably be a central reason why many will want read this book. As stated above, the reality is that there are many well-meaning students and ministry professionals who find themselves as “lost Greek lamb(s)” (x) wondering where to begin again after neglecting previous language learning. Instead of a rebuke, Merkle and Plummer provide encouraging words and strategies for getting back in the saddle.
The composition and structure of this chapter give a good example of the authors’ ability to present their case in a winsome, practical, and highly readable way. In addition to using personal experiences as illustrations, they also make use of a wide range of quotations and examples from Christian leaders, interspersing them in the running text and sidebars. But leaders and scholars are not the only voices that inspire. The authors also use quotes and stories from “ordinary” students of NT Greek. So, in this chapter of “getting it back” readers encounter not only the likes of the well-known Greek grammarian Daniel Wallace who had to relearn Greek after a bout with a debilitating illness (128-29) but also meet Chad, who “within a period of one month . . . move(d) from relearning the alphabet to passing a qualifying exam for intermediate Greek” (127). In addition to the main content, at the end of each chapter the authors provide a few application questions that help readers consider how they can implement the material in their own lives and then close with an interesting devotional on the Greek text written by various well-known scholars.
As a seminary Greek professor myself, the highest recommendation I can give for this book is the immediate inclusion of it in my classes for this fall. As the content and structure of their book demonstrate, Merkle and Plummer do not just focus on why one should keep up their Greek but lay out very practical suggestions how it can be done. Furthermore, the sheer number of ideas they bring together in one place is sure to speak to every kind of personality and learner—even if it’s just convincing someone to salvage a few minutes for Greek study each week instead of checking Facebook and Instagram.
While I appreciate the specific focus of this book for Greek students, at times I found myself wishing that additional connections would be drawn for the study of all the biblical languages. To be sure, many of the principles could simply be applied by a reader to keeping up Hebrew and Aramaic. But an additional section or two providing resources specific to these languages could go even further to promote the benefits of exegeting the entire Bible in its original tongues. That said, who knows if a companion volume is somewhere in the works.
On the final page of this book is a certificate for students to sign pledging themselves “with the help of God” to reading and studying the Greek New Testament. My prayer is that Merkle and Plummer’s work will play a central role in promoting a renewed sense of urgency to use the biblical languages in every aspect of ministry towards the end goal, as the authors themselves urge, “to know and love the triune God and to love people who are made in his image” (xi).
Markus Klausli is professor of New Testament and Greek at Columbia International University, 7435 Monticello Road, Columbia, SC 29203.
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Greek for Life: Strategies for Learning, Retaining, and Reviving New Testament Greek