Koine Greek

10 Hacks and Tips to Survive First Year Greek

1. Brush up on English Grammar

Most seminary students haven’t studied English grammar for years. For most of us its basic rules have become nearly second-nature, which is good. But when you begin studying Greek, a front-of-mind knowledge of English grammar will be imperative, otherwise you will find it that much harder to grasp the corresponding Greek grammatical rules, not to mention the contrast of Greek rules that work differently than English. Bill Mounce’s popular Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar begins each chapter with a section on English grammar, then introduces, compares, and contrasts the Greek grammar. If you go into first-year Greek not already familiar with the English grammar, you will spend that much more time in each chapter just to understand the concepts, let alone memorize the endless forms and paradigms of Greek.

Before beginning your first Greek class, try 5 Minute English. It’s a free online resource that gives you quick lessons on a multitude of grammatical concepts. Focus in on reflexive pronouns, past participles, present perfect tense, simple present vs. present continuous, past tense verbs, etc. To be really thorough, get a copy of your class’s Greek textbook and go through the chapter headings, looking for lessons on their English counterparts. The effort will serve you well, and free you to focus on learning the new language instead of understanding your own.

2. Learn the Greek Alphabet

Many of the Koine Greek alphabet’s letters look confusingly similar to completely different English letters, and this can trip you up–even months into your studies (especially if you are low on sleep, as most Greek students are). The best thing you can do right at the outset is learn the alphabet really well. Learn it in order, out of order, upper- and lower-case, and even look at different fonts. It may sound obvious, but a little extra time in this area (even before class starts) will give you a leg up down the road.

3. Use Free Flashcard and Memory Apps

Logos Bible Software has a free flashcard app called Flashcards for Greek and Hebrew. It’s straightforward and simple, although setting up your words lists in Logos Bible Software (it only works if you have the software) can be a little more complicated. I have noticed in my personal use that it has some glitches, at least on iOS. So use it, but know that occasionally it may through the wrong definition up or give you a blank card.

The best tool I have found (on the recommendation of my second-year Greek professor) is Memrise. It’s a gamified, easy-to-use app that is free and effective. It’s simple and quick enough that I can use it while I’m on a spin bike at the gym, waiting in line at the store, or trying to fight off sleep after a long day of studying Koine Greek.

4. Keep on Moving

This advice originally came from Bill Mounce, but it bears repeating: if you get hung up on a chapter, don’t stop! Keep on trucking through the next chapter, and the next. You will find that as you learn Koine Greek the concepts build on and clarify each other, and you probably will understand the chapter you’re currently in better in three weeks than you do now, even though it’s fresh.

I say that, however, with one caveat. I do not recommend you keep rolling past poorly-memorized paradigms and vocab. Spend the time in rote memorization, and it will pay dividends down the road. Take Mounce’s grammar for example, when he deals with personal verb endings. Once you move past that handful of chapters onto participles, it can feel like you’re home free and done with simple verbs. But look out! Subjunctives are around the corner, and you’re going to need to know those personal endings again, and perfectly. All the memorization matters, so spend the time on it while you can.

5. Write It Out

We’ve long known (or really strongly-suspected) the mnemonic benefits of writing things out by hand. Since memorization plays such a massive role in learning Greek in seminary, why not use the best memory and recall techniques you have? I suggest getting a large notebook just for Greek. Write out your paradigm charts (over and over again). The master verb charts, participle charts, etc. Copy out the alphabet, even parts of the Greek New Testament! And certainly write out your vocab words. The more you write, the more you remember.

6. Parse Everything

Translation will likely be a large part of your weekly classwork, even from the beginning of the term (or close to it). If you have a high familiarity with the New Testament, you might find that you lean on basic vocabulary and your memory of what happens in any given passage to translate. But if you lean on your familiarity with the English Bible, you will never learn how to translate the Greek text, and thus will never reap from the exegetical benefits thereof.

The key to doing your translation work well in the beginning is to parse everything. Don’t just note that φαίνει means “shines” — instead make sure you know that it’s a present active indicative verb in the third person singular. Why does that matter? John 1:5 says “the light shines (φαίνει) in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” He doesn’t say it “shone in the darkness” or “will shine” — from the time perspective of the author, the light is currently shining, even though he is writing his Gospel after the ascension of Jesus. It’s worth it to know the morphology and spend the time parsing each main word in your translation!

7. Learn Your Roots and Stems

Don’t make the same mistake I did. When I was memorizing verbs in the vocab section, I ignored which roots they came from, as well as their stems. I later discovered that I had made an error that was very difficult to rectify! Knowledge of the verbal roots and stems will be critical in distinguishing different verbs, participles, and subjunctives down the road.

8. Find a Greek Geek

This particularly matters if you are an online seminary student taking Greek. It will help you leaps and bounds to find someone you know, perhaps at your church, who knows Koine Greek. Having a friend to bounce questions off of that is only a text or phone call away can be not only helpful, but it can make learning this new language way more fun as you practice together, and even read the Greek New Testament together. Speaking of which…

9. Buy a Beautiful Greek New Testament

You won’t regret it. Spend $40-60 bucks on this, and you’ll have it and love it for years to come. But not only that, having a book (I’m betting you’re a book nerd, like me?) that is lovely and that you enjoy will lower the barrier of getting into the Greek text regularly. I recommend the Tyndale House Greek New Testament, published by Crossway. It’s well type-set, single-column, and has a limited apparatus.

Tyndale House Greek New Testament, from Crossway

10. Every. Single. Day.

I know it’s trite, but it must be said: you need to be in the Greek text every day. Try planning 20 or 30 minutes each day at a consistent time, like a lunch break. Once you’re well into your first year try splitting your time between vocab review, parsing, and translation with simply reading the text. Greek is so different than English, and so…well, dead-languagey, that if you’re not in it daily then you will have no exposure, and you’ll lose it. It’s worth the daily “sacrifice” (although I daresay you may come to enjoy it) for the duration of your Greek studies, and most successful Greek and New Testament scholars recommend making it a part of the rest of your life.

Jonathan Watson

Jonathan Watson