Merkle, Benjamin L. and Robert L. Plummer. Greek for Life: Strategies for Learning, Retaining, and Reviving New Testament Greek. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2017. 176 pp.; Pb.; $19.99. Link to Baker
In Greek for Life Merkle and Plummer want to encourage (and occasionally shame) seminary students and pastors to work hard at the task of learning Greek so they will be properly prepared to present God’s word in their ministries. They especially want to gently invite the “lost Greek lamb” back to the fold in order to recover Greek skills lost by years of neglect.
I have always been of the opinion that Greek is not difficult, it simply requires a little work every day (say, an hour a day during the semester for reviewing and reading) and memorizing details. But too many people claim they cannot memorize things. The same students who claim they cannot remember a paradigm or a set of vocabulary can reel off song lyrics without any difficulty, or for too many of my students, the intimate details of the Star Wars universe. Merkle and Plummer therefore devote chapters to reviewing strategies (ch. 3) and effective memory techniques (ch. 4). They have a nice section on using mnemonic devices. I find this very effective for students, working best when they create the device themselves. The sillier the better, as Merkle and Plummer illustrate with their story about a Methodist pastor wearing a tie. (My story: “Omen et a ousi. I do not know what an ousi is, but Omen et one.” I honestly say that phrase about fifty times in a first semester Greek class.) They suggest singing bits of Greek, and there are several resources available setting Greek paradigms to music. (I have a little song and dance that goes along with the rule, “neuter plural subject takes a singular verb.” It is terrible, but memorable.)
I mentioned in the first paragraph that Merkle and Plummer occasionally shame the reader, although it is a very friendly shaming. Chapter 2, for example, is entitled “Go to the Ant, You Sluggard.” The chapter is about time management and developing good habits which can be used to review Greek and master reading the New Testament. They are not anti-technology, in fact, Merkle and Plummer recommend many internet based resources for honing Greek skills. But when instagramming one’s dinner is more important than reviewing Greek vocabulary, perhaps there is a problem with priorities.
This includes some very practical steps like, put your phone away and focus on what is really important, in chapter 6 (“Don’t Waste Your Breaks”) they encourage Greek students to actually use Greek over winter and summer breaks. For example, for several years now I have assigned the Summer Greek Reader to third-semester Greek students. They are told work on it over the summer and get 12% for completing the twelve chapters of the book. Their summer is longer than twelve weeks, the readings are easy (in fact, there is a key in the back of the book!) I only grade on completeness, not accuracy since my objective is to keep their mind on Greek for at least some of the summer. Most students have good intentions in May, and are struggling to finish a week (or a day) before class starts. Usually ten out of twelve chapters is the best I can expect.
One thing Merkle and Plummer frequently return to is the lofty goal of using Greek every day. Most Greek students want to do this, but in the fury of an average college or seminary semester, this is very difficult to achieve. Yet the authors offer some very practical advice, including online resources which offer a few phrases of Greek every day. I follow sententiae antiquae, @sentantiq, to polish my atrophied classical Greek skills as well as Henry George Liddell, @LiddellAndScott, for some amusing daily Greek vocab reminders. There are several physical book resources which a Greek teacher might call a “cheater” book, but for someone trying to maintain (or revive) their Greek, there is no shame in using an interlinear or reader’s Greek New Testament. Carrying this book to class, chapel and church will help give a student familiarity with the Greek text and develop confidence in their reading.
Like the authors of this book, I sometimes reward myself with a new expensive Bible so I can read through it. Early in my Greek teaching career I bought a large-sized Nestle-Aland 26th edition with every other page blank. I read through the Greek New Testament twice and through Acts a third time over the first two years teaching Greek, and I still think that was the time I finally “got it,” even though I had taken many semesters of Greek in Seminary. There is no better way to learn Greek than to read it daily. If you have to bribe yourself with a calfskin Greek Bible, then do so.
Greek for Life has several feature in each chapter. First, there are numerous sidebars with pithy quotes on the value of Greek from a wide range of Greek teachers and scholars. Second, these short quotes are supplemented by several “testimonials” by pastors and teachers on the importance of Greek for their ministry. Third, each chapter includes footnotes to resources mentioned, including (lengthy) links to websites. These will obviously work better in an electronic edition of the book, but most people will be able to use Google to find the sites mentioned. Fourth, each chapter includes four or five questions for reflection. Most of these are intended to push the reader toward making a plan of action. For example, “what are some practical ways you can incorporate all your senses in learning Greek?” Fifth, each chapter ends with a devotional demonstrating the value of using Greek to understand a text. These are similar to the devotionals in the Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek and Mounce himself contributes two devotionals drawn from his own blog, Mondays with Mounce. Others were written by Todd Scacewater of Exegetical Tools or the Daily Dose of Greek, maintained by Rob Plummer, and Kris Lyle’s Old School Script (although that particular blog has not been updated in some time).
Conclusion. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Greek for Life. The style was light and engaging, but the content will challenge anyone who is struggling to learn Greek to keep working hard because the rewards are immense. The book will make a great supplemental textbook in a first year Greek class, a gift (and subtle hint) for a pastor or teacher who has forgotten their first love of Greek.
NB: Thanks to Baker for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.