Blog #2: Some Very Fascinating Things I’ve Learned

My website informs me that it has existed for about six months now.  While I haven’t really stopped teaching Greek in the last decade, over the past six months I’ve given a more concerted effort to finding new students, and expanding my teaching range as well.  I now have one student learning Attic (Classical) Greek with me, another student who is only ten years old, and have started doing advanced-level tutorials with a group who have already been through six semesters with me.  Thanks to my many wonderful students, I am also learning a lot of new things.  For my second blog on this website, here’s a smattering of new things I’ve learned.  Some of them might be interesting, and all of them run the risk of only really being interesting to me.

  1.  The Greek definite article (‘the’) is a fascinating little word (or, in Greek, twenty-four words!).  It accomplishes much more than its English counterpart, being additionally used preceding proper nouns (names), abstract nouns (concepts), and in difficult pieces of grammar like the rule of the complement (pp. 45-47 of Balfour) and the attributive and predicative positions (first introduced on p. 75).  In my experience, every Greek textbook has a different way of describing the definite article, and teaches a different range of its functions.  I’ve even sat in a New Testament Greek class (at a university in Ontario, Canada, sometime around 2010), where instead of being taught as the definite article, it was taught as a ‘structuring word’!  Outrageous, I know, but one can see why –  since the word does so much more than merely describe whether a noun is definite or indefinite.  Anyway, a particular aspect of the definite article that is not taught specifically in Balfour’s textbook leapt up at me while teaching Classical Greek.  In Balfour, we are taught that with words like ἴδιος (adj., ‘one’s own’), one must substitute the definite article article with the relevant possessive adjective, so that ὁ ἴδιος λόγος becomes, for example, ‘his own word’ (p. 83).  As will shortly become relevant, it is then never explained why, in exercise 18.a.1, from Phil 1:7, διὰ τὸ ἔχειν με ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ ὑμᾶς is translated as ‘because you continually have me in your hearts’ (italics added).  The two pronouns are the subject and object of ἔχειν (being infinitive, it has an accusative subject, or ‘accusative of respect’).  On top of them, where did this possessive adjective ‘your’ come from?  The answer to this question is the reason there is actually nothing special about the word ἴδιος.  If you know French, consider the phrase j’ai mal à la tête.  It is not generally translated into English as ‘I have pain in the head,’ but ‘I have pain in my head,’ or, ‘My head hurts’ (or, more closely to the French, ‘I have a headache’).  Something somewhat similar happens with je me brosse les dents, ‘I’m brushing my teeth.’  In these examples, the definite article serves the purpose of making an object more definite, and sometimes in English we do this with a possessive adjective (‘my,’ ‘your,’ etc) instead.  The very same thing happens in going from Greek to English: a definite article, making a noun more ‘definite,’ is often best translated into English as a possessive.  While Balfour does not teach this (and that’s fine – every textbook teaches some things definitively and leaves you to feel your way around other things), in teaching Classical Greek from C. W. Shelmerdine’s Introduction to Greek: Second Edition, I encountered on p. 21 a list of uses of the definite article in Ancient Greek that are different from in English (much like the list on pp. 44-45 of Balfour).  And there it was: ‘…In place of a possessive adjective, when the context makes it clear who the possessor is.  ἄγει τὴν στρατιάν.  He leads his army.’  And, additionally, with nouns denoting a class or type in general; with abstract nouns, especially when the subject of the sentence; and with proper nouns, especially after the first time the person or place is mentioned (italics added here to highlight that which is not stated in Balfour – and is potentially not so much the case in New Testament times).  So this special aspect to how ἴδιος is used, and this unexplained issue in translating Phil 1:7, is actually just part of how one should translate the definite article.  Sometimes, due to the way English works, definite articles in other languages should be translated as possessive adjectives in English.
  2. Much more simply, something else fascinating came out of teaching Classical Greek.  Apparently the word θεραπεύω meant ‘I honour/worship’ in Attic Greek.  In the New Testament, it’s almost always best translated as ‘I heal.’  I’m sure some cleric somewhere has preached an entire sermon reading into this fact far more than it deserves.  As I often try to bring out in my lessons, etymology is usually a less useful tool than preachers (or, for that matter, the 20th c. German theologians behind the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament) tend to think it is.  ‘Understanding’ something has little to do with being on one’s feet beneath it, and ‘repentance’ isn’t necessarily a chiefly cognitive transformation just because you’ve used your nous in translating it.  Be careful with reading too much into etymology, and do the hard work involved in reading into the grammar instead!
  3. My third little tidbit here comes from teaching my more advanced students.  Having gone the whole way through Balfour’s textbook, and through twenty-four weeks of Balfour’s Mark in Greek notes, and functioned for a year as a reading group slowly working their way through Mark, they’re far more advanced than they think they are (Ancient Greek does always take years to feel like you know it, even when you’re managing to handle quite advanced grammatical constructions).  In Balfour’s textbook, and most other Greek textbooks, you begin with a handful of quite simple definitions of the cases (nominative: subject; accusative: object; genitive: ‘of;’ dative: ‘to/for’), and eventually (Lesson 15 in Balfour) you discover that the cases actually have several more meanings.  In an advanced tutorial, I posited that there are four different ‘levels’ to understanding the cases: you start out with quite simple definitions; and then eventually learn that there are a handful of different ways each one is often used; then there’s a third stage when you realise there are about a dozen different common uses for three of the cases (accusative, genitive, dative); and then a fourth expert-level stage when one might actually memorise the much larger number of very obscure uses of the cases, which occur so infrequently that they possibly aren’t even worth memorising.  Balfour’s textbook leaves you somewhere just beyond the second stage, and I was attempting to bring my advanced students into the third stage, outlining more uses of each case, including ten different uses of the genitive.  I’ll post this handout shortly.  The case I wanted to make here (har har har), is that reading about these wider uses of the cases actually helped me to make more sense of some Classical Greek texts.  I’ve spent quite a lot of time over the past few years translating sections of Classical texts like Sophocles’ Antigone, Plato, Aristotle or the Koinê texts of the philosopher Epictetus.  Quite often in these texts I found myself struggling to make sense of their uses of the accusative case in particular.  For example, in Antigone (line 922), we read τί χρή με τὴν δύστηνον ἐς θεοὺς ἔτι βλέπειν;  Leaving out the accusative phrase in the middle, this translates ‘What need [is there] for me to look yet to the gods?’  This is fine as a sentence on its own, so what is τὴν δύστηνον, ‘the unhappy/miserable [one]’ (accusative) doing there?  Working just from knowledge of Balfour’s textbook, my only choice was to read this an extension of the accusative of respect of με, which sort of worked: ‘I, the miserable.’  But after using C.F.D. Moule’s An Idiom-Book of New Testament Greek (which is written from a wealth of knowledge of Classical Greek surpassing that held by most NT Greek scholars), to craft the tutorial on wider uses of the cases, two of them in particular helped uses of the accusative such as above, from non-biblical texts, to make much more sense.  Here we have not just the accusative of respect (which it turns out is used more widely than just with infinitive clauses), but also the accusative used predicatively (as in Gal 2:18, ‘I constitute myself a transgressor‘) and the accusative of content (as in 1 Pet 3:14, ‘Do not be afraid with fear‘).  These additional uses of the accusative suddenly make sense of this line from Antigone, and many other ones like it in non-biblical texts: ‘What need is there for me to look yet to the gods in my misery?’  Or, if it’s an accusative used predicatively, ‘…to look yet to the gods as a miserable person?’

These observations have all turned out to be wordier than I intended, so I’ll leave it there for now.  I’ll go and post the handout I made for additional uses of the cases, in case you’re interested (I’m sorry, that’s the last ‘case’ pun I promise).  And then I’ll need to pack in the Greek blogging for the night.  Heavy caseload at work tomorrow.  (Sorry.)

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