Book Reviews

A Companion to the Ancient Greek Language

Egbert J. Bakker, ed. Chichester, UK 2010-04-06

The volumes in the Blackwell Companions series are helpful overviews of various topics in the ancient world. This volume on the ancient Greek language is no exception. It includes thirty-seven articles by competent classical scholars on numerous aspects of the Greek language. The articles are organized into seven sections: sources, language, historical and geographical issues, use in specialized contexts, literature, Greek study, and later Greek. For most students of New Testament Greek, the five articles in the language section and chapter 18 on Jewish and Christian Greek will be of most interest. These articles will expose readers to a broader view of the Greek language than they learned in seminary.

The five chapters in part 2 cover phonology, morphology, syntax, vocabulary, semantics, and pragmatics. Philomen Probert’s article “Phonology” is an excellent modern linguistic attempt to describe classical Attic Greek from the late fifth century BC. Among the points made in this chapter is that the sounds represented by f, q, and c were probably aspirated stops similar to English word-initial letters [ph], [th], and [kh], as in “pen,” “ten,” and “ken,” and not the fricatives people today usually pronounce (p. 86). Michael Weiss’s article “Morphology and Word Formation” is basically a catalog of Attic Greek forms primarily in prose. In “Semantics and Vocabulary” Michael Clarke notes the well-known problems with lexicons such as Liddell-Scott-Jones. He points out that such lexicons served generations in which students learned Greek at a very young age. They were not ideal in those days but were usable. Definitions are sometimes contradictory and “the standard LSJ is muddled and treacherous, especially for the commonest words.” The present situation in which people are not competent in Greek as children gives an opportunity for people to come at the language as “strangers and exiles” (p. 132). Clarke suggests a different way of getting to the meaning of words. Prototype semantics can provide a more comprehensive approach. In this approach meanings can be “plotted in three dimensions” (p. 129). This is a fascinating idea, but a better approach is needed. Meanwhile learners of Greek should know the limitations of their primary lexical tools.

Evert van Emde Boas and Luuk Huitink’s article “Syntax” is a helpful linguistic approach to the topic. Linguists will be pleased with this article because it focuses on traditional syntactic phenomena, namely, clause and sentence structure and the relationships among components. To be fair, the New Testament scholars’ approach to syntax covers these as well; however, with the emphasis on “usages,” they sometimes drift from this. Instead of focusing on how forms relate to each other, students often simply look for the best usage for a particular word. When done correctly, this is fine; however, in practice, this is not always the case. The section on tense and aspect is general but helpful (pp. 140–42). Unfortunately it interacts with no works on New Testament verbal aspect. This is probably because the chapter focuses on classical Greek; however, the work of New Testament scholars seems to precede the classical discussion.

The section on word order suggests that Greek word order generally follows the pattern of setting, topic, focus, predicate, rest. For example Plato, Phaedo 62e: “When he heard this ([single participle] setting), Socrates (topic) seemed (focus) to me to be pleased (predicate) by Cebes’ earnestness (rest)” (p. 149). Though Clarke does not suggest this is an absolute rule, it seems like a good general principle. New Testament students will find this chapter helpful; however, it does not discuss traditional syntax categories with which students may be familiar from New Testament grammars. The final article in this section is Egbert Bakker’s “Pragmatics: Speech and Text,” which discusses deictic words and tense in discourse contexts.

Coulter George, a classics professor, contributes an article called “Jewish and Christian Greek.” The purpose of this article is to explore whether the differences between classical Greek and biblical Greek, namely, the Septuagint and the New Testament, are because of Semitic influence or if they reflect the normal development of Koine Greek as seen in the papyri. Of course the New Testament, while part of the development of Koine Greek, was influenced by Semitic speakers as they wrote. This conclusion is natural, for speakers with Aramaic as their first language wrote Greek in the first century.

Arthur Verhoogt has a concise introductory article on the papyri. Niels Gaul’s article “The Manuscript Tradition” includes an interesting history of transmission in which the Byzantine church played a significant role. Thorsten Fögen in “Female Speech” describes how women’s speech was portrayed. Christian texts and actual women’s writings are not considered. Based on the admittedly few examples discussed, Fögen concluded among other things that “women’s language was almost always understood as a deviation from the male norm” and in drama “dangerous” women could “disrupt the masculine order” (p. 324). In “The Birth of Grammar in Greece,” Andreas Schmidhauser traces the history of Greek grammar from the earliest days of ancient Greece to Apollonius Dyscolus (second century AD).

The volume assumes some knowledge of Greek and/or linguistics, but many of the articles can be read without such knowledge. It is introductory for those with some exposure to classics and/or linguistics. The articles conclude with a brief section on “further reading” in which the authors direct readers to specific works of interest. The volume concludes with a massive fifty-one-page bibliography and a general index.

The contributors to this volume are well qualified to write on their topics. However, the volume could have been improved with a contribution or two from specialists in the New Testament and the Septuagint. Although the volume is rather expensive, if this follows earlier works in the series, a less expensive paperback may be released soon.

This excellent collection will expand one’s understanding of the Greek language. Scholars, New Testament doctoral students, classicists, linguists, and master’s-level students with an emphasis on Greek will benefit most. Those schooled in modern linguistics (even without Greek) will find many of these articles interesting (especially those in part 2) as they describe Greek in familiar terms. For those familiar with Greek only in the New Testament, this collection will provide a broader view of Greek.

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Joseph D. Fantin
Dr. Fantin believes an accurate understanding of God's Word will enable the believer to grow in his or her relationship with Christ, to love God and others, to bring Christ's love to a lost world, to build up the church, and most importantly, to glorify God. He is committed to teaching exegetical method in order to help students understand, apply, and teach the Bible in order to achieve these goals. His research interests include the prison epistles, the first-century world, Greek, linguistics, and relevance theory. He and his wife, Robin, have two children: Jillian and David.
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