Learning Common Greek

Frank Beetham

University of Warwick

Some years ago, compulsory Latin for university entrance in England was abolished; since then, fewer secondary school pupils have taken Latin in their public examinations at 16. Latin entries for the ordinary level of the General Certificate of Education fell from over 40,000 in 1970 to under 20,000 in 1985, and have continued to fall for the new GCSE. Entries in Greek are still fewer, about 1,300 annually.

This has revealed more clearly the continuing, permanent demand for Classics from people - e.g. theologians, historians, archivists and archaeologists - who need Greek and Latin for their work. Classics departments at universities have many undergraduates who begin their study of the Classical language at 18. It has also revealed a demand for Classics for pure interest. Homer in English on the radio or performances of Greek drama in the theatre are popular. Sophocles' Theban Plays, performed in translation at Stratford on Avon last year, sold out. This interest gives rise to a demand for the Classical languages from people who wish to read the originals for themselves. What is different is that many people now have to learn Greek or Latin when they are grown up.

Teaching adults Greek or Latin in England concentrates the mind wonderfully. First, in the case of Greek, you can no longer rely on only teaching those who have already proved themselves good at Latin. Indeed, Greek grammar has to stand on its own feet, and has to be simply related to English, a language with almost a total lack of inflexions and with rigid conventions about word order. Second, you have to do it very quickly - in a year or perhaps two, in two or perhaps three hours a week, instead of three or four years in school with four or five lessons a week.

Third, and most important, you have to concentrate on what the learner really needs. The conventional Greek course, up to advanced level GCE at the end of the sixth form course, was not closely focused. It aimed at the whole of classical Greek literature; tragedies and comedies in verse (with choruses), the history of Thucydides, the philosophy of Plato, and the complexity of the orators. Style and sophistication were everything in 5th and 4th century Athens. One of the finest speeches ever made (now lost, unfortunately) was delivered by Antiphon, the oldest of the great orators, was taken as a model by later generations, when he had to defend himself on a capital charge of treason. He lost; but according to Aristotle when, on the way to drink hemlock, he was congratulated for his speech by the poet Agathon, Antiphon answered that he would rather have pleased a single man of good taste than won the votes of the common people.

Such devotion to style produced works which are unlikely to be appreciated in Greek by 16 year olds at the ordinary level of the General Certificate of Education. Learning the Greek of 5th century Athens is like crossing a hedge at the highest point. There is simply the most to learn. But at either end the hedge is lower. Clyde Pharr, whose course, Homeric Greek , has recently been reissued by Oklahoma University Press, began by asking himself what could be done with "A year - or more - of Greek"; he concentrates on Homeric forms and vocabulary, and his readers begin Iliad I at the thirteenth lesson.

Homer stands at the beginning of the Greek literature we have. In that sense only, he is the most primitive. One can begin at a much later sense. Some years ago I was approached by a church bible class that wanted to read St John's Gospel in Greek. They were all ages, twenty-ish to seventy-ish; some knew several languages, most knew only English. Most of the textbooks in New Testament Greek then available were more concerned with writing Greek than reading it, and none concentrated on John, which is what they wanted. We did concentrate on John, and by the third lesson could manage 'I am the way, the truth and the life' in Greek.

The course ended at the thirtieth lesson, by which the class could translate the gospels for themselves, with the help of elementary notes (e.g. from Zerwick and Grosvenor, An Analysis of the Greek New Testament ) and a pocket Greek dictionary. They could recognise the case of most nouns, adjectives and pronouns, and the persons and tenses of the familiar verbs. They could work out for themselves the function of each word or phrase in a sentence. They were quick to recognise when the sense of the translations they were familiar with differed from the Greek they were reading.

This course has been used by other groups which have gone on to read Matthew, Acts, I Corinthians, and Philippians, and dip into Hebrews, and has now been published. John represents the lowest part of the hedge; he uses only a few words, and his style, though exceedingly beautiful, is simple and repetitive. As Pharr suggested that his readers, after more Homer, could progress perhaps to the great tragedies and comedies of 5th century Athens, so students who have read John and the gospels in Greek can work back in time to the Classical authors; Xenophon, perhaps, before Thucydides, and, with the help of The Penguin Book of Greek Verse , to the great dramatists and ultimately Homer, but there is no need to do so.

The New Testament is by no means the only literature we have in the common Greek dialect ('koine') used throughout the Middle East after the conquests of Alexander the Great. It is based on Attic, but considerably simplified, especially as regards verbs. A glance at the list of authors and works at the beginning of Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon will show the considerable number of Hellenistic writers - poets, epigrammatists, scientists, orators, philosophers and especially historians - who survive to be read in various forms of common Greek. There is a considerable library available to the reader of common Greek outside the New Testament. Perhaps one could begin with the Greek Old Testament (The Septuagint) parts of which go back to the time of Ptolemy II who founded the great library at Alexandria, which is, therefore, even if its accuracy is sometimes challenged, much older than the Hebrew version as well as fuller. Indeed, some of the later apocryphal books like Susannah, where the story turns on two dramatic puns, were perhaps actually written in Greek and not Hebrew.

The Septuagint is easy and direct. Appian is not much more difficult, an Alexandrian who lived in the 2nd century AD and who wrote a Roman history about half of which is complete. Shakespeare's account of the battle of Philippi comes from Plutarch's Life of Brutus. Appian (Civil Wars IV) tells us much more; a daring march through waterless Thracian forest paths by Brutus and Cassius, led by a Thracian prince whose brother outwitted him and informed Antony, details of the trench and palisade warfare that preceded the battle, how Antony's and Octavian's supply fleet was destroyed in the Adriatic by Murcus with burning arrows on the very day of the battle, and so on.

We have also, in common Greek, large parts of the World History of Diodorus Siculus, a contemporary of Caesar and Augustus; books XIV and XV deal with the abominable tyrant Dionysius of Syracuse who (XV,7) sold Plato as a slave for 20 minas. We have much of Dio Cassius' (consul in AD 229) history of Rome in common Greek. There is also Plutarch himself; his most famous passages, such as the arrival of Cleopatra in her gilded barge (Life of Antony , ch 26) come from his Parallel Lives , but he was more than a biographer and historian; his Moralia include books on 'The Face in the Orb of the Moon', 'Advice about Keeping Well', 'The Bravery of Women', 'Whether Sea or Land Animals are Cleverer', 'The Obsolescence of Oracles' (he was a priest at Delphi) and much else. Among the philosophical writings in common Greek are the Meditations of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Beginning with common Greek opens vistas which perhaps those proceeding by the usual route (through 5th and 4th century Attic) might not notice; the same is true, perhaps more obviously, for those who learn mediaeval Latin before Classical Latin. There is a golden rule; from now on, in the case of adults, the interests of the learners should come first. If they need Homer, or common Greek, or mediaeval Latin, that is what should be taught; it involves no devaluation of the Classical languages themselves, and the possibility of going on to the acknowledged masters of Classical style, both in Greek and Latin, still remains.

Frank Beetham is the author of An Introduction to New Testament Greek: A quick course in the reading of Koine Greek , published by Bristol Classical Press

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