How I wish I could say I’ve internalized Koine Greek! How nice it would be to sit down and read my Greek New Testament with the same level of proficiency I have with English! But the reality is, I haven’t spent the thousands of hours of immersion necessary to equip me with such a degree of competency. I can’t speak conversational Ancient Greek. I haven’t internalized the rules and nuances of the language. I can exegete it, though. To the extent of my abilities, I can parse and translate and consult reference works to help me interpret a passage. And this is the reality for many who have been through seminary. We’re a product of the system. We depend on reference tools for our exegetical endeavors. And a new one was just released called Ancient Greek Grammar for the Study of the New Testament (AGG) by Heinrich von Siebenthal. It’s an English translation of the 2011 German work Griechische Grammatik zum Neuen Testament.
With the abundance of recent Greek grammars for New Testament research, what does this one have to offer? According to its preface, AGG “is meant to serve as a tool for theologians and others interested in interpreting the Greek New Testament.” One of its principal stated objectives is “accessibility,” and it’s designed for “non-specialists” (xv). All that sounds promising. Does it deliver? I’ll summarize the contents and offer my assessment.
Summary of Contents
This section provides a short history of the Greek language, a description of the Greek used in the New Testament, and a history of Greek grammar. After that, there’s an overview of the book’s contents. There’s also this statement on its purpose:
The present grammar…is meant to serve as a tool for theologians and others interested in interpreting the Greek New Testament. It is to help them explain in a reasoned way what the texts or parts of texts of the Greek New Testament (to some extent also of other relevant Ancient Greek writings) communicate linguistically (12).
It’s important to note that this is a grammar for Ancient Greek, not just the Koine of the New Testament. It takes other sources into account in order to give the fullest, most accurate description of the language.
Writing System and Phonology
Beginning with letters and sounds, this short section covers the alphabet, diacritical marks, and sound changes. There are rules on accenting, contractions, and more.
Structure of Words – Morphology
Proceeding to words, this section describes how words are formed. There are plenty of paradigm charts.
Climbing up to the sentence level, this chapter looks at the functions of words and phrases, the way words and phrases form sentences, and the different types of sentences and clauses. This section is the bread and butter of the book and the place where most users will spend their time. You’ll find all the labels and classifications you would expect. There are lots of examples.
Moving on up to the discourse level, this chapter discusses text comprehension and coherence. After examining sentences, the organization and structure of the text is the next logical step. It’s nice to see a grammar include discourse grammar as one of its parts and devote some genuine attention to the topic. For the actual work of analyzing discourse, the author’s methodology of choice is Semantic and Structural Analysis (SSA). This approach is “aimed not only at considering individual propositions and their relations to their immediate neighbours, but also highlighting the way in which they relate to the overall content communicated by the text” (629).
This is a summary of differences between New Testament Greek and Classical Greek.
Here are rules governing the formation of Greek words that are helpful for ascertaining the meaning of words. You still need a lexicon of course. But this is helpful for learning vocab.
Useful resources are listed by category (e.g., printed editions, concordances, and textbooks). The bibliography for the entire book follows.
There’s an index for Scripture and other sources, a subject index, a Greek word index, and a Hebrew/Aramaic index. As with Wallace’s grammar, it’s handy to be able to look up a passage you’re studying.
Some of the big issues people seem to care about in a grammar these days are deponency and verbal aspect. So I’ll start with those. Unfortunately, there is a disappointing lack of discussion for or against deponency, and the author appears to perpetuate the theory of its existence. Here’s one of the few statements von Siebenthal makes on the issue.
Note that for a fairly large number of verbs no active forms are attested. Traditionally such verbs are called “deponents” or “deponent verbs”…Regardless of their non-active form, such verbs usually call for an active rendering in English (e.g. χαρίζομαι to grant, not to be granted) (89).
Deponency may disappoint, but thankfully, von Siebenthal devotes quite a bit of attention to verbal aspect. The longstanding debate is whether or not tense is a grammatical category within the indicative mood (109). To this question, the author states his position quite clearly.
In more recent discussions about verbal aspect in Ancient Greek a number of scholars (e.g. Porter and Campbell) tried to show that not only the non-indicative, but also the indicative forms of these aspect stems express only aspect, the intended placement of particular “actions” in the present or the past being indicated solely by contextual (pragmatic factors). Though this theory became fairly popular, especially among New Testament scholars, many (including the author of this present grammar) considered the evidence presented by its proponents insufficient to seriously call into question the consensus view held by specialists of Ancient Greek and Proto-Indo-European that indicative forms do in fact have an additional tense value (307–308).
According to von Siebenthal, indicative verbs indeed encode tense and aspect.
With those two issues out of the way, I’ll summarize what’s to like about this book. First and foremost, it has tremendous value as a reference. The table of contents is highly detailed so you can quickly locate your chosen subject of interest. Some of the particular treatments that I felt were extremely insightful deal with the article, mood, conjunctions, and clauses. There are other helpful items, such as an alphabetical list of prepositions and one on important uninflected words. There’s also a ton of value in the plethora of examples. They come with translations included to help elucidate all the technical explanations. I was also pleasantly surprised to see some terminology I’ve encountered in Case Frame Analysis, such as valency, adjunct, and complement. Curiously, you come across some of these terms pages and pages before you encounter the explanations of what they mean (177, cf. 440–442).
Rest assured, the fact that this book is a translation from German does not affect its readability. It cites many important works written in English, and I only saw one German quotation, which for some reason, lacked an accompanying English translation (371). Readers will quickly notice how the translator has an annoying habit of overusing the Latin phrase “inter alia” (“among other things”) at every opportunity. Readers will also notice the text is printed in two different font sizes. My guess is that maybe the information printed in a smaller font is of a more technical nature, but I’m really not sure. Readers might also be surprised to see Lady Gaga listed as an example for vowel pronunciation (19).
Know that this is not a book you will want to sit down and read at length. That’s not its purpose. It’s a reference tool to assist readers in understanding the Greek New Testament. It’s not meant to replace Wallace or Going Deeper with New Testament Greek or Intermediate Greek Grammar. It’s meant to replace Blass, Debrunner, and Funk’s Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDF), which is helpful, but as old as the hills. AGG reflects modern scholarship. It’s easier to read. Examples from Greek are presented in full with English translations as opposed to BDF, which abbreviates and does not provide translations. It’s still a fairly technical book, but it’s also understandable. So when you want to know why something is the way it is, AGG is the gold standard. This is the definitive resource for your grammatical questions.
Speaking of Blass, Debrunner, and Funk, Albert Debrunner wrote these words in one of the predecessors of what we now know as BDF.
…I beg the reader, in his assessment of the work, to observe the following considerations: it was my intention that the book should retain the character indicated by the title without growing into a Hellenistic grammar, or into an exhaustive handbook, but should remain a practical tool in which theologians, philogians and linguists, pastors and scholars, and students can find, not everything, but as much usable data, analysis and interpretation, and as many bibliographical leads as possible (ix).
I think AGG offers the same benefits in an improved and up-to-date form. As a product of the grammar-translation school, I want the best tools to interpret the language of the New Testament. And this tool is the best reference grammar for the Greek New Testament.
Thanks to Peter Lang Publishing for providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work. And special thanks to Joey McCollum for reading a draft of this review and offering helpful comments. Be sure to read his recent guest post “Introducing the open-cbgm library” at Evangelical Textual Criticism!