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The Ezra Project 
For the Serious Starter in New Testament Greek

Welcome to the Ezra Project!  Whether you're gearing up to take a seminary Greek course or looking for ways to go deeper in your personal Bible study, this site is your personal resource.  Our goal is simple:  to help you take your first steps in New Testament Greek - and do it right!
    I have been introducing students to New Testament Greek since 1972, and it's my delight to take the mystery out of the language for men and women who want to become serious students of Scripture.
                             -- Dr. John Bechtle 

The Ezra Project:  First Stop for Greek Beginners.

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Friday, August 28, 2009

Before You Explain Verb Tenses

Verb tenses in English are simple:  past, present, and future.  We check the tense and immediately know when the action takes place.  Greek, on the other hand, is trickier.

You may have heard that the aorist tense in Greek is used to show simple action in the past.  Of course, there's much more to say about the aorist tense, or any other tense.  But let's start by asking, "Is that bare-bones explanation true?

The answer is, "Sometimes."  Aorist tense normally does describe simple action, but it's not always in the past.

Let's push past the quick explanation and substitute something more precise.  By doing this for the aorist tense, we will learn a principle that helps us understand all the Greek tenses.

First, aorist tense does describe "simple action."  It simply says that an action happened, with no extra implications about continuing or repeated or habitual action.  Aorist doesn't tell you whether the results of the action are still in effect.  We have other tenses that add those layers of meaning, but the aorist tense just says, "It happened."

Second, aorist tense does describe action in the past, when it is used in an indicative verb.  The term "indicative" is a grammatical term used to describe a statement of fact.  When you work in the New Testament, most of the verbs you'll find are indicative, so it's natural to think of aorist as a past tense verb.  However, that's not the whole story.

Third, aorist tense does not tell you anything about the time when an action occurs if the verb is in the imperative, subjunctive, or optative mood.  The same rule applies to an infinitive.  What are these things?  Bottom line:  there are special endings and alternate spellings that appear on Greek verbs when they are used as a command (imperative), a probable action (subjunctive), or a possible action (optative).  We will save the full explanations of these terms for another time.  Right now, you simply need to know that these other forms of the verb exist.  

When you encounter an aorist imperative verb, it does not represent a command in the past.  If you go into your son's bedroom, shake the bed, and say, "Get up!" you aren't asking him to wake up yesterday.  You're telling him to do it right now.  In Greek, you could use the aorist tense to rouse him, but the aorist would not mean you want him to do it in the past.  It just means you want him to do it as a single action . . . right now!

Fourth, the aorist tense does not actually tell you that an action is past when it comes in the form of an aorist participle.  It may tell you something about the "relative" time of the participle.  In other words, it may indicate that the participle takes place before the main verb of the sentence.  

To summarize, it is safe to say that an aorist tense is used to describe simple action, no matter what form of verb you are talking about.  However, it's important to take a closer look before you say that an aorist verb is describing something in the past.  That may or may not be true.

What happens to the aorist also happens in other verb tenses, so this is a perennial issue.  Before you make any pronouncements about the significance of a present tense or future tense, take a closer look.  Is it a participle?  An infinitive?  An imperative, subjunctive, or optative?  If so, the rules might be a little different!

11:05 am est

Friday, August 21, 2009

Resources for Greek Grammar

People who study the New Testament in Greek are usually on the lookout for good study tools, so I'm going to make suggestions from time to time.  Today let's focus on grammar books.

Most beginning Greek texts splice some basic grammar into their discussions of forms and endings, but once you finish first-year Greek, you will want a way to learn more about the uses of noun cases, verb tenses, and the other handy principles of more advanced grammar.  

Which grammar books will be the most helpful?  

For many years, A. T. Robertson's A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1934) was considered the gold standard of grammars.  Stretching to more than 1450 pages of material, the book's sheer amount of detail has not been surpassed.  However, it probably tells you more than you want to know.

Students who wanted a shorter, more accessible grammar from the same vantage point have traditionally chosen H. E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1927).

More recently, a number of grammar texts for the new generation of students have appeared.  One book of modest dimensions is Richard A. Young, Intermediate New Testament Greek:  A Linguistic and Exegetical Approach (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994).  It incorporates some of the insights that have been developed by the discipline of linguistics, analyzing Greek grammar with the Bible translation tools brought to prominence by groups like Wycliffe Bible Translators and the Summer Institute of Linguistics.

My personal favorite for a full-featured grammar is Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basic: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996).  This author presents advanced features of Greek grammar in detail, but manages to describe them in terms that a normal person can comprehend.  If you can only get one grammar book now, go for this one!

9:19 am est

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Greek Urban Myths: Synonyms

One of the most common ways to use Greek is comparing Greek synonyms.  It's a great way to make a catchy sermon point:  "These two words look alike in English, but they're really two separate ideas in Greek!"

There are two common myths that we often encounter when people talk about synonyms, pairs of words with similar meanings.

1.  The idea that both words always have identical meanings.

2.  The idea that both words always have totally different meanings.

Let's explain this by using one of the most commonly discussed examples:  the Greek words for love. 

Greek uses several words for love, but two of them are dominant in the New Testament:

One is agapao (noun agape).

The other is phileo.

You may hear people say that agapao refers to God's love, while phileo refers to human love.  That's close to the truth, but it doesn't quite hit the target.  It would be much more accurate to say that the two words are often used in those ways, but not always.   

Consider John 5:20 -- "The Father loves the Son."  Surely you would expect to find the agapao in a verse that describes the love of God the Father toward God the Son, right?  Not right!  The verse uses the word phileo to describe this loftiest of all loves.

Here is a helpful way to think about synonyms.  As we've explained elsewhere, most words have multiple meanings.  They cover a range of ideas.  The English word love can be used to describe romance, lust, puppy love, love for puppies, and love for pizza!  In the same way, the Greek words for love cover a cluster of ideas.

It is most useful to think of synonyms as a pair of overlapping circles.  Each circle represents the range of meaning covered by one of the words.  Put them together and point your pen at any spot on the diagram that results.  If you point to one of the outer circles, you're looking at an area that only belongs to one circle.  If you point to the area where the circles overlap, you're looking at an area where both circles are present.

In the same way, when you talk about synonyms, you are talking about two words that have overlapping meanings.  Like the circles, sometimes they mean the same thing and you can use them virtually interchangeably.  The meaning is the same, regardless of which word is used.  That's like pointing at the overlapping area of the diagram.  At other times, the distinctive differences between the two words are being emphasized.  It's like pointing at one of the outer areas where only one circle is involved.  Only one word could possibly carry that particular meaning.

How do you tell whether you can emphasize the differences between the two words?  Look at the context.  It's not always easy to know whether to pound the pulpit and make a primary point about the difference between two synonyms.  

Go back to the example of agapao and phileo.  Let's take the best-known passage where the two words appear:  John 21:15-17.  Jesus is talking to a sheepish Peter, who has denied His Lord and is desperately in need of forgiveness and restorations.  Three times Jesus asks Peter, "Do you love me?"  And three times Peter claims that he does, using the word phileo each time.  The interesting point is that Jesus uses agapao the first two times he asks the question, but in the third question, He switches to phileo.  The question:  Is that significant?  Is Jesus deliberately shifting verbs to express a different meaning, or is He just changing words for variety's sake, as a matter of style?

Some scholars, such as D. A. Carson (in Exegetical Fallacies, pp. 51-53), believe that Jesus did not intend for us to make a big point about the difference between the two words.  He points out that the Gospel of John has a tendency to switch back and forth between similar words, apparently for the sake of variety in writing style.  In addition, there is a back-and-forth move between two other pairs of words in this same passage.  When Peter answers each of Christ's questions, the Lord gives him a three-fold command:  "Tend my lambs," "Shepherd my sheep," and "Tend my sheep."  He switches from "tend" to "shepherd," and from "lambs" to "sheep."  Carson points out that no one sees this as a meaningful pattern, so it makes sense to treat "love" in the same way.

Carson has presented a good argument.  However, I still can't resist thinking that Jesus was making a purposeful point when he changed the words for love.  Notice what He adds to the first question in verse 15:  "Do you love (agapao) me more than these?"  Whether you think He was asking "Do you love me more than the other disciples do?" or "Do you love me more than the things connected with your old occupation of fishing?" it is clear that there is a difference between Question 1 and Question 2.

Question 1 - Do you agapao me more than these?

Question 2 - Do you agapao me?

Jesus lowers the intensity in the second question by dropping the comparison.  And it makes sense to me to think that He continues to drop the intensity further in Question 3:

Question 3 - Do you phileo me?

In this passage, I believe that Peter, humiliated by his betrayal, doesn't have the gall to claim that he loves Jesus with the selfless love represented by agapao.  Instead, he uses phileo, the word used in classical Greek for the love of a friend.  Jesus starts with the most rigorous question:  Do you agapao me more than these?  And step by step, he drops to Peter's level.  "OK, Peter, do you really phileo me?"

This passage provides a good example of the issues that we must consider when we are dealing with synonyms.  We can find wonderful insights by studying synonyms, but the careful Bible student looks carefully before leaping to conclusions.

2:57 pm est

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Broaden Your Search - Studying a Family of Words

When you decide to study a New Testament word, the normal procedure is to stick to a single Greek word.  Even if another word looks similar, the meaning might be different.

In English, for instance, compliment is not the same as complement, even though many people can't tell them apart.  The first means "to say something nice about you"; the second means "to make something complete."

There are times, however, when you will want to look at two or more words that happen to belong to the same "family" of words.

Why would you want to bother comparing other words?  I usually adopt this tactic when I'm studying a word that only appears two or three times in the New Testament.  You can't get a sense of the word's use with only two samples; you need a larger selection so you can find patterns!  Exploring related words can broaden your search and give you more material to help you build a picture of the word's usage.

Here are two samples that show how a broader search can deepen your understanding of a word:

homologeo = confess

We have traced this word elsewhere and found that it usually means "to acknowledge a person or proposition."  The best-known use of the word appears in 1 John 1:9:  "If we confess our sins . . ."  It is a little surprising to find that this is the only verse in the New Testament that uses the word in regard to sin.

There is another word, however, that is closely related to homologeo.   The word exomologeo appears 10 times in the New Testament, and four of those verses use the word to describe confession of sins (Matthew 3:6; Mark 1:5; Acts 19:18; James 5:16).  You might think of exomologeo as an intensified form of homologeo.  In any case, you can add detail to your understanding of both words by comparing the two.

If you want to study the other references using exomologeo, you can use this list:  Matthew 11:25; Luke 10:21; 22:6; Romans 14:11; 15:9; Philippians 2:11.

sophron = sober, sensible, temperate

According to 1 Timothy 3:2, an elder in a Christian church should be sophron . . . whatever that is.  When I look at the other references where the word appears, here's what I find:

    Titus 1:8 -- Elders  or overseers should be sophron.

    Titus 2:2 -- Older men should be sophron.

    Titus 2:5 -- Older women should encourage younger women to be sophron.

This looks like a dead end.  All I know is that sophron is a good thing that Christians should have.  How can I find out more?

Look at a Greek lexicon.  Find the word sophron, then use your peripheral vision.  Look an inch or two up and down the page, and you will find several other words that look remarkably similar:

sophroneo - a verb that appears in Mark 5:15; Luke 8:35; Romans 12:3; 2 Corinthians 5:13; Titus 2:6; and 1 Peter 4:7.

sophronizo - a verb that appears in Titus 2:4.

sophronismos - a noun that appears in 2 Timothy 1:7.

sophronos - an adverb that appears in Titus 2:12.

sophrosune - a noun that appears in Acts 26:25 and 1 Timothy 2:9, 15.

Twelve more verses to check!  And when you do, you will find something that will give you a much more tangible picture of the word meaning.

Mark 5:15 and Luke 8:35 both use one word from this group to describe the demon-possessed man who lived in the cemetery and was totally out of control.  Once Jesus cast out the demons that were tormenting the man, people found him "clothed and in his right mind." Perhaps we can think of sophroneo as the opposite of insanity. 

Acts 26 reinforces this concept.  Paul has been presenting his defense to Festus the Roman governor, who exclaims, "Paul, you are out of your mind!  Your great learning is driving you mad."  In response, Paul asserts, "I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I utter words of truth and sophrosune" (verses 24-25).  Once again, the sophron word group carries the idea of something that is a contrast to insanity.

There are more insights contained in the other references, but even this one idea is worth the effort of scrutinizing a word family.

A little caution is in order when we study related or cognate words.  There can be subtle shifts in meaning as we pass from one to the other.  However, a careful comparison of the "cousins" to your word can yield fascinating insights.

1:59 pm est

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Multilevel Greek - How deep do you want to go?

When people say they want to study New Testament Greek, they don't all have the same picture in mind.  You can investigate Greek at several levels.  Some are relatively simple; others require a larger investment of time and effort.  Here are the most common choices:

Level 1 – Exploring Word Meanings

           Goal:  To understand the meaning of a Greek word.

Guidelines for Word Study" - Basic steps in Greek word study

              "Word Study Resources" - Links to online word study tools [in development]

Level 2 – Understanding Grammar Concepts

          Goal:  To learn how Greek grammar works, so you know what aorist or subjunctive really means.

Grammar Basics" – an overview of Greek grammar

   "Glossary of Grammar Terms" [in development]

Level 3 – Translating the Greek Text 

         Goal:  To sit down with a Greek New Testament and lexicon and translate a New Testament verse for yourself

Greek Behind the Prof’s Back – a self-instructional workbook

Level 4+ - Mastery and Beyond                   
You can continue to grow in your grasp of Greek for the rest of your life, going deeper and deeper into the Word of God.  Once you have mastered the basic content of the language, you can delve into the endless list of books and electronic resources available to you.  The Ezra Project provides you with a launching pad for a lifetime of study.


When you decide to dig a little deeper into the meaning of a Bible word, you should know that there are:

        Two facts about words

        Two stages to word study

        Two methods for doing each stage

Two facts about words

First, words have more than one meaning.  Take a simple English word such as run.  It can be a verb that means "to get from one place to another by moving your legs quickly."  Or it can mean "to keep the engine of your car operating" (even if it's just idling in the driveway).  When your watch runs, the hands go around.  When the lawnmower runs, it cuts grass.  When a stream runs, water flows over rocks.  When your nose runs, you grab a tissue.  Run can also be a noun, whether it refers to a point scored in a baseball game or a torn place in a stocking. 


Please get in touch to offer comments and ask questions about New Testament Greek!  You can e-mail us at:

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