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Greek Grammar: You Can Learn Bible Greek



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by John Poly

ISBN 0 9744525 0 5
Polykarpos Publishing, 2003
167pp, paperback
Retail price $24.95

Let’s start with the good things about this book. To begin with, it is written by a learned man who speaks both Greek and English. John Poly’s purpose, however, is more than simply to teach Greek. This, too, is a good thing, as there are plenty of other books for that purpose.

Rev. Poly focuses on the Greek of the New Testament, and his specific purpose is to give Christians (or those interested in the Bible) an insight into scripture through an understanding of the linguistic complexities behind the English translation. For example, by going through a step-by-step translation of the original Greek behind the phrase normally translated as "Judge not, that ye be not judged", he gives a whole new meaning to a piece of advice we only thought we understood.

The author has also considered methods by which he can simplify the learning of Greek, encouraging the reader who has hitherto doubted his or her own ability to tackle a difficult dead language. Hence the emphasis in the subtitle: "You can learn Bible Greek", even if you thought you were incapable of it. John Poly names his chosen methods: illustrations (by this he specifically means pictorial representations), association and exercise.

As if a little uncertain of his ground, he warns his readers that "some may find these illustrations too simplistic, even childish". This does the book a disservice, as the illustrations are clear, and not at all childish. They are, however, not always helpful. The letter "D", portrayed as a Greek figure lying in a hammock, represents the dative case. So far so good, but it is accompanied by a caption, the figure saying, "Please be assured that I do take a personal interest in you". This is apparently intended to help the reader remember that the dative case can indicate personal interest in its subject (subject is what it is called in the book, but that is confusing in itself). However, I speak as one who already has some knowledge of dead languages, and perhaps this only means that the book works less well for me than it would for a complete beginner.

To come on to the less useful aspects of John Poly’s approach, I must now say that, despite his personal facility with languages, it is clear that he does not have extensive experience as a teacher of language or linguistics. Much of the text is not easy to follow. Take this sentence:

"No accent can stand farther back than the third syllable from the end of the word."

Does this mean that no accent can be more than three syllables from the end of the word? Or does it mean that no accent can be less than three syllables from the end of the word? This is one example of an occasional lack of clarity.

The book is, of course, much too short. By the time the author has completed his introductory chapter, we are on page 17 out of 167. The last fifteen pages are taken up with indices and appendices, all very essential but taking a further chunk out of the space available for actual learning. You cannot teach a language in 30,000 words, which I estimate the book does not exceed. Yes, indeed it is only meant to be an introductory course, but where does one go next? There is no indication.

The exercises, too, need to be shorter and simpler. Unlike most of the books we review on this site, Greek Grammar is quite likely to go into several editions, and the author therefore has the opportunity to address any issues arising from people’s use of this first edition, so I don’t feel as hesitant as usual about being frank in my criticisms.

Overall, I like the way John Poly offers encouragement and motivation to his students. His enthusiasm is infectious. The Bible, he assures us, is full of "pearls" that we have been missing when we read it only in translation. "Now that you’ve acquired your diver’s ‘lungs’," he says, "you can continue your dives with increased frequency and to greater depths."

Open Book

Review by Deborah Fisher