Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.05.23

J. W. Wenham, Jonathan T. Pennington, Norman H. Young, The Elements of New Testament Greek: Paperback and Audio CD Pack.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2001.  Pp. 424.  ISBN 0-521-00257-5.  $30.00.  

Reviewed by Richard J. Goodrich, University of St Andrews (
Word count: 1255 words

[[For a response to this review, see BMCR 2002.05.32.]]

It was my hope, on learning that CUP was offering a new version of Wenham's Elements of New Testament Greek, that the publisher might have taken this opportunity to revise and update this dated work. To my great disappointment, on receiving the package, I discovered that Wenham's work remains unchanged from its last revision (1991), a revision which did not greatly alter the initial imprint of 1965. Rather than using the opportunity of a new release to improve the core text (Wenham), CUP has chosen to pour old wine into new bottles; the burden of this reviewer is to decide whether the new CUP offering represents a vintage claret or vinegar.

CUP has bundled three works into a single shrink-wrapped package: Wenham's Elements, Norman Young's Syntax Lists for Students of New Testament Greek, and an audio CD read by Jonathan T. Pennington entitled Vocabulary Words for New Testament Greek. Young and Pennington's works are sold as part of the Wenham package and apparently are not available for purchase apart from Elements.

I begin with Wenham's Elements. Since this text has been available for nearly 40 years, most Greek instructors will already have an opinion on this work. If you are one of those instructors who like Elements then you will be pleased to know that nothing has changed. If you have found Elements difficult to use as a teaching vehicle, then once again, nothing will have changed. In my opinion, there are better introductory Greek textbooks on the market. This is not intended to demean or belittle a book that has enjoyed a remarkably long run and is still used in a number of universities here in Britain. Unfortunately, nearly four decades have passed since the book made its debut. Although Koine Greek has not changed over that period, the capabilities of the students enrolled in first year Greek courses seems to have slipped significantly. It is no longer enough to provide just the 'elements' of the subject.

In my opinion, brevity is the fundamental shortcoming of Elements. There is rarely adequate explanation of even the most basic points of Greek, and examples of syntactic usage are sparse. An illustration is in order: Elements covers the Greek participle in six pages (discussion begins at the bottom of pg. 147 and terminates midway down pg. 153). In these pages we find 3.5 pages of paradigms and a 2.5 page discussion of the uses of the participle. The related genitive absolute and periphrastic tenses are discussed over the course of two pages in the following chapter (37). In my experience, students do not find this concise treatment very helpful. There simply is not enough information in these few pages to even begin to adequately address a complicated and often confusing topic.

By contrast, William Mounce's Basics of Biblical Greek1 treats the same material over the course of five chapters (26-30), a discussion that covers 47 pages. In addition to the material found in Mounce's textbook, the accompanying workbook also offers five chapters (27 pages) of translation exercises to reinforce the material in the textbook.

The jacket cover on the back of Elements announces that the book presents "the elements (and only the elements) of New Testament Greek." Again, this minimalist approach might have been effective 40 years ago; today however, most students coming to the study of New Testament Greek have not been taught Latin or Greek at a secondary school level. One wonders if something more than just the 'elements' might be required in a successful textbook. The instructor using Wenham will need to produce a considerable amount of supplementary material to complement the sparse presentation of the text. Moreover, I have also observed students buying other textbooks in an attempt to fill in the gaps in Elements. Consequently, I am extremely dubious about the merits of this dated text.

I turn then to the second component in this package, Young's Syntax Lists for Students of New Testament Greek. There is much to like in this work. Syntax is designed to review some of the Greek syntactic forms that give students the most trouble. The work is divided into six chapters: the infinitive, the articular infinitive with prepositions, the participle, the subjunctive mood, conditional sentences, and miscellaneous syntactic items. These chapters are further divided into sections, each illustrating a syntactic construction. The chapter on the participle, for instance, is divided into sections that address the adjectival participle, the adverbial participle, the genitive absolute, deceptive genitive absolutes, and periphrastic tenses.

Each section begins with a discussion of how a construction should be translated. This is followed by 12 examples drawn from the Greek New Testament. These examples consist of the Greek text paired with a literal English translation. Having read the introductory discussion on the syntactic structure, the student may then study these examples to see how they might be rendered in English. Finally, each section closes with a set of practice sentences for which no English translation is supplied. In this final set of sentences, Young salts his New Testament sentences with less-familiar offerings from the Septuagint.

Young's work seems designed to offer a corrective to the paucity of examples and explanations found in Elements. Unfortunately it does not go far enough to remedy the brevity of Wenham's work. Young does pick up some of the areas that create problems for beginning students (the participle for instance), but his work does not fill in the other gaps. Where is the student to look when he or she needs more than Wenham's one page explanation of αὐτός, his two pages covering the relative pronoun, or his four sentence explanation of the significance and translation of the aorist? Young's text does not come close to addressing all that goes unexplained in Wenham. Even when offered together, these books still fall short of other textbooks on the market.

The final component of the new CUP offering is the two disk audio CD. Here we find Jonathan Pennington reading the words in Elements. For each chapter Pennington reads all of the vocabulary words, as well as the words in selected paradigms. The goal of this reading is to "improve learning and retention of New Testament Greek." How the CD actually accomplishes this task is somewhat unclear. I am irresistibly reminded of the experiments in the late-seventies with subconscious learning, where a subject would listen to taped material while sleeping and then take exams to assess how much material had been imbibed by the dozing mind. Although this approach never seemed to catch on, I can certainly imagine straw-clutching students plugging this CD into their stereos before dozing off on the night before an exam.

When reading the vocabulary words for each chapter, Pennington says the Greek word, pauses for a moment, and then reads the English definition. It is conceivable that some students might find this audio strategy superior to the more traditional written flashcards, but again I am not convinced that most students will be inclined to use the CDs on a regular basis.

In conclusion, the two works that have been added to The Elements of New Testament Greek: Paperback and Audio CD Pack do not collectively overcome the fundamental shortcomings of the text book. There simply are better and more accessible texts on the market. It is surprising to find CUP still backing this dated text. I would have thought that a complete revision of Wenham -- perhaps by someone like Norman Young -- was long overdue.


1.   William Mounce, Basics of Biblical Greek, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993.

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