Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.12.26 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.12.26

B. H. McLean, New Testament Greek: an Introduction.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2011.  Pp. x, 266.  ISBN 9780521177023.  $32.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Michel Buijs, Utrecht University (


This new textbook aims at students of the New Testament who have no knowledge of Greek. In 24 chapters, these students are guided through the grammar and syntax of Hellenistic Greek in a reader-friendly manner; McLean is aware of the fact that it will take a grand effort to master Greek (“If you have not previously learned another language, the task of memorizing significant amounts of information may be an unfamiliar challenge to you”, p. 5). Two appendices are added (“1. Principal Parts of the Greek Verb”, “2. Summary of Paradigms”), as well as a “Summary of Vocabulary to Be Memorized”, a “Subject Index”, an “Index of Greek Words Discussed”, and a “Lexicon of Greek Words in Texts for Translation”. The textbook is accompanied by a workbook and audio files, available online through Cambridge press.

With regard to morphology, McLean makes every effort to help his students. The present and future active indicative, for instance, are introduced next to one another in Chapter 3, which is followed by a chapter in which forming the present and future active indicative of contract verbs, as well as the future indicative of liquid verbs, is described. Thus, similar or comparable endings are paired. Then we turn to nouns, and in four consecutive chapters the second declension, the first declension, the definite article, adjectives and various pronouns are brought together. Chapter 9 up to and including Chapter 13 deal with the verbal system again (aorist, middle voice, imperfect indicative), before third declension nouns and adjectives are introduced (Chapters 14 and 15, respectively). Participles, however, so characteristic of the Greek language, are not introduced until Chapter 18, although the author himself argues that “participles are used much more in Hellenistic Greek than they are in contemporary English. For this reason, participles constitute a very important part of Greek grammar, which must be thoroughly mastered” (p. 156). Understandably in the case of a New Testament textbook, the athematic conjugation (-μι verbs) is withheld until Chapters 20 and 21. However, I was a bit surprised to find that not only the subjunctive mood (Chapter 22) but especially the infinitive (Chapter 23) and the imperative mood (last chapter) are introduced at the end of the book.

After one year, a student who has worked through the workbook will have had ample opportunity to exercise and will have read Chapters 1 to 6 of the Gospel of John (besides the Lord’s Prayer in Matt 6:9-13, wrongly referred to as Matt 9:9-13 on the cover of the book, and in the introduction to both the textbook and the workbook)—in sum, some 23 pages in the Nestle-Aland edition of the Greek New Testament, which is not bad. However, students who want to reach this, in itself, attainable goal should not, I think, spend too much time on mastering either the accentuation rules, to which much attention is paid throughout the book, or the historical Greek pronunciation system, strongly advocated in the “Introduction.”

However, the format of this textbook also raises more fundamental issues. A new introduction to the grammar and syntax of New Testament Greek leads one to expect a textbook that will provide, in addition to the continuation of the good practice offered by existing course books, a new didactic approach, and an awareness of recent developments in the field of linguistics, especially in the case of New Testament Greek, where syntactic and pragmatic studies have proven to be not only numerous but also extremely fruitful over the past few decades. In the light of this expectation, this textbook is slightly disappointing. Didactically, it is hardly innovative. The view advocated in this textbook seems rather old-fashioned to me (p. 49):

This is how to begin:
1. determine whether there is an explicit subject (in nominative case)
2. identify the main verb
3. determine whether there is a direct object (in accusative case)
4. determine whether there is an indirect object (in dative case)
5. identify words that coordinate clauses like καί, δέ, ἀλλά, μέν, ἵνα, ὥστε, and so on.

Linguistically, too, the book leaves much to be desired. In the paragraphs that follow, I will provide some examples.

When discussing verbal aspect in chapter three (pp. 27-8), McLean states “In other words, the morphology of the verb will you (some extent) specify the aspect of a given verb.” Not only is this statement in need of editing, it is also misleading, as the student who bravely continues reading will soon find out when s/he reads the following: “The aoristic aspect is associated with the simple past (aorist) tense. It expresses the simple (or summary) occurrence of the verbal action. The aorist aspect is sometimes also associated with the present and future tenses”, and “[t]he imperfective aspect requires our attention in this lesson because the present and future tenses often have an imperfective aspect”. Poor student, who has to learn from a mere footnote (p. 27, fn. 1) that “[i]n recent years, the function of aspect in Hellenistic Greek has become the most contested feature of the language.”1 Confusion about aspect will be compounded by the fact that text grammar, i.e. the study of texts above the level of the sentence, is completely absent.2

The field of pragmatics, too, is not covered; we hardly learn anything about word order. When the use of the adjective is discussed in Chapter 7, the three possible configurations of the attributive adjective are mentioned and illustrated. A student who, rightly, asks himself the question that immediately comes up: ‘what would be the difference between these configurations?’—a question that can be answered in pragmatic terms—, is only informed that these configurations are used “with little difference in meaning” (p. 69), and is left in the lurch if he subsequently asks himself what this “little difference” consists in. In the discussion of “possessive adjectives” (p. 71), demonstrative pronouns (p. 73), and personal pronouns (pp. 76-79), the notion of ‘emphasis’ turns up time and again, without criteria being supplied on the basis of which a presumed emphasizing function of a constituent may be attributed.

Only 15 lines are dedicated to the Greek particles (p. 38); they are introduced as follows: “Though the term “particle” is difficult to define precisely, its function is to change the relation of the parts of the sentence to one another” (p. 38). Although I have read some studies on particles,3 I do not know of any particle that performs this function. On this view, for that matter, particles run the risk of being confused with prepositions, as the latter are described as “little words like “in,” “on,” and “for”, which link together other words in a sentence to specify how they are interrelated” (p. 55).

Unfortunately, this book is poorly edited. At times, the mistakes even lead to confusion, as in the case of “the indicative move” (p. 27, fn. 2: ‘move’ should be ‘mood’), or “The second aorist middle indicative (...) has (...) the same endings as the imperfect active indicative” (p. 116: ‘active’ should be ‘middle’).4

What I particularly like in this book is McLean’s approach to lexical semantics (“1.7 On the Translation of Greek Words in Vocabulary Lists,” pp. 13-6). Although he provides his students with “Vocabulary to Be Memorized”, and a with “Lexicon of Greek Words in Texts for Translation,” he warns them beforehand by stating that “when translating the Greek New Testament, one should not mechanically substitute the same English word for a given Greek word, every time it appears in a text.” He illustrates this on the basis of the word χάρις:

Take, for example, the translation of χάρις with the English word “grace,” which does not clarify the meaning of the Greek phrase “saved through God’s χάρις,” because the English word “grace” is not used this way in everyday colloquial speech. A much better translation is: “saved through God’s generosity,” because the word “generosity” is frequently used in contemporary English and is readily understandable. The habitual use of English “glosses” such as “grace” leads to a vagueness that limits the possibilities of exegesis and undermines the possibility of understanding the meaning of the text. (...) In actual fact, there is no one-to-one correspondence between the individual Greek words in a biblical text and English words because most Greek words belong to more than one semantic domain. (...) [T]he Greek term τράπεζα, which is often “translated” to the English word “table,” has three different meanings corresponding to three different semantic domains. The term τράπεζα occurs in the New Testament in contexts such as: 1. “He overturned their tables” (John 2:15)
2. “He served them a meal” (Acts 16:34)
3. “You put your money in the bank” (Luke 19:23)

If only the syntactic approach were as refreshing as the semantic approach, I would use this textbook and workbook in my class. As things stand, I see this course as a missed opportunity, but perhaps others will want to give it a try.


1.   In this footnote, the seminal studies by Stanley E. Porter and Buist M. Fanning are mentioned only in passing: Stanley E. Porter (1989) Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament, with Reference to Tense and Mood; Buist M. Fanning (1990) Verbal Aspect in New Testament Greek.
2.   In the discussion of the historic present, the old explanation in terms of vividness, discarded by most scholars nowadays, still pops up: “It is used by authors to give a narrative greater vividness” (p. 33).
3.   See my Bibliography of Ancient Greek Linguistics, s.v. Particles, at
4.   Less problematic: read ‘perfect middle’ for ‘perfect middle perfect’ and ‘participle’ for ‘particle’ p. 170; translate the beta code Greek p. 68. Other mistakes I came across are: p. 21: “does is artificial”; p. 27: “the morphology of the verb will you (some extent) specify”; p. 34: “ἐκλίνειν”; p. 34: “πρόσκαιροί ἐστιν”; p. 40: “oulined”; p. 85: ‘ἐλησμ’; p. 86, fn 7: “πρεφήτευσα”; p. 87, figure: “to the lef”; p. 89, fn. 9: “Not every instance of σσ does not assimilate to σ”; p. 90: “If, the”; p. 121: “with circumflex: [h]”; p. 127: “nouns ending in -ε/ευ”; p. 131: “backon”; p. 139 “if the first consonant is, φ”; p. 171: “the verb of aorist participle”; p. 205: “θεονλ” and “ἀγιασμὸς”; p. 231: “φωνάι” and “μαθητάι”.

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