BMCR 2022.10.49

A grammar of New Testament Greek

, A grammar of New Testament Greek. Eerdmans language resources. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2021. Pp. 522. ISBN 9780802879271 $49.99.

It is worth emphasizing at the beginning what this book is not. It is not, on the one hand, an exhaustive reference grammar of Koine Greek. Nor, on the other, is it an introductory textbook. It rather occupies a somewhat ambiguous middle position, that of a “pedagogical grammar” aimed at beginning and intermediate students, and intended both for “occasional reference” as well as “reading through” from cover to cover (ix). Its stated purpose is to help beginner-intermediate students to read the Greek of the New Testament (ix-x). To a lesser degree it also covers Koine Greek generally; but its aim and its focus are narrowly tailored to reading and interpreting the NT. It therefore omits some information not strictly required for this goal, such as nuances in the declension of μι-verbs,[1]as well as including material not usually found in grammars but which is useful for reflection and meditation on what is after all held by many to be a sacred text. Classicists are not the book’s intended audience (it assumes no prior knowledge of either Classical Greek or Latin) but will still find it useful. The days are thankfully past when classicists could dismiss the Koine as simply bad Greek, yet most of us still do not receive any systematic overview of the post-classical language; here the frequent comparisons made to Attic, though they are not the focus of the text, will nonetheless be of interest to those of us more familiar with Plato than with Matthew.

Among the book’s strengths is, first and foremost, the fact that all grammatical points are illustrated with examples taken from the NT. The author’s exegesis of these examples is done with care, nuance, and insight, both into the style of the Greek and how that relates to the meaning of the passage in context. The chapter on syntax is therefore the best in the book. There are also a number of teaching resources – charts and cheat sheets – that will be useful even for classicists: for instance, a list of words distinguished only by diacritics, or a flow chart for identifying the usage of a participle (pp. 375-76; 319-20). The explanations of grammar are beginner-friendly, and in them the author shows a healthy iconoclasm, tilting at the philological obsession with naming usages and repeatedly cautioning the reader against laying too much stress on the meaning of any particular grammatical nuance (a warning perhaps even more necessary to students of the NT than to classicists) (pp. 195, 231, 308-12). Throughout the author a pragmatic approach to language and language-learning, well informed by modern research on the topic.

There are also, of course, weaknesses, a few of them serious. The organization is at times confused: the second chapter, “Basic Features of Ancient Greek,” contains material duplicated elsewhere, some of which is very basic (explaining what a direct object is) and some rather more advanced – one of the first Greek sentences given contains the future passive ἀχθήσεσθε, which is perhaps a bit much for students who were just reviewing λύω-λύεις-λύει. The appendices are a mixed bag of shining highlights, useful reference, and superfluous repetition. The author also shies away from nuances of philology that would explain apparent incongruities: the interchange of α/η in the first declension is treated as an arbitrary irregularity that must simply be memorized, while a short discussion of vowel length (little mentioned as irrelevant to the prose of the NT) would explain the accent shift in ἄξιος -> ἀξία; both would make plain the seeming capriciousness of ἵστημι -> ἵσταμαι.

Worst are the occasions when the author propounds views that are, if not wrong, certainly debatable, and does so in such a way as to sow confusion for the beginning student. There are two major examples of this: the notion that Greek verb tenses (even in the indicative) do not properly have time meaning at all, but only aspect or Aktionsart; and that Greek does not properly have a passive voice, but only a peculiar usage of the middle.

That the Greek tenses were originally distinguished by aspect is clear; that the distinction had shifted to being based primarily on time several centuries before the Christian era is also known. Otherwise the merger of the aorist and the perfect into a simple past tense in Koine would be inexplicable.[2] Moreover, immediately after stating that Greek tenses are not about time but aspect, the author is compelled to admit that of course the future “only has temporal value” (23). A theory that does not cover the facts is a bad theory, and a theory about verbs that cannot account for the future tense is a bad theory about verbs. The exclusive focus on Aktionsart might be justifiable in a grammar of Homeric or Attic; in a grammar of the NT aimed at beginners it can only mislead – and misleads even the author, such as when he describes a present tense in indirect discourse as being a “historical present” because of its “durative aspect” (p. 277, quoting Matthew 2:22).

Likewise the discussion of the passive: that the passive developed out of the middle is not disputed; its later status is.[3] To argue that the future and aorist do not really have separate middle and passive forms, but a first middle/passive and second middle/passive, is philologically defensible; but even veteran Hellenists may stumble over such sentences as: “While the future first middle/passive is rarely used for the passive sense of the middle, the future second middle/passive is used almost exclusively for the passive sense”(p. 101).[4] Then why not simply call the former middle and the latter passive? Granted that forms like ἐβουλήθην and ἠγέρθην confuse and that the distinction broke down more and more in the Koine period, but these are easily remembered exceptions, and even among some of the Apostolic Fathers (not noted for stylistic excellence) the aorist middle and passive are carefully kept separate.[5] Collapsing the middle and passive together even in tenses where they are usually distinguished does beginning students no service, and moreover fails to make clear an important difference, not only between Attic and Koine, but between different registers of Koine. No sense is given of the colloquial flavor of NT Greek, its jarring choppiness, so clear to anyone who has read any other author.

Chapter 1 is devoted to pronunciation, lately becoming a controversial topic. I applaud the statement that, just as there is no one way to pronounce English today, so was there no one way to pronounce Greek in antiquity. Besides the usual semi-classical scheme, the author also describes the Modern Greek pronunciation and the “reconstructed Hellenistic” pronunciation of Buth, which is probably quite close to the everyday spoken Greek of the first century.[6] There are some inconsistencies and inaccuracies; the treatment of iota (which must be quoted to be believed)[7] is forgivable only because it is irrelevant for the narrow goal of reading the NT. But alas, on the topic of Greek pronunciation we are all of us throwing stones from glass houses.

Chapter 2 covers the basic features of Greek grammar; it also contains a helpful overview of English grammar (also in Appendix 6). This should not be used by raw beginners, but is excellent review for those who have already passed Greek 101. The guidelines for parsing unfamiliar forms and examples of word formation are particularly good.

Chapters 3 and 4 lead the student through morphology, starting with nominals and progressing to verbs.  The organization is intuitive, the explanations clear, and I found many comparisons helpful – such as the first and second declensions being epitomized in the endings of the article, the third in those of τίς. The importance of learning certain forms for NT students is emphasized by frequency statistics: for instance, that forms of πᾶς occur over 1200 times, or that 66 adjectives appearing in the NT decline like ἀληθής (70, 72).

Chapter 5, on syntax, is the best (and longest) in the book. Everything is tailored to the audience: example sentences are always taken from the NT, and the discussion not only explains the grammar but also shows why it matters exegetically in the passages from which the examples are taken.[8] Beginning students will find clear explanations of confusing topics, as well as useful cautions against over-interpreting any particular word form (231). Classicists will appreciate the frequent contrasts with Attic grammar; these are not a comprehensive guide, but give a good sense of what sort of things changed over the centuries. Some dicta are questionable: especially the discussion of the supposed “Granville Sharpe’s Rule,” which, despite its theological importance, is not really a rule at all (pp. 180-181).[9] Likewise it is somewhat misleading to say that the infinitive can be preceded by τοῦ “with no change in meaning”; this may often appear to be the case in the more careless authors of the NT, but a discussion of the articular infinitive and its history could have cleared up what might seem the beginner just another irregular caprice (p. 288).[10] Nonetheless this chapter is well structured and well written, and both novice and veteran will find in it insights enough to repay the reading.

The book concludes with eight appendices, comprising respectively rules for accent, a list of words distinguished only by diacritics, a list of common suffixes, example paradigms, a summary of syntax, an overview of English grammar, guidelines for approaching an unfamiliar sentence of Greek, and a list of the principal parts of the most common Greek verbs. A bibliography, focusing naturally on scholars of the NT, offers further reading. There follows a glossary of grammatical terms, and a triple index of subject, Scripture cited, and Greek words used.

Despite foibles, this book succeeds in being what it set out to be: an overview of NT grammar aimed at beginning-intermediate students, intended especially for those for whom the NT is a special text (though useful to others as well), and meant to be read through as well as occasionally consulted. It is no mean feat to write a grammar that can remain readable from cover to cover for over 400 pages, and still hold the reader’s interest; and much can be forgiven the author who can combine clarity and erudition with such a performance.


Buth, R. 2012. “Ἡ Κοινὴ Προφορά: Notes on the Pronunciation System of Koine Greek.” Biblical Language Center.
Conrad, C. 2003. “Active, Middle, and Passive: Understanding Ancient Greek Voice.”
Hart, D. B. 2017. The New Testament: A Translation.
Horrocks, G. 2014. Greek: A History of the Language and its Speakers.
Smyth, H. W. 1920. Greek Grammar.
Whiteacre, R. A. 2021. A Grammar of New Testament Greek.


[1] p. 89: “If your focus is on reading rather than writing you do not have to learn all these shifts. Just know they happen.” Likewise the morphology taught is exclusively that of Koine; for instance, only the Koine conjugation of οἶδα is given, and only third-person plural imperatives in -τωσαν and -σθωσαν:  p. 107, 409.

[2] Horrocks (2014) 176-177. Cf. Smyth 1850. Perfect use of the aorist in Xenophon, Smyth 1940; aorist use of the perfect in Demosthenes, Smyth 1949. See also Hart (2017) 577.

[3] Smyth 1735a. Cf. Conrad (2003), and Whiteacre’s discussion on p. 242.

[4] Cf. Smyth 1715, a model of clarity.

[5] Horrocks (2014) 153.

[6] Buth (2012).

[7] P. 3-4: “Iota is pronounced short when it is in a syllable ended by a consonant, and it is long when it ends a syllable or is itself a syllable.” Thus τινι is tīnī, τισιν is tīsĭn, and πίστις is pīstĭs – meaning [tiː.niː], [tiː.sɪn], and [piː.stɪs], with a qualitative as well as quantitative difference. This manages to be wrong in several ways simultaneously, not least because it ignores the genuine vowel length.

[8] E.g. word placement, pp. 170-172; verb tenses, pp. 270-272.

[9] The rule states that if two singular nouns are connected by καί and only the first has an article, then they refer to the same being: thus τοῦ μεγάλου Θεοῦ καὶ σωτῆρος ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ implies the identity of God and Christ. Smyth 1143-1144 discusses the same phenomenon more broadly.

[10] Cf. Smyth 2025ff. I find myself admiring more and more the perspicuity of Smyth.