BMCR 2023.09.10

Reading the Gospel of St. John in Greek: a beginning

, Reading the Gospel of St. John in Greek: a beginning (with introduction, notes, vocabulary, and grammatical appendix). Wauconda, Illinois: Bolchazy-Carducci, 2022. Pp. xxii, 268. ISBN 9780865168664

There has been an explosion of resources in recent years for learning Greek inductively, rather than through a traditional grammar-first method. We now have books like Ἀλέξανδρος, τὸ Ἑλληνικὸν παιδίον (Cultura Clásica, 2023), recently in its third edition, which introduces students to Greek through a story about a Greek boy describing his daily life. In that book, as in Hans Ørberg’s Familia Romana, Mario Díaz Ávila makes use of illustrations and deliberately simple prose (the prose in this case adapted from an early 20th-c. reader by W.H.D. Rouse) to immerse the student in intelligible Greek from the very beginning. Santi Carbonell has followed Ørberg’s method even more closely in Logos: Lingua Graeca Per Se Illustrata (Cultura Clásica, 2023). For New Testament Greek in particular, we now also have Mark Jeong’s A Greek Reader (Eerdmans, 2022), which develops a story about Philemon and Paul in simple Greek, with running vocabulary on the facing page.

But this new crop of books did not come from nowhere. The Athenaze books by Maurice Balme, Gilbert Lawall, and James Morwood (now in their third edition: Oxford, 2016), as well as Ancient Greek Alive by Paula Saffire and Catherine Freis (also in its third edition: University of North Carolina, 1999), were already emphasizing storytelling in the 1980s and 1990s, even as they maintained a greater focus on explicit grammar instruction. And Anne Mahoney, like Ávila and Carbonell, was already reviving older “active” or “natural” methods with her 2006 update of Morice’s Stories in Attic Greek (Focus Publishing). So for several decades now, there has been a movement towards inductive and immersive forms of ancient language pedagogy.

Norbert Duckwitz, Professor Emeritus of Classics at Brigham Young University, has been part of that movement. While Reading the Gospel of St. John in Greek: A Beginning, just published in 2022, seems at first to be part of the newest explosion of inductive material, Duckwitz has in fact been at this a long time. This book was originally published in 2002 by Aristide Caratzas. Now it has been re-issued (with only very minor changes) by Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, who have also published Duckwitz’s Reading the Gospel of St. Mark in Greek (2011) and Reading the Gospel of St. Matthew in Greek (2014).

All three books take the same approach. Each opens with a very brief introduction to the Greek alphabet, orthography, and grammar—a ten-page summary of major concepts and terminology. Next comes the core of the book: the Greek text of the gospel, with vocabulary and Duckwitz’s commentary included on each page. Finally, the book concludes with a longer but still schematic grammatical appendix, consisting mainly of paradigms with somewhat longer explanations of the case system and conditionals at the end, and a vocabulary list for the gospel. The introduction and grammatical appendix are identical in all three books, and even the preface is essentially the same.

The goal of the book is to get students—even students who have never studied Greek before—reading an authentic text right away and to teach them the language through exposure. Duckwitz says that he has successfully used this approach for years, leading students in their first term through much of a text often read, if at all, only at the end of their third. He has also used the book with intermediate and advanced students.

The key difference between this approach and that of the other books I mentioned is Duckwitz’s focus on authentic texts. Where other authors have written their own simple stories designed to ease students in slowly, Duckwitz throws them into the deep end right away. Duckwitz doesn’t try to justify that decision at much length, but it’s not hard to understand the appeal. Students would get acclimated to some of the rhythms and idiosyncrasies of Hellenistic Greek from the very beginning, without having to lose time translating “either ponderous or unfamiliar original Greek sentences on the one hand or simplistic and fabricated English sentences that have been turned into Greek on the other” (x). And since most of the students who would use this book are probably studying Greek with the specific goal of being able to read the New Testament, reading John’s gospel would be intrinsically motivating.

But Duckwitz’s method puts an enormous burden on his commentary, and to a lesser extent on his summary grammar. When a student encounters her very first Greek sentence, ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, she’ll need some basic things about the language explained: that Greek nouns take different forms depending on their role in a sentence, that word order is flexible, that the diacritics actually tell us something about the meaning of the word. Gradually, the commentary should introduce more complex concepts: that prepositions can mean different things when connected with nouns of different cases, the difference between perfective and imperfective verbs, the very idea of verbal aspect. The commentary itself should be brief and focused on explaining the meaning of the sentence at hand in order to facilitate inductive learning, but it should point towards a longer explanation in the grammatical appendix. In other words, the commentary needs to be carefully scaffolded to initiate students into the language. Graded readers can build this scaffolding by composing text that highlights certain forms or patterns; an approach like this one needs to do it by focusing the student’s attention on one feature of the text at a time.

Duckwitz does build some scaffolding, but not enough. The kinds of basic points just mentioned are all pressed into the brief introduction at the start of the book, rather than illustrated in context of John’s gospel, as a truly inductive approach would demand. Then, from the beginning, the commentary itself swings between making very simple points (ἦν in John 1:1 is the imperfect form of εἰμί) and surprisingly technical ones (κατέλαβεν in John 1:5 might be considered “a gnomic aorist, which expresses a general truth”). The commentary does refer students to particular sections of the grammatical appendix, but those references come so quickly—seven refer-ences in the comments on verse 1 alone—that it is difficult to know where to focus. Duckwitz is conscientious about tapering off his glosses, insofar as a piece of vocabulary or a grammatical explanation will only be provided about ten times before the student is expected to remember it on her own. But beyond that, there seems to be little attempt to organize the ideas provided in the commentary in a way that would aid the beginning student.

The central problem, I suspect, is that the commentary is trying to be all things to all people. The bulk of the commentary is rightly focused on helping students parse individual words—ἐπάρας is an aorist active participle of ἐπαίρω—and explaining how and why the word took that form. Students also get occasional reminders about broader grammatical concepts. But Duckwitz makes a habit of discussing a number of advanced grammatical and rhetorical concepts, too. Already by John 4 (see 4:10 and 4:48), for example, Duckwitz is discussing conditionals using the language of protasis and apodosis, without having previously defined the terms or pointed to the relevant sections of the grammatical appendix. By the end of the book, he is including comments like this one on John 18:11: “τὸ ποτήριον … αὐτό is an anacoluthon or a syntactic non sequitur in which τὸ ποτήριον starts as the subject but ends up as the object of the finite verb that is resumed by αὐτό.” He seems disproportionately interested in the poetic effects of hyperbaton, a rhetorical device in which a phrase that normally stands together is interrupted by other words; Duckwitz mentions it for the first time in his comments on John 1:9 and returns to it often through his commentary. He seems thus to be speaking both to students who are just getting started with Greek as well as students with some significant background who are ready to start paying attention to matters of advanced syntax and style.

And Duckwitz goes still further. He comments on matters of context and connotation, explaining for example that Jesus addressing his mother as γύναι is not disrespectful (2:4), what a denarius was worth (6:7), details of Roman military organization (18:3), and the culture of Jewish dress (21:7). He provides translation tips, showing students where to divide up a cumbersome Greek sentence (13:1). He elaborates on (debatable) subtleties in John’s meaning, suggesting for example that ἀκούω “followed by the genitive signifies not only the physical act of hearing but also the mental or spiritual process of perceiving and heeding” (5:25). He discusses a number of textual variants in the New Testament manuscript tradition (e.g., 1:3, 4:2, 7:38, 8:25, 14:2). He even includes a fair bit of his own theological commentary, not only pointing out basic themes, like the ambiguities between earthly and spiritual meanings of words or the resonance of Jesus’s ἐγώ εἰμι statements, but also venturing some of his own theological judgments. For example: He calls John’s statement in 1:3–4, ὀ γέγονεν ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν, “a sublime metaphor,” saying that “the perfect tense indicates that Christ has become and continues to be the source of eternal life.”

Personally, I quite enjoyed all of this, and I suspect many students would, too. It was like reading through the gospel with Professor Duckwitz at my side, guiding me through difficult lines and pointing out things about the text I might otherwise have missed. But I suspect that beginning students will often feel lost in the tall grass. On balance, this book is less “a beginning,” as the subtitle promises, than it is a continuation, or a deepening. I do not doubt Duckwitz’s claim that this method has worked for beginning students of Greek, but I imagine that they required significant intervention from a teacher about which parts of the commentary to attend to and which to ignore. The book is better suited to a second- or third-semester Greek course, perhaps after completing Athenaze or ᾽Αλέξανδρος, where the condensed introduction can serve as a high-level reminder of core grammatical concepts that the students have already been exposed to in practice, and the grammatical appendix can serve as a quick reference for unfamiliar forms. It would be especially useful for early intermediate students in theological schools or seminaries who are interested more in the meaning of John’s text than they are in the Greek language as such. Even in that case, more focus on the needs of a particular audience would have made the commentary more useful overall.

Nonetheless, Reading the Gospel of St. John in Greek, along with its companion volumes on Mark and Matthew, is a very welcome addition to the growing body of learner texts that teach inductively. It’s an even more welcome addition to learner texts focused on the Greek New Testament. It’s possible to find editions of the gospel that include vocabulary, and it’s possible to find grammatical commentaries on the gospel, but I know of no other single volume that includes original text, vocabulary, and grammatical commentary together in a readable format. For this alone, Duckwitz has done an enormous service.