A Beginning-Intermediate Grammar of Hellenistic Greek (3rd edition) by Robert W. Funk

“Our online Biblical Greek Forum treasures this work … We are delighted to see it back in print.”
—Carl Conrad, Washington University emeritus

Robert W. Funk (1926-2005) was a specialist in the languages and literature of early Christianity. He earned an A.B. in Classics at Butler University, a B.D. in the philosophy of religion at the Christian Theological Seminary, an M.A. in Semitics at Butler, and a Ph.D. in New Testament at Vanderbilt University. Because he was trained in both ancient Greek and the New Testament, Funk was thoroughly prepared to produce an innovative and comprehensive grammar of the Greek dialect that flourished during the Greco-Roman period.

As a graduate student in the early 1950s, Funk was encouraged by his Vanderbilt mentor, Kendrick Grobel—himself a linguist and translator—to translate Friedrich Blass and Albert Debrunner’s Grammatik des neutestamentlichen Griechisch, the premier advanced New Testament reference grammar of the time. Funk started with the ninth edition (1954), but Debrunner sent Funk his notes for the projected tenth edition. Using Debrunner’s notes, Funk produced a new translation and thorough revision of the ninth-tenth edition of Blass-Debrunner in 1961. Yale scholar Nils Dahl wrote that Blass-Debrunner-Funk, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature “is one of those rare cases in which a translation is definitely better than the original.”

During this same time W.F. Arndt and F.W. Gingrich produced an English translation of the fourth edition of Walter Bauer’s Griechisch-Deutsches Wörterbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und der übrigen urchristlichen Literatur (1957). Both Bauer’s dictionary and Funk’s edition of the Blass-Debrunner grammar continue to be basic reference works for New Testament students and scholars. By his early thirties, Funk had already established himself as a solid scholar and major authority on the Greek New Testament.

Immediately following the publication of Blass-Debrunner-Funk in 1961, Funk began work on his own hellenistic Greek grammar. The Blass-Debrunner tradition was based on a classical philological approach to language analysis and pedagogy During the 1950s a new approach to language called linguistics challenged the assumption of classical philology that meaning resides primarily in the lexical stock of a language Funk also recognized that grammatical analysis at the word level is inadequate while writing his dissertation, “The Syntax of the Greek Article: Its Importance for Critical Pauline Problems” (1953). Funk was thus motivated by two overarching questions in designing his own grammar: Should New Testament Greek grammar be presented as a deviation, even corruption, of an earlier classical standard, or is it simply a distinctive dialect that deserves its own definition? What insights from modern linguistics and second-language pedagogy can improve the way New Testament Greek is taught and learned? In order to address these questions, Funk spent the next decade creating a new database, analyzing the essential features of hellenistic Greek, and writing A Beginning-Intermediate Grammar of Hellenistic Greek (1973).

Major Innovative Features of Funk’s Grammar

1. It is both a lesson grammar and a reference grammar. Reference grammars are encyclopedic treatments of all facets of a language, topically arranged and usually divided into three categories: phonology, morphology, and syntax. They are thus resources for those who already know the basics of the language. In contrast, lesson grammars jump around from topic to topic. They are not suitable as reference sources since various aspects of a topic are scattered throughout. Funk combines the two types, so that his grammar is useful for both beginning and advanced students. The material is arranged topically, but within each lesson a distinction is made between introductory content for beginning students and advanced material that can be skipped until later.

2. It is a narrative grammar, not an outline of topics to be covered by the instructor. Most lesson grammars assume that explanations of the content will be presented by the instructor. Funk’s grammar includes clear explanations of each topic so that it can be assigned as reading before class meetings, thus allowing for student questions to the instructor and further elaboration of difficult issues during the limited time available in class. Conceivably, those wanting to learn Greek on their own could do so with Funk’s grammar and a copy of the Greek New Testament.

3. It employs actual texts, not artificial examples. Greek illustrations of topics covered in Funk’s grammar are actual sentences from the database of selected passages from the New Testament and other hellenistic Greek texts. Students thus are learning to read the New Testament from the start and assimilating its grammatical signals and patterns.

4. It describes the Greek of the New Testament as a distinct dialect. In the fifth century bce, the Attic dialect of Athens came to be regarded as the normative form of Greek. Following Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Middle East in the late fourth century, Attic Greek was transformed into a new dialect called Koine (hellenistic Greek), which became the universal language of the Greco-Roman world for over a millennium. Later literary purists viewed this transformation of Attic as a corruption of the classical standard. Because of the notion that there is a pure form of a language, the European philological tradition has tended to treat the grammar of New Testament Greek as a series of notes about the changes from fifth-century Attic.

Modern linguists, however, regard all stages in the history of languages as distinct dialects and equally adept as vehicles for human communication. Greek grammars produced from this point of view are thus comprehensive descriptions of the bread-and-butter features of a particular phase in the history of a language. One implication of this view of languages is that students can learn hellenistic Greek without first having mastered classical Greek.

5. It highlights syntactic structures rather than vocabulary. The most significant feature of Funk’s Grammar is his analysis of syntax. Funk identifies the six basic sentence patterns in hellenistic Greek and describes how all actual Greek sentences are derived, via various transformations, from these six patterns. This approach reflects the linguistic claim that there are regular patterns underlying all levels of human language. With respect to morphology, Funk identifies models for the inflection of nouns and verbs and then describes how one can decline nouns or conjugate verbs by applying predictable changes to the models. This approach eliminates the need for rote memorization of multiple paradigms and stresses the fact that adults who are learning a second language need to recognize its underlying patterns, rather than trying, often vainly, to memorize an array of random examples.

Excerpted from the Foreword to the Third Edition, by Lane C. McGaughy

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