As I’ve been making my way through my academic program, one constant endeavor has been biblical Greek. This semester I enjoyed the instruction of Dr. Polly Coote, a veteran Greek teacher from San Francisco Theological Seminary.
In the time that I have studied with her, I have experienced her as warm and engaging, having a wealth of practical insight into teaching and learning biblical Greek.
In this brief interview, Dr. Coote offers several tips and suggestions for anyone interested in seminary-level biblical study using Greek, as well as some thoughts on the experience of teaching in the diverse environment of the Graduate Theological Union.
Now (semi-)retired, Dr. Coote is available for private tutoring.

Let’s start with a practical question: for seminarians, what is the real, down-to-earth value of learning biblical Greek?

That’s a good question. For the Presbyterian seminarians I taught, the Standard Ordination Exam in biblical exegesis contains a mandatory section on “The Language of the Text,” although the current rule is that readers may not fail a candidate solely on the basis of the answer to this question.

That’s the plain and simple answer: we teach Greek because it’s a requirement of the Book of Order and SFTS is obligated to offer whatever “Presbyterian distinctives” candidates may be asked to acquire. 

A substantial problem for many seminarians is that knowing something of Greek and Hebrew is promoted as a necessary skill for professional ministry, yet it is not seen as a critical component of most pastoral activities.

The language skills are seen as ancillary (from the Latin ancilla, “a handmaid”) for a majority of seminarians, themselves only implicit in critical theological reflection. So despite maintaining the Greek requirement, the seminary and the church are frequently ambivalent about the value of the language skill.

Of course nobody is expected to understand NT Greek when they hear it, even after taking seminary courses—sometimes even the thought that they remember anything at all of Greek is a bit of a joke.

Students see little evidence before or after—in or out of the seminary—that skill in handling Hebrew and Greek has anything to do with being a good or successful pastor. 

Is this a difficulty that is pretty common among seminarians?

In our [Presbyterian] tradition the contemporary Book of Order suggests that the languages will be picked up in seminary. This was not always so.

The languages used to be regarded as subjects of pre-theological study, like organic chemistry for pre-med, perhaps, and anyone thinking of going to seminary would a) still be in college and b) be forehanded enough to take at least Greek as an undergraduate. 

In the 1920’s my father, for example, went to college at the age of twenty-nine, to prepare for going to seminary, and took Greek there—incidentally from my mother, a young language-phile and the dean’s daughter.

The story is that for his qualifying exam in Greek he was made to interpret the cover on a Greek New Testament (but this may be an apocryphal legend, as most Greek New Testaments I’ve seen have the title in Latin on the cover, or even English!). And anyway he was an Episcopalian. 

In the post-war boom of the 50’s, SFTS observed and remedied a deficiency in pre-seminary preparation by cramming both languages into hapless students in one term of their first year. 

By 1958 the faculty had realized that this was inhumane and spread the course work out. Even in my time—dating from before the flood, i.e. the San Anselmo flood of 1982—the languages were implicitly regarded as undergraduate subjects and thus carried no credit applicable to the masters degree. They were and still are generally taught by ancillae: graduate students, the otherwise unemployed, and the retired, here and throughout the GTU. 

So when did you start teaching at SFTS? 

The summer of 1980!

When did you retire?

Retire??

I guess the official date was June 2012, when I retired as a regular faculty member, registrar, and assistant dean at SFTS, but I have continued teaching as an adjunct or volunteer on and off since then.

What kind of language training did you have before you became a Greek instructor? 

I had lots of language learning, but very little training or even experience in language teaching: five years of Latin and three years of French in high school, plus Russian and Greek all through college.

I ended up majoring in Greek with a minor in Russian, and earning my MA in Russian literature, plus a PhD in South Slavic Languages and Literatures ( i.e., Serbo-Croatian, as it was then—my graduate study was generously financed by the US taxpayer, through the National Defense Education Act’s support of studying “critical languages”).

I taught Serbo-Croatian for two years at Brown University. Then I was hired into the Slavic department at UC Berkeley to teach literature and folklore—there were native speaker adjuncts to do the actual language teaching.

When did you decide you enjoyed Greek enough to teach it professionally? 

It was an accident.

Having failed to be promoted at UCB, I was just hanging around living on the San Francisco Theological Seminary campus, where my husband was a professor of Old Testament.

My first Greek teaching came about when someone needed to co-teach a biblical Greek intensive with a GTU grad student. I picked it to earn a little extra money, just like I picked up an odd job copying transcripts for the SFTS registrar.

Eventually I became both a regular faculty member and the school registrar. I had no idea at the beginning that it would be so much fun to teach Greek—fun in the way that stretching yourself to run a 10K is fun (or marathon, or whatever). 

What exactly do I enjoy about Greek or teaching Greek? I like puzzles and figuring out how other people say things, being able to read and begin to understand words and stories in other languages. For me, teaching is an opportunity to pursue that interest and share the excitement in the company of friends—the students. 

Has the study of biblical or Koine Greek changed your own reading of the Bible, in either a specific sense of how you read a particular verse, or how you approach interpretation generally?

Definitely yes, in both senses. Interpretation isn’t really my business, but it certainly should be the business of the seminarians in my classes.

Examples of the value of studying scriptures are plentiful. Consider John 11:33, which describes Jesus’ reaction to Lazarus’ death using the term ἐνεβριμήσατο. It occurs only here in John and also in Mark 14. The classical definition of this word in Liddell and Scott is to 1) snort with rage, as with horses, or 2) to be indignant, scold, or censure.

In Mark 14, many traditions render term as “murmur against” or “rebuke harshly” or “scold,” as the various translation may have it. Yet in John 11, nobody wants to picture Jesus snorting indignantly, or even angry—so translators tend to write that Jesus “groaned in spirit,” or that “deep anger welled up in him,” or that he was “deeply moved in spirit.”  What kind of Jesus do you want to preach? The Greek says one thing, but maybe your tradition says another.

Over the years I’ve confronted the question of why SFTS, or the PCUSA, requires the study of Greek and Hebrew. I’d say that it’s really not that reading the texts in Greek and Hebrew will tell you what the Bible really says (although in some cases it may correct some ideas you had).

Rather, it’s that reading the biblical text in Greek and Hebrew forces you to slow down, and to recognize that at some level you will never fully understand what it really says.

But here I have to tell my “James Noel” story, which is more a joke on me than on him.  Like my mother before me, I’m accustomed to bring my Greek NT to church, to follow along with the scripture reading: 

So I’m sitting there in St. Andrew church in Marin, listening to James preach and all of a sudden he declares, “You don’t have to know Greek to know what affliction means!“ And then he looks straight over at me, and thundered “Put that Bible down!” 

He was only teasing me, of course, but he was absolutely right. You don’t have to know Greek to know what affliction means or to preach the Scriptures faithfully or to read them attentively in dependence on the illumination of the Holy Spirit.

Do you have any advice or recommendations for students who want to read biblical Greek but have little or no experience with foreign languages? 

The good news is that studying a language to read an ancient text requires only that you recognize the letters of the alphabet, the words, and their forms, so that you can look things up in a dictionary or textbook–you don’t have to produce intelligible speech or writing yourself. The Greek alphabet is different but not entirely foreign, and much of the vocabulary is related to English. 

But you do have to let go of the idea that Greek (or any foreign language) is just a one-for-one code for English. Studying a foreign language gives you an appreciation for the ambiguity of all language, even your own language, which can have theological implications.

Do you have any advice or recommendations for students who are just starting to study Greek, either independently or in a classroom setting? 

Well begun is half done, as the Greek proverb has it, and a little bit every day (or two) will keep you from losing ground, even after you finish a course.

In a typical course, how much time should the average student of Greek expect to spend, either inside or outside the classroom, in order to be successful in learning the language?

Classes should be two or three times a week—for a beginning course certainly, and preferably for intermediate [courses] as well.  So that’s three hours a week in class—but homework? That’s harder to say, as it depends on the student’s previous experience and facility in learning languages.

Can you describe what a successful Greek study-session might look like? What kind of exercises did you do when you were first learning Greek? Are there particular exercises you would recommend, or things students should avoid? 

Group study sessions and working in groups in class has always looked like a good approach to me, as long as everyone in the group contributes. Explaining things to other people (as in teaching!) is the best way to learn. 

As for exercises, most Greek textbooks will have made up sentences for translation both ways—Greek to English and English to Greek. I’m sure I did my share of the latter, but I have come to ignore English to Greek work in my own teaching. My excuse is that this is not a skill that will be useful for future pastors (and I don’t want to have to correct that sort of homework).

For Greek to English I made up or adapted passages from New Testament Greek. It’s possible that students would have benefited from a more demanding approach, but my ideal was always to get students to reading the NT as early and often as possible, rather than memorizing principle parts.

Have you seen or experienced any challenges teaching Greek at the GTU, which is both interdenominational and multicultural? Has this diversity impacted the way you teach or organize your classes? 

I always liked teaching the GTU Greek courses, including Intermediate and even once Advanced Greek, because a) it made a change from taking beginners from Alpha to Omega in the grammar year after year and b) it made a refreshing change from having mostly Presbyterians in class.  It was stimulating to have Lutherans and what-not in class sharing their approaches to interpreting and preaching the texts. 

A major obstacle is that the dreaded subject [Biblical Greek] is universally required by seminaries and most denominations, and yet on the other hand is not honored in the profession. Students get all kinds of messages that being a good pastor has nothing to do with knowledge of Greek and Hebrew—starting with the fact that they don’t get MDiv credit for introductory language courses.

I used to fret about this a good deal. After 20+ years, I’ve come to terms with it. I try to help students who might be reluctant to invest in Greek by making the class emotionally welcoming rather than inducing anxiety, which is very typical.

Has/in what ways has language software like Logos and Accordance affected the way you study Greek in your own research? How can Greek students balance the ordinary use of electronic resources and their own personal mastery of the language? 

Back in the bad old days we used to ban the use of resources like interlinears, parsing guides, analytical grammars. Everything had to be parsed from scratch and looked up in an actual dictionary. If there had been computers then, we would have banned them too.

But lately I’ve become reconciled to the computer.  There are hundreds of electronic and other resources to help students figure out not what a passage simply says but what those words mean in grammatical and even theological context.

I believe we should embrace these tools that enable people to continue dealing with Greek texts after seminary. I’m thinking, If you can hold the whole Greek NT in the palm of your hand and click or tap to get parsing and translation, maybe you will in fact look at the Greek text from time to time. 

Getting the “What” of the language has gotten easier with technology—just a click or a tap, and there are the dictionary definitions, or the information that tells you that the word is a present middle imperative second-person singular, it says so right there. 

What you don’t get in the palm of your hand is the “So What.”  That of course is the task of exegesis and not my job. My job as the ancilla is to instill a sense of what the categories “present, middle, imperative” are trying to convey.

So there’s still a place for formal study of grammar to illuminate what the software is telling you: that is, when you’ve decoded the parsing in the interlinear, so what if it’s an “aorist” verb or “pluperfect” verb. The issue becomes not only grammatical, but exegetical: why might that particular inflection be significant for the translation?

Resources like electronic interlinears can really only do so much. They tell you that ηνεγκα is the aorist of φερω—if you haven’t memorized the principal parts as I had to do as a student—but they don’t tell you what it means to be aorist.  That’s where Greek class comes in, and where the excitement of looking at the text in Greek begins.

Do you have any pedagogical insights for people who might be thinking about teaching biblical Greek in the near or distant future?

I can offer two pieces of advice:

First, keep it strange. That’s not hard, given the alphabet, the grammar, and whatnot. By “make it strange,” I mean that I try to bring students face to face with the foreignness of the text, force them to slow down and think about each word, appreciate the ambiguity of the translation, and by extension the ambiguity of all language. 

Once in a small Greek reading group, we were just opening up to the text in Matthew on Jesus’ baptism that a student was going to write his exegesis paper on; he looked at the page, shook his head, and said “ I mean I read this before, but man, this is weird.” I love it when that happens; something you’ve read and heard and understood hits you between the eyes: WEIRD.  The past IS a foreign country.

Second, make it friendly. I mean this in two ways. Of course, be familiar with the terms—make enough friends in the grammar and the vocabulary that you won’t be shy about walking into a passage in Greek like wading a roomful of strangers at a party.

If you’re not terrified and anxious about Greek, you may be open to the possibility of looking at the text in Greek outside the Greek class, maybe even after seminary.  And in the meantime, students won’t be miserable in class. 

But also, it is good be friendly or approachable in an interpersonal sense. For me, this has led to making class perhaps deceptively—or even irresponsibly—entertaining, with Barbie-doll and stuffed animal reenactments and apocryphal adventure stories about the Galilean twins Thomas and Eunice, their aunts and uncle Mary, Martha, and Lazarus and their pets Eutuxos Lucky the dog and Burrito the donkey—“Mary and Martha Meet the Deponent Verb,” or “Thomas, Eunice, and Lucky Play with Participles” and the like. Whatever it takes to make Greek more approachable and enjoyable and less intimidating.

Thank you so much for sitting with me and answering my questions. In closing let me ask, in your time at the GTU, what kind of changes have you seen take place in the way Greek is done?

When I got to the GTU, Hebrew and Greek were offered in a summer pre-session three-week (?) intensive, to get the languages out of the way before real seminary started.  At one time the instructors were pairs of graduate students. They were a little overzealous. One was replaced in Hebrew with Cal Chinn, a faculty member in the department of ministry and an experienced pastor. I replaced the other one.

I worked with several graduate-student co-teachers who went on to distinguished careers: George Tinker, who became a theologian with a specialization in native American studies; Douglas Oakman, professor of New Testament at Pacific Lutheran; Chandler Stokes, who came to seminary to learn Greek, and incidentally became a pastor and an outstanding preacher—the only one I’ve ever seen read the NT lesson in a service from the Greek text. 

Eventually budget cuts reduced the pairs of instructors to one, as now. Those summer intensives were exhilarating, and brutal, and I believe pedagogically unsound: what was learned, or taught, in three weeks—at least ten days straight without a break, eight hours a day—was likely forgotten in the next three, especially since there was little occasion to practice the new skill until the the winter quarter, three months later. 

Things improved with the introduction of the semester system in 1983: languages are now taught in a two-semester format at SFTS, with the second half being a three week intensive in the January intersession. Students then move in the spring semester directly into the exegesis courses, which provide a third term of working with the language. In the curriculum reform of 2005, the exegesis courses were bumped from 1.5 units up to 3 units—the same as of a full course—and credits earned in the language classes were at last recognized as master’s level credits applicable to the MDiv or MA degree. 

You might think this was the apotheosis of biblical languages at SFTS.  And indeed I find myself apologizing for or defending the language requirement less and less over the years.  You come to seminary knowing you’ll be taking the languages, and that’s an intriguing and scary prospect—but it’s a given.

Written by Justin Staller

Justin studies Christian Spirituality at the GTU, where he received his M.A. in Biblical Languages after earning his B.A. in Religious Studies at Cal. Justin is also member of the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, and the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality.

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