The pain and gain of learning Greek

One of the things I was most looking forward to as I approached the beginning of my studies at Trinity was learning Greek. For years I had heard sermons where the preacher had pronounced ‘In the Greek it says…’ and proceeded to unfold seemingly profound mysteries through knowledge of this ancient language.

Being the investigative sort who is not content just to be told something without having the ability to check for myself, I wanted to learn Greek so I could explore these ancient words and better understand the New Testament. Greek was therefore the first course I chose in my first year at Trinity.

I started with great enthusiasm, attempting to familiarise myself with the alphabet in the summer prior to beginning. I carefully made flashcards for learning vocabulary and enjoyed the ‘a-ha’ moments in seeing connections between English and Greek words.

However, this excitement soon wore off as I realised that if there is a special gift of being able to learn languages, I didn’t have it.

Not only was I struggling to learn multiple new Greek words, I also realised that my grasp of English grammatical terms wasn’t brilliant—actually, it was a whole other language I had to learn. Our lecturer would rattle off the words imperative, indicative, and imperfect, or accusative, genitive, and dative, and my mind would struggle in vain to remember what these English words meant. If I did eventually remember, it was usually much too late, and the lesson had moved on. I felt frustrated and defeated.

‘I have learnt that difficulty is not a bad thing—it is a place where we can learn humility and patience, where we learn to value gradual progress rather than instant results.’

With a large amount of cramming time (I know, “those who cram, perish”) and unhealthy stress levels I managed to do reasonably well in the Elementary Greek exam. I tried to audit Continuing Greek, but the workload of my other courses meant that I quit halfway through. By the time I reached the end of my first year I had forgotten much of what I had learnt. This was not how I thought this journey would unfold.

As I approached my second year at Trinity and the beginning of my masters course, in discussion with my pastoral tutor, I realised that in order to study the topics I feel called to research and teach in the future, I need to have a decent grasp of the biblical languages. I needed to go back to Greek (and yes, this means I also need to learn Hebrew—but that’s another story).I decided to re-sit Elementary Greek as an auditor, and then take Continuing Greek for credit. As I sat in the beginning classes again, I experienced both familiarity and frustration. There were some things that I could remember, but others with which I still struggled. In one such moment of frustration I had a little internal moan, questioning why on earth I had to learn ancient languages to do what God had called me to do.

In that moment I sensed a clear reply—‘Since when did your calling have to be easy?’

As I squirmed at this loving correction, this question came to mind: ‘If you find everything easy, how will you ever reach and teach those who struggle?’ This moment began a change in perspective toward the challenge of learning Greek. Instead of the frustration that came from perfectionism, I slowly learnt that patient progress was the goal. As I moved through Continuing Greek, amidst times of brain fog I also had encouraging moments of clarity. Those moments of clarity became more regular, and when we reached the point of translating the New Testament text, I suddenly realised that I could do it (with the help of the dictionary and grammar charts, of course!). The insurmountable mountain I thought I would never successfully climb had imperceptibly become a summit, from which I could see things not previously visible.

In experiencing the pain and gain of learning Greek, I have also learnt much more. I have learnt that difficulty is not a bad thing—it is a place where we can learn humility and patience, where we learn to value gradual progress rather than instant results. I also learnt that when preaching, I should never say, ‘In the Greek it says….’ If you want to know why, then come along to Elementary Greek!


Amy White is an independent student at Trinity, completing the MA in Theology, Ministry and Mission. She posts her Bible journalling artwork and thoughts on Instagram at delight_in_colour.

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