Your ability to read the New Testament rests on your vocabulary acquisition. Once you have learned your basic grammar, the most important thing to help you read the Greek New Testament is to build your Greek vocabulary. This is a make or break issue.
Here is why this is a make or break issue: too many would-be readers of Greek keep acquiring new books, particularly vocabulary books, and yet they never learn the vocabulary. There is a simple reason that this is the case. Few people can learn vocabulary from a book. To learn vocabulary properly takes a serious effort.
This is why I said you need to be ruthless. It is hard work. You will need to have a disciplined, diligent, long-term approach to learning the vocabulary, or you will not be able to read the Greek New Testament. In other words, you will need to be ruthless with yourself (1 Tim. 4:7). Here are 5 reasons to be ruthless with yourself to build your Greek vocabulary.
1. You Want to Read, Don’t You?
Here is the simple truth. To read, you need to be able to recognize words. If you want to learn to read the Greek New Testament you need to build your Greek vocabulary.
Do you remember when you were younger and learning to read more advanced texts in your native language? Do you recall being able to learn words that you did not know previously just from the context? This will not happen in Greek. At least not for a while. You see, in addition to context, we also recognize words based on their similarity to other words we already know. Words can share roots, and we often recognize the root in a new word, allowing us to instantly understand the general idea of the new word.
It takes time to do this in Greek. If you do not know your vocabulary, you will not have encountered enough of the roots to be able to recognize new word forms. But beyond this, even if you do recognize the root, you risk falling into the root fallacy if you simply assume you can work out the word from the root and affixed preposition.
The only way to learn to read the Greek New Testament fluently is to ruthlessly build your Greek vocabulary.
(By the way, this is exactly what Master New Testament Greek is designed for. Click here and I will get you started right now, for free.)
2. There are a Lot of Words to Learn
Here is another reason you need to be ruthless to build your Greek vocabulary: there are a lot of words to learn! You probably know this already, but there are over 5,000 unique words in the Greek New Testament. Certainly, many of those (508 to be precise) are proper nouns, many of which you will recognize by sight. To read fluently you will need to be able to recognize all of them. When you do not recognize a word, you will have to go and look it up.
You might say to yourself, “If I learn everything but the hapax-legomena, there isn’t much I’m missing out on, right?” Again, the answer to this question depends on your goal. If you are happy picking your way through exegesis, knowing everything but the hapax-legomena is a great achievement. But if you want the joy of reading the text, you will be missing 1924 words. In some chapters (e.g. Acts 27) that means there are dozens of words you will not know. You will find many verses where there are several words together that you will not know.
Not only does this mean you have to resort (over and over) to a lexicon, but you lose your comprehension while you work out the individual lexemes. If you want to read fluently, knowing the vocabulary is essential. To build your Greek vocabulary for reading, you will need to be ruthless.
3. You are (probably) Not a Scholar
When I started learning to read the Greek New Testament, I started with the tools provided by scholars. This seems natural. Who are the people who teach Greek? What do they teach about learning Greek vocabulary? Do what they say! If only it was that easy.
Here is a little secret: many Greek scholars need to learn words before they read a text. How do they do this? They open a book (such as Burer and Millar’s handy A New Reader’s Lexicon of the Greek New Testament). They go to the section they are working through, read through the words, and can recall them as they read.
I cannot do that. I am guessing you cannot either. Scholars have years of training in the language, have completed a doctorate, and are in the language every day. They cannot help but know many of the words already and can simply do a quick refresh and they are ready to go. Those of us who are learning to read need to work much harder than this.
Do not forget that many of the vocabulary guides on the market today are written by these same scholars. Their desire is good: they want to help us learn to read the Greek New Testament, so they come up with a methodology out of their scholarship. While such recourses are helpful, this does not necessarily represent how they learned the language (a great example of this is Mastering Greek Vocabulary by Thomas A. Robinson). This means that while it is presented as a method to learn the Greek vocabulary, it is not necessarily field tested or practical (though I am sure some will benefit from it).
Because we are not scholars, we need a methodology that is proven, and then to be ruthless to build our vocabulary using that method.
4. Retain What You Have Learned
Another reason to be ruthless to build your Greek vocabulary is to retain what you learn. One of the unfortunate effects of the fall is that our minds are not as capable as they were designed to be. This means we need to work hard to prevent memory decay from setting in. While I can often learn a new word and retain it a couple of hours later, I struggle to remember the same word a few days later. This is because while it is easy to add it to our short term memory, it takes work to get it into our long term memory.
Even things in our long term memory fade with disuse, so unless you are reading the entire Greek New Testament regularly (such as every three to six months), you are going to have to be ruthless to review words that you have learned so that they do not fade from memory.
There are few things more discouraging than looking at a word that you recognize, but cannot remember the glossary for. Though, perhaps having to resort to a dictionary to look up that word might be more discouraging.
To prevent forgetting what we have learned, we need to be ruthless to build (and even rebuild) our Greek vocabulary.
5. Do Not be a Statistic
Here is the big one. My experience indicates most people who want to learn to read the Greek New Testament fail because they do not take their vocabulary acquisition seriously. In other words, if we are not ruthless to build our Greek vocabulary, we are at high risk of becoming a statistic.
It is not even all that hard. Vocabulary review needs to become a habit that we engage in 2-3 times per day. When we start out, we are talking about 5 minutes, 3 times each day. Certainly, that time will grow as your vocabulary grows, but it will never be hours per day (unless you are using a tool like Memrise of course).
Think about that for a moment. If you are like most people, you would spend more than 5 minutes, 3 times a day on social media, reading blogs, or entertaining yourself with a movie or TV show(s). Just use some of that time for reviewing Greek vocabulary and you are set.
So, why do so many fail? Most people never achieve reading fluency because they cannot discipline themselves for even 15 minutes per day to start. The very fact that you are reading this article suggests you are smarter than that. Do not join the ranks of tens of thousands who want to learn to read the Greek New Testament but never do.
Be ruthless to build your Greek vocabulary.
Conclusion: Build Your Greek Vocabulary
A lack of commitment to ruthless, self-discipline means that many people simply will not be able to learn to read the Greek New Testament. We live in an instantaneous, self-expressing culture, which provides a myriad of distractions designed to keep us from doing what is worthwhile.
Many well-meaning believers, and even pastors, take the trade-offs offered by our culture rather than discipline themselves to learn the vocabulary necessary to be able to enjoy the richness of the Greek New Testament without the veil of a translation.