One of the best things I did as an undergraduate was minor in New Testament Greek. By taking a course in Greek each semester, I learned the discipline of studying an ancient language and how to read and translate the Bible. My teachers all taught their subject with skill and diligence (and patience).
The odd thing about studying biblical Greek, as opposed to studying classical Greek, is that I learned to interpret Greek, not to read it. I mean that my education emphasized the intensive exegesis of a particular text rather than the extensive reading of texts. A typical semester course covered Romans (7,111 words in Greek), whereas a course in classical Greek might cover the Iliad (c. 100,000 words in Greek). The emphasis on exegesis is entirely defensible, given that the study of the New Testament was the entire point of the curriculum.
Still, in looking back I’m surprised not that the emphasis was on exegesis, but that that emphasis was exclusive. I don’t recall studying a single passage from the Septuagint, or the apostolic fathers, or any other work in the vast corpus of Christian Greek writing, let alone the pagan classics. Besides the value of those texts in their own right, surely knowledge of them is helpful for a better understanding of New Testament Greek. Let me make an analogy. Suppose that English was not your native language, and that the only work in English you ever read was the King James Bible. Could you really say that you knew how to read English? For that matter, how well would you be able to read the English Bible without knowing anything of the vast number of texts surrounding it? My point is not that that Greek education in seminaries is fundamentally flawed, but that some of its weaknesses could be corrected by also teaching students to read other Christian texts in Greek.
Fortunately there is an excellent book on how to read the church fathers in Greek, Rodney A. Whitacre’s A Patristic Greek Reader (Hendrickson, 2007). The heart of Whitacre’s book is a surprisingly wide-ranging collection of excerpts from the Greek fathers: the Didache, the apostolic fathers, Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius, Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, and others. An affordable collection of Greek texts of this scope would be accomplishment enough.
But the real strength of the book are the aids to help you learn patristic Greek. An appendix offers a complete translation of each of the texts, so that you can check your translations. Footnotes to each text give definitions and parsings for each word used fewer than 50 times in the New Testament. (Users of the UBS Greek New Testament: Reader’s Edition or Goodrich and Lukaszewski’s A Reader’s Greek New Testament will be familiar with the format.) Each of the texts comes with a helpful introduction, and the texts are ranked in order of difficulty.
The difficulty of these texts (at least the beginning and intermediate ones) is no more challenging than most passages of the New Testament. Whitacre writes that the book is intended for someone who has completed one year of Greek courses. Consider these two verses from the Didache (9.1–2) about the Eucharist:1
Περὶ δὲ τῆς εὐχαριστίας, οὕτως εὐχαριστήσατε· 2. πρῶτον περὶ τοῦ ποτηρίον· Εὐχαριστοῦμεν σοι, πάτερ ἡμῶν, ὑπὲρ τῆς ἁγίας ἀμπέλον Δαυεὶδ τοῦ παιδός σου· σοὶ ἡ δόξα εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας.
(My translation): Concerning the Eucharist, thus you should give thanks. First for the cup, “We thank you, our Father, for the holy vine of David your servant; to you be glory forever.”
Keep in mind that the excerpt above does not include Whitacre’s helps. That passage is as easy as any in Mark or 1 John, which I was taught in my first year of Greek. Of course, some of the texts in this book are fiendishly difficult, but we all need a challenge.
People who are joining Read the Fathers but who do not know Greek should not be discouraged by this post. If Christians read the Bible in the vernacular, surely we can read the fathers in the vernacular. But I suspect that a large number of people who are taking up this reading project have some Greek, and I encourage you to broaden your ability to read Greek by trying your hand at the fathers contained in Whitacre’s collection.
If you want another way to begin reading the Greek fathers, I recommend that you pick up a copy of Michael W. Holmes’s The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations (3rd rev. ed., Baker, 2007). Available in a beautiful diglot edition, Holmes’s work is a great source for both a critical text of the apostolic fathers and a readable English translation. The Greek of the apostolic fathers is sufficiently close to the New Testament that you can use BDAG (which is after all, a lexicon of the New Testament and ‘other early Christian literature’.
And as a bonus, our reading plan begins with the apostolic fathers!