One of my initial summer goals was to read the entire New Testament in Greek using Dan Wallace’s suggested reading chart. Once summer started, reality got in the way! So this might be a side project for the next few years. Oops.
Still, what better place to start than with some of the shortest, linguistically simplest texts in the New Testament: the Johannine letters?
J. Klay Harrison and Chad M. Foster’s reader, 1-3 John: A General Reader, makes it easier to do that. They include the text of 1-3 John with running vocabulary and grammatical helps. They also include appendices on text-criticism of 1-3 John, vocabulary 50 or more times sorted by frequency and alphabetically, and paradigm charts. This reader is part of a series of books in Koine Greek education, AGROS, which aim to teach conversational Koine as well as textual and exegetical Koine. The series is a work in progress, and this was my first encounter with it.
If this book is any indication, AGROS is going to produce some useful texts. I really enjoyed using it! First, its choice of texts is good for a beginner. 1-3 John covers some heady theological content, yet its vocabulary is very small and its sentences very simple. Plus, the letters are short. So an intermediate reader of Greek can easily read them and feel the satisfaction of finishing three books of the New Testament. Harrison and Foster have done a superb job of parsing each verb and giving definitions of new words. Before each chapter, they place a list of new vocabulary, so if the reader wants to make flash cards they can.
However, there are a few ways this book could be better. First, I wish there was more exegetical help to make sense of what the Greek means. This book only helps with the linguistic aspect of the text. I used Raymond Brown’s The Gospel and Epistles of John: A Concise Commentary as a companion volume for the exegetical help and historical/literary background. Second, I didn’t care too much for the text-critical helps in this reader. As far as I know, most intermediate Greek classes don’t spend time on textual criticism, so why did Harrison and Foster put so much of that in? Still, they put the text-critical notes in an appendix at the end, so if you don’t want to use it, it’s easy to ignore. Third, there are some places that it would have been nice to have help with idioms. In 3 John 5, for example, the Greek text reads:
Ἀγαπητέ, πιστὸν ποιεῖς
The NAB in Brown’s commentary renders this “Beloved, you are faithful,” and the NRSV, “Beloved, you do faithfully.” So there’s an idiom here with ποιεῖς I was not familiar with. Oversights like this are uncommon and easy to correct.
What about the letters themselves? After all, this reading challenge is focused on Scripture itself, not just reviewing teaching aids.
- Raymond Brown argues that these letters were written by the Johannine school, perhaps by the same author who wrote the Gospel of John. He puts their composition between 90-100 CE, so toward the later end of New Testament texts. We see the same strong moral/spiritual dualism in these letters that we see in John, e.g. in 1 John 3:8-9.
- The main purpose of the letters seems to be addressing a schismatic group within the Johannine community, warning the community not to follow those teachers. Brown comments that perhaps this is an early form of the docetic or gnostic teaching, both ways of denying Christ’s humanity, a denial not too implausible if one reads John’s Gospel very selectively. For example, the author emphasizes the importance of observing one’s behavior to see if they are living a godly life (1 John 2:3-6) and discerning where the Spirit is at work (1 John 4:1). He seems to imply that these false teachers neither live according to the commandments nor have the Spirit at work among them.
For me, these weren’t the most interesting books of Scripture. And it is painfully obvious by now that I’m not going to finish my summer reading challenge, I am definitely keeping it on tap for next summer. One way or another, I will read these books.
Onward and upward!