Memorize 5,425 Greek words? That’s too much for anyone to memorize! Yet, that’s what it will take to know all the words of the New Testament in its original language.
Too Many Words
This was my concern when, as a seminary student, I began my first year of New Testament Greek. So I was greatly relieved when my professor told us that it wasn’t necessary, or even advisable, to learn all 5,425 words. Why? Because many of these words occur so infrequently they’re not worth the investment of time to memorize. For instance, of the 5,425 words of the Greek New Testament vocabulary, 1,941 occur only once.
They are referred to as Hapax legomena (the Greek words for “spoken once”). Another 839 occur only twice (Dis legomena or “twice spoken”), and another 468 occur only three times (Tris legomena or “thrice spoken”) in the Greek New Testament. So how many was I required to memorize? I had to memorize about 1,070 Greek words to be able to read the Greek New Testament with a fair amount of ease. These were the words that occurred ten times or more. By knowing them I could “glide along” in my reading, with a few bumps here and there of course.
But the principle behind mastering New Testament Greek vocabulary is the same as mastering life—Determine what is most important! Prioritize! Judge between what is essential and what is superfluous!
Fox TV began airing the popular show, “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?” in February 2007. On this show, adult contestants are pitted against the knowledge level of a 5th grader. They are tested in their ability to answer questions that come from various textbooks from 1st through 5th grade. The results are sometimes disturbing. Educated people, even medical doctors, fail to correctly answer 5th grade-level questions. But the results are misleading. What the 5th grader knows will help him pass a pop quiz and graduate into 6th grade. What the doctor knows will save lives. Medical doctors, as well as all successful adults, have to discern in life between what is essential knowledge and what is non-essential. They have sacrificed factoids to make room for wisdom.
An old CGSC (Command and General Staff College) instructor recently emailed a slide presentation to all his former students. The presentation was entitled, “Shift Happens.” (Please note, I said “Shift”). Its theme is summed up in the opening statement: “Sometimes size does matter.” The presentation suggests that there is a cause for great concern because of the massive shifts of power (measured in populations and information) in society.
Note some of its statements (and fallacies):
- “3,000 books are published—Daily” (But what the slide presentation didn’t say is that only a fraction are printed in English and probably 95% of them are not worth the paper they are printed on—so weigh what you read).
- “The amount of new technical information is doubling every 2 years” (Such is life with technical fields of study—therefore don’t over-value technical information and don’t under-value life-experience and wisdom)
- “Half of what college students learn in their first year of study will be outdated by their third year of study” (Therefore, do not neglect the wisdom and lessons that will never become obsolete or outdated: e.g. How to get along with others, how to find happiness, how to be content in both plenty and want, how to love and to find love).
The bottom line is this: Don’t worry about volume, amount, or size. Worry about quality, value, and importance. Wisdom is far more important than over-rated information. And “the beginning of wisdom,” the Scripture tells us, “is reverence for the Lord.” (Proverbs 1:7) In other words, the wisest starting point is to recognize that God exists, that we are dependent upon Him, and that the best course of action is to seek his guidance for our lives.
Dear Father in heaven, open my eyes and enlighten my understanding to know what is most important in life. Grant that I may spend my days on what matters most and exchange my time for what counts for eternity. Amen.