Conrad Comments on Smyth and Robertson

HT to Rod Decker for drawing attention to this comparison of the grammars of Smyth and Robertson from The Biblical Greek Forum:

Robertson’s work is focused fundamentally on the Greek of the New Testament, but each chapter begins with a careful survey of the history of the form and/or usage dealt with, setting forth the best of historical linguistic scholarship at the time of his writing, so that his discussion of NT Koine’s forms and usages is set in a deliberate and careful diachronic perspective. I think it is true that some of what Robertson wrote is “fuzzy” — which is to say, it does not give the quick and dirty answer to a question that the impatient student consulting ATR for a definitive solution to an immediate problem is looking for. ATR hems and haws about questions and sometimes offers a tentative view. I’d say that ATR is best read at leisure and a chapter at a time rather than consulted in quest of the solution to a problem arising in the reading of a particular text. ATR is hard to use as a reference grammar, even if it has nice indexes; it’s certainly easier to use in an electronic edition (especially the nicely-engineered and hyper-texted versions in software packages like Accordance and Logos), but it’s still an awkward work to consult for answers to very specific questions. I’d recommend ATR more for careful reading, chapter by chapter, for an overview of the language of the GNT as it has developed over the course of the history of the language, and I’d take note of the fact that it is dated in its view of some matters (some might consider that a virtue!). Smyth uses the traditional grammatical categories even when he objects to them (I’ve found plenty of evidence in his discussion of voice that supports my argument that we should drop the notion of deponency and understand middle and passive usage in different ways than those that have been taught for ages past).

ATR’s focus is the Koine Greek of the NT; his historical survey of older Greek forms and usage is intended to illuminate the distinct forms and usage of the NT Koine. Smyth’s grammar on the other hand focuses distinctly on Classical Attic Greek, but it adds notes explaining older Homeric forms and usages as well as variants in the dialects and even in Hellenistic Greek. I would not really call Smyth’s work “concise” in the most precise sense of that adjective, but Smyth is not “chatty” in the way that ATR is; Smyth states clearly and precisely what is most useful to understand about forms and usages and sets forth an immense array of information in an extraordinarily well-organized layout. It is rare that one comes across a statement in Smyth that is not lucid and properly nuanced and accompanied by notes regarding apparent exceptions. Moreover, the illustrative texts are well chosen and for each of them a version in excellent English phrasing is offered. Given that Smyth’s focus is on Classical Attic, it continues to be surprising how useful its information is to one researching forms and usage in Biblical Greek. Smyth is especially valuable when supplemented by BDF, a grammar which is almost useless to students of Biblical Greek who aren’t familiar with earlier Greek.

In sum, ATR is a book to read carefully to learn about the nature of the Biblical Greek language; it’s something a serious student of Biblical Greek should own and should read through, but it is not a handy reference book to consult when you encounter a puzzle in a Biblical Greek text that you’re reading, and if you attempt to consult it, you’ll have the devil of a time finding what ATR has to say about your puzzle. On the other hand, you can go to Smyth and quickly find out where to look in the superbly-organized table of contents and proceed immediately to information that answers your query immediately if not sooner — and if it doesn’t answer it, then the answer may not be found anywhere.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University (Retired)

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  1. Conrad is right-on when he says, “Smyth is especially valuable when supplemented by BDF, a grammar which is almost useless to students of Biblical Greek who aren’t familiar with earlier Greek.” Machen wrote, “The situation [ignorance of Attic Greek] is undoubtedly to be regretted, but its existence should not be ignored.” It seems like most teachers/professors have tried to overcome this problem by publishing books exclusively on the Greek of the NT (e.g., Wallace, Moulton, Machen, Mounce, etc). But my experience has been that once I wanted to read something outside the NT, I found myself ill-equipped. Even the LXX was too difficult for me. I’m not sure how to handle the problem. On the one hand it would be great to have students learn Attic Greek. But on the other hand it might disappoint a few students who are eager to read the Greek NT, if they must first read Xenophon or Plato.

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