A Patristic Greek Reader

By Rodney A. Whitacre
Peabody, Mass : Hendrickson (2007). xxiv + 279 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Kelly Osborne
21.2 (Fall 2010) : 264-266

Here is a true gem in a paperback binding and at a reasonable price! Someone might object that more than $30, tax included, for a less than 300 page book is no bargain. Normally, this reviewer would agree with the critic of such commercial cost, but not in this case. Rodney A. Whitacre is Professor of Biblical Studies, specializing in New Testament, at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, has written and edited a work which provides for every student of the ancient Greek language (who has progressed beyond first year) direct, guided, and useful access to a goodly number of excerpts carefully culled from some of the leading lights in patristic Greek literary firmament. In so doing, Prof. Whitacre (hereafter RW) has rendered a profound service, yes, even a blessing, to all who wish or need to venture beyond the confines of the Greek NT in their effort to become acquainted with key figures in church history, the history of Christian doctrines, or the development of the Greek language.

After a Table of Contents (v-viii) offering a tantalizing glimpse of what is to come, a somewhat autobiographical Preface (ix-x) is followed by three pages of Abbreviations (xi-xiii). The abbreviations are absolutely indispensible for anyone not familiar with the typical scholarly and, of course, (Greek) grammatical usages, or secondary literature, such as grammars and lexicons, whose notations appear on virtually every page of the Greek texts. In a succinct Introduction RW has several sections describing the book’s goals, the meaning of the word “Patristic,” suggestions for how to approach reading the Fathers. He also explains how to use the notes which accompany each of the readings, and then offers suggestions for using the Reader—capitalized to distinguish from a reader of the book—and for bibliography leading to further readings in the Fathers (xv-xxiv).

Page one begins Part I, Greek Texts and Notes, with a one- to two-page introduction for each author or work, starting not surprisingly with the Didache. The fifteen introductions give a little historical background to the work and/or author, a summary of some of the content or themes of the whole work from which the excerpts are taken and a bibliographic entry of the specific edition used as the source. In the case of the Didache, for example, RW used a 2004 reprint of the 1891 edition J. B. Lightfoot’s The Apostolic Fathers (4). A feature instructors will find particularly helpful ends each introduction, namely, an entry indicating the level of difficulty. For the Didache, it is listed as “Easy [1]” (4), which indeed it is as compared to Clement of Alexandria, specified as “Upper intermediate to advanced [3-5]” (100). Immediately after each author/work introduction comes the Greek text, filling about the top 1/4 to 1/3 of each page with a dividing line below the last line of Greek to separate it clearly from the notes which take up the rest of the page. The notes contain much useful information including at times the specific page and/or section number from standard NT and classical lexicons and grammars, such as BDAG or Smyth’s grammar for pre-Hellenistic Greek. The amount of information in the notes will be more or less useful depending on the expertise of the individual reader. This means that an advanced student or an instructor could read longer sections relatively quickly, while less experienced students or readers whose Greek has become “rusty” with disuse will depend heavily on all of the information, and may at times even need more. The overall effect is that much of the drudgery of constantly looking up words, either in a lexicon or a thesaurus at the back of the book has been eliminated. The downside to this feature is that any benefit one can derive from the constant discipline of looking words up the old-fashioned way is also removed. On the other hand, the best way to learn any language is to use it a lot, which the notes encourage by allowing one to read more of the text more quickly, without giving up understanding. In other words, the Reader is designed to “help increase their [i.e., the students’] fluency in reading Greek” (xv).

The readings begin chronologically with the Didache (A.D. 70-150; 5-24) and end with Symeon the New Theologian (A.D. 949-1022; 189-93), so covering the first millennium of Christianity, obviously with an eastern flavor, since Greek continued as a living language only in the eastern part of the Roman empire, as it metamorphosed into what we now refer to as the Byzantine empire. Universally known names are here, like Clement of Rome (25-33), Justin Martyr (69-78), Eusebius of Caesarea (109-15), Gregory of Nazianzus (139-55), and John Chrysostom (167-74), but less well known (to Protestant evangelicals perhaps) writers or works are also. The previously mentioned Symeon, Melito of Sardis (79- 98), some of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (157-66)and Hesychios the Priest (175- 186) fit into this latter category. Readings have been chosen for their inherent historical or theological interest, and writing as one who was trained dealing with the church fathers only in translation, this reviewer found it absolutely delightful to read Athanasius’s treatment of the purpose of the Incarnation (121-24). Just as when reading Scripture in translation something significant is often lost, it is the same for these patristic works. RW cites no less a Christian literary figure (of more recent times) than C. S. Lewis to the effect that when he (Lewis) read the De Incarnatione of Athanasius, he immediately recognized it as a masterpiece, apparently on both a literary and theological level (117).

Part II is entitled Translations of All Texts and contains RW’s own fairly literal translation of each of the excerpts (197-260). When one is faced with very challenging Greek constructions in places, these can prove very useful as a means of confirmation or correction of one’s own translation.

Appendix A gives a vocabulary listing of all the Greek words occurring fifty times or more in the NT (261-68). This is because RW assumes readers know these words from their study of first-year Greek, but he recognizes that these can be forgotten! This additional feature can thus make the Reader a stand-alone textbook, although one does occasionally need to consult a lexicon in order to correct an error, e.g., the word metiontes (108), which though indicated to be from the verb meteimi = I am among, is actually from meteimi = to go after (cf. LSJ, 1119, s.v., II.2.b, where the precise form found in Clement’s Miscellanies is listed).

The next Appendix (B, 269-70) includes the most irregular principal-part forms for verbs appearing in Appendix A, while a third (Appendix C; 271) lists all of the excerpts in order of their level of difficulty, another feature particularly helpful for instructors or students working independently. A bibliography (273-79) divided into sections finishes the book and sets forth in one place all the Greek Resources cited, as well as the editions used for each section of Greek text.

Since this is a text designed to introduce the reader to the fathers of the Greek-speaking church and to help students of the language improve their Greek skills, this reviewer would like to give a standing ovation to the author-editor of the work. He has succeeded more than admirably on both counts. The caution to keep in mind is one that discerning, Bible-believing Christians must always carry with them in all aspects of life. Statements about theology or doctrines by these patristic writers must always be compared with and evaluated in the light of Scripture rightly interpreted. One cannot assume that the fathers have always properly understood the biblical texts, or even that because a writer is very good on, e.g., the Incarnation, he is therefore equally reliable on all aspects thereof or on other topics or passages of Scripture.

Apart from this caution and some minor quibbles about accuracy of parsing here and there, or formatting of the Greek font (cf. the first word on 67), it is a distinct pleasure for me to be able to commend this book to its intended audience in the strongest possible terms. Thank you, Prof. Whitacre, for bestowing this gift on the Greek-reading public, students, and instructors alike!