Memorizing vocabulary is essential if you want to develop proficient reading ability in the Greek New Testament. No matter how well you know the Greek morphology and syntax, you will never be able to quickly read through the New Testament unless you know what the words mean. It’s as simple as that. You’ll spend all your time looking up words in a Greek lexicon. Even with Bible software, this is a time-consuming process.
Here’s some advice. Make sure you actually enjoy reading your Greek New Testament by spending time upfront committing the vocab to memory. Once you get down the basics of pronunciation, you can begin learning vocab words. Although it takes time and discipline, learning the vocabulary is one of the most controllable aspects of learning Biblical Greek. It is controllable, because anyone can do it with daily study. You’re in the driver seat. As you learn more words, the language comes alive and reading your Greek New Testament becomes quite enjoyable.
Since the goal is to help you read the Greek New Testament, we can be very strategic in how we approach what words to memorize.
Of 138,607 total words in the Greek New Testament (don’t panic), there are roughly 5,394 total unique words. Of these unique words, the vast majority of them only occur a few times, while some occur hundreds of times. The key to memorizing vocabulary is beginning with the most frequent words first, and only then moving on to the less frequent words. Eventually, you’ll be able to recognize enough words that you can infer the meaning of the remaining based on the context.
Here’s the breakdown. This chart tells us, for example, that a total of 64 words occur 100 times or more in the NT. Altogether, these unique 64 words account for 84,330 total words in the NT, or 61% of the NT. If you memorize down to 10x, you’ll know 92% of the NT.
(Click on image for a larger image, or download the chart in Excel)
If you want be competent at reading the NT, I suggest trying to memorize through words that occur at least 10 times (a total of 1,126 words). To start, a good initial beginning goal is through 25x frequency (545 words). This is a lot compared to what you’re required to do in most beginning Greek classes, but it’s foundational to developing a basic reading ability. To truly feel comfortable and proficient reading the NT, I would suggest memorizing through 5x frequency (1,863 words), which will cover roughly 96% of all word occurrences in the NT. This threshold will allow you to infer the meaning of many unknown words you come across based purely on the context.
If at all possible, review your vocabulary words every day. Try to memorize new words every week, while consistently maintaining your previously memorized words. An attainable goal is 25 words per week. If you’re really ambitious, go for 50 words a week. That’s 10 words per day with a weekend break for just review. Again, the key here is consistency. You do not need to “memorize” so many words that you immediately forget them all.
The hardest words to memorize are the very first words. Many of the most frequent words you’ll first study are those little abstract words like conjunctions, prepositions, articles, and so forth. Not only this, but you haven’t become proficient in pronunciation, which only makes things even more difficult.
Despite this initial pain, don’t give up. Your brain will adapt. The more words you memorize, the easier it’ll become. When you have several hundred words under your belt, you’ll start to recognize common prefixes and roots. You’ll be able to memorize and retain words much easier, so keep at it.
NT Greek Vocabulary Cards & Programs
Now that you understand the process, you’ll need to either buy or make your own cards. I recommend you buy a set of NT Greek flashcards for the first 1,000 words, and then create your own flashcards for the remainder words with lower frequency.
There are two flashcard packs available for purchase that I am aware of, Basics of Biblical Greek Vocabulary Set by Zondervan and Biblical Greek Vocabulary Cards by VIS Ed. I would suggest the Zondervan set, as it has more features, such as providing the principal parts for verbs.
Bill Mounce has a free computer program on his website called Flashworks that has 1,127 of the most frequent NT Greek vocab words for review (it also has a Hebrew vocab list). This will allow you to drill vocab on your computer, or simply get your feet wet before you decide to buy a vocab pack.
If you want to memorize more than 1,000 words, you’ll have to make your own or use a computer program. If you want to make your own flash cards, download this handy Excel list of all Greek NT vocab words with their corresponding frequency (vocab list based on a free Excel vocab program available here). Just filter on the particular frequency you want to memorize, and you have all the words you need with their definitions. Buy some card stock, and start making your own cards by hand.
If you’re interested in just using software/online program to memorize, here’s an online option. Alternatively, this downloadable Excel file has built-in vocabulary program with vocab words from the entire NT.
Regardless of what tools you use, learning NT Greek vocab is completely manageable. There’s no magic formula, you just have to start doing it. Of course, if you want to read the New Testament, you can’t limit yourself to memorizing vocabulary. The words really stick in your mind when you begin to attempt reading through the New Testament. Instead, of just having random definitions in your mind, you’ll understand how the words are used in context. This, of course, will only reinforce you vocabulary acquisition.
Hope this post is helpful to you. If you have any questions, feel free to comment below and I’ll help you out as best I can.
Now that you understand the ins and outs of learning NT Greek vocabulary, why don’t you check out my other posts to help you read the New Testament in its original language?
Teach Yourself Biblical Greek Series:
- Teach Yourself Biblical Greek: Introducing the Process
- Choosing an Introductory Greek Grammar
- What Greek New Testament Should I Get?
- Memorize the Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament
- Koine Greek Pronunciation and Greek NT Audio Recordings