A Shepherd and His Greek New Testament

As an aspiring student of the original languages of the Bible I always find stories and quotes of theologians who have studied the biblical languages before us encouraging (and sometimes disheartening!). It seems that in today’s age with all the various resources and avenues of learning students should be learning the languages at an exponential rate. Sadly, the exact opposite is the case. In the preface of the 3rd edition to his Grammar of the Greek New Testament in Light of Historical Research, AT Robertson says, “The Greek New Testament is the New Testament, all else is translation.”[1] He then goes on to tell the story of a young shepherd boy who taught himself Greek without the aid of a grammar. Let this be an encouragement to all of us, if a young shepherd can have the diligence and patience to learn the language of the New Testament without aid let us all make the most of our time in our studies when we have access to the best resources at our fingertips.[2]

At the age of sixteen John Brown, of Haddington, startled a bookseller by asking for a copy of the Greek Testament. He was barefooted and clad in ragged homespun clothes. He was a shepherd boy from the hills of Scotland. “What would you do with that book?” a professor scornfully asked. “I’ll try to read it,” the lad replied, and proceeded to read off a passage in the Gospel of John. He went off in triumph with the coveted prize, but the story spread that he was a wizard and had learned Greek by the black art. He was actually arraigned for witchcraft, but in 1746 the elders and deacons at Abernethy gave him a vote of acquittal, though the minister would not sign it. His letter of defence, Sir W. Robertson Nicoll says (The British Weekly, Oct. 3, 1918), “deserves to be reckoned among the memorable letters of the world.” John Brown became a divinity student and finally professor of divinity. In the chapel at Mansfield College, Oxford, Brown’s figure ranks with those of Doddridge, Fry, Chalmers, Vinet, Schleiermacher. He had taught himself Greek while herding his sheep, and he did it without a grammar. Surely young John Brown of Haddington should forever put to shame those theological students and busy pastors who neglect the Greek Testament, though teacher, grammar, lexicon are at their disposal.


  1. Robertson, A. T. A Grammar of Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research. Modern. B&H Academic, 1947, xix  ↩

  2. For example Robertson’s grammar can be found for free in PDF form. Though it may be slightly out of date it is still used for its insights. In Robertson’s day it was seen as an extremely valuable book but it came with a price.  ↩

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