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Is It Greek Pedagogy, Learning Skills, or Something Else

Is It Greek Pedagogy, Learning Skills, or Something Else

These discussions seem to come up all the time about learning Greek, but the discussion also applies to Hebrew. How one can imagine it’s critically important to learn Greek if one is to preach or teach, but not so much to learn Hebrew, I don’t know. But the degree requirements of various colleges and seminaries reflect just such an attitude.

That said, I want to make some comments about learning and teaching, but more importantly about goals. Thomas Hudgins has written a good deal about this in a recent post, and he posted some material from Dave Black, which provides me a good link for that as well. Both make some excellent comments on pedagogy and what those of us who teach need from the students.

On the use of the word “we,” I want to note that my role as teacher is vastly different from Dave’s or Thomas’s. I tutored Greek as a student in graduate school, helping Master of Divinity students get ready for tests. And that was indeed what it was: Getting them ready for the test. None had patience for letting me help them comprehend the subject better. They wanted to make sure they had memorized enough answers to get by on the test. Since then I have occasionally offered classes in the local church or tutored individuals who were trying to learn. The key element here is that people came to these classes because they had a goal, and they pursued the goal.

And this is why I think we need to look at two other things. I used “learning skills” in the title, but what I really mean is the art and practice of being a student. There’s probably a perfectly good word for it, but short of suggesting you be a good talmid, I can’t bring it to mind. But beyond learning skills there’s motivation, and behind motivation there’s purpose, or perhaps mission.

That leads me back to graduate school and my graduate advisor, Dr. Leona Glidden Running. I was truly blessed to have Dr. Running as a teacher and advisor. I learned enormous amounts from her in classes in Syriac (which I audited), Akkadian, and Middle Egyptian. From the list of languages you can see that I had the motivation for learning languages. Thus I learned from good teachers and some whose pedagogy may have lacked a bit.

It was also Dr. Running who got me into tutoring and sent her students to me for help in both Greek and Hebrew. The problem with tutoring points me to what I think is a problem in ministerial education: Students going through language courses in order to check a box. We’re often fairly good at ditching traditions in Protestantism. Just look at the reformation! But folks, that was 500 years ago. What traditions have you ditched lately?

What I encountered were students who were studying Greek because it was required for the degree, some of whom had been told by ministerial advisers, mentors, and church leaders that the only reason they should learn Greek was to get their degree, and most of whom would serve churches that didn’t care what biblical languages they might have learned. Is it any wonder that they just wanted me to help them through the test? I can’t count the number of times I was called within hours of the test, or late on a Friday afternoon or even working into Saturday with desperate pleas for that help. At this time I was a Seventh-day Adventist and I took my Sabbath seriously. (I’ve recently commented that it’s one thing from my SDA background that I really miss.) But these ministerial students who were supposed to be preparing to shepherd people in that tradition, were quite ready to ditch their Sabbath rest to get past the test.

I know from reading what others have said that while the details may differ, the attitude is quite similar. Some seminaries have given up on the languages as a requirement. Often those seminaries are ones that have reduced the entire biblical studies requirement to a minimum. So study of biblical languages goes the way of Bible study, and it all happens without that much planning.

So speaking as someone who thinks biblical knowledge is critical, let me suggest that we need to reexamine this entire process. What is a Master of Divinity degree for? What are our goals? Within that, what are the goals for knowledge of the Bible? Of biblical languages? Once we know what we need—and want—then we need to ask how we get it. Forcing students to take one or two (or whatever number) of semesters of Greek and/or Hebrew doesn’t accomplish anyone’s ultimate goal, at least anyone I know of. Nobody actually hopes that the student will pay tuition, check off a box, and leave with no knowledge that he or she will use (except possibly the university finance department).

I don’t know about other biblical languages classes, but my teachers taught with the goal of having us learn to read the language. They knew they were only going to accomplish that in a few cases, but they still worked toward that goal. If the assumption of everyone else is that the student will not, in fact, learn the language, then we need to do something about that. That isn’t something that a Greek teacher can fix. He or she can try to motivate more students, to provide as much useful information as possible, but that all constitutes making the best of a bad situation.

Amongst the possibilities that should be considered are requirements for additional classes in history, cultures, people (sociology/psychology), linguistics, or other topics that helps a person understand a written text. Perhaps, in addition, one might include classes specifically in taking complex ideas and expressing them clearly and simply (to whatever extent possible). Then we can aim the biblical languages classes at people who do actually want to learn to use the material.

I have to put in my ritual dig at the whole educational system. I think that in the 21st century world the degree system is getting more and more out of date. Something more like the badges system that the Mozilla Foundation is sponsoring may be at least an early pointer toward a replacement. But that moves beyond this post …

In summary, in languages as in anything else, we need to keep our focus on the mission. That starts with knowing what the mission is.

And we don’t.

Similar and Different

Similar and Different

Dave Black has been posting some interesting things on his blog, and yesterday he wrote a bit about Greek and Hebrew language and culture. I’ve put this on to provide a permanent link. Here’s the bottom line:

The bottom line: I think it’s a bit misleading to insist that grammar and thought are inherently related. There are just too many philosophical difficulties inherent in any theory of mental representations.

He’s absolutely right. I think it’s difficult to get this sort of thing balanced because of two problems. First, there is a relationship between the forms of language an the culture that speaks it, and second, we like to find a theory that settles everything. So the New Testament must be either all Hebrew or all Greek in thought. Why? Because it’s easier to handle. If I know that the background must be Hebrew, then every time someone uses a background from Greek philosophy in interpreting a passage, I can declare them wrong and come up with one final and absolute answer.

In fact, it’s necessary to check many things. Take Hebrews and “shadows of heavenly things,” for example. Is this an idea based on Plato’s philosophy, or do we adjust it to fit better into some idea of Hebrew thought? Perhaps we need to consider the possibility that the author of Hebrews actually has his own view of the relationship between earthly shadows and heavenly realities, and that it doesn’t derive entirely from the background.

Which leads be to an aside. One thing that can suffer when we study the background of thought in order to categorize it, is that we can miss the original thought of an author. But we also need to balance that against the soil in which the thought germinated. There’s probably a reason that an author chooses specific words from those available to him in order to express his original thought.

Similarly, we have the word hilasterion which either occurs or is closely related to words that occur in other Greek literature and is used in the LXX to translate some specific Hebrew terms. So when it’s used in Hebrews do we import the meaning of kapporeth, do we seek for meaning in its usage in Greek, do we spend our time on it’s etymology in Greek (surely an interesting subject!), or do we look strictly at its context in Hebrews?

I’d suggest that we’re going to do some of all of the above, because it’s likely that the author of Hebrews was acquainted with all of that material. He was skilled in Greek, he was acquainted with the LXX, and he was capable of original thought and composition. The final arbiter needs to be the context of his specific usage, but all those other elements form the soil from which that particular meaning is nourished.

I doubt that very many of those who argue the different positions really deny the role of other options. They just sound like they do as the press a theory. Sometimes, however, the main reason to press a theory is that it is distinctive and thus identifiable as our work. I recall hearing a sermon in which the preacher started by saying that he would show us how everyone got the story of the prodigal son wrong. He proceeded to present some good thoughts, though they were not nearly as revolutionary as his opening statement. He denied some other ideas, though his presentation had hardly made it clear that those ideas were wrong. After the sermon concluded, many people left talking about how they had been so enlightened by hearing the “real” meaning of the parable.

I would have said, instead, that they had heard an interesting interpretation of the parable, one with some considerable value, yet neither so original, nor so revolutionary, nor so exclusive as everyone thought. I had to wonder, however, if things had been stated in my preferred way, with “one option for understanding” and “maybe we should consider” and “different understandings are possible” strewn about in the sermon.

When we’re making a point, the temptation is to present all the evidence in favor of our viewpoint and try to downplay the things that are not in agreement. I encountered this in comparative literature. You could find those who thought that Genesis 1 & 2 were clearly copied from the Sumerian and Babylonian stories, and others who thought they were so different that they were clearly unrelated. The fact is that if you get to choose your elements you can make them appear to be very close or very distant. I’d suggest that the reality is that there is a relationship (I suggested in my work for my MA that this was one of sharing cosmological language more than one of literary borrowing/copying).

Similarly I’ve mentioned the etymological fallacy a number of times on this blog. The idea that a word’s meaning is determined by etymology is a fallacy. But I’ve invented the anti-etymological fallacy to go with that. That’s the opposite error which assumes that any use of etymology in determining the meaning of a word is a fallacy. Determines, no. May have some relationship, yes. Thus I’m certain to look at hilasmos and hilaskomai (amongst others) when studying hilasterion. How much help do I get from etymology? That depends on the particular word, and the circumstances of its use.

The pursuit of absolute and certain answers can tempt us to invent them when they don’t exist. It’s nice to settle back comfortably knowing that all words in the Greek New Testament should be understood as expressions of Hebrew thought. One can discard so many thick, multi-volume sets of references, and certainly one doesn’t need to read all those difficult classical Greek quotes to get ideas of the usage of the word. But comfortable and right are not the same thing.

I can think of so many applications of this that I’d better just stop!

The Importance of Breaking Rules of Style

The Importance of Breaking Rules of Style

When I was in the Air Force, I submitted a performance report on someone I supervised. The lieutenant who was the next person to endorse the report returned it to me, informing me that I shouldn’t use the passive voice so much. Problem was, I hadn’t used a single passive clause in the report. What the lieutenant didn’t like was my use of the perfect tense. He wanted to get rid of “has” and “have” because he’d heard they shouldn’t be there. And the fact is that my report did overdo the use of the perfect tense so I fixed it.

What I’ve found as an editor, besides my inability to properly edit my own work, is that the writing style people use is often the result of a number of rules of thumb they learned in High School English class. They don’t understand the rules, but they cling to them, because that’s what they know. They’re afraid of being wrong and looking uneducated. I often suggest to authors to make their written style closer to their spoken style. It’s natural to get a bit more formal when writing, but don’t overdo it.

My intention in writing this, however, is not to give advice about writing, but rather about reading and understanding.The value of a passive verb is in emphasizing something in a more subtle way than with bold print, an exclamation mark, or other more blatant approaches. It’s important to understand the way things are usually done so you can feel it when they’re done differently. In your native tongue this is automatic for most of us, though some people are more aware than others of the subtleties possible with language.

This is very important for those who study the Bible in the original languages. We still have a tendency to make exegesis a series of word studies, but the way the words are put together is extremely important. That’s why I emphasize reading quantities of a foreign language. There are many theories about the way to learn a language. I’m not going to jump on any one bandwagon except to say that one needs to have exposure to a large body of text in the language written by those who are proficient.

Modern tools provide many excellent opportunities to do this. Take as many of those opportunities as you can!

(For an example, see Dave Black’s notes on 3 John from 12/27/2016.)

Greek and Ministry

Greek and Ministry

Thomas Hudgins is teaching Greek, and he thinks students should study with the intention of actually using their Greek in ministry (HT: Dave Black).

I’m delighted to see more and more effort put into this type of teaching. I was very frustrated as a graduate student when I saw how students in the MDiv program were merely trying to get by in their Greek course. The structure of their course work helped foster this particular attitude, because basic Greek was largely an effort to get enough knowledge of the basic vocabulary and grammar to slip through the test so Greek could be ignored from there on. The same applied to Hebrew.

Since my undergraduate degree was in Biblical Languages, and I was in the academic MA program rather than the MDiv program, I got tapped to help tutor Greek students. (My undergraduate program involved the equivalent of five years of Greek, with two year-long courses taken simultaneously, as well as textual criticism.) These students would try to catch me a few hours before their tests so I could drill them on the things they would have to regurgitate on a test paper. They had no patience for any of my efforts to help them understand the material.

Starting with a mastery of grammar actually works well for me. I learn languages fairly easily, but more importantly, I was already convinced of the value before I started my first Greek class, and I was willing to put in the effort necessary to learn the language well enough so I could use it. But for someone who is not planning to specialize, the focus needs to be a bit different.

One of the major differences is simply attitude, both on the part of teacher and of student. Are we acquiring data in order to check off a box on our list of requirements, or are we acquiring a tool?

I think linguistic concepts should be introduced right at the beginning. How does language work? Why do you have a hard time with pronouncing certain sounds? How does etymology help you learn vocabulary, and how can that in turn lead you astray? How can you study deeply, yet share with the people in the pews or in Sunday School classes in a way that is accessible?

I like Dr. Hudgins’ approach and his brochure. I’m sure his students will be blessed. As Dave said, may his tribe increase!

Dave Black (and Charles King) on Greek Teaching Methods

Dave Black (and Charles King) on Greek Teaching Methods

Dave Black notes the following:

9:04 AM This morning Kyle Davis, one of my teaching assistants, sent me a link to this excellent essay: The Method of Teaching New Testament Greek (.pdf). On the several takeaways I got from reading it, this one is perhaps the most important:

Extensive memorization produces improved strategies for memorization, but does not increase the ability to memorize. If the learner implements higher order learning patterns, learning becomes easier and more effective.

Amen and amen! This is one reason I have reduced memorization to an absolute minimum in my own beginning grammar, Learn to Read New Testament Greek, and instead focus on teaching students basic principles of noun and verb morphology. Once you understand how language works, that information will stick with you a lot longer than had you simply memorized a long list of paradigms.

So grateful for colleagues who teach Greek and who are open to newer methods of pedagogy and linguistic approaches to the language. Why make the subject any more difficult than it already is?

My own experience is somewhat different than either Dave’s or that of the article author, as I’ve never taught a required Greek course. I did encounter students in required courses in both Greek and Hebrew when I was in graduate school. I had the recommendation of the professor as a tutor, and was frequently sought out in the hours before a test came up, which was normally too late for me to be of much help.

Since then I have frequently taught either individual students or small groups, but for the most part these were people who really wanted Greek or Hebrew in order to make use of it.

What does especially resonate with me from the cited article is the note about memorization. I grew up on memorization. We memorized extensive passages of scripture from the KJV in school. For example, I have recited Psalm 119 at one sitting, word perfect. That memorization didn’t make me a better memorizer. What helped me with learning was the simple process of consistently trying to understand what was going on and then fix it in memory through those relationships. Thus learning a system and then memorizing the minimum necessary makes great sense to me. It has made sense to my students as well.

I am also a firm believer in reading quantities of text in the source language. I was introduced to reader’s grammars by Dr. Sakae Kubo, who edited an early edition for Greek, and I consider them a wonderful tool. Computer based tools replace them for many, but I still need to sit down at a desk from time to time in order to study. I don’t use such tools much now, but I do still have them on my shelves.

The one item on which I’d disagree is on the value of translating English into Greek or Hebrew. I don’t push it a great deal, but several of my students have testified that it was helpful in fixing vocabulary in their memory.

Error Overload

Error Overload

Ken Schenck has published another find the errors audio. This is really an amazing piece of interpretation and is well worth listening to, just because you might not believe anyone would do it if you don’t hear it for yourself.

It needs no comment beyond what Ken already posted. Note that errors can be committed more than once …

John Wesley on Biblical Languages

John Wesley on Biblical Languages

Do I understand Greek and Hebrew? Otherwise, how can I undertake, as every Minister does, not only to explain books which are written therein but to defend them against all opponents? Am I not at the mercy of everyone who does understand, or even pretends to understand, the original? For which way can I confute his pretense? Do I understand the language of the Old Testament? critically? at all? Can I read into English one of David’s Psalms, or even the first chapter of Genesis? Do I understand the language of the New Testament? Am I a critical master of it? Have I enough of it even to read into English the first chapter of St. Luke? If not, how many years did I spend at school? How many at the University? And what was I doing all those years? Ought not shame to cover my face?”

John Wesley, “An Address to the Clergy,” in Works X:491. (HT: The Biblical World)

I would add that I was very glad that I already had my basic biblical languages at the undergraduate level, because that meant I was able to spend my time in graduate school doing exegesis and advanced language study. I felt that learning the basics of Greek or Hebrew from those professors would have meant wasting some of the precious time I had to learn from them.


Every Christian a Theologian – an Equivocation

Every Christian a Theologian – an Equivocation

I am not a theologian. On the occasions when I say this I have an important reason for saying so. Not infrequently, I thus make myself the target of a quote from Karl Barth:

Therefore, every Christian as such is also called to be a theologian.

It is interesting that nobody has ever quoted the next few lines, which it seems to me they would:

How much more so those who are specially commissioned in the community, whose service is preeminently concerned with speech in the narrower sense of the term (extracted unceremoniously from Karl Barth, “Evangelical Theology: An Introduction,” 40-1)!

(In searching for the source of this quote, which I’d forgotten, I found this post, which makes some excellent points based on the Barth quote. I have extracted the two snippets above from that site.)

Now I don’t disagree with Karl Barth’s comments on this issue, but I do disagree with the way in which the quote is often used.

Let me give an example from my own field–languages, specifically biblical languages. There are people who have an interest in languages. There are those who have an interest in linguistics, and who actually discuss the forms of their language or dig into details of semantics. Then there are those who make a professional study of such things.

I could make an excellent case, I think, for the claim that everybody is a linguist. We all have to communicate. We all have to deal with meaning. Thus, we all deal with semantics, whether we use that label or not. But quite frequently I will hear someone say, “That’s just semantics!” Well, if we’re dealing with an utterance intended to convey meaning, any discussion of what was meant is a discussion of semantics.

So I think it’s silly to say that a particular issue of meaning is “just semantics.” Similarly, you will, as Barth notes, hear Christians, including preachers, putting down the idea of theology, as though one can be a follower of Christ without thinking about God, or as though in thinking about God one can afford to be careless.

Yet just because someone does a bit of thinking about semantics, or grammatical forms, or phonology, doesn’t mean I’ll call that person a linguist. I studied biblical languages both for my undergraduate degree and then for my MA. I took either a year, or at least a concentrated quarter that was advertised as equivalent to a year, in 11 languages. In several languages I took much more than that. But I don’t call myself a linguist except in a very narrow sense.

Why? Because there is a difference in learning a number of languages, and in learning and thinking about the nature and structure of language. I’ve taken a number of graduate courses in linguistics, and I can tell you that while the two types of study interrelate, they are not the same thing.

Similarly, my own training is in biblical languages, not theology. I do not mean that I have never encountered theology, or that I don’t think about theology. Nor do I mean that there is no theology involved when I teach. In fact, I am generally very concerned to check my theological statements more carefully, for the very good reason that I am not a theologian.

I took an undergraduate minor in religion, but almost all of my courses there were in biblical studies. In graduate school, while my concentration for the MA in Religion was Biblical and Cognate Languages, I was required to take a certain number of hours in departments other than those in my concentration. So I took church history, in the form of a class in patristic Latin. Not to mention the exegesis course in Galatians in which I used the Greek text while everyone else used English. I’ve probably read more theology each year since I left graduate school than I did in my entire course of study.

I think that we can easily be very guilty of an equivocation in this case. What I mean by saying I’m not a theologian is that theology was not and is not my area of professional study. There is a difference between biblical languages, biblical studies, and theology, not to mention differences between different branches of theology. I consider this an important distinction to make, especially when I’m asked to comment on a matter of theology, and the questioner believes my opinion should have special weight because I know Greek and Hebrew. In theology I speak as a layman. It is, of course, worthwhile to note that I have studied more theology than the average person in a church pew, but the distinction still remains valid.

Every Christian is a theologian, I believe, in the same sense as every human being must be a linguist. It is somewhat silly to use language to disparage the meaning of language, and it is somewhat silly as well to claim that theology is unimportant as we follow Christ.

But theologian != theologian, necessarily!


Do You Need Biblical Languages to Understand the Bible?

Do You Need Biblical Languages to Understand the Bible?

Rod Decker presents a quote in which a famous person suggests you do. Well, sort of. Really he seems to be suggesting that it’s much, much better if you understand the biblical languages. I’ll let you go read the original post to get the quote and find out who wrote it.

I’ve written on this before. I’d like to note here that the answer to this question isn’t binary. There are advantages to knowing the biblical languages. There are ways to improve what you can learn without them, such as using multiple translations and reading good commentaries by people who do know them.

In addition, however, knowing and not knowing biblical languages isn’t binary. There are wide differences in knowledge and how well that knowledge is maintained. This also presents a problem for the person who is looking for good commentary. Is the work you’re reading written by someone with good facility with the language, or someone who pieces together bits of information from various reference sources without really understanding the source text?

One of my professors in graduate school was extremely proficient in the languages. I took Aramaic from him, for example, and got the workout of my life. I really appreciated that workout. He expected us to read unpointed Aramaic texts, and to be able to produce on demand any form of a verb that he might demand, not just the one that happened to occur in the text. (Reading unpointed texts in Hebrew and Aramaic is extremely valuable, but was not required by any of my other professors. When you work on inscriptions or try to apply some knowledge in a language like Ugaritic, you come to really appreciate that foundation.)

At the same time, he interpreted with denominational blinders, which was extremely frustrating. I wouldn’t have taken his word for the interpretation of a passage, but I would have wanted his evaluation of each of the nuts and bolts that went into that interpretation.

Many things go into reading and understanding. It’s not just knowing or not knowing the languages.


The Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon Site

The Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon Site

(Edited July 10, 2018 to update link.)

I discovered this site some time ago and have used the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon site it as a reference before, but P. J. Williams on Evangelical Textual Criticism reminded me today that it’s nice to link to and recommend resources such as this.

You have to be ready to do a bit of work to find what you want but there are some wonderful resources, including lexical information and texts linked to a lexical breakdown.  For someone like me, who uses Aramaic occasionally, and thus lacks some of the best library materials, this site is extremely helpful.

Spend a little bit of time scouting around and looking for the options.  The information on how to use it is there; it’s just not always obvious.