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Notes on Terms and Language Teaching

Notes on Terms and Language Teaching

Dave Black comments some on linguistics and teaching biblical languages in a post today. (Check out the linguistics conference coming up!)

The difficulty is the difference between teaching someone a language in a classroom and in discussing and describing that language in some detail as a linguist would want to do. Both the framework and the deeper understanding are good and proper goals, though there is often a conflict between the two. When do you teach what?

Dave covers a good selection of points from the debate over verbal aspect. There are problems with words like “punctiliar” or even “progressive” in terms of verbs. There are also problems in mapping the tense system (and the word “tense” itself) when teaching. But these issues are part of the problem of linguistics generally.

Consider a label like “tree.” What do I mean by the word tree? Is the plant growing in my yard that is three feet tall a tree, a weed, a plant, or perhaps a bush? It might, under the right circumstances be called any one of those things. A simple, singular label is necessary to communication, but at the same time, a singular, simple label is also a cause of problems. For example, if I say to my wife, “We need to throw that tree out,” I may mean that a potted plant has grown very large, and I’m using tree hyperbolically to refer to it while demanding its exit forthwith. On the other hand, I could be referring to a shoe tree that’s worn out and should be discarded.

This is why the line, “it’s just semantics” is so often lazy. When someone is playing rule book lawyer with the language, it’s quite appropriate to point out that one is expecting more of language than one is likely to get from it. We get along with ambiguity all the time. The problem comes in when we decide to be picky, or when we accidentally manage to use just the wrong word at the wrong time, meaning one that is almost right, but that can lead one off into a completely different semantic range than intended. But semantics is precisely what “it” is, and what it always is. It is about meaning. What did you expect? So it’s semantics. The word “just” is a bit oddly used. Bad semantics!

What I try to do is very quickly introduce students to the idea that labels are shorthand. When I use the term “punctiliar,” I point out that this is a shorthand label. Why don’t I change the word then? Because my new shorthand label will also pick up unnecessary connotations, and then I’ll have to explain how it applies. Further, the student is doubtless going to see the word “punctiliar” in commentaries (as Dave points out), and he or she needs to know its intention, and even how to understand the potential fallacy. Commentaries are quite capable of containing incorrect linguistic information.

It’s easier for me, because I teach by ones and twos, not by large classes of seminarians forced to do their required courses. I had that experience as a graduate student when I tried to tutor marginal or failing Greek students. They wanted me to get them past the test. I wanted to help them understand. Conflict! But those students I have taught since have come to me because they want to learn and understand, so I take the time.

My conclusion is that no matter how you label it, you’re going to have to make sure students understand how these labels we call “words” work. Even if you take a living language approach, and try to get the students to understand the language as naturally as possible, you’re still going to have to help them understand linguistics if they’re going to translate those words and ideas into their own language for the benefit of those who haven’t learned a foreign language. I’d almost, almost, prefer to teach a student linguistics over teaching that student Greek or Hebrew. If I had to choose, that is. Which I don’t.

(Featured Image Credit: Adobe Stock #126360408. Not Public Domain)

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!

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!

An Exemplary Post on Translating the Word Nefesh

An Exemplary Post on Translating the Word Nefesh

I’m linking to this post by Joel Hoffman not just for its content, which is indeed excellent, but also because I think it shows how to discuss translating a word from one language to another.

A couple of notes: 1) He’s discussing how to translate the word in a specific instance, not some general “what did this word really mean?” kind of topic, 2) he gives solid usage references in all the languages concerned, and 3) he manages to keep the discussion straightforward and easy for the non-expert to follow.

In a paper for publication, of course, one would need to cover all the extras, i.e. survey everything. In this case, we get what we need for the immediate issue without distractors. In other words, an exemplary blog post! May there be many more! May I even learn to write such!

(HT: Wayne Leman, Better Bibles)

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.

Oldest Hebrew Inscription Found

Oldest Hebrew Inscription Found

The biblioblogosphere is alive with discussion of the released photo, line drawing, and preliminary translation of what appears to be the oldest example of Hebrew writing to date.  I found it originally through Evangelical Textual Criticism, but have since read quite a number of posts about it.

I’m afraid, however, that I must be missing something here with the claim that this will change the dating of Biblical texts by hundreds of years.  Which ones and why?  I already believed some sources of the Pentateuch dated from this period, and I don’t think oral transmission would be sufficient.  In addition, following Milgrom’s dating for P & H, there is already a strong proposal that places extended texts 300-400 years later than this.

In other words, there were serious suggestions of written texts going back this far even before this discovery.  Now it’s nice to have confirmation that such writing existed, rather than just speculation that it might/must have, at that early date, but I think it was a reasonable inference that it did.

At the same time, knowing that such things existed in this small form doesn’t really demonstrate that the longer literary texts existed at the same time, much as I’d like it to do so.

Perhaps I have simply always assumed written texts were quite possible substantially earlier than our earliest example of them.  The question remains quantity and quality.  Writing a small text on an ostracon and writing the final, redacted Pentateuch are substantially different things.

Perfective of Confidence or Prophetic Perfect

Perfective of Confidence or Prophetic Perfect

One of the lectionary passages for this week is Isaiah 9:1-4. Those who don’t know Hebrew may miss out on an interest fact about this passage. It is one of the best examples of what is called the “prophetic perfect” or the “perfectum propheticum” for those who really like Latin titles. I got used to them in the years I used Gesenius-Kautzsch as my primary reference grammar.

Bruce Waltke (An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 30.5.1e/p. 490) does discuss this briefly and uses Isaiah 8-9 as an example. In fact, he points out the nice transition in Isaiah 8:23 in which both “humbled” and “honored” are in the perfect tense, and yet the first refers to the past and the second to the future. The passage continues with a series of perfect verbs talking about the future. I prefer to quote Gesenius, however:

The prophet so transports himself in imagination into the future that he describes the future event as if it had been already seen or heard by him . . .

The he cites our passage amongst others.

What was interesting was that I noticed this passage the same day I was reading about hope in commentary on Hebrews. There St. John Chrysostom comments that “through hope we are already in heaven.”

Does our Christian imagination, or our Christian hope suffice to make it seem that we are already in heaven? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get that sense of already being there in God’s promises?

Isaiah 49:2 – Mouths and Sharp Swords

Isaiah 49:2 – Mouths and Sharp Swords

One basis I use for comparing Bible translations is the way in which idioms are handled. It’s difficult to measure this precisely, because you have to consider several things:

  • Is the idiom as used comprehensible to modern readers?
  • Does it mean the same thing to modern as to ancient readers?
  • Is there a reasonable English (or other target language) equivalent?
  • How good is the equivalent that was selected by the translation?

Simply noting that an idiom in one language is translated by an idiom in another is not sufficient. Figures of speech work in essentially the same way and require that one ask the same questions.

In Isaiah 49:2 we have a fairly simple figure of speech. In Hebrew, this very literally reads:

He set my mouth like a sharp sword.

Now I don’t know how natural that sounds in English to others, and I’m already running another poll, but to me “sharp” and “words” do go together in a figure of speech, and using mouth for the words spoken is also pretty standard. For example, I don’t think anyone has trouble understanding “potty mouth.” I have only rarely heard that combination with “sharp,” however. There I think we more commonly use “tongue” with “sharp” than “mouth.”

So I classify the translations of the figure of speech in three categories. First would be those that translate the figure of speech or idiom completely literally. (I’d ignore the idiom if the figure of speech is common also in the target language.) The second group adjusts it somewhat to make it more comprehensible. The third translates the figure into natural, but not necessarily idiomatic language. The fourth group (of which I have no examples in this case) would provide an alternate idiom. The following list is not exhaustive:

Translating the words and not the figure

“He made my mouth like a sharpened blade;” (NJPS)

“He made my mouth like a sharp sword,” (NRSV)

Adjusted slightly

In this case, the adjustment is generally “mouth” replaced with “tongue.”

“He made my tongue a sharp sword” (REB)

Translated into clear language (drop figure of speech)

“He made my words as sharp as a sword.” (TEV) [Note here that one figure (mouth for words) is replaced, while the second (sharp) is retained.]

“He made my words of judgment as sharp as a sword.” (NLT)

“He made my words pierce like a sharp sword” (CEV) [In a sense another figure of speech is added, or perhaps “sharp” is merely enhanced, by the addition of the word “pierce.”]

“He made my words like a sharp sword;” (HCSB) [The HCSB regularly surprises me, sometimes with incredibly obscure translations, and sometimes with exceptionally clear ones.]

This comparison also raises a question with the NLT text. Should the words “of judgment” be added here? Is it perfectly clear that it is words of judgment alone that pierce like a sharp sword? On first reading, I am not happy with the NLT addition there. It makes plain something that is not plain in the text, and may even be incorrect. My mind could be changed, however.