When I am introduced to speak or teach, mention will doubtless be made of my MA in Religion, concentrating in Biblical and Cognate Languages, though the correct degree name will be shortened, and the language skill usually exaggerated. In my mind, however, there are many things that have contributed to my study of the Bible. I’ve never encountered a biblical scholar who found this surprising, but sometimes non-academics are surprised.
I thought I’d list some of the key experiences, many of them not of my choice, which have nonetheless been critical in forming my thinking and informing my study.
- Bible memorization. As a preteen and early teenager I attended a small private school where we memorized substantial Bible passages. By substantial I mean that we memorized Psalm 119, all 176 verses, Genesis 1 & 2, many Psalms, Luke 2, and so forth. We also memorized scatterings of texts on various topics. This memorization, which I certainly would not have accomplished if it had not been required, has nonetheless stuck with me and helps me see the broader picture. I don’t have to go read Isaiah 53 or 58, because I memorized them, and though I could not repeat them in the KJV (which we used), I still have a fair idea what’s there.
- Bible survey. At the same school we were required to memorize titles for most of the chapters (we covered the Psalms by knowing what chapters were in the five books). Along with memorizing, this again helped me with an overview, and made it much easier to find content that I need. I still surprise people by pointing them to a book and range of chapters even when I’m not sure of the specific verse they’re looking for. Further, we had workbooks which asked questions about the text of the entire Bible. These were not thought questions, but content questions. I think it’s unfortunate that people who teach critical and independent thinking often forget that having the facts at hand is useful in thinking, and those who teach the facts often forget that facts strewn about the landscape are not so helpful unless they are critically examined and ordered. Sometimes “Bible study” turns into a simple recitation of opinions, in part because students are so unaccustomed to reading the text and making their own judgment regarding the meaning.
- History and historiography. There is an obvious benefit to knowing biblical history and related ancient history. I think some study of other history–any other history–is of great value as well. One of the problems we have with studying the Bible both “seriously and faithfully” is that we make up special methods for studying it as opposed to other texts. We also make up rules for studying biblical history which might not be accepted elsewhere. There’s no substitute for actually reading and studying some good texts on history unrelated to the Bible.
- Sociology. I hated my undergraduate sociology, but I’ve come to value that area of study, though I still consider the one undergraduate course I took to have been seriously deficient. People are people, and studying how people behave and respond helps me read Bible stories more faithfully.
- And yes, language. Learning to read the biblical languages is valuable in many ways, including being able to spot nuances in the way things are expressed more easily. One of the most important things I learned, however, was how complex the process of translation can be. When you are first learning to read another language (and often for much longer), you are really mentally translating the text into your native language. It can be a struggle and should give you a great appreciation for those who translate on a professional basis. It’s so much easier to criticize scattered renderings where you have a strong opinion than it is to produce a quality translation of a substantial portion of the source text.
- English, my native language. The process of understanding an ancient text and then expressing it in modern terms will tax your knowledge of and fluency in your native tongue. Many times I have been trying to express something from the Greek or Hebrew text and have stumbled for lack of a good English expression. Many really bad ideas in biblical studies have resulted from this, such as claims that “English can’t really express this idea.” The real issue is can you use your native language creatively.
- Church life. I don’t think you’ll understand the Bible unless you’ve experienced church. I don’t mean that church is such a good representation of what’s in the Bible. Usually not so much. But a great deal of the Bible story is about people trying to form and maintain communities, and if you haven’t actually tried, you may not understand them. I hate church politics, but at the same time church politics is a necessary thing. Politics is what happens when people try to act together. You can do it well or poorly, morally or immorally, but you will have to do it.
- Experiencing family. I have nothing against folks who are single, and I remained single until I was 42, and then married and acquired a family all at once. When I was single I was always of the opinion that raising children was likely more difficult than I could imagine. I was right! But again, understanding people who thought of themselves as God’s family is easier after experiencing the parent side of being a family as well as the child side.
There are other things that have helped, but I hope I have made the point that there are many things other than languages, and indeed many things other than academic study that help one understand. These other elements are even more important if one wants to teach. Being able to clearly express a set of ideas involves not only knowing those ideas well, but also knowing the medium of expression (language, art, etc.) and the audience well. The hermit professor, sitting like Simeon Stylites atop an ivory tower, has little impact on the world around.
But further, I suspect not one reader of this post does not have one or more of the experiences I listed, or perhaps others I have not. That means that the person without the degree in biblical languages also has a contribution to make. We ought all be prepared to listen and learn.