Bible Software, Greek Tools, and a Future for Immersion (Basics of Greek Pedagogy, pt. 6)

About the Series
This is part 6 in a series of posts laying out the problems with typical Koine Greek teaching methods and proposing a reformation in pedagogy. In the last post, I discussed the amount of time it takes to gain proficiency in a second language—around 1100 hours of immersive class time, depending on the difficulty of the language.

Obviously, that doesn’t fit very comfortably into any seminary or college’s curriculum. So, if we are convinced that fluency is a goal worth pursuing, we need to think of more feasible ways we can create this type of intensive and prolonged immersion. Before I lay out some of those strategies, though, I want to discuss a growing trend in Greek pedagogy and how I think it affects the movement toward communicative teaching.

tooltimeThe Rise of the Tools Approach
In recent years, many seminaries and Bible colleges have downgraded their language requirements, some even eliminating them entirely. I think we can all agree that’s probably not a good thing (I’m preaching to the choir, right?). But, other institutions have taken a middle way. Instead of requiring students to take the traditional Greek/Hebrew classes, where vocabulary and paradigms are memorized, and parsing, diagramming and translation are emphasized, these schools have moved toward a “tools” approach.

The tools approach aims to introduce students to the way the ancient languages work—declensions, conjugations, endings, participles, word order, tense, voice, mood, etc.—but without requiring lots of memorization of these forms, or intensive translation. The goal is to produce students who may not necessarily be able to parse/translate, but who know how to use tools that will parse/translate for them. You don’t need a whole year to teach students to use Greek tools. In fact, in one semester you could probably cover the basic tools for both Hebrew and Greek.

Why the Tools Approach?
I think several things have led to this approach becoming popular:

  1. Space in a seminary/college curriculum is always tight, and Biblical studies classes have tended to get edged out by fields like practical theology, counseling, etc. which a) have increased in popularity as subjects of academic study, b) draw more students in than the languages do, and c) seem to provide more (at least immediate) payoff than language/exegesis courses.
  2. Bible software has become much more common and accessible. Any student can afford and probably will at some point purchase BibleWorks, Logos, Accordance, or any of the other packages available. Numerous free websites also perform many of the same basic tasks.
  3. Faculty and administration realize that Greek courses are dreaded by most students; so, they embrace the tools approach as something that takes away the pain by eliminating all the memorization work.
  4. Faculty realize that most students quickly forget the morphology and grammar covered in their Greek classes and end up depending on tools or Bible software for all of their subsequent work. (In fact, savvy Greek students learn to depend on it while still in their grammar classes!)
  5. Several new textbooks have been published which provide the teacher with an easy-to-follow plan for covering the bare minimum of Greek/Hebrew and introducing the students to the tools. See, e.g. Bill Mounce’s Greek for the Rest of Us, Lee Fields’ Hebrew for the Rest of Us, Sitzer/Finley’s How Biblical Languages Work, or the many “Greek/Hebrew for preachers” type of books.
brain on drugs

Your Brain on Traditional Pedagogy

Implications for Greek Pedagogy
You might think at this point that I would launch into a jeremiad against the tools approach. That may in fact be appropriate, especially given the recent horror stories related by Larry Hurtado about NT PhD graduates with apparently no Greek beyond a tools approach introduction. But, I want to look at the glass as half full. Here’s why: the tools approach recognizes the utter bankruptcy of traditional teaching methods. I mean, there’s really not much point in solely learning to parse and translate when software can do it faster, more accurately, and without all the soul-killing and brain-frying rote memorization.

billyJoel

Not a Greek Professor

Honesty Is Such a Lonely Word
So, the tools approach gives us an honest look at Greek pedagogy. It makes it clear that the goal is not fluency or proficiency in any meaningful sense. After you take a Greek class that uses the tools approach, you won’t be able to read Greek, but you will know that going into the class. In a traditional approach, you’re told that you’ll be able to read Greek, and then when that doesn’t pan out, you’re told to work more on vocab memorization and parsing, and guilted into feeling lazy for not spending hours in such mind-numbing misery. The traditional approach says, “We’re learning the language!” but then teaches students only about the language (metalanguage, historical linguistics, translation theory, etc.). The tools approach says, “We’re not learning the language, just about the language.” I prefer the honest approach.

Make Room for the Natural Approach!
So, the first step to reforming Greek pedagogy is to stop lying to ourselves about what we’re teaching and how effective it is, that is, to be clear about our goals and whether or not we’re achieving them. Paradoxically, then, I think the shift to the tools approach actually creates a space for natural approaches to take root and flourish, with fluency as the goal.

John the Baptist

John the Baptist -- Supporter of an Immersive Approach

Here’s how I see that happening. We (Greek faculty) can tell students that if their main goal is just to read and understand commentaries, to be able to tell what antecedent a pronoun is referring to, or whether the “you” in their English Bible is plural or singular, then they can take a one-semester tools class and be satisfied. If, on the other hand, they are planning to be scholars, Bible translators, etc., and really want to learn Greek—i.e. to the point where they could read freely and widely for pleasure and gain a feel for the language—then they need to pursue a communicative track that aims for fluency. “A little learning is a dang’rous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.”

I suspect that those for whom studying the Bible is a top priority will eagerly embrace a rigorous, demanding, and even time-intensive immersive approach when the opportunity is offered to them. So, in my next post, I’ll focus on what such an approach would look like in the context of a traditional seminary education.

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About Daniel Streett

Associate Professor of Greek and New Testament at Criswell College, Dallas, Texas
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19 Responses to Bible Software, Greek Tools, and a Future for Immersion (Basics of Greek Pedagogy, pt. 6)

  1. Mike Aubrey says:

    Absolutely.

    I’ve had the same thought. And in the future, if things don’t change, that handful of students who go beyond the tools approach aren’t going to be in the pastorate. They’re going to be designing the new generations of tools for the people who don’t know the language.

  2. Mark Lightman says:

    κἀγω μὲν οὖν θέλω ἐν τῇ Ἑλληνικῇ γλώσσῃ βαπτισθῆναι.

  3. Eric Killian says:

    Well said Moreh (didaskale)!

    Honestly though, I am not convinced that offering a one semester course in how to use the tools is a good idea, other than opening the doors for immersion methods to step in. Personally, I am thinking that if that is the only language training students had, then I would prefer they go without and just learn to do a decent job interpreting their English translations. It seems to me that such training would be like putting an AK-47 in the hands of a ten year old and sending him to war. Very dangerous indeed!
    Seriously, all of the people I have encountered who use a tools approach to Hebrew texts are worse in their interpretations (and that’s on a good day) than those who know absolutely nothing of the language and stick to their translations and quality commentaries. How have your encounters been with students who are depending on Koine tools? Do some of them do at least a decent job, or is their exegetical work just as wretched? :)

    • Eric, most Greek students are exceedingly wretched when it comes to understanding how languages and meaning work. :) I think most of their bad interpretations spring from that and their (mis)understanding of what the Bible is–not so much from their knowledge of Greek or lack thereof. Insofar as tools approaches continue to ingrain in students this simpleton mindset, the wretchedness will continue. But, I could see a tools approach avoiding this if a lot of time was spent on a) how *not* to use Greek and Greek tools, b) what we can’t derive from the grammar or syntax of a text, and c) how languages and meaning work and don’t work.
      But, as you know, I don’t care so much about perfecting the tools approach; I want people to aim for fluency and that’s where I’m going to focus my efforts.

    • Joshua W.D. Smith says:

      This isn’t an issue of students, but it might apply. I was actually engaging with someone over the Romans 5:18 question of δι’ ἑνὸς δικαιώματος, and he quoted a couple commentaries on the matter. I think it was Cranfield’s commentary that resolved the question by saying that of X number of time Paul uses ἑνὸς, all of them refer to Jesus, so this one must, too. I read that and said “Huh?”. There was not even any syntactic analysis (i.e., the presence of absence of the article), just counting up frequency. And that was in a relatively scholarly commentary! So, a tools approach without any understanding of how a language works can be found in odd places.

      • That’s a great example, Joshua! I think most people would see Cranfield as more than just a “relatively scholarly” commentary! The ICC usually has untranslated Grench, German, Latin and Hebrew, so they’re not putting the cookies on the lowest shelf. :) This is one reason I am a bit confused when people talk about all the translators and commentators as if they were really fluent in the languages, as opposed to just doing word studies (sometimes really poorly done, as your example shows) like everyone else.

  4. BradK says:

    I’ve only recently encountered your blog so this may be a silly question, or at least one which has been addressed previously. Would it help for students to have a year (or two) of modern Greek under their belts prior to seminary? Many students, especially in the humanities, study modern foreign languages. For students who intend to go to seminary, would it be reasonable to expect them to focus on modern Greek? Of course modern Greek is not the equivalent of ancient Greek any more than modern English is equivalent to what Chaucer spoke. But if immersion is desirable would learning the modern language be helpful to learning Koine?

  5. κήρυσσε!

    Teaching seminary students just enough to be dangerous is… dangerous. Tools are great, but too many thumbs have already been pounded by the hammers of too many casual Greek or Hebrew students.

  6. mgvh says:

    Thanks again for this series, Daniel. I think you fairly address the issue here, and I will be particularly interested to read the next post on how you see this work in a traditional seminary education! Having become something of a ‘tools approach’ person, there are, however, some qualifications I would make to your comments.
    1) I do have a year of dedicated Greek course work plus follow up in exegetical classes. We can get deeper into Greek than simply going for a one semester tools course.
    2) Almost all my students are planning to become pastors, not biblical scholars. Yes, I realize that sounds very bad, but the reality is that they want to be able to engage the Bible to support their ministries. They are not doing ministry to support their biblical scholarship. It’s simply a matter of perspective and priority. They most certainly want to be fully aware of the Bible and to interpret and communicate it faithfully and with integrity, but the ultimate goal is to become a pastor or teacher in the church, not a biblical scholar. Those two things are not exclusive, but priorities will dictate where time is spent.
    3) As I think about it, there is probably more than just ‘tools’ vs. ‘reading’ levels of competence. I would be more comfortable defining my approach as something more like ‘faithful engagement’ with the text, a level somewhere between tools and reading. (I’ll say more in a moment.) For the sake of honesty, we should probably also note that there is a ‘translator’ level beyond the ‘reader’ one. Students sometimes think they will learn to ‘translate’ the Greek, but that is a far more complicated task. None of my students (and I will also include myself here) is likely to come up with a better translation than the leading versions which are products of committees of scholars who know Greek better than any of us.
    4) Given #3, one of the first things my students come to realize, however, is that no translation is perfect. Every translation is making some kind of compromise or is stuck trying not only to render Greek words into English but also to capture a whole culture, context, and tradition of their use.
    5) Because of #4, I have found that one of the best ways for my students to get at the Greek is by looking at a range of English versions. This approach highlights the places where the translation committees were having the most difficulty getting it right, and these are the places where they need to look more closely at the Greek. Here, then, is where the tools start to come in to play. Are the differences the result of text critical issues? Is it a lexical matter? A grammatical matter? The tools will provide the lexical and parsing and analysis and such, but you will still actually need to know some Greek to figure out what a circumstantial participle is, and how it works in Greek, and what difference it makes that it is present and not aorist. At this point, they should also be able to understand what is being said about the Greek text in the more technical commentaries like ones in the NIGTC series. (I don’t know that a simple ‘tools’ approach would achieve this level of competence.)
    6) As I hope you can see, students actually have to learn some Greek in my classes. No, they will not be able to ‘translate’ nor even ‘read’ the Greek. They will, however, understand something about how Koine Greek works grammatically, have a grasp of syntactical features of Greek, be able to use tools (especially Bible software), understand discussions about Greek texts in commentaries, and evaluate the relative merits of English versions. All of this can be accomplished in a year, and they are skills that they should be able to retain for a lifetime of ministry.

    • Mark, thanks for the thoughtful engagement. I think your approach sounds like the best possible version of the tools approach, and I’m sure you’re one of the teachers who actually puts enough stress on the danger of knowing a little Greek. I should have noted, of course, that, as you point out, many seminaries follow up their tools classes with exegetical courses where the tools approach is continued and built upon. I suppose that’s why I think you could probably do an intro to Biblical languages course in only one semester.
      Here are a couple other thoughts:
      1) You recognize that your students are not planning to be scholars, but pastors. I understand what you mean, and that’s actually why I advocated for a tools option in my post! But, most pastors would see a large part of their ministry as teaching/explaining the Bible. That’s certainly Biblical scholarship of a sort, right? So, I guess I want to narrow the gap between Biblical scholarship and the pulpit (or lectern, or stool, if you’re emergent :) ).
      2) Maybe I’m too optimistic, but my gut tells me that if we gave students the option to immerse, many of them would choose to do so, even though they are “only” going to be pastors. What do you think?
      3) My experience with students who go through either a tools approach or a traditional approach is that they are still ill-equipped to engage a commentary like the NIGTC. Most pastors I know who have gone through seminary language programs find them pretty rough sledding and while they may own them, they don’t use them in any meaningful sense. Should they be able to? Yes. Did their professors teach them how to? Probably. But what we teach and what they take away or retain are two very different things, as you know.
      4) I’ll be interested in your feedback on my next couple posts where I look at modern language programs and strategies for immersion. Since you’re in a seminary setting, you can tell me if any of my ideas are realistic.

  7. mgvh says:

    See how you’ve provoked me to be more articulate about my approach! Thanks. (Enough so, that I edited my comments and posted them on my own blog.) To respond here to your response:
    1) Yeah. As a biblical scholar myself (presumably), I’d like to think that biblical competence is the most important characteristic of a good pastor/leader. Not everyone thinks so, but we can try to narrow that gap.
    2 & 4) I would love to have an immersive experience learning Greek, and I think my students would too. But… given the curriculum and all the other requirements… I’m not sure how it can be accomplished. That’s why I’m interested to see what you have to say in your upcoming posts.
    3) You speak the truth. I’m guessing that maybe the top 10% of my class will really get it. Another 50% will get it enough to be able to use the NET Bible and its notes constructively. The other 40% just have other priorities. As you say, we have taught it, but it’s not clear that they have retained it. I suspect, however, the same could be said for just about any other course.

  8. boatrocker says:

    Hello everyone, non-linguistics expert here. :-)

    I find this series intriguing for a variety of reasons, though I never attended seminary or studied a foreign language beyond high school (German). And that high school experience may supply a useful illustration.

    Unlike the Spanish and French students, the German classes never listened to native speakers and couldn’t understand much of anything when we went to Germany our senior year. But by golly, could we ever diagram sentences— in English! It really amounted to an advanced English grammar course. Why? Because the normal English courses didn’t really sink in over all those years, so the German teacher decided we wouldn’t get anywhere in German till we “got” the concepts of how various parts of speech conveyed meaning.

    Though that approach failed utterly to teach us German, it excelled at what I see as the most vital aspect of any approach to the “tools” method: reading comprehension. If you don’t know a participle from a perfect tense, though you can identify them structurally, your tools will be of no use. I can view the parsing for a given Greek word, but if I have no idea what that means in practical terms, what good is it? For example, does Paul tell us in Ephesians that we were “dead in sin” or that we are now “dead to sin, in which we used to…”? It all turns on the meaning of the dative case here, and the use of “in” along with it. In other words, whether the terms are learned or not, the important issue is whether the concepts are grasped.

    But there is another aspect of comprehension that all academic disciplines should employ: logic. Simple, everyday logic. Not only must we ask, “Did ‘dead in sin’ mean anything to first century speakers of Greek?”, but also, “Is the ‘dead in sin’ phrase an equivocation (changing the metaphorical meaning of ‘dead’ to suit a preconceived theological outcome, in this case perhaps Calvinism)?” Are we jumping to unwarranted conclusions about a word because we have committed the totality transfer fallacy (http://www.fether.net/2010/03/19/preaching-from-the-dictionary/)? I’m not saying people have to learn the formal logic terms, but that they should be able to recognize erroneous thinking. And I say all this to those who would present themselves as future teachers or Bible scholars, not the general churchgoing public. That is, the average seminary student needs first of all to understand how to think, and then how to understand words in context, and then how to explain words and contexts in scripture. They can’t expound on scripture till they show some grasp of general reading comprehension.

    As for learning a second language, I completely agree with the immersion approach, and would be interested in taking such a course if I had the time and money. So far my efforts at tool-building (http://bible.fether.net) have been for online access and convenience for the average English-speaking informal Bible student, but I keep dreaming that someday I’ll be able to read the Greek without my own tools.

    • Hi, boatrocker. Thanks for commenting. Your experience with high school German is, I fear, not atypical for high school language classes. Often, they are taught by someone who doesn’t really know the language themselves (hey, that’s not much different from every Greek class! :) ). And, even when the teacher has native fluency, that’s no guarantee they know effective ways to teach the language. College courses are sometimes not any better.
      I agree with you that a key part of any tools approach (really any education!) should be critical thinking. In the absence of logical skills and clear thinking, even native fluency won’t protect you from most exegetical fallacies.

    • mgvh says:

      @boatrocker: In the Greek classes I teach at a seminary, I spend a LOT of time reviewing English grammar. I’d love to have all my students come in w/ a solid background in English grammar (a few do but not many), but I have to review it because Greek makes no sense to them without trying to relate it to English. (Though I am aware that an immersive approach doesn’t necessarily worry about such things…) I try to show where English and Greek are similar but also how they are different at a very basic level. (Tenses! uses of cases, word order, syntax…) That’s why, we learn, no English translation is going to be perfect. That’s why, with my ‘something of a tools’ approach, we learn that tools can usually tell you what something is, but they cannot tell you what it means or why it is significant or get you to think about why it’s this and not that.

  9. boatrocker says:

    @Daniel,

    So does it seem to you that there is room for both the “tools” method and the immersion method? I’d think that the tools would be useful as a prerequisite because students have to know how to use those either way. Not too deep though, as in the current memorization of declensions, but just how to make the best use of resources.

    @mgvh,

    I agree about English grammar, and think it might also qualify as a prerequisite, because without it there’s no indication that the student has any aptitude for enough grammatical understanding of Greek to go beyond “dangerous”. It seems to me that the tools can give outside limits on semantic range, while context/comprehension gives inside limits. Between the two of them, we can increase the odds of an accurate grasp of a passage.

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