Anyone who shares my interests in Qumran, early Judaism, and the New Testament should make sure to pick up Géza Vermès’ autobiography, Providential Accidents. Not only is it just a great human story about faith, scholarship, and the twists and turns of life, but it is also gives an insider’s perspective on the field of Biblical Studies and the sometimes weird and wonderful personalities that have graced that area of study.
I want to mention two things that stood out to me as being of interest to teachers of “dead” languages. First, Vermès recounts his days in seminary, where “philosophy and apologetics were taught in Latin” and he and his fellow students were required to “converse only in Latin during the morning break” (28). Later in Louvain, all the courses would be taught in Latin (57). Vermès himself would eventually be required to lecture in Latin as part of his doctoral examinations (82).
Flusser, the Polyglot
Second, and even more interesting to me, were Vermès’ comments about David Flusser, whom he met in Jerusalem and who was the first to hold a chair in Christian Origins at Hebrew University. Vermès writes: Flusser’s “favourite language of conversation was mediaeval Latin (which he practiced with the Jesuits), but I can add that New Testament Greek came close second” (87). What an interesting tidbit about a scholar who (so far as I can tell) took it upon himself to use Koine Greek conversationally! This is not to say that Flusser reached any level of meaningful conversational fluency in Greek, but simply to point out that he understood Koine Greek was a real language and should be approached as such, with the goal of getting “inside” it, or internalizing it. Can any of my readers perhaps add to this picture of Flusser?
There is much less resistance to speaking the language among Latin learners than there is among Ancient Greek learners. I don’t really know why.
Daniel, I was Flusser’s student for a number of years in the 80s and 90s and I can attest that he was conversant in Koiné Greek. Occasionally he used to call and ask me to give him a ride because I had a car. Once he had me take him to the Old City of Jerusalem to the Monastery of the Holy Sepulchre. In 1967 after the Six Day War he had gone there to see an 11th century collection of the Apostolic Fathers that included the Didache. On this occasion he wanted to see it again because of some scribal features he remembered that were not visible in the facsimiles. When we arrived at the monastery the only common language between Flusser and the Greek monks was Koiné Greek. I can tell you that we were there for a couple of hours and all of the conversation was in ancient Greek. Along the same lines of Flusser’s penchant to internalize languages, it is well known that Flusser taught himself medieval Spanish so that he could read Don Quixote in the original. Professor David Satran from Hebrew University tells the story of being a young student sitting in Flusser’s class on the Dead Sea Scrolls. There was a Latin American priest in the class and Flusser shifted languages and finished the lecture in Spanish. Satran came from southern California and thought he knew Spanish. Yet, he could not quite follow Flusser. After the lecture he approached the priest and ask him what language Flusser had spoken. The priest stood there in amazement and said “If I had not heard it myself I would not have believed it. It was as if Cervantes himself just gave a lecture on the Dead Sea Scrolls.” He had not just given a lecture in Spanish, but Spanish of the 16th century. I heard Satran recount that story once as an example of how Flusser internalized languages so that he could read the text from the inside and enter the mind of the author. I could recount other stories about Flusser and language, but this gives you some idea. Shalom and blessings, R. Steven Notley
Those are some great stories–thanks for sharing them!