This is the fourth and final post in my report on the annual meeting for the Society of Biblical Literature, held Nov 17-20 in Chicago. Here are the first, second, and third parts. The rest of this post is the second half of my presentation attempting to answer the question, “Where should we set the bar in biblical language training?” I welcome your feedback, questions, and suggestions.
Where Should We Set the Bar in Biblical Language Training? (continued)
The Goals of Ancient Greek Classes: The Status Quo
So, when we equivocate on the meaning of these key terms—learning, knowing and reading—we will find that our goals will be shaped accordingly. Basic Greek classes will aim at having students memorize and use metalanguage, translate texts into English, and memorize English glosses for isolated Greek words. Advanced Greek classes typically focus on even more detailed linguistic analysis of texts, or may in some cases require lengthier texts to be translated.
To illustrate, it may be helpful to look at a few syllabi from Ancient Greek courses and to compare them to their modern language counterparts. In preparation for this presentation, I surveyed numerous syllabi from Bible Colleges, Seminaries, Religious Studies PhD programs, and Classical Studies departments. I also looked at numerous modern language department course syllabi. Where is the bar currently being set?
Modern Language Syllabi
Let’s start with a representative modern language syllabus: a second year German Syllabus from the University of Texas. In this course, students are expected to do the following:
- Write three essays in German (about 2 pgs each)
- Give a 10-minute class presentation in German
- Participate outside of class in German coffee hours and German club activities where German will be spoken exclusively; watch German films and listen to UT’s student-produced German radio show.
- Complete lab assignments which include speaking, listening, writing and reading components.
- Of most interest to us, perhaps, is that in addition to all this, students are required to read about 35-40 pages of German text per week and to answer (in German) reading comprehension questions.
- Of course, classes are conducted entirely in German.
Other modern language classes have similar expectations. For example, a third year German course at UT requires students to read one of Lessing’s works—which is about 220 pages long—in 2 weeks. Students must be prepared to discuss the work in class and to write response essays—all in German. That’s over a hundred pages a week of reading—in a third year language class. That’s what language education looks like when the bar is set at fluency.
Biblical Language Syllabi
How about Greek courses? I will not name names or institutions here, so as not to cause offense. One representative syllabus comes from an Advanced Greek course on Acts in a rather large graduate program in theology. The following may be observed:
- Class is conducted entirely in English.
- No composition, speaking or listening in Greek is required.
- No lab time is required.
- Emphasis is placed on minute linguistic analysis of the Greek text using English linguistics terminology.
What is the reading load for this class? Over the entire course of the semester, the class will “read” (by which we mean write out a translation of) Acts 1–10. To put that in perspective, that is about 32 pages in the NA27 (which has smaller pages than an average book), or about 2 pages a week, or less than 2% of the required reading in the 3rd year German class.
In my collection of advanced Greek syllabi, there was one “standout.” This course, designated Advanced Greek Reading, is taught at one of the largest evangelical seminaries in the US. In terms of weekly reading load, it was the most demanding of any Greek course I came across. It required an average of about 100 verses a week, which equates to around 8 pages of text in the NA 27. Please remember, the course was taught entirely in English, the reading (i.e. translating) was the only requirement, and this was the most demanding syllabus I could find!
It should be obvious: we are setting the bar pretty low in our Greek classes with regard to standards of reading fluency. On the other hand, and tragically, I think, we have set the bar very high in terms of memorizing, understanding and applying linguistic metalanguage. Students who would have no problem acquiring fluency in a second language find themselves failing miserably in Greek classes that resemble a math or engineering course more than a language lab. I think, for example, of one of my students who possessed native fluency in French and Swahili and near-native fluency in English, but was told after failing courses in Greek and Hebrew that he was simply not smart enough to learn those languages.
My proposal, which I have shared with this group many times over the past several years, is fairly simple: stop treating Greek and Hebrew as dead languages. Aim for nothing less than internalization, fluency, or communicative proficiency. Teach in such a way that students are immersed in the language and begin to connect the language directly to things and experiences, so that they begin to think in Greek or Hebrew.
Where should we set the bar? Perhaps this is a modest proposal or a good place to start: Let’s aim for the same level of fluency that, say, a slave in one of Paul’s congregations might have possessed. Such a slave was quite possibly not a native speaker of Greek but learned Greek as a second language. Nevertheless he was likely expected by Paul to be able to follow the train of thought as a letter like Philippians was read aloud to the group. Perhaps we can aim for our students (and for us!) to attain at least that basic level of fluency in the language, so that we could at least begin to hear and appreciate these ancient texts as they were meant to be.
I realize that there are enormous practical challenges to this. To begin with, the time investment required to achieve fluency is huge. The FSI estimates that you need anywhere from 600–1100 hours of immersive classroom training in the language to reach a reasonable level of proficiency. University modern language programs typically require far more hours in and out of class from their students than do seminaries. They also offer summer travel programs that allow the student to live in country. The faculty and curricular infrastructure to support Greek education at that level is currently nonexistent. But, it seems to me that instead of forsaking the goal of fluency and resigning ourselves to mediocrity we should begin to develop those needed structures and faculty.
The other option is to lower the bar even more, as many seminaries have begun to do by adopting distance and online courses, or moving to a “tools” approach to Biblical language training. On this method, the student is taught to do exegesis of Biblical texts by using helps and programs such as BibleWorks, Accordance, or Logos. This is a salutary development in one sense, as it constitutes a recognition that traditional methods of teaching Greek are failing miserably. As long as no pretense is made in these courses of actually learning or knowing Greek, I suppose they have their place. In fact, they may in the end serve to make room for a separate track of courses where fluency is actually the goal.
In conclusion, I think that for too long, we have contented ourselves with teaching about Greek, rather than teaching Greek, with translating rather than truly reading, with analyzing rather than understanding and enjoying. We have set the bar far too low, allowing our students to get a “little learning,” which, as Pope reminds us, is “a dang’rous thing.” It is time for us to raise the bar and aim for true fluency, to urge our students to “Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.”