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Tools of the Trade . . . Encore

September 5, 2011

Well, my posting yesterday on “Tools of the Trade” has already generated a number of comments, several of which raise some reasonable questions.  So, instead of replying to them individually, I’ll try to do so in this further posting.  I’ll attempt to be succinct, but this will be a longer-than-most-of-mine posting.

First, some comments have to do with the languages.  In view of all sorts of computized packages today, why should we require NT scholars to have a good ability in Koine Greek and Hebrew?  And, in view of the dominance of English, why should NT scholars be expected to be able to read German and French?  And, in view of the commendable growth of biblical scholarship in various parts of the world (e.g., Africa, Asia, the Pacific, Latin America), why this emphasis on these European languages?

The first thing to say is that I regard the PhD primarily as preparation for a life of scholarship.  There are some who commence PhD study after retirment, or purely as a (rather demanding) personal interest.  But most aspire to becoming after PhD able to play some role in the field, teaching and assessing students, engaging the work of other scholars, and (hopefully) contributing to the field as well.  That is (to reflect a view that is typical among scholars), the PhD should prepare you for a subsequent role as a scholar in the field.  In that sense, you don’t simply write a one-off piece to get the degree, but you equip yourself with various “tools of the trade” to be a scholar in the field.  There is a discipline called NT studies, and an academic “discipline” typically involves core abilities and practices, and a commitment to developing these among those who wish to contribute to that discipline.

Among the tools of this particular trade, languages are central.  We’re dealing with texts, all kinds of texts, and in certain ancient languages.  Every lexicon, every commentary, every computer package, reflects judgments about words, syntax, etc.  And the scholar in the field should be able to assess such judgments, on his/her own, not simply appropriate the judgments of others.  Sure, a computer package can quickly tell you how many times this or that lexeme appears, and it can produce a list of occurrences.  But the computer-package can’t tell you how to assess some other scholar’s claim about the sense of a given sentence of Greek or Hebrew or Latin or Aramaic.  If you want to express a view and you want it taken seriously by other scholars, then you must be able to handle the texts yourself.  And in the field, the “text” is that written in the ancient language, not simply a translation.

As to the European languages I mentioned, there are several things to say.  First, I’m talking about a PhD from a UK university, not one in Bangalore, or Beijing or Kuala Lampur or  . . . you get it.  No implication intended as to relative quality.  All I mean is that if you want a European doctorate then don’t get surprised at European languages being central.  But secondly and much more to the point, these particular languages have been, and remain, considerably more important in the field, because far more important work is published in them across a far wider spectrum of matters.  (By “important”, I mean intended to have impact and relevance for the field as a whole .) 

There are some publications in other languages that are important for some topics (e.g., the Italian studies on the Ascension of Isaiah) .  Of course, it would advantageous to read additional languages.  (In my own PhD work, it proved very handy that I had Spanish, as two major articles in Spanish had been highly infulential but had not been subjected to adequate critical scrutiny.) 

I don’t mention German and French to exclude any other language, European or others.  But, if we have to identify key languages in the discipline, as those in which the historic body of scholarship lies and in which still the great majority of contributing scholarship in NT studies is published, then it’s English, German and French.  So if we require PhD students to be able to engage the great majority of scholarly publications in the field, these are the languages that are essential to read.

The scholar is expected to be able to engage the scholarly work of others, and this has meant (and should continue to mean) being able to read and review work in at least English, German and French.  E.g., the international Society for New Testament Studies allows papers delivered in these three languages, and its journal publishes in these three. 

Being a scholar in NT means being able to engage, and draw upon valuable work done in the past, often decades ago or more.   And this makes German and French still more relevant. English may be dominant in NT now, but it wasn’t until perhaps the 1970s.  There’s one helluva lot of really important stuff that was published before then!  And there continues to be crucial material published in German and French.

 Of course, we need to know what’s happening now, and the recent and emergent developments in theory and approaches.  (And, contrary to a rather ill-judged and recklessly hostile posting on another site, I am acquainted with such things as post-colonial theory, feminist theory, et alia.)  But we don’t advance by neglecting our past.  It isn’t progress to reject the core “tools” of the discipline in favor of adopting recent methodological proposals.  We should engage the latter out of a sound preparation in the former. 

For me, as for most I presume, learning languages is hard work, and retaining and improving use of them a continuing effort.  But, especially in a UK PhD programme, where you’re expected to commence the thesis research immediately and produce a finished thesis within a 36-month optimal period (48 months maximum), students should work up a reading ability in the relevant languages before starting PhD work.  That way, you don’t take time from research to learn languages.

There were also comments about why and how it is that PhD theses can be presented by students who appear not to be able really to read Koine Greek, and/or can’t engage scholarship beyond English.  This has to do with university policies and practices, and I’ll save my comments on these matters for another posting.

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  1. John Stackhouse permalink

    Fascinating that Kim does not adduce an actual Korean book that he can say Hurtado ought to have read. He can only make up a silly title. Has he actually written a book that deserves wider reading? If so, what is it, and what evidence is there that it deserves wider reading?

    People like BW16 and Kim raise good points but raise them so badly–so sophomorically, insultingly, disrespectfully–that those good points get lost in their bad manners. Of course we want to be alert to what is creatively happening around the world, as Biblical studies follows the spread of Christianity itself to the Majority World and will doubtless continue to change and grow in these new (and sometimes very old) settings. Hurtado isn’t denying that, and it’s just peevish to characterize him otherwise.

    What no one has actually discussed is the simple practical matter that with Americans dominating so much of Biblical studies and with foreign language acquisition being generally so exceptional in American culture, the trend is for LESS knowledge of ANY foreign languages. Forget Samoan or Korean when students have to scramble for a working knowledge of Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, and German.

    And, indeed, the second practical matter is for Korean or Samoan (or Danish or Russian) scholars who want to participate in international conversation learning at least one of the lingua franca. The reality of such “common languages” is simply inescapable, and the status of lingua franca is, of course, usually a matter of cultural dominance/hegemony/empire. Well, sheesh: That’s hardly news to anyone who has studied the Bible enough to have come across the phenomenon of koine Greek! So deal with it. Until human beings acquire the ability to learn dozens of languages, we’ll all have to settle for translations and common scholarship languages. Let’s stop whining and find real-world ways to foster the broadest, most interesting conversation possible.

  2. David A Booth permalink


    As an English speaking pastor I regret being cut off from untranslated scholarship in languages I don’t read. In this life we all live and work with many limitations.

    What I don’t understand is how anyone could claim to be a Bible scholar who does not have a high degree of competence in Greek in Hebrew. As a pastor, I read the Bible in Greek and Hebrew six days a week for the simple reason that I preach and teach the Bible. The Biblical languages are to me what mathematics is to the physicist. They are a necessary component of a vocation as a Minister of the Word. As J. Gresham Machen put it nearly a century ago:

    “One outstanding difficulty in theological education today is that the students persist in regarding themselves not as specialists, but as laymen. Critical questions about the Bible they regard as property of men who are training themselves for eh theological professorships or the like, while the ordinary minister, in their judgment, may content himself with the most superficial layman’s acquaintance with the problems involved. The minister is thus no longer a specialist in the Bible, but has become merely a sort of general manager of the affairs of a congregation. … If on the other hand, the minister is a specialist – if the one thing that he owes his congregation above all others is a thorough acquaintance, scientific as well as experimental, with the Bible – then the importance of Greek requires no elaborate argument.”

    Nine decades after Machen wrote those words, we seem to be approaching the place where even some would-be scholars think that competence in the Biblical languages is optional. Isn’t this like someone who wants to become a champion swimmer without getting wet? I honestly don’t get it, but I wonder if such women and men aren’t more interested in being known as scholars than in actually engaging in the demanding work of producing scholarship.

    This may be an appropriate place for me to thank the outstanding language professors that I had in seminary. It is an awesome privilege to be able to study and teach God’s word to His people week after week. Because of Gary Pratico, Doug Stuart, Ed Keazirian, David Mathewson, and Scott Hafemann, I am blessed to be able to do that from the original languages.

    Best wishes,


  3. Ishmael permalink

    FWIW, it’s not just biblical studies where knowledge of what many regard as basic tools is an issue. For example, it is possible these days to get a graduate degree in information systems without ever acquiring proficiency in at least one programming language. Similar arguments are advanced that higher levels of abstraction, etc, make such “low level” expertise unnecessary.

    — Ishmael

  4. Annang Asumang permalink

    I quite understand the point about Koine Greek; but, I am not very sure whether requiring proficiency in German and French is adequately justified, given the availability of professional helps with translation, professionals who may probably be better at translation than the PhD student who has only recently learnt German or French. The other point also is whether insisting on such a wide proficiency is not likely to deter people of advanced age from pursuing NT studies. As is well known, ability to master a foreign language decreases with increasing age.

    • The point is not to know German like an expert in German literature. The point is to know German well enough that you can read important scholarly publications (and there are *lots of them) and engage, and argue with that publication, and take account of it in making your own analysis and argument.
      Of course, insisting on acquiring these language tools is a high demand, but it’s nothing new. And I indicated that I’m thinking primarily of those who do a PhD to become a scholar in the field. If, however, you simply want to do a research project for your own amusement or edification, why bother doing a PhD? Simply do the research and enjoy your results. To seek a PhD (or any degree) = to seek some kind of accreditation as someone holding an established credential, and having therefore certain attributes and abilities associated with that credential.

  5. Ian permalink

    Thanks Larry – yes I guess I’m just not thinking through what would happen when I got the data. And the compound issue is actually a pretty telling one. μορφη θεου and ἀδελφὸν τοῦ κυρίου are both cases where I’ve debated against folks who use the glosses of just one word to make unwise generalizations about the range of possible meanings.

    “See my study of this in…”

    I’ve read and enjoyed both those books, but I’ll read those sections again tonight. But amusingly for this topic, I don’t have page numbers in either of those books, because I bought them both on Kindle!

  6. Peter Williams permalink

    Obviously it is possible for anything of great importance to be written in any language. Hypothetically, one could discover and publish a cure to cancer in Samoan, but I’d suggest that this would be unlikely. Obviously, a cure to cancer would be equally valuable whether it was discovered by a Samoan or by someone from Western Europe.

    However, let’s ask the question which languages have the most detailed and useful descriptions and discussions of subjects like the Dead Sea Scrolls, the flora and fauna of Palestine, Koine Greek, Aramaic, Roman rhetoric, etc. and it will be pretty clear that German currently ranks far above Korean, let alone Samoan. Korean may catch up in the future, but do you really want to claim that the current corpora of literature in these languages have equal information content on these subjects? Of course scholars writing in Korean may have wonderful insights of which scholars writing in German are ignorant. The discussion must therefore be global, but must also bear in mind that previous contributions are greater in particular languages. For PhD studies in New Testament this clearly highlights the importance of learning some Western European languages.

    In saying this am I merely giving a Western colonial perspective? I imagine my perspective would be echoed by scholars from many non-Western countries quite resistant to colonialism. Moreover, I would freely admit that the situation would be quite different for some other subjects. For instance, if one were studying Hadith, one might find that modern Arabic would get precedence over some modern Western languages, and that if one were studying Elamite discussions in Farsi would be worth following.

    So for a PhD about antiquity (rather than modern hermeneutics) it really is a question of weighing which languages currently contain the greatest contributions to the area one is studying.

  7. Peter Williams permalink

    Larry, what you say is sensible. I also think that if there was an article in any language which appeared on major bibliographies and which was highly relevant to a particular PhD topic then I might legitimately refer the candidate for not attempting to get to grips with it (either through Google Translate or through asking someone with competence in that language). Of course, UK PhD candidates for NT need to learn German, because there will always be numerous articles and books which are relevant, and the same claim cannot (currently) be made for Samoan.

  8. This and your previous post are thoughtful and clear declarations of what ought to be beyond any debate or dispute – acquisition of five or six languages (Hebrew, Koine Greek, German, French, English, then Latin and on and on) is essential to the scholarship you have in mind.

  9. I fully agree. Duke, like many other leading American universities, has a somewhat different system, which overall has its own strengths and weaknesses when compared to the U.K. system. At Duke, all N.T. Ph.D. candidates are required to have demonstrated proficiency (usually by written or oral exams) in Greek, Hebrew, German, and French in addition to English before commencing work on the dissertation.

  10. Ian permalink

    We’re all deficient linguistically. Nobody can engage with the breadth of knowledge in any field, because we’re all victims of babel (metaphorically speaking). But that is no reason to say that, because being comprehensive is impossible, not bothering is acceptable, nor that there isn’t a disproportionately powerful set (e.g. 3 languages you access 90%, 4 gives you 92%, etc – clearly the three are the most important).

    As for the ‘grip’ – I think you’re right Graham. If you are a non-English/German speaking scholar of the NT, for example, right now, it behoves you to learn and publish in English or German. Because you are more likely to be read, cited and to engage with the broadest range of other scholars: many of them also may be other language speakers. I don’t think that’s an imperial process: just a natural process of lock-in – like the synchronized flashing of fireflies.

    I still have more concerns about the original language issue. I just wonder how many professional NT scholars have enough *unassisted* Koine, to be able to make independent judgements about lexical decisions. I always assumed that to make such judgements, one *has* to take a data-based approach.

    If, for example, you say “what are the issues around μορφῇ in Phil 2?” – I (with just undergrad greek, and 15 years of practice) can read greek pretty well. But to answer that question I would hit the databases – in what contexts is that word used, can we build up a picture of its idiomatic and pragmatic sense, does it have textual variation, etc.

    I wouldn’t trust someone who relies on their knowedge of Koine to answer that question. Even less if the word in question was ἐπιούσιον.

    Better to be able to do both, of course! But I can’t think of an example of where (other than reading pleasure, which is why I find value in it), my level of Koine competency (or even the level of those NT scholars I am friends with) would be sufficient to add anything to the analytical method.

    • But without adequate koine Greek, when you’ve done your search through your database (e.g., the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae), all you’d have is a list of occurrences. You’d have to be able to READ the texts cited to build up a sense of how a word or expression is used. (Oh, and by the way, the question in Philip. 2:6 isn’t what μορφη “means” but how the expression μορφη θεου is used. See my study of this in How on Earth did Jesus Become a God?, 83-107, esp.97-102; and in Lord Jesus Christ, 121-23.) And there’s much more involved that “word studies” when it comes to dealing with the Greek NT.

  11. I didn’t assert that “all the good stuff is found in English, German and French”. I simply stated what is unexceptional: That to date and for any foreseeable future, the bulk of scholarly publications that have an impact on the field internationally are in these languages. I made no comment about what should happen. I simply stated that scholars in the field should be able to engage the bulk of high-impact scholarly publications in their field.

    The issue isn’t whether European languages should have some “grip” on the field, Graham. The issue I addressed is whether mono-lingual English-speaking students should be required to gear up to be genuine scholars in the field. If students from anywhere want to join the field, they should be able to access the large body of scholarship in the field. The more languages you have, the better. But I maintain that the minimal requirement must include those languages in which, still, the bulk of scholarly work is issued. So, can we address the issue I raised and cease importing yours here?

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