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NT Research Languages: Encore

September 27, 2011

I don’t monitor other blogs regularly at all, but I’ve noticed that the topic of requiring competence in key research languages for PhD work in NT continues to elicit some interest, including a posting and comments on this site:

Curiously, the posting seems to argue that for PhD students in NT/Christian Origins to be required to have the language competence in question (good Koine Greek, adequate Hebrew, German and French, at a minimum) would work some kind of hardship on UK students who didn’t attend a British “public” (i.e., private) school.  So, it would reflect class-privilege.  The posting proposes that before we could require these language comptences we’d have to change the whole British school system, or at least undergraduate education.  Seems a bit extreme to me.

What we really need is for PhD-granting institutions to make clear that language competence is required, and should be worked up before commencing PhD work (as we do in Edinburgh).  Moreover, I find it bizarre that a masters-level programme specifically in biblical studies would treat the biblical languages as electives/options.  In Edinburgh, we require a basic ability in at least Greek or Hebrew for admission to our masters programme in biblical studies, and we further require 40 of the 120 course-credits to be taken in language courses (the dissertation counts for another 60 credits).  So, e.g., if an applicant has some Koine Greek, she would be directed to take Hebrew, and vice versa.  If an applicant has some basic Greek and Hebrew, she would still be required to take 40 credits work in languages, simply at more advanced level(s).  I find it simply dubious to think that one can do postgraduate degree work in a subject without being able to engage the original language of that subject and its key texts.

And it’s simply a red-herring to suggest that class or what sort of secondary school people attend is the issue, or that requiring languages privileges the wealthy or upper classes.  I’m a truck-driver’s kid from Missouri, American public schools all the way.  I’d never have been able even to take an undergraduate degree without scholarships funding, let alone PhD studies.  I was raised in a mono-lingual home, and every language competence I’ve acquired has been by dint of time-consuming effort.  I’m not defending privilege, but simply asserting that it is delusory to suggest that one can do a PhD in NT/Christian Origins without competence in these languages.

So, we don’t need to remould the UK school systems (and there are several, actually), but, instead, we simply need UK universities to face up to the proper demands of the discipline and do potential applicants the favour of providing clear advice on what is involved in a PhD in this field.

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  1. Many thanks for taking the time to read my original post and the trouble to respond to it. Perhaps I may explain why I don’t feel my post was a ‘red herring’? I was talking yesterday to a fellow student from mainland Europe who was telling me that she studied Classical Greek at school for three years, and Latin for four. This was before she began her degree in Theology where she furthered these abilities. I doubt that any student who has studied at an English comprehensive school will have had these opportunities, although for those in private education, this would not be too unusual. Therefore, the student from the comprehensive school has to rely on their undergraduate education to gain these linguistic faculties.

    It is good of you to share something of your own educational background, but I wonder how your degrees differed from those of today? If I consider the late minister who encouraged me into the field, in his undergraduate degree forty or more years ago, he did four years of Greek and three of Hebrew, and I believe this was compulsory. In spite of not having studied the languages at school, therefore, he was thus ideally situated to meet the kind of requirement we are both agreed is a good idea for traditional NT doctoral studies. However, as John rightly points out, times have changed significantly, and the study of languages is no longer compulsory, or even a priority, in many undergraduate degrees. When I have asked why there are so few English students studying for traditional doctorates in Biblical Studies, a common answer is that, ‘they do not have the languages.’ With this being so, I am glad to read that you are now taking on the requirements for MA’s, because this is precisely my point. The requirements for a PhD should not be treated in isolation. If we want to set a particular standard for PhD’s, then this should be reflected in the higher education system up to that stage. For sure, languages can be learned by individuals outside of formal university teaching (and I certainly was not suggesting the avoidance of the hard work of language learning – I am all too familiar with this myself), but just as we would expect a Physics degree to provide the foundation for postgraduate study of Physics (in practice, this means maths, the ‘language’ of science), so this should be the case in Theology also.

    If languages continue their decline in importance at undergraduate level then this would seem to send mixed messages when put alongside a formal PhD language requirement. More importantly, not only will English students fall behind those in the rest of Europe, but those without the opportunities of private education will find it problematic to gain the necessary linguistic facility in Biblical Studies. So my plea is not necessarily to shun a language requirement at PhD level, but not to let it stop there.

    • I appreciate and share your concerns. I agree that UK university depts in Theology/Religions need to make clearer to undergrads the importance of key languages, and if at all possible ensure that the languages are offered, that masters programmes should also maintain appropriate language requirements, and that at PhD level the basic language tools be required.

  2. Mortensen permalink

    I completely agree on the indispensability of Koine Greek, Hebrew, German, and to a lesser extent French for any biblical scholar, whether NT or OT. However, I am wondering what is the next language on the list for a NT scholar. Is it Spanish, Latin, Aramaic, Dutch, or perhaps Italian or Russian or Coptic? Or would it then depend on that person’s particular specialism? Thoughts anyone.

  3. I can’t help but think that the solution to this problem is beyond the PhD level. At least in the US, most students can get by with no more than a smattering of Spanish as their only foreign language experience. French and Spanish are usually the only options, with German or Latin possibly available (this was my experience at a very good public high school, I did the IB program for those familiar with it). I had a good deal of French, but unfortunately I didn’t have the foresight to take Latin. Usually, “Latin will help you on the SAT” is the only reason high schoolers are given to study it.

    It’s no surprise the students on the European continent are running laps around us in this area. In Italy, at least, they start Latin early on and do Classical Greek in high school. I, on the other hand, am finishing up my undergraduate degree with decent koine (self-taught though!), solid French, and a smattering of German and Latin (also self-taught, though in process).

    I’m not sure what the solution is. These languages do matter! Some of the problem is probably the prevailing method of teaching classical languages. Daniel Street’s posts on Greek pedagogy have been immensely enlightening: Having immersion classes more readily available would undoubtedly help (Randall Buth’s Hebrew and Greek classes are excellent from what I understand). Unfortunately, I think we’ll need a structural change in the US if we want to see scholars with the language skills of yesteryear.

  4. thomaslynch permalink

    I want to clarify my comments on the blog mentioned above (I was the class guy).

    Biblical studies is experiencing a crisis in languages. Similar problems occur in other disciplines (philosophy for example) as well other sub-disciplines of theology (systematic theology, ethics, etc.). If we accept that crisis as a given, it seems that there are to feasible explanations: 1) students are lazy or don’t care; 2) the educational systems do not emphasize language study as necessary.

    I’m merely suggesting that it seems hasty to go with the first option. If the second is more accurate, then we need to reflect on ways of making language study a priority throughout undergraduate and postgraduate study.

    I did not mean to suggest that class was ‘the’ issue, only that if universities aren’t clear about their expectations (and provide the resources to meet those expectations), certain groups of students are more likely to be effected.

  5. John Moles. permalink

    There are exactly the same questions and problems in Classics (my field, I am a professor). It is entirely possible and legitimate to study the subject at undergraduate level without languages (Latin or Greek or both). It is academically necessary that there be some language acquisition (that is, ancient language acquisition) at MA level. It is even more necessary at PhD level. Problem: these languages are difficult, especially for present-day British or American students (modern English has effectively no grammatical structure compared with these languages). Of course, NT Greek is a lot easier than Classical Greek, but it’s still not easy. Then, at research level, add on the desirability, maybe necessity, of French and German.

    There are difficult compromises here. It was actually Sean Freyne, as External, who was instrumental in bringing about the removal of compulsory language at Durham from the NT undergraduate degree, because he felt it wasn’t worth it: many couldn’t cope, or the effort was disproportionate, and distorted their other studies. The vast majority of Classicists in the UK and the US have made the same calculation.

    And yet. As a trained Classicist, with good Classical Greek, I can say that the Greek, even the easier NT Greek, of many NT scholars, including some very famous ones, is disturbingly poor. Then there’s Aramaic, Hebrew, French, German, etc. etc.

    In the end one muddles along, recognising that the subject can be studied in different ways, at different levels, and with different ‘ideal requirements’ at each level. One also observes, in Classics as (no doubt) in NT studies, that technically very well equippied scholars can be very obtuse in other areas.

    • Language competence is a problem for many fields, granted. I hope, however, that we don’t simply lower the standards of PhD work simply because undergrads can avoid taking languages. Instead, we need to make the standards clear, so that those aiming for postgrad study prepare accordingly. And the preparation will likely include, not simply university courses, but also wider reading, and working up languages in various ways, including self-taught mode. That’s the way many of us have done it for many years now.

  6. Greg permalink

    I was born and raised here in Missouri myself and I am an ardent advocate for the aforementioned things. I grew up in a monolingual home as well and had no special education growing up. For undergrad I majored in Biblical Languages. I’m in seminary now and am drudging through the hard work of learning/retaining my Greek, Hebrew and German. It’s hard work but there’s no other way to go about it. We don’t need to lower the bar any more than it’s been lowered. Besides, that’s one reason we’re having some of these problems in the first place.

    I enjoy the blog. Thanks!

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