Monday, April 30, 2012

It's Greek to me!

An issue that often crops up is whether seminaries should require students to learn Greek and Hebrew. On a related note is the level of proficiency in Greek and Hebrew we should expect from pastors. I’ll just make a few observations:

i) Some people have a tremendous natural facility for languages. Two people who come to mind are Cyrus Gordon and D. S. Margoliouth. They seem to sponge up languages pretty effortlessly.

I had an aunt who knew about 10 languages. She once mentioned to me that African click languages have three different clicks, which she proceeded to demonstrate. This is the despair of most folks. She just had a great ear.

On a related note, some linguists have a knack for decrypting ancient languages.

ii) Then you have a guy like F. F. Bruce. I think he was so good with foreign languages, not because he had a specific linguistic facility, but because he had a photographic memory. With a photographic memory, it was child’s play for him to acquire reading proficiency in ancient (and modern European) languages.

My father had a college prof. who seemed to have total recall. The professor would make small talk with his students. Ask about their family. Next time he spoke with them he picked up right where he left off, without missing a beat. Remembered the names of the third cousin of so-and-so. 

I had a grandmother who played bridge every week. The next day she’d phone a friend and do blow-by-blow replay of every hand that was played.

One of my grandfathers had a friend with a remarkable memory. When the car was stopped at an RR crossing, his friend would watch all the freight cars go by, then tell my grandfather what was in every freight car based on the numerical codes on the side of each freight car.

The late Paul Woolley, church historian at Westminster, used to memorize train schedules just for the heck of it. 

iii) Then you have people like E. J. Young and R. D. Wilson who could read 30-40 languages, not because they have exceptional linguistic facility, but because they were extremely diligent.

iv) Then you have people who are very good at Greek or Hebrew. They concentrate on one language.

vi) NT scholars need to be proficient in Hebrew while OT scholars need to be proficient in Greek. But due to specialization, OT scholars generally know Hebrew better than Greek while NT scholars generally know Greek better than Hebrew.

vii) Bible scholars vary greatly in their philological expertise.

viii) I think we need to have realistic expectations for ministers. In fact, it can be counterproductive to expect too much. Ironically, a pastor is apt to make exegetical mistakes if he puts too much emphasis on Greek and Hebrew when he lacks the necessary expertise.

As a rule, I think we should set the bar lower. Here are two things it would be good for pastors to aim for:

a) Being able to read a few chapters a day in the Greek NT, Hebrew OT, and LXX.

b) Knowing enough Greek and Hebrew that they can follow the explanation when a commentator analyses a Greek or Hebrew construction.

ix) In addition, you can be a great scholar, but a terrible communicator. A great scholar, but an awful pastor. 


  1. I tend to agree with everything you say. I would even be willing to lower the bar further, to include those with a mastery of their native tongue, and with a good understanding of their own limitations in the original languages.

    Unfortunately, that would still exclude about 70% of American young men, who cannot be said to have a mastery even of their own native tongue.

  2. Steve,

    Do you mind sharing what languages you know? Just curious, that's all.

  3. I'd be confident to say that Steve knows 'em all.

  4. Steve frequently conducts small talk in binary.

  5. I once heard Steve give a lecture entirely in Quenya.


    "Steve, Do you mind sharing what languages you know? Just curious, that's all."

    I'm fluent in Vulcan and Rihannsu. I can read Cardassian novels. I know how to swear in Klingon. And I know how to order food or ask where the bathroom is in the Jarada language.

  7. John Bugay said...

    "I'd be confident to say that Steve knows 'em all.

    In the words of Charles V, "I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse."

  8. Mathetes said...

    "Steve frequently conducts small talk in binary."

    The Bynars were my next door neighbors, just three parsecs from my home planet.

  9. Matthew Schultz said...

    "I once heard Steve give a lecture entirely in Quenya."

    I credit that to the excellent education I received on K-PAX.

  10. Reading several chapters a day of Greek and Hebrew and the LXX is a high standard for pastors.

    I wish I could keep it up - I do well just to translate a paragraph or section for a sermon using Lexicons and grammars and constantly refreshing and looking up stuff again.

  11. I once heard Steve give a lecture entirely in Quenya without once opening his mouth; it was entirely in my head! So not only can Steve communicate in multiple languages but he can communicate these languages telepathically.

  12. I wouldn't be surprised if Steve can speak in the tongues of men and of angels, too.

  13. Ken,

    If Pastors read several chapters a day from the Greek NT, Hebrew OT, and LXX, they wouldn't need to spend so much time consulting lexicons. Repeated reading would reinforce fluency.

    BTW, when I was in college I took directed readings in Greek. I'd meet with my Classics prof. for an hour once a week and translate a section of the LXX or the Iliad. I had the week before to prepare for each session, but when I was there, it was just me and the original text. I had to do it from memory.

  14. Good point Steve,
    I guess I was never trained in just reading the bare text, as you are describing.

    From the beginning, I was too dependent on the grammar and Lexicons - Seminary seemed to deliberately overload you with too much work (at the same time as Greek, having papers to write for OT Survey, Hermeneutics, Ethics, Missions classes. and at the same time as Hebrew - Systematic Theology courses, Pastoral courses, church history, etc.

    As a result, I recognize easy words, and easy paradigms, but have to look up the harder participial stuff and some contractions.

    And I forgot so much of Hebrew, that I almost have to look up most words, except for the real easy ones.

    But, Farsi is easier because I learned it as a real language and practice reading the whole thing constantly.

    Good that you had that training in the Iliad, etc.

    All I had was 2 years of Greek in Seminary and 1 year of Hebrew but it was all too crammed for time with all the other courses in Systematic Theology, etc.

  15. some contractions.

    should have been:

    some constructions

  16. oh wow, my post disappeared!
    Too much to reconstruct right now.

  17. "repeated reading would reinforce fluency"

    Good point, Steve.

    I wish that I had realized that earlier. I was trying so hard to parse and analyze each word, that I guess I never learned to read it like a real language. They didn't seem to stress that issue. With all the other classes in seminary, it was hard to do - they seemed to deliberately overload us with lots of classes and papers to make it impossible to master Greek and Hebrew. (in order to teach future pastors and missionaries what it will be like in real life ministry - not having enough time to study thoroughly, so it forces one to "fit the task to the time") This kind of thing drives perfectionists personalities crazy.