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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Sunday School Greek

First, there was the Greek in a Week. Now there is Sunday School Greek. These initiatives are thought possible with the help of the Reverse Interlinear and many different kinds of Bible software. I wouldn't know - I haven't updated my Greek resources in 30 years. Now, if I have an extra dollar, I invest in books like Epp's Junia.

The premise, put forward by Hank of Think Wink, and warmly received by the ESV Bible blog is that eveyone in the church could learn Greek and Hebrew in Sunday School. And then people could decide for themselves all the sticky translation issues. The democratization of exegesis! We might wake up one day and find out that the world really is flat. As Hank says,

    the whole fuss over dynamic vs. formal equivalent would go away because the people would have the ability to look up exactly what the word means and how the word was used. People could then make the decision over which translation is best in that particular verse, phrase, or word.
Wow, we wouldn't need Biblical languages experts or professional translators at all. Everyone in the church could translate for themselves.

Let me recount a little of my own experience here. I am an overqualified literacy specialist, being trained both as a Reading Recovery practitioner and also in policy through the, ahem, Marshall McLuhan Centre (of goodness knows what - communication, I think.) I am a little embarassed by both of these qualifications, but in this case, let me say, someone should be qualified.

First, as a literacy teacher, I have taken the two illiterate 10 year old children who were brought to me in Sept. up to the level where they can now read about Shackleton's Antarctic Expedition. I am an eternal optimist when it comes to children reading. Children in our school are rarely refered to special programs if they can be sent in my direction first.

Second, I once attempted to teach Greek to adults in a Sunday School situation. It was a 2 hour session on a Wed. evening. Me, the teacher who can teach anyone how to read, who never loses a child, emptied my class in less than 5 weeks. That was it - my clientele of adults disappeared, evaporated. It was the most humiliating failure of my life that I was not able to make Greek easy enough for the average non-university trained adult.

In fact, I studied Greek every day for 7 years to attain what I consider to be the most mediocre level, an amateur level of skill in the Greek language. I did not study the scriptures in Greek so much as the language itself. However, I didn't spend years of my life functioning only in Greek so I don't actually speak Greek.

The first Sunday Schools were indeed vehicles of literacy, a venue for teaching children and adults how to read their own langauge, but they were never a place where one could learn to read an entirely new language. There is difference!

But, one might say, now we have software! As a teacher who uses technology quite a bit, I am always cautious, and never of the opinion that technology replaces traditional learning. I was amused recently, and flattered I might add, at the honest attempt of one blogger to recreate my Junia study using software. He soon bogged down.

I couldn't help but speak out on these issues since literacy and digital literacy are, in fact, my daytime job, and Greek is my playtime. I hope that those who think that anyone can be a biblical languages specialist and make all their own translation decisions will accept this word of caution.

Thanks for posting about this Hank. Many people have the same thoughts.


At Tue Jan 23, 03:43:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Suzanne, I agree with you in being rather negative about any suggestion that all or most church members should learn Greek, that it should be taught in Sunday School. And I say this as another person who has tried this, for a church's midweek class, and has succeeded in almost emptying a classroom! The reason why this happens is that most church members quite frankly do not have the level of motivation to learn Greek. They have a general interest but not the commitment to keep going through the difficult times, especially when the long term benefit is far from clear. Those who are committed, and are taught in an appropriate way for their learning style (which for most people means not by learning paradigm tables), are able to learn Greek, whatever their background - just as you find you can teach illiterate kids. But those who are not committed will never learn.

But I don't think you should confuse this with courses like "Greek in a Week". I don't actually know anything about the courses you link to, but I do know about the courses with the same name (and whose copyright may have been infringed) led by the late John Dobson in the UK in the 1990s. He also ran "Hebrew in a Week" courses, and the six week Hebrew course I took with him was an expanded version of this. In fact it is possible to learn quite a lot of a language in just a week, if you are well motivated and working on it full time in a small group, as in Dobson and Schwandt's classes. Such a course can easily cover what usually takes a semester - although the recognised danger with such concentrated learning is that it can easily be forgotten if not practised after the course. The key to the success of such a course is commitment. It is likely to work if it is for people who have a real need to learn Greek or Hebrew, such as Bible translators and perhaps preachers. It is not going to work for ordinary church members who just want to understand the Bible a bit better.

So, Suzanne, don't disparage the courses which are out there. They do work for people who are committed to them. But don't expect average church members to have the commitment to take them and see them through.

At Tue Jan 23, 04:03:00 AM, Blogger Carl W. Conrad said...

I shake my head, old curmudgeon that I am and a retired professor of Greek whose last classroom experience was a January 20-session crash course in Biblical Greek for seminary students. Of my 13 students two did quite well, considering the nature and limitations of the course. But these were seminary students who had to have this course to get into the school's first exegesis class. I agree with Peter that the dedicated student with application and industry can make a very significant start within a short time, but very few are likely to succeed -- precisely because the application and industry required are just not there. Aside from that, whatever is accomplished, be it in three successive days, once a week, or in the course of one month, is only a beginning and the beginner needs to be aware that the beginning demands an ongoing commitment. Anything less really deserves -- I think -- disparagment. What Euclid (I think) said of geometry is certainly as true for Biblical Greek: "There is no royal road ... "

At Tue Jan 23, 09:13:00 AM, Blogger J. Mark Bertrand said...

It may be impractical for 'everyone' to learn Greek, but one thing I believe would be helpful for laypeople is a user-friendly introduction to translating the Greek NT. The goal would not be to equip them for the task, but to (a) develop an appreciation for what the task involves -- including the sometimes necessary reminder that our English translations are translations -- and (b) provide an overview of difficult or ambiguous passages, looking at various ways they've been translated.

Knowledge of the original languages would certainly prevent a lot of interpretative problems, but then again, so would a better appreciation of the common pitfalls. Laypeople might not have the ability or motivation to become language scholars, but a basic grasp of method and common pitfalls could help them be more discerning, couldn't it? I suppose information like this is available, say, in the NET Bible notes, but someone with the expertise to organize and present the material would make it a more rewarding experience -- something that really could be accomplished in a week, or in Sunday School.

At Tue Jan 23, 10:16:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think what the Sunday Schools really need is a few honest translators!

What I mean is, there is bias in translation, and sometimes the lexicons and related materials are not up to date. The complementarians want one thing, the Calvinists another, and it's quite difficult to find a consensus.

Can you imagine the result if beginners were trying to translate on their own, when even the experts disagree? I think more could be gained by comparing the opinions of experts from different biases than to try and teach everyone how to translate.

But perhaps an even more basic problem is logic. Most people, even with a perfect translation, would still come to erroneous conclusions due to faulty logic. Between that and a need for more information about context for any given passage of scripture, I think most misunderstandings could be cleared up. We'll always have our different interpretations, even within one language.

At Tue Jan 23, 10:42:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Mark, I like your idea. I've had the same idea. I've thought maybe I could try to develop a S.S. curriculum in this area. We attend a church where I think quite a few people would be interested in this. There are quite a few professors from the church-related liberal arts college whose campus is right next to the church. There are a lot of thinking people in the church.

At Tue Jan 23, 10:08:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

It has been my general observation in formal foreign language classes (taught at the university level, for example) that attrition is significant -- only about a third of a class typically survives from the first semester to the second semester. So I think the dropoff mentioned by Ms. McCarthy and Mr. Kirk are not that unusual -- especially since there was presumably no grade involved.

I think that grades are one way of motivating student involvement; another is requiring significant fees (if students were paying $2500/semester for the privilege of learning, they presumably would not have given up so easily); a third is making them a formal requirement (thus, somehow, all seminary students seem to successfully struggle through Koine); and a fourth is making learning languages a religious obligation (e.g., if the liturgy is in a foreign language.)

As anyone who has studied foreign languages knows, the secret is constant attendance at class (which preferably meet on a daily basis), and daily practice, drill, and memorization. I cannot imagine how a language can be taught in a one-class-a-week format (even a weekend without study causes problems for me.) Perhaps intensive courses work for some; I'm somewhat skeptical. A daily schedule with one hour of instruction and three additional hours of study and drill is exhausting to me; but perhaps other students have greater stamina than I do.

Still, I think a lot can be done with Biblical language and religious education for the lay person with no previous exposure. The average lay person is capable of learning Biblical languages if motivated; learning of classical and medieval languages such as Biblical Hebrew, Rabbinic Hebrew, Koine, Byzantine Greek, Church Slavonic, Church Latin, Aramaic, and Coptic is still common in many religious communities today. And, only about a century ago, educated people were expected to know both Greek and Latin. In contrast, the view of those who regard even the rather simple Jacobean English of the KJV as too difficult for all but the most highly educated congregant is depressingly pessimistic and anti-intellectual.

But more important: in learning a language (in a well-structure program), the earliest lessons tend to me the most useful and applicable. One covers the most common elements of language first; in more advanced classes do students encounter uncommon grammar, vocabulary, and idioms. So, a student who masters only a few aspects of a Biblical language will gain value disproportionately large to the amount of time spent. Further, if one limits one's ambitions to merely reading the Bible, one can benefit even from very limited lessons. Works in the style of Wuest's Word Studies (or similar older works by Vincent and Robertson) can be profitably understood by students with only a very meager grasp of Koine, and if it motivates them to go and learn, all the better. (I don't comment here on the theological stance taken by these works, but merely their pedagogical approach.)

The Bible certainly must be one of the most translated and most commented upon works, so someone with very limited skill can certainly "fake it." (Indeed, I think that certain well known Christian seminary teachers and Bible "translators" fall into this category.) A much more interesting test is to see if someone has the skill to read works in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic that have not yet been translated into English. (I am quite distressed when I find "Hebraists" who cannot read unpointed Hebrew or Rabbinic commentary.)

Finally, I do think an introduction to Biblical languages, even at a superficial "baby" level is significantly more substantive than the contents of the top 50 bestseller list of the CBA.

At Tue Jan 23, 11:38:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


You must realize what I think of he NET Bible notes! I agree with Teknomom - too much bias creeping into the lexicons and grammar. After all, BADG did mention Junias, even though the name was not known to exist.

However, Mark, I think your general idea is good, that the goal should be defined carefully and the program designed accordingly.

What concerned me originally was the thought that Sunday School Greek would encourage people to feel they could decide themselves what the best translation was.


Let's take this a bit further and define the different levels and types of language skill.

1. Be able to orally decode the letters on the page and pronounce them without knowing their meaning. Kind of like what I do with Hebrew. :-) Although limited, this is extremely useful when reading Bauckham's Gospel Women, for example. I understand that both Rahab and Ruth are known for the quality of חסד hesed. If I couldn't read that much Hebrew I wouldn't get much out of Bauckham's book. He doesn't offer English glosses for Hebrew vocabulary, or even transliteration. So level one is to decode the language and therefore, read with some benefit literature which discusses the biblical lg vocabulary.

2. Be able to read with understanding extended passages. At this level one recognizes and remembers the meaning of the words because one has been taught the vocabulary in context. You can't make complex translation decisions, but you can enjoy and feel at one with the language and have an aesthetic appreciation of the prose or poetry. You might understand some additional content but not much. However, the devotional and emotional attachment to the language would make it worthwhile.

3. Be able to participate in discussions about translation by knowing more about the vocabulary and grammar than is present in any one passage. In this case one might gain an appreciation of the opinions of scholars and be able to assess them critically. There is more cognitive engagement and possible ability to make one's own decisions.

4. Be able to read a passage that has not been translated into English. This is the level required for the Junia research since the Greek epigraphy database is not translated to the best of my knowledge.

5. Close to native speaker knowledge of the language. In this case one has read and is familiar with a great deal of literature and has an intuitive sense that is generally accurate. However, even when we read something written in our own mother tongue we do not always agree on how it should be interpreted, so even there one will only be able to have informed opinions, not God's absolute truth.


Ultimately, I think level 2 is great if one is going for devotion and the ability to converse with others about the original lgs. That seems to be the level which you are refering to when you say

and a fourth is making learning languages a religious obligation (e.g., if the liturgy is in a foreign language.)

But is anything more than that worth the investment for a large part of the population? Wouldn't a Christian's time be better spent carrying out the parts of the gospel we do understand? How about feeding the hungry, or our whatever our present day equivalent should be?

Why shouldn't we admit that we specialize, we are not all a hand or a foot. We should offer the same honour to those who work in the soup kitchens as we do to those who preach or teach?

But certainly a course on the history of translation might be of equal benefit to a course on say the history of the prayer book which seems to be popular in my neck of the woods. It is rather interesting to see what Luther's contribution to translation was, or Buber and Rosenzweig - or Darby.

At Wed Jan 24, 03:14:00 AM, Blogger anonymous said...

Ms. McCarthy --

There are several themes going through your response -- allow me to break them down. By and large, I agree with your views, but I think we can take them deeper.

You talk about how a Christian's (one might add, more generally, a religious person's) time is best spent. Of course, we need to do what we can do consistent with our beliefs. Let me take the ten commandments as an example. Different groups break them u in different ways, in the Jewish division, there are three positive commandments; in the Protestant and Catholic divisions there are two positive commandments. For the negative commandments the limitation is on what we should not do -- no murder, no false witness, etc. The positive commandments (honor parents, keep Sabbath holy [dismissed by some Christians], and in the Jewish division, the existence of God) do of course require time. However, the use of time is not inconsistent with study.

But what of the universal human requirements to help the weak and the poor and the sick? Here, I must confess, I usually discharge these responsibilities by writing a check. Most charitable groups are terribly underfunded, and thus my check makes a real difference in their effectiveness. So even these responsibilities are discharged with a minimal use of time. Different people respond to different aspects of religion, but I think many people who read this blog respond to study, and study has traditionally formed a major part of Muslim, Jewish, and Catholic worship. So, we can ask the question how can we best study? I think the answer is that people learn best what they are motivated to learn. So, if there is any desire to learn Biblical languages, we should foster that desire.

Now, in terms of levels of language understanding -- we could of course break these up in different ways. But if foreign language forms a part of prayer, the universal requirement to understand one's prayers (that is, to pray with intention, or mindfulness (in Buddhist terminology) or kavannah (in Jewish terminology)) motivates the person praying to learn the prayer. I would say that the question is always increasing the level of understanding.

For someone reading Scripture, I think the value of learning a little original languages is not so much to "take on the scholars" but to try to capture aspects of the text that cannot be accurately reflected in the translation. I've discussed many, many, many instances of this in the Hebrew Scriptures; and one can, I think say without controversy, that without knowing the meaning of certain words in Hellenic culture many aspects of the more difficult Epistles will remain closed to readers.

This is one reason why I don't take Mark Driscoll's opinion seriously. While he is clearly a powerful spiritual leader to his flock, he has not evidenced the type of deep understanding of the text that comes from interaction with nuances that simply cannot be translated. As a result, at best, he appears to simply repeats an eclectically chosen set of observations drawn from the secondary literature.

I am, perhaps, a little less respectful of scholars than some -- I've met some scholars and you know the saw ... familiarity ... contempt. More to the point, I see errors in standard reference works (including lexicons that are sometimes treated as "holy" such as HALOT or BDAG) and even more errors discussed in articles such as Catholic Bible Quarterly. I see large numbers of rather serious errors made by certain outspoken theologians who also dabble in Bible translations -- a topic perhaps more discussed than any other on this blog. We teach students in secondary school and certainly in college to read critically. I see no reason we should not continue the lesson when the work is done by "scholars."

So, it seems to me, the payoffs from learning foreign language begin to accrue immediately and continue to grow with increased familiarity: in appreciate aspects of the text (including the form of the text) that cannot be translated, to a deeper understanding of the meaning, to the ability to question decisions made by others, to the ability to participate in a discussion of the meaning.

A constant fear expressed on this board is that with the knowledge of a little Greek people may begin to make serious theological errors. I suppose this is a risk, but not one that bothers me excessively. We hardly worry that a "little arithmetic" will lead people astray or that a "little civics" will cause societal distress. The best antidote to people who overreach their linguistic abilities is discussion with others who can help point out better interpretations. Indeed, this is the basis of classical Jewish study, the chavrusa, in which two students debate and argue their way to understanding of a text (almost always, an untranslated text.) The progress is monitored by an experienced teacher but the real point is to have students teach themselves.

I find that when I study with a learning partner, it is an intense experience -- one that brings out a full respect for the abilities of one's study partner and sharpens "steel against steel" one's own intellectual abilities.

So, I don't think a Greek lesson in Sunday school will cause harm, and I think it may help elevate the level of the class (although I doubt the Sunday school format is appropriate for serious learning of a foreign language). And I have great faith in the ability of people to match high expectations. As Mr. Leman wrote, "There are a lot of thinking people in the church."

At Wed Jan 24, 07:32:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

You talk about how a Christian's (one might add, more generally, a religious person's) time is best spent.

I stand corrected. I have to also add that the one person who best represents the ideal of Christian service to my mind is herself an atheist.

We hardly worry that a "little arithmetic" will lead people astray or that a "little civics" will cause societal distress.

Then I will agree that the aspiration itself is not at fault - I aspire to know a little about a great deal myself, but the goal of learning must be commiserate with the level.

The best antidote to people who overreach their linguistic abilities is discussion with others who can help point out better interpretations. Indeed, this is the basis of classical Jewish study, the chavrusa, in which two students debate and argue their way to understanding of a text (almost always, an untranslated text.)

And that is probably what is going on here. We debate between ourselves as students. We are fortunate to have more qualified instructors behind the scenes.

At Wed Jan 24, 08:50:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

We hardly worry that a "little arithmetic" will lead people astray or that a "little civics" will cause societal distress.

Indeed, but we don't let those with a "little arithmetic" set themselves up as accountants of those with a "little civics" set themselves up as lawyers (although we may elect them to public office, more fool us!) We expect them to realise their limitations and not try to use their skills in the public domain. Similarly those with a little Greek, or theology.

The best antidote to people who overreach their linguistic abilities is discussion with others who can help point out better interpretations.

Indeed. The problem comes when these people lack the humility to realise that they may be wrong, and others accept their bogus claims to expertise as if they were gospel truth.

At Thu Jan 25, 02:10:00 PM, Blogger Brian said...

what if we just created a "intro to biblical languages" class where you give people the basics in understanding "how biblical languages work" (there is a recent book by this title) and how to use the tools for effective bible study that and do this in a quarter format so people won't overwhelmed by a year long commitment. Then interested folk could decide to commit to more intense levels?


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