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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Seminaries and Biblical Interpretation

John Hobbins and Iyov have brought up an issue which has been very much on my mind from my very first post on the BBB - that of the depth of language skill required in seminary.

The premise is that rabbinical students learn Hebrew better than Christian seminary students learn the biblical languages, and that knowledge of he biblical languages should be a prerequisite for entrance into a seminary program.

I have been thinking about this quite a bit for the last few years and can only see it as a multidimensional problem.

First, do we really want to have only top language students, those who through intensive or early study mastered the languages, as our pastors. I would suggest not. I have recently sat under the ministry of those who have come out of a deep knowledge of spiritual literature, but only in English, or those who have studied psychology and counseling. Frankly, hands down, any day, I would seek spiritual counsel from someone with a background in psychology before someone who could out-argue me in Greek. Maybe that's just me, I dunno.

For example, a top Christian Hebrew scholar might say (has said) that divorce is a result of modern day role reversal. Wow. What are hurting men and women going to do with that? It might be more useful to talk with someone who is all too aware of the excruciating marital circumstances of the greats throughout the centuries - someone who has read the personal spiritual pilgrimages of men like John Milton and Karl Barth, not to mention Augustine.

The problem these days is that women don't usually check out early from death by childbirth the way they used to. Naturally, if more women - and men - are going to live past 4o there are simply going to be more divorces. That's how statistics works.

I don't really need a spiritual counselor who knows Greek or Hebrew. It can help, but empathy and knowledge of the human condition go further. If they can be combined with language knowledge - well that's a different thing.

Now, the real question. Is the present state of language skill in Christian seminaries in North America up to snuff? I have been saying it isn't since I started writing here. If we are going to talk about what makes a Bible scholar then I am pretty disappointed with the standards.

Here are some of my assumptions. First, I would assume that language knowledge is worse now than it used to be in many previous centuries. Sure, more manuscripts are available but that's about it. Software does not increase or replace knowledge of a language - it speeds up the production of research papers. I would argue that the famous database studies of authentein, kephale and Junia, etc. are of little intrinsic interest. I only read them and analyze them to prove how shallow they are. That's it. (Okay, that isn't very nuanced - maybe someone will disagree with me.)

Next, yes I definitely agree that you gain a different and more available kind of knowledge in a subject when you are young. Whether it is a language, mathematics or music, I just don't think most people have the time it would take to start a regular university program in these subjects in their mid twenties and expect to compete. It is probably only the rare individual who could catch up. Think of, say, learning how to play a violin. Yes, there are those rare individuals who start as late as 9 or 10 but most start at 4. Age is not an absolute but it is very, very important.

Surprisingly the gender thing reared its weary head on Mississippi Fred's blog. The problem I see, on anecdotal evidence, is that going into university men are drawn more to maths and science and women more to humanities and languages. I think we need to start with looking at the overall decline in language learning and see whether there is also a gender imbalance. That is, how can we make language learning more attractive to young people, and specifically young men.

On one very minor point, I question Iyov when he says you should only learn one language at a time. Both John Hobbins and I have the opposite experience. We studied the biblical languages while working in another language, French or Italian. Learning more than one language at a time can really open up one's mind to understanding how much our thinking is bound by language. It can be an amazing experience.

In sum, top qualifications for pastor for myself are a well-educated and caring older woman. I simply believe that spiritual leadership must include both men and women.

In biblical scholarship and translation, present day North America has a lot of problems. While there are many top institutions, the populist level of scholarship, with minimal background in languages, has probably not seen a precedent in several centuries.

10 Comments:

At Wed Jul 11, 09:41:00 PM, Blogger Iyov said...

To have credibility as a religious authority, a pastor must have more religious knowledge (in general) than most of his congregation. Knowledge of Scripture and classical languages essential to the faith is fairly basic knowledge; an absence of knowledge of Scripture or classical languages essential to the faith community puts an upper limit on the skill level of the congregation.

In Jewish congregations, I would guess that a majority of those who regularly pray in shul have a fair knowledge of Hebrew and the top ten percent have a fairly good knowledge of Hebrew. The prayer service itself is in Hebrew, Scripture is read in Hebrew -- Jewish laws are written down in Hebrew -- a good working knowledge of Hebrew is mandatory.

Moreover, given the poor quality of translations, to not know original languages is to view Scripture through a smoky haze. No doubt, reading in translation is better than not knowing Scripture at all, but it can hardly compare with the ability to read Scripture directly.

To demonstrate this to yourself, just imagine a non-native speaker reading an English work of moderate linguistic complexity (such as Shakespeare, Joyce, or even children's novels such as Alice in Wonderland) in translation. We know that many of the effect of those works are untranslatable. Certainly the Hebrew Bible, at least, also demonstrates linguistic complexity.

As far as learning more than one language at a time is concerned, that this is less effective for most students than learning languages sequentially has been demonstrated in a number of studies (which I am too lazy to look up). I understand that you may have learned different languages at the same time (although I would have thought you were already fairly far along in the language of instruction at the time you attempted tertiary languages) but this is hardly convincing evidence, even anecdotally: you would need to contrast your experience to your "clone" who learned the languages sequentially.

 
At Wed Jul 11, 10:18:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Iyov,

I have written this in a fairly conversational and anecdotal way, so I won't defend myself too vociferously.

I understand that you may have learned different languages at the same time (although I would have thought you were already fairly far along in the language of instruction at the time you attempted tertiary languages)

After writing this post I tried to remember exactly, but French - very early, Latin, German and Greek - started all at the same time - Hebrew later.

I thought that studying all these lgs at once was comparable to studying all three maths at once - I think there were three maths in grade 13, plus chemistry, physics and bio.

I took Math A, Physics, Chem, Greek, Latin, French and German in grade 13. I dropped bio because there weren't enough chairs and the teacher told those who didn't need the credit to get lost.

But I wasn't a model student so this is just an anecdote - nothing more. I will keep an eye out for those studies that you mention.

Some people think that once you start on one lg. the next is much easier. The real difficulty with Greek and Hebrew is the visual memory. It is just simply tough to start on that when you are older. I am so grateful I learned it when I was young.

However, most people who follow a programme of languages at university do study more than one langauge at a time. That is what it's about.

----

The question of religious authority is one that I am struggling with. I do know what I expect of a Bible translator, for sure. No problem there.

Your points are well taken, but I am having a hard time lining them up with my experience.

What I see is that sometimes a person might become a pastor later in life, after a successful career elsewhere. They are too old to learn the biblical lgs. but they have a lot of wisdom.

Unless whole congregations are literate in the Biblical lgs these people are simply not going to know them either. So how can this be achieved, given that there are two Biblical lgs involved.

 
At Wed Jul 11, 10:27:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

PS Then I studied Greek in French - later. So yes, I admit I wasn't beginning either French or Greek at the time, but had studied both for many years.

 
At Thu Jul 12, 01:54:00 AM, Blogger Iyov said...

What I see is that sometimes a person might become a pastor later in life, after a successful career elsewhere. They are too old to learn the biblical lgs. but they have a lot of wisdom.

Such a person may serve a very valuable role, but I am not certain that he or she should claim to be a religious authority. I would be most happy to see a different titles for those who achieve scholarship in religious studies and those who are wise or compassionate but not learned.

I also believe that clergy of great scholarship can excite the imagination of the faithful in a profound way. I can point to N. T. Wright as an example; I don't wish to evaluate his scholarship here, but I think we can safely say that he interacts with Christians at a much more scholarly level than most ecclesiastics with high Church titles -- and that this is a large part of his appeal.

 
At Thu Jul 12, 06:34:00 AM, Blogger MissionalGirl said...

As someone who has recently graduated from seminary, I would suggest that learning the biblical languages is important. Because of the frustrating academic plan my seminary set in place for MDiv students, I only had room for ONE biblical language. I preferred to take Greek but Hebrew fit my schedule better. Frankly, I'm glad I took Hebrew but I'm learning Greek on my own.

Do I believe knowing the biblical languages makes someone a better pastor?

Absolutely NOT!

Just because someone is skilled in the biblical languages does not mean that man or woman is anointed of God to be a pastor. In addition, I know plenty of pastors well-grounded in the biblical languages who don't even believe what they read.

I see understanding the biblical languages as a means to be a better leader, a better exegete of the Scriptures and most importantly, a better Christian who can rightly divide the word so that it can manifest in my own life.

I see delving into the biblical languages as an act of worship and preparation for ministry but not necessarily the end of it.

 
At Thu Jul 12, 02:05:00 PM, Blogger Jeremy Pierce said...

While I don't think pastors should need to know Hebrew, I also don't think they should be confused with elders/overseers. Pastors are those with the gift of shepherding other people, but they don't necessarily occupy a position of authority the way elders/overseers do. It's good for elders/overseers to have that gift also, but it's not the required gift listed in I Timothy and Titus. The only required gift is teaching.

Now I further don't think elders/overseers should be required to know Hebrew, but it's best if they are willing to do the work to aid in their preparation for their teaching of the scriptures, and learning Hebrew well enough for it to help (rather than hurt) their teaching is one thing they can do for that purpose. I don't see how it's irrelevant.

 
At Thu Jul 12, 05:16:00 PM, Blogger Danny Zacharias said...

Good post, I very much agree with you.

I am pretty ignorant of the modern synagogue, but do you think that the busyness of rabbis is more in the spiritual / study realm than evangelical pastors?

I just went through seminary and will be teaching there p/t now. The amount of skills pastors need today are enormous, and I think that a basic working knowledge of the biblical languages is good, but fluency is unneccessary. Today we are asking pastors to be good and entertaining speakers, knowledgable teachers, efficient administrators, family counselors, public spokespeople, dynamic leaders, prayer warriors, and financial gurus. Should we really be piling "read Greek and Hebrew" to this?

At the seminary I'm at we are hoping in the next two years to alter how we teach languages. Right now, only 1 year of Greek is required for MDiv's. We are going to change this to a 1-year introduction to biblical languages where they will learn the basics of each language, with an emphasis on the practicality. They will know how to translate a passage with the help of a computer program, and now how to do a word study, how to read a critical commentary, etc.

 
At Fri Jul 13, 12:35:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Iyov wrote: I would be most happy to see a different titles for those who achieve scholarship in religious studies and those who are wise or compassionate but not learned.

There already are, in the Christian tradition. The first is Doctor, the second is Reverend. Of course some people have both titles. But the normal requirement for leading a congregation is Reverend, not Doctor.

 
At Fri Jul 13, 12:40:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Danny asked: Today we are asking pastors to be good and entertaining speakers, knowledgable teachers, efficient administrators, family counselors, public spokespeople, dynamic leaders, prayer warriors, and financial gurus. Should we really be piling "read Greek and Hebrew" to this?

Perhaps the real issue here is whether we should expect one man or woman to do everything in the first list. There is no biblical support for the one man band model of ministry.

 
At Fri Oct 05, 03:22:00 PM, Blogger theologien said...

I tend to agree with missionalgirl; knowing biblical languages does not make one a better pastor, but it does gives a bit more understanding, or as a professor once told me, it gives a third dimension to the study of the text.

Most of the Rabbis I met in Chicago know their Hebrew, from classical to Mishnaic to modern Ulpan. I doubt I know more than a two or three people outside of Christain academia how are able to do more than (struggle to) read Greek or Hebrew.

It is much like being a carpenter and knowing your wood, or an auto mechanic and understanding a vehicle well enough to know that certain noises and processes are not necessarily the mark of a car in good repair.

I think biblical languages are helpful, and if someone wants to do advance study or translation, she or he had better have done their homework if they expect me to pay attention, or use it in my teaching and preaching.

For me, the mark of someone who is capable in biblical languages is someone who can explicate a nuance in an illustration without putting 3/4's of the congregation to sleep.

 

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