James Crossley's blog Contact: jgcrossley10 - AT - yahoo - DOT - co - DOT - uk

Friday, March 16, 2007

Languages

There is a certain purity (and quite right too you might add) that anyone studying the NT, historical Jesus, and Chrsitian origins really ought to know Greek. Then Hebrew perhaps. Aramaic or Latin or Coptic might come in third. But should not the purity applied to learning Greek be applied more broadly? I mean if commonly cited and discussed texts such as Daniel, 1 Enoch, Dead Sea Scrolls, Thomas etc. are to be commonly cited and discussed and if NT/Christian origins scholars are writing lengthy sections or articles on these texts, should it be stressed that not only should knowledge of Aramaic, Hebrew and Coptic be crucial but also Ge'ez/Ethiopic (if a text such as 1 Enoch is being discussed). I know from experience (rather experiencing someone else's experience - you can try and guess who I am talking about) that the son of man problem would require knowledge of several languages, including Ge'ez/Ethiopic yet plenty of people are prepared to discuss the problem (me included - I'm telling myself off, don't worry).

Now I have virtually no idea of the range of languages people have but I haven't met many people who read Ge'ez/Ethiopic (I don't) and I keep being told that not many NT/HJ/CO scholars know Aramaic. How many read Coptic?

Now I know life is too short for most to learn every language and write meaningfully on various themes of the NT or explanations of Christian origins and that frequently you just have to rely on what experts are saying in other fields, but, and this might just be me misunderstanding the situation, is this not a problem given the importance of some of these texts for the study of Christian origins?

11 Comments:

Anonymous Jim said...

james, yours is a terribly important question- so I've tried to answer (for myself anyway) over here:

http://drjimwest.wordpress.com/2007/03/16/what-languages-should-biblical-scholars-know/

I hope others will chime in- as again, it seems to me a terribly important issue.

March 16, 2007

 
Blogger Chris Weimer said...

I said something to a similar effect last August.

March 16, 2007

 
Blogger Josh McManaway said...

I'm currently taking Ancient Near East History with a professor who knows *fluently* approximately 50 languages. He can roughly translate another 10-15 languages.

I am assuming the man hasn't slept since he was 12.

March 17, 2007

 
Blogger Chris Weimer said...

My skeptical side has taken over - who is this professor?

March 17, 2007

 
Blogger steph said...

Emeritus Prof PMC

March 17, 2007

 
Blogger Josh McManaway said...

Dr. Fred Williams, III at Southeastern.

His faculty webpage is: http://www.sebts.edu/faculty/faculty_directory/ViewFaculty.cfm?BioID=74

Although that doesn't do much more good than letting you know he exists.

March 17, 2007

 
Blogger Chris Tilling said...

I have enuf problems wiv English. I feel guilty whenever I think of the state of my biblical studies language skills.

March 20, 2007

 
Anonymous Jorunn said...

Hi James, just checking in to see what's happening, was actually about to quote you on the re-dating of Gospels and how it relates to Marxism. Well, I am surrounded here by all sorts of languages ancient and modern, and certainly in the group I am working in you're no one if you don't understand the text you're working on - i.e. talk about 1 Enoch, Ammonas, Nag Hammadi texts etc etc. without being able to read them in original. They ask me about this curious English phenomenon of thinking you know what a text says if you only have it through one very subjective translator. I once edited a bunch of Coptic texts for publication and that's my fig-leaf of legitimacy here where they all know the language, in addition of course many know Syriac and Ethiopian. But not that many know Hebrew, so I have an advantage there.

March 21, 2007

 
Blogger James Crossley said...

Hello Jorunn!! Very good to hear from you and hope all is well.

I can't help but feel that at an academic level that if someone is going to talk about e.g. 1 Enoch or Daniel 7 at length in a book on Christian origins or Jesus or whatever then if they lack the knowledge of Ethiopic/Ge'ez and Aramaic it should be said at the very least that they are reliant on translators. Not that this would be forgiven if a scholar was reliant on a translator for the Greek NT! I've been to several papers in this country where people have given talks on the 'NT background' with reference to various texts and I know that they get to the text via English translations because in certain cases people are open about the fact.

One the one hand, I'm starting to think Greek NT bias, Christian bias, etc. etc...don't let me keep beating that drum!

On the other hand, and we've had the conversation before, Jorunn, but it is worth also mentioning here: there is a serious problem in the UK and maybe elsewhere with the increased pressure on finishing research degrees with less and less time spent on languages, not to mention broader inter-disciplinary methods.

And Marxism and re-dating: I like the sound of that!

March 22, 2007

 
Blogger P J Williams said...

The bottom level is that people need to be familiar with primary texts and, if they are dealing with a text in a language they don't know, to be aware of the limits that puts on what they should do with it. The danger with learning too many languages is that you never get beyond being illiterate in any of them. G.R. Driver's comment about a scholar being 'illiterate in six languages' comes to mind (sorry, I don't have the source). For instance, I've done an undergraduate degree, Masters, PhD and two books on Syriac, and am still not very good at it. My passive knowledge of the language far outstrips my active knowledge.

I respect people who have undergone the discipline of learning languages. It does not necessarily make their judgements more correct, but all learning ought to require learning disciplines as well as how to argue. PhD candidates in vivas should be faced with translation tasks of texts relative to their thesis and should be able to handle detailed philological engagement with hinge elements in primary texts that they discuss.

March 23, 2007

 
Blogger NoelFitz said...

Hi James

Life is tough for those who wish to study the word of God and come from a scientific/technological background.

To enter a science course I needed a modern European language. I choose French. For my primary degree I needed either German or Russian. I chose (unfortunately) Russian.

I also had Latin in school until sixth year.

When I started being interested in the Bible I studied Greek and Hebrew.

If I were to choose another language I would consider German.

Regards,

Noel.

May 06, 2007

 

Post a Comment

<< Home