The Backyard Of Biblical Studies

I’ve been thinking a little more about my rather maximalist comments the other day concerning the languages a serious student of the Hebrew Bible or the Christian New Testament needed to know. I have two worries. First I worry that I was a little dogmatic. Second, I worry that I was not broad enough.
First things first: The list of languages I suggested as requirements for serious study of the Hebrew Bible were Hebrew, Aramaic, Hellenistic Greek, Akkadian including peripheral Akkadian, Ugaritic, Phoenician, Egyptian, Classical Greek and Hittite. I noted that I didn’t have all these tools in my tool box. But perhaps I should have put it somewhat differently. It’s not so much that, excepting Hebrew, Aramaic, and Hellenistic Greek, every serious students must formally learn all these languages than that every serious student of the Hebrew Bible will encounter situations where he or she wishes they knew these languages. So why not just learn them as early as possible?
Second things second: Depending on one’s research program, my extended list of required ancient language tools may not be long enough or may be askew in one of several ways. This thought reminded me of something Mark Wilson wrote in his book Wandering Significance: An Essay on Conceptual Behavior,

Even the devoted study of, e.g. the life of a sea squid is apt to carry one eventually into chemistry, physics, mathematics and perhaps a spot of philosophy, for the backyard of every science opens onto all others. (14)

This is without question true. It is just as true of the humanities in general and Biblical Studies in particular.
Bonus third thing: Contrary to what is sometimes thought, the reason for knowing those other ancient languages is not primarily etymology or other narrow linguistic concerns. It is to understand as much as we can about the cultural context in which Biblical players worked, wrote and read. We can only know but a fraction of what they knew or of what they thought and felt about their world. For this reason, we much cast our nets rather broadly in the hope of catching a more complete glimpse of their world. The first thing required of the serious Biblical studies student is knowledge of the literature, both the literature of the Bible itself but also of that mass of literature in many ancient languages but predominately in Hebrew, Aramaic, Hellenistic Greek, Akkadian, Ugaritic, Phoenician (plus Moabite and Ammonite), Egyptian, Classical Greek and Hittite that make up the literary and cultural context of Biblical literature. In truth, much of this can be acquired without knowledge of the various languages in which it was written. But not all of it, not even all of the abnormally interesting parts of it have been translated (and in some cases even properly published). To understand that literature in depth one must be able to read it in its original language. The arguments for this last point are the same as the argument for knowing Hebrew, Aramaic and Hellenistic Greek. Can we ever know it all? Not in any single lifetime! But that is not an excuse for reluctance to try.

5 thoughts on “The Backyard Of Biblical Studies”

  1. I would like to add Arabic to your basic list. It helps one with the other languages, But it also helps in other ways. The story of Joseph in Arabic is a real treat.

  2. Loren,
    Thanks for the comment. I actually toyed with putting Arabic on the list. The reasons you would add it are compelling. I remember fondly the semester when several of us set around the table in your office and struggled, under your gentle, and I think sometimes frustrated, ministrations, to read wonderful story of Bilqisa.

  3. Duane, thanks for your clarification. I enjoy your blog. I seldom comment. I’m out of my depth. I privately wondered about your first list. I’m not competent to judge inclusions/exclusions. I did have fun with my own private list (you made me think – sorta thing). I wondered privately: why not add a mathematical ‘language too’? – like a competition math for tracking memes? And why not add studies into emotive-linguists to address what we don’t know about the emotional tones lost in the texts? Or aesthetic linguistics to address deeper poetics than might be present in morphological stuff? Dumb questions. My private fantasias. Not relevant to your common sense usage defining ‘languages.’ Just pushing our somewhat arbitrary lines about ‘what’s really necessary’? Thanks, Duane, for the redux. Fun. Jim

  4. Jim,
    Thanks for the comment. I think knowledge of math, at least to the level of beginning differential equations and a little above beginning probability and statistics, is important for any citizen in our current world. Much of what passes for political debate these days is little more than a prolonged confession of ignorance about probability. But I also think a sound knowledge of math is important in the humanities. In Biblical studies, for example, math is becoming a necessary prerequisite for a sound understanding of much of the archaeological record. But, more generally, humanists need to experience the thought process style of a mathematician. Not that it is generally appropriate or even possible for the humanist to adopt that thought process style but rather that they (we) be able to understand our own thought process style(s). A few years ago the “Impactful Five” meme made the rounds. We were challenged to fess up to the five books that most impacted how we read the bible. One of my five was Angus Taylor’s Calculus with Analytic Geometry.

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