This Isn’t Kindergarten

Following up on a discussion from elsewhere, James McGrath inquires into “Essential Languages for New Testament Study
In terms of ancient languages he thinks every serious student should know “Koine Greek” and that depending on special focus “Aramaic, Hebrew, and perhaps even Syriac, Coptic or Latin.”
I don’t pretend to be a serious student of the Christian New Testament but I rather think James needs to broaden his matrix a little and flat out say that any serious student of the anything, including the Christian New Testament, that came out of the East Mediterranean in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE needs to know not only Hellenistic Greek, but more than a smattering of Aramaic, Hebrew (including Rabbinic Hebrew), Syriac, Coptic and Latin. I think they also need to know some Classical Greek if for no other reason to be able to critically evaluate language development over time and they need to know something of at least early Byzantine Greek. Sorry, but anything less may well leave one with understanding impeding blinders. I’m not completely sure what James meant by “Koine Greek.” If he meant the phrase to include the whole of Hellenistic Greek then I agree with him. But if, as I often think is the case with others, he limited his understanding of the phrase to the language of the Christian New Testament, the Apostolic Fathers and so forth than only knowing “Koine Greek” is far too limiting. Luckily for me, I’m not a serious student of the Christian New Testament.
I feel a little more confident considering what languages one needs to know to be a serious student of the Hebrew Bible. A serious student will know Hebrew, Aramaic, Hellenistic Greek, Akkadian including peripheral Akkadian, Ugaritic, Phoenician, Egyptian, and Classical Greek. I think they also need know Hittite. Now, of course, the level of knowledge will vary with regard to a student’s areas of interest and the vicissitudes of scholarly discussion. In many cases one need only know enough to make informed judgments concerning the work of specialists. But that may be quite a bit of knowledge. By this standard, I am not a very serious student of the Hebrew Bible. But then, I am only an amateur student of the Hebrew Bible. I lack any meaningful knowledge of Hittite and know only an embarrassing small amount of Egyptian. In addition, my Greek of any kind is way weaker than it should be and many of my other language skills are well below where I wish they were.
As for Modern languages, I agree with Charles that “English, French, and German [note my earlier post of the table of contents of the latest ZAW], as well as Spanish and Italian” are needed to deal with the every growing secondary literature. I wish I knew them better. In addition, it is already clear that a serious student of the Hebrew Bible must be ready to face a paper written in Modern Hebrew. I worry that for anyone interested in keeping up with archaeological discoveries of the non-sensationalist verity one is not far from also needing Arabic from time to time.
Note: I am only addressing languages skills. The real work of any student of the Hebrew Bible or the Christian New Testament is built on these skills but is far from limited to them. There is a lot to know but “this isn’t kindergarten.”
Please head over to James’ Exploring Our Matrix and at a minimum read the story that he reports from an address by Edwin Yamauchi. You’ll learn the source of the expression “this isn’t kindergarten” as used in this post. If you don’t cry, you’ll get a good laugh.
Update: Chris Brady and Jim West have weighted in on this issue. On this issue Chris appears to be a bit of a minimalist and Jim a maximalist. I think Jim is on the right track in approaching the issue on the need to know basis. What a casual reader of the Iliad Bible needs to know is different than what the scholar needs to know. At this is true as long as the casual reader is willing to take some direction from the scholar.
Update: Sept. 8, 2011: Please see my further thoughts on this subject under the heading, “The Backyard of Biblical Studies.”

4 thoughts on “This Isn’t Kindergarten”

  1. As a non-professional, non-scholar who explores this stuff in my off-time, I find the number of languages required a bit daunting. I completely understand the need to be fluent in Hebrew, Koine Greek, and the related languages – but the requirement to learn additional modern languages just to research what other people have written has always seemed a needless waste.
    I have a bit of German from high school, an even smaller bit of French – but not to any degree of even basic proficiency. It seems that the time spent learning these modern languages could be spent in better endeavors.
    If only there was a separate field of work that dedicated itself to translating all modern scholarly material into some of the major modern languages. Of course, this would also cause the same problems in translation that drive most people to learn the original languages, but perhaps not as badly. With today’s technology, it doesn’t seem like it would be that difficult to pull off. A competent translator could translate an article in no time at all, I imagine.
    Maybe I’m just being lazy heh heh! I don’t know – I enjoy learning Hebrew, Ugaritic, Akkadian, etc.. Learning German, French, etc..not so much. I’d rather focus that time into improving the older languages.

  2. If we follow this argument to its natural conclusion, a “serious scholar” in its most extreme is one with infinite knowledge. Quite unrealistic.
    Naturally none of us finite beings have, nor will we ever have, infinite knowledge. Ergo, we can only be intellectual equals. We are ALL students and ALL teachers at once.
    Yet universities indulge in this irrational power game and as with any such deception, there are two basic players involved: the sadist (teacher) and the masochist (student).
    Notice how few of us have the arrogance to consider ourselves “serious scholars” so we have a tendency within this system to meekly defer to others with far less humility. By this, quite easily, the best scholars thereby enslave themselves to the most petty.
    The sensible advice in all of this is simply: we must ALL learn what we can, regardless of what status we erroneously believe we have.

  3. Matt,
    It is the secondary literature the helps us maintain salience and keeps us from becoming dilettantes. Unless we know it, amateurs like me will never be able to play in the big leagues. This may not be a happy fact but it is a fact. Even in the case of learning an “older language” like Akkadian, once one gets past Huehnergard’s grammar or Hoffner’s translation of Ungnad-Matouš, one better be prepared to take on von Soden and Labat.
    I’m not exactly sure want argument you thing might be followed to its natural conclusion. Obviously, I don’t think a serious student of the Hebrew Bible needs to know Swahili or Mayan. Nor do I think they need to know quantum mechanics. Not that these things are without value even to a student of the Hebrew Bible. It’s just that they are of so limited value in that context that, unless some specific research program called for, learning them would be a waste of time. I even think Jim West is wrong in saying that the Hebrew Bible scholar needs to know Eblaitic as a matter of course. I think it just isn’t so. Eblaitic is of importance in the history of the Semitic family of languages. I feel the same way about a Hebrew Bible Scholar knowing Sumerian. An Assyriologist needs to know Sumerian, buckets of Sumerian and she probably needs to know some Eblaitic also. But unless there is some special research reason, a Hebrew Bible Scholar just doesn’t. While the line between what one should know and what isn’t necessary to know is not crisp, there is some demarcation in terms of diminishing returns.

  4. Duane: “I’m not exactly sure [what] argument you [think] might be followed to its natural conclusion.”
    Why, James McGrath’s argument you mentioned up top: “In terms of ancient languages he thinks every serious student should know “Koine Greek” and that depending on special focus “Aramaic, Hebrew, and perhaps even Syriac, Coptic or Latin.”
    And perhaps Berber, and Hattic, and Hurrian, and Mayan, and Swahili, and Inuit, and etc. etc. etc. The statement is subjective and without rational limit clearly. It must be taken with a grain of salt because all knowledge is useful in some way.
    So in other words, I reiterate: Learn everything you can (for one doesn’t know what use it may have in the future).
    “Obviously, I don’t think a serious student of the Hebrew Bible needs to know Swahili or Mayan. Nor do I think they need to know quantum mechanics.”
    Does anybody need to know anything at all? Isn’t this statement underlyingly anti-intellectual? How is knowing Swahili and Mayan “unneeded” in informing us about ancient linguistics or linguistics in general? Are we honestly any poorer for having learned it? Or can you concede that we’re inevitably richer for it? (And partly tongue-in-cheek, partly philosophical: Could you go so far as to admit that you don’t know how quantum mechanics might not be applicable to biblical scholarship?)
    “While the line between what one should know and what isn’t necessary to know is not crisp, there is some demarcation in terms of diminishing returns.”
    Diminishing returns? Are we speaking of knowledge as “currency”? Then does knowledge only have value if it has a direct practical application in the “marketplace of ideas”? Who decides what constitutes “diminishing returns” if not the individual? Who decides “value”?

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