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and maybe Latin

September 8, 2011

I have just been catching up on a few posts over on Jim McGrath’s blog, here and here, and feel the need to respond. How many languages do you need to know to study the New Testament?

I hardly know where to start so let me recount my experience, and I will freely admit that I consider myself an amateur and susceptible to error.I don’t keep my linguistic skills sharpened and I am limited, but more than capable of following along and conferring with the necessary original texts, given a few of the usual aids.

I studied classical Greek, Latin, French and German for grades 10 – 13 of secondary school. (I also studied Physics, and chemistry, but did not consider myself to be a scientific whiz. I am happy that I got some background in Physics – I understand how airplanes stay in the sky, given normal conditions, but that’s about it.)

At university, I studied classical Greek, German and French for 3 years. In the last year, I signed up for a Hellenistic Greek class and was told that I had to study Hebrew concurrently, so I did. I then attended a French Bible School in Switzerland for one year. At Bible School, I read the New Testament in Greek for the first time in a formal setting. In my experience, you learn Greek first as a language, and then you read the NT in Greek, so you don’t let your prior knowledge of the English New Testament in your preferred translation gain the upper hand.

On returning to Toronto, I concentrated on French linguistics and translation methods, and went on to train as a secondary school teacher with a specialization in French.

A few years later, I attended the Summer Institute of Linguistics at the University of Washington for a couple of summers, focusing on language policy and writing systems as well as translation. After that, I spent a year in Toronto, completing an MA in Education, writing a paper on Bible translation and Cree syllabic literacy.

Now I teach special needs students in an inclusive school and interact with children whose tested IQ – who knows what their real potential is – ranges from 49 to 149 – with everything in between. I also train other educators in various types of software.

What I really notice, what absolutely leapt out at me, in the discussion on languages and the NT, was that someone in the list, (I forget who) wrote “and maybe Latin.” To this, Duane Smith responded, “and Latin.” Don’t get me wrong, I think Syriac is terribly important, and I have made a stab at it, at least looking up a few passages in the Syriac NT every once in a while.

But Latin! I disagree with Larry Hurtado. I think that if you want to understand how we have come to have the lexicon entries that we now have for the vocabulary of the Greek NT, Latin is essential. This has been one of the most baffling aspect of Bible blogging for me. For more than a thousand years, most theology was written in Latin. Vocabulary which has ended up in English and French Bible translations comes to us from Latin. While the Vulgate was the dominant Bible translation for much of European history, the Pagnini translation and Latin translations of the Reformation, exerted enormous influence on the vernacular Bibles of the Reformation. I have more or less ignored Bible software because it does not include these Latin translations – as far as I know.

How on earth can we understand what the Latin fathers meant in their theology, if we don’t know what text they were working from? How can we understand any present day doctrinal statement if we don’t know the Latin that it was originally written in. I wish I knew Latin better. It is one skill I would seriously consider going back to university for. I consider myself to be a good protestant girl, but I suggest that Latin is essential to understanding Bible translation.

Yes, I do agree that other areas of study are necessary as well. But actually, you can throw a few books of feminist or queer theory at someone and expect them to read it and interact. Languages are little trickier. A few of the social theory books that shook my biblical world are by Paulo Freire, Judith Plascow and James Cone.

Update: I forgot to mention a few courses that I have taken to keep up some languages skills. I have taken some summer courses at Regent College from Waltke and Fee, and from the Vancouver School of Theology in Midrash and Kabbalah. Perhaps the one thing I enjoyed the most was reading the Sefer Yetsira in Hebrew, and in several different translations.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 8, 2011 12:51 am

    Does SQL count? Because arguably computer programming skills are more important to contemporary study of Classical Greek than Syraic. (I know I’m not the only one who thinks this — when I was a student, I lived next to Gregory Crane, who later went on to create Perseus.)

  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    September 8, 2011 12:58 am

    At this point, one has to say “it takes a village…” No single person can possibly have all the skills necessary. We are social creatures and need community. I just watched McLuhan’s Wake on DVD a couple of nights ago. Understanding communication is essential.

    I recognise that I have thrown in a few controversial statements that I more or less expect others to disagree with.

  3. September 8, 2011 1:17 am

    While McLuhan’s Wake may have had it moments, I very much doubt it can compare favorably to Finnegan’s Wake (note the apostrophe):

    Finnegan’s Wake

    Tim Finnegan lived in Walkin’ Street,
    A gentleman Irish mighty odd;
    He had a brogue both rich and sweet,
    And to rise in the world he carried a hod.
    Now Tim had a sort of a tipplin’ way,
    With a love of the whiskey he was born,
    And to help him on with his work each day,
    He’d a drop of the craythur every morn.

    Whack fol the dah O, dance to your partner,
    Welt the floor, your trotters shake;
    Wasn’t it the truth I told you,
    Lots of fun at Finnegan’s wake!

    One mornin’ Tim was feelin’ full,
    His head was heavy which made him shake;
    He fell from the ladder and broke his skull,
    And they carried him home his corpse to wake.
    They rolled him up in a nice clean sheet,
    And laid him out upon the bed,
    A gallon of whiskey at his feet,
    And a barrel of porter at his head.


    His friends assembled at the wake,
    And Mrs. Finnegan called for lunch,
    First they brought in tay and cake,
    Then pipes, tobacco and whiskey punch.
    Biddy O’Brien began to bawl,
    “Such a nice clean corpse, did you ever see?
    “O Tim, mavourneen, why did you die?”
    “Arragh, hold your gob,” said Paddy McGhee!


    Then Maggie O’Connor took up the job,
    “O Biddy,” says she, “You’re wrong, I’m sure”,
    Biddy she gave her a belt in the gob,
    And left her sprawlin’ on the floor.
    And then the war did soon engage,
    ‘Twas woman to woman and man to man,
    Shillelagh law was all the rage,
    And a row and a ruction soon began.


    Then Mickey Maloney ducked his head,
    When a noggin of whiskey flew at him,
    It missed, and falling on the bed,
    The liquor scattered over Tim!
    The corpse revives! See how he raises!
    Timothy rising from the bed,
    Says,”Whirl your whiskey around like blazes,
    Thanum an Dhoul! Do you think I’m dead?”



    There is also quite a nice novel by the name of Finnegans Wake (no apostrophe). Now what languages does one need to know to be able to read that novel?

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