Thursday, January 2, 2020

Reflections on Teaching Ancient Greek as a Living Language

Last fall I had the privilege of helping lead Briercrest’s first Intensive Koiné Greek Semester. We were able to pack the equivalent of five conventional courses (and then some) into one extended 15-week semester, with classes running all morning, Monday to Friday, and a required tutorial each afternoon. Our goal was not simply to cover a lot of material, but to create the conditions for an immersive, active, and living learning environment where Ancient Greek could be taught in Ancient Greek, and students could learn Ancient Greek as they would any other modern language.

In traditional biblical language courses, the majority of class time is spent talking about Greek or Hebrew in English. Students labour over analysing word forms, memorizing vocabulary by rote, and producing their own English translations. This approach appeals only to a small percentage of analytical learners, and even at the best of times tends to result in a superficial understanding about how the language works, not a knowledge of the language itself. There is a reason why most students who study Greek or Hebrew do not succeed in maintaining a long-term reading knowledge of the language.

Thankfully, there is growing interest in another approach to teaching the biblical languages that draws on best practices in modern second-language pedagogy. We decided to adopt this approach and teach Ancient Greek in Greek out of a desire to make the language more accessible to anyone who wants to learn, and to help students internalize the language so that they will be better prepared to develop a life-long practice of reading the Bible in Greek. As far as I know, the combination of an intensive five-course semester of Greek with a living-language methodology is unique in North America.

Of course, there are things we will do differently next time, but the initial experiment was a success. Students who began the semester without even knowing the Greek alphabet spent the final three weeks working through the Greek text of the Gospel of Mark, and talking about it in Greek. On our last day of class, we read and discussed Mark’s account of Jesus’ death and resurrection (chapters 15-16). Then the room full of 30 students stood and recited the Lord’s prayer in unison. The following day, the students wrote their final exams, including essay questions, entirely in Greek. I call that a win.

Time will tell how many of our Greek guinea pigs maintain a long-term reading knowledge of the language, but there is an initial sign that the course achieved one major goal: to inspire students to continue studying Greek. Students who major in Biblical Studies at Briercrest are required to complete four language courses in either Greek or Hebrew. Our students have already completed five, and more than half the class are now registered for next semester’s entirely optional Koiné Greek VI course on the Greek text of 1 Corinthians.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

A 2019 Reading Retrospective

Since everyone else is doing it and I wanted to get a blog post written before the year runs out, I’ve decided to post a lightly annotated list of books I finished reading in 2019.

First, a few stats: My Zotero records tell me I finished reading 33 books in 2019, including Winnie the Pooh, The House at Pooh Corner, The 21 Balloons, and The Hound of the Baskervilles. That’s up from 32 in 2017, and tied with 2018, but this year I didn’t read War and Peace, so 2018 still takes the cake.

All but 7 were completed before I returned to Canada and to full-time teaching. (Go figure.) I count 15 novels and children’s books, 5 audiobooks, and 5 that I read aloud. (As long as my 12-year-old daughter will consent to having books read to her, I will keep reading them. We are currently enjoying The Screwtape Letters.)

Without further ado, here is the list, followed by my "best of" selections:

Ash, Christopher. The Book Your Pastor Wishes You Would Read. The Good Book Company, 2019.

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1985. (Audiobook)

Balme, Maurice, Gilbert Lawall, Luigi Miraglia, and Tommaso Francesco Bórri. Athenaze: Introduzione al greco antico. Parte I. 2d ed. Montella, Avellino: Accademia Vivarium Novum, 2018. (Not including the Italian)

Campbell, Douglas A. Paul: An Apostle’s Journey. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018. (Audiobook)

Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur. The Hound of the Baskervilles. London: George Newnes, 1902.

Forster, E. M. The Longest Journey. London: Arnold, 1907.

Forster, E. M. Where Angels Fear to Tread. London: William Blackwood & Sons, 1905.

Forster, E. M. Howards End. London: Edward Arnold, 1910.

Johnson, Luke Timothy. Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church: The Challenge of Luke-Acts to Contemporary Christians. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011. (Re-read for class for the 4th or 5th time.)

Kugel, James L. How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. New York: Free Press, 2008. (Audiobook)

Lewis, C. S. That Hideous Strength. London: The Bodley Head, 1945. (Read aloud)
(I read this novel multiple times as a child; this was the first time in probably 20+ years.)

Lewis, C. S. The Great Divorce. New York: Macmillan, 1946. (Re-read after @ 20 years; read aloud)

Martínez, Carlos. A Strange Odyssey. Confessions of a Classicist. Grupo Editorial Círculo Rojo S.L., 2019.

Martyn, J. Louis. Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul. Nashville: Abingdon, 1997.

Matthews, Shelly. Perfect Martyr: The Stoning of Stephen and the Construction of Christian Identity. Oxford University Press, 2010.

McKnight, Scot. Reading Romans Backwards: A Gospel of Peace in the Midst of Empire. Waco: Baylor, 2019.

Meeks, Wayne A. The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.

Millar, Fergus. The Roman Near East: 31 BC - AD 337. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Milne, A. A. The House at Pooh Corner. London: Methuen, 1928.

Milne, A. A. Winnie-the-Pooh. London: Methuen, 1926.

Myers, Benjamin. The Apostles’ Creed: A Guide to the Ancient Catechism. Lexham Press, 2018. (Read aloud)

Noll, Mark A. Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013.

Pène du Bois, William. The 21 Balloons. New York: Viking Press, 1975. (A book I remember reading as a child; read aloud after hearing about the eruption on Anak Krakatoa.)

Pullman, Philip. Golden Compass. New York: Random House, 1996.
(I checked this one out from the library for my daughter, decided to double-check it myself first, and got hooked. Pullman is a fine writer, and I thoroughly enjoyed the Oxford and East Anglia settings. Aside from the abrupt in-your-face anti-Christian moralistic ending, it’s a fine read.)

Ransome, Arthur. Swallows and Amazons. London: Vintage Children’s Classics, 2012.

Rico, Christophe, and Lior Ashkenazi. Polis: Speaking Ancient Greek as a Living Language, Level One, Student’s Volume. Edited by Michael Daise. Polis Institute Press, 2015.

Riordan, Rick. The Lightning Thief. New York: Hyperion, 2005. (A daughter's recommendation.)

Siegel, Robert. Alpha Centauri. Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1980. (Read aloud)
(I remembered my grade six teacher, Miss Fehr, reading this book to the class, but couldn't remember how it ended. I now think she never finished it--and I can see why.)

Spiegelman, Art. The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. New York: Pantheon Books, 2011.

Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by Richard Crawley. London: Dent, 1874. (Audiobook)

Williams, Leslie Winfield. Emblem of Faith Untouched: A Short Life of Thomas Cranmer. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016. (Audiobook)

Williams, Peter J. Can We Trust the Gospels? Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018.

Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. London: Hogarth Press, 1927.

"Best of":

  • Best book published in 2019: I seldom read books in the year they were published. Of the three 2019 books I read this year--surely a record--Carlos Martínez's, A Strange Odyssey gets the prize for being the most stimulating.
  • Most Educational (in a good way): Balme, Maurice, Gilbert Lawall, Luigi Miraglia, and Tommaso Francesco Bórri. Athenaze: Introduzione al greco antico. (The Greek parts; I don't read Italian.)
  • Most Relaxing Bedtime Reading: Arthur Ransome, Swallows and Amazons. (Strangely satisfying. I looked forward to the end of the day when I could read a few pages before my own bedtime.)
  • Best of: C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength. (Published in 1945. Still very relevant.)

Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Difference Two Years Make

Two years ago we left the wilderness of southern Saskatchewan for the temperate climate and spectacular libraries of Cambridge.

The trip was a real growth experience. This photo was taken in mid-August 2017, shortly before we left:

And here we are at the beginning of August 2019, a few days after we returned:

In other respects too, our trip was a success. (See this post for why we were there.) But even an academic’s paradise can seem arid and sterile after a while, and I confess to being glad to have left the Cambridge bubble behind for the real world of our isolated little prairie college town.

It’s nice of course to be back in our own comparatively large house with our own stuff, but I also missed the face-to-face interaction that teaching provides as well as the sense that what I was doing—aside from being a husband and father—mattered.

Call it late summer idealism, if you will. Classes begin next week and I know the thermometer will dip as low as -20 in November. At the moment, however, I am grateful to be back in “a community of learning that calls students to seek the kingdom of God, to be shaped profoundly by the scriptures, and to be formed spiritually and intellectually for lives of service.“

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Martin Luther: If you value the gospel, learn Greek and Hebrew

My clickbait title is admittedly a paraphrase, but I think it gets at (part of*) the substance of what Luther actually said:
"For though the Gospel has come and daily comes through the Holy Spirit alone, we cannot deny that it has come by means of the languages, by which it was also spread abroad, and by which it must be preserved. ... In proportion, then, as we prize the Gospel, let us guard the languages. For not in vain did God have His Scriptures set down in these two languages alone—the Old Testament in Hebrew, the New in Greek. The languages, therefore, that God did not despise but chose above all others for His Word, we too ought to honor above all others. ... And let us be sure of this: we shall not long preserve the Gospel without the languages. The languages are the sheath in which this sword of the Spirit is contained; they are the casket in which we carry this jewel; they are the vessel in which we hold this wine; they are the larder in which this food is stored; and as the Gospel itself says, they are the baskets in which we bear these loaves and fishes and fragments. If through our neglect we let the languages go (which may God forbid!), we shall not only lose the Gospel, but come at last to the point where we shall be unable either to speak or write a correct Latin or German. As proof and warning of this, let us take the wretched and woeful example of the universities and monasteries, in which men not only unlearned the Gospel, but corrupted the languages so that the miserable folk were fairly turned into beasts, unable to read or write a correct German or Latin and wellnigh losing their natural reason to boot. ... Hence it is certain that unless the languages remain the Gospel must finally perish." - Martin Luther, "To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools" (1524) as quoted by Michael Gilleland.
* The other part could be paraphrased thus: If you value the gospel, encourage the study of the biblical languages by others if you are not able to study them yourself.


Saturday, July 13, 2019

Carlos Martínez Aguirre on Learning Greek and Latin

The English translation of Carlos Martínez Aguirre’s fascinating language-learning memoir, A Strange Odyssey: Confessions of a Classicist, is now out on Kindle. The book is a short narrative diagnosis of problems with traditional “dead” language pedagogy, a compelling demonstration that there is a viable alternative, a sobering description of what is required to develop competence in the “communicative method,” and a whirlwind introduction to some of the resources that are now available. A few excerpts:

From the introduction, on language-learning standards:
“For those outside the range of our subjects, it is normal to think that every Latin or Greek teacher has a mastery of their specialised languages, as would be expected of a German, English or Chinese teacher. That is, anyone not related to the world of Classical Languages would assume that a good teacher of Classical Studies of Secondary School level (and even more so at University level) would be able to speak Classical Latin or Greek with a measure of fluency, write correctly these languages, and of course, be able to comfortably read any text in the original language. However, this is very far from being the case. … [I]f any Russian teacher admitted that he couldn’t improvise the translation a page of Dostoyevsky in situ, nobody would take him seriously. I also see no reason why learning Russian should be easier to learn for any Spaniard than Classical Greek, and even less so Latin.”
On the traditional grammar-translation approach:
“[A]fter eight years of studying Latin and Greek (two in secondary school and six at university), I … not only remained incapable of being able to speak Latin or Greek ... but also of being able to write two lines correctly in these languages, or to translate a page without suffering like a condemned man at the gallows.”
On the possibility of true fluency:
“The most effective way I have discovered to show the cave dwellers [“of classical philology”] the error of their ways is by presenting them with some adolescents speaking Latin and Greek fluently, making comments and even jokes about the texts of the classic authors in that same language, and also explaining that they learnt Latin and Classical Greek without too much difficulty and with the same methodology as they learnt English or French.”
In conclusion:
“At no point have I presumed that it is not possible to master Latin and Greek by the grammar and translation method. What I do attest to is that in my case that system was a failure and that many teachers of Classics … have shared with me of having experienced the same frustration and the feeling of being defrauded when they completed their studies. … [A]lthough all roads lead to Rome, it is evident that some are more tortuous than others.”
The book is self-published, and I’m afraid it shows. The English translation and proofing could have used another round of edits, and the structure and content of the memoir itself would benefit, I think, from additional revision. But for anyone interested in teaching or learning ancient languages, it is more than worth the $3.36 USD list price. Tolle lege!

Monday, June 17, 2019

Maccabean Amnesia in Philo’s Embassy to Gaius

Two months ago, in my last contribution to this on-going series, I followed Daniel Schwartz in suggesting that King Agrippa I, the great-great-grandson of the last Hasmonean king who ruled Judaea and Galilee between 41-44 CE, seems not to have emphasized his Hasmonean ancestry. After publishing the post, I came across a possible piece of counter-evidence in my notes on Philo of Alexandria’s Embassy to Gaius. In this apologetic treatise, Philo includes a long letter that he claims Agrippa sent to Gaius Caligula in an attempt to convince the emperor not to set up a statue of himself in the Jerusalem temple (Leg. 276-329). In the letter’s introduction Agrippa reminds Caligula that his royal Hasmonean ancestors thought so highly of the temple that they valued their hereditary role as high priest more than the title of king:
“I as you know am by birth a Jew, and my native city is Jerusalem in which is situated the sacred shrine of the most high God. It fell to me to have for my grandparents and ancestors kings, most of whom had the title of high priest, who considered their kingship inferior to the priesthood, holding that the office of high priest is as superior in excellence to that of king as God surpasses men.” (Philo, Leg. 278 LCL)
Everyone agrees that the letter is Philo’s own composition rather than Agrippa’s ,[1] but it shows that Philo, at least, was aware of Agrippa’s Hasmonean ancestry and that he did not hesitate to refer to it in a text composed toward the middle of the first-century CE.[2]

The passage may, however, be an exception that proves the rule, for although the letter demonstrates Philo’s awareness of Hasmonean rule in the first century BCE, Philo goes on to have Agrippa deny that the Jerusalem temple had ever previously been desecrated in this way:
“This temple, my Lord Gaius, has never from the first admitted any figure wrought by men’s hands, because it is the sanctuary of the true God. … Thus no one, Greek or non-Greek, no satrap, no king, no mortal enemy, no faction, no war, no storming or sacking of the city, nor any existing thing ever brought about so great a violation of the temple as the setting up in it of an image or statue or any hand-wrought object for worship.” (Philo, Leg. 290, 292 LCL; cf. 300)
Did Philo not remember the Maccabean revolt?

In her commentary on The Embassy to Gaius, E. Mary Smallwood assumes that Philo did know about the “abomination that causes desolation” erected by Antiochus Epiphanes in the Temple, but chose to ignore it:
“Antiochus Epiphanes had actually robbed the Temple and devoted it to the cult of Olympian Zeus, setting up a statue in it …. But in his eagerness to provide uniformly favourable precedents for the treatment of the Jews, Philo deliberately avoids all mention of the action.”[3]
Possibly. But explaining Philo’s silence as a deliberate omission is itself an argument from silence. It is true that Philo’s description of the first-century CE crisis under Caligula reminds modern readers of the second-century BCE crisis under Antiochus Epiphanes; when I re-read the Embassy to Gaius last fall, my first reaction was to think that Philo was dependent on 1 Maccabees. But, as far as I know, Philo, whose extant works focus almost exclusively on the Pentateuch, never refers directly to the Maccabean revolt. A review of the three volumes in the Philo of Alexandria Annotated Bibliography yields nothing about Antiochus or the Hasmoneans / Maccabees, as such, and very few incidental references to 1-4 Maccabees. No one that I can see claims that Philo knew or was directly dependent on the Maccabean literature.

What am I missing?


[1] Daniel R. Schwartz, Agrippa I: The Last King of Judaea (TSAJ 23; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1990), 200–202 (Appendix VI: The Philonic Authorship of Agrippa’s Epistle to Gaius [Leg. 276-329]); see also Erich S. Gruen, “Caligula, the Imperial Cult, and Philo’s Legato,” SPhilo 24 (2012): 135–47.
[2] The embassy took place in 39-40 CE; Philo’s death is normally placed around 50 CE. See Gregory E. Sterling, “Philo,” in The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism (ed. John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 1065.
[3] E. Mary Smallwood, Philonis Alexandrini: Legatio Ad Gaium (Leiden: Brill, 1961), 298–99.


Other posts in this series:
Part 1: First-Century Memories of the Maccabees -- A Footnote with Footnotes
Part 2: First-Century Memories of the Maccabees Part 2: The Origins of Hanukkah
Part 3: First-Century Memories of the Maccabees Part 3: Hanukkah in the First Century
Part 4: Memories of the Maccabees in the Dead Sea Scrolls
Part 5: The Maccabean Revolt and the Success of Hasmonean Propaganda
Part 6: The Case of the Disappearing First-Century Hasmoneans

Sunday, May 26, 2019

J. Louis Martyn on Romantic Christianity

In the better-late-than-never, the-classics-are-still-worth-reading category, I am slowly working my way through J. Louis Martyn's Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul. The chapter on "Leo Baeck's Reading of Paul" is the best in the bunch (so far). Martyn shows that Baeck gets Paul wrong, but observes that Baeck's critique of Paul is a tragically accurate description of too much of modern Christianity: 
"[S]everance from the Old Testament has always thrown the church into some form of ethical chaos, dangerous both to itself and to others. Baeck's ethical challenge is extraordinarily perceptive. He sees that what is commonly called ethics has had a very hard time finding a recognized and stable home in Christianity. Indeed, over the span of centuries, the dominant picture ... is the one in which ethics is excluded from the sphere considered proper to Christianity, either by being banned to live in a sort of shabby lean-to, having no organic relation to the main house of faith, or by being handed over entirely to the state. Not infrequently ethics has thus become, at worst, the sanctification of a tyrannical government and, at best, 'a message that is perceived dimly, as if from a vast distance, a message that can mean everything while demanding nothing ...' From such ethics one learns to be prudent, to find the modus vivendi; and thus, in the end, one falls into the kind of casuistry that can be comfortable with the neighbor's suffering. About this part of Baeck's charge there can be no argument. Christian history provides more examples than one wishes to enumerate.  
"The full profundity of Baeck's analysis of Christian ethics ensues, however, from his recognition that the organic relationship between faith and ethics is equally compromised when ethics moves in from the lean-to and takes over the house, pretending to be the whole of Christianity, thus rendering unnecessary and, in fact, useless, everything having to do with the mystery of God's transcendent and prevenient activity. Here we have the pattern Baeck identifies as 'the commandment without the mystery.'" 
J. Louis Martyn, Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul (Nashville: Abingdon, 1997), 67.  
One is tempted to identify the first problem--a shabby-lean-to ethics that emphasizes faith to the neglect of obedience--with the American Evangelical 81%, and the second with progressive Christianity, but a preoccupation with what we should do to the neglect of God's saving intervention, is not the preserve of progressives alone.

Incidentally, exploring the relationship between faith and ethics was, in a way, the premise behind the book Susan Wendel and I co-edited.