Thursday, December 31, 2020

A 2020 Reading Retrospective

Zotero tells me I finished reading 28 books in 2020, down five from 2019, which goes to show that pandemics do not automatically increase scholarly productivity. (On the contrary ... But I digress.)

A few statistics: Of the 28 books, I count 13 novels, 6 popular-level non-fiction books, and 8 or 9 popular and more scholarly books that are more-or-less in my field; six I've read before, eight I read aloud, only one was an audiobook. Remarkably, four of the books were first published in 2020.

Bed-time Reading, in sequence:

Lewis, C. S. The Screwtape Letters with Screwtape Proposes and Toast. New York: Collier Books, 1982. (First read in high school or college)

Williams, Charles. The Place of the Lion. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1933. 

A 1985 Christmas gift from my mother who, for some strange reason, thought her twelve-year-old son might enjoy a novel about Abelard and a Platonic apocalypse. As the blurb puts it, "Reading Charles Williams is an unforgettable experience." A decade later I discovered the copy I had left behind in Africa in a Mombasa guest house, and returned with it to Canada. Thirty-five years later, I read it to my own twelve-year-old daughter.

Speare, Elizabeth George. The Bronze Bow. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961. 

One of a few books I read as a teenager that helped spark an interest in the land of Israel and ancient Judaism. This one, set around the Sea of Galilee, I read several times as a child, and enjoyed re-reading partly because it has some literary merit, partly because of what it says about popular Christian views of first-century Judaism ca. 1961.

Hunter, J. H. The Mystery of Mar Saba. Toronto: Evangelical Publishers, 1940. 

Another book set in Israel that I first encountered in high school. More funny to read now than the author intended [see this review], this evangelistic 'thriller' can claim no literary merit. Its chief value is as a literary artifact for anyone interested in the beliefs of Presbyterian dispensationalists during World War II, the admixture of Christianity and nationalism in the early twentieth century, ex eventu prophecy, or life in British Mandate Palestine. Much of the book reads like a 1930's-era travelogue of Galilee and Jerusalem--no doubt based on Hunter's first-hand experience.

Family Reading (aloud)

Bauckham, Richard. Who Is God?: Key Moments of Biblical Revelation. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020. 

By turns theologically rich and eccentric; sadly not suited for reading aloud to a lay audience.

Jacobs, Alan. How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds. New York: Currency, 2017.

Jacobs, Alan. The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography. Lives of Great Religious Books. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013. 

A moratorium was declared on Alan Jacobs after the second book. If I want to read Breaking Bread with the Dead, I'm on my own.

Warren, Tish Harrison. Liturgy Of The Ordinary. Downers Grove: IVP, 2016.

Too far removed from the 17th century

The Rest

Bryan, Christopher. Listening to the Bible: The Art of Faithful Biblical Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Collins, John J. The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2013. 

Purchased for the appendix on "Personalities in the Discovery and Subsequent Controversies," but the whole thing is worth reading.

Crowe, Brandon D. The Hope of Israel: The Resurrection of Christ in the Acts of the Apostles. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020.

Garner, Alan. Elidor. London: Collins, 1965.

Glinert, Lewis. The Story of Hebrew. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017. (Fascinating)

Hays, Richard B. First Corinthians. Interpretation. Louisville: John Knox, 1997. (A course textbook; re-read for the 2nd or 3rd time.)

Jipp, Joshua W. Reading Acts. Cascade Companions. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018. 

A textbook for a second-semester Acts course--stimulating and up-to-date

Laird, Martin. Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Lambdin, Thomas O., and John Huehnergard. Introduction to the Aramaic of Targum Onqelos, 2020.

Martínez Sotodosos, César, and Mercedes Ovejas Arango. Mythologica. Guadix, Granada: Cultura Clásica, 2016.

McCall Smith, Alexander. Portuguese Irregular Verbs. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2004. (Reread)

Murray, Douglas. The Madness of Crowds: Gender Race and Identity. London: Bloomsbury, 2020. (Audiobook)

Potok, Chaim. The Promise. Alfred A. Knopf. New York, 1969. (Excellent)

Tartt, Donna. The Secret History. New York: Vintage, 2004. 

Someone commented that this novel got them interested in classics. I had no idea how long it was when I bought the e-book. I would have preferred more Greek and less murder.

Turner, Megan Whalen. The Thief. New York: Greenwillow Books, 1996.

———. The Queen of Attolia. New York: Greenwillow Books, 2000.

———. The King of Attolia. New York: Greenwillow Books, 2006.

———. A Conspiracy of Kings. New York: Greenwillow Books, 2010.

———. Thick as Thieves. New York: Greenwillow Books, 2017.

———. Return of the Thief. New York: Greenwillow Books, 2020.

Best of: Megan Whalen Turner's Queen's Thief series was my 2020 comfort reading. Intelligent young-adult novels set in a world that seems vaguely Byzantine, with real gods.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

On Learning Biblical Hebrew as a Living Language

After a week to catch our breath, term two of Briercrest College's modified fall semester begins tomorrow. For me and my students this means a full semester of Introductory Hebrew compressed into 6.5 weeks. Because I want to reserve class time for Hebrew learning, I made a short video to explain in advance why we are going to study a “dead” language like Hebrew as one would a living language:

I am reproducing the first part of what I say in the video, for those like me, who prefer reading to watching:

This course takes a “Living Language” approach to learning Biblical Hebrew. Among other things, this means the course will be conducted, as far as possible, in Biblical Hebrew. You are going to spend a lot of time in this class listening to Biblical Hebrew. You will be learning to speak Biblical Hebrew as well as to read and write Biblical Hebrew.

This is different from how Biblical Hebrew has traditionally been taught in North America. In a traditional language classroom you would spend most of your time in class listening to your teacher talk about Hebrew in English. Homework would consist of painfully trying to memorize English glosses for Hebrew words, and translating Hebrew sentences into English.

Now, the goal of any Introductory Biblical Hebrew course is to help students learn to read and understand an ancient text. The traditional approach takes for granted that the easiest, quickest way to learn to read Hebrew is to focus on grammar and translation. There are no native Biblical Hebrew speakers. You don't need to know how to buy food in the market or how to hire a taxi in Biblical Hebrew. Why bother making the extra effort to speak Hebrew? Why emphasize hearing when all you really need to do is read letters on a page? 

But if your goal is to internalize the language so that you can read with understanding, and if you want long-term retention—not just passing a test, but being able to continue to read 10 years down the road—the traditional approach turns out to be neither efficient nor particularly effective.

For one thing, I can say from experience that memorizing lists of vocabulary words is very time consuming ... and doesn't work very well. More importantly, the preoccupation with translation—as if Hebrew must be turned into English to be understood—actually gets in the way of internalizing the language.

For more detail, as well as a few comments about what motivates me to teach Hebrew, you will need to watch the video itself. It's only five minutes long. 

I have never taught Biblical Hebrew using a fully communicative approach before, and the pressure to prepare for daily classes will be intense. But I am grateful to be able to ply my trade in a context where face-to-face teaching is still an option, even if it means I need to learn how to say ‘put on your masks’* in Biblical Hebrew.

*I've settled on עֲטוּ עַל־פְּנֵיכֶם, which uses Leviticus 13:45 as a model. My thanks to Aaron Eby for the suggestion.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Purity and Impurity in Second Temple Judaism

Few Christians today linger over the ritual purity laws in the Pentateuch. This lack of familiarity with the Torah, and with how the Torah was understood in ancient Judaism, is often combined with a profound failure of historical imagination. The predictable result: major misreadings of the New Testament.

In this 28-minute video, prepared for students in my introduction to early Judaism course, I explain how Jewish systems of purity really worked 😏: 

There are still plenty of mistakes in delivery, production and, no doubt, in content, but this one turned out better than most of the videos I've produced so far. (It also takes the prize for most time-consuming to prepare.) I justify its length by telling my students to watch it at 2x speed.

I should note that I make no claim to originality here. The model I present is essentially that of Jonathan Klawans with a side of E.P. Sanders.  

Comments, corrections and recommendations for further reading are welcome.

A Working Bibliography

Hayes, Christine E. Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identities: Intermarriage and Conversion from the Bible to the Talmud. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Kazen, Thomas. Jesus and Purity Halakhah: Was Jesus Indifferent to Impurity? 2d ed. CB 38. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2010.
Klawans, Jonathan. Impurity and Sin in Ancient Judaism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
________. “Notions of Gentile Impurity in Ancient Judaism.” AJS Review 20.2 (1995): 285–312.
Meier, John P. A Marginal Jew Volume 4: Law and Love. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.
Poirier, John C. “Purity beyond the Temple in the Second Temple Era.” Journal of Biblical Literature 122 (2003): 247-265.
Rogan, Wil. “Purity in Early Judaism: Current Issues and Questions:” Currents in Biblical Research 16.3 (2018): 309-339.
Sanders, E. P. Judaism: Practice and Belief: 63 BCE - 66 CE. London: SCM Press, 1998.
Thiessen, Matthew. Jesus and the Forces of Death. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020.
Wassen, Cecilia. “The Jewishness of Jesus and Ritual Purity.” Scripta Instituti Donneriani Aboensis 27 (2016): 11–36.

In addition to Klawans and Sanders, I found the chapter on Purity in John Meier's 4th volume as well as the recent essays by Wil Rogan and Cecilia Wassen especially helpful. It will be obvious that I am not finally persuaded by Thomas Kazen or John Poirier. 

Monday, September 7, 2020

Ready or not, here we go

"This will be the most difficult period of our careers. But this is what it takes to live and work during a natural disaster. And we are the lucky ones." - Stan Yoshinobu, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education 

"This is definitely the most demanding and stressful period of preparation for a semester that I have ever had." - Alan Jacobs, Baylor University  
"Due to social distancing requirements & classroom sizes, my 3 courses of 25-28 students have become 6 hybrid courses of half that size. I'm essentially managing the logistics of 6 hybrid courses, & even as a very organized prof teaching courses I've done before this is an astonishing amount of work. It's what I need to do right now, and I'm thankful for a job that I love at an institution I love. But wow, we faculty need a serious break and some appreciation for all this. If you are faculty & still planning courses, do what you can to find ways to make things even a little easier on yourself this term, especially when the emotional support our students need will demand a lot from us--much more than usual, from what I'm already seeing." - Jessica Coblentz, St. Mary's College, Indiana  
"Reducing burnout in what might be an entirely new teaching environment should be on everyone’s mind." - Lance Piantaggini (MagisterP) 
As I anticipate the beginning of fall semester classes tomorrow, there is much to be grateful for: Briercrest College is located in a rural area that has not suffered a significant Covid outbreak. The college has worked hard to develop a solid plan that will follow provincial guidelines. And we have students who are eager to return to the classroom. 

From the academic side of things, the plan is to run two seven-week terms in the fall semester, with a combination of daily 45-min tutorials and asynchronous video lectures that we record in advance. To meet physical distancing requirements, large classes are divided into multiple sections. The intensive format means less time for grading and for class prep during the term itself. In my experience, the process of preparing, recording, editing, and uploading video lectures at least doubles the time I would normally spend preparing for and delivering a conventional lecture. Even with the summer to prepare, it won't be easy for faculty members to pull this off. 

My course assignment for the fall looks like (1) Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, a one-week modular class in the seminary (two weeks ago on Zoom), (2) two sections of Jewish Backgrounds in the first term (including another 18 of a projected 24 video lectures that I have yet to record), and (3) two sections of Biblical Hebrew taught as a living language in the second, fortunately with extra face-to-face class time instead of video lectures.

My semester theme is the chorus from this Bruce Cockburn song:

"Under the Mercy and I'm Okay."

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

On Relearning Aramaic via Syriac

I will leave communication about Briercrest’s plans for on-campus course delivery this fall to official channels, and say only that if I knew what was coming, studying Syriac and Targumic Aramaic during parts of May and June would not have made it onto my summer agenda. But last September, when I agreed to supervise a student’s Aramaic independent study, I thought it would be fun to take yet another stab at learning this third biblical language. Since we both had had some previous exposure to biblical Aramaic, I proposed a more oblique approach that would, I hoped, be more successful than my two previous attempts. 

Instead of using Frederick Greenspahn’s conventional Introduction to Aramaic textbook, which I have worked through twice before, we spent the first three weeks or so listening to the recordings in Niek Arentsen and Jordash Kiffiak’s Living Christian Aramaic (Syriac), and the next four completing the exercises and readings in Thomas Lambdin & John Huehnergard’s free online Introduction to the Aramaic of Targum Onqelos. 

Living Christian Aramaic appears to use the same pictures as the Biblical Language Center's other picture lessons products, and it is equally effective. I'll admit that I found the recordings--authentic as they may be--a little grating, but I can still hear  in my head. 

If you have worked with Lambdin's Introduction to Biblical Hebrew, you know what to expect from Lambdin & Huehnergard's Aramaic primer: bare-bones grammar notes, paradigms, and exercises in classic grammar-translation style. About a dozen chapters in the pace seems to pick up. The second half of the book introduces a dizzying array of new paradigms too fast to assimilate. Although I don't like the approach, I found the written exercises--even adding vowel pointing--to be effective and well-designed. The book ends with the text of Targum Onqelos on Genesis 12-16. If you have done the exercises, you can read the Targum. 

Despite major differences between these two language streams, beginning with oral Syriac helped me secure some of the vocabulary and basic syntactical patterns of Targumic Aramaic, and Targumic Aramaic is, in turn, quite close to the Biblical Aramaic of Daniel. As a bonus, I felt comfortable making my way through Targum Onqelos and confident that I could do the same with other Aramaic Targumim--at least when I finished the book. Once I relearn the Estrangelo Syriac script, I should be able to at least dabble in the Syriac Peshitta versions of both Old and New Testaments. Learning a completely foreign script also helped me appreciate what it must be like for my students to learn the Hebrew alphabet!

I will probably agree to supervise another Aramaic independent study in the future, should the opportunity arise, because I confess I am not doing the one thing needed to retain Aramaic, which is to use it. If I may be allowed an excuse, Aramaic has been crowded out by Hebrew. More on that, perhaps, in another post.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

A Twenty-Year Anniversary

Summer Ulpan at the Hebrew University

Twenty years ago this month, I landed in Israel for a year of study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The trip fulfilled a dream I had had since high school, and remains without question the most significant year of my adult life personally and academically (so far). It also continues to shape my teaching, especially "Jewish Backgrounds to Early Christianity" and Biblical Hebrew--both courses I am set to teach again this fall.

In retrospect, I could lament my failure to take full advantage of the opportunities I had in Jerusalem as well as the missed opportunities to foster friendships and develop professional networks in the years since. But my overwhelming response is gratitude for the generosity and hospitality I repeatedly encountered: the professors in Canada who went out of their way to connect me with scholars they knew in Jerusalem, the invitations to attend synagogue and participate in Shabbat dinners, the visits in Palestinian and Arab-Israeli homes, and the conversations with Christian friends in Jerusalem and elsewhere who helped sustain my faith by letting me know it is okay to live with unanswered questions.

I could go on at length, but since this blog is not an acknowledgements page I want to reflect for a minute on why the memories from that year are still so vivid, why the learning was so intense.

August 15, 2000
 (1) Context had something to do with it: Who can forget reading Thackeray's translation of Josephus's Jewish War on daily bus trips past the Temple Mount? 

  (2) But so did kindness. One of many illustrations I could mention: The argument of a certain 1997 monograph may have stuck in my head anyway. (It's a good book!) But I can assure you it is lodged there more firmly because one morning in Jerusalem its author took me out for coffee. 

When I remember Jerusalem twenty years later, one of the first things that comes to mind is the generosity of friends and scholars, whose names I won't mention here, as well as the kindness of others, whose names I have now forgotten. The least I can do is try to pay it forward. 

(There is another reason why I remember 2000-2001 Jerusalem so vividly, but that is a topic--and an anniversary--for another occasion.)

Friday, July 17, 2020

Introduction to Biblical Interpretation

I'm not big on personal mission statements--unless the quote from Robert Frost in my sidebar counts: 
"My object in living is to unite / My avocation and my vocation / As my two eyes make one in sight."   
But if I were forced to articulate what makes me tick, what gets me up in the morning, it would have something to do with helping students read the Bible carefully and profitably, and helping students experience why it matters. That's why I'm committed to teaching Greek and Hebrew as effectively as I can, and that's why I'm looking forward to teaching a one-week Introduction to Biblical Interpretation modular course at Briercrest Seminary at the end of August. The full syllabus is here, if anyone is interested. 

The course will be offered over Zoom, so you can take it from the comfort of your living room. All you'd need is an internet connection. No travel required.  

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Samuel Sandmel on Making Many Books

"A lover of scholarship must in our days wonder if the explosion of learning has not yielded a superabundance. So great a flow has there been of books and essays that no one can keep up with it, as the honest scholar admits. The superabundance in part is marked both by an immense quantity of repetitive writings on the same general subject, and also by articles, some enlightening, but some confused and confusing, on minor points, marked by special theories ingeniously designed to solve the unsolvable." (vii)

"There is no ready cure in our time for the demands of specialization which tend to restrict broad study. Hence, only one who has had the privilege of not years, but decades of study can partially escape from a preoccupation with only a single area of the several here dealt with. Even such a person cannot achieve fullest mastery in all this variety. If I were to set forth a claim of some tolerable mastery, it would be in Bible (Old Testament0, in hellenistic Judaism, and in New Testament. I am experienced in Rabbinic literature, but am by no means an unqualified expert; I have studied and taught the Apocrypha and the Dead Sea Scrolls, but make no claim of special eminence. The full mastery of all these literatures, and of the scholarly writings about them, are beyond what one man can achieve in the normal span of a single life. I have dared to hope that where expertise has eluded me, responsible competency has not." (viii-ix)

From the preface to Samuel Sandmel's Judaism and Christian Beginnings (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).

Sunday, May 31, 2020

John Donne on Pentecost

"But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. This day is this Scripture fulfilled in your ears, saith our Saviour Christ, having read for his text, that place of Esay, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. And that day which we celebrate now, was another Scripture fulfilled in their ears, and in their eyes too; for all Christ's promises are Scripture; they have all the infallibility of Scripture; and Christ had promised, that that spirit which was upon him, when he preached, should also be shed upon all his apostles. And upon this day he performed that promise, when, They being all with one accord, in one place, there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and filled the house, and there appeared unto them cloven tongues, like as of fire, and it sate upon each of them, and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost. And this very particular day, in which we now commemorate, and celebrate that performance of Christ's promise, in that mission of the Holy Ghost upon the apostles, are all these Scriptures performed again, in our ears, and eyes, and in our hearts; for in all those congregations that meet this day, to this purpose, every preacher hath so much of this unction (which unction is Christ) upon him, as that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him, and hath anointed him to that service; and every congregation, and every good person in the congregation, hath so much of the apostle upon him, as that he feels this Spirit of the Lord, this Holy Ghost, as he is this cloven tongue, that sets one stem in his ear, and the other in his heart, one stem in his faith, and the other in his manners, one stem in his present obedience, and another in his perseverance, one to rectify him in the errors of life, another to establish him in the agonies of death; for the Holy Ghost, as he is a cloven tongue, opens as a compass, that reaches over all our map, over all our world, from our east to our west, from our birth to our death, from our cradle to our grave, and directs us for all things, to all persons, in all places, and at all times." - John Donne, Sermon XXVI, Preached at St. Paul's upon Whitsunday, 1627.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Reflections on Teaching Ancient Greek as a Living Language 3: Endnotes

Back in January I posted an initial report on Briercrest’s first Intensive Koiné Greek Semester: five immersive courses in a 15-week fall semester, beginning from scratch and culminating in the Greek text of the Gospel of Mark. As I mentioned in that post, the semester was distinguished by its intensive five-days-a-week format and by our approach to teaching Ancient Greek in Ancient Greek as a living language.

Here at last is a follow-up post with a little more detail about what we did in class, our influences, and the resources we used.

The Classroom

The Intensive Semester would not have succeeded the way it did without the outstanding contribution of our three student interns. With five co-teachers, we were able to give attention to each student in a class of about 25 students, and to provide much more active and more engaging learning experiences than we would otherwise have been able to do. In addition to active instruction, role-playing, and “Total Physical Response” exercises from the front of the class, we were able to break into stations with different teachers leading different activities (including WAYK), and to work together in table groups with a different teacher assigned to each table each day. Five co-teachers also meant that we could share tutorial responsibilities in the afternoons after a full morning of class.

About half the class had already taken a semester-based version of the first two courses the previous year, and sat in on the first six weeks for review. Their enthusiasm and basic familiarity with the language helped the brand new students get up to speed.


Other contributions were less obvious to students, but no less important. The field of active ancient Greek language instruction is changing so rapidly it might not have been possible to offer an intensive semester of Ancient Greek by immersion ten years ago. In any case, we could not have pulled it off without help from others under whom we have studied and whose recently-developed resources we employed.

My colleague, Wes Olmstead, who both organized the Greek semester and shouldered most of the teaching and lesson planning, spent much of the summer of 2019 learning under Christophe Rico at Polis Institute courses in the United States.

In an earlier post I mentioned attending one of the Biblical Language Center's Greek Fluency Workshops in the summer of 2012. Almost a decade later, I can see the formative impact of these workshops (2011-2013) on the growing movement of people involved in living Greek language instruction. The teachers the summer I attended included Randall Buth, Jordash Kiffiak and Ben Kantor. (BLC's plans to restart the workshops in 2020 have moved online, which may make them more accessible. Highly recommended!)

Bryn Olmstead picked up the idea of Greek fluency and ran with it farther than I imagined possible. Although Bryn and Felicia were not physically present to help teach the course, they did a tremendous amount of work behind the scenes throughout the semester, most notably by preparing incredibly effective Keynote slides. Bryn informs me that their contribution was heavily indebted to his teacher, Gonzalo Jerez Sánchez: “Much of what we produced is simply creative adaptation of what we learned from him for your particular situation at Briercrest.”


It is no coincidence that several of our influences reappear as authors and creators of resources we used.

Much of Koiné Greek I, the first course in the series, was built around:
(1) The Biblical Language Center’s Living Koiné Greek: Foundations “Picture Lessons.”
(2) Jordash Kiffiak's Omilein videos and a pre-publication draft of his workbook, which is designed to be used alongside the BLC “Picture Lessons.”
In my view, Jordash’s ΟΜΙΛΕΙΝ curriculum, with its blend of high-quality TPR videos and a lavishly-illustrated workbook, is currently the best beginning Greek resource available for those who want to lead students through the equivalent of a first semester of Greek using a communicative approach. Jordash now offers online courses through his own ΟΜΙΛΕΙΝ website.
In Koiné Greek II-IV we combined Christophe Rico’s Polis curriculum with the Italian version of the classical Greek textbook, Athenaze:
(3) Christophe Rico, Polis: Speaking Ancient Greek as a Living Language, Level One (Polis Institute Press, 2015).
(4) 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. (Why the Italian Athenaze you ask? Consider these answers.)
(5) We also used audio resources produced by Gonzalo Jerez Sánchez of Classics at Home.
(6) As an additional source of comprehensible input in class, we dipped into Seumas MacDonald’s Lingua Graeca per se Illustrata (LGPSI), which provided the inspiration for the map at the beginning of this post.
In these three courses (Koiné Greek II-IV), we made it through chapter 15 of Athenaze, all of Polis Level One, and part of a pre-publication draft of Polis 2.

Our task in Koiné Greek V was to read and talk about the Gospel of Mark in Greek.
(7) Ben Kantor's excellent Koiné Greek Gospel of Mark video was a tremendous help:

By the end of the semester, I had the repeated experience of sitting around a table with students who were helping me explain the Greek text of Mark to each other in Greek. What more could you ask for?

(Note: This is the third in a series of posts on last fall’s Intensive Greek Semester. You can read the first two here and here.)

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Iain Provan on Serious Christian Education

“[T]hose who care greatly about the Bible's authority must necessarily care greatly about the Bible's proper meaning, and the elucidation of that meaning requires literary competence at various levels of Bible reading …. It is not by accident that the churches arising out of the Reformation, with their emphasis on sola scriptura, have historically been primary advocates and organizers of education for everyone. The Reformers understood that reading the Bible well required education—not least because the ability to read itself was the necessary prerequisite of Bible reading. We now live in a world, on the other hand, in which many factors currently conspire against literacy in general, even where people are technically capable of reading words on pages. Literary competence certainly cannot be taken for granted, even in general terms; and if people cannot read well in general, it stands to reason that they will not be able to read the Bible well in particular. In such a situation there is a need for the revival of serious Christian education—education that will not so much tell people what to think about the Bible, but will rather enable them to reengage with the Bible …. If, for example, Old Testament narrative is exhausting but also engaging, it is surely no part of the minister's task to try to intervene between the Bible and the congregation in order to make it less so. The task is surely to facilitate the exhaustion and the engagement, so that God may speak to people through the Scriptures as they experience both realities. The task is to teach literary competence with respect to the Bible as much as it is to preach the Bible's message, so that the sheep in our various flocks are not only hearing the word but also themselves reading it with understanding.” - Iain W. Provan,  “Literary Competence and Biblical Authority.” Word & World 26.4 (2006): 375–82, here 382.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Where to from here? Three suggestions for "Little Greeks"

In seminary I fancied myself a Greek scholar. I had, after all, taken courses on advanced Greek grammar and advanced Greek exegesis, and I had struggled through the entire Greek New Testament (and nothing else). A few decades later, I see I have only just begun--partly because I was going about it the wrong way, partly because I was hardly going about it at all.

Laziness no doubt played a role, but to be charitable to my former self, I didn’t fathom what was possible, and I didn’t grasp what is necessary. If my experience is anything to go by, the language bar is set very low in New Testament scholarship. I would hazard that most of those who publish on New Testament Greek grammar don’t qualify as Greek scholars, if basic competence in non-biblical Koine Greek is a criterion.

Yet even if I could claim a fluent reading knowledge of the entire corpus of ancient Greek literature, I would still want to be included in Jonathan Robie’s definition of a “Little Greek”:
“A ‘Little Greek’ is someone who is still learning Greek. … Those who don't know aren't dangerous; those who insist they do know are very dangerous. This is just as true for Really Big Greeks as for Little Greeks. Each of us knows only in part; if we want to profit by studying Greek, we must have the humility and the patience to learn one step at a time, to be corrected by others, and be open to the Spirit who guides us in all truth.” - Jonathan Robie
With this in mind, I left my Greek VI students at the end of the semester with three suggestions for Little Greeks like us:

(1) Re-read. To paraphrase Justin Slocum Bailey in this excellent talk, if you want to develop Greek fluency, “the next . . . text you should read” is the one you just finished reading. Here is Slocum Bailey again, explaining the point in more detail:
“From the perspective of second language acquisition, the only way to waste time reading is to read a text exactly once. …. If you read the text many times, your fluency will skyrocket. Lots of language learners waste time by struggling through texts that are too difficult for them or by immediately moving on from a text without having absorbed much of its language or content. By rereading, you ensure that a text does all it can for your fluency, and that all the time you spend reading actually translates into increased fluency.” - Justin Slocum Bailey, “Don't Read, Reread
(2) Keep Reading. By all means, set goals and aim high, but more importantly, build a habit. A little bit every day is better than grand ambitions that never get off the ground. Probably, this means choosing something fun to read. It also means being kind to yourself.

(3) Read with other people. I said this without irony, though our class was meeting over Zoom. In a strange way, social distancing may make reading together more conceivable than in the past because we now know we don't need to be in one place to do so.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Reflections on Teaching Greek as a Living Language 2: The Prequel

I have been dreaming about a more effective way to teach the biblical languages since the late 1990’s when I watched classmates complete their seminary language requirements without acquiring a lasting ability to read the Bible in Greek or Hebrew. I already knew by experience how valuable it is to be able to read the New Testament in Greek, but I could see that the traditional approach to teaching the biblical languages was not serving the majority of students well.

Around this time I first encountered Randall Buth making what was then an unusual proposal: Why not draw on best practices in second language acquisition and teach the biblical languages by immersion, as modern languages are taught? I had grown up in Africa in a multilingual environment and had observed my missionary parents teaching English to speakers of other languages, so on one level the idea made a lot of sense. But I had my doubts about applying living methods to so-called “dead” languages. A few years later I was in Jerusalem studying modern Hebrew by immersion when I noticed a dramatic improvement in my ability to read biblical Hebrew. From that point, I was sold on the concept. An immersive method clearly produces deeper, longer-lasting results. The problem was I did not know Greek well enough to apply it.

In the summer of 2012, with several years of traditional grammar-translation Greek teaching under my belt, I participated in a Biblical Language Center Greek Fluency Workshop designed both to help Greek instructors develop proficiency in spoken Koine Greek and to demonstrate how to teach ancient Greek as a living language. During the workshop, I posted a sort of personal manifesto on my blog:
I am … persuaded that the languages are worth learning well, that Bible software “power tools” are no substitute, and that—in theory—it should be reasonable for pastors to acquire a reading knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, and maintain the languages while they are in ministry. I am also committed to doing whatever I can to create a better long-term success rate for my students. This means helping students learn deeper with greater retention, and helping them see the payoff and have fun in the process so that they are motivated to continue learning once required classes are done. I am convinced the church needs pastors in general—not just a select few pastor scholars—who read the Bible in its original languages. Perhaps one of the most important ways I can serve the church is to teach the biblical languages effectively, working to turn theory into reality.
That fall, in a first attempt to switch to an immersive approach, I went half-way, trying to merge traditional and living-language methods in my Introductory Greek course. I was pleased with the results of this preliminary experiment, but class scheduling demands, a sabbatical, and a trip to England, meant that a second chance to teach introductory Greek never materialized. I did sometimes wonder why—if teaching the languages was so important to me—I wasn’t doing more to develop my own competence in Greek and Hebrew. But in the years that followed I turned my attention to the conventional things an academic is supposed to do, and I began to fear that the effort I had put into developing any sort of active facility in the language would be wasted.

Meanwhile, back in the Greek-language classroom, my colleague, Wes Olmstead, made the switch to a living language approach to teaching ancient Greek. When Wes proposed the idea for an “Intensive Semester” of immersive Greek, I jumped at the opportunity to be involved—both to support the experience in any way I could and to learn Greek more deeply in the process.

I wrote up some initial reflections on the fall semester at the beginning of January, which you can read here. Then came the winter semester and the challenge of attempting to teach through the Greek text of 1 Corinthians in Greek. (Εἰ θέλεις μανθάνειν τὴν Ἑλληνικὴν γλῶσσαν, δίδαξον αὐτήν!) Now that the dust has settled, I hope to return to a sequel that gives a little more detail on what we did last fall, our influences and the resources we used. Stay tuned.

This is the second post in a 3-part series. Click on these links for Part 1 and Part 3.

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.

This is the first in a 3-part series. Parts 2 and 3 are here: