A d F o n t e s

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Christian Seminary Language Education: It’s Pretty Sad.

Recently a good friend directed me to the following posts by Tyler Williams, who was dovetailing off a post by John Hobbins about the state of linguistic education in Christian seminaries: namely, that it’s pathetic.  I agree completely.  In addition I think one should add historical education–e.g. Greek and Roman history–which is all but entirely absent in the seminary context and is equally important, but here I’ll focus on language. 

When I went to Westminster Seminary, we probably had among the more rigorous linguistic training among seminaries:  three semesters each of NT Greek and Biblical Hebrew, in addition to a hermeneutics course, all of which was required before you took your basic NT and OT courses, in which our translating ability was also examined.  Most seminaries I know of offer 2 terms of each language with only one required, which is pretty sad: no language I’ve ever learned before–and I know quite a few–ever took one semester to develop even the remotest competence.  But I see clearly now that it was still too sparse.  Take Greek for instance.  In three semesters we unquestionably did not cover what is ordinarily taught in one undergraduate semester of classical Greek.  And as such, by the time we were done, though we could fumble through some parts of the NT, some parts were impossible (Luke, Hebrews–which really are very easy compared to most other Gk authors, even in documentary papyri), our training did not leave us with the education requisite for handling other relevant Koine authors–say Appian or Josephus–much less non-Koine authors less relevant to NT studies–say Euripides, Herodotus. 

I think the decision to teach “NT Greek” as a language all its own is both symptomatic of and a contributor to the problem.  Over on NT Gateway, Mark Goodacre of Duke polled Greek teacher’s favorite NT Grammar (results here).  This is a bizarre question if you think about it.  In a sense yes, it’s possible to teach NT-specific Greek, but it’s like teaching only part of a language.  This was recognized in the “old days” when the foundation to any seminary education was a solid education in classics.  Beginning w/ Classical Greek–via grammars like Hansen and Quinn–really should be students’ entre to the New Testament in Greek.  We would only get to the current situation if we felt we needed a shortcut through the language; though this approach will only lead to further problems. 

The real sad part about this is that seminaries are creating a mass of ministers who are incompetent in the languages of the Bible, who are dependent entirely on translation and commentaries, and who are therefore making theological and ecclesiological decisions significantly beyond their expertise.  This is especially scary when you have ministers in certain denominations starting to deal with very old issues based on important philological and historical data that have been a major footnote to scholarship for the past 40 years, and who are very quick to render them fundamentally wrong.  Strangely, often if I make accusations that they’re unqualified, one gets the response that I’m elitist or taking the Bible out of the hands of the common man.  I like to remind that the Bible was put into the hands of the hands of the common man by experts in the first place. 

Hobbins Notes that Ismar Schorsch also decried the level of training in Jewish seminaries, where I was also a student until a few months ago.  The speech mentioned by Robbins was actually quite controversial–not least because Schorsch was on the editorial board of Etz Hayim, which he decried, and as well as the head of Conservative Jewish movement he criticized for the past 30 years.  That aside, as a former student of both a Jewish and Christian seminary, let me say they are completely incomparable from the perspective of linguistic education.  For instance, JTS for instance required 2 full years of Modern Hebrew, in addition to text classes all in the original (no translation for the most part), in order for me to graduate.  I don’t say that to pick on Christians.  Indeed, in being one myself, it causes me to lament the value we place on knowing the languages and our preference for shortcuts.  We clearly don’t think it is very important.


I was alerted to a response or sorts by R. Scott Clark. I’m actually astonished someone found this blog–I didn’t think anyone knew about it. Lest I be misunderstood, my comments above or below aren’t meant as a criticism of a particular seminary–though some doubtless deserve it–it’s more a critique of how we do seminary in general; how we prep our ministers.

I don’t think I disagree w/ Clark per se–I agree seminaries are for training ministers, not linguists, and we should be very cautious to not confuse the two. Though I still really believe the bar should be raised–I suspect even at WTSCal. It doesn’t make sense that individuals for whom Biblical interpretation is the core of their job not be able to comfortably use the Bible in Greek and Hebrew–not necessarily w/ super facility–and I’ve met a precious few ministers who would admit their languages are that strong (but most are honest about it). I don’t know what WTSCal exams are like, but at WTS we too were only allowed Gk and Heb texts in exams, but we only needed them for 5-15 passages/exam tops, and most of us didn’t even remember those 3 yrs out. That’s not much. I wonder if WTSCal is different, but I doubt it (I hope I’m wrong). But let me re-emphasize: I don’t think it’s their fault per se–I can’t imagine any institution being able to adequately prepare persons for the ministry with only a 3-4 year bachelor’s training (which is really what a seminary education is). And that’s really what this post is about: not singling out any seminary, but rather the system.

August 7, 2007 - Posted by | Academy, Bible, Classics


  1. I am getting ready to study Greek and Hebrew in school. What would you recommend for someone new to avoid and take advantage of learning correctly?


    Comment by Juan | August 8, 2007 | Reply

  2. Tough question. Probably depends on whether you’re taking it in a seminary or college context; given that you’re learning both, I’ll presume the former.

    In my honest opinion, it would be best to take a Classical Greek course instead of an NT Greek course. I assume you’ll not have that option; you’ll have to take an NT Gk course using an NT Gk grammar. I suppose the next best thing is to expose yourself to the rest of Greek grammar, even if for the time being (or ever) you won’t have the opportunity to read other Greek literature. One way to do this is to buy a standard introductory Classical Greek grammar to read alongside your NT Gk grammar to fill out the concepts addressed there–I would suggest Hansen and Quinn’s _Greek: An Intensive Introduction_. So for instance, when your NT Gk grammar introduces “conditional statements,” which are usually presented as 2 types in NT grammars, you could read about conditionals in H&Q, which actually explains those two more thoroughly, but also the other 4 kinds of conditionals, some of which occur in the NT (there are 6 total kinds w/ important nuances not typically presented in NT grammars). Then do a few exercises. This would take lots of discipline, but you’ll be rewarded in the long-run.

    For Biblical Hebrew, I hate to say you’re probably stuck. Most college and seminary Hebrew courses are basically the same, and use some of the same intro grammars, all of which are deficient in some significant way. My advice would be to work through the one assigned, read as much Hebrew as you can, while simultaneously working through a reference grammar like those by Jouon-Murkoka and Van der Merwe, and perhaps a good exegetical commentary at the same time when you read a specific book (for instance, I’m reading Milgrom on Leviticus these days, as well as several medieval Jewish commentators). I’ve been toying with the idea of teaching Biblical Hebrew by teaching Modern Hebrew first: aspects of the grammar are very different, but learning to think in MH makes BH very easy; learning MH drammatically improved my BH reading. This is kinda how JTS does things, and it seems to work ok.

    Speaking personally, when I got to seminary I made myself a promise that from then on I would only read the Bible in Greek and Hebrew. I’ve kept that promise, though it’s meant that my Bible reading dwindled for about 3 yrs. But I was disciplined and kept to it, reading every day. It payed off. Now I’m finally at the stage where I can often zip through the NT and OT w/ relative ease, though some parts of the OT are a bit harder b/c of vocabulary (proverbs for instance).

    Comment by JD | August 8, 2007 | Reply

  3. […] reading: The Epistles of John (Part 26): 1 John 3:4–6, It’s All Greek to Me, Christian Seminary Language Education: It’s Pretty Sad Previous posts in this series: Seeing Double, Letting […]

    Pingback by Grasshopper Greek: Why? « Lingamish | August 8, 2007 | Reply

  4. Hi,

    Just a quick note. I am very well aware of the problems pointed out above and agree wholeheartedly with the concerns. The solution, as noted, for pastoral training with thorough expertise in the biblical languages is for students to begin their studies in college (at least). At both Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia and Wesminster in California, Greek and Hebrew are treated as “propedeutic” courses. This is a relic form the time when most students in America with would have had 3-5 years of Latin and Greek before seminary. Times have changed, haven’t they!

    At Westminster Seminary in California, by the way, we cover the equivalent of two college semesters of Greek in our five week intensive Greek I course. In Greek II-III we read 1 John and learn syntax (usually a second year college level), then read more and learn more about Greek verbal aspect and style in Greek IV. I designed the curriculum and wrote two texts for it to integrate the whole. Frankly, it’s the most Greek I think we can practically teach when students come to us without even a rudimenatry knowledge of English grammar.

    This last point should be underlined. How much language can students learn, when, in the U.S., they’ve never been taught even the idea of an infinitive in English?!

    Finally, I’m not sure I fully agree with the claim that one must know “classical” Greek in order to successfully read the GNT. It helps, but it is not absolutely necessary to know, for example Homeric dactyls or scansion of fifth century BC Attic tragic poetry, to read a much later, more prosaic Greek text. It’s nice, but not necessary. (I have a graduate degree in classics and have read pretty widely in Greek papyri, epigraphy, et al.)

    Just my two lepta. 🙂


    S. M. Baugh, Ph.D.
    Professor of New Testament
    Westminster Seminary California

    Comment by S. M. Baugh | August 8, 2007 | Reply

  5. I thought I would throw in my two cents!

    I also prefer learning classical Gk for the simple fact that it is easier to go from Classical to Hellenistic rather than vice versa. Moreover, there is also the issue that in the Roman period, you have authors who write with Atticizing tendencies. In fact, as with JD, I have found that many people who study NT Greek actually CANNOT read the entire NT, such as Hebrews, which happens to be my fav book in the NT. Although I have been accused of being elitist in this view of things.

    HAVING SAID THIS, I actually think the best way to learn a language is not by reading one introductory grammar over another (although some are clearly superior to others). It is actually the next step that is far more important. I find my understanding of an ancient language increases exponentially when I just delve into a text and try to figure out how the grammar, syntax, etc., works in that particular text. Remember that grammars are abstracted normative principles , but do not always work in every single text. So, learning to be able to read and adapt from text to text, is most important. And, JD, this is basically how David Marcus ran his classes if I remember correctly. This is basically the closest we can get in ancient languages to “immersion” at this stage.

    Pertaining HEbrew, I actually went backwards, starting with modern, and then going to Biblical, and then trying to fill in the middle–I am probably not near JD’s proficiency after he spent two years at JTS. And I actually think doing modern helped me when I went back to read Rabbinic stuff. There are, of course, numerous differences, but there is also a biblical Hebrew grammar for those who already know modern Hebrew that is especially sensitive to those differences.

    I would like to add one final issue near and dear to me (and this is for students of early Christianity). I do not think that someone can actually have an adequate understanding of various early Christian movements without learning Coptic as well as the usual Greek and Hebrew/Aramaic. So many early Christian docs are only available in Coptic, and if scholars cannot read them, their reconstructions of early Christianity are going to be unnecessarily distorted.

    Comment by Jared | August 9, 2007 | Reply

  6. Where I did my undergraduate work, two years of modern Hebrew were required before classical Hebrew was studied. (Unfortunately, more than 90% of the modern Hebrew classes were conducted in English.) The vocabulary and feel of expressions did indeed help with classical Hebrew.

    But it is important to realize that modern Hebrew is a different language than classical Hebrew and there are dangers in assuming a direct continuity. (It is also interesting comparing mishnaic grammar with classical.)

    Randall Buth at http://www.biblicalulpan.org has a interesting immersion approach to classical Hebrew, Koine Greek, and Aramaic. Reports are that this methodology is very effective!

    A couple years ago Halvor Ronning spoke at our church and mentioned that he was at a high school play (in Jerusalem) that was performed using classical Hebrew!

    My seminary required two years of Hebrew and Greek (assuming two years of college Greek). I thought this was woefully inadequate.

    I do know of graduates from the seminary who would have book burning ceremonies after graduation – they would burn their Greek and Hebrew books!

    One of the challenges for seminaries is to show seminarians how a thorough understanding of Greek and Hebrew will be of value for them as pastors. They also need to encourage pastors to have a regular reading program of Greek and Hebrew (and perhaps Aramaic) much as one would develop a regular aerobics and fitness program for physical health.

    Comment by William | August 9, 2007 | Reply

  7. I’m really excited to have all your comments. Thank you Dr. Baugh, Jared, and William for your comments.

    Dr. Baugh:

    Let me just say up front that none of what follows is meant to be received as an attack or anything like that. I just consider it part of a cordial conversation.

    I sincerely sympathize with your situation as a seminary professor. I don’t doubt that you do as much as one ever could given the short time-frame the MDiv pgm allows—I think programs like yours should be congratulated on that score, particularly given how many seminaries now just sideline the languages. So obviously to leave students with a greater grasp of the languages would require a longer program. It’s pie-in-the-sky, but that’s ultimately what I’m gunning for (though ultimately, I have more in mind than just languages). I’d prefer most ministers be able to confidently read and use the Gk NT and Heb OT basically on their own—maybe not every word, but a large portion of it (i.e. perhaps w/ the help of commentaries, but not w/the need of an interlinear or Bibleworks). I’d be curious to hear if you personally are satisfied with the linguistic education you’re able to provide and what you’d “ideally” prefer (emphasis on “ideally”).

    Per your comment about Classical Greek: Just for clarification: I didn’t say it was essential, though I do think it’s important, and since it’s only the beginning of one’s Gk education, and since it takes as long as learning NT Gk (=1 academic yr), I can’t see why we shouldn’t do it. That said, I think what’s essential depends on where one wants to set the bar. I’d like to set it quite a bit higher than the level of most seminary graduates. Whatever ability most students are able to attain by the time they leave seminary, in my experience most forget the majority of what they learned by the time they’re 3-or-so years out—and I’d dare say a negligible percentage would describe their reading ability as “comfortable” either in or out of seminary. At very least, I think that means our bar is too low: of course I wouldn’t expect my ministers to read Gk and Heb as easily as I can, but I would expect the texts to be more familiar to them than not. I’ve heard one rather famous minister say that seminary students that get Cs in their coursework are generally better ministers–that kind of attitude makes me very nervous.

    Of course that by itself doesn’t make the case for learning Classical Greek. I agree it’s possible to understand the NT without it, though not fully and not w/o important gaps. And I agree that learning the finer points of dactylic hexameter wouldn’t help. Frankly, I’m not sure I’d wish that on my worst enemy (at points I do find it interesting though). But of course that’s not the payoff I have in mind. The payoff is that NT Gk is a subset of a larger linguistic system, and it’s almost impossible to understand the nuances without a grasp of that system. It’s also hard to otherwise know when NT writers are breaking grammatical rules, and sometimes that’s significant. It’s kinda like learning English from my Polish grandmother: sure I can learn it, but unless I know what normal English sounds like, I’d never realize how weird she sounds, nor would I be able to understand everything she says. Moreover, there are grammatical structures that show up in the NT that are not typically mentioned in NT grammars—and if at all, incompletely or only in passing. I have in mind things like indirect statements, indirect questions/commands, result and purpose clauses, sequence of moods and tenses, other independent uses of subjunctives and optatives, etc. That stuff’s pretty important.

    Of course, a foundation in Classical Greek (as opposed to Koine) wouldn’t fix the problem by itself, though I think it is a step in the right direction. In addition to the fact that it’s a far stronger linguistic background, as I said, I honestly don’t see why a seminary couldn’t do it: a seminary should be able to finish Hansen & Quinn in the amount of time it takes to finish a normal NT Greek education, and I can’t for the life of me see why the latter should be preferred. Of course, the other part of the solution is reading much more (as Jared mentioned), probably via additional reading courses. I’ll concede that if our goal is purely to provide a very rudimentary understanding of the NT in Greek, extra reading courses might be enough of a change, but we can do better. And though many students and churches might be reticent about this change, many might not—such has the opposite effect in Judaism, where often the emphasis on a strong language/text education is the center of gravity that pulls students in. As I hinted at above, my wishes would undoubtedly add years to the average seminary education. But I think it’s necessary—especially since, as you pointed out, linguistic training a century ago was much higher caliber, and modern seminaries really haven’t compensated accordingly.

    So at least from the perspective of where I’d like to see our ministers, I think it’s pretty essential—more essential than not, anyway. Part of me would be happy with just additional NT reading courses apart from learning Attic, though most of me not.


    I completely agree your sentiments. Though I think it’s probably easier to do the Marcus Method w/ Aramaic dialects just because Aramaic is simpler grammatically.

    Thanks for your tip on Coptic: I suppose I’m going to need to learn it if I hope to be a papyrologist of sorts. Question: Have you learned Demotic, and if so is it just as important? Syriac?

    Also, FYI I was 3 yrs at JTS 😉

    Jared and William:

    It’s funny, I’ve been thinking a lot about what you both illustrated. I studied BH for 4 yrs before I got to JTS; after I got to JTS, I took MH for 2 yrs in addition to all my other rabbinics coursework. That MH improved my overall reading comprehension tremendously because I was forced to speak and compose in Hebrew (and the fact that JTS made me do everything in Hebrew helped too). It got me thinking that perhaps the best way to do BH is to start w/ 2 terms of MH or something, and then transition to that _Biblical Hebrew for Students of Israeli Hebrew_ book.

    Comment by JD | August 11, 2007 | Reply

  8. […] in Comments on Language Training in Seminary There’s been a fun discussion in the comments of my last post. Check it […]

    Pingback by More in Comments on Language Training in Seminary « A d F o n t e s | August 11, 2007 | Reply

  9. My initial Attic Greek text book also took a different approach. You were given a passage and then you had to try to figure it out on your own. ONly afterwards did they tell you what the grammar was (of course, you could cheat and look ahead!). So, although far more complicated than Aramaic, you still can do this method with Greek. I have heard that someone is experimenting with immersion Hellenistic Greek…sounds interesting. I actually think it would be good to learn modern Greek as well as Attic, even though they are SO different, just to give the sense that it is a living language.

    I have not learned Demotic (have you ever looked at Demotic? It is insane! Imagine trying to read hieroglyphs in chicken scratch cursive). I would need to if I were to become a papyrologist, but, alas, I am more of a historian of ideas, literature, and religion and Demotic was used more for day-to-day business transactions (actually, more up your alley). Knowing Demotic would surely help my Coptic, but Coptic is more important for me to reconstruct the history of early Christianity (and other docs that Christians preserved in Coptic not found elsewhere). The problem is, I do not think Demotic is taught at Columbia…although I am sure Bagnall knows it (although he is leaving us).

    Syriac, of course, is moving in the opposite direction (Coptic and Demotic in Egypt and Syriac as an Eastern Aramaic dialect–you know all this of course). My interests, thus far, have not drifted that far eastward, but I still would like to pick up Syriac if, for nothing else, to read some of the pseudo-Clementines and so forth. But I think my critique of scholars not knowing Coptic could be extended to those who do not know Syriac (which would include myself), b/c it creates a distorted Christianity that only speaks Greek and Latin (and occasionally Palestinian Aramaic).

    Comment by Jared | August 13, 2007 | Reply

  10. Hi JD,

    I took your comments as nothing other than cordial conversation. No offense taken! I agree wholeheartedly with your desire to increase Greek knowledge in our ministers. In the end, though, it is up to the students. I can teach them 3-4 years of Greek here, but they have to integrate their continued grasp of Greek into their weekly sermon work (I give them lots and lots of instruction, tips, and encouragement to that end!). I have had a student in my office tell me that his pastor told him that Greek study was a waste of time for the pastorate. (I won’t tell you what I said to THAT! 🙂

    Here are some further thoughts:

    >>I’d be curious to hear if you personally are satisfied with the linguistic education you’re able to provide and what you’d “ideally” prefer (emphasis on “ideally”).<<

    Ideally students would come to seminary with classics degrees from accredited universities. (Note that Latin studies are also of value for Greek.) One thing to note, however, is that classics departments across the US are failing to attract students and are shutting down or down-sizing, so your generation will have to deal with this too.

    I have found that classics people usually ignore areas of Greek literature of particular interest to us. Namely, first century (or thereabouts) Greek authors like Plutarch, Epictetus, Babrius, Achilles Tatius (!), or even Philo or Josephus. It would be nice to have exposure to these authors too whether neo-Atticistic or not. Just a thought for you and your readers’ Greek reading lists.

    So carry on, brother.



    Comment by S. M. Baugh | August 14, 2007 | Reply

  11. I agree that Hansen and Quinn is a better place to begin studying Greek than any New Testament Greek text. It is really a superb resource. Yet, the likelihood of this happening at any major seminary is virtually zero.

    The challenge is actually quite simple: We would rather pretend that a student can learn Greek or Hebrew in 2 or 3 semesters rather than acknowledging that it takes a lot of hard work and should probably involve 6 semesters of study. An additional issue that hinders reform is that current ministers don’t want to admit that their own knowledge of Biblical languages is inadequate.

    Dallas Seminary does a good job with the languages, but they have accomplished this in part by requiring students to undertake 4 years of full time study (for their Th.M. degree). I have studied at Gordon-Conwell, which has excellent resources in Biblical languages (including offering an MA in Biblical languages), but the Intermediate and Advanced language courses are optional.

    Comment by David A Booth | August 16, 2007 | Reply

  12. […] / made a nice post about Christian Seminary Language Education: It’s Pretty Sad. A d F o n t e sSome information about it […]

    Pingback by Christian Seminary Language Education: It’s Pretty Sad. A d F o n t e s | Bibles | January 4, 2008 | Reply

  13. […] reading: The Epistles of John (Part 26): 1 John 3:4–6, It’s All Greek to Me, Christian Seminary Language Education: It’s Pretty Sad Previous posts in this series: Seeing Double, Letting […]

    Pingback by Grasshopper Greek: Why? | lingamish | July 13, 2009 | Reply

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