A d F o n t e s

(Latin: "to the sources")


This blog has been on a virtual hiatus for the last 2 yrs whilst I’ve been in coursework. Well, that’s about to end. One week to go, with 2 papers to finish and 1 final exam. Hopefully after that I will be back in the swing of things.

But here’s what’s new and recent. First, upon completion of these courses, I begin exams. In Columbia’s Classical Studies we have 3 of our own design. Mine are the following: (1) Topics in Roman Social and Economic History from 1st thru 4th c. CE (odd dates) with William Harris; (2) Late Roman Provincial Art with Tally Kampen; and finally Medieval and Early Modern Economic Institutions and Political Economy with Carl Wennerlind. Totally excited about starting this.

But beforehand, in June I’ll be participating in a Roman Economic History symposium hosted by Columbia University’s Center for the Ancient Mediterranean. Afterwards, I should be traveling around Europe, visiting sites and museums I really need to have visited by now. This should be fun. We each have specific topics–mine is use, abuse, and prospect of the so-called Rank Size Rule by historians of the ancient world. I have my data though no paper yet; I’m considering putting forth yet a different paper whose draft is entirely done on the credit economy in the empire.

Anyway, more to come. I hope.

May 3, 2009 Posted by | Academy, Classics | 1 Comment

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 | 13 Comments

New Dead Sea Scrolls Conference


Jim West informs us of a new conference on the Scrolls to take place in Vienna, Feb. 11-14. According to the call for papers, the intention is to explore the following:

It is well known that the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls is often neglected by scholars who are not directly involved with the Dead Sea Scrolls, while Dead Sea Scrolls specialists often focus narrowly on the scrolls themselves.

The papers of this conference should build a bridge between the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other fields of research, and therefore should not deal with the scrolls only.

This sounded refreshing: As one who moved from physics, to Biblical studies, to early Judaism, to Rabbinics, to (now) Classics and ancient history, the methodological and topical myopia of DSS studies has left a strong impression on me. Scholars seem to be interested in only a few topics, generally: the history of Biblical interpretation, textual criticism and the formation of the Hebrew Bible, pseudepigrapha, history of Jewish law, etc. All of that is interesting in its own right, but few scholars are actually interested the socio-economic situatedness of the Qumranites, papyrology (by which I mean situating papyrological analysis of DSS w/in the larger discipline of papyrology done by classicists), documentary studies, etc. The latter two in particular, a topic of which was my MA thesis, I’m convinced have much to offer, and I’ve been astonished to see play comparatively minor roles.

Then I read the preliminary list of contributors and contributions. There are some really interesting ones: Hannah Cotton revisits her “Rabbis and the Documents” (to which I have a paper criticizing, which should be out before long), Shaul Shaked on Iranian connections, which is a new idea (which sounds a priori improbable to me, but what do I know about Iran?). But alas, some things haven’t changed.

July 4, 2007 Posted by | Academy, Dead Sea Scrolls | 1 Comment

Rathbone’s Economic Rationalism: Now “more saleable” than title suggests

Dominic Rathbone’s excellent study on economic sophistication in Roman Egypt is now in paperback.


This is great: it’s one of those studies that anyone interested in papyrology or economic history should really read and thoroughly digest. However, underscoring just how momentous an occasion this is, Cambridge University Press wrote this concerning the book:

• Growing interest in Roman Egypt • Valuable presentation of papyrus records • Much more saleable than is immediately suggested by the title

Indeed. The hardcover’s original list price was $140–the paperback is a mere $55.

June 28, 2007 Posted by | Academy, Classics, Papyrology | 1 Comment

Call For Papers


This is probably an odd topic for my first real post, but why not. We at Columbia University are hosting a graduate student conference on various expressions of periphery in the Graeco-Roman world. It’s entitled “Rome in Extremis: Outsiders and Incendiaries in the Roman World,” and will be held Sept. 29-30, 2007; abstracts due June 22 (though interested folks should contact me if they need more time). Susanna Elm of UC Berkeley will be our keynote. (click here for the flyer).

One thing probably requires mentioning, I think. Anybody who has been involved in Biblical studies, Jewish studies, early Christianity, or the like knows that this chosen topic has been done already; it’s been done a lot in the past two years, in fact. At the national SBL conference of 2005 probably half of the sessions were devoted to related issues–especially Jewish and Christian internal and external relations and identity formation. AAR and AJS of the same year also had numerous sessions. Several graduate student conferences at various institutions were also held–among them Yale and Princeton (I attended the former). So there’s a real question about whether there’s really any benefit in having yet another conference on periphery. Is there room for another?

Initially I doubted it, however since then have changed my mind. The reason is that there are a lot of other issues concerning “periphery” that haven’t really been brought up in this new wave of discussion, or at least could be more fully. The most of them come from thinking of periphery not in terms of “people groups,” but as phenomena that expose different “seams” in Graeco-Roman society(-ies). The following came to mind, for example:

-Sexual preferences and sexual identity
-Gender and civic roles
-Socio-economic status and social boundary formation and maintenance
-Literacy and illiteracy
-Geographical boundaries
-Roman law
-Taxation; tribute raising
-Founding poleis

Of course, we do not intend to exclude, for instance, issues like religion or ethnos. Such are more than welcome. Rather, these are the kinds of that we are also self-consciously seeking to integrate which, I think, justify yet another conference on periphery. Put another way, we are trying to integrate certain topics more traditionally handled in classical studies into a discussion that has predominantly involved religions and people groups.

As for me, I think I’ll probably present. I’m not sure what though, but I’m thinking about either some of my studies on the confluence of Roman and Arabian law or Jewish paganism in Asia Minor.

So, here again is the Call for Papers.

May 28, 2007 Posted by | Academy | 1 Comment