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

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

Cicero, Roman Citizenship, and Due Process

Cicero Against Catiline

In my Latin class, we read a lot of Cicero. It is apparently an odd thing because his Latin is often so difficult that he–along with Sallust and Tacitus–is avoided till much later. I’m glad we are because I’m finding I enjoy his writing a lot. It’s the kind of thing that one can’t appreciate in English translation, like literatures of just about any language I’d imagine. I used to suppose that people thought Cicero was “so great” because such people were posturing or because what else would you say about one of the few such texts in Latin preserved (yes, we have a fair amount in Republican Latin, but much less than compared with other periods in history). I was wrong: he really is awesome. Part of it is he’s about the most cocky and insulting author you’ll ever read, but he is incredibly creative with his words. Like Reagan times 100. Its worth reading Latin just to read his orations against Verres and Catiline. Similarly is reading the contemporary poet Catullus just to hear him mock Cicero’s poetry, which was apparently so universally bad that none of it was preserved.

Anyway, in ch.12 of Keller and Russel’s Learn to Read Latin we read In Verres II.2.162, which describes Verres’ causeless beating and crucifying of a Roman citizen from Messana (an Italian town) in Sicily, where Verres was proconsul at the time. The scene depicted is interesting because it illustrates the Roman understanding of what Roman citizenship “means”: no punishment w/o due process of law; due process required of a court at Rome; the worst punishment is exile (social death), not execution (physical death). It was an enormous privilege, and when it was violated was a very big deal.

Fast forwarding a few decades to the Empire: for those interested in New Testament, this helps to illustrate Paul’s appeal to Roman Citizenship in Acts, when he was beaten by Roman soldiers, and why he was allowed to make his trip to Rome to beseech the Emperor. They had done as Verres in the century before and seriously violated Paul’s rights under Roman law, and quite possibly they could have been executed for doing so. And while a Roman citizen, his formal judicatory was that of Rome, not necessarily any local or provincial administration. As such, he was entitled to beseech the Emperor himself to judge his issue: namely grievances with the Jews, for which his dealings with the provincial governor got him nowhere.

One interesting question Paul’s behavior in Acts does raise is why he didn’t make use of his right of appeal earlier, when the governor first ruled against him. I’m not sure why. I’ll have to give it more thought. In any event, here’s Cicero’s speech against Verres to the Senate:

In the middle of the forum of Messana a Roman citizen, O judges, was beaten with rods; while in the mean time no groan was heard, no other expression was heard from that wretched man, amid all his pain, and between the sound of the blows, except these words, “I am a Roman citizen.” He judged that by this very reminder of his citizenship he could avert all blows, and remove all torture from his body. He not only did not succeed in averting by his entreaties the violence of the rods, but as he kept on repeating his entreaties and the assertion of his citizenship, a crossa cross I say–was set up for that suffering man, who had never witnessed such ruin.

June 17, 2007 Posted by | Bible, Classics | 5 Comments

Ovid and the Hebrew Bible on Creation (and Giants)

Artist's representation of Ovid's creation account.

In preparation for beginning my new PhD program in Classical Studies at Columbia, I have been taking intensive Latin courses. In twelve weeks we will have covered two full years of Latin. Westminster did a similar thing with Hebrew–one year in a summer. This is much much worse. I’m grateful for it because in a few short weeks I should be able to actually digest Virgil’s Anneid or Caesar’s Gallic Wars, but the course is so consuming that I wonder whether it’s even ethical to offer it. But like I said, I’m grateful, especially since I’ll have a Latin reading requirement for my PhD.

Anyway, we’re using a new textbook: Learn to Read Latin by Keller and Russel, which also comes with a very helpful workbook. One of the purposes of the book is to introduce students to “real Latin” early and throughout because the shock of encountering “real Latin” after finishing the intro grammars is one of students’ common complaints. It’s great though I do have some criticisms of the book–particular, it’s incredibly verbose, uses footnotes poorly, doesn’t have enough examples or tables and uses them inconsistently, doesn’t do enough internal cross-referencing, and isn’t thoroughly presented in outline form like other grammars–but I hope it’ll accomplish its purpose nevertheless.

One of the passages we were assigned to read earlier in the book was a selection from the Augustan author Ovid’s Metamorphoses (late 1st, early 2nd c. CE), a collection of 250 poems on the change of forms, beginning with the creation of the world. This account has a striking set of similarities to the Biblical account in Genesis 1. The poem is quite long, but I’ve quoted it in full below (in English of course)

Before the ocean and the earth appeared–
before the skies had overspread them all–
the face of Nature in a vast expanse
was naught but Chaos uniformly waste.
It was a rude and undeveloped mass,
that nothing made except a ponderous weight;
and all discordant elements confused,
were there congested in a shapeless heap.

As yet the sun afforded earth no light,
nor did the moon renew her crescent horns;
the earth was not suspended in the air
exactly balanced by her heavy weight.
Not far along the margin of the shores
had Amphitrite stretched her lengthened arms,–
for all the land was mixed with sea and air.
The land was soft, the sea unfit to sail,
the atmosphere opaque, to naught was given
a proper form, in everything was strife,
and all was mingled in a seething mass–
with hot the cold parts strove, and wet with dry
and soft with hard, and weight with empty void.

But God, or kindly Nature, ended strife–
he cut the land from skies, the sea from land,
the heavens ethereal from material air;
and when were all evolved from that dark mass
he bound the fractious parts in tranquil peace.
The fiery element of convex heaven
leaped from the mass devoid of dragging weight,
and chose the summit arch to which the air
as next in quality was next in place.
The earth more dense attracted grosser parts
and moved by gravity sank underneath;
and last of all the wide surrounding waves
in deeper channels rolled around the globe.

And when this God –which one is yet unknown–
had carved asunder that discordant mass

Then poured He forth the deeps and gave command
that they should billow in the rapid winds,
that they should compass every shore of earth.
he also added fountains, pools and lakes,
and bound with shelving banks the slanting streams,
which partly are absorbed and partly join
the boundless ocean…

At His command the boundless plains extend,
the valleys are depressed, the woods are clothed
in green, the stony mountains rise…

…And scarcely had He separated these
and fixed their certain bounds, when all the stars,
which long were pressed and hidden in the mass,
began to gleam out from the plains of heaven,
and traversed, with the Gods, bright ether fields:
and lest some part might be bereft of life
the gleaming waves were filled with twinkling fish;
the earth was covered with wild animals;
the agitated air was filled with birds.

But one more perfect and more sanctified,
a being capable of lofty thought,
intelligent to rule, was wanting still
man was created!
Did the Unknown God
designing then a better world make man
of seed divine? or did Prometheus
take the new soil of earth (that still contained
some godly element of Heaven’s Life)
and use it to create the race of man;
first mingling it with water of new streams;
so that his new creation, upright man,
was made in image of commanding Gods?

…and so it was that shapeless clay put on
the form of man till then unknown to earth.

Ok, that was still long. But lets summarize some of these neat parallels:

*Ovid’s earth was formless and void
*it didn’t initially have light
*Ovid’s god separated the waters from the waters
*the earth arose from the waters, collected, and solidified in one place
*Ovid’s god carved into a world of hills, plains, lakes, and rivers
*the god then created animals
*he then created humans from clay and made them in the image of the gods.
*man is intelligent and is fit to rule the earth
*man was also put on earth to till the ground.

Another interesting parallel comes in third of Ovid’s poems: on the “Gigantes,” giants. Those who know the Hebrew of Gen 6 and the history of Biblical interpretation also know that at some point after the creation, the “sons of god” had sex with the “daughters of man,” whose offspring were understood by the ancients to be giants. Though Ovid’s story doesn’t share the origin of these giants with ancient Bible interpreters, he nevertheless does assume they were present in primordial history. And it is worth bearing in mind that the presence of these giants goes far further back in the Greek and Roman west than the 1st c. CE: it’s present already in the days of Homer and Herodotus, back around the centuries with Gen 1-3 were probably penned.

…More later if I have time.

June 11, 2007 Posted by | Bible, Classics | 1 Comment