The Pretenders and the Contenders– NT Studies Doctoral Students

Here is a recent post of Larry Hurtado which I entirely agree with. One of the reasons I wrote ‘Is There a Doctor in the House’ was precisely this problem. Not knowing the languages.

Tools of the Trade

larryhurtado | September 4, 2011

At the annual British New Testament Conference (held this year in Nottingham), along with some interesting papers and a plenary-session dialogue on “The Veneration of Jesus in Early Christianity and the First Commandment” involving Prof. J.D.G. Dunn and me, some worrying reports by respected colleagues who have recently been external examiners on PhD theses (at places that shall remain unnamed).

In one case, the examiner suspected that the student didn’t know koine Greek very well.  So he put a Greek NT on the table and asked the student to read out and translate a passage (one directly involved in the thesis).  The student couldn’t even pronounce the Greek and couldn’t translate it.

In another case, obviously relevant literature in French wasn’t cited.  So the examiner asked why, and the student responded that he couldn’t read French, so couldn’t engage the literature in question.

In the conference itself in one session where an obviously bright PhD student presented a stimulating paper, I asked about textual variants in the passage that were directly relevant.  The student seemed not to have noted that there were any variants.  I suspect that, as is the case perhaps increasingly, and even among some established scholars in the field of NT, the student may not have known how to read the Nestle-Aland apparatus.  (Indeed, I note with some puzzlement that many PhD students and scholars don’t even use the Nestle-Aland, and rely instead on the GNT edition, because it has a simpler apparatus!)

Well, one of the decisions of the British NT Society Committee this year was to devote a plenary session in the 2012 meeting to the standards that ought to be expected in the PhD in NT studies.  We’ve all assumed a common set of expectations.  But it appears that various pressures (including, perhaps, from university administration to increase fee-paying postgrads), have conspired to put some pretty basic standards under threat.

Put another way, there are some basic “tools” that every NT  PhD graduate should be able to use, preferably well.  I’ll mention a few that I think are important.

I emphasize languages.  It is indispensable to be able to read Koine Greek well.  That means a good knowledge of grammar, a decent working vocabulary, and as much experience reading different texts as one can develop.  Also Hebrew.  Latin is highly desirable too, but not as essential for biblical studies.

The computer products on the market today are wonderful, but there is perhaps a growing danger of students relying on them and not learning the languages.  With some products, you can simply boot up and it will do everything:  parse words, translate, etc.  But the PhD student shouldn’t use these as substitutes for developing the language abilities.

Likewise, every PhD student should be able to consult and engage relevant scholarly publications in English, German and French (which are the main languages of NT scholarship).

There are other things that ought to characterize the PhD in the field, but these are essential tools.  I presume that all fellow scholars will agree.

But I now think that we probably need to ensure things.  And perhaps the simplest way to do this is that examiners should regularly bring to the thesis-examination a relevant publication in German and French and ask the student to read a paragraph or so.  Likewise, I suggest that in every NT thesis examination we should ask the student to read a bit of some relevant text, and ask also for intelligent comments about any variants in the Nestle-Aland apparatus.  It seems to have come to this!

  • Anonymous

    One of the problems might be the language expectation coming into a program. Most PhD programs that I am aware of have a summer language course in French, German, etc., that serves as the prerequisite for the PhD. But taking 6 weeks of German at the beginning of a program will hardly prepare one to read “a relevant publication in German” on the spot at an examination 5 or more years later. Of course, the expectation is that one will keep up with the language as they progress, but with all the other pressures (seminar papers, comprehensive exams, etc.), spending time on one’s own brushing up on a language might be a luxury that students aren’t able to afford. So, while I may agree with Hurtato’s basic argument, I wonder where the onus of blame lies–with the students or with their institutions or both? I wonder how the languages where taught at the PhD level when Hurtato and/or yourself were in your respective PhD programs and how that differs from today.

  • Jeremy Myers

    I wonder how many seminary professors can still do this?

  • Lawson Stone

    Hear hear! For a Bible scholar, there simply is nothing more important than…reading the Bible, in the original. I am looking right now at a commentary on a book I’m studying. The commentary runs to 600 pages. The bibliographies are astounding. The reviews of scholarly opinion are detailed. But the actual reading of the text, other than the translation provided, seems thin. I contrast that with the ICC volumes on Jeremiah, where one can witness what I call “adult exegesis.” thanks for posting this.

  • G Lake Dylan

    excellent commentaries exist for the parish pastor and MDiv student…but really…no stringent study in Hebrew, GK, German, French, Latin for PhD students?

  • BWSixteen

    Wow, I picked up on this post by Prof Larry myself. I blogged on it here:

  • Mafutha

    Unlike most of the PhD’s here I’m just a layman. Is there a way of learning koine Greek without having to go through a post-high school education. Maybe a dummy’s guide/course for koine greek?

  • Alan

    What if the PhD thesis was on, say, the use and influence of an NT text in contemporary American film (add a million other examples).

    If it were a PhD on the NT and the first century, why not add Aramaic?

  • Sean Rice

    Pick up Mounce and a Koine Greek bible.

  • Michael Halcomb

    Certainly, so much of this is true. Yet, there is a distinction that needs to be made here, I think. Hurtado, of course, is in the English system, where coursework and official language exams are not part of the equation (though I’ve heard of unofficial pop-quiz like things happening between students and profs). In the American system, as you know, and at Asbury in particular, the first order of business for the PhD student is to pass the German exam. Following this the student is tested for Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic competency (scoring high marks in the advanced language of their testament). After this, French exams are given. So, I can see how in the overseas system some of what his suggested above, particularly on-the-spot translating, makes perfectly good sense; it is the way (either officially or unofficially) to show competency because the coursework wasn’t conducted and the exams weren’t taken (as in the American system). There absolutely is a need to be comfortable with the text, familiar with the text, able to read the text, etc. But when it comes to languages such as French and German, for example, students in America are (typically) given 4 hours to translate 2 pages and they have a lexicon available during that time. It is one thing to do this in 4 hours w/the availability of a lexicon, but it is another thing to do on-the-spot readings. I’m not complaining here and certainly, I’m not against (as you know) familiarity in the languages by any means. Perhaps what Hurtado is bringing up is one of the major flaws in the overseas system! I’m just reminding us, as you and most folks know, there is difference between the two systems and that these need to be kept in mind. It would seem odd to take the overseas system and to overlay it on top of the English system where these things are already in place. As for the apparatus, the front matter of NA27 explains how to use it and at Asbury, in the NT Research Methods course, as one might expect, this type of material is covered.

  • Anonymous

    Excellent responses here. For the lay person I would suggest you take a good online basic course on Greek, through Asbury’s online program. Then I’d pick up David Alan Black’s It’s Still Greek to Me, to go a bit further.

    Frankly, in my day, the onus was entirely on me to make sure I had competency in the languages. I took Greek at UNC, both Hellenistic and Koine. I then did Middle Greek at GCTS and then about 13 Greek exegesis course to ingrain it into me. I had French in college, and Latin before that in high school. I did Hebrew and Aramaic at GCTS with Doug Stuart and Marv Wilson. I picked up German on my own while doing my doctoral work. In each case what was needed was a reading knowledge of theological German and French. Not conversational stuff. I had no language competency exams at the doctoral level since I was in the PHD program in the U.K. at Durham. But I took lots of voluntary classes. One was in the Qumran scrolls. Me and five 18 year olds translating the unpointed Hebrew photocopies, and they were putting me to shame. Why? Because they had been studying Biblical languages since about 12 in the old English system. It was challenging.

    One of the things Larry is complaining about is people who do PhDs in ways that get around your having the basic competencies in the discipline— say for example ‘narratological readings of Luke-Acts’. Nothing wrong with that, but its no substitute for actually knowing the languages, historical text critcism etc.


  • Allen Browne

    Mafutha, you might like to consider something like this:
    It will take you through the basic learning, and do so in an environment that facilitates *using* what you learned afterwards. And the cost (while significant) is less than enrolling in a college course.

  • BWSixteen

    This doesn’t engage at all with my critique, and can actually be reversed. Critical theories are now impacting the discipline in a very influential way, but many scholars (including yourself and Hurtado) continue to pretend that they don’t exist. Because these approaches are part of the discipline, however, all PhDs should have basic competence with them, irrespective of whether their thesis topic is “a textual critical analysis of Romans 5:23-25″ or not.

  • Anonymous

    Hi BWSixteen. That begs the question, is objective queer studies an academic discipline? My answer would be no. What it is, is attempt to read Biblical literature from a particular gender orientation point of view. This has certainly produced some interesting insights that are worth considering, but at the same time its no more of an academic discipline than say ‘young earth readings of the Bible’.

  • BWSixteen

    If it’s not an academic disciple then how come they teach and research it in universities? And on that matter, how come you (assuming) don’t teach it in your conservative Evangelical seminary?

  • Katoikei

    Hi BW3,
    There’s no denying (I’m a layman) the importance of studying the languages that relate to the Bible. Based on personal experience I learned very quickly that one can get so off at a tangent without this.
    I tried studying Hebrew and managed a year of it. Greek is to hard for me, so I did the next best thing and asked a student of Hebrew and have committed myself to studying the best scholarly commentaries that I’ve been recommended to read.
    It took me quite a long time to get past the aversion I had to a) studying the text critically and b) reading commentaries, but what a wonderful difference that has made in reading and study of the Christian sacred texts.
    I’m currently reading a book by RT France and a specific reading programme. Very hard going but better than guesswork.


  • Katoikei

    Are you trying to attract comments by posting up your blog post links here? Perhaps if you changed your blog title to your real name, you might get more traffic.

  • Anonymous

    They teach it and research it in various secular universities because its a trendy subject of course that attracts students and makes money, not because its a legitimate academic discipline. I can remember a time when my alma mater UNC thought about having a department of Marxist criticism of literature. But again, that is not an academic discipline, it is a reading of texts through particular ideological lens— that’s all. The same can be said for queer studies. Obviously everyone has a point of view, and only a partial knowledge of things, but at least with historical criticism you are trying to correct for your own biases, not baptizing them and calling them good, much less calling them an academic discipline. And you have answered your own question about Asbury— we don’t teach it because it isn’t an academic discipline, its a particular ideological way of approaching academic work.

  • Jorge Potter

    I bought the Aland “UBS Greek New Testament” and in no place do they put the title “New Testament” in Greek. Can someone tell me how to write it in the original?

    Con gracias anticipadas,

    Jorge Potter

  • Pete

    I agree with this to a certain point: I am an M.Div student and I am struggling with Greek right now. I have an appreciation for the language and the the huge task involved in learning Greek well, but that is not a pastor’s only job. If a pastor can parse a word perfectly and has a great command of the language, but is lousy with all the other duties of pastoral care, then how effective of a pastor is he (or she)? I have nothing but respect for those who have a great command of the Biblical languages, however if every M.Div student is required to know Greek and Hebrew fluently, there is not much time for other studies such as counseling, theology, finance and other pastoral duties.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Pete: Thanks for this comment. I would say: 1) it is not the job of the pulpit minister to do all these other ministry jobs, when in fact various lay people can do many of them better, and 2) it is not your job to do any sort of lengthy pastoral counseling. Your job is to see the warning signs and then refer a person who has any sort of serious difficulty. The courses you get in seminary in counseling help you do the initial task, but if you try to go beyond that, you are going beyond your training.