More Hurtado on the Sad State of NT PHD Studies

Tools of the Trade . . . Encore

larryhurtado | September 5, 2011 at 9:33 am | Categories: Uncategorized | URL: http://wp.me/pYZXr-bt

Well, my posting yesterday on “Tools of the Trade” has already generated a number of comments, several of which raise some reasonable questions.  So, instead of replying to them individually, I’ll try to do so in this further posting.  I’ll attempt to be succinct, but this will be longer-than-most-of-mine posting.

First, some comments have to do with the languages.  In view of all sorts of computized packages today, why should we require NT scholars to have a good ability in Koine Greek and Hebrew?  And, in view of the dominance of English, why should NT scholars be expected to be able to read German and French?  And, in view of the commendable growth of biblical scholarship in various parts of the world (e.g., Africa, Asia, the Pacific, Latin America), why this emphasis on these European languages?

The first thing to say is that I regard the PhD primarily as preparation for a life of scholarship.  There are some who commence PhD study after retirment, or purely as a (rather demanding) personal interest.  But most aspire to becoming after PhD able to play some role in the field, teaching and assessing students, engaging the work of other scholars, and (hopefully) contributing to the field as well.  That is (to reflect a view that is typical among scholars), the PhD should prepare you for a subsequent role as a scholar in the field.  In that sense, you don’t simply write a one-off piece to get the degree, but you equip yourself with various “tools of the trade” to be a scholar in the field.  There is a discipline called NT studies, and an academic “discipline” typically involves core abilities and practices, and a commitment to developing these among those who wish to contribute to that discipline.

Among the tools of this particular trade, languages are central.  We’re dealing with texts, all kinds of texts, and in certain ancient languages.  Every lexicon, every commentary, every computer package, reflects judgments about words, syntax, etc.  And the scholar in the field should be able to assess such judgments, on his/her own, not simply appropriate the judgments of others.  Sure, a computer package can quickly tell you how many times this or that lexeme appears, and it can produce a list of occurrences.  But the computer-package can’t tell you how to assess some other scholar’s claim about the sense of a given sentence of Greek or Hebrew or Latin or Aramaic.  If you want to express a view and you want it taken seriously by other scholars, then you must be able to handle the texts yourself.  And in the field, the “text” is that written in the ancient language, not simply a translation.

As to the European languages I mentioned, there are several things to say.  First, I’m talking about a PhD from a UK university, not one in Bangalore, or Beijing or Kuala Lampur or  . . . you get it.  No implication intended as to relative quality.  All I mean is that if you want a European doctorate then don’t get surprised at European languages being central.  But secondly and much more to the point, these particular languages have been, and remain, considerably more important in the field, because far more important work is published in them across a far wider spectrum of matters.  (By “important”, I mean intended to have impact and relevance for the field as a whole .)

There are some publications in other languages that are important for some topics (e.g., the Italian studies on the Ascension of Isaiah) .  Of course, it would advantageous to read additional languages.  (In my own PhD work, it proved very handy that I had Spanish, as two major articles in Spanish had been highly infulential but had not been subjected to adequate critical scrutiny.)

I don’t mention German and French to exclude any other language, European or others.  But, if we have to identify key languages in the discipline, as those in which the historic body of scholarship lies and in which still the great majority of contributing scholarship in NT studies is published, then it’s English, German and French.  So if we require PhD students to be able to engage the great majority of scholarly publications in the field, these are the languages that are essential to read.

The scholar is expected to be able to engage the scholarly work of others, and this has meant (and should continue to mean) being able to read and review work in at least English, German and French.  E.g., the international Society for New Testament Studies allows papers delivered in these three languages, and its journal publishes in these three.

Being a scholar in NT means being able to engage, and draw upon valuable work done in the past, often decades ago or more.   And this makes German and French still more relevant. English may be dominant in NT now, but it wasn’t until perhaps the 1970s.  There’s one helluva lot of really important stuff that was published before then!  And there continues to be crucial material published in German and French.

Of course, we need to know what’s happening now, and the recent and emergent developments in theory and approaches.  (And, contrary to a rather ill-judged and recklessly hostile posting on another site, I am acquainted with such things as post-colonial theory, feminist theory, et alia.)  But we don’t advance by neglecting our past.  It isn’t progress to reject the core “tools” of the discipline in favor of adopting recent methodological proposals.  We should engage the latter out of a sound preparation in the former.

For me, as for most I presume, learning languages is hard work, and retaining and improving use of them a continuing effort.  But, especially in a UK PhD programme, where you’re expected to commence the thesis research immediately and produce a finished thesis within a 36-month optimal period (48 months maximum), students should work up a reading ability in the relevant languages before starting PhD work.  That way, you don’t take time from research to learn languages.

There were also comments about why and how it is that PhD theses can be presented by students who appear not to be able really to read Koine Greek, and/or can’t engage scholarship beyond English.  This has to do with university policies and practices, and I’ll save my comments on these matters for another posting.

  • http://www.facebook.com/JoshDR Josh Ratliff

    Great piece Dr. Witherington. A question arises as I ponder my own Ph. D. aspirations: I am trying to manage my time well here at Asbury, but in the M. A. B.S. program, there is little room for electives beyond the core requirements. I am also working toward ordination in the Wesleyan Church, the requirements of which take up the majority of my electives. With that, I know that some doctoral programs offer French and German as seminars. So how important would you say that it is for one to complete French and German before doctoral studies, or is it okay to wait?

  • Craig Blomberg

    Hip, hip hooray. Looking forward to your own thoughts in Is There a Doctor in the House? which I just received!

  • Anonymous

    Hi Josh: I think you must get one or the other of those languages out of the way now. I do not know what your skills are with romance languages or with German, but definitely French is easier, and you can do it at the college.

    BW3

  • RMcCort

    I guess I remain unconvinced that the only way to find our what is in a French or German paper is to read it in French or German. Is it really impossible to create a valid English translation of a scholarly work?

  • Anonymous

    Mr. McCort every translation is already an interpretation of the original language, especially when you are dealing with languages as different as German and English. So, while a translation may be adequate for some lay purposes, it is not for scholarly work where precision of nuance is at a premium. Ben W.


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