Essential Languages for New Testament Study?

The mysterious “objective queer Bible scholar” BW16 has been interacting with Larry Hurtado over the question of which languages and tools are to be considered essential to New Testament study. (See posts 1 and 2 by Hurtado on this topic and 1, 2 and 3 by BW16).

There are two questions that need to be kept distinct: which are essential per se, and which if any additional languages are we going to require students to know to work on a PhD in this field in a particular socio-linguistic context.

The answer to the first question is rather simple: Koine Greek. Depending on what one is doing in relation to the New Testament, other languages may also be important: Aramaic, Hebrew, and perhaps even Syriac, Coptic or Latin.

Note that I have not yet mentioned any modern languages.

The truth is that there are a great number of modern languages which, if one does not know them, then they will miss a great deal of important scholarship on the New Testament. Clearly there are languages such as English, French, and German, as well as Spanish and Italian, in which a significant number of modern works of critical scholarship may have been written that are crucial to the investigation of a particular question.

Predicting which one(s) will be crucial, however, is more difficult.

I went into my PhD studies with fluent French and so-so German, and discovered that while an enormous amount has been written about the Gospel of John in French, the works that were most relevant to my own research tended to be in German.

Larry Hurtado is right to point out that a great many of us do not have the strength in the essential language(s) that we ought to. Indeed, I remember Larry pointing out in my viva a gaffe in Greek that I had made in my dissertation. It was an error regarding the tense of a verb made out of carelessness early in the process, which then went unnoticed by not only me, but a significant number of other people who read the draft of that chapter, throughout the rest of the process until the viva.

But if I had shown that I not only was capable of flubs but unable to read the Greek text and discuss it intelligently, presumably I would have and should have failed. A PhD in New Testament without a good grasp of Koine Greek is a contradiction in terms. Here’s a situation that Hurtado described in his post:

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.

Pronunciation of some sort is a sine qua non of knowing a language, but there are disagreements about the best way to pronounce Koine Greek, and so I would be content that someone pronounce New Testament Greek in one of the accepted manners (I can also add that I love the way the native speaker of modern Greek pronounces things on the CD that accompanies Mounce’s textbook). With a dead language (including a dead classical form of a living language) pronunciation may involve separate skills from reading. That certainly is the case with Mandaic, and not only Koine Greek. But if you not only struggle to pronounce the text but cannot understand it, then you have not learned something essential to New Testament study.

Let me be clear as well that I am not envisaging testing to ensure knowledge of every single word form in the New Testament (some of the hapax legomena can be acquired later or simply looked up at some point when one’s research or teaching eventually turns to that text). Nor am I envisaging asking someone to parse words. Being able to read and understand fluently is a different skill than parsing, and I am much more impressed when someone reads a word and understands it, than when they read a word, rattle off “second aorist active indicative third person singular” and then struggle to explain what that means.

As Hurtado says, one also needs to have a grasp of how to use a critical edition and take variant readings into account.

As for BW16′s points (which I think sometimes are at cross purposes with Hurtado’s or are attempting to read more into Hurtado’s statements than I find there), I would add that one ought to approach a PhD expecting to interact with anything that has been published that is relevant, and to learn languages they didn’t foresee needing. If something comes to your attention in Malayalam or Japanese or Swedish, learn the language and/or pay to have the work translated into English if necessary.

There is no way for scholars to begin a PhD knowing every language that may perhaps be relevant. I think that requiring certain languages (ancient and modern) makes sense, but one also ought to go into research expecting that as one scratches beneath the surface, working with ancient texts in Ethiopic and reading recent scholarship about them in Russian turns out to be necessary.

Edwin Yamauchi gave the keynote address at a conference I attended, and spoke of finding himself in a class at university (presumably Brandeis) at which texts in a variety of ancient languages were circulated to students in a seminar to discuss in small groups. One student raised his hand to point out that he didn’t know one of them (maybe Ugaritic or Akkadian), to which the professor replied: “This isn’t kindergarten. Learn the language!”

Major advancements have been made in language pedagogy, and current technology also offers assistance that has never been available before. If we are not learning new languages over the course of our studies and our scholarly careers, then something is very wrong.

I’d be interested in hearing from readers who undertook advanced study in some field. What languages were required? What languages do you think should have been or should be required? What languages have you learned since you began your studies, that you never envisaged that you would need? What learning aids did you find helpful? And also, which languages have you learned just because they are there and you could?

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  • Gary

    Not a PhD, but can relate to physics. Took physics (BS) and ended up at a MSEE in solid state and laser physics. But actually prefered chemistry in undergrad school. But the school required either German or Russian for a chemistry degree. Since I had 4 years of Latin in high school, and found it rather useless (no offense), I did not want to do another language. Physics and engineering did not require a language. However, the language of physics is math. So the parallel, in my opinion, is:
    Core language (absolutely necessary) of physics and chemistry = math.
    Core language of NT studies = Greek.
    Beyond core, everything else is “nice to have”. Actually, “nice ot have” languages for the sciences is now pretty much irrelevant. If you are cutting edge science, you do not ponder over translations of either long-dead scientists, or currently living scientist research papers. They’ll be translated for you, if you need it (but you probably won’t need them). Current research is presented at conferences, in English. Old research has already been translated, but is probably useless. 

  • BWSixteen

    Thanks, Dr McGrath, for chiming in on the debate. It is interesting that you pick up that President Hurtado and I are speaking cross-purposes. I think that is true to a certain extent. While I was not necessarily disagreeing with the tools that Larry chose as essential (and I did repeat this many times) I was trying to address some of the ideological and political ramifications of not seeking to disrupt the status quo of bourgeois empiricist scholarship.

    • Howard Mazzaferro

      BW16, I understand what you are saying, but I think you are going about it in the wrong way. Here is my understanding of what he was trying to say. On the one hand I think it is important to keep to the narrow topic that Larry Hurtado was referring to concerning his displeasure with PhD student’s lack of language skills. Keep in mind that he is talking about students that are barely willing to learn the core language of Koine Greek, much less a dozen other languages. As an educator, he is obligated to provide the best overall education for his students. I’m sure he would love it if his students desired to learn 25 languages, but that’s not really reasonable. So all he is saying is that if a student is only willing to try and get by with the least amount of language skills, he should at least learn Greek, German, and French. And by providing that particular list, he is providing the best possible education under the current situation. With that education model, he allows his student access to 50,000 articles (just a guess) on NT studies. If he encouraged his students to learn other languages instead of the ones he mentions, it would reduce their exposure to NT material, say 10,000 articles. In which case he would not be providing them with the best overall education. Again, if you are implying that he should encourage them to learn his three choices of languages plus another five of yours, that is going beyond the scope of his original post, along with it being a little drastic for a requirement.

      But as far as your point, is Larry Hurtado perpetuating the status quo in this area? Yes, but what do you want him to do? When someone seeks to disrupt the status quo, there are usually ramifications to be dealt with for those disrupting the status quo. And in the end, it wouldn’t be Larry Hurtado facing the ramifications, it would be the students. I don’t think it is Larry Hurtado’s place to put these students in that position to try to remedy this situation.

  • James F. McGrath

    And having studied in the UK, and had Hurtado as my external examiner, the British approach has a certain affectionate place in my heart. But hopefully since in my pragmatic acknowledgment that all language needs cannot be foreseen in advance and having a minimal requirement makes sense, I also allow that someone should expect that they might need to learn Tamil or Vietnamese or Zulu, it will be clear that I appreciate your point about linguistic and methodological hegemony. Having taught in Romania, I had the opportunity to see the effects of that first hand, and know that lack of ability in a foreign language not only can completely impede one’s academic progress even at an undergraduate level in such a setting, but can continue to keep one an outsider throughout one’s career.

    Yet even though I can join with you in regretting the negative impact of linguistic dominance in a global context, I don’t know that there is anything that you, I, Larry Hurtado or anyone else could do to address the issue. And in a sense, my impression is that there is an interesting flip side to this. I know plenty of Romanian academics who are fluent in English, French, or both and several other languages as well, to an extent that is atypical of English-speaking academics not only with respect to Romanian but also French, German and other languages of widespread scholarly use. And so I wonder how frequently it would turn out to be the case that scholars from a context in which some other language is their mother tongue turn out to be the ones who make a big polyglot contribution to linguistic aspects of New Testament study.

  • Scott Ferguson

    Are there individuals with a gift for literature and history that would contribute to NT studies but who have zero gift for language?  Is there a place for such people or is it impossible to deal with NT questions without engaging the text in it’s “original” language(s)?

  • James F. McGrath

    Oh, I think that there is plenty of place for people to contribute to the discussion – but can you really expect to have a PhD in New Testament and not be able to read the texts in their original languages, any more than you would expect someone to get a PhD in Russian Literature working on The Brothers Karamazov and yet have that person not know Russian? 

    • Scott Ferguson

      Point taken.  Programmers mock those who bloviate about software development and yet never seem to get around to learning to develop software.

  • Brian

    I wonder if there is not a practical aspect that we are overlooking here.  On the book of Hebrews alone, I know of scholarship in Latin, English, German, French, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Finnish, Afrikaans, Polish, modern Greek, Chinese, and old Burmese, and that’s probably for starters.  Would I have to learn all these languages and read the literature in all these languages before I could finish my doctorate, or even publish anything on the book of Hebrews?  There is the matter of human finitude, but also the matter of what kind of payoff there would be.  I could spend hours learning Afrikaans, only to be able to read a couple of articles, which may or may not have any importance.  Or I could spend hours learning Burmese, only to discover that the book is a popularized commentary on Hebrews written by a missionary for the Burmese people.

  • Kerry

    I’m an undergraduate, and a Classical Languages major, so it’s a little bit different topics (and I think it’s better to learn Attic Greek than Koine) but the Religious Studies and Classics departments intermingle occasionally.

    I think that you can’t learn every language in the world that scholarship has ever been produced in. I’d rather focus on ancient languages myself and have the capability to read in a certain number of modern languages that have a lot of scholarship in them.  Plus, there’s a lot of other stuff that’s important to studying ancient literature–like history, culture, nuance in a language.

    Just because I can string words into a pretty sentence doesn’t mean I’ve gotten the deeper picture that requires a more intimate knowledge of the subtext. I think it’s better to know less languages and know them more fully and culturally than be able to get something literal from a lot of languages. One of my professors keeps bringing this up with Caesar in my comp. class. We have to become Romans in a sense and look at the literature as they would to see what was really going on. (A very hard point for me.)

    For me, the professors I have that capture whatever this essence is are the ones that really leave an impact on me.

    I guess what I’m trying to say in a very roundabout way is that no one can master every language. I think that some are important to know, while others should be more of a consult with another scholar who knows a lot about them. It makes for good dialogue and crossover between disciplines.

  • Anonymous

    Koine was compulsory in my theology BA, and by the end of that (if you wanted a top honors degree) you were rather expected to be able to read unprepared passages. With 500+ word vocab (which is enough to read the NT comfortably, though not every word — there are about 5500 ‘words’ in the NT, of which 3000 appear just 1 or 2 times). I was quite surprised he’d found students getting to PhD level with less. That’s quite sad.

  • Dave Burke

    I took one semester of Koine, as required for my BTh. We used Mounce. I found the language cumbersome, and immensely frustrating. The best thing that I got out of that class was the ability to use academic lexicons and critical apparatus.

    Fortunately my major is in church history!

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  • Peter Head

    That may be a manuscript of 1 Cor 13; but I would put the date at about 2005.

  • James F. McGrath

    @3d73eeb135c752f960ef1cef295c70a7:disqus ,  depending on what period of church history one works on, presumably certain languages will also be important.
    @google-bdf0dbf3306f98157e89c7c57e2aa67f:disqus , I did wonder what the story was behind that modern-looking manuscript. Perhaps something that a professor got students to do? I’ve often thought that those who study Koine Greek should also have to write on papyrus at least once. :)

    • Dave Burke


      depending on what period of church history one works on, presumably certain languages will also be important.

      Possibly, but it shouldn’t mean I have to learn them all. How many languages are undergraduate church history students expected to be fluent in?

  • James F. McGrath

    @268fd1805cdf08a54ccf2aa78adf16ff:disqus , it certainly would make sense to try to find out whether a work is popular or scholarly before learning a language to read it for oneself. Although learning Burmese never hurt anyone…  :)
    I have posted a round-up of other blogs that have joined in this discussion, since it seems to have gone viral.

  • James F. McGrath

    I don’t know whether it is possible for someone to learn all languages or even all national languages. Has anyone ever tried?

    I think that there will be some essentials depending on the period: German for the Reformation, Greek and Latin for the early church, Karen if you are doing Baptist history in Burma…

  • Robbie

    Having done a PhD in theology (my cognate focused on historical theology) I had to be able to show proficiency in Latin, German, and French. Due to be focus of my dissertation I needed to work on Greek. This was done at a tier 1 school and my professors were appropriately rigorous and demanding about these requirements. Frankly, my work was better because of them.

    I cannot imagine doing a PhD in New Testament and not being able to work through any NT text in Greek. Seriously, koine isn’t that complex and given the limited nature of vocab used in the NT books it is completely reasonable to expect a PhD student can open a basic text and be able to read, pronounce, parse, and give a rough translation on the spot during their comps. Granted we can reasonably expect help for limited frequency (say fewer than 10 occurences) and hapax words within the passage.

    One of the great challenges I’ve encountered in my brief time working in academics is the amount of scholars working in theology with limited or no knowledge of major biblical languages. If your discipline is related to the text of Scripture you need to know the text of Scripture. Now my Hebrew is rustier than a redneck’s lawn ornamenting truck but I can at least utilize the main tools.

    For other, more contemporary languages, the mass of scholarship in French or German certainly necessitates their knowledge in my field. Latin definitely was needed since most of the primary source literature for my dissertation is still in Latin. 

    I am deeply sympathetic to Prof. Hurtado’s points. The more we remove rigor from our programs the less quality we are putting out. While we need to be cautious in our post-colonial world we also need to realistic about the nature of scholarship. This is such an interesting conversation to be having. I can’t imagine Drs. Barth, Schleiermacher, or von Harnack (and others) consenting to allow their doctoral students to be less rigorous. Why should we?

    • Dave Burke


      Having done a PhD in theology (my cognate focused on historical
      theology) I had to be able to show proficiency in Latin, German, and

      My ultimate goal is a Masters in church history. Hopefully this won’t require fluency in at least three European languages.

      Seriously, koine isn’t that complex

      Yeah, it only has three different genders and twenty-four different forms of the definite article, with the form of every noun and article defined by the case…

      Seriously, it’s an abominable language that looks like it was chucked together on a slow Sunday afternoon by a bunch of people who were hoping to knock off at 4pm.


      For other, more contemporary languages, the mass of scholarship in
      French or German certainly necessitates their knowledge in my field.


      Is it naive of me to ask why this scholarship hasn’t already been translated for ease of reference? Surely that would be more efficient.

  • Jay

    Just a question here: If someone had to choose between either French or German to study subjects like the reliability of the New Testament, historicity of the Resurrection, Pauline epistles, dating of the Gospels, and historical Jesus scholarship, what language would be best? Or are they both equally relevant?

    • James F. McGrath

      It is hard to predict. I had much more French than German at the start of my studies, and while there has been a ton written on the Gospel of John in French, I found that the stuff that was most relevant to what I ended up working on turned out to be in German!

      But the short answer is try to learn some of both, since you will probably need both to at least some extent. If you’ve never learned one or both of them, start with the Pimsleur courses before anything else.

  • Jay

    What were the exact areas of specialty you studied that you found German scholarship to be especially relevant?

  • Jay

    If I had to choose between studying a research language (like German or French) and Latin, which would be more prudent for studying the New Testament?

    • James F. McGrath

      I would say that German or French will be more useful than Latin for New Testament. Unless you have a topic that will require interaction with, say, Western Church Fathers, or perhaps if you are doing textual research that requires consultation of Latin translations of the NT, then Latin may not come up at all.