Brent Strawn’s Earle Lectures in Biblical Literature, Part 03

One more lecture today from Dr. Strawn. 10:30 in formal lounge. Here is yesterday afternoon.
See the guy in the beard in the front row? Look to the left and over his head… I look perplexed.


These are some of my notes from the third and final lecture in the Earle Lecture Series at NTS, given this year by Brent Strawn. You can follow these links for notes on Lecture 01, and Lecture 02.

On Saving Dying Languages:
Once a language dies, it never comes back. That’s the end. Nearly all languages are extremely difficult, have very long and complicated histories, and are filled with the scores of signs and signifiers which are only conveyed through personal teaching of the language. Languages can be documented and recorded for posterity, but once a population no longer uses the language day to day, it’s dead. Dead languages don’t come back to life. Dead languages can still be taught – like Koine Greek & Biblical Hebrew – but w/language, dead is dead.
There is only one exception: Hebrew. This is the only successful example of reviving a once dead language. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922) was given credit for the revival of the Hebrew language. Ben-Yehuda didn’t allow his son to be exposed to any other language other than Hebrew, and his son became the first speaker of a dead language. A near perfect confluence of environmental, historical, and linguistic factors played a role in the revival of Hebrew language. There was a place – Israel as a land/nation. Many different language groups were relocating and they needed a common language. They could have began the process of pidginization/creolization, but fought through a bit of conflict and settles on Hebrew. Hebrew was still part of the liturgy of their worship, and there was a strong religious impulse & motivation behind the revival. Strawn says the good news is that the Old Testament is like Hebrew in many of these same ways.
Strawn went into a fascinating linguistic study on how language is taught & learned. Use of imitation, non-verbal, and verbal communication, “Motherese” which is a kind of pidgin parents speak to the very young, repetion, diminutive forms, rhyme, short simplified sentence structure, clarification & expounding upon child’s use of the pidgin, affective/expressive quality, all of those things are part of how we just naturally (without being taught) teach language to our children.
Can the Old Testament Really Die?
He told the story of the Georgia Senator who was leading the fight to have the 10 commandments put on he wall of the courthouse who went on the Colbert Show to stump for it. Colbert asked him to name the commandments and he could only come up with 3. You can have a very high view of scripture and still be illiterate. Are we mummies: embalmed remains, or mommies: who constantly speak and teach the language to their children from birth until long into high school & sometimes beyond.
Example of scripture dying: Apocrypha. For 1500 years the Apocrypha was part of the canon – it was part of every single Holy Bible. Roman Catholics & Eastern Orthodox Christians keep it in their canon. After the reformation it was discarded for Protestant Christians. If it happened for the Apocrypha, it can happen to the OT.
The only thing that stands between the OT living and dying is its continued use and teaching. The loss of the OT is not malevolent, it’s just pathetic, or perhaps apathetic.
How do we save it?
Regular, extensive use at formative times for practice and education – sermons, readings, stories, lectures, games, lectionaries, liturgies… Congregations must demand that their clergy be seriously devoted to the study, speaking, teaching, and transmission of OT. Not just that it is being taught, but how. Practice, practice, practice, in classroom, in conversation, and in daily life. Trust other resident experts in the community, challenging them to speak and teach as well. 
The end goal is not knowing bible trivia, but full fluency, practice & embodied religion and embodied language in a people group dedicated both to its practice and its protection.
Most of the world is bi-lingual or tri-lingual. Americans are not. This works against us. We have to become bi-lingual between OT and NT… “The canon speaks one language, maybe two dialects, but one language.”
Finally it must be used in music and poetry – music is the only thing we remember in times of intense stress or trouble. What is in our lullaby’s, our worship music, etc… the OT must be sung if it is to survive.
I loved every moment of these lectures. I’m challenged by Strawn’s analogy – that the OT is a language that is dying – and am going to have to change some of my practices in order to become a more fluent speaker of the OT, and a more effective teacher of the OT. Most of all, I’ve got to find a way to convince the people of my congregation how important it is to allow our lives to be narrated, described, and determined (in a sense) by this book as a whole (both NT and OT).
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