Mark Jeong’s Greek Reader: A Review

A Greek Reader: A companion to A Primer of Biblical Greek, by Mark Jeong. Eerdmans 2022

This review comes in two parts. Firstly, I’m going to give some general impressions and thoughts on the book as a whole. Following that, I have some specific notes on the Greek text throughout, combining things I found interesting, odd, or in a few cases that ought to be corrected.
Part 1: A Review
The spheres of language education in classics (here I specifically mean Greek and Latin), and biblical studies (primarily Koine Greek and Biblical Hebrew) have lamentably not overlapped for a good while. While communicative approaches received a resurgence in Latin, Greek has sadly lagged behind. On the other hand, within biblical languages, it was probably Hebrew that received earlier attention. In both cases, Greek has been playing a catch-up game. The teaching of “New Testament” Greek in particular, in seminary settings, has been particularly recalcitrant, which is why I consider this book something of a landmark. Yes, there are excellent things going on in communicative Koine (I should know!), but very few have made their way to book form.
The first thing that strikes me, after opening this book, is that Jeong has definitely engaged with not just modern language education, but the current currents around communicative methods in ancient languages. This is marked by the references to CI, comprehensibility and compelling, and citations of Krashen, and Robert Patrick, in the  Introduction. At the same time, this volume ties itself to Croy’s A Primer of Biblical Greek, a fairly traditional grammar-based curriculum. It allows those bound with a more traditional textbook the opportunity to supplement, expand, or otherwise tweak the confines of their pedagogy, with a stand-alone resource that anyone could adapt to their own program (or private study).
There are 32 Lessons, mapped to Croy, with stories of increasing length. The Greek text of the stories is laid out on the left-hand page, with vocabulary and idiom notes on the right-hand pages, though these are not overwhelming. It’s always hard to know exactly how much help to provide, and I think Jeong strikes a good balance of assuming prior knowledge, presuming a student is also working with Croy or at least something similar. The text is laid out with generous margins and good spacing, so a student has plenty of space for annotating. The last section of the book contains English translations of all the stories, so a student can always check their understanding, particularly useful for someone studying without an instructor.
The stories generally follow a storyline imaginatively constructed around Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon. Interweaved with this main storyline are some shorter pieces drawing on Old Testament material, or stand-alone vignettes. The text evidences good repetition, creative reuse of vocabulary and structures (especially early on), a good grasp of biblical usage, and is a pleasure to read.
If you’re a professor of NT Greek, I’d commend this book for consideration as a useful auxiliary tool to whatever else you are already doing. If you’re a student of NT Greek, I’d also highly recommend this reader as a great source of graded, interesting, comprehensible Greek in a NT idiom. Even if you were a student of Attic or Classical Greek, this would make a good reading resource, unless you’re a person put off by reading anything Christian at all, in which case you should leave this book on the shelf.
As I state in my commentary below, writing original Greek is a challenging task, and Mark Jeong has done a sensational job here. May we see many more resources of this kind appear in the future!
My thanks to Eerdmans for a free copy of this book. This did not affect my thoughts in any way so far as I know. 
Part 2: Commentary and Errata
In the below notes I give the lesson (sometimes with a letter indicating which story), then page number, then line number (it’s a shame that line numbers don’t continue over page breaks!)
1.p2 The very first reading contains αὐτός and αὐτή used as default third person pronouns in the nominative, a feature of some Koine, but not universally. In my view, it’s better to treat this as a less-common feature of NT Koine, where I think our instinct should still be to read nominative forms αὐτός as at least mildly emphatic (setting aside their other uses).
Also, and this is by no means a criticism of Jeong alone, but could we acknowledge that there is a real historical oddity about saying that Ἰάκωβος means “James”?
2.p6.34 Δαυὶδ θέλει λυέιν τὸ βιβλίον. While it’s common knowledge that λύω is taught early in NT Greek grammars, and glossed  with “loosen, destroy”, I do wonder whether the most natural understanding of λύειν with a book as an object is “destroy”.
By lesson 3 we are getting more of a story going. Yet, and anyone who’s written original composition in Greek will know this, it’s *really* hard to write “natural sounding” Greek, especially when it’s grammatically or vocabulary sheltered. And this is struggling early on. That said, it’s understandable, and it’s grammatical, and that’s really all we should be judging it on. The reader improves as the book goes on.
3D.p14.26 a strict γραμματεύς might complain that ἀκούειν should take an accusative object when it’s the sound heard rather than the person.
4A.p18.3-4 τὸ τέκνον ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ δούλου ἐστίν. I personally feel this is a place where I would have dropped the article from the predicate complement. I actually took a dive into predicate complements in the New Testament where both Subject and Predicate are definite nouns, and I would argue that a bit more nuance is required about when and where the article is used on the predicate in these situations. See also Smyth 1150-52
5AS.p22. In chapter 5 we begin to get discourse about δοῦλος καλός and δοῦλος πονηρός. One thing I have critically reflected upon having worked with Lingua Latina PSI for so long, is the way in which almost all of these intro textbooks, by privileging enslaver/enslaved nouns and good/bad early on, is that good enslaved people work hard and obey their enslavers, bad enslaved people are ‘lazy’ and ‘don’t want to work’. So, while this represents historically accurate (for some periods and places) depiction of how enslavers think enslaved people should be morally evaluated, do we as authors of pedagogical materials want to simply reiterate that presentation in classroom materials.
7A.p32.24 Can Paul really be called a βάρβαρος, except as a rhetorical move?
7A.p32.29: ὀχλοί does often appear as plural in the NT, though I wonder at introducing it as a plural.
7B.p34.5 ὁ Ἰησοῦς ὁ ἐν τῷ πλοίῳ – I find this a surprising use of an attributive phrase, because its content seems like it should be adverbial.
7B.p34.16 οὐκ ἔστι αὐτός … This is a good example of how even in the NT, the nominative αὐτός probably shouldn’t be treated as a default 3rd person pronoun, as we see in the source text John 6:42, οὗτος
8A.p36 introduces demonstratives, especially as adjectives. The difficulty I encounter here is that it feels like “input flooding” – every 2 out of 3 noun phrases has a demonstrative tacked on, and this feels unnatural.
8B.p38 Philemon is baptised in the sea in Colossae. But Colossae is located inland in Phrygia, and there is no sea nor lake near it.
9A.p40 I suppose this whole ‘sea’ problem is created by following Croy’s vocabulary, because here again the Ethiopian eunuch is being baptised in a ‘sea’.
9B.p24.14 I think the second δέ is odd, following on from the question.
One of the nice features of Jeong’s reader is the way it moves back and forth between adapting Scripture passages, including from the Old Testament, and then reusing those words, phrases, and structures in continuing the main storyline of Philemon (and Onesimos)
10Β.p48.17 μένει μετ’ αὐτόν reads a little oddly to me. I suspect ὄπισθεν would have done better here.
10B.p48.31  ποτε reads a little oddly here, since the sense of ‘on one previous occasion’ is not in view. πρότερον seems more natural to me.
Also I wonder what social situation Jeong imagines where the mere presence of a stranger elicits mob intervention.
12A.p52.20 τοῦτο τὸ τέκνον ἐστίν reads as an odd word ordering to me.
Also, this narrative itself is a little odd!
14Α.p60.32    εἰ in a protasis should rarely be followed by οὐ. I believe this occurs twice in the NT, in Mt 26·42, Jn 10:37. Explanations for εἰ + οὐ can be found, e.g. Symth 2696, 2698, but the construction is rare enough that it probably shouldn’t be modelled.
Generally I find that composed writing for Greek conditionals runs the danger of choosing a simpler conditional option (especially general/open conditionals) rather than what seems a more correct/appropriate conditional, simply because a learner has yet to meet more complex forms. This seems to be the case in Lesson 14 throughout.
14A.p62.15 has a nice play on Ἰησοῦς as Joshua/Jesus.
Though, having now just encountered it, it’s a shame that line numbers do not run over pages, but reset for each page.
14B.p62.26 I think ἀπό φυλακῆς would be better as ἐκ φυλακῆς
14B.p64.21 is a good example of the kind of situation that Koine might be inclined to retain the accusative of thing heard, e.g. φωνὰς ἀνθρώπων rather than φωνῶν ἀνθρώπων
14.p66 here we see Koine ἦς for Attic ἦσθα
15A.p68 Here and later on in the work we often get ἕτερος where my preference is for ἄλλος. Now, partly this is because I’ve shifted to a more Atticising idiom in my own Greek, and my sense of ἕτερος tends to either (a) the other of two, (b) another that is different in kind, whereas both these distinctions have somewhat (not always) collapsed in Koine.
I also want to observe here that Jeong’s reader pervasively uses infinitives of purpose. Which is a very common construction in the New Testament, but partly it seems to be in use because the subjunctive is delayed in Duff. This is another besetting problem in graded readers shaped by a grammatical curriculum – you distort your usage based on what grammar you’ve introduced, not on what might be appropriate and/or common. Not that purpose infinitives are rare, but their use precludes other structures.
15B.p70.25 – θεέ is found in LXX, NT and Christian texts as a vocative, but students might like to know that elsewhere there is no distinct vocative.
16.p74 the opening paragraph appears to be a reprint of the last paragraph on p73, not for an intentional repetition, just the same text.
18.p80 – I always suspected that I’d have some qualms about how a Philemon/Onesimus story might deal with slavery. Part of my question at this point is whether an enslaver (Philemon) would conceive of his actions against his enslaved persons as ‘sin’? E.g. Does Philemon think, at this point, that he has wronged his enslaved persons by enslaving them? Or simply that he has mistreated them?
18.p82.1 I really think θεός should have been ὁ θεός here.
19 (p84) involves a retelling of the disagreement/breakdown between Syntyche and Euodia, and I think this is marvellously done – imaginative, constructive, drawing on good materials, weaving it together in a comprehensible and compelling way.
it’s here that we first meet a periphrastic verbal construction. Again my Atticising tendencies reveal themselves – I am not a fan of it except in perfect middle/passive constructions. However, Jeong uses it sparingly and in ways that map to NT Usage.
20A.p86.14    a bit of asyndeton here.
20A.p86.16 and following. Here’s another place where I wonder about the imagined historical context of our story. Onesimos talks about his former life as a small boat owner, and how the ‘ruler of another land’ came and attacked their kingdom. Does Onesimos come from some small kingdom on the further shores of the Black Sea or something?
20A.p86.16    I’d delete the comma after ὦ
21.p92.3 contains a good example of trusting your text over your intuition. I had some qualms about πολλάκις with συνήχθη, particularly because the verb is aorist. But the construction is modelled of Jn 18.2 which has precisely this combination.
22A.p94.6 and 18 The text has ὁ μὲν τέκνον and then later ὁ δὲ τέκνον. I would characterise these as mistakes, and correct the article in both cases to τό.
22B.p96.17 Another example of εἰ οὐ for a conditional. See above comment on 14A.
23.p100 I think the narrative portrays Lydia a little harshly here!
24.p102.10 I would suggest that because the infinitive here is indirect speech, or a content clause after a verb of knowing, that the negation would better be οὐ εἶναι rather than μὴ εἶναι.
24.p102.17 here’s another periphrastic verbal construction, τὸ παιδίον διδάσκων ἦν, but since the subject is neuter, one should probably correct to διδάσκον. I suppose one could argue for a construction ad sensum.
27B.p114.30 Along the lines of slavery issues, I have reservations about Philemon referring to τὸν δοῦλόν μου τὸν ἀγαπητόν
27B.p116.7 The name of Philemon’s daughter is a nice touch!
28.p118.2 Shouldn’t this vocative be μῆτερ, unless we’re deliberately trying to show nominative for vocative? Also l31.
29.p123. The note on double negatives is overly simplistic, since some double negations do negate (when the second negative is a simple negative, and also both negatives belong to the same predicate).
30.p126.37 I think that ἑαυτούς wants a ἡμᾶς in front of it.
31.p132 Here again the problem of tying yourself to a grammar-based curriculum appears, with a flood of counterfactual conditionals. This kind of material is fine input-flood, but when that occurs late in a text, there is not going to be the opportunity for sustained and repeated encounters. (This same flaw afflicts counterfactuals in Ørberg’s Lingua Latina)
32.p134 I have noticed too, what seems to me an overly common use of of ἕως + genitive for movement to a place. A lot of other structures could be used for spatial-movement.
32.p134.26 : ἕως τοῦ Ῥώμης should be corrected to ἕως τῆς Ῥώμης

Via Latina: A review

Via Latina: De Lingua et Vita Romanorum, by Maria Luisa Aguilar & Jorge Tarrega

This is a new, and much anticipated volume, put out by Cultura Clásica, a Spanish outfit responsible for a good deal of quality Latin and Greek materials, but about whom I confess to know very little.

The preface (written in Latin, like the rest of this entire volume), speaks of their plan, commencing seven years ago, to prepare a new volume for beginner students in Latin. They have three main concerns in mind: (1) That the method should centrally concern itself with the use of the language. That said, Latin is both the object and the means of study. (2) The contents should concern itself with the doings of the Romans, from which cause the bulk of the book follows an outline of Roman history from Larentia to the Gracchi. (3) A vast variety of exercises, which I can attest they have indeed supplied, which will engage learners in the language, with meaning.

The overall structure of the book is a division into 12 chapters, each with three readings. At the end of each chapter, there is a short grammatical explanation section, also done in Latin, and in every second chapter, a ‘culture/history’ essay, also delivered in Latin. By now you have fully realised that the whole book is in Latin, so I will stop saying so.

A reading is about 35 lines (7-ish words to a line, so 245 words or so per reading, 735 words per chapter). There’s margin notes, which give Ørberg style helps, often synonyms, explanations, derivatives, etc.. Sometimes these are to words that don’t appear to have been introduced yet, but which a student might guess/intuit based on cognates. The marginalia are not comprehensive, nor designed to be as they explain in the preface – an instructor is to fill in the gaps.

Illustrations also adorn the margins, as well as larger images which adorn the top third of many pages. These are indeed illustrative – showing the action of the story as it unfolds. That story is a history of Rome, familiar to any reader of Livy, from earliest times onwards.

The Latin reads well. It’s not overly complicated, nor does it feel un-Latinate. There are a few points which are, well, less straightforward. cap 5, l2-3 in oppidō Tarquiniā nātus is quite confusing if you don’t know that Tarquinia is the name of a town, and it is not introduced or noted in the margin. So your putative first reader is confronted with a feminine ablative, clearly related to the name Tarquinius, but with not enough context to figure out what’s going on.

Errors appear few and far between, which is always, always pleasing in a textbook (looking at you, revised editions of Athenaze that introduced more errors than previous editions!). This isn’t one of those reviews that gives you a list though, but there is a spelling error on p25, in margine quarere for quaerere.

A few points of criticism:

Firstly, there is the subject matter, which will please some and deter others. Certainly some teachers feel that a grounding in the Rebus Gestis Romanorum is a sine qua non of foundational Latin learning. My concern is not with that debate, though I long to see more resources that recognise and willingly decentre “Romans” as prototypical Latin speakers. Rather, there are several clear episodes in this history that are uncomfortable reading at any stage. Having to deal with the Rape of the Sabines (Abduction and Sexual Servitude), and the Rape of Lucretia (Sexual Assault), as key elements of the main narrative, is going to make this difficult to implement in some schools or with younger readers. There is also a degree of pro-Roman and pro-Imperialism cheerleading in the text, which derives in part from leaning so heavily on Livy as its source for a narrative through-line.

Inevitably at this point some of you who still read this blog say, “Yes, but we can’t just mollycoddle everyone and live in a fantasy world where these things didn’t happen, or hide them from students.” True, but how we speak about the abduction of women in order to force them into arranged marriages for child-rearing, and when, and to whom, are all questions to be asked and answered by educators. I would not treat that episode the same with a 12 year old, a 20 year old, and a 50 year old learner of Latin. For those thinking of using this text in a school classroom, this will be a real consideration.

Although much is made of starting with Larentia, who features prominently in chapter 1, women throughout the book are confined to their usual places in a Livian history, and it would be hard to maintain that this text does much to reverse the marginalisation (and sexualisation) of women in Roman history, Latin pedagogy, or classics more broadly.

Similarly, the illustrations will cause some to pause. Aesthetic tastes vary (and the style here will not be to everyone’s enjoyment), and there is nothing explicit, but there are certainly things that are going to be on the edge for some readers (or parents). This includes an almost entirely naked Lucretia being assailed by Tarquinius (p122), a small image of a naked man, front-on, on p90 (illustrating the word corpus), several scenes of the aftermath of battles (which most people will not find too gory, if only because people tend to be more upset at sex than violence), and blood seeping out of murdered Tarquinius Priscus (p84).

These two factors, I’m sad to say, are probably enough to stop its widespread use in schools.

I will say, in praise of the illustrations, that there is a considerable effort here to portray a range of skin tones, and so we are spared the whitening of Roman ethno-identity. This is a welcome change from other textbooks. 

 However, I want to turn now to the question that is inevitable : comparison to Ørberg.

Ørberg’s Lingua Latina per se Illustrata is (mea quidem sententia) not simply the best textbook that exists for Latin, but the best textbook by far. It is not the best textbook imaginable though. Now, Via Latina doesn’t claim to replace LLPSI, or to be doing what Ørberg did, or anything like that. However, in virtue of being a Latine tantum textbook, written in what people now think of as an Ørberg-style (illustrations, marginalia latine, etc), and with some specific Latin-use orientation, it is inevitable that the comparison will be made. Could this replace Ørberg?

I don’t think so. And before I turn to why, that’s neither here nor there – this book doesn’t have to replace Ørberg, doesn’t claim to, and you don’t have to think of it as an Ørberg alternative. The reasons I think so are, I believe, worth considering.

Firstly, there is not enough volume of continuous narrative Latin here. 735 per chapter-unit, over 12 chapters, is approximately 8820. I can tell you that Familia Romana, with 35 chapters, has a chapter length of 680 words in cap 1, up to 1479 in cap 34. That is simply far, far more words to encounter over the course of a text. Secondly, the rate of new information in LLPSI is slower, both structurally and vocabulary. You can see this in VL’s capitulum 1: it echoes LLPSI’s capitulum 1, but with far less repetition, and the introduction of pronouns (is, ea, id). The combination of less repetition, more new information, moves the learner at a more rapid pace with less reinforcement. Thirdly, the more you read Ørberg, the more you become aware of just how much he crafted this over a lifetime to make both macro and micro features “per se illustratae” – the many points at which things are understandable within the text, without recourse to external help. VL does not succeed very well at this, and I am not sure they were trying to (in which case they shouldn’t be faulted for it, but the comparison must be made). VL is not an Ørberg-slayer, and I am unconvinced we will see one for quite a long time. Yet, maybe we don’t need an Ørberg-slayer, maybe we just need more good Latin materials for students – and that is what VL is.

There is one thing that VL does better than Ørberg though, and it should be absolutely praised for this: the exercises. Ørberg has essentially 3 unvarying exercises: cloze endings, cloze words, and simple comprehension questions. VL has a considerable variety of exercises, aimed at facilitating comprehension, meaning-based connections, and familiarity with forms. I could see myself adapting these exercise types for other texts, and some of them would make excellent assessment-type questions as well.

In turning to VL’s positives, this is a very welcome addition to the world of Latin reading material for learners. I’d have no problems recommending this as a text worth adding to one’s collection, and using for various purposes, including as a supplement within a program built around other things. It’s well written, quality Latin, aimed at learners, and introduces a (version of) history of Rome up to the Grachii. The illustrations, with the above caveats, are well done and are more beneficial than not (e.g. plenty of other books have illustrations that either contribute nothing, or in fact detract).

Via Latina, then, is a new textbook worth your attention, even if you don’t end up using it to teach with. It has some significant positives, but some significant flaws as well. What I do hope is that many teachers will take a look at this book, make some use of it in their classrooms, but also consider how we all can create more and better resources in the future.


Why summative assessment is so problematic

(I confess, I wrote this in more of a twitter-thread style of composition, so it reads a bit scattered)
I take it that summation assessment is an attempt to assess to what extent a learner has met the overall final learning goals of a unit of instruction. I’m going to assume that we’re talking about something like a 12-14wk semester block, which is part of why it’s a problem. Let’s imagine we’re talking about a Latin 101 class for fun.
Summative Assessment is certainly possible. That is, we can design and deliver an assessment that accurately gauges whether a leaner can do the things we expect them to do. The question is, what is this information useful for? Formative assessment is clear in its goal, it ought to feed back directly into the learning/teaching process to adjust instruction to match learner’s competencies.
So let’s consider possible outcomes of summative assessment:
  1. Can this learner move on to the next module?
In a way this is a kind of “block” formative assessment. And that’s why it’s bad. Because if you judge that a leaner isn’t ready, e.g. for Latin 102, and your instructional blocks are always this large, you don’t have much choice but to send them back to do Latin  101 again. That’s disheartening and discouraging.
And, if your Latin 101 is exactly the same material, it’s also going to be boring. There’s a way to solve that – if your Latin 101 covers the same competencies but its content continually varies, then that’s solvable.
Ideally, you wouldn’t have to gatekeep learning in blocks this large. You’d find out a student can’t do x y z at the level you want, and you’d scale and individuate their instruction over a smaller block to accommodate this. On an individual level this is possible, but it’s more and more difficult on a group level.
  1. Summative assessment is used to make generalised conclusions about a student’s academic ability.
I’m kind of dubious about this, because (a) there are so many individuating factors for any given module, and (b) it’s not at all convincingly clear to me that marks on a language module accurately reflect broader academic skills anyway.
This is even worse if assessment is meant to encompass “student effort”.
  1. A terminal assessment of competency.
I actually think this is a legitimate outcome of summative assessment. That is, where a student is finishing a course of study  or else needs some kind of benchmarking for external purposes, you can do a summative assessment against can do competencies, and deliver a report that says “so and so can do X, y z with the language, to this level”. This would be ideally a kind of proficiency testing against clear standards like ACTFL or CEFR.
  1. Going nowhere
I want to suggest, though, that most end of unit assessment actually goes nowhere. Sure, it’s an assessment that gauges learner competencies against module outcomes, and presuming they pass minimally (45 or 50% or whatever your jurisdiction uses), they continue on. Nobody does any kind of pedagogical action on this information, except *maybe* the student, but let’s be honest – very very few students will look at corrections on a final exam (if they even get them), and then develop a useful action plan to address any missing gaps.
So that information, if it goes anywhere, just gets fed into the bureaucratic machinery of the institution to make mostly meaningless conclusions about teacher efficacy, program efficacy, or student populations. Most of which, I would submit, are undetermined by their available data.
In sum, Summative assessment is difficult to do well because it’s difficult to find its proper goal.

Catullus 1-9, translations

In my spare time I have been pottering away at some Catullus translations. You can find recordings of these on my soundcloud as well.

Warning: Catullus is fairly liberal in his use of expletives, so if profanity offends you, read no further. He’s also not a very nice person.


Who wants their name in big print, on the
cover of my shiny new book, hot off the press?
You! Cornelius, because you were always on
my case about how this was a waste of time,
when you were single-handedly producing the
world’s longest and most boring “academic”
history, so-fucking-tedious!

So take this little book, whatever it’s worth
and, Goddess of Viral Memes,
may it survive to a second printing


Sparrow. my little babe’s delight,
who she toys with, keeps in her lap,
teases with a fingertip
soliciting sharp bites
beaming with lust for me,
it pleases her to make some joke or other
(it settles down the aching,
as then fire subsides)
How I wish I could toy with her as she with it
and take a load off her mind!
… as pleasing to me as the golden apple
was to the fast girl,
which unzipped her long-fastened pants



Read it and weep – all you bitches and hoes,
and any man who has a heart,
dead. my baby’s sparrow is dead,
bird of my bird
who she loved more than her eyeballs;
it was as sweet as honey, and knew her
as well as any girl her mother
never left her lap, jumping
here there and everywhere
sole songbird sang for no other


now it walks the night road
and no one comes back that way
A curse on you, vile darkness
you gulp every good thing down
it’s you that stole my sweet sparrow
badly done, and bad way to go;
but it’s your fault, shadow’d sparrow
that my girl’s eyes bleed a swollen red



See that little slip, my friends?
She sounds off that she’s the fastest of the fleet,
that no ship on the sea can catch her,
not by scull not by sail
swift skimming the silver sea’s surface.
she calls to witness:
The Hadriatic’s all-huff no-puff shore,
the Cyclades, tricky to thread,
righteous Rhodes, hectic Marmara,
the bruising Black Sea, where once a tressed tree, and thereafter a boat.
– none will deny.

Up there on Gideros’ back, whispering wind
from luscious locks. Amasra and Gideros,
sea-shored and boxwood-bearing,
she says, ere and ever, she is known to you
best; that right from the start she stood
straight up on your peak, dipped dripping oars
in your sea, lord laden crossed countless
unrestrained straits, whether the wind
beckoned from port, starboard, or the Sky
Father slapped the ship square from behind:
she didn’t beg not once to seashore saints,
in all her journey from that so far sea to this
limpid lake.

but this was all long ago. she’s laid up now,
grown and growing old, dedicated
to the Dioscuri



Let’s live and love, my Lesbia;
I don’t give a rat’s ass about what
pensioners think.
suns can rise and suns can set
but, for us? yolo.
a moment in the limelight
and an endless darkness

kiss me. kiss me again.
kiss me again and again.
a hundred, a thousand times
a thousand.

and when we have kissed
a gazillion times, we’ll encrypt that number
no jealous hacker will know the code
and ransomware our love.



Flavi, bro, Flavi bro. you’d tell Catullus
all about your latest sidepiece, you couldn’t
keep your mouth shut, unless she’s ugly as
sin. but truly, i don’t know what little hottie
you’re hot for – you’re ashamed to say.
it’s a crying shame that your bed can’t talk,
because it shouts loudly enough, with its
essential oils and hints of perfume, you don’t
sleep alone. pillows askew, the faintest
impression of a rounder hip, not to mention
that bed creaks, groans, rattles and shakes.
nothing in the world could keep quiet your
dalliances. and why? you wouldn’t be
showing flanks flushed with fucking,
unless you were up to such tricks.
so just tell us, whether she’s hot or not.
And I will lay down a witty rhyme
to immortalise your loves, like mine.


hey Lesbia, you wanna know how many
kisses are enough for me? more than enough?
might as well count Libya’s sands
where once the spice flowed freely
between sweltering Jupiter’s oracle
and old Battus’ sacred tomb;
as countless as stars on a silent night,
that watch people’s furtive fondlings;
for your frenzied Catullus, to kiss you
that much will be enough and more,
so that curious cats will fail in the count
and envious eyes will zip their lips.


Catullus, you sad bro? Don’t be a fool –
can’t you see what’s gone is gone?
Bright days used to shine on you
when you’d go wherever she stringed you –
I’ll never love another lover like her –
There and then, fun times were had aplenty
you were keen and the girl wasn’t coy.
Bright days shined on you true.
Now she’s not so keen; you too, don’t be weak,
don’t chase, let her go, don’t wallow
but swallow your pride and take it on the chin.
cya, girl! Now Catullus is a hard man,
isn’t looking for you, isn’t asking for you
it’s you who’ll suffer, no one knocking down your door.
g-t-f-o you cheater: what life you got now?
who come running? who think you sexy?
who you gunna love? whose you gunna be?
who you gunna kiss? whose little lips you gunna bite so soft, so tender.
stay strong, Catullus my bro, stay strong.


Veranius – bestest of besties
worth more than a million other brothers from another mother
have you come home to your digs
to your brothers, to your old ma?
You have come! o sweet news!
to see you safe and sound
to hear you tell your travel tales
Spain’s people and places, sights and sounds,
as you always do, and I’ll lean over your neck
sweet savour kisses on eyes and mouth.
oh, of all men most happy on earth
who, who is happier than me?

The Road to Latin, Greekified

Recently the twitterverse was aptly reminded by Dr. Marchella Ward of the existence of “The Road to Latin“, a very fine Latin introductory textbook from 1932, not least because it was authored by a Black Woman, Helen Maria Chestnutt.

On the whole, it makes excellent reading material for any beginning (or advanced) Latin student, but I wondered if I couldn’t also adopt/adapt it to Greek. Here is a pdf with the first chapter rendered into Greek, for anyone interested, and I’ll make an effort to work on more chapters. If nothing else, it provides me with a pleasant diversion and you with a new source of easy, readable Greek.

The road to Latin Greekified

A google-docs version is here: you can leave comments on it freely. This will enable you to keep up to date with any progress I make (I’m not promising any though)

While I’m here, I might as well make a couple of observations. Even in the very first reading, you have to make translation choices. The Latin sticks to first declension nouns ending in -a entirely. To keep the same vocab in Greek, I had to introduce other endings. Similarly, to express ‘stand’, ‘open’, and ‘closed’, required a perfect verb and two perfect participles. Thirdly, to keep Greek style from the very beginning, I introduced a few particles. Fourthly, Greek necessitates introducing the article here. Finally, I made the choice to keep the names and context of the original. All of which make this considerably harder for a student starting from scratch. This is (one set of reasons) why Greek ab initio books can’t simply ape Latin ones, let alone translate them. That said, I mostly intend to keep on in the same vein – a close rendering of the Latin, with whatever Greek seems apt or best. I think that’s the best way to honour the original work here.

The Just City, Greekified

Look, I’m not saying I’m actually going to translate a whole novel into Ancient Greek, but here’s the first page of Jo Walton’s amazing speculative-fiction novel/classical reception, The Just City, rendered into Ancient Greek.

Ἡ πόλις ἡ Δικαίᾱ



Α’ · Ἀπόλλων


μεταβέβληται εἰς δένδρον, τοῦτ᾿ ἦν τὸ μυστήριον, ὃ ἀνάγκη γίγνεσθαι. οὐδὲν γάρ ἄλλο δυνατόν ἦν, μοῦ ἀποροῦντος. τὸ δὴ μὴ συνιέναι κακῶς φέρω. ταῦτα πάντα οὖν ὅσα ἔπαθον τοῦδε ἕνεκα · οὐκ ἔμαθον διὰ οὗ εἰς δένδρον μεταβέβληται, μᾶλλον εἱλάτο γε γίγνεσθαι δένδρον. ὄνομα μὲν οὖν Δάφνη αὐτῆς, οὕτως δὲ καὶ τοῦ δένδρου ὃν γέγονεν, ἐκ τούτου ἐγένετο τὸ δένδρον αὐτό, ἡ δάφνη, ἴδιόν μοι, αἷς στεφανοῦνται οἵ τε ποιηταὶ καὶ οἱ ἐν ἀγῶσιν νενικῶτες.

τὰ οὖν πρῶτα ἠρόμην τὴν ἀδελφήν μου, «τί» ἔφην, «εἰς δένδρον μετέβαλλες τὴν Δάφνην;» ἡ δὲ ὄμμασιν προσέβλεπεν με τῆς σελήνης πληρουμένοις. καίπερ δὲ ἀφελῆς οὔσης ἐκ τοῦ τε πατρός καὶ τῆς μητρός, πολλῷ διαφέρειν οὐ δυνατόν ἐστιν ἡμᾶς. ἡ δὲ ψῡχροτέρᾱ, ὀφρῡ́ος ἐπηρμένης μίᾱς, ἐπί γε τοποθεσίᾳ σεληνικῇ ἀνακλεῖται.

«ἐμὲ μὲν ἐδέησε δή, σπουδαίοτερον ἐπιθυμοῦσα, αὐτοθὶ δὲ σύ. τὰ οὖν ἐσχατὰ πράττειν ἐχρῆν.»

«ὅμως ἔσται ἥρως ἢ ἔτι θεὸς ὁ υἱος αὐτῆς.»

«τὴν οὖν παρθενίαν» ἔφην, «δήπου οὐ καταλαμβάνεις» πεταννῦσα τεινοῦσα τε σκέλος ψῡχρόν ὡς κρύσταλλος. μέγιστον γὰρ τῇ Ἀρτέμιδι ἡ παρθενία, οἷον καὶ τόξα, ἡ ἄγρα τε καὶ ἡ σελήνη.

«παρθένος μὲν μενεῖν ουκ ὀμώμοκε, οὐδὲ σοι ἀνακεῖται, οὐδὲ ἱέρεια. ἐγὼ δὲ οὐδέπωποτε…»

«ὅ τι μέγιστον ἔλαθέν σοι γε. εἴη Ἥρᾱ ἂν ᾗ πρέπει σε διαλέγεσθαι.» ἡ δὲ εἶπεν, ὑπὲρ τὸν ὦμον ἀντιβλέπουσα.

Discussing Ancient Greek Linguistics in Ancient Greek

In the last couple of days, occasioned at first by a tweet and corresponding discussions from Steven Runge, I’ve been teasing out in my head and a little bit of dialogue the difficulties of the “advanced discussion of Greek in Greek” question. It’s a question that any living language approach has to answer, one way or another. My position involves a few different angles, so let me lay them out again here.

Firstly, I don’t think you need to develop a meta-linguistic competence to talk about Greek grammar and linguistics in order to become a competent speaker/user of the language.

Secondly, I think it’s best to think of that meta-linguistic knowledge as a separate (but not entirely unrelated!) body of knowledge. Yes, meta-linguistic knowledge can help you become a more competent language user. However, the fact that one can be a highly competent speaker without a meta-linguistic knowledge, or vice versa a competent linguist of a language with very little communicative competence, suggests that these are separate.

Thirdly, meta-linguistic knowledge can be done in any language. It can be done in English, it can be done in Greek, it can be done in something else. There is a practical advantage to doing some of this, especially at the basic level, in Greek.

However, and this is point four, I think when we get to the point where we want to do complex, linguistic, exegetical, philological, discourse, literary, etc., type analyses, we have to reckon with some realities. Firstly, the language competence to, for example, read the New Testament, and the language competence to discuss these things about the New Testament, are fairly distant. The latter requires a level of competence, and domain specificity, and a body of academic knowledge, that are all additional to the former. Secondly, we should respect that not everyone looking for the former, wants to, can, or will, acquire the latter.

To demonstrate what I mean, below are three quotes from some linguisticky things I’ve read in the recent past. I chose things that I thought I’d have a shot at translating, and I’ve given you my (rough, ready, and likely problematic) Greek versions first – do yourself a favour and read the Greek before going down to the English. Can you read and process these sentences quickly, in Greek, with a reasonably clear understanding of what’s going on?

  1. τὸ ὑποθετικὸν κῶλον τὸ ἐν τῷ ἕκτῳ στίχῳ ἀρχόμενον διδάσκει τὸν ἀναγιγνώσκοντα ὅτι δεῖ τὰ ἑπόμενα κατὰ ταῦτα συνίεσθαι.
  2. πλεῖστον χρόνον, εἰ μὴ πάντοτε, ἀλλήλοις διαλεγόμεθα τῇ μὲν γλώσσῃ χρώμενοι τὴν δὲ ἐνεργεῖαν αὐτὴν, πολύπλοκον οὖσαν, μὴ περιορῶντες, ᾗπερ κῶλά τε καὶ λέξεις ποικίλας παρὰ λεπτόν παραπλασσόμεθα.
  3. μεταξύ τόπος· τὸ διαβαλλόμενον κεῖται μεταξὺ δυοῖν ἢ πλειόνων ὅρων. τὸ οὖν ὅρος κεῖται ὁποτέρωθεν τοῦ διαβαλλομένου. ἢ ἀθρόον ὃ διαμερίζεσθαι δύναται ἢ πληθυντικὰ ὄντα ἃ περιίστασθαι δύναται τὸ διαβαλλόμενον. λέγεται οὖν τὸ ὅρος ἐπὶ τῆς γενικῆς πτώσεως.


The English originals are below.

  1. The conditional clause that begins verse 6 instructs the reader that what follows must be processed in light of this.
  • Steven Runge, ‘Interpreting Constituent Order in Koine Greek’ in Linguistics and New Testament Greek: Key Issues in the Current Debate. eds. David Alan Black and Benjamin L. Merkle.

2. Most of the time, if not all of the time, we communicate with each other using language without considering the complex activity we are undertaking, forming complex words and sentences in a split second.

  • Emma L. Pavey. The Structure of Language: An Introduction to Grammatical Analysis (Kindle Locations 114-115). Kindle Edition.

3. μεταξύ : Location : A trajector is physically located in between two or more landmark The landmark is on either side of a trajector. The landmark is either a collective entity that can be split or multiple entities that can surround a trajector. The landmark is expressed in the genitive case.


Can this all be done in Ancient Greek? Yes. However let’s recognise that not everyone is interested in reading, or writing, complex linguistic content in Ancient Greek (I am, though!).

The Siblingless Son: μονογενής in Greek literature (6): the Johannine literature

Part 6 of our ongoing series (1, 2, 3, 4, and 5)

We turn now to consider the Johannine references, which are five: 1:14, 18, 3:16, 18, and 1 John 4:9. Throughout this section I content that the established meaning of ‘siblingless’ in contexts referring to persons continues to make best sense of these texts, without requiring any particular alteration for this context.

John 1:14, 18

Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν, καὶ ἐθεασάμεθα τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ, δόξαν ὡς μονογενοῦς παρὰ πατρός, πλήρης χάριτος καὶ ἀληθείας[1]

And the Word became flesh, and set up his tent in our midst, and we have seen his glory, the glory of an only-son from a father, full of grace and truth.

I contend that the primary question for us here, given that the immediate context of the word’s usage is παρὰ πατρός, is what reason would there be to not consider the sense of μονογενής to refer to a siblingless son? Every other attestation to this point, when in the context of persons, and familial relations, works with that meaning. If the author of the gospel wanted to indicate, “unique in kind”, or a philosophical “one and only one instance”, they appear to be writing in the wrong key. Similarly, if their intention were to indicate something about the generative process itself, “only begotten”, a more explicitly generative turn of not merely phrase, but context, appears required. Both, or rather either, of those meanings is possible, in a strict sense of possible. However, a reader of the gospel upon encountering μονογενής in close connection to πατρός, is most likely, most naturally, to understand it as a reference to a single and sole son who lacks siblings. The author establishes that this is how to understand the quality or kind of the δόξα that the λόγος possesses and which the author attests to have seen.

This in turn, establishes how to read the second occurrence of μονογενής a few verses later.

θεὸν οὐδεὶς ἑώρακεν πώποτε·  μονογενὴς θεὸς ὁ ὢν εἰς τὸν κόλπον τοῦ πατρὸς ἐκεῖνος ἐξηγήσατο.[2]

No-one has ever seen God: God-the-siblingless-son, who is in his father’s bosom, he has made him known.

Two important factors ought to guide our understanding of the term here. First, that the author has just prior used the term in a familial-type context to evoke the way in which an only son bears their father’s glory. Second, that within this same verse it is a familial relationship that is also invoked. This once more suggests that the “unique” reading is lacking in content.[3] Contra Ehrman, there is no need to suppose that the phrase is itself meaningless and therefore must be a later theological correction for μονογενὴς υἱός.[4] Ehrman’s case rests on two bases. The first of these is that external support for μονογενὴς υἱός is strong, beyond the Alexandrian tradition, at least strong enough to argue for its priority. Secondly, that the meaning of μονογενὴς θεός is not understandable within the conceptual world of the Fourth Gospel’s authorship, and only sensible in light of later theological contexts.

I leave aside the textual argument, though the reader should see Kristianto’s paper which walks through the evidence.[5] The theological argument is of more interest here, because Ehrman’s argument is an instance of “lectio difficilior except if it seems too difficult.” Is it not at least likely that a scribe would consider μονογενὴς υἱός a more natural collocation than μονογενὴς θεός and correct it in that direction? Similarly, while we do not need to import 4th century, or even 3rd or 2nd century, christologies into John, nor should we assume that the gospel’s author is incapable of using the term μονογενής to expresses the idea that God (the siblingless son) makes God (the father) known.[6]

John 3:16, 18

The second pair of instances in John occur in swift succession, again in connection to each other.

16 Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλʼ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.  17 οὐ γὰρ ἀπέστειλεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν υἱὸν εἰς τὸν κόσμον ἵνα κρίνῃ τὸν κόσμον, ἀλλʼ ἵνα σωθῇ ὁ κόσμος διʼ αὐτοῦ.  18 ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν οὐ κρίνεται· ὁ δὲ μὴ πιστεύων ἤδη κέκριται, ὅτι μὴ πεπίστευκεν εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ μονογενοῦς υἱοῦ τοῦ θεοῦ.[7]

For God loved the world so, that he gave his only son, that everyone believing in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world be saved through him. The one that believes in him is not condemned; condemned already, however, is the unbelieving person, because they have not believed in the name of God’s siblingless son.

Given the prior usage in John 1, the lack of any significant shift to a philosophical register here, and that both uses here modify υἱός, what reason is there to overturn the significant weight of common usage, and instead find a peculiarly Johannine theological meaning of “uniquely begotten”, except on the supposed basis of John 1? Which basis we have already addressed.

1 John 4:9


ἐν τούτῳ ἐφανερώθη ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν ἡμῖν,
ὅτι τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ ἀπέσταλκεν ὁ θεὸς
εἰς τὸν κόσμον ἵνα ζήσωμεν διʼ αὐτοῦ. [8]

By this the love of God is made manifest in us,
that God has sent his only son,
into the world, so that we may live through him.

The author of 1 John uses μονογενής in a very Johannine manner, echoing the language of John 3 above. Insofar as there is no significant alteration from the usage in the gospel, neither is there a change in signification here. For this author, Jesus is the μονογενὴς υἱός because there are no other υἱοί of the same kind. For this same reason they reserve the term υἱός for Jesus, employing τέκνα instead to refer to believers.

[1] Eberhard Nestle et al., The Greek New Testament, 27th ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993), Jn 1:14.

[2] Eberhard Nestle et al., The Greek New Testament, 27th ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993), Jn 1:18.

[3] To take pains to make this obvious, when the word is taken to indicate “one of a kind” or “unique”, there must be some sense in which the referent is one of a kind. That sense is, for μονογενής, the lack of siblings. Which gives the word more content than the simple “unique” does.

[4] Ehrman, Bart D. The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament, (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993), 78-82.

[5] Kristianto, S. ‘E valuating Bart Ehrman’s Textual Reconstruction: A Test Case on John 1:18’ Asia Journal of Theology, (31)1, (2017): 23-35.

[6] Without necessarily resolving or pre-empting how the author understands those relations to work.

[7] Eberhard Nestle et al., The Greek New Testament, 27th ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993), Jn 3:15–18.

[8] Eberhard Nestle et al., The Greek New Testament, 27th ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993), 1 Jn 4:9.

πυροβόλος ψυχόπτερος

Here, for your ancient Greek pleasure, I present Smashing Pumpkin’s Bullet with Butterfly Wings.



(I sing quite badly. If anyone wants to re-record with a more delightful voice, I’m very happy to assist them to do so)



λαμίᾱ ὁ κόσμος

ὡς ἐκπιουμένη

κρυπτοὶ καθαιρέται

σὲ πρὸς φλογοῖσι προῦχουσιν


τί μοι τοὔφελος

ὑπὲρ ὀδυνῶν μου;

πόθοι μέν παραδεδόμενοι

ἀγῶνος δὲ μέρος τι


ταῦτα μὴν εἰδώς

οἶμαι δεικνύναι

τὴν ψῡχὴν ἥσυχον

ὡς πάλαι Ἰώβ


μαινόμενος καίπερ

ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι γε μῦς

μαινόμενος καίπερ

ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι δὴ μῦς


εἴποι ἄν τις, ἅ ἀπολλύται ἄσωστα

μαινόμενος καίπερ

ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι γε μῦς


νῦν γε γυμνός εἰμι

οὐδὲν ἄλλο ἢ θηρίον

δύνασαι προσποιεῖσθαι

μίᾳ ἔτι καὶ θέᾳ

τί γ’ οὖν βούλει σύ

μεταβάλλεσθαι δὴ θέλω

τί σοι κέρδος ἔσται

τὰ αὐτὰ ἔτι ἕξεις;


ταῦτα μὴν εἰδώς

οἶμαι δεικνύναι

τὴν ψῡχὴν ἥσυχον

ὡς πάλαι Ἰώβ


μαινόμενος καίπερ

ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι γε μῦς

μαινόμενος καίπερ

ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι δὴ μῦς


εἴποι ἄν τις, ἅ ἀπολλύται ἄσωστα

μαινόμενος καίπερ

ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι γε μῦς


εἰπέ με μοῦνον εἶναι

εἰπέ μοι οὐδενὰ ἄλλον

μουνογενὴς ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἦν, ἦ!

εἰπέ μοι τὸν ἐκλεκτὸν ἐμέ

μουνογενὴς ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἦν, ὑπὲρ σοῦ


μαινόμενος καίπερ

ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι γε μῦς

μαινόμενος καίπερ

ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι δὴ μῦς


εἴποι ἄν τις, ἅ ἀπολλύται ἄσωστα

μαινόμενος καίπερ

ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι γε μῦς


μαινόμενος καίπερ

ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι δή …


μαινόμενος καίπερ

ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι δή

μαινόμενος καίπερ

ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι γε μῦς


εἰπέ με μοῦνον εἶναι

εἰπέ μοι οὐδενὰ ἄλλον

μουνογενὴς ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἦν, ὑπὲρ σοῦ


ἔγωγε καὶ νῦν μὴ σωθῆναι πιστεύω

ἔγωγε καὶ νῦν μὴ σωθῆναι πιστεύω

ἔγωγε καὶ νῦν μὴ σωθῆναι πιστεύω

ἔγωγε καὶ νῦν μὴ σωθῆναι πιστεύω




Duolingo, a love/hate story

I have a long and complicated relationship with Duolingo . The hate side, in short, is that I think the way Duolingo models language and thinks/treats language is fundamentally atomistic and inimical to good principles of second language acquisition. The love side is that I actually enjoy and continue to use Duolingo daily, and gain a measurable benefit from it. In this post I want to explore and reflect on these two things in light of recent and long-term experience.


According to my account, I first joined Duo in March 2012, so that’s a long time on the app. For very long periods I have been inactive. I currently have a 636 day streak, which is in large part thanks to the Scottish Gaelic course. It’s the only tree I’ve finished, and it’s where I’ve spent the bulk of my actual time.

Recently I was taken by a desire to get “all the achievements”, including probably the most difficult, “Finish #1 in the Diamond League”. Leagues, if you don’t know are randomly assigned groupings of 50 or so users, and the top 10 get promoted. So I had to reactivate leagues, work my way back up to Diamond. And Diamond can get very competitive. For the week I was committed to winning, I activated a trial of Duolingo Plus, and liberally used a few competitive tricks: (i) when you complete a level on the mobile app, you typically get a 15mins double XP boost, (ii) some lesson options give you more XP than others. So I would organise my time to complete a level, and then go flat out on maximal XP options for 15min blocks.

So, the last month and the last week in particular has seen me spend way too much time on Duolingo, and I’ll be scaling back to more normal levels from now on.

What’s bad in Duolingo?

  • Despite all the little features here and there, the fundamental building block of Duolingo courses is paired sentences. The core activity is “translate sentence X from L1 to L2 or L2 to L1”. There are tons of variations on this, on how this is accomplished : selecting the words in order, selecting missing words (cloze exercises), selecting correct endings only for targeted grammar, supplying A/B answers in L2 to an L2 prompt, reading into the microphone for a pronunciation check, etc etc.. Some of these, I admit, are not predicated on a paired sentence idea, but lying in the background is that building block. And, also to be fair, well-supported languages will accept a good variation of ‘correct’ translations in either direction for each sentence. It’s not “you must translate sentence A1 with corresponding sentence B1 only”.
  • Because this is the fundamental building block though, Duolingo is mainly training you to rapidly translate sentence to sentence. This isn’t really how language works, and it’s not how good language instruction ought to work – there’s no genuine communication here, there’s no context beyond the app, there’s no meaning exchange here. Let’s not lose sight that this is basically drills forever. The best Duolingo gets to a meaningful communication activity are the Stories feature, which presents a short L2 narrative and asks some L2 questions for comprehension as you go. That actually *is* a great feature, for the major languages supported with it.
  • The nature of the exercises, especially when they are “chose and rearrange the words”, actually narrows the options so much that it can often be too easy to figure out the meaning of a sentence without processing the L2 information at all, just because of the options you have in the L1.
  • Some courses are actually terrible. I’m often asked about the Latin course, or worse yet told by people that that’s what they’re mainly using, and I think the Latin course is dreadful. The audio is poorly executed, the course hasn’t been well-supported enough to demonstrate the syntactical variations Latin allows, and the brevity and simplicity of the course leaves a lot to be desired. For a Latin learner, I would almost certainly say don’t spend time on Duolingo , it’s drawbacks far outweigh the time you’re wasting on it.
  • The XP feature, and the league tables, are actually bad for you. As soon as you gamify and numerify something like this, the natural brain reaction is to want to earn more XP. This is even more so if you’re in the leagues. The best way to earn XP is the worst way to use Duolingo – switch off listening and recording exercises, select exercises to active double-XPs, and then do the legendary crowns, presuming you know all that content.

Re: Courses

My most completed trees, if you’re wondering, are Gaelic, and French (oddly enough, I have no particular reason to learn much French but I find it easy and appealing). That should help place the following in perspective

  • Majority European Languages are among the best supported and developed in Duolingo , not surprisingly as they are incredibly popular and Duolingo has a vested interest in making them better and better. French is a good example, it has (I believe) 210 separate skills making up 10 levels, as well as the stories feature, and more and varied exercise types.
  • Scottish Gaelic is, of all the minority languages that I’ve tried, an excellent example of what’s possible. Firstly, the initial core course was put together by a small band of volunteers in an extremely short time, and it was then expanded to a relatively robust course. It has 5 levels, just over 3500 words, and it’s got (a) good idiomatic Gaelic, (b) a thoughtful grammatical sequencing, (c) interesting, culturally appropriate content, (d) an excellent sense of humour, (e) quality native-speaker recordings that are clear.
  • Others? I’ve dabbled in the Irish course (has a few problems, from all accounts, and these have never been addressed. A bit of a worry that despite being significantly older that the Scottish Gaelic course, it has not been expanded), German, Italian, Chinese (generally good but has some odd things in it here and there in terms of sequencing), Hebrew, Greek, Japanese, Russian, Navajo, High Valyrian, and Klingon. The off-beat conlangs are undersupported courses, really. So, often the quality of the course just depends on who is putting time into improving them.

So what does Duolingo do well?

In my opinion and experience, Gaelic Duolingo did not teach me much ‘new’ in the way of grammar. Nor, probably, has it done much to improve my speaking ability. What it has done, though, is (a) introduce me to some new vocabulary that I hadn’t encountered before, (b) given me some explicit grammar practice on structures that I don’t normally use actively, (c) helped my spelling when I force myself to write in Gaelic words, (d) provided more than a few laughs.

That’s personally, and it’s because my Gaelic is beyond the Duolingo level, really. How about French? It’s harder to say, I have dabbled a little in reading French before, I have very strong Latin, and I don’t use French in my life at all. Is my knowledge of French growing? Yes, slowly. Will Duolingo “get me there”? If “there” is conversational fluency, I severely doubt it. But if “there” is “having a reservoir of useful knowledge about French that could be tapped if I wanted to actually learn French”, then I think the answer is yes.

Another good thing about Duolingo , I would put, is that because it’s a low-threshhold entry activity, which has attempted to gamify language learning and build in reward structures (for better or worse), it does “get people in”. Gaelic Duolingo has done that quite well – a large number of people signed up for the course, and while the number who continue is obviously much smaller, and the number still who go on to other learning options smaller yet, that’s all still language awareness and learner growth. Given that Duolingo Gaelic was an unfunded volunteer effort, that is a huge positive for the language.


Should you use Duolingo?

If you think Duolingo is going to get you to some kind of conversational proficiency, then you’re wrong. If you think Duolingo is going to be a bit of fun that you can sandwich into the odd spare moment here and there and get a quick 1-1.5 minute language fix, then yes. Provided you understand the caveats, and granted that some courses are far superior to others. I wouldn’t waste any time on Duolingo Latin, for instance. I would happily pass some time on quite a few languages though. And then I would take that knowledge and go leverage it into something more communicative and ultimately more useful.

How should you use it then?

Having said a qualified, “go for it if you want to”, here’s how I think Duolingo could be best used. Preferably, use it on the desktop. Switch on keyboard-input only so that you’re typing out words and learning to type and spell in the L2. Split your session over just a couple of skills : something old, something new, something in between. Don’t chase XP, and don’t think Duo is the end game, it’s a tool that will get your foot in the door of language learning.

The Siblingless Son: μονογενής in Greek literature (5): the 1st to 3rd century CE

Part 5 of our ongoing series (1, 2, 3, and 4)

1st to 3rd CE usages

Rather than turn directly to John, which is really the interpretative crux, we turn now to consider a range of usages, primarily non-Christian, across the first three centuries CE. Our focus here is on seeing that the patterns of usage we have already encountered, continue to be reflected in most authors. Importantly non-theological usages continued to abound, and did not dramatically shift in meaning during this period. I have excluded here, the references to μονογενής found in the longer recension of Ignatius, 15 in total, as more likely dated to the 4th century). Also, the 9 references in pseudo-Clement texts.


In Apion’s Fragmenta de glossis Homericis, μονογενής is included as a part of a definition for the word τηλύγετος.

τηλύγετος· ὁ μονογενής (Ι 143). καὶ ὁ (15) μετὰ θηλυκῶν μόνος ἄρρην. καὶ ὁ ἤδη προηκούσῃ τῇ ἡλικίᾳ τεκνωθείς (Ε 153).[1]

“Telugetos”: the only child. Also, an only son born after girls. Also, one born to a woman already advanced in age.

Clement’s usage (1 Cl 25.2.1) in reference to the phoenix is sometimes taken as evidence for the understanding of ‘unique’, but a closer reading is warranted.

(2) Ὄρνεον γάρ ἐστιν, ὃ προσονομάζεται φοίνιξ· τοῦτο μονογενὲς ὑπάρχον ζῇ ἔτη πεντακόσια, γενόμενόν τε ἤδη πρὸς ἀπόλυσιν τοῦ ἀποθανεῖν αὐτὸ σηκὸν ἑαυτῷ ποιεῖ ἐκ λιβάνου καὶ σμύρνης καὶ τῶν λοιπῶν ἀρωμάτων, εἰς ὃν πληρωθέντος τοῦ χρόνου εἰσέρχεται καὶ τελευτᾷ.[2]

For there is a bird, named the Phoenix. This [bird] being the only one, lives 500 years, and when it approaches its demise, makes for itself a tomb from frankincense and myrrh, and the other spices, and when the time is fulfilled it enters this tomb and dies.

Granted, it’s not as clear in the case of Clement whether one should take μονογενής as (i) unique as there only being one, or (ii) sole in absence of siblings. This is because they amount to the same thing in this case – there is only one phoenix, and it lacks siblings. It does not quite match to the other biological/classificatory uses, as in Theophrastes, because Clement’s argument is not that there is one ‘species’ of Phoenix, with multiple specimens, but rather a unique species with a single specimen. There are no other phoenixes. That said, a generic sense of ‘unique’ doesn’t do us enough service – unique in what respect remains the right question to ask.

There are eight references in Plutarch, writing in the second half of the first century CE. These include Lycurgus 31.4.6

υἱὸν δὲ λέγεται μονογενῆ καταλιπεῖν Ἀντίωρον·[3]

It is also said that he left behind an only son, Antiorus.

This is from the end of Plutarch’s Lycurgus, dealing with the death of Lycurgus and the end-matter. Here, again, the pair υἱὸν … μονογενή indicates a sole son with no siblings.

De E apud Delphos

πέντε τοὺς πάντας ὄντας καὶ μὴ πλείονας. οὐ μὴν ἀλλὰ κἂν εἷς οὗτος ᾖ μονογενής, ὡς οἴεται καὶ Ἀριστοτέλης[4]

But although this one [cosmos] were unique, as Aristotle thinks…

In this text concerned with the investigation of the inscription of Ε or ΕΙ at Delphi, Plutarch includes this use of μονογενής which fits our philosophical category.

We find instances also in De Defectu Oraculorum, from DDO 423a12 and DDO 423c12, both of which are philosophical usages, and anaphoric to Plato’s Timaeus 31b and 92c.[5] Likewise De Fraterne Amore, 480e8, referring back to (and critiquing) Hesiod’s Works and Days 376.[6] A more interesting occurrence comes in De facie in orbe lunae 28:

ὁ μὲν ἐκ τριῶν δύο ποιεῖ τὸν ἄνθρωπον ὁ δ’ ἓν
ἐκ δυοῖν, καὶ ὁ μέν ἐστιν ἐν τῇ <γῇ> τῆς Δήμητρος, …
ἐν αὐτῇ τελεῖν καὶ τοὺς νεκροὺς Ἀθηναῖοι Δημητρείους
ὠνόμαζον τὸ παλαιόν· <ὁ> δ’ ἐν τῇ σελήνῃ τῆς Φερσε-
φόνης· καὶ σύνοικός ἐστι τῆς μὲν χθόνιος ὁ Ἑρμῆς τῆς    (5)
δ’ οὐράνιος. λύει δ’ αὕτη μὲν ταχὺ καὶ μετὰ βίας τὴν
ψυχὴν ἀπὸ τοῦ σώματος, ἡ δὲ Φερσεφόνη πράως καὶ
χρόνῳ πολλῷ τὸν νοῦν ἀπὸ τῆς ψυχῆς καὶ διὰ τοῦτο μο-
νογενὴς κέκληται· μόνον γὰρ γίνεται τὸ βέλτιστον τοῦ
ἀνθρώπου διακρινόμενον αὐτῆς.[7]

One death renders a human from three things to two, and a second death renders them one thing from two; the former is on Demeter’s earth, and in this “to make an end”.. the Athenians of old called the dead “Demetrians”; the latter is on Persephone’s moon; associated with the former is terrestrial Hermes, with the later celestial Hermes. On earth, Demeter swiftly and violently separated the soul from the body, while there Persephone gently and gradually separates the mind from the soul, and for this reason is called monogenes; for the best part of the human best comes into existence alone (μόνον…γίνεται), separated off by her.

This is an instance of etymologising based on a psychological/philosophical reading of myth. In contrasting Demeter and Persephone, Plutarch’s narrator is arguing for a tripartite division of the human, and Persephone is responsible for separating of the mind of the mind from the soul, and this gives him occasion to use μονογενής.[8] The usage here both plays off the epithet μονογενής as applied to Persephone, but also engages in word play, where the mind coming to exist singly and separately, i.e. without ψυχή or σῶμα, is the reason for calling the mind μονογενές, and so by extension Persephone μονογενής because she is the agent who renders it μόνος.

Flavius Arrianus has a single reference, which indicates a sole daughter. It is substantially the same account as Megasthenes’, discussed above.[9] Apollonius the sophist repeats the Homeric gloss of Apion.[10]

There are also eight instances in the fragments of Philo of Byblos (Herennius Philo), though these involve considerable repetition. They universally involve an account of Phoenician theogony in which Kronos (El) has a μονογενής son, Zeus, (Ἰεούδ, or Ἰεδούδ).[11]

The Compendium Herodiani operis περὶ κλίσεως ὀνομάτων has a grammatical usage.[12]

Another philosophical usage occurs in Aëtius’ De placitis reliquiae, in giving a quotation on Parminides opinion about the universe.[13]

The Greek apocalypse of Esdras, variously dated, refers to the μονογενῆν … υἱόν. [14] Regardless of precise dating, it can be subsumed under derivative Christian usage.

In Galen we find another usage that is probably to be subscribed under ‘natural scientific’. It refers to each of the internal organs being ‘one of a kind’ in relation to the others, not sharing the same function or relation.[15]

There are three occurrences in Apollonius Dyscolus’ De adverbiis, and 244 in the works of Aelius Herodianus (including Ps-Herodianus). Beyond that all future references are well past the New Testament corpus, and while a few non-Christian usages are found, they are all along the lines we have previously established here.



[1] A. Ludwich, “Über die homerischen Glossen Apions,” Philologus 74 (1917) 209-247; 75 (1919) 95-103
Retrieved from:
Apion is dated to early 1st century CE.

[2] A. Jaubert, Clément de Rome. Épître aux Corinthiens [Sources chrétiennes 167. Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1971]: 98-204.
Retrieved from:

[3] B. Perrin, Plutarch’s lives, vol. 1, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1914 (repr. 1967): 204-302.
Retrieved from:

[4] W. Sieveking, Plutarchi moralia, vol. 3, Leipzig: Teubner, 1929 (repr. 1972): 1-24.
Retrieved from:


[5] W. Sieveking, Plutarchi moralia, vol. 3, Leipzig: Teubner, 1929 (repr. 1972): 59-122.

[6] M. Pohlenz, Plutarchi moralia, vol. 3, Leipzig: Teubner, 1929 (repr. 1972): 221-254.
Retrieved from:

[7] M. Pohlenz, Plutarchi moralia, vol. 5.3, 2nd edn., Leipzig: Teubner, 1960: 31-89.
Retrieved from:


[8] Cherniss and Helmbold claim that this is an epithet for both Hecate and Persephone. Their references to Hesiod and Apollonius of Rhodes are both to Hecate. Orphic Hymn 28 (to Persephone) does indeed refer to her as a μονογενής. Though it is unclear on what basis, except that Persephone appears to be the only offspring of Zeus and Demeter together. They also suggest that the -γενής has a causative, not a passive sense, which would be remarkable.

[9] Flavius Arrianus, Historia Indica 8.6.6. Writing in the 2nd century.

[10] Apollonios, Lexicon Homericum 152.18.

[11] Herrenius Philo Fragmenta 3c 780 F 2 164; 3c 790 F 3b 11-12 as found in F. Jacoby, Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker (FGrH) #790, Leiden: Brill, 1923-1958 (repr. 1954-1969): 3C:803-824.

2 219; 4 12 (x2), 5 23-24. as found in K. Müller, Fragmenta historicorum Graecorum (FHG) 3, Paris: Didot, 1841-1870: 563-576.


[13] H. Diels, Doxographi Graeci, Berlin: Reimer, 1879 (repr. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1965): 284, line 15. Retrieved from:

[14] C. Tischendorf, Apocalypses apocryphae, Leipzig: Mendelssohn, 1866: 31, line 22.
Retrieved from:

[15] P.H. De Lacy, Galen. On the doctrines of Hippocrates and Plato [Corpus medicorum Graecorum vol., pts. 1-2. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1978]: 1:65-358; 2:360-608.  Book 6, chapter 8, section 31, line 6   investigate exact location and look at how to cite this
Retrieved from:

Introducing καθ’ ἡμέραν

An old tweet came back to life recently on my timeline, as we saw the launch of Daily Dose of Aramaic. The tweet had me tagged as someone who could possibly do a ‘Daily Dose of Greek’ but monolingually in Greek. At the time I don’t think I quite had the experience and wherewithal to make it happen. But, having done a bit more experimentation, and a lot more Greek speaking, it’s reappearance in my timeline nudged me – maybe it was time to make it happen.

And it is. Today I’m pleased to announce the launch of καθ’ ἡμέραν, a project in which I will provide (in theory 5 a week) verse by verse short videos (4~5 mins) explaining or discussing New Testament (and possibly LXX) verses in Koine Greek. You can find the youtube channel here, our twitter account here, and the first video is here. You can also subscribe to a podcast version of the videos (i.e., audio only), through or (shortly) any good podcast app.

At this point, I plan to spend a long time working in John first of all, because I think it’s the most accessible NT text from a pedagogical standpoint.

(Acknowledgements to Dr. Robert Plummer, who got Daily Dose of Greek running such a long time ago (though I will also confess to never having watched a full episode.)


A living Ancient Greek project: LingQ’s 60 Mini-Stories

I have been impressed and inspired by the conversion (to communicative approaches), commitment, and creativity of Carla Hurt over at Found in Antiquity in recent months, and especially the project to translate LingQ’s 60 Mini-Stories into Latin. I am keen to see the same for Greek, so I’ve set up the following project to collaborate on it.

The Project

This is an open Creative Commons project. LingQ, created the original 60 Mini-Stories in English, and they have made them available in the public domain. The stories revolve around ordinary situations, feature many repetitions of vocabulary, and are already available in 39 other languages.

There are few good resources for contemporary spoken Ancient Greek. No, I’m not going to spend this post defending why you should, or talking about why not just speak Modern Greek (for the record, if you want to learn Modern Greek, please do so!). Many of the conversational materials for Ancient Greek assume an ancient, or at best medieval or early modern setting. It’s certainly possible to use Ancient Greek to speak about contemporary things (with a little bit of creative but conservative neologising), but few people do, and less people have the confidence. I believe it’s possible, and it’s beneficial – few things are as helpful in learning to read Ancient Greek texts as having an active competency in the language.

Sharing and Acknowledgments:

These stories are provided by LingQ, who require a link wherever they are shared. Many thanks to them for making these public domain. Thanks to Carla for getting the Latin versions off to a great start and inspiring me to do the same for Greek.


LingQ 60 Mini-Stories, Ancient Greek: Stories 1-10

LingQ 60 Mini-Stories, Ancient Greek: Stories 11-20 (coming soon)

LingQ 60 Mini-Stories, Ancient Greek: Stories 21-30 (coming soon)

LingQ 60 Mini-Stories, Ancient Greek: Stories 31-40 (coming soon)

LingQ 60 Mini-Stories, Ancient Greek: Stories 41-50 (coming soon)

LingQ 60 Mini-Stories, Ancient Greek: Stories 51-60 (coming soon)

Contact and Guidelines

You can reach me via email: to be added as an editor. I’ll also co-ordinate style and progress across the whole project. We’ll look to do some audio and possible video later on as well.

The Siblingless Son: μονογενής in Greek literature (4): the New Testament (mostly) and Josephus

Part 4 of our ongoing series (1, 2 and 3)

Josephus and the New Testament Corpus

We turn now to consider occurrences in both the New Testament and Josephus. In the New Testament we find nine, in Josephus four.[1]

The gospel of Luke contains three instances, Luke 7:12, 8:42, 9:38. These are all uncontroversial. Luke 7:12 refers to a widow’s only son, 8:42 to Jairus’ sole daughter, and 9:38 to a son, further specified as an only child.[2]

A single occurrence is found in Hebrews 11:17 which has been taken as a support for the argument against ‘only-begotten’ or more broadly ‘only child’, on the basis that it refers to Isaac as Abraham’s only child, and that Isaac is in fact not an only child.[3] It is worth considering Josephus’ usage before forming a conclusion on Hebrews 11:17.

Josephus’ uses all occur in Antiquities of the Jews, 1.222.1, 2.182.1, 5.264.3, 20.20.3. We will consider these in reverse order of relevance.

2.181-2 lists a single child, Usi, for Dan, as part of a recounting of Jacob and the 70 who went down to Egypt (2.177-183).[4] The second occurrence (5.264.3) is Josephus’ account of Jephthah, cf. Judges 11 discussed above, and unambiguously denotes Jephthah’s daughter as an only child.[5]

The third instance (20.20) is interesting because it is, like Hebrews, an instance of someone who is not technically an only child. Josephus writes:

ἦν δὲ αὐτῷ Μονόβαζος τούτου πρεσβύτερος ἐκ τῆς Ἑλένης γενόμενος ἄλλοι τε παῖδες ἐξ ἑτέρων γυναικῶν. τὴν μέντοι πᾶσαν εὔνοιαν ὡς εἰς μονογενῆ τὸν Ἰζάτην ἔχων φανερὸς ἦν.[6]

He [Bazeus king of Adiabene] had [the son] Monobazos, his [Izates] elder brother also from Helena, and he had other sons by other wives additionally. Yet he [Bazeus] openly placed all his affections on Izates as one would an only child.

Here it is not the status of an only child, but the treatment as an only-child that is in view. The idea that μονογενής cannot mean ‘only child’ because it is applied to people who aren’t sole offspring, is a linguistic non-sequitur, no more valid than insisting that someone cannot refer to a male child as ‘son’ unless they are biologically the parent of them.

So, when we turn to the fourth (1.222), and find Isaac described as a μονογενής, we do not have to suppose that because Isaac is not strictly speaking an only child, this somehow reconfigures the meaning of μονογενής to either not mean ‘only-child’, or to primarily mean ‘beloved’.

(222)   Ἴσακον δὲ ὁ πατὴρ Ἅβραμος ὑπερηγάπα μονογενῆ ὄντα καὶ ἐπὶ γήρως οὐδῷ κατὰ δωρεὰν αὐτῷ τοῦ θεοῦ γενόμενον. προεκαλεῖτο δὲ εἰς εὔνοιαν καὶ τὸ φιλεῖσθαι μᾶλλον ὑπὸ τῶν γονέων καὶ αὐτὸς ὁ παῖς ἐπιτηδεύων πᾶσαν ἀρετὴν καὶ τῆς τε τῶν πατέρων θεραπείας ἐχόμενος καὶ περὶ τὴν τοῦ θεοῦ θρησκείαν (223) ἐσπουδακώς.

Father Abraham greatly loved Isaac, being an only son, and because he had come to him as a gift given to him by God, on the threshold of old age. He called forth goodwill and greater love from his parents, both the child himself by exercising virtue, and maintaining the cultus of the fathers, and being zealous in respect to the worship of God.


The connotation of being especially loved is clear, but the denotation of the term is not thereby obviated. This remains the case when returning our attention to Hebrews 11:17:

Πίστει προσενήνοχεν Ἀβραὰμ τὸν Ἰσαὰκ πειραζόμενος, καὶ τὸν μονογενῆ προσέφερεν ὁ τὰς ἐπαγγελίας ἀναδεξάμενος,[7]

By faith Abraham, being tested, brought Isaac, and he that had received the promises offered up his only child.


Despite the theological distance between the writer to the Hebrews and Josephus, both concur in seeing Isaac as a sole child in relation to the promise, and the theological horizon of the Genesis text. No linguistic acrobatics need be performed to avoid a relatively straightforward, if slightly figurative meaning. It is not because Isaak has no siblings at all that he is called μονογενής, but because the Scriptures scrupulously view him as having no siblings.[8]

Although the Johannine texts should chronologically, be treated at this point, since  they have been the site where a unique, and uniquely theological meaning, has most often been contested, I defer them until we have pushed our survey further across the first few centuries.

[1] Luke 7:12, 8:42, 9:38, John 1:14, 18, 3:16, 18, Hebrews 11:17, 1 John 4:9.

[2] … δέομαί σου ἐπιβλέψαι ἐπὶ τὸν υἱόν μου, ὅτι μονογενής μοί ἐστιν.

[3] James Bulman, ‘The Only Begotten Son,’ Calvin Theological Journal 1983: 56-79.

[4] AJ 2.182. Δάνῳ δὲ (182) μονογενὲς ἦν παιδίον Οὖσις.

  1. Niese, Flavii Iosephi opera, vols. 1-4, Berlin: Weidmann, 1:1887; 2:1885: 3:1892; 4:1890 (repr. 1955): 1:3-362; 2:3-392; 3:3-409; 4:3-320.
    Retrieved from:

[5]  AJ 5.264. ὑπήντησε γὰρ ἡ θυγάτηρ αὐτῷ, μονογενὴς δ’ ἦν, ἔτι παρθένος.

  1. Niese, Flavii Iosephi opera, vols. 1-4, Berlin: Weidmann, 1:1887; 2:1885: 3:1892; 4:1890 (repr. 1955): 1:3-362; 2:3-392; 3:3-409; 4:3-320.
    Retrieved from:

[6] AJ 20.20 ἦν δὲ αὐτῷ Μονόβαζος τούτου πρεσβύτερος ἐκ τῆς Ἑλένης γενόμενος ἄλλοι τε παῖδες ἐξ ἑτέρων γυναικῶν. τὴν μέντοι πᾶσαν εὔνοιαν ὡς εἰς μονογενῆ τὸν (21) Ἰζάτην ἔχων φανερὸς ἦν.

  1. Niese, Flavii Iosephi opera, vols. 1-4, Berlin: Weidmann, 1:1887; 2:1885: 3:1892; 4:1890 (repr. 1955): 1:3-362; 2:3-392; 3:3-409; 4:3-320. Emphasis mine.
    Retrieved from:

[7] Michael W. Holmes, The Greek New Testament: SBL Edition (Lexham Press; Society of Biblical Literature, 2011–2013), Heb 11:17.

[8] Gen 25:1-4 not withstanding. cf. 1 Chr 1:32-33, Gen 25:6, which treat Keturah’s status as a concubine.

The Siblingless Son: μονογενής in Greek literature (3): the LXX and the Hebrew Bible

Part 3 of our ongoing series (1 and 2)

Monogenes and the Hebrew Bible

We turn now to consider the usage of μονογενής in the LXX, its relation to the Hebrew word  yachid (יָחִיד), and the reverse relation of yachid to ἀγαπητός. The LXX has ten occurrences of μονογενής. One is a post-LXX Christian text and can be set aside for now.[1]


Judges 11:34 depicts the Jephthah’s return home in light of his ominous oath in vv30-31. The text intentionally highlights that he has only one child:

καὶ αὕτη μονογενὴς αὐτῷ ἀγαπητή, καὶ οὐκ ἔστιν αὐτῷ πλὴν αὐτῆς υἱὸς ἢ θυγάτηρ.[2]        And she was his beloved, only child, and he had no son or daughter apart from her.

The relevant Hebrew text combines both the adverb raq and the key term yachid, which may explain the double-translation of μονογενής and ἀγαπητή.

ווְרַק֙ הִ֣יא יְחִידָ֔ה אֵֽין־ל֥וֹ מִמֶּ֛נּוּ בֵּ֖ן אֹו־בַֽת׃[3]

The repetition, and then the somewhat redundant clarification that there is no other son nor daughter, is designed to heighten the pathos of the situation. It also instances yachid as the most common translation basis for μονογενής in the LXX.


The story of Tobit strengthens the case that μονογενής refers primarily to a siblingless child, since this is part of the emotional impact of the story. The term appears three times, in 3:15 in Sarra’s prayer as she laments that although she is her father’s only child, his line will expire without an heir.[4] Of note, she also uses μία to describe herself in 3:10. She is again described as a μονογενής in 6:11.[5] The term then appears once more in 8:17, this time in the plural μονογενεῖς, as Ragouel praises God for having mercy on these two only-children.[6] The usage is consistent throughout this text.


Poetic usages

Psalms of David

There are three occurrences in the Psalms.[7] The first is relatively straightforward, in that μονογενής occurs with πτωχός, and is part of a depiction of being alone and in a desperate condition. Whether yachid is properly translated here is besides our main point, the translation has understood it as ‘alone’ in the context of familial relations.

24:16 (25:16)  ἐπίβλεψον ἐπʼ ἐμὲ καὶ ἐλέησόν με,
ὅτι μονογενὴς καὶ πτωχός εἰμι ἐγώ.

Look upon me and have mercy on me,
because I am an only child and poor.

The two other uses are more difficult, in that μονογενής appears to have undergone some extension of meaning.

21:21 (22:21)  ῥῦσαι ἀπὸ ῥομφαίας τὴν ψυχήν μου
καὶ ἐκ χειρὸς κυνὸς τὴν μονογενῆ μου

Save my life from the sword,
and my monogenēs from the hand of the dog.

34:17 (35:17)  κύριε, πότε ἐπόψῃ;
ἀποκατάστησον τὴν ψυχήν μου ἀπὸ τῆς κακουργίας αὐτῶν,
ἀπὸ λεόντων τὴν μονογενῆ μου.

Lord, when will you take notice?
Restore my life from their wickedness,
and my monogenēs from lions.


Here יְחִידָתִֽי appears as feminine, and ‘soul’ or ‘life’ is probably to be inferred, certainly on the basis of the parallelism. Modern English versions have all taken it in this sense. It may be that the connotation of treasured, dearly-beloved, as attached to a sole child, has been fronted in the significance of yachid, and that the LXX has attempted to preserve this in its translations here.

Psalms of Solomon

Psalms of Solomon 18:4 presents an interesting text in terms of later Christian usage, as it juxtaposes πρωτότοκος and μονογενής directly.

ἡ παιδεία σου ἐφʼ ἡμᾶς ὡς υἱὸν πρωτότοκον μονογενῆ
ἀποστρέψαι ψυχὴν εὐήκοον ἀπὸ ἀμαθίας ἐν ἀγνοίᾳ. [8]

Your discipline is upon us as on a firstborn, an only son,
to turn back the obedient soul from ignorant stupidity.[9]

The referent is Israel, in a familiar depiction of Israel as a nation, as God’s ‘son’, but here used figuratively as a son under discipline. That sonship is modified as both ‘firstborn’, and ‘siblingless’. These, of course, may both be true – a first born child is naturally siblingless until a second child is born. Nonetheless, the much later distinction of Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa still holds: μονογενής refers to an absence of siblings, but πρωτότοκος is said in relation to siblings (whether they are present or not).[10] Here the two words evoke two different conceptual and affective dimensions. For Israel as πρωτότοκος is heir, as μονογενής is cherished and delighted son.

Wisdom of Solomon 7:22

In Wisdom 7:22 we find another variant usage:

Ἔστιν γὰρ ἐν αὐτῇ πνεῦμα νοερόν, ἅγιον, μονογενές, πολυμερές, λεπτόν, εὐκίνητον, τρανόν, ἀμόλυντον, σαφές, ἀπήμαντον, φιλάγαθον, ὀξύ, [11]

For there is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, of many parts, subtle, free-moving, lucid, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, sharp,[12]

This term here has the sense of ‘unique’. Given the overlap between both (a) a personification of Wisdom (the referent here), and (b) philosophical language, and that the direct referent is πνεῦμα, this sense marks an understandable departure from the general ‘siblingless’ signification in reference to persons.


There is a final reference in Odes 14.13, which is clearly a later, Christian composition and built on the development of μονογενής as a specific title for Jesus.

(13) κύριε υἱὲ μονογενὴ
(14) Ἰησοῦ Χριστὲ

Yachid when it’s not μονογενής

We should also consider, albeit briefly, the instances where yachid has been translated otherwise in the LXX. There are eight such instances, translated with three other terms in the LXX. These are Gen 22:2, 22:12, 22:16, Jer 6:26, Amos 8:10, and Zech 12:10 where yachid is rendered with ἀγαπητός. Proverbs 4:3 has ἀγαπώμενος, virtually equivalent in meaning. LXX Ps 67:7 has μονοτρόπους, referring to those that are alone/lonely.[13] The preponderance of the choice of ἀγαπητός suggests that the connotation of dearly beloved associated with an only child is the fore-grounded element for LXX translations of yachid. This is suggestive, though not determinative, for a consideration of the New Testament corpus.[14]

[1] Odes 14.13.

[2] Judges 11.34, Codex Alexandrinus. Vaticanus differs slightly but not materially:

καὶ ἦν αὕτη μονογενής, οὐκ ἦν αὐτῷ ἕτερος υἱὸς ἢ θυγάτηρ.

[3] Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia : With Westminster Hebrew Morphology., electronic ed. (Stuttgart;  Glenside PA: German Bible Society;  Westminster Seminary, 1996), Jdg 11:34.

[4] Tobias 3.15 […] μονογενής εἰμι τῷ πατρί μου, καὶ οὐχ ὑπάρχει αὐτῷ παιδίον, ὃ κληρονομήσει αὐτόν, οὐδὲ ἀδελφὸς ἐγγὺς οὐδὲ ὑπάρχων αὐτῷ υἱός, ἵνα συντηρήσω ἐμαυτὴν αὐτῷ γυναῖκα.

[5] Tobias 6.11 εἶπεν ὁ ἄγγελος τῷ παιδαρίῳ Ἄδελφε, σήμερον αὐλισθησόμεθα παρὰ Ραγουηλ, καὶ αὐτὸς συγγενής σού ἐστιν, καὶ ἔστιν αὐτῷ θυγάτηρ μονογενὴς ὀνόματι Σαρρα,[5]

[6] Tobias 8.17 εὐλογητὸς εἶ ὅτι ἠλέησας δύο μονογενεῖς, ποίησον αὐτοῖς, δέσποτα, ἔλεος, συντέλεσον τὴν ζωὴν αὐτῶν ἐν ὑγιείᾳ μετὰ εὐφροσύνης καὶ ἐλέους.[6]

[7] Throughout I provide first the LXX reference, then the MT reference in brackets.

[8] Septuaginta: With Morphology, electronic ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1979), Ps Sol 18:4.

[9] NETS translation.

[10] See Athanasius, Contra Arianos 2.62, Gregory of Nyssa, De Perfectione, Jaeger (ed), 200-1.

[11] Septuaginta: With Morphology, electronic ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1979), Wis 7:22–23.

[12] NETS translation

[13] MT 68:7, EVV 68:6.

[14] If anything, it may suggest more about the description in the synoptics of Jesus as ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός as in Matt 3:17 and similar. Namely, that the synoptic references to Jesus as ὁ ἀγαπητός are their equivalents to John’s ὁ μονογενής.

The Siblingless Son: μονογενής in Greek literature (2): 8th-1st century BCE

This is the second in our series examining the word μονογενής. We not turn out attention to the range of usage across Greek authors and literature.

8th to 6th Century

The term μονογενής does not appear frequently in early Greek literature, with three instances in Hesiod, two in Aesop, and one in Aeschylus. All occurrences comport with the meaning of ‘lacking siblings.’


The first two of Hesiod’s references appear in Theogony, both in reference to Hecate.[1] They are in relatively close proximity, with the first in line 426:

οὐδ’, ὅτι μουνογενής, ἧσσον θεὰ ἔμμορε τιμῆς [426]
καὶ γεράων γαίῃ τε καὶ οὐρανῷ ἠδὲ θαλάσσῃ,[2]

Nor, because she is an only child, does the goddess receive less respect,
and honours on land and sea and sky.

And the second in line 448:

οὕτω τοι καὶ μουνογενὴς ἐκ μητρὸς ἐοῦσα
πᾶσι μετ’ ἀθανάτοισι τετίμηται γεράεσσι.[3]

So then, being an only-child of her mother,
she is honoured among all the immortals

Hesiod’s usage establishes that from the 8th century μονογενής denotes an only child. In Works and Days we encounter an attributive use:

μουνογενὴς δὲ πάις εἴη πατρώιον οἶκον [376]
φερβέμεν· ὣς γὰρ πλοῦτος ἀέξεται ἐν μεγάροισιν·
γηραιὸς δὲ θάνοι ἕτερον παῖδ’ ἐγκαταλείπων.[4]

There should be an only child to feed the father’s household,
for so wealth will increase in your household;
but if you leave behind a second son, you should die old.

Here the concern is with the division of wealth and property, where passing on an inheritance to a single child will see it increase, whereas dividing it among multiple sons endangers the patrimony. This concern is generally held in tension to the more common motif that we see in texts below, where an only child represents an increased danger in that the family line depends upon the survival of a single person.


Moving to the 6th century, we find two occurrences in Aesop’s Fables. These two represent alternate versions of a single story:

υἱόν τις γέρων δειλὸς μονογενῆ ἔχων γενναῖον κυνηγεῖν ἐφιέμενον εἶδε τοῦτον καθ’
ὕπνους ὑπὸ λέοντος ἀναλωθέντα.

A cowardly old man had a noble son, an only child, and saw him in a dream going out to
hunt and then killed by a lion

(296aliter) Υἱόν τις ἔχων μονογενῆ ἀνδρεῖον εἶδε καθ’ ὕπνον ὑπὸ λέοντος θνῄσκειν.[5]

A certain person had a brave son, an only child, and saw him killed by a lion in a dream.

In both versions, a father of an only son sees that son killed by a lion in a dream. The use of μονογενής sets up part of the pathos of the story, in that all the father’s hopes and love rest upon the sole heir.[6] This connotation is prevalent throughout later usages.


The final occurrence in this early period is in Aeschlyus, Agamemnon 898. The context of the passage is Clytemnestra speaking, in an ironic/sarcastic description of how she would hail Agamemnon’s return:

νῦν, ταῦτα πάντα τλᾶσ’, ἀπενθήτωι φρενὶ   (895)
λέγοιμ’ ἂν ἄνδρα τόνδε τῶν σταθμῶν κύνα,
σωτῆρα ναὸς πρότονον, ὑψηλῆς στέγης
στῦλον ποδήρη, μονογενὲς τέκνον πατρί,
ὁδοιπόρωι διψῶντι πηγαῖον ῥέος,
καὶ γῆν φανεῖσαν ναυτίλοις παρ’ ἐλπίδα,   (900)
κάλλιστον ἦμαρ εἰσιδεῖν ἐκ χείματος. [7]

But now, having endured all these things, with my heart freed from grief,
I would address my husband, as dog of the dwelling,
forestay saviour of the ship,
a high roof’s
pillar, a father’s only son,
spring water to a thirsty traveller
the sighting of land to sailors beyond hope,
fairest day seen after a storm.

The effect of μονογενής here is again the sense of focused affection and hope placed upon a sole child and heir (in implied contrast to the diffused affection and increased household survival odds of multiple heirs). Agamemnon, we must note, is not actually a siblingless son,[8] but this is exactly the point, as Clytemnestra recounts how she would regard him, in a series of figures of ‘longed-for hopes,’ and as the profession of her love in face of her sufferings at home in his absence.

5th to 1st Century

As the surviving number of texts increases, so too the number of occurrences. It is also in this period we see several derivative usages emerge in particular contexts. Hence in this section, we proceed by categories rather than strict chronology.

Only child and only son.

Two occurrences are found in Herodotus, both appear to refer to an only son (παῖδα μουνογενέα; παῖδα […] μουνογενέα) without concern for whether daughters are present.[9] This is also the use found in Plato’s Critias, where it is an only daughter (and presumably no son).[10] In Leges, Plato appears to use a slightly extended sense of the term in referring to the royal lineage (in Sparta) being made twofold from a single line.[11] Megasthenes also describes an only daughter, this time in explicit contrast to many sons.[12] Apollonius of Rhodes revives the Hesiodic reference to Hecate in Argonautica.[13]

There are two instances in Diodorus of Sicily, both times referring to a daughter. The first is to Hippodemeia, only daughter of Oenomaus.[14] The second is Tyro, daughter of Salmoneus.[15] Similarly there are three occurrences in Dionysius of Halicarnassus, first to an only daughter of Hersilia,[16] then twice to an only son of Hostilius (who coincidentally married that same sole daughter of Hersilia).[17] The appearance in the fragments of Ninus is a prayer for an only child.[18]

Less clear, however, is the usage in Serapion, where Aquarius is given the epithet μονογενές.[19] Aquarius is typically associated with Ganymede, who is not normally regarded as an only child, having Ilus and Assaracus for brothers. Unlike, for instance, the rhetorical effect of Clytemnestra ironically referring to Agamemnon as one, there does not appear to be any reason in this particular text, unless there is a particular alternate mythological identification in play.

This last anomaly notwithstanding, the primary usage of the term contains to be in reference to a person, who is identified as lacking siblings. Three extensions of this usage to other domains make their initial appearances in this period, which I refer to as philosophical, natural-scientific, and grammatical.

Philosophical usage

The philosophical usage is found in a fragment of Parmenides discussing ‘the whole’ (τὸ πᾶν) as “alone unique and ingenerate.”[20] Similarly, Plato refers to the uniqueness of the cosmos this way:

οὔτε δύο οὔτ’ ἀπείρους ἐποίησεν ὁ ποιῶν κόσμους, ἀλλ’ εἷς ὅδε μονογενὴς οὐρανὸς γεγονὼς ἔστιν καὶ ἔτ’ ἔσται.[21]

for neither did the Maker create two, nor numberless, universes, but this unique, generated heaven, exists and will continue to exist.

The language of the universe, or heaven, as offspring of God certainly borrows or draws upon a generative, even biological, semantic sense. However, the meaning has apparently shifted, from a lack of ‘siblings’, to a lack of others in the same γένος. This seems in line with the idea that the universe is not generated in the same way, and so ‘sibling’ in this sense must also shift to ‘members of the same category’. Hence, ‘one of a kind’ or ‘unique in its class’ becomes an appropriate gloss for the term in the philosophical texts. This usage recurs in other philosophical texts.[22]

Natural scientific usage

Just as the philosophical use depicts the universe as the only one in its class of existence, so too the natural science usage. The earliest instance of this is Theophrastus’ Historia plantarum, wherein he describes the beech, yew, and alder each as having ‘one kind.’[23]


A third, related use emerges in grammatical texts. The earliest instance appears in Democritus, where it appears to denote a unique or single form.[24] It then appears in Philoxenus,[25] and also accounts for the later occurrences in Apollonius Dyscolus and Aelius Herodianus and Ps-Herodianus.[26] In all cases, it can be understood along the same lines, in that γένος represents a class and μονογενής represents a single or sole instance for a class. The jump from the philosophical and natural-science categories is not large, and the use of γένος in grammatical contexts perhaps made it an attractive choice.

Sub-conclusion: 8th to 1st century BC

Excluding the instances in the Septuagint (14), there are 33 occurrences across Greek literature down to the 1st century BC. Of these 22 indicate a siblingless child, 4 are philosophical, 3 refer to natural sciences, 3 are grammatical, and 1 remains unclear. The overwhelmingly common usage is to refer to a person as lacking siblings. The etymological idea that μονογενής derives its meaning from μονο + γένος and is only applied by extension to persons lacking siblings is not borne out by its usage across ancient Greek literature.



[1] Hecate is the sole offspring of the Titans, Perses and Asteria.

[2] M.L. West, Hesiod. Theogony, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966: 111-149. Retrieved from:

[3] M.L. West, Hesiod. Theogony, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966: 111-149.
Retrieved from:

[4] F. Solmsen, Hesiodi opera, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970: 49-85.
Retrieved from:

[5] E. Chambry, Aesopi fabulae, Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1:1925; 2:1926: 532-533, 536-538, 545-546, 556-557, 561, 564-565.
Retrieved from:

[6] The fable goes on to relate that the father builds a dwelling to enclose his child and keep him from any danger, but draws pictures of animals. The son, staring at the picture of the lion (and aware of the father’s dream), attempts to ‘blind’ the lion on the wall, but injures himself, resulting in a fever that leads to his death.

[7] D.L. Page, Aeschyli Septem Quae Supersunt Tragoedias, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972: 139-198.
Retrieved from:

[8] Menelaos being his brother. Some scholars have evidenced confusion at how μονογενής could mean siblingless since there are occasions when it is used in reference to persons who aren’t siblingless. I’m not sure how weak a sense of language you need to have to reach that point, but the Aeschylus’ example functions precisely because Agamemnon is not siblingless, but would be addressed as such.

[9] Herodotus, Historiae 2.79.3, 7.222.1.

[10] Plato, Critias 113d2 Κλειτὼ δὲ μονογενῆ θυγατέρα ἐγεννησάσθην.

[11] Plato, Leges 691d-e δίδυμον ὑμῖν φυτεύσας τὴν τῶν βασιλέων γένεσιν (e) ἐκ μονογενοῦς.

[12] Megasthenes, Fragmenta 23.58. καὶ τούτῳ ἄρσενας μὲν παῖδας πολλοὺς κάρτα γενέσθαι ἐν τῇ Ἰνδῶν γῇ, (πολλῇσι γὰρ δὴ γυναιξὶν ἐς γάμον ἐλθεῖν καὶ τοῦτον τὸν Ἡρακλέα,) θυγατέρα δὲ μουνο
γενέην· οὔνομα δὲ εἶναι τῇ παιδὶ Πανδαίην,

  1. Müller, Fragmenta historicorum Graecorum (FHG) 2, Paris: Didot, 1841-1870: 402-439.

[13] Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 3.1035 μουνογενῆ δ’ Ἑκάτην Περσηίδα μειλίσσοιο.

[14] Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca 4.73.2

K.T. Fischer (post I. Bekker & L. Dindorf) and F. Vogel, Diodori bibliotheca historica, 5 vols., 3rd edn., Leipzig: Teubner, 1:1888; 2:1890; 3:1893; 4-5:1906 (repr. 1964): 1:1-533; 2:1-461; 3:1-497; 4:1-426; 5:1-336.
Retrieved from:

[15] Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca 6.7.2

K.T. Fischer (post I. Bekker & L. Dindorf) and F. Vogel, Diodori bibliotheca historica, 5 vols., 3rd edn., Leipzig: Teubner, 1:1888; 2:1890; 3:1893; 4-5:1906 (repr. 1964): 1:1-533; 2:1-461; 3:1-497; 4:1-426; 5:1-336.
Retrieved from:


[16] Dionysius Halicarnassensis, Antiquitates Romanae 2.45.2.

[17] Dionysius Halicarnassensis, Antiquitates Romanae 3.1.2; 3.1.3.


[18] Ninus Fragmenta P. Berol. 6926. Framgent A, line 108.

  1. Zimmermann, Griechische Roman-Papyri und verwandte Texte, Heidelberg: Bilabel, 1936: 14-35.


[19] Serapion, Framenta 5.3, page 97, line 3.


Ἑλικοειδὲς Αἰγόκερως.

Μονογενὲς Ὑδροχόος.

Λεπιδωτὰ Αἰγόκερως, Ἰχθύες.

Δίμορφα Τοξότης, Αἰγόκερως, Ἰχθύες.

Χερσαῖον Σκορπίος καὶ ὁ Τοξότης ἀπὸ μέρους.


  1. Heeg, Codices Romani[Catalogus Codicum Astrologorum Graecorum5.3. Brussels: Lamertin, 1910]: 96-97, 125.
    Retrieved from:

[20] Parmenides, Testimonia 22.4 ἀίδιον μὲν γὰρ τὸ πᾶν καὶ ἀκίνητον ἀποφαίνεται [καὶ] κατὰ τὴν τῶν πραγμάτων ἀλήθειαν· εἶναι γὰρ αὐτὸ ‘μοῦνον μουνογενές τε .. ἀγένητον’

[21] Plato, Timaeus 31b3.

[22] Plato, Timaeus 92c9, Spurious-Timaeus Fragmenta 207.1. This also seems to be the sense in Eudemus Fragmenta 150.41, but there it is overlayed as the philosophical interpretation of a myth, identifying Mōumis as “the noetic cosmos coming forth from the two archai.”

A similar usage which likewise straddles ‘only-child’ and the philosophical appears in Posidonius, Fragmenta, 398.15, where Persephone’s description as μονογενής (presumably as daughter of Zeus and Demeter, despite both parents having other children) is interpreted in terms of her liberating the mind from a deceased person, not the composite soul.

(Hermes) λύει δ’ αὕτη μὲν ταχὺ καὶ μετὰ βίας τὴν ψυχὴν ἀπὸ τοῦ σώματος, ἡ δὲ Φερσεφόνη πράως καὶ χρόνῳ πολλῷ τὸν νοῦν ἀπὸ τῆς ψυχῆς καὶ διὰ τοῦτο μονογενὴς κέκληται·

  1. Theiler, Posidonius. Die Fragmente, vol. 1 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1982).

[23] Theophrastus, Historia plantarum 3.10.1, 3.10.2, 3.14.3.

[24] Democritus, Framenta 128.1.

[25] Philoxenus, Fragmenta 441.2, 441.8

[26] Apollonius Dyscolus, De Adverbiis 145.18, 20, 201.10. There are 244 references in Herodianus and Ps-Herodianus, accounting for over half of the 457 references which TLG ascribes to the 2nd century CE. That number drops to 56 in the 3rd century, before exploding to 4613 with the theological impulses of the 4th century.

Why are you “CI Folk” jerks?

This is one more in my ‘common objections’ to communicative approaches. And it was occasioned by @MetalClassicist, referencing this thread. I’ve not tried to directly address that thread, but somewhat more a general treatment of this topic.

Firstly, let me acknowledge that plenty of “CI-folks” can be jerks. I confess, I have at times been obnoxiously provocative about some of these topics, a vice I am working against.

Sometimes being a jerk has nothing to do with their language teaching camp, they’re just jerks. Other times, well, is there something about CI that makes its advocates annoying, sanctimonious, insufferable? I want to take some time to explore this topic and give some perspectives on it.

Let me also put in a little terminology disclaimer. “CI Folks” is not a helpful label. Hendrickson’s recent ‘the new pedagogy/ies’ is broad, but perhaps so broad as to be undescriptive. I’m going to talk in hugely oversimplifying terms today about CA – ‘communicative approaches’ (even as I recognise that that label itself is not the best), and G/T approaches (which I do think fall into a more discretely identifiable camp).

Secondly, then, I think we ought to recognise that many people who now are in the CA camp, and firmly in it, have suffered professionally and personally the disdain and conflict from G/T people. That’s not been my experience, generally, beyond random internet snipes, but I am also not a school-based teacher. It’s also relatively easy to forget, depending on your circles, or social media slice, that the vast bulk of (Latin) teachers are doing G/T, and a very decent chunk of modern language teachers are too. The CA slice of the language teacher pie is a minority, and often feels the need to justify itself, its very existence, and to prove that CA is better for both language acquisition and performing on old-model standardised testing. All of which to say, G/T folks can be plenty jerks too.

Thirdly, let’s recognise that from the CA side, there is a fundamental shift at the level of belief about how languages are learned, that makes them view G/T itself as problematic, in a way that G/T people don’t think about CA. CA people have come to the belief (by whatever means – reading research, doing some workshops, their own personal anecdata) that they way humans acquire language is primarily through comprehensible input, and that the contribution of explicit grammar instruction to this acquisition is somewhere between marginal and zero. I put it this way because primarily and marginal are important qualifiers here – there’s a large slice of second language acquisition research that doesn’t embrace the more extreme position of “only through CI” and “no benefit to grammar”. But, and a big but, that same very large slice reasonably thinks that CI is primary, and that grammar is marginal, to greater or lesser degrees.

If you come to accept that belief, and then you look at G/T, your only reasonable conclusion is that G/T is an incredibly ineffective method for helping learners acquire a language. This is a belief that G/T teachers do not generally share. G/T teachers are much more likely to have a set of beliefs that goes something like this: “languages can be taught in various ways. Different students and situations respond to different learning styles. People, especially teens and adults, benefit from explicit grammar instruction, because they cannot learn an L2 in the same way as an L1. Because Latin (or X) is an ancient/historical/complex language, it requires grammar + translation in order to produce accurate understanding of the language. Because there’s no need to order pizza and lattes in Ancient Greek, communicative approaches are amusing trifles, not serious learning. I don’t mind CA people, but let’s just recognise there are different methods to the same goal.”
I’ve bundled a whole bunch of things in there, not all of which apply to any particular individual. I think the last one is telling though – G/T people tend to think of CA as an alternative method to the same goal. Contrast – CA people think that G/T does not lead to acquisition and that it is not an alternative method to the same goal, but an alternative method that leads to a different goal.

Fourthly, CA people have often had a conversion-like experience. They almost all were G/T people, sometimes for decades of teaching. They know G/T, they know what it’s like, they know what it produces, and then something happened. Often, that is an experience of learning via a CA – perhaps a different language, perhaps the language they teach. And they experience acquiring a language through a CA in a whole new way. And then they discover the research, and it totally challenges, and overturns, their view of how languages are acquired. And then, often, they experience very, very negative pushback from G/T people. (It is a universal law of my twitter account that posting a thread that is negative about G/T and provocative about CA, will produce a reaction saying, ‘yes but G/T is necessary’). All of which pushes them to adopt a position that is very, “I was wrong, but now I have seen the light, and I feel like G/T defrauded me of something – it promised acquisition and it delivered grammar”.
That’s a very powerful set of belief forming factors there. I think you can see why CA people come to a position where they think relatively negatively about G/T, and take very unkindly to G/T people arguing with them about it, especially if they’ve experienced strong pushback in their own professional contexts.

Fifthly, I would offer the reflection that humans are social creatures, and prone to identifying ourselves on the basis of difference. So we form factions, and we fight it out. There are things about the CA-G/T division that simply reflect group dynamics and human politics. That is one ‘why’ for the heat, volatility, and tension that can dominate these discussions. Is it ideal? No. I really appreciate those on the CA bandwagon who make repeated and good-conscience attempts to build bridges, work with and affirm G/T people, and invite them into communicative approaches gently, respectfully, and with graciousness. We all need more of that in our lives.

The Siblingless Son: μονογενής in Greek literature (1)

(This is the first in a series of posts in which I will extensively review the word μονογενής in Greek literature up to the 1st century CE, in the context of debates about its meaning in the Gospel of John, as well as Patristic usage of the term in the 4th century. A finalised version of this paper will appear in a citable and stable format at the conclusion of our series)


Since the decision to translate μονογενής in John 3:16 with ‘only Son’ in the Revised Standard Version of 1952, and Dale Moody’s defence of that translation in 1953, it has been the received wisdom that μονογενής means ‘single of its kind, only’ and not ‘only-begotten.’[1] This paper argues that the shift to the meaning ‘unique’ is itself based on a linguistic fallacy, and in some cases a misreading of earlier scholarship, while also contending that ‘only-begotten’ is a similarly misguided translation choice. In contrast, a review of the evidence from Greek literature up to the 1st century CE strongly supports the claim that μονογενής indicates or denotes (when referring to persons) a child who lacks siblings.

Previous scholarship

Moody pointed to the tradition of scholarship in Thayer, Kattenbusch, Schmidt, Moulton and Milligan, and Buechsel. A consideration of that scholarship is less supportive than Moody suggests. Thayer rightly begins his entry with ‘used of only sons or daughters (viewed in relation to their parents)’[2] and even applies this to John 3:16, 18; 1:18, and then writes of 1:14, ‘used of Christ, denotes the only son of God or one who in the sense in which he himself is the son of God has no brethren.’[3] Thayer, as we will see, is quite correct when read at length, but not when his entry is reduced to its initial gloss, ‘single of its kind, only’. Kattenbusch is primarily of value in following Schmidt in recognising that the -γενής component derives from γίγνεσθαι but that the latter term has generally lost its ‘earlier sexual sense’.[4] But this does not solve the case in any event, since it is a combination of etymological and diachronic arguments that fails to settle the word’s meaning itself. Moulton and Milligan assert the primary meaning of ‘one of a kind, only, unique’ by rejecting ‘only-begotten’ on the basis that the latter would have to be μονογέννητος.[5] Their conclusion seems presumptuous in dictating that a Greek speaker ought to have used a hypothetical word they have derived on conjectural grounds.[6] Perhaps most useful of the older works is Friedrich Büchsel’s. He usefully compares μονογενής with other -γενής compounds, and notes that generally when a noun occurs as a prefix it indicates source, but when an adverb does it indicates ‘the nature of derivation’. It is worth quoting him at length:

The μονο- does not denote the source but the nature of derivation. Hence μονογενής means “of sole descent,” i.e., without brothers or sisters. This gives us the sense of only-begotten. The ref. is to the only child of one’s parents, primarily in relation to them. μονογενής is stronger than μόνος, for it denotes that they have never had more than this child. But the word can also be used more generally without ref. to derivation in the sense of “unique,” “unparalleled,” “incomparable,” though one should not confuse the refs. to class or species and to manner.[7]

Büchsel does give the meaning ‘only-begotten’, but only in the sense previously indicated – lacking siblings. Indeed he goes on to apply that same phrase, ‘only-begotten’ to the non-Johannine NT usages, suggesting that Büchsel treats ‘only-begotten’ as ‘siblingless’, which is arguably not the broader understanding of the former English phrase.

Roberts next took up the discussion in 1973, focused again on translation of John 3:16 and ‘only begotten’ or ‘only’.[8] His etymological discussion follows Moulton and Milligan in asserting that monogennetos would have to be the form to mean ‘only begotten’, and more generally insisting that because γένος lies behind the -γενής morpheme, it cannot be connected to γεννᾶν. This argument, and the corresponding argument that γίγνεσθαι has lost generational or sexual connotations by the 1st century, suggests that John coined the word ab initio and ἀφ᾿ ἑαυτοῦ in the first century, expecting readers to derive their understanding from the compound, when the word has a long, if not frequent, usage history.[9] Both Roberts, and Moody, refer to Warden’s (unfortunately) unpublished dissertation, as supporting ‘basically uniqueness of being, rather than any remarkableness of manner of coming into being, or yet uniqueness resulting from any manner coming into being.’[10] The problem with this argument is two-fold. Firstly, it continues to suggest that a contextless etymological argument supplies the meaning of -γενής from γένος and contemporaneous usage of γίγνεσθαι, rather than examining contextual and diachronic usages of μονογενής. Secondly, it suggests that μονογενής means ‘unique’ without any content to that uniqueness. To be unique, or one of a kind, refers to some kind of quality or class in which a thing is unique. Μονογενής, as I demonstrate below, refers primarily to the lack of members in the class of ‘sibling’. It is not an empty modifier signifying ‘unique’ to which any number of qualities or classes may be supplied, but a specified modifier in which the class is already transparent – siblings.

Roberts also attempts to make a case based on a ‘third category’ of usage, ‘a son or daughter who was one of two or more children,’ specifically Abraham/Isaac, and Josephus’ reference to Izates.[11] Both of these usages are examined adequately below.

Bulman (1981) sought ‘to defend the traditional translation of the term for the Johannine writings, as also for Hebrews 11:17.’[12] In doing so, he concedes that the meaning ‘only descendant’ is fine for the Lucan references, but that the others place a particular emphasis on ‘the factor of generation’[13] The difficulty remains that his initial argument seems a case of, at least, etymological pleading, that because of the -γένος stem, generation remains in view. I will argue that is true in a broad sense, against ‘unique’, but not in a narrow sense as pertains to some feature of that act of generation. Bulman also reviews the evidence from translation to Latin in the early church.[14] This, arguably, misrepresents some of the issue, since the language of unicus well-suits a siblingless descendant, whereas unigenitus does indeed shift the focus to generation, in a manner that moves away from the Greek term.[15]

Bulman attempts to rescue Heb 11:27 from Moody, who had suggested that it could not mean ‘only begotten’ precisely because Isaac was not Abraham’s only son. Bulman acknowledges as much but uses this to contend that it thus denotes the heir. The semantic argument here is muddled precisely because a sole descendant is concomitantly an heir, just as they are dearly beloved. This might represent some element of semantic bleeding, For Bulman, this becomes a theological contention that in John μονογενής refers to the pre-temporal appointment choice and ordination of the Son to the work of the economy. Such a proposal might, one supposes, be granted as the theological significance of the term,[16] but not the meaning of the word. That is, the Son as heir comports with his being μονογενής, but does it define it?

Dahms (1983) [17] short article suggests that even if birth per se is a notion absent from the γεν- stem, generation more broadly conceived may not be.[18] He recognises that the instances where μονογενής refers to non-persons are not persuasive evidence to the contrary.[19] He also reviews the arguments for cases where sole-generation cannot be in view, including Heb 11:17. Dahm’s view rejects the case that these are decisive, as being precisely cases where sole child, with a view to generation, can be upheld. Dahm’s also reviews the considerable evidence that μονογενής used of persons, even prior to Arian debates, ‘was understood to include the idea of generation.’[20] The thorny, indeed intractable, problem here is that, from the argument I make below, a sole, siblingless child, is by the fact of being a child, a generated child. That does not foreground the generation itself though.


Skarsaune’s work focuses on the use in the Nicene creed.[21] While recognising that Alexander and Athanasius use the term to denote ‘the only one who has been born, begotten – as distinct from adoptive sons,’[22] he nonetheless defers to the ‘well-known’ position that μονογενής admits of two meanings, one being ‘the only one of its kind. This seems to be the original meaning of the word – probably also the Johannine meaning.’[23] This with little more justification than Moody. On the other hand, Skarsaune’s advertisement that μονογενής in the Dated creed of 359 is deliberately interpreted as meaning begotten from a single source, is perceptive.[24] It does not, however, change the grounds of the debate.

The most recent debates about the term come from the work of Kevin Giles, and the Charles Lee Irons. Giles has argued for the commonly accepted view of ‘only’, and ‘unique’ as the meaning of μονογενής in a number of contexts, and specifically made the argument that the Greek church fathers understood it in this sense, and not with any theological jargon meaning of ‘only-begotten’. Giles holds that the meaning of μονογενής in the New Testament is ‘only’ or ‘unique’, and that the same is true in the church fathers.[25] Giles’ position on the fathers, I argue elsewhere, misreads the 4th century fathers, just as Irons does. Giles correctly recognises that μονογενής is not necessarily their basis for a doctrine of eternal generation, but his commitment to a uniqueness reading of the term, misses the way it signifies ‘siblingless’, and the way this comports with the doctrine of eternal generation that they in fact articulate.[26]

Irons has written the most comprehensive recent treatment of the term in light of debates over eternal generation, and focused on the Johannine usages.[27] Irons asks the elephant in the room question when he says, ‘if modern exegetes no longer find the patristic proof texts for the eternal generation of the Son, where does that leave the doctrine?’[28] This presumes three things: (i) that the meaning of μονογενής is a support for eternal generation, (ii) that the fourth century fathers held the same meaning of the term as 1st century authors, and (iii) that this meaning functions as a basis for the doctrine. I propose that (i) and (ii) are correct, though that meaning is not as transparent as Irons contends; elsewhere I content that (iii) is not strictly true.

In surveying whether μονογενής as ‘only-begotten’ only arose during the Arian disputes, Irons is correct in pointing out that the usage of the term both predates that controversy among eccelesiastical authors, and that the term was not itself sufficient to refute Arian theology, indeed they had no problem with it per se.[29] However, by this point in Irons’ argument, it is apparent that ‘only-begotten’ remains somewhat opaque. It is not a term in contemporary English usage, it appears to have no non-theological-jargon meaning. The primary motivation for keeping ‘begotten’ in ‘only-begotten’ is to insist on the generative relationship. But in what sense is it generative?

In setting aside the etymological argument against ‘only-begotten’, Irons helpfully reviews the considerable abundance of names with -γενής constituents that all indicate birth or origin. This comports with the treatment of Buchsel[30] who states that μονογενής parallels other [adverbial + γενής ] compounds to indicate the manner, not the source, of generation.[31]

What follows in Irons is a lexical argument that surveys four categories of meaning – a ‘root’ meaning with a biological reference, and then three meanings that are seen as non-literal extensions. As will become apparent, these four categories are correct, though I am less convinced that three of them should be treated as ‘non-literal extensions’ of the first.

We will return to Irons’ argument at the end of the paper. Having reviewed now all the most pertinent discussions of this term, we turn to the evidence itself. I will consider in a diachronic manner all occurrences of μονογενής in Greek literature up to and including the 1st century CE, demonstrating that the meaning ‘siblingless’ or ‘without siblings’ holds for all occurrences where it refers to a person. In passing, we will also consider the other three categories of usage as they emerge.

[1] Dale Moody, ‘God’s Only Song: The translation of John 3:16 in the Revised Standard Version’ JBL 1953, 213.
A long line of scholarship, and New Testament commentaries, refer to Moody as the definitive reference on this point, which is lamentable.

[2] Thayer, Joseph Henry. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Being Grimm’s Wilke’s Clavis Novi Testamenti. New York: Harper & Brothers., 1889, 417

[3] Thayer, 417.

[4] Ferdinand. Kattenbusch, ‘Only-Begotten’, in A Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels. Edited by J. Hastings, J.A. Selbie, J.C. Lambert. 1908, p281.
J.H. Heinrich Schmidt, Synonymik der griech. Sprache ii. p.503. ff.

[5] Moulton and Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament illustrated from the papyri and other non-literary sources, 1930. 416.

[6] Excepting the one occurrence that TLG returns, from Constantinus Manasses, Monodia in Nicephorum Comnenum, l. 552, from the 12th century. E. Kurtz, “Εὐσταθίου Θεσσαλονίκης καὶ Κωνσταντίνου Μανασσῆ μονῳδίαι περὶ τοῦ θανάτου Νικηφόρου Κομνηνοῦ,” Vizantijskij Vremennik 17 (1910): 302-322.
Retrieved from:

[7] Friedrich Büchsel, “Μονογενής,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 738.

[8] R.L. Roberts, ‘The Rendering “Only Begotten” in John 3:16,’ Restoration Quaterly, 1.

[9] Roberts, ‘Only Begotten’, 3-4.

[10] Francis M. Warden, ‘Monogenēs in the Johannine Literature,’ unpublished dissertation, Ph.D Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky., 1938, 19. As cited in Roberts, ‘Only Begotten’, 5

[11] Roberts, ‘Only Begotten’, 8

[12] James M. Bulman, ‘The Only Begotten Son’Calvin Theological Journal, 16 (1981): 56.

[13] Bulman, ‘The Only Begotten Son’, 56.

[14] Bulman, ‘The Only Begotten Son’, 59-61.

[15] utinam uni(g)natus scriptus esset.

[16] Possible but doubtful.

[17] John V. Dahms, ‘The Johannine Use of Monogenēs Reconsidered’, New Test. Stud. vol. 29 (1983): 222-232.

[18] Dahms, ‘The Johannine Use of Monogenēs Reconsidered’, 222-3.

[19] Dahms, ‘The Johannine Use of Monogenēs Reconsidered’, 223.

[20] Dahms, 227.

[21] Oska Skarsaune, ‘A Neglected Detail in the Creed of Nicaea (325),’ Vigiliae Christianiae 41 (1987): 34-54.

[22] Skarsaune, ‘Creed of Nicaea’, 43.

[23] Skarsaune, ‘Creed of Nicaea’, 44.

[24] Skarsaune, ‘Creed of Nicaea’, 45-6. This has import for Basil’s refutation of Eunomius on the grounds that this subverts the word’s ordinary usage.

[25] See Kevin Giles, The Eternal Generation of the Son IVP Academic, 2012. Also Kevin Giles, ‘Kevin Giles, Grudem, Ware and Eternal Generation’, ; also the series of comments on posts by Charles Lee Irons (parts 1-5, dated 30/12/2016, 31/12/2016, 1/1/2017). Also, Giles ‘The Nicene and Reformed doctrine of the Trinity.’ ETS conference, 15th Nov 2016:


[26] A full treatment of this topic is beyond our scope here, but we nonetheless treat two significant fourth century passages below.

[27] Charles Lee Irons, “A lexical defence of the Johannine ‘Only Begotten’” in Retrieving Eternal Generation. Edited by Fred Sanders and Scott R. Swain (Zondervan, 2017), 98-116.

[28] Irons, 98-99.

[29] Irons, 102-3.

[30] Büchsel, 738.

[31] And indeed, this pertains to the Arian debates. Arians, broadly considered, are happy with the term μονογενής provided it means ‘born of one’. This reading of the term is rejected by their opponents.

What’s wrong with LLPSI, part 4 – Addressing the content challenges

In this final part of our series, Gregory Stringer and I offer our reflections and some of our strategies in responding to the challenges and difficulties presented in part two of our series. (See also parts 1, 2b, and 3). As we teach in two different contexts (online synchronous small-group instruction of adults for myself, a US High School for Gregory), we have framed this post with our answers separate but interacting.

Introductory remarks

Seumas: So, the very first thing I want to say here, and this is in part shaped by the push-back we received, is that our first intention in part two was to present a number of issues or topics which people in general have found problematic in LLPSI. Whether any particular individual also finds them problematic, is to some extent a second set of questions, but as educators I think we need to firstly acknowledge that these elements of the text require awareness.

The second introductory point I would make is that the nature of the intertwined relationship of language and culture is complicated, and Latin’s situation is extra-complicated. Because Latin had a long ‘post-Roman’ existence, in which it continued to be used by extensive numbers of speakers and writers for whom it was a learned language of educated discourse, it is not enough to say that learning Latin requires approach and engaging classical Roman culture. More needs to be said.

1. Replicating Roman Ideologies

Seumas: It seems important to me that we recognise that students, in reading ancient Roman texts, are going to engage with Roman ideologies. Indeed, we should by no means shy away from that. Similarly, a textbook that seeks to engage learners by an immersive, historically set narrative, must and ought to present Roman ideologies in a way that is historically grounded. So, it is by no means the case that this should be excised or whitewashed from the text.

That said, LLPSI isn’t an ancient Roman text, it’s a 20th century European textbook. And so, what I want from a textbook is not a blanket re-presentation of ancient Roman ideologies in a way that normalises them for its readers, especially for younger students still developing the facilities to critically read and engage with texts.

As a teacher then, I try to approach these challenges in a number of ways. 

Firstly, I teach students in-language ways of speaking about perspectives. For example, secundum sententiam Iulii, secundum sententiam Medi, etc.. Recognising, for example, that neither Iulius, nor the book’s narratorial voice, portrays Iulius as inhumanus, but that enslaved persons in his household may have a different view, is a valuable step in developing critical distance.

Secondly, I won’t hesitate in class to stop and offer English-language commentary on what the text is saying. Rather than sanitise the portrayal of, e.g., slavery, we generally ought to go the other direction and speak frankly, but appropriately, about the reality of slavery as an ancient world phenomenon.

Thirdly, it’s appropriate to give students external readings that reflect and engage with scholarship on the range of these topics. This is part of training students not merely in language, but in the scholarly world of classical studies. 

Fourthly, we ought to appreciate the way that the text itself contains the seeds of its own destruction. This grows as you read on. In XII Iulius’ children question why the Romans are fighting the Germani, and Marcus points out that the Germani are defending their patria. To which Iulius’ reply sed patria nostra pulchrior est quam illōrum! Atque Germānī hominēs barbarī sunt echoes unconvincingly. This is further extended in XXXIII where Aemilius’ adopts a Tibullan perspective on war and militarism . Similarly, Aemilia’s growing witty repartée with Iulius provide a challenge to his perspective, as does the Medus’ narrative on his own enslavement in chapter XXXII.

GregoryMuch of what I wanted to say on this topic I have already said in my response to Dr. Owens (Part 2B), but I would like to echo what Seumas has said about teaching students about perspectives. There has been a long tradition of teaching students, explicitly or implicitly, that the Romans were somehow an inherently superior culture. How some of that language and ideology has made it into both instructional materials such as textbooks as well as promotional materials for “why study Latin” has rightly been the topic of much discussion in recent years. We can all agree on the magnitude of the influence of the Romans, but the moral implications of that influence is clearly a subjective matter and something I endeavor to leave up to the students to decide for themselves as much as possible. As I said in Part 2B, I feel it is my job to give students as complete a picture of the society under study as I can, give them the skills to analyze texts, and then allow them to make up their own minds about what they feel about the Romans and their ideas, rather than be some sort of “cheerleader” for the Romans or Roman cultural attitudes. 

Therefore, I agree wholeheartedly with and equally practice the four steps laid out by Seumas above – namely, teaching students about perspectives, relaying to them the dark sides of Roman culture as much as whatever achievements they are customarily credited with, giving students quality external readings from secondary sources, from day 1, but especially as the get further along in their study, and finally, highlighting the ways in which LLPSI itself already calls Roman ideologies into question, particularly in many of the supplementary readings.

2. Centering of Roman elites

Seumas: While much of what students may go on to read in ‘classics’ is the product of, and centered on, Roman elites, again we ought to question what perspective it presents in a language textbook to begin by centring and norming Roman elites as LLPSI does. While we might wish that LLPSI did more in this respect, we as educators can do more. Firstly, we can discuss the lives of the non-central characters – what would it be like to live as an enslaved person in Iulius’ household. What of Albinus, Lydia, Lepidus, Dorippa, etc.. In this, the Colloquia Personarum is a particularly helpful supplement.

Secondly, we can go beyond the textbook, to the range of sources (literary and non-) that attest to the lives of non-elites. Indeed, I would argue, we cannot understand Roman elites appropriately if we do not understand the world around them, the world in which they were elites.

We may also appreciate the fact, again, that the book itself complicates the centering of Iulius. As Gregory pointed out in part 2, Iulius appears as a less and less likeable ‘bonus dominus’ as the book goes on, whereas Medus’ tale of escape from enslavement takes on a positive role. Again, there is space in teaching to question all the characters of our text, discuss their choices, their life situations, and the mores that motivate their actions, to better understand ancient Romans, and ourselves, in the medium of Latin.

Gregory: This has been an enormous area of growth for me in the ten years that I have been teaching Latin, as I likewise was made to believe by my preparation that the “canon” was pretty much all we had from antiquity, which is not at all true, and that any attempt to bring other voices into the conversation was essentially a waste of time, which is even more false. Again, as Seumas says, bringing in the supplementary texts is one important way to address this, as Orberg did already attempt to broaden the perspective of the main text in them. While they of course often carry the same world view of the same author who wrote the main text, there is a concerted effort, as much for storyline as anything else, to bring in the voices of the other characters in the book. So, for example, in the Colloquium Personarum for Chapter V the enslaved Davus is faced with a moral dilemma when he runs into the escaped Medus in the temple in Tusculum. Should he inform Iulius or let Medus escape? Though the Latin is very basic, the underlying question of what is “property” and who or what can belong to whom in the ensuing conversation between Medus and Davus is anything but and exploring this with students is a great way to do what Seumas described in #1 – ask students, e.g. “secundum Davum, estne Medus servus Iulii?” (“according to Davus, is Medus the slave of Iulius?”)

Another thing I have done with my curriculum, where I have lots of contact hours with my students, is to insert modern Latin novellas, ancient inscriptions, and other, lesser known ancient Roman texts between certain chapters of LLPSI to highlight the themes and culture aspects under study. Again, a major weakness of many Classics programs is the false projection of “Roman attitudes” as if a unitary, unchanging, completely knowable thing when, of course, “Romans” (even if we were to confine ourselves only to elite Roman men, which we definitely should not) existed in a huge variety of geographical locations across a span of over a thousand years. Bringing in these other perspectives via other texts helps highlight this important difference between “Roman attitudes” (as in the expressed opinions of a relatively few elite men between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE) and the complex reality of the the beliefs and opinions, expressed or implied, of thousands of men and women from all ranges of social standings from all across the Roman Empire, as revealed in something like the strange epitaph of Alia Potestas. Again, the goal is to give students as complete a picture as possible, so we are not throwing out the perspectives of Roman elites, but rather no longer allowing them to speak for all ancient Romans by instead letting some other less famous Romans speak for themselves.

3. Violence

Seumas: Personally, I have not had a student who has voiced discomfort with the familial violence in LLPSI. I think we do well to recognise and acknowledge that (a) the kind of familial violence between siblings, and the corporal punishment of children, is relatively contextual to both ancient Rome, and to mid-20th century Europe; (b) the reality of child-directed violence in ancient Rome was likely very often worse; (c) here, and in other textbooks, this kind of violence occurs in the context of a comedic tradition.

All that said, I as an educator need to recognise that I might have students, especially those who have suffered domestic violence and abuse, who will find this material difficult, triggering, or similar. Especially if I, or fellow learners, make light of it. For my part, I mostly teach adults, and this shapes my own treatment of this material. Again, it’s not a matter of wanting to sanitise the past, but to consider how and how best to approach such themes.

I think it’s also worth stopping and pointing out that Ørberg’s pedagogical choices somewhat force this. The genitive case is introduced in the context of enslaver and enslaved persons. The accusative as direct complement of a transitive verb is introduced with one sibling hitting another. The subjunctive of indirect command is introduced by Iulius severely ordering around his coloni. These power relations are endemic to the introduction of grammar points, when they needn’t have been.

Gregory: Likewise, I have never had a student specifically say that the violence in LLPSI bothered them, only other teachers. However, that is not by any means a fair sample since the very dynamic of me as the adult teacher of children from whom they receive a grade makes it somewhat less likely that they would voice this kind of complaint, unless I specifically asked them about it – something I may do anonymously in the future to get a better understanding of how they feel about the content of the book overall. As Seumas says, it’s not about sanitising the material – indeed, I feel it would be a grave mistake in the other direction to pretend that violence was not a part of daily life in Ancient Rome. Rather, how can we as teachers ensure that we are not sending subtle messages to our students that we condone or endorse that violence? I don’t have all the answers, nor do I pretend to, but I do think it is an important question to keep in mind at all times.

As to how to address it, especially given the pedagogical choices Orberg made, I have some ideas. For example, instead of introducing the genitive largely via relationships of enslavement, I would significantly decrease that part of chapter II (though probably not eliminate entirely since it is representative of how Roman enslavers conceptualized the relationship) and instead replace it with an earlier introduction of Diodorus, the local school teacher who appears in chapter 15, as the magister discipulorum (“teacher of the students”) and the children as discipuli Diodori (“students of Diodorus”). I already do this in my own classroom with my own students. Likewise, I teach the accusative early on via classroom commands like “aperi librum!” (“open the book!”) and “claude ianuam!” (“close the door!”) and indirect commands in a similar fashion e.g. “magister Dianae imperat ut ianuam claudat” (“the teacher orders Diana to close the door”). We still read the examples as they appear in the book, but since students have already heard these constructions in other meaningful contexts, we don’t need to linger on these passages or unnecessarily use them in practice exercises for the sake of repetition.

4. The sexist portrayal of women. 

Gregory: I already covered this pretty thoroughly in my response to Dr. Owens (Part 2B), so I suggest you go back and read what I wrote there. But I will reiterate that the sexist portrayal is largely a result of the authorial choice to center one imaginary elite family and their habits and customs, when, in fact, we know that the realities of both elite and non-elite women often varied wildly. With the help of resources like the books Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome by I. M. Plant, The Worlds of Roman Women by Raia, Luschnig, and Sebesta, Skye Shirley’s “Women Writing Latin” class, Project Nota’s work in increasing the accessibility of women authored texts from various ages and contexts of Latin, I’ve been able to systematically revamp my curriculum to ensure that women’s voices are not excluded from the curriculum at any level. I already gave the example of what I did to give a more accurate picture of the education of women and girls as I teach chapter XV, and here is a full unit that I do centered on Ellie Arnold’s excellent novella Cloelia and using the Fabulae Syrae that accompany chapter XXVI of LLPSI.

Seumas: I don’t know that I would say much more. For my part, one can and ought to (a) acknowledge the historical constraints on women’s lives that did mean that for many, for the most part, their spheres of life were confined to family, children, etc., (b) recognising that does not obviate the need to recognise and acknowledge that this wasn’t true for all women and in all ways, as well as the fact that clearly ancient women were human beings of full dignity, with their own thoughts, who communicated and acted as agents, not merely as dependents. The fact that so many of our sources fail to see it that way is no reason for a textbook to normalize that view. (c) Doing so doesn’t necessarily diminish or denigrate in any way the value we may place upon domestic affairs, marriage, child-rearing. (d) One really can do all that, and then still go on and make use of the sources we do have, as you point out, to examine and portray the realities of other women, beyond the narrow constraints that LLPSI mostly presents.

5. Everyone depicted as “white”

Seumas: I would begin my comments here by recognising that ‘white’ is a socially-constructed category of relatively recent history, but it’s also inescapable now because it has been constructed, primarily in the USA, but by various processes to other colonial spaces. This, and the way that the reception of classical antiquity has functioned and continues to function in many places, to situate classical Rome and Greece as ‘precursors’ to a constructed historical trajectory of Western Europe as White, necessitates that we think critically and constructively. We can and should do all this, while simultaneously acknowledging that ‘white’ was not a functional category for the ancient Romans, that racism and prejudice existed in ancient Rome, but did not operate, necessarily, along the same lines or in the same ways that it does today, and that simplistic accounts serve no one well.

All this said, the text of LLPSI contains more hints of ethnic diversity than may be at first apparent. It is clear that numerous of the slaves are Greek, as we might expect. Davus, per the Fabellae Latinae, is a Briton. Syra and Syrus are almost certainly Syrian, and so on. We might also wish that our text explored this a little more.

However, when the accompanying illustrations appear, particularly in the colourized editions, to perpetuate a notion of Rome as white, we ought also here stop and raise questions. 

Practically, the best way to address this seems to me to provide outside materials, either scholarship or publicly facing (yet still scholarly) materials that both provide a more complete picture, as well as introduce and educate students into the ways in which classical reception has, and continues to be, complicit in white supremacy.

Gregory: Seumas has already said it all pretty well. I will only add that just because something is a social construct, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have real consequences. Representation matters and if we allow the utterly false narrative that the Romans were somehow the “white” ancestors of “Western Civilization” to persist, we will be doing a great disservice to all our students of all backgrounds. Since I took over at my school 10 years ago I have watched my program triple in size (from 85 to 251 students) and go from 22% students of color (compared to 28% school-wide) to 48.5% students of color (compared to 35% school-wide). Though I can’t prove it and I know correlation does not equal causation, I can’t help but think that mine and my colleague John Walsh’s willingness to approach this and other the issues head-on has been part of that growth and transformation of our program.

6. Christian overtones

Gregory: The Christian sub-story is in fact one of the few places in the main narrative where we do unambiguously hear a woman sharing her ideas outside of stereotypical so-called “women’s issues,” as Lydia tries to teach Medus about Christianity and it is one of the most interesting parts of the whole narrative. And, based on what we know of the early spread of Christianity, it seems quite reasonable that a 2nd century freedwoman in Rome may become invested in it, though there is much else about her character that is left unexplained. I personally don’t think the limited Christian content is a reason one shouldn’t be able to teach this text, but, as I pointed out in Part 2 and 2B, this is highly dependent on the context you teach in and I trust the judgement of my colleagues. So I don’t know that I would change anything about this and I think academic discussion of early Christianity should be a part of any Latin curriculum. I would however, add some more traditional Roman religion into the narrative as well. Why not show us Iulius and Aemilia worshipping the Lares in the atrium of their home? Or perhaps a public sacrifice in the Forum of Tusculum? Maybe Lydia and Medus could encounter the large Jewish community in Rome at that time? Again, there are obviously constraints to any book and some things will necessarily be left out, but these posts were about ideals, so I think we are allowed to wish for more. In the meantime, as for how to approach this issue with students, like with all the other issues cited above, it’s often just a question of giving additional context and supplementing with more external texts, things like Pliny’s letters can add context about early Christianity from the Roman point of view, and Gellius, Cicero, and novellas like Vanderpool’s Augury is for the Birds and Sacri Pulli can pull provide compelling material about aspects of polytheistic Roman religion at a variety of levels.

Seumas: Personally, and aware that I write this as a Christian, I don’t find the Christian elements in LLPSI particularly objectionable. I am aware that some people do, and this plays into broader questions of role and representation of religion in secular teaching spaces. Some people do find, and have expressed, that especially in chapter XXVIII it appears that the text supports Christianity through Lydia’s explicit proselytism, and the course of events in ch XVI, where Medus’ mouth, about to pray to Neptune, is swamped by a wave, while the storm abates apparently in response to Lydia’s prayer.

In my view, the text presents an opportunity for two kinds of discussion with students, and engagement rather than retreat from religious topics, especially in a pluralist civic space, is the better way forward. Firstly, both Lydia, and the representatives of Greek and Roman religion here (Medus, and the gubernator), experience the same set of natural phenomena – a storm, and their deliverance from it. How they interpret it is quite different though – Lydia attributes their rescue to the Christian God’s interference, the gubernator responds with a defence of traditional Roman religion. Secondly, we ought to engage more vigorously with religion in its ancient forms, because religion was so vital to their experience of human existence. In this regard, as we mentioned in part two, LLPSI sadly does us some disservice – there is very little of lived Roman religion in the book, no mention of the lares, no mention of Iulius and his household, or anyone else really, engaging in religious practice. We might also take note that there is no Jewish presence in FR, another historical omission that ought not be overlooked.

Lydia’s character, too, raises opportunities for discussion. While I find her the least plausible character in the book (a seemingly unattached Greek (freed?)woman living in Rome without any apparent work or relationships, who elopes with her pagan fugitive boyfriend to Greece at the drop of a hat?), it ought to nonetheless lead us to discussions of the place and nature of ancient Christianity in the late empire. The often chronological snobbery of focusing on the narrow slice of the Late Republic and Early Principate, leaves many students simply importing their present experiences and notions of Christianity onto the early centuries CE, and thus ill-equipped to historically engage with one of the most formative influences on european and mediterranean history since. The antidote here is not less religion, as if we could sanitize the ancient world of religion to fit modern notions of secularity, but more, to present the panoply of ancient religious life.

What’s wrong with LLPSI, part 3 – Addressing the language challenges

In this post Gregory Stringer and I offer our reflections and some of our strategies in responding to the challenges and difficulties presented in part one of this series. As we teach in two different contexts (online synchronous small-group instruction of adults for myself, a US High School for Gregory), we have framed this post with our answers separate but interacting. In our final fourth part, we will discuss in more depth issues related to post two, content.

1. Assuming that once you understand it once, you know it forever.

Seumas: One of the maxims I apply, which I’m pretty sure I got from J.S. Bailey, and now repeat freely to students is, “if you don’t know it, you just need to see at least one more time”. It’s okay not to have learnt things, or to have forgotten things, or not to know them ‘on the spot’. Helping students let go of that, and recognise that knowing might be a binary thing (know/not-know) in that moment, but it’s not a binary thing overall. ‘Knowing’ Latin, or even any discrete element of Latin, is a complex phenomenon, and as long as students keep going, they will learn these things.

Gregory: Perhaps the most important maxim I apply is one of the first things I learned from my mentor Jacqui Carlon in my Latin Pedagogy program at UMASS Boston:  “Just because you taught it, doesn’t mean they learned it.” In fact, I think this is perhaps the biggest problem with the grammar-translation method, though LLPSI or CI-based instruction is not immune from it either, the (mis-)conception that as soon as the book or teacher has introduced a word or a structure and given the students a few exercises to work toward mastery, that everyone should know it thereafter, when of course, language acquisition is neither linear nor, as Seumas says, binary in that way. LLPSI generally does a much better job of recycling vocab and structures than something like Wheelock’s or Shelmerdine, but of course what ultimately “clicks” and “sticks” for students is highly individualized. As for how to deal with that, as Seumas implies, moving away from what I call “gotchya” pedagogy, where we put students on the spot to name grammatical structure (a case, a tense, etc.), especially those we’ve just recently taught and/or haven’t looked at in a long time, is one important way to help students let go of a lot of insecurity. For most students, that sort of thing only serves to make them anxious (raise the ‘affective filter’) and make it even more difficult for them to acquire the structures we are trying to teach.

2. Grammar driven curriculum

Seumas: So, for my part, I just lean into it. If you’ve got a book and you’re committed to working with it, just go with and work around that one issue. Almost any textbook is going to be sequenced in one way or another. In the case of this book, yes it’s not ideal, but you can walk to mitigate some of those issues directly and indirectly. The only alternative, really, is to adopt a non-grammar curriculum, but then you need to have a different organising principle. Which, I think, is also a totally fine approach. E.g., you can choose to untextbook, build your sequencing around vocabulary alone, and unshelter grammar entirely, but then you’re going to have to either not use LLPSI, or use LLPSI in a quite different way – as a supplementary book students can read (probably at a relatively late stage, given the vocab restraints)

Gregory: I likewise lean into it, but, as I said above, I’ve largely moved away from the “gotchya” pedagogy, where we look for particularly unusual or “tricky” grammar, case usage etc. and then either cold call (the worst) or ask for volunteers (slightly better) to essentially guess what’s going on. Instead, for all grammatical structures, I practice something called “spiral teaching” where I do formally introduce a concept when LLPSI does (at the end of each chapter, after many meaningful encounters), but then I don’t hold students immediately responsible for “knowing” it. Rather, I intentionally return to these concepts periodically and in the meantime I reassure students who don’t yet “get it” that “the bus is coming back around” – as in, students will see the ablative absolute or the jussive subjunctive or whatever many more times during their Latin career, so it’s completely ok if some of them still don’t “get it” even after the initial introduction and having seen it several times. I think much of it has to do with us as teachers just relaxing and letting go, along the lines of Lightbrown and Spada’s concept of “get it right in the end.” It’s completely ok if beginning and intermediate and even advanced students can’t parse every word, as long as they are continuing to read and acquire new vocabulary, with the understanding that if they stick with it, every student can get there eventually and we should build our curricula and our assessments accordingly. In my experience, there are many students who struggle with abstracting about grammar in the beginner and intermediate levels (especially the younger the students are), but as time goes on it begins to “click” with them. But when we structure a curriculum wherein they must “prove” their mastery of grammar in order to move to the next level, we effectively force out a lot of students along the way who might otherwise have stuck with it. So in the end, it’s ok to teach a grammar syllabus as an organizing principle, as long as we don’t expect that students will “know” the grammar just because we’ve taught it, as Carlon says.

(By the way, if you are teaching in a department where “gotchya” grammar pedagogy is nevertheless part of what is expected of students and so you don’t want them to be totally unprepared for it, instead of doing the same to them yourself, much better would be to use that time and effort to reinforce the basics and only cold call or take volunteers for what is usual and then you as the teacher continue to point out what is unusual until such time that a construction has been seen enough to be reasonably confident that at least several students will be able to identify it, then, and only then take volunteers.)

3. Vocab and volume

Seumas: There’s no easy solution to the question of vocabulary and volume. In an ideal world, students read texts in which unknown items (a) are only a small percentage of all items (e.g. the 95-98% should be comprehensible, 5-2% new), and (b) vocabulary items get repeated frequently enough, both immediately and in an ongoing way, to develop enough exposures. If you keep those two constraints – low density of new items plus significant repetition of new items, then you must keep increasing the volume of text students interact with.

For my part, I wouldn’t change the amount of vocab in Familia Romana, or really want to lengthen the text itself. The solution then is to find other ways to increase the volume of text/speech students encounter. On the reading side, it means reading the supplements, reading novellas, getting students to read anything they can. On the spoken side, it means making sure class time happens in Latin with lots of exposure to words in communicative contexts.

Gregory: I agree with Seumas that there is no easy answer. And even though LLPSI does a much better job of recycling its 1800 vocabulary words than any other book (for comparison, Wheelock introduces about 800 words, more than half of which only appear once!), it’s still ultimately too many new words per line of Latin. But I think the volume of vocab is definitely more of a problem for students trying to use LLPSI on their own or in classes where a lot of time in class is spent on explicit grammar instruction. For my students, we build in quite a lot of repetition, as Seumas says, via reading all the supplements, reading novellas, and doing speaking and writing exercises that use the words in even more compelling contexts. I also do a lot of what I call “sewing vocabulary seeds” via pre-reading vocabulary building games like Quizlet Live, Gimkit, and Blooket. Those things on their own won’t do a ton to build long term vocabulary acquisition, but when used as “previewing” for the vocab students are about to encounter in meaningful use, they seem to lead to greater uptake of new words as we read. Crucially, I do all of that vocabulary work via Latin to Latin synonyms, antonyms, and short definitions (rather than via English) which has the dual effect of recycling even more of the earlier vocab, while also helping students move away from conceptualizing Latin as merely English in code. Finally, LLPSI was meant to be read and re-read, not just decoded once and then tossed aside. One way to get students to engage with the text multiple times without losing too much time is by having them listen to recordings of the text. Of course, the more times students encounter a text, the more comprehensible it will be, however, there are also diminishing returns over time because upon each encounter, the input becomes less compelling. A technique that I have found to be very effective is having the students listen to a high quality, well intoned recording of the reading once or twice without the text in front of them before looking at it. Then, have the students listen a third time with the text in front of them. If you’ve been doing a good amount of pre-reading with them, this is often enough for students to understand the whole reading without stopping and parsing or looking up a single word.

  1. Some grammatical features come too late

Seumas: While getting away from a grammar sequence altogether is not feasible while using LLPSI as a main teaching tool, it can be tweaked. To pick up some specific examples: I bring forward some things, e.g. I introduce the 1st and 2nd person forms early, by doing personalised questions early on (habesne tu villam? egone? villam non habeo!). Other things I try to at least subtly introduce without fanfare. e.g., I’ll use a few tenses here and there in spoken form, and flag them with hand gestures, temporal adverbs, etc.. Likewise with hortatory and jussive subjunctives.

Gregory: I believe a lot of this concern is alleviated if we move away from ideas of linear acquisition and “easy” and “hard” grammar – each book has its own grammar sequencing based on a variety of factors, including statistical frequency, deviation from structures in the students’ presumed L1, etc. but this easy/hard concept is generally lurking somewhere and that is no less true for LLPSI. To his credit, Ørberg did seemingly try to intuit an “order of acquisition” based on other languages, but e.g., he holds off on complex conditionals until the end of the book seemingly because of an assumption that they are “hard.” But there really isn’t much strong evidence for some grammar being intrinsically “more difficult” for students to acquire or, even if it were true, that withholding “difficult” structures is the best strategy. In fact, the opposite may be true, since, like vocabulary, students simply need more meaningful exposure to these structures in order to acquire them. So like Seumas, much of this I approach by bringing things forward and using them with the students in spoken and written contexts long before LLPSI introduces them, and doing so in compelling, meaningful contexts. So, for example, a “speed-friending” activity where students answer scaffolded questions like “if you could be any superhero, which superhero would you be?” can be a great way to introduce students to contrary to fact conditionals long before Capitulum XXXIII but without needing to explain all the underlying grammar. (e.g. give the students the format “si tu quilibet superheros esse posses, quis esses? Ego essem…” with some common choices added Femina Mirabilis, Vir Ferreus, Femina Felina, Vir Araneus, etc.). Likewise, narrating the previous day’s story in the perfect and imperfect (Quintus arborem ascendebat et tum subito ramus fractus est et Quintus de arbore cecidit!) is a great way to get students used to hearing these two tenses long before chapters XVIII-XIX.