πόρνος and πόρνη in 1 Corinthians

Why is πόρνη translated as ‘prostitute’, but πόρνος is not?

This question arose on the sinking-ship of Twitter, and since I was tagged, I started to think about it. I don’t have a very in-depth answer, in that I’m not a lexicographer, nor I have really done a very very deep dive on the question, but here are some initial thoughts. I am very happy to receive feedback, pushback, or any -back on this post.

Just setting aside the 1 Cor 5; 6 question, we are dealing with the relation of at least 5 words (certainly more, but at least 5 in tight focus): πόρνος, πόρνη, πορνεύω, πορνεία, πέρνημι

Working backwards a little, πέρνημι is a verb that tends to mean things like “sell as a slave”, and so perhaps more generally to turn things into marketable goods. This seems to be the verbal origin of πόρνος and πόρνη, and you can see how this applies to sex-slavery in particular – we are primarily dealing with women trafficked for sex.

So when you come to πόρνη, generally speaking you are looking at a noun that denotes someone trafficked for sex. No real distinction is made about who is doing the trafficking, but I would be pretty hesitant to suggest that a πόρνη was generally considered to be in control and agency of their own prostitution – that doesn’t fit ancient moral codes, views of women, or social and economic practices of prostitution. There were independent sex workers in antiquity, but for the most part these seem to have been women who were already sex workers who managed to obtain freedom, and continued on in the same trade. A woman who did have the freedom and economic means to not sell sexual services, and who then chose to do so, would fall under general Graeco-Roman society’s opprobium, because it’s seen as self-degredation, whereas enslaved women in sex-work are seen as degraded (by others), the social status being degredation in either case.

So when we come along to the masculine counterpart term, πόρνος we have a much more complex set of questions to deal with. The lexica tend to supply three main senses: (i) a [male] prostitute, (ii) an active or passive participant in male homosexual activity, (iii) a ‘fornicator’, and then metaphorically (iv) an idolator.

Sense (iv) really applies to biblical literature where adultery and fornication is set up as a metaphors for spiritual unfaithfulness. (i) is the male version of πόρνη. Generally male prostitutes were young males, with male clients. (ii) is used primarily in a pejorative sense, by extension of the fact that male sex-workers were young and generally serviced male clients. That leaves sense (iii).

Which is where we probably need to talk about πορνεύω and πορνεία. The verb πορνεύω seems to be used in the middle to refer to selling one’s sex services, and in the active its usage is a little less clear; the active seems like a later usage, and requires a bit more investigation than I’ve had time for so far.

πορνεία though, clearly is related to all these words, but I do agree with the general idea that it comes to be used as a catch-all term for “all forms of sexual immorality”, which is a pretty large set of practices, and it depends upon what speakers/communities consider to be immoral. If you’re in a community whose normative view of sexual behaviour is with a sexually faithful marriage, then any departure from that, whether it involves the transfer of money or not, could be considered πορνεία. We would also need to consider a bit more broadly the question of whether sex with enslaved persons “counts”, or is considered indifferently, and then how much this broader idea of πορνεία weighs back in to usages of πόρνη and πόρνος.

Alright, so this is me thinking aloud basically, and now I’m going to loop back to the original question – why do translators treat πόρνη in 1 Cor 6(:15) as a profession, but in 5:11 as a descriptor of sexual immorality? Let me suggest briefly then why this is a plausible reading and translation strategy:

1. πόρνη is established as a term to refer to female sex-workers, very often trafficked women. The noun stands with this meaning, it’s not transferring over a more general meaning from πορνεία to a women who is engaged in sexual immorality more generally.

2. πόρνος is a more difficult to pin down term, its more precise meaning differs more in contexts. Here, in the context of a vice list of descriptors of behaviour rather than occupations, I think it would strain our understanding of the text to suppose that in the midst of behavioural terms, πόρνος should be understood as an occupation.

Gender and translation into Ancient Greek: a conundrum

Lately I have been listening to Ursula Le Guin’s classic novel The Left Hand of Darkness, which portrays the world of Gethen, populated by a version of humans that are androgynous most of the time, except for a period once a month (kemmer) where they become male or female. It’s a good novel, and it’s a concept that is explored with rich texture and thought. However, one of the criticisms that Le Guin always endured was the choice to use the pronoun ‘he’ throughout for these androgynous humans. In a follow-up story in the same world in 1975, “Winter’s King”, she choose to instead use ‘she’ throughout. The choice of “they”, I understand, Le Guin felt was too confusing.

Of course, being who I am I wondered what would happen if you were translating this text into ancient Greek, and this strikes me as offering up a particular conundrum. I’m of the view that Ancient Greek’s gender system basically breaks down to:

Masculine = positively marks a person (a sentient animate being)

Feminine = positively marks a person as female

Neuter = categorises something as a person or non-person

That needs a lot more exploration and explanation, especially I don’t mean that the grammatical gender that nouns have, implies the above. But when you use modifiers, articles and adjectives, and you select a grammatical gender for them, this is the kind of implication. You can read a much smarter discussion of this here: Mussies 1971 on Grammatical Gender.

Now, if we were to translate LHoD into Ancient Greek, what would we do, what should we do? Here’s the question- I think that by Ancient Greek’s own patterns, you would default to masculine pronouns, articles, adjectives throughout for discussing the humans of Gethen, because they are marked as persons. I think you’d only use feminine modifiers and determiners to refer to a Gethen human during kemmer when they took on female biological traits.

Except, and here’s the conundrum part, most contemporary readers of Ancient Greek have been habituated to think of gender in several modern languages (including English), and in their reading of Ancient Greek, so as to treat masculine as marked for maleness, the way English ‘he’ has come to be marked for exclusivity rather than inclusivity, and so a contemporary reader of an Ancient Greek translation of this sort is probably going to read it in the same way that contemporary readers of Le Guin’s English novel read the “he” choice as unsatisfactorily gendering the androgynous humans of Gethen. Which, if you were going to cater to the sensitivities of contemporary readers of AG fiction (small group that they are), you would be left with a set of translation questions similar to Le Guin – do you then choose to use feminine modifiers as a reverse of standard practice, do you use neuter ones and risk the de-personalising effect that tends to have by turning persons into non-persons, or do you attempt some creative reimagining of the language to create a 4th gender category (the way some Latin speakers use a non-binary set of endings in contemporary Latin)? Or, do you just translate it with masculine modifiers and tell modern readers to learn to read them as marking personhood not maleness exclusively?

Syra Surda : a simple technique for forced indirect discourse

Syra, quae male audit, id quod medicus dīcit audīre nōn potest; itaque interrogat: “quid dīcit medicus?” Aemilia (in aurem Syrae): ‘Medicus puerum dormīre’ dīcit.”

So, in Chapter 11 of Familia Romana, Ørberg uses a simple but effective technique to introduce indirect speech (oratio obliqua, or as I prefer to teach them, clauses acting as nouns) to the learner. Syra can’t hear well, and so has to have the doctor’s comments repeated to her. This device or trope invites endless repetition, moving between direct and indirect speech.

The other week I inflicted the same technique on my Greek optatives class. As one of the optional uses for the optative is indirect speech in secondary sequence, you can generate infinite (though possible boring) content by taking any text, and fronting it with some kind of Greek equivalent, e.g. ἡ Σύρᾱ εἶπεν ὅτι…. You can do this transformation on direct speech in dialogues, of course, or even on a third person narrative, by reporting sentences as the speech of the author/narrator. You can even do this to textbook content, to keep it easy:

«ὁ Μῑ́νως οἰκεῖ ἐν τῇ Κρήτῃ· βασιλεὺς δέ ἐστι τῆς νήσου.»

τί εἶπεν ἡ Μυρρίνη;

ἡ Μυρρίνη εἶπεν ὅτι ὁ Μῑ́νως οἰκοίη ἐν τῇ Κρήτῃ, βασιλεὺς δὲ εἴη τῆς νήσου.

CEFR musings

In light of last week’s discussions on twitter and then here, I ended up doing a bunch of reading and reflection about CEFR things…

Not that you have the time, but sitting down and reading some of the extended documentation on CEFR scales is not an unprofitable activity. I think in a lot of discussions we drop CEFR assessments as macro stand-ins for proficiency, without really paying attention to what they are meant to mean. In particular, the CEFR standards also recognise that different skills also have sub-elements. E.g. just in terms of speaking you can rate how a person speaks in terms of fluency : how quickly they speak, how and why they hesitate, how long pauses are, and turn-taking; accuracy : how consistently they use grammar and vocabulary correctly; range : in terms of both breadth of vocabulary, and also breadth of structures they use; phonology. People can be better at some sub-elements, and worse at others. It’s not monolithic. Proficiency is a multi-factor, multi-faceted thing.

Secondly, I was doing some musing on how long it takes to achieve various levels and what is required. I spent a bit of time looking at the cross-language estimated for various European languages, which tend to break them down into “Instructed Hours” and then “Additional Hours”. These estimates tend to come in around 1000 instructed hours to reach C2, and an equivalent number of extra hours.

I broke that down with some examples as:

Option A: 4 years of college, 2 x 12 week semesters, 2.5hrs instruction a day, 4 days a week.

Option B: 5 years of SeumasU, 40 weeks a year, 5 classes every term (e.g. 5 contact hours a week)

Option C: Live-in immersion, if you could take 52 weeks of 5 days a week, 4 hours of class + 4 hours minimum extra study.

I also often refer to an article in the Foreign Language Annals [1] , “Setting Evidence-Based Language Goals”, by Senta Goertler, Angelika Kraemer, and Theresa Schenker, which looked at benchmarking in the college German program at MSU. The research is interesting on a number of levels, but not least that they place some revised benchmarks for levels of college study:

First semester A1/A2 (IL)
Second semester A1/A2 (IL)
Third semester A2 (IM)
Fourth semester A2 (IM)
Third year B1 (IH)
Fourth year B1/B2 (more B2) (AL)
Graduate classes C1 (AH) C1 (AH)


It’s also worth noting, if you don’t know, that there does exist a set of CEFR-aligned tests for Ancient Greek (https://www.languagecert.org/en/language-exams/classical-greek) covering A1, A2, B1, for “Reading and Language Use”. The sample materials are worth looking at. The A1 vocab list is very long in my opinion, full of things that aren’t that common in Ancient Greek teaching materials. It costs money, and it probably needs to be done through online proctoring, which I don’t really believe in.

There are no vocab estimates or lists for CEFR standards, they don’t function like that. There are some estimates out there. I imagine it differs by language. Something on order of 10,000 words for an active C2 vocabulary. That’s quite large by any standard. More like 5000 for C1, which is closer to the active vocabulary of a native speaker without tertiary education. Greek, I think, has a smaller core vocabulary, but a larger peripheral vocabulary. Which is why a mastery of a smaller range of words goes further, but also why you never feel like you know all the words.

All this got me thinking in turn about two things:

  1. Could you write Ancient Greek content keyed to CEFR guidelines?

To which the answer is yes. I am doing some experimenting in this area at the moment now, thinking through “okay, a person at A1 is attempting to learn core functional abilities in the language, to cover a certain range of situations and competencies, what is the Ancient Greek needed to do that?”

Don’t expect me to release Ancient Greek for A1 any time soon though…

That said, the amount and volume of material needed to go from A1 to A2, and then A2 to B1, and then B1 to B2, just grows and grows. You need reading material, listening material, watching material, and time spent in live conversation. And more and more of it. A full sequence of material to take you from A1 to C2, we are talking about a minimum of 2000 hrs of content. But really more. So, no, I am not releasing “Seumas’ Course to C2 Mastery in Ancient Greek.”

  1. C2 isn’t unrealistic for PhD graduates in classical languages

I mean, plenty of them aren’t C2, but let’s put it like this – if you do a 3-4 year bachelor degree, and then 7 years for a PhD, that’s 10-11 years you’ve put into higher education. Even if you didn’t do Greek (or Latin or whatever) in school (which I didn’t, by the way), you could very reasonably get to B2 at the end of 4 years, which is often considered functional fluency, and then you have 7 years to reach C2, which is entirely achievable. That suggests to me that it is a methods problem, though it’s not only a methods problem. But PhDs in Ancient Greek could be C2 proficient active users of the language, if we designed our education systems to produce them.

[1] Foreign Language Annals, Vol. 49, Iss. 3, pp. 434–454. © 2016 by American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Should everyone who’s not C2 in Greek just shut up already?

I’m responding to recent twitter Discourse kicked off by @CarolusCarman about whether the push for CI means that we are in favour of sub-par content, and whether it’s okay that the classics world has a bunch of people running around who aren’t truly ‘proficient’ teaching or producing content. This post is a slightly longer-form attempt from me to cover some of the issues.


First, it’s super important, I would say, that we understand that CI is a theoretical concept about how Language is acquired. That learners acquire language by being exposed to comprehensible input. That’s a piece of SLA theory that, in a broad form, is very widely accepted. It’s not a method of teaching.


But a lot of people (and I’m probably guilty of this), talk about CI methods. If we want to be more correct we say “CI based methods”, because what we really mean is “methods of teaching based on an understanding of CI and with an aim of providing learners with lots of exposure to CI”. *How* that is done can vary a lot.


When we talk about the quality of language in CI resources, I think we have in mind 3 variables.

1 Is it correct?

  1. Is it “good”?
  2. Is it complex?


Those three are related but definitely not the same. I think all CI advocates think that input ought to be ‘correct’, by which I mean “recognised as possible and grammatical utterances”. Nobody thinks that ungrammatical Latin or Greek ought to be fed to students as a principle. That said, we need to return to this point later.


The second criterion is much more nebulous. In Latin, people often talk about Latinitas, with a sense of “is this idiomatic Latin that reflects idealised utterances of idealised speakers who have a flavour of Latin“. Latinitas is very hard to judge well, because huge reams of Latin writing through the centuries could be judged as Bad-Latinitas. I do think, however, that we can speak of “more Latinish” and “more Greekish” ways of expressing things, and that this generally is a quality to be striven for. But a lot of the time this is deployed as gate-keeping, elitism, and “if its not Ciceronian, don’t bother me.”


The third criterion is complexity, and here’s where I want to talk about proficiency scales and the like. I think a lot of learners, especially those with a few languages, polyglot interests, etc., have an unhealthy interest in thinks like CEFR and ACTFL proficiency scales, and C2 etc.. Most people do not normally talk, write, or operate at the “C2” level, because most daily language use does not involve highly technical, abstract, complex, or academic language. Nor do CI resources need to have that complexity – by the time most learners are approaching material of that complexity, they don’t need scaled materials anyway. So producers of content for learners do not themselves need to be C2 speakers. That is a myth and a harmful one.


In fact, if we look at global language teaching, there are vast numbers of people teaching other people languages who are not C2. Who are B1, B2, C1, gosh even A2. Would it be better if every single one of those people were a more competent language user? Sure, yep, absolutely. Is it essential? No.


Because you can produce correct and idiomatic language even if your language is limited. For example, take Benjamin Kantor’s first Hebrew Immersion video, in which you learn phrases for “Hello”, “Name”, “What’s your name?” “My name is…” etc.. A person who carefully pays attention to that video, and then uses those phrases in Hebrew correctly, is speaking correct and idiomatic biblical Hebrew. They might know nothing beyond that, but that is high-quality, beginner-level CI content. Would it be great if person A teaching person B knew more than that? Absolutely. Is it necessary if all they are teaching is that tiny set of material? No.


So, now let’s talk about the quality of “CI material” on the Latin market. This has been a perennial debate. Especially around the quality of Latin in the Latin novellas. Let me say that I think almost everybody can agree that some of the novellas contain Latin that is not good ‘Latinitas’, and some of the novellas contain Latin that is unidiomatic or even ungrammatical. That is a real shame. I suspect if you asked 95% of those authors if that’s what they wanted, they would say no.


Personally, I think anyone producing material, especially more permanent resources, has an obligation to seek out external editing. Either beforehand through careful proofing and feedback from others, or in an open-source format (which is what I do – I am happy to release material in draft format and get comments from anybody on the fly, and edit my own work). Latin and Greek teachers tend to be much better at finding others’ faults than at avoiding their own.


The more ephemeral the content, the more forgivable the mistakes. If you’re in a conversation and mis-speak, no one should stop you and correct you. Or even care. Every speaker of every language, even native ones, sometimes has the wrong thing come out of their mouth. Accept that as a fact and move on, because error correction doesn’t help.


Now, specifically the point has been raised about the general proficiency of “CI based teachers” in Latin and Greek, in comparison to modern languages. I think there are several no-brainer points to be made here. Absolutely teachers of modern languages tend, on the whole, to be more competent language users. Why? Simple. It’s much easier to get more competent in a modern language because there exists the opportunity to interact with communities of contemporary speakers, and there is likely a wealth of audio, visual, and print materials. Even for quite a few lesser languages. The more minoritised a language is, the harder this is, but it is still often true. Move to another country for a couple of years, take some classes, interact with speakers, and you can achieve a pretty surprising high level of competency relatively ‘quickly’, because you are investing hours and hours and hours in CI.


You cannot generally do that for Latin and Greek. Yes, opportunities exist, but they are far and few between. Perhaps the most significant option is Vivarium Novum, and Polis Institute. The former, which is held up by many as this shining light – well, let’s be clear that full-time year-long options there are sexist and ageist – you need to be a young male; as well as be willing to abide by their particularist vision of secular classical western humanism. You don’t need to agree to it, but it shapes their community values.


I want to circle back around to some specific points that CarolusCarman has made, some of them with a bit of attitude to them.


  1. Do we really believe that C2 proficiency is necessary to teach accurate and correct Latin/Greek?


Honestly, I don’t. Plenty of people in the world right now are learning English from non-native teachers who aren’t C2, and they are learning English. They’re not even going to speak to native English speakers, they’re going to speak to other L2-speakers of English. Plenty of school teachers in the US are teaching languages right now that they are not C2 in. This phenomenon isn’t going away. Yes, it sometimes creates problems. It’s a problem that many teachers of Gaeilge in Irish schools are not even remotely competent speakers of Gaeilge. But, but – you don’t need to be C2 to teach accurate and correct and idiomatic language. That’s just untrue. A person who is B1, B2 can teach a beginner language that is accurate, correct, grammatical, idiomatic. Would it be better if every teacher were more proficient than they currently are? Yes. That’s just a different question though.


  1. Is that in any way pragmatic?


I don’t think it’s at all practical to think that everyone who isn’t C2 should just shut up shop, and not bother until they are C2. Carolus’ presumed solution is that anyone who wants to teach packs themself off to Europe and learns from a true master until they can guarantee they are C2. I think that’s idealistic, elitist, and not even remotely practical. Plenty of teachers right now have graduated from programs, are already employed teaching, have neither the means, nor the time, nor the possiblity to just go off to Europe and study for immersion Greek for 3 years. What are they meant to do? Give up teaching and find another job and forget all about Greek? Where will that leave Greek teaching and learning as a field? Should they give up CI as a principle and just stick to grammar/translation as a methodology because they aren’t perfect speakers? That too is wrong-headed – we know G/T is a flawed method of teaching, so even if you were less than competent as a speaker you would still want to use methods based on CI. The genuine solution to this difficulty is to create as many opportunities and as much (good) material as possible, to help everyone get a little bit better. It’s not to idealise ‘masters’ of the language who live in Europe.


  1. Is the problem that more teachers know about CI than know their language well?


This is thinking about the problem the wrong way. What would be the solution if the problem were this – less teachers knowing about CI? Isn’t that just absurd? Rather, let’s put it this way – more teachers should be better informed by SLA theory and put best practices in language teaching into their own practices, and all teachers should be looking to improve their own language abilities.


  1. Should someone who isn’t C2 dare to (i) teach, (ii) produce publicly available ‘content’, (iii) represent themselves as knowing the language?


I don’t think people who aren’t C2 should proclaim that they are. I also don’t think courses should promise to teach people to a C2 level (because I’m pretty dubious any course out there is doing that, despite the advertising I’ve seen from some European institutions). But I do think the idea that you just need to shut up unless you’re C2, and not teach/write/video/promote is also a form of elitist nonsense. People ought to teach what they know. They also should feel free to produce content, especially if they’re committed to improving the quality of their own content. A mismatched adjective/noun agreement probably isn’t going to kill anyone, let alone ruin their long-term language acquisition.


Let me say, towards closing, that some of @CarolusCarman’s comments seem to suggest that content makers are in it for the money. I honestly find that offensive. (A) almost all content makers are doing it for the love of it, because that’s what drives most creative-content fields, (B) the money to be made from content creation is pretty minimal. Sure, it varies, but no-one is raking in $$$ and living fancy lives of this. Plenty of the novella writers don’t make back their production costs. Of course, there’s a spectrum, but if someone wanted to get into Latin content production to make it rich, they need an appointment with a career’s advisor. It’s a terrible way to make money. (C) it’s not wrong to make money anyway! Let’s not buy into a false discourse that says you have to do it for the love of it otherwise you’re not pure. These people are putting time and effort into producing content, and they’re brave enough to put it out there, knowing that classics-folk have an unhealthy bent towards being nit-picky, critical, pedantic, and elitist. Just scroll through the comments on any Latin/Greek video, novella, or tweet, to see this at work. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care about quality, but most of the comments of correction that I see in the public sphere are not well-intentioned, otherwise they would have been made privately. If you feel the need to comment publicly and correct someone’s Latin or Greek, ask yourself why – 100% it’s about you and not about them.


If there’s a plea here, it’s just this: how about we all strive towards improving our own language, teach within our abilities, create and promote better and better content, and show kindness to ourselves and each others when we, and our language output, isn’t perfect.


Ad Aspera Per Cameras: an online conference

This weekend, I’ll be hosting an online conference on the online teaching of (classical) languages. If you haven’t heard that by now, apologies for not telling you! I thought I would put up a last call for registrations here. It’s On Saturday 15th October, 3-6pm US Eastern Time (New York). You can find out about our excellent range of speakers here:

I’d be so pleased to have you join us, and if you’d like to register, head along to this page and let us know.



Strange Fruit, an ancient Greek Translation

Strange Fruit (original by Abel Meeropol)

(English Below)


καρπὸν τὰ τοῦ νότου ξύλα φέρει ἄτοπον
(ἐπί τε φύλλοις αἷμα, τῇ τε ῥίζῃ αἷμα)
ἀνέμῳ σῶμα αἰωρούμενον μέλαν νότῳ
ἄτοπος τῶν λευκῶν κρεμασθεὶς καρπός 
νόμιον τοῦ ἐσθλοῦ νότου θέαμα
ἐξῳδημένα τε ὄμματα στόμα τε διεστραμμένον
μαγνωλίᾱς εὐωδίᾱ καινή
καιομένης ὀσμὴ σαρκός ἀλέπτη 
καρπὸς τῇδε τοῖς κόραξι δρέπειν
τῷ ὑετῷ συλλέγειν, τῷ ἀνέμῳ ἀνασπᾶν
τῷ ἠελίῳ σήπειν, τῷ ξύλῳ καθιέναι
καρπὸς τῇδε ἄτοπός τε πικρός τε.



Southern trees bear strange fruit,

(Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,)

Black body swinging in the southern breeze,

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.


Pastoral scene of the gallant South,

(The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,)

Scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh,

(And the sudden smell of burning flesh.)


Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,

For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,

Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Psalms: An LXX Devotional Reader

I realise that by now you are mostly used to me starting umpteen projects. Some of those get finished. Some of them are ongoing. And some eventually wither and die due to my lack of impetus. Anyway, none of that deters me, really. I spend my free time working on things that I get passionate about, and if that passion gets sustained to completion, all the better for you and for me.

All of which is to say that I’ve been working away at something else new recently, and I want to share a small glimpse of it. The idea is to produce a Reader’s version of the LXX Psalms, with accompanying devotional commentary and notes. It aims to do three things: (a) combine enough tools and tips in one place for your intermediate and up reader of Greek to read the Psalms with understanding, (b) alongside a framework for understanding the content and theme of each psalm, in a way that makes them more approachable for personal (and corporate) prayer, (c) while giving myself an excuse to diligently read and write about the Psalms in conversation with the great tradition of the church.

Unlike some other things that I’m working away at much more rapidly, I expect this to take a few years to reach completion, and I’m quite okay with that. I’ll post future samples for this to my patreon.

LXX Psalms Dev Reader Sample

re-re-thinking online theological education (part 5: imagining and reimagining)

So, if you’ve read through parts one, two, three, four, you’ll have gathered that I have a lot of criticism of online theological education as a model. In this post I want to push back against myself, and really suggest that there are two key things that are worth thinking through and applying.

Firstly, I think we do need to circle back to the question of who theological education is for. And in this regards, I think the two different populations : (1) those heading into full-time vocational ministry, and (2) a broader group interested in theological education, set up different demands on theological educators. I would posit that generally speaking, the best approach for group 1 remains full-time residential community living and in-person instruction. I don’t think you can do formation of character and spiritual-formation in particular, very well, except through intentional community life. The shift of that type of education to online is a mistake.

I will add certain provisos. I do think that there’s a strong reverse case to be made, where people either involved in or aiming for vocational ministry in their current contexts should not be pulled out of those contexts. In that case there becomes an even stronger onus on the community, ecclesial or otherwise, to be the locus of spiritual formation. Let’s say, for instance, a ministry candidate from a minoritised ethnic group who is deeply embedded in their local ethnic-ecclesial community, and lives pretty far from seminary. It would be better, I propose, for that person to stay put, and be mentored in their context, and access theological education in terms of knowledge and skills, by distance. Preferably through online delivery + residential intensives. This should then become a kind of dialogic process between student, community, and seminary.

Insofar as online actually makes it possible to serve a broader theological education remit, increasing access to students who could not or would not otherwise take theological education, especially in terms of distance or part-time study, I think that’s a different kettle-of-fish. So, I think seminaries probably ought to make a conscious and clear distinction between “here’s our program for those training for congregational ministry, you come live here for 3-4 years, and you do X”, and “here’s our program for anyone else – you do a diploma/degree structure program, over an extended period of time, but this isn’t an equivalent to the other program”.

That said, my second main point is this: do (online) education better. I realise that in ’20 and ’21 it was a scramble for most professors. Everyone had to move online at a moment’s notice, and those who weren’t used to that found themselves balancing (= crushed) by not only the stress of the pandemic, but also the demands of online teaching. But, recorded lectures, static content, etc., will not do the job. If we want online education to be good, it needs investment. That means (a) that institutions and their teachers invest in making it good, and (b) that institutions spend money to make it good. Teachers can’t make it good if their institutions don’t enable and empower them to. Or, they shouldn’t. I know this won’t dissuade some from doing so anyway, but professors shouldn’t be up to 2am creating amazing online resources and investing untold unpaid hours for an institution that doesn’t value them and invest in them.

In my view, doing it better means we need active investment in (i) delivering quality content, (ii) with an active pedagogy that is prepared to do the hard and difficult work of moving beyond presentational and lecture type models, (iii) does not divorce content production from instructor-interaction, (iv) sustains and practices live synchronous interaction of instructor and students. Let me say it again, if online instruction is primarily content you consume, then how is it truly better than reading some books, listening to a free lecture series, or watching youtube tutorials?

I have yet to see an institution, seminary or secular, truly do online education well. I’ve seen plenty doing their best, but I’m waiting to see someone blow me away with an approach that is thought-through, pedagogically informed, and invested-in by the institution.

My third point is a bonus: neo-liberalism will gut seminaries. The massive on-going shift of neo-liberalism in tertiary education has the effect of turning faculty into employees, divesting the bulk of teaching to casualised adjuncts who are shut out of long-term academic careers because they are disposable waste-products of research programs, and treating the institution as a money-making endeavour in which administrators run the show. This is a mistake on every level, and it is bad for everyone except an elite. It shouldn’t be this way in seminaries, but the more that seminaries adopt college/university models, the more they trend in this direction as well. Seminaries need a renewed vision of what they are (a community of faith-scholars gathered around the common pursuit of knowledge seeking and knowledge sharing), and what they do (practice lives of scholarly virtue and inculcate others into the praxis and dogma of their communities). That ultimately means that faculty are the college, which means investing in long-term tenured faculty, as well as divesting themselves of a business model or a model in which administration is actually in charge.


Okay, I think I’m done. Hope you’ve enjoyed this series. If you ever find a college doing online well, let me know!


Read Greek Patristics with me, and make books

This upcoming term (Oct 2022) I’m launching a new class which I’m hoping will become a long running entity. It’s Greek Patristics Readings, and it differs in two important respects from my usual class offerings.

Firstly, unlike the vast majority of my classes, this class isn’t geared towards getting you speaking Greek. Would I love you to speak Ancient Greek? Absolutely. But I also know that’s a big demand, and by running this class more in English, I hope it will open the doors to more students who want to read early Christian theological literature with me.

Secondly, participants in this class will be involved in a project to create Steadman style readers for more patristics texts. If you aren’t familiar, Geoffrey Steadman has done significantly, magnificently valuable work in making Greek and Latin texts available in a format that enables more rapid reading, with vocabulary and commentary on the page with the text. I have previously done a few of these as pdfs, and one small book, but as you can see from the website, I haven’t worked actively on those for quite some time.

Thirdly, as a bonus one might say, I’m running this class at a considerable discount. That’s partly because I will be spending that hour reading patristic Greek whether anybody is in class with me or not, partly because I want to lower the barrier to reading these important texts from early church history as much as I reasonably can. So come along, this coming term we’ll be reading Ignatius of Antioch.

re-re-thinking online theological education (part 4: What happens when we go online?)

This is part four of our series reflecting on online theological education. In our previous instalments we considered what for, who for, what is education, and who are our communities. Now I want to turn to “what happens when we go online”
Distance education has existed for a good while. Hans Ørberg’s famous Lingua Latina course was written for independent study, mailed out to students across Europe. I took Latin as a distance student in the 90s, and that involved receiving course booklets in the post, and snail-mailing in assignments to the university. In the 2000s, at least as I observed it, things began to change. LMSs became a thing, more content became available online. In 2006 I was taking an online university course that was recorded audio lectures and an online tutorial hour, with an online exam. By 2009 I was taking video classes online, and by the 2010s we were seeing a shift to some offerings entirely online.
Covid-19 changed things rapidly though. It forced almost all institutions to go online, whether they had previously entered that space or not. Obviously some institutions had, and were better equipped. Other professors were left (by their institutions, in part) to simply scramble to run their offline content, online.
I’ve seen the inside and outside of at least half a dozen institutions, as teacher or student, and think I have a reasonable grasp of the range of online offerings. I’m talking about education broadly, not simply theological education, but I’ll return to that specifically. Don’t think that I’m picking on anyone in particular, because I’m about to tell you why online education is less than ideal, and what I want us to focus on is why. I do fully aware that I’m someone whose fulltime occupation is currently online education.
At one end of the spectrum, online offerings equal : here, we recorded the lecture (either video, audio + slides, audio only), and you can listen to it, do the 2-3 assignments (reports, essays, etc), and sit the exam. Honestly, this is pathetic. Yet, if we’re indeed honest, many students at bricks and mortar institutions get the same experience, simply in-person, of a set of lectures, a few assignments, and an exam. Large courses are particularly vulnerable to this pedagogy. It’s old, it’s stale, it doesn’t represent best practice in offline learning, it sucks online. You might as well spend your education dollar elsewhere.
The above model reflects, in part, a mindset that still thinks of education primarily as content-transfer. If we move to something that’s more like skill-formation, we find different models online. These tend to be “here’s modular content, and here’s a set of tasks, and work through them in sequence, taking and applying the knowledge we’re giving you”, regular assignment, piecemeal, with a greater degree of online interaction, though probably asynchronously. This is better, but it’s also hard work for both sides of the fence (instructor and students).
Probably the biggest game-changer is when an institution requires attendance at an online seminar, on zoom or similar, which involves participation. I’ll come back to that point a little later here.
Other models I’ve seen include developing a complete and fairly static online content, consisting of lectures or short lectures, readings, online asynchronous discussion, e.g. forums, etc., and then regular tutor feedback. I think that’s at the upper end of thoughtful, engaged pedagogy, and I’m going to suggest that it still falls short. It falls short for a few reasons. Firstly, to the extent that the teaching content is pre-made, the relationship between students and lecturing professor is parasocial. Yes, I learnt from “Professor X”, but Professor X didn’t teach me. That relationship is entirely one way. Secondly, if the one running the tutor-engagement is not that teaching professor, as so often is the case in our casualised and adjunctified world, then there is a real disconnect between teacher and tutor and students. For adjuncts, this is soul-draining. Thirdly, it’s very very hard to build online community, and so the notion of character formation and community very rarely emerges in online forums (I’ll return to this again later too). An online cohort of students engaged in text-based communication once or twice a week is not sufficient for community nor for spiritual formation. Students might come out with better knowledge and skills, but they are not truly being formed-in-community. I would go so far as to say this model has systemic unhealthiness – it divorces teaching from research, delivers content as a static product to be consumed, relies and exploits an adjunct underclass, and dis-integrates the whole college as a community of faith and learning precisely because of its fragmentation.
What really happens when we go online is that we add one layer or another so that our interpersonal relation is mediated. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just the nature of technology. Writing a letter, or reading a book, is also mediated communication. The question we must consider is how it’s mediated, and what effect that has. I’m suggesting above that those models are too mediated, and are severing what I see as essential elements of connection.
What about online seminars/tutorials? I think these are the sine qua non of online education. If you are in a program and you’re not being at least offered live video sessions with an instructor, I’d tell you to leave and find a better program. Especially if you’re paying hundreds or thousands of dollars out of your own pocket. Live videoconferencing is a technological marvel, in that it allows us to talk in almost real-time to people we can also see in almost real-time. Yes, it’s still mediated, yes it’s not quite real time. Yes, it’s harder to have free-flowing discussions with larger groups on Zoom. Yes, it’s still not the same as being there. But it’s so much better than any other option above. Not that the above aren’t useful, in fact I still think you want a backbone of online content and guidance for students to work through material, but that should come together in live discussion with an instructor and other students. Because when you do that, you are engaging in actual learning in relation to other human beings, and that to me is the key ingredient in education as courses rather than education as I read things in books and figure it out myself.
However, however, this probably still isn’t enough to form community to the level that you need for spiritual or character formation. I’ve been on all sorts of internet spaces for a long time, and seen communities of various sorts : email lists, reddit subs, various forums, including institutional spaces, chat groups, the twittersphere, and for the last 5 or + years I’ve moderated a fairly large Latin Discord community. And what “nebulous” community requires is, I posit, relatively simple: it needs shared time in a shared space with shared communication. This happens not entirely by itself in a residential campus setting, but it’s a lot easier. Online, it means people spend time at their screen, regularly, multiple times a week, often multiple times a day, checking in, reading, commenting, talking. Even better if it’s some kind of live chat interaction. That gets you closest to experiencing conversation. Very few educational institutions are deliberately attempting to foster this level of relationality among their student cohorts online.
And even if they were, it’s still probably going to fall short. Why? Let me tell you, I have an online shared space with two other friends, whom I primarily know online, in which we discuss theology, share our lives, and pray for each other. That’s a rare thing. Building that level of community, across a seminary, is just too hard for most places to do. And when you do, you need to be asking your students to spend a considerable amount of time online, that they are then not spending in physical space interacting with whatever people are in their physical lives and places, and that is not healthy either. Neither can you, again I posit, really build an online community that serves together, prays together, worships together, lives together. You can’t and you shouldn’t.
All this, however, really has in view “group 1” of the who for – vocational ministry candidates. In part five we’ll discuss imagining and re-imagining, and the possibilities that exist for better pedagogy, healthier institutions, and the access and inclusivity that online can provide.

Upcoming courses (Oct 2022)

Upcoming classes!

(I stopped doing posts simply about upcoming classes, mostly to reduce clutter, but I realise some people read this blog but do not get updates on my courses via other means. So, I’ll make a habit of doing a regular post before each term, and then deleting it subsequently)

I have a range of classes beginning soon, and I’d love you to come and get a healthy dose of Latin or Ancient Greek with me. Courses on offer include:



Greek 101 – Intro classes working with Athenaze from chapter 1. Get started speaking from day 1.

Greek 102 (Sun, Thu) – Two continuing cohorts working with Athenaze from ch 7.

Greek 104 – A continuing cohort working with Athenaze from ch 17.

Greek 227: 1 Samuel LXX – in which we read and discuss 1 Samuel in Greek

Greek 273 : Plato III – in which we read Plato’s dialogues. Currently reading Meno

Greek 261 : Coulda Woulda Shoulda – A targeted class where we work on active use of Greek optatives.

Greek 266: Short intro to Conversational Greek – A 5-week only course where we sample strategies and activites for speaking Ancient Greek. Run on UK time.

Greek 292 : Harry Potter in AG – with Isaac : reading and discussing Peter Wilson’s translation in AG.

Greek 293 : Intermediate RPG lite – with Isaac : play a carefully scaffolded RPG-type story-telling game in Ancient Greek.


Latin 101 – A introductory course to Latin covering LLPSI 1-12 as well as readings from my Cassandra novella.

Latin 121 – For those who have done Familia Romana and are looking to consolidate their Latin. Reading and discussing selections from Gesta Romanorum

Latin 208 : Melanchthon on the Sufferings of Teachers – An intermediate reading and discussion class in Latin

Latin 233 : Proba – An intermediate reading and discussion class in Latin of her Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi.

Other things:

  • If you can get a group of at least 2 people, I can put together a custom course to suit your needs.
  • I have a number of scholarships available, if finances or other circumstances put these beyond your reach. These are particularly available to students from minoritised backgrounds. Contact me via email (thepatrologist@gmail.com) to apply.
  • If you’re unsure of what might be a best fit for you, I’m happy to arrange a chat to discuss your background, needs, and goals in language learning.

re-re-thinking online theological education (part 3: community)

In our previous two posts we reflected on what for and who for theological education exists, before discussing (albeit far far too briefly), what education is. In this post I turn to consider the question of ‘communities’ – which communities are in view when we talk about education as a formative experience.

If education is merely the transfer and acquisition of knowledge, then community is actually irrelevant. Who cares who sits next to me in the lecture hall or the dining table or the library, as long as I acquire data to store in my head? Yet, we are not such machines. Knowledge is a richer tapestry than mere pieces of fact. Human learning is always contextualised, and we are embodied beings who learn in relationship. We learn from people, alongside people, and in conversation with people.

Now, of course, we don’t have to do so, but the act of a sole person sitting along reading a book is also formative. It’s formative in two other senses: (1) reading books is a means of human relationship mediated by technology across space and time, in which one person speaks but never hears, and the reader hears but never speaks back (or, they may reply, but the writer [generally] will never hear them). It’s a one-way, slightly parasocial, relation. (2) The person is alone. They may exist in community in other contexts, but given enough time spent reading alone, they are making a deliberate choice towards the solitary life, and that deserves its own reflection. So too the person who acquires knowledge sitting at the screen, consuming videos and web pages.

Most of us, though, are wired for some forms of communities, and those communities are inevitably formative on us. We both shape other people by our relating to them, and are shaped by them, as we act and be together. The conversations in class, or at lunch, or walking across campus. But also activities – if we work together, play together, sing together, pray together, all these inculcate patterns of living into us and create us into the future person we will be.

In my imagined prior context, it is inevitable that the residential full-time campus is a primary locus of community for seminarians. They come to live together, and for those 3-4 years, are shaped by (i) their cohort, (ii) their instructors, (iii) the normative rule of life in that community. That’s part and parcel of what a seminary offered in terms of spiritual and personal formation – you come to us, live with us, and are shaped by who we are and what we do, and after a few years of that, you’ll come out changed in certain ways. Not a guaranteed cookie-cutter process, but the products of such education bear enough similar traits that people can say, “Oh, so-and-so went to X college, you can expect Y of them”. Certainly true (generally) of the theological college I trained in.

This is not the only pattern of community formation we can think about though. The other community that most theological students inhabit is likely to be that of their local congregation. Whether they be full-time students who participate in an outside congregational setting weekly, or whether they be students already in ecclesial communities who study part or full time but are resident instead in their congregational location. This kind of community can be as rich and a formative one, but two problems immediately arise. Firstly, it’s out of the control of the theological college. Let’s imagine a congregation, First Eastern Orthodox Mennonite of Nowheresville (no, there are no E.O mennonites). Whatever the quality and shape of community life at FEOMN, the seminary has no control – they can’t guarantee patterns of life (prayer, worship, service, etc) that will shape their student who lives and ministers there. So their control over the formative community patterns for our student X is limited, very limited, to actual engagement in classes, whether online or just part-time in person. Which also means that they have fair less guarantee that student X comes out bearing something like the “college brand” in terms of spiritual and character development.

Now, it may be that FEOMN is an amazing ecclesial community, with very deep practices, spiritual mentoring, rhythms of daily prayer and worship, etc., that do form student X well and deeply, and into the kind of person that both College Y and FEOMN want. But this is happening under the aegis of the local church community, and most colleges feel this is something that ought to be theirs. More pressing, I would say, is that theological colleges are semi-unique places, comparable in some ways to monasteries. They are somewhat secluded from ‘real life’. They are intentional communities. You don’t find a high volume of people in your local congregation who are devoted to a high level of ‘religious’ commitment in terms of studying theology, and living a spiritually oriented life. Sometimes you do, but not generally, because choosing to spend your life that way is often what lands seminarians at seminary in the first place.

This brings me explicitly to the second problem – theological colleges feel it’s their job to do that level of spiritual and character formation, in order to put a big ol’ “seal of college X” on a graduate. If students, both future vocational minister, but also the broader demographic of “anybody seeking higher theological education”, choose to remain in their ‘home’ communities, then the onus for that development goes back onto home communities, which means in turn we need to ask how do we equip churches to do robust spiritual formation of their own people. This requires a greater dialogue between colleges and churches.

I will say that there is one great advantage of someone remaining in the community of faith that they grew up in (whether from childhood, or in the faith) – people “going off to seminary” more often then go on to other things than return to serve those people. This is especially true when social and cultural dislocation occurs, I would hypothesise (I only have anecdata). That is, pull someone out of a minoritised culture and put them into a majority culture theological education, and majority culture communities, to learn “proper theology”, and they are going to find it harder to “go back”, for various reasons. Keep them in their home community and help them do contextualised theology, and they are more likely to flourish and to serve that community long term.

I have other thoughts to say about online especially in this question of community, but we’ll save that for our next post, on what happens when we go online.

re-re-thinking online theological education (part 2: What is education?)

In the previous post in this series, I began to reflect upon the nature of theological education, and online education in particular, through the lens of what for and who for. In this post I want to turn our attention to “what” education is. What exactly do we think we are doing when we are educating people. Let me offer a suggestive taxonomy:
  1. Content transfer
  2. Skill Development
  3. Character formation
If you open up most unit syllabi, really people think they are doing all three. They’ll talk about the content the unit is meant to impart, the skills students are meant to acquire, and the kinds of people they are also meant to become. But most course syllabi are 83.1235% educational jargon/fluff.

To wind back 70 years (again), most of what was happening in colleges was this: professor gets up and delivers lecture. Students furiously take notes. Repeat for the semester. Write a paper or two. Sit an exam. That model, by its praxis, is functioning primarily on the idea of content transfer – here is body of knowledge X which professor has, and you will acquire that body of knowledge by listening, reading, writing, and reproducing.

Education as a field has obviously shifted a great deal, and there is a considerable emphasis these days upon developing skills. Especially ‘transferable’ ones. In humanities education, this often looks like (theoretically), teaching students to think critically, evaluate arguments, research effectively, argue persuasively. It still involves content transfer, especially acquiring enough of a foundational basis in a discipline to do those other things effectively.

If we think about skill development though, I’d say that a lot of our education models have moved far away from fairly static “here is knowledge, now apply” models, even if that continues to persist in actual education. If we want future-ministers to develop a certain set of pastoral skills, isn’t that better done through a process of mentorship, practica, ongoing analysis and feedback, as they do they things they are meant to do, and then critical reflect and evaluate, and apply theory-informed knowledge back to those skills. It seems to me that most of that kind of work does not happen in a seminary context, even less so in an online context. Arguably you can train future-pastors in rhetoric as public speaking, but not in preaching as community-embedded pastoral application of Scripture unless they are in a relevant community (a question we’ll return to).

On the other hand, those who are accessing theological education precisely because they already are in extra-campus situations where they are involved in ministry or the application of theology, arguably are better situated to practice active models of skill development, precisely because they are practicing and applying relevant ministry skills in a ministry context. Then it becomes a question of how does an online course facilitate that process.

Let’s turn, though, to the third element of character formation, and specifically for seminaries this is spiritual formation. Character development is probably the most nebulous part of theological education. It’s so hard to quantify, so hard to program for, so hard to ‘guarantee’. Yet I would also say that colleges are staking their reputation on it. Congregations do want to know, “okay, so and so comes from seminary X, I can expect them to be this kind of person, with this set of beliefs, and this kind of character”. That happens in person when theological colleges are residential communities because in-person face-to-face time shapes who we are through the rhythms and practices of life together. It’s not perfect, it’s not fail-safe, but I think that’s how true character formation happens. Who we are is shaped by the people we are with and what we do together. It occurs in thick relationships and they really only flourish when we spend considerable time together. Quantity of time cannot be short-cut. Nor can it properly be replaced with quality time.

This is seminaries’ major concern with online – what happens to spiritual formation of students who only access theological education online and at distance? And this issue goes beyond the population of ‘future ministers’ to all students at theological educations – what sort of people are they, what sort of people will they become, and how does a college’s reputation play in to “this person is a graduate”?

It’s this kind of question that I think is most, most pressing, and it can’t be resolved until at least part 4, when we talk about what happens when we go online. But at this stage we need to be thinking about what education is, and to the extent that all three of the above things are distinct yet interconnected, we also need to be thinking about what best practice for in-person theological education ought to be.

re-re-thinking online theological education (part 1)

In this and a series of subsequent posts I’m going to think-out-loud my thoughts on theological colleges, seminaries, and online education. If you’re here usually for mostly classical language pedagogy, feel free to take a short break from reading! But otherwise, we’re going to be thinking about five core questions:

  1. What is theological education for?
  2. Who is theological education for?
  3. What is education?
  4. Who are our communities?
  5. What happens when we go online?

And in today’s post I’m discussing the first two of these questions: what is TE for, and who is it for?

If we rewind 70 years or so, and think about the nature of theological colleges as seminaries, that is as training places for preparing (almost entirely young men) people for a career-length vocation as ministers in denominational settings, I think we get a clearer sense of the earlier version of theological colleges. Those were places generally, where you could expect a man, often unmarried, to come and live for 3-4 years and be trained in how to be a pastor. They’d then go out, get a church, and be in (the) ministry for 30-60 years.
In that historical context, theological education exists for the purpose of producing trained vocational staff for the church. That is still very much part of the rationale for theological colleges – they train ministers. However, that is not all they do, and shifts in (i) ministry-patterns, (ii) education-patterns, (iii) broader demographic changes, all mean that:
  1. less and less people present as young unmarried persons ready to enter a lifetime of vocational ministry. They are often older, married, with children, and they are less likely to spend a whole ‘career’ in congregational ministry (because our patterns of work, career, vocation, etc., have also changed).
  2. who goes to theological college has also changed, as education more broadly has become more accessible, more piecemeal, and more ‘configurable’. Few colleges offer only a single “here’s the 3-year package, sign up and enlist” model. Much more common are multiple degree programs, wide selection of electives, modular, part-time, etc., etc., which increases the diversity of people entering theological college, and hence changes the intended outcome
That means that theological colleges are preparing a broader range of people for different outcomes. No longer is “you will go and be a minister” the sole outcome of a seminary’s training program. And so the what for has shifted.
I think recognising and wrestling with this shift is incredibly important, because theological colleges are essentially trying to do (at least) two main things. (1) continue to train and produce vocational ministers for congregational settings (e.g. your local pastor, your parish priest, etc).. and (2) provide access to tertiary-level education in theology for anyone who wants it, including a broad range of people training for other forms of Christian ministry that aren’t congregational-minister. What’s best for those two groups is interrelated, but the demands you may be prepared to put on group 1, don’t necessarily apply to group 2.
So, what theological education is for is actually tied up with who it’s for. And the shift to open the doors of theological colleges to a wide variety of people seeking deeper theological knowledge, either for their own growth, or very often for greater capacity for service, whether formal or informal, paid or unpaid, in the church, in parachurch organisations, outside the church – that shift is a good thing because it takes “theological education” out of an elite reserved only for a ministerial class, and opens it up to the people. I think it’s reasonable then to claim that theological education institutes exist to “instruct and form people in the knowledge of God for the works of God in the world”. I just made that up, and I might revise it in later posts.
All that said, what we expect of theological colleges still must concern group 1: what sort of theological training ought a college offer to produce “ministers”, full-time vocational congregational church workers. That I think is a question that ought not go away. And the what for, for them, is closely bound up in “what attributes should a graduate of this college take with them when they go from here, out to take up a position as (often) the pastoral leader of a church?” These questions of “what for” and “who for” and inevitable bound up with our next question, what is education?

Reflections on the practice of reading, GTM vs ComAp, mental translation, and other things

This post is a response to a twitter thread by David Schroder, responding to another twitter thread by biblingo, responding to another twitter thread by me. Twitter threads three-deep. Anyway, David is a current student of mine, and biblingo are friends-in-languages, so this is written in a spirit of dialogue and reflection.
For full disclosure, I first learnt Greek and Latin (and Hebrew) via GTM. I was a master of explicit grammar, and rote-memorised vocab relentlessly (down to about 2 or 3 occurrences for the New Testament). And let me say that GTM ‘works’. If you hear me regularly dunking on GTM, that might surprise you, but GTM works. But it doesn’t work well or efficiently.
See, I got to a point of reading the NT fairly well, because I poured hours and hours into it. I really doubt that many other people in my seminary cohort reached that point, not for years later. So, let’s just accept that I’m an outlier. This isn’t meant to be boasting, I don’t know that I’m “gifted” in languages, I’m just a smart person who put inordinate amounts of time into Greek. I would regularly leave Greek grammar exams after 15 mins with everything complete.
But let’s consider: (a) what does it mean for GTM to ‘work’, (b) why does GTM ‘work’, and (c) is that a good reason to uphold it as a general practice.
I take it that one of the main intended outcomes of GTM is that students can read ancient texts with comprehension. When I say, “read”, I mean “mentally process the words on the page, without resorting to translation in order to understand, in a process analogous if not quite identical to native-language reading”. I don’t mean “producing a translation”.
That’s not the only imagined-intended outcome of GTM, many would add in a lot of things like grammatical analysis, exegetical process, etc.. But I take it that many GTM practitioners believe that with enough translation-to-understand, the process becomes faster, more automated, and eventually becomes internalised, hence ‘reading’.
I don’t think GTM works like that, when it works. The field of SLA seems fairly unified in saying that acquisition comes (primarily) via input, and input is exposure to comprehensible messages in the target language. That’s not that controversial, even if certain elements of Krashen, VanPatten, etc., like to be pushed-back on by SLA researchers. You don’t need to join a Krashen bandwagon to back that input is the primary driver of acquisition.
So what GTM does do, is it makes a text comprehensible, which means that the Greek is functioning as input. The ratio of work to comprehensible input is incredibly high though, which means it’s a very inefficient way of getting input. Say you spend half an hour translating Eph 1:3-14, which is 217 words. As opposed to reading or listening to readily comprehensible material at your level, at a very very conservative 70 wpm (I’m basing this on a reasonable reading speed in an L2, and/or very slow and controlled speech). That’s a difference of input by a factor of 10.
One of the main “slowers” of reading texts (apart from the paucity of suitable material for learners) is just unknown vocab. This is why reader’s editions, student texts, etc., are incredibly useful. It is helpful to be able to glance to the bottom of the page or across to a facing text, get a quick L1 gloss, and then return to the text. You don’t need to have L1 immersion. Creating something like LLPSI is an incredibly difficult task. Whatever keeps learners reading in the L2 is worth doing, and you can sacrifice some ‘purity’ about keeping it in the L2 to do so.
I mentioned above that I brute-forced my way to a large NT Greek vocabulary. People like me who (now) suggest that flashcards aren’t that great, that needs some qualification. Spaced Repetition memory work does work. But again, we need to talk about what ‘working’ means. SRS works really well at memorising discrete chunks of information and holding them in your memory. For vocabulary work that is really quite limited to recognising an L2 word and being able to retrieve a couple of glosses in your L1. That does work, in the sense that you can learn a lot of words this way, but vocabulary knowledge is not a binary of know/don’t know, and it’s not as simple as “I know this word, it means X gloss in my L1”. Vocabulary knowledge is multifaceted, and its networked. It’s knowing, I dare say feeling the vibe of a word in the target language, as part of a web of meanings across the rest of the language-system. That comes via building up a long-term extensive mental representation of the language.
So, yes, ANKI or whatever is beneficial. And honestly, acquiring vocabulary from context in reading is better, but it’s also harder, because you generally have to be reading texts in which you understand 95% or more (98% is good) of the words already, which we simply don’t have enough texts designed like that.
I’m going to turn to the question of mental translation for a moment. I’ve written about most of the above in various posts here, but I’m not sure I’ve ever talked about this issue specifically. I want to say it’s okay if your brain can’t help translate on the fly while you’re reading. In fact, to some extent I think this is unavoidable. What I tell students is to neither encourage nor fight this. We want to encourage our brain to think in the target language. That is entirely doable, especially if we start by communicating in the language, building up prompt/response, q/a, dialogue in which L2 is given, and L2 is given back. For me it’s a bit like a ‘switch’, which I’ve written about here
So we want to encourage the brain to operate in the L2, but it’s probably going to keep on giving you some running translation in the background. That’s fine. Don’t fight it. Fighting it is actually encouraging it, like not thinking about purple elephants. I don’t have any particular theory or research for this point, this one’s entirely personal anecdata. But give it a go, don’t worry about it, don’t fight it, don’t encourage it, just keep bringing the mind back to operating in the language.
To return to whether GTM is worth it. My particular perspective is that a proper communicative approach can achieve genuine acquisition, in a shorter time period overall, with more fun, less toil, greater inclusion, and more people along for the ride. Nor do I think, if it’s thoughtfully done, do you need to ‘sacrifice’ what “Grammar” promises. Linguistic analysis, complex discussions, etc., can still be done. I would delay them, do them separately in English, or boldly train students to do them in the L2, but they can still have a place, and I think they would have a richer place among students who have developed an intuitive sense of, e.g., the feel of ἐφ’ ᾧ, not evaluating a list of options they’ve found in a commentary.

On forgetting languages

What’s it like to forget a language? or two? And what does that mean for acquired vs. ‘learned’ language? In this post I reflect upon my experience with two separate languages, and how different forgetting can be.


(Biblical) Hebrew

I studied Biblical Hebrew in Seminary, for three years way back in 2004-2007. It was all grammar translation (GTM), and I did quite well. I learnt my paradigms, used brute force rote-memorisation to get a lot of vocab in my head, and passed my exams, and took my Old Testament subjects on the Hebrew text rather than English. I didn’t do a fourth year though, and I didn’t really continue on with Hebrew in a significant way. I could use my grammatical knowledge to leverage commentaries, I’d occasionally employ it in sermons, but I didn’t have any ongoing regular use of the language. In 2014 while in Mongolia I ended up teaching a Hebrew exegesis course on Amos, which would not have been my choice! Anyway, I still had enough conceptual knowledge that I could work over a text and parse/analyse to figure out its meaning and how to teach it. This, though, is a long way from an active knowledge, let alone even a passive reading knowledge. These days I recognise that I actually don’t know Hebrew. I’ve begun again with more communicative-based approaches, because I believe only that will stick.


I learnt Mongolian in Mongolia. In 2012 I started, with one-on-one tuition for 4.5 hrs a day, 5x a week. Beyond that we were involved, though not heavily involved, in day to day life with Mongolian speakers, e.g. at our Mongolian church. After the first year I began teaching, while still doing some language specific work, but now I was working/operating in a Mongolian environment. I taught exegesis classes in New Testament, primarily in Mongolian, and then other content-based classes usually with a translator. By our third and final full year in Mongolia, I could happily participate in most conversations, teach in the language, and deliver sermons, but it was still stretching my abilities. Nevertheless, it was an acquired language that I was competently proficient in.


2015 is the last year I spent time in Mongolia. I’ve had a very few occasions to speak it since, but they are uncommon. I made the choice not to spend significant amounts of time maintaining the language, which I could have. That is, I could read/listen/watch and otherwise consume Mongolian content, but I don’t because I’ve chosen to invest my time elsewhere. And yet, the difference in my forgetting of these two languages is marked to me. I literally don’t know any Hebrew, beyond the little I’ve relearned in recent study. I couldn’t produce a paradigm, I read words that are basic and high frequency and don’t recognise them, I can’t get through anything more than a basic sentence. It’s like I never learnt it at all. That’s what it feels like to forget a GTM learned language – you have to start over. Sure, there are bits and pieces of knowledge in my head, which come out and re-activate, but it’s fragmented and it’s not a system. Mongolian is more like… dormant. If I try, I can switch my mind over and formulate complete fluent sentences with good idiomatic, even informal, language. I could probably hold a conversation, but it would be a little slow. I often can’t find a word that I know, but if I then hear it I recognise it with an, “aha, of course”. I’m sure it is becoming more dormant, like a dragon in a long slumber, but I also know that it could be reawakened. Because it’s a complete linguistic system in my mind, and I could functionally operate in Mongolian.

That, for me, is the difference in forgetting a ‘learned’ and an acquired language.

Why the study of the classics? Why humanities? Some thoughts in progress

“Nearly all the wisdom which we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern.”

~ Calvin, the Institutes 1.1.1


This may seem an odd place to start a discursive piece reflecting on the place of the classics, but here Calvin divides all knowledge into two parts : the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves. Putting aside the question of the knowledge of the rest of creation that is not human, that which is not theology is the humanities. And the humanities are, I would argue, the study of what it is to be human. For those who do not share a belief in God, what else is there to study but what there is to be human? And for those who do, we are inescapably bound by our human condition, whether we reflect upon it or not.


It is because we are interested in the human, that we engage the classics. We read classics because human nature, arguably, does not change. Times and places do, but what is it to be human? We share far more with those of Rome and Greece, than the degree by which we differ from them. We are engaged in a movement from the particular to the common, and back again. So classics is a conversation across centuries. It is a multifaceted conversation. I read Vergil because I am interested in understanding Vergil, and because I am interested in what Vergil says about who we are as humans, yet at the same time I am listening for the differences, the vast gulf of culture and chaos between then and now, between them and me. I am listening for what is the same and what is different, and exploring the spaces in between. At the same time, the very fact that I read Vergil raises other questions – who is not in this conversation? who has been excluded from this conversation? who could I invite to this conversation? and are there times when Vergil should not be invited to the conversation?


We read classics, too, because we are storied creatures. We inhabit narratives. We are the product of time and causality, both real and fictious. Our world, whether we like it or not, is shaped by the histories of antiquity, and we do better to understand this world by understanding the worlds that went before. That, however, is also true of other histories, which also deserve our collective attention. The histories, cultures, and literatures of certain Mediterranean peoples are not intrinsically or inherently more worthy of our attention than others. The history of Europe, its colonialism, imperialism, and thus inordinately large influence on the rest of the world, has been a reason for a historical weight given to its cultures, etc.. That creates almost a paradox. On the one hand, to understand our own world, we are to some degree obliged to engage those histories; on the other, the way those histories are intertwined with the historical injustices that create our present moment, and have silenced other peoples and peoples’, warrants that we turn our attention to minoritised voices.


We also are creatures that tell stories, and the way we tell those stories, what we include and what we exclude, is as important, often more important, than the contents of those stories themselves. That the classics have positioned themselves as the basis of western civilisation is both a given and a contested. Indeed, we ought to wrestle with how and why it is a ‘given’, as well as how it ought to be contested. If we want to understand why the so-called western world has privileged the classics, esp. in a canonical sense, and how this shapes our present, things like contemporary and historical white supremacism, we need to understand how the classics has evolved to situate and tell that story, even at the same time that we can critique that narrative. The stories of European imperialism, colonialism, the emergence of the very concept of Western Civilisation, the construction of whiteness and race, the role of classics as a discipline in evolving an idea of classics that grafts the present onto the past as a legitimising tool of power and oppression – all these are stories that require our critical engagement and analysis, at the same time that we critically read the stories that are their content, and the stories currently being told about them. Stories shape who we are, but they can be reshaped. 


We read classics because we are humans are interpreters. We talk, and the only way forward is to talk more. In this sense all discourse is recourse, it builds and responds to what has been said before. Reading outside the canonical construct of the ‘canon’ does not necessarily mean rejecting the canon, but it can mean and should mean de-canonising the canon. Is Homer worth reading? Yes, but perhaps not for the reasons Homer was read before. And not because other things aren’t worth reading. By choosing to read other things, and not choosing to make it compulsory to read Homer, or assuming that everyone has or does, we broaden our conversation. That conversation goes on, because we are talking creatures, and the only alternative is silence. We engage in a conversation that involves the living and the dead, to understand ourselves and each other, and the more parties we bring to that conversation, the greater our learning.


We read classics because in studying the past, we retell the past, and in telling the past, we speak the now and shape the future. How we tell the past reveals who we think we are, and what we think we’ll do. 


To return to the start – I think we do humanities precisely because we are human and so we are subject to certain conditions – the finitude of our human existence, the longings of the heart, the capacities of our flesh, the finite certitude of death. And within those bounds we long to understand ourselves and each other, and the primary means of doing so is speech. We learn languages to communicate. Latin, and Greek, due to certain social and historical factors, their intertwined histories as languages of empire not least, open a door to millenia of texts across six continents, from a vast number of speakers. That is a particular reason to learn them and put them to use, but it is not an exclusive one. I do not think Latin or Greek is privileged in that sense, indeed I think there is incredible value in learning other languages and engaging other histories, cultures, literatures, and oral traditions, because we are the poorer when we don’t engage those voices.


At the same time, the very finitude of human existence means we, as individuals shall never learn all languages, engage all cultures, hear all voices, or read all texts. The choice of a particular individual to read particular texts is grounded in finitude. Which means that part of the value of humanities is not the objects, but the nature, of the study itself. Not in the trite and utilitarian sense of “develops cognitive skills, builds close analysis, logic” etc trotted out to convince students of the neo-liberalist pay-off of being better cogs in a capitalism machine. Rather, sustained, critical communication, whether interpretation or expression, makes us better dialogue partners, and thinkers, if the content of our communication drives us back to the central questions of what it means to be human. 


Classics as a discipline was born from an inherently privileged context: the notion of the liberal arts, the cultivation of humanitas as what pertains to noble, landed, freeborn, Roman male enslavers. We are not them, nor should we idealise them. And yet, the discipline itself taught us the tools of its own destruction – to closely read texts and ask questions, disturbing and critical questions. It is that questioning that leads us into new spaces, new ways of approaching texts, so that the texts of the past may be asked new questions, even as we ask age-old questions by listening to, and at times privileging, new voices, or neglected and marginalised old ones.


This is why I read classics.