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Why Classical (Greek) students are better at Greek than Seminary students

I have taken courses in both disciplines, and taught students who have come out of both processes, and Classical students almost always have better Greek than NT students. There’s a very simple set of reasons for this though, and it doesn’t really have to do with NT students only doing Koine.

Classical students generally train in classical grammar, which on the whole is slightly more complex than Koine grammar. That’s just the reality of the process of koinification going on in the history of the Greek language.

They then move on to reading fairly demanding literature: Plato, Homer, Greek plays, Attic oratory. These are all high-level literary texts that demand a lot from their students. It’s functionally equivalent to taking a grammar class in English and then in your second year reading Shakespeare and the like.

Thirdly, depending on how they acquire their Greek, they are very likely in a multi-year program that involves reading a considerable amount of such Greek. If they’re a classics major, this is over 50, and up to 100% of their course-load for several years.

Seminary students, though, move from a a grammar class to reading the newspaper. The NT is not a high-register set of documents. It’s sophisticated, challenging, but its level of language isn’t and isn’t meant to be ‘Shakespearean’.

Secondly, they read a fairly closed corpus. Seminary students very rarely read outside the NT at all. In fact, it’s quite possible for them to get through Masters degrees without reading outside the NT. Only the few who are outliers, for whatever reason, will read outside that closed corpus, and even then it can be quite a limited foray.

Thirdly, working in Greek texts amounts to a small amount of most seminary programs. It would rarely rise about 25% of the course load, and overall may be somewhere closer to 10% of a whole degree program. That would only really change if there was some NT specialisation going on.

No one should be surprised then that seminary students come off poorly against students trained in Classical greek. It has very little to do with ‘rigour’ or approach, and mostly to do with sheer time and volume of material, and secondarily type of literature read, which is bleedingly obvious. Should seminary students ‘do more Greek’ and ‘read more widely’? Well, it wouldn’t be a bad thing, but most seminary students are training to be NT scholars, and just piling on more Greek has to mean less of other things.

There’s no punch-line to this post. No agenda or solution or suggestion. I’m just observing that this is the way things are and it’s entirely reasonable that things are this way.


5 Comments

  1. jdhomie says:

    I completely agree, Seumas. I thought Koine would be a tough adjustment, but after Plato, anything in prose feels easy. I’m hoping to squeeze in a course or two in Classical Greek in my MA if possible just because I prefer the challenge of complex language.

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  2. Alex Poulos says:

    I’d echo your observations, and expand them. I’m in a Classics program at a Catholic school, so we naturally have plenty of people outside our own dept interested in our classes. Philosophers, New Testament scholars, Medieval historians, etc. all take classes with us in Greek & Latin. I’ve found that usually only the people in our program develop anything like mastery in Greek or Latin. There are always exceptions, but the languages are so demanding that trying to do, e.g. Greek or Latin plus a full load of theology/history/philosophy courses just doesn’t usually result in mastery. Better pedagogy would help, but really it comes down to time. You’ve done rough estimates several times, as I recall, of the amount of time one would need in a seminary curriculum to develop decent proficiency in an ancient language. All of that applies just as readily to other programs that require Greek or Latin, but aren’t philology per se (philosophy, history, etc.).

    There’s a similar problem in how most graduate programs approach modern languages. The standard approach is to take a 1 semester “German/French/Italian for Reading Knowledge.” You learn a lot of grammar, but almost no one emerges with the ability to actually read something. I really don’t know what the solution is. My program requires reading knowledge of French and German in addition to Greek and Latin, which is standard fare. Folks in Medieval History or Philosophy will need at the least Latin plus French and/or German. Requiring reading knowledge of even two foreign languages is quite demanding. Even for gifted students (and graduate students are!) language learning requires time!

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    • There is never enough time for graduate students to develop real competency in their research languages: I mean the French, German, etc.. Most, I imagine, cram and past their comps and then do not that much more with the language later on.

      To tackle this I can see two approaches. For the time-pressured graduate student one must realise that a reading-only knowledge of these languages is possible, and can be cultivated, but grammar-translation probably won’t get you there. I’m a big fan of the somewhat dated but still excellent books by Karl Sandberg, “French for Reading”, “German for Reading”, etc.. They demonstrate an inductive reading-only approach at probably its best.

      Alternatively, and I know this will never happen, but scholars of ancient Greek could simply discourse in Greek, Latinists in Latin. This would have 3 effects: it would force the development of real active competency in those languages among scholars; it would ‘level the playing field’ of scholarship for students from all language backgrounds and stop privileging English-language natives; it would render most scholarship inaccessible to outsiders.

      The last factor of course is a huge negative. But it’s already true of, say, French studies, German studies, Mongolian studies. You wouldn’t expect to engage in serious French scholarship unless you had a genuine active competency in French.

      Anyway, I’m not exactly proposing the latter option as an alternative. I think the most grad students can genuinely hope for is to develop a fluent reading ability in the time they have, and take any opportunities for active (oral) communicative learning that they can manage.

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      • jdhomie says:

        Regarding German and French — my MA program requires one research language, and this summer I’ve been working through April Wilson’s German Quickly. My tentative strategy is to read at least one German article per semester for use in a term paper. Thankfully I have two friends who majored/minored in German to help me through.

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      • Friends with language are definitely a big plus!

        I first picked up Wilson’s book, but personally I didn’t find it as helpful as Sandberg.

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