The Schaff paradox

I usually give Philip Schaff a hard time, but let’s be honest – the ANF and NPNF series of translations (the former edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, the latter by Philip Schaff, and later with Henry Wace) – were amazing feats of translation and publishing for their times. They were, for the English speaking world, the Migne of their age, and animated with a little bit of the spirit of Migne, I would say. Let me quote from Schaff’s preface to the NPNF series 1:

My purpose is to furnish ministers and intelligent laymen who have no access to the original texts, or are not sufficiently familiar with ecclesiastical Greek and Latin, with a complete apparatus for the study of ancient Christianity. Whatever may be the estimate we put upon the opinions of the Fathers, their historical value is beyond all dispute. They are to this day and will continue to be the chief authorities for the doctrines and usages of the Greek and Roman Churches, and the sources for the knowledge of ancient Christianity down to the age of Charlemagne. But very few can afford to buy, or are able to use such collections as Migne’s Greek Patrology, which embraces 167 quarto volumes, and Migne’s Latin Patrology which embraces 222 volumes.[1]

The ANF/NPNF series, dating from the end of the 19th century, has now passed out of copyright, and been promptly digitised and made available in a number of places. It is also readily available in print volumes in libraries. And so it is now the most readily accessible translation of patristic texts available to most English-language readers.

Which is both its blessing and its curse. Because, just as with Migne’s PG and PL, and as similarly with, say, the Battles’ edition of Calvin, time is not its friend. There are better, more recent trnslations that deserve to be read, but they generally won’t be by most, because they cost money, and they are not digitised. I know that, even for myself, the quickest way to look up a patristic text covered in the NPNF series, is to use NPNF rather than anything else.

I’m not sure there is any easy solution to this, beyond the ongoing, vast, complex challenges fcing the ‘publishing industry’ in an increasingly post-print age. It is, perhaps, increasingly possible that we could make public domain or at least Open Access translations available free, online, for widespread use. Indeed, that is exactly what the texts that Roger Pearce’s site holds. And yet, of course, translation takes time, it takes developed skill, and in this case it requires the translator to forego both the financial gain of selling a translation, and the academic-prestige ‘profit’ of producing a translation for an academic market (e.g. monograph/series/journals/etc..).

Hence the Schaff paradox – we will all keep using Schaff et al. because it’s free, it’s accessible, even though it’s not best. Because free and easy will win almost every time.

[1] Philip Schaff, ed., “Preface,” in The Confessions and Letters of St. Augustin with a Sketch of His Life and Work, vol. 1, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886), v.

Collaborative Co-Annotation for Asynchronous Reading

I’ve very recently started some of that endless list of Greek reading discussed in the last few posts, joined by one brave soul determined to get along with some Greek with me while the sun yet shines. However, what happens when the sun shines at radically different times? What does it mean to “read” as a pair, or a group, when you are not together “reading”, and what would make that beneficial?

The typical classics class runs like this:

Teacher assigns a text, say our old friend Tacitus. Sections are assigned for each class. Each student diligently prepares (!) the set portion for the upcoming class. They met, and students take turns to read aloud the text in Latin, and then their translation. Queries about grammar are made, corrections offered, insights and learning dispensed from the instructor, and on to the next student.

I doubt this pattern differs that much from institution to institution, except for online contexts which necessarily must vary. I have all sorts of reservations about this as a useful pedagogical practice, but I’m yet to unearth a genuinely useful alternative for text-focused discussions.

Anyway, such a set-up is not really possible for asynchronous groups who can’t meet, even virtually. Nor is it really desirable if you’re trying to avoid a teacher-led set-up (I imagine it would the live version might work for groups with comparable high-level abilities and good group dynamics).


Enter collab co-annotation.


Here’s the basic set-up we’re using at present. The text is imported into a google doc. It’s already sectioned nicely, but for other texts you might need to section them up. Each of us takes alternating sections (1, 3, 5, etc.) as ‘ours’. We write notes, just like one would either on one’s own or for a class – noting anything that either we needed to figure out, or that we think someone else would need to figure out. So, that’s meanings, parsing, syntax, discourse-features, relevant historical or literary information. And some translations. We also write in questions in our notes, if there’s things we’re not sure about.

Then along comes your partner, who uses the helpful comment feature in google-docs, and highlights and comments on anything in your section  –  suggestions, critiques, questions of their own, alternatives. You can then come back, interact with those comments, carry on a discussion, and add/edit notes as necessary.


You still need to ‘do the work’ on other sections, but you aren’t the “lead voice” for those sections, so that alleviates some of the burden.

My thoughts

It’s very early days in how this is working for us, and we’re only two. But we’re also working with some other tools, and it’s part of a broader experiment in how to enable reading better/faster/deeper. I imagine that a similar process might work in quite a few situations, including small reading groups up to 4-5 people (I think past 5 the alternation might be too large).

I think this, or a similar process, has a lot of potential though. I’d be keen to hear feedback, thoughts, input.

I even wonder if this might not be a way to do collab on texts in preparation to make reader’s editions of them, a la Patristic Readers. I need to think more on this though.


If you think you might be interested in a collab-read-through of Cicero’s 1st Catiline, that text is currently top of my to-read list, so get in touch.

A Latin Patristic Reader?

If you want to read a nice selection of Greek patristics with some helps, there’s Rodney Whitacre’s 2007 A Greek Patristic Reader, which I had until recently forgotten that I owned. If you want to read Latin, tough luck, no one will help you.

Hence a recent tweet asking if there were anything, and the silence that followed.

I’ve been thinking, and tinkering, towards doing a Patristic Reader volume in Latin, but it’s been slow and neglected. One of the problems is work-flow. Latin has a lot more ambiguity in its endings, and this impacts the way I create vocabulary lists. For Greek, I can usually parse most forms in isolation. The only common confusion in Greek is between a 3rd singular verb ει and a cognate 3rd declension dative noun in ει. Latin, not so, so many forms could be either noun or verb, and have several options between them. Only context helps sort them out, but that reverses the process that I currently use to create the vocabulary lists.

Anyway, what if we made a Latin Patristic Reader?

Since I like side-projects and never-going-to-bed, I started to scrounge up a way to generate a suitable ‘selection’ of texts. There are 4 books of interest:

Willis, Collectanea Graeca et Latina 1865 – has a range of patristic selections in both languages

H.M. Gwatkins, Selections from Early Writers illustrative of Church History to the Time of Constantine 1897 – with texts in both languages and translations

R. Maloney, Selections from the Latin Fathers, 1900 – relatively brief but with selections from 6 Latin Fathers

Crehan, The Osterley Selection from the Latin Fathers, 1968 – too recent for me to get a public domain scan.


There might be more, and if you have them, I’d love to hear from you. My rough plan is to collate these selections and then start a slow process of ‘reader-ising’ them. I will probably invert the vocabularisaton process that I use though. I’ll release individual texts as free-standing pdfs as I go.

So, you too think reading myriad classical texts sounds like a fun hobby?

So earlier this week I wrote about my desire to read a lot more canonical classical texts, and plan to use a university reading list to do so. This caused the minorest of flutters among my minute circle of acquaintances, which prompts me to write a second post today. How to leverage everything possible to make a mountain into a mole-hill?

My approach to reading texts is to use every tool possible to make the job of comprehending a text easier. Anything that makes a text easier to understand, is good.

So here are some of my thoughts/intentions for my own studies.

  1. Start easy.
  2. Use and abuse intermediate versions/books/commentaries
  3. Grade whole texts, read whole texts.


Start easy

… means what it sounds like. Particularly if you’re transitioning from a Koine background (!). In this case, Lysias 1 is a very common transition to intermediate text for 2nd year classical Greek students (and I’m pretty sure I read at least selections of it in such a class). It’s also well resourced. So, for myself, Lysias 1, and then Plato’s Crito, are first on my reading list. For Latin, Cicero’s 1st Catiline. If you want a reading-buddy, let me know.


Use and Abuse resources.

If you aren’t already familiar with them, (a) Geoffrey Steadman’s texts with vocabulary and grammatical commentary are (i) free to download pdfs of (you should buy some print copies to support him though), (ii) well-made and helpful, (iii) cover a considerable amount of text (9 whole books of Homer!); (b) The DCC commentaries; (c) the old BCP texts, now published by Bloomsbury (I believe) are also at the right level.

Essentially, no one should have to start by reading Oxford Classical Texts or Teubners or whatever. Sure, you might want to, but I would never start a student there. And, while many a grad student has got through their list with a healthy dose of Loebs, in general I don’t recommend using a facing-translation text (it’s not the worst thing in the world; I’d at least rather someone attempted the Greek/Latin by itself, and then consulted a translation post-lectum).

My plan at present is to work through Steadman texts, and some BCPs, see what I’ve covered by that point, and then work on filling out the CUA MA-list (thanks to some useful resources tailored to that list).

Grade whole texts, read whole texts.

I’d also suggest working from easier to harder texts, but not easier to harder passages. Chopping and changing authors might work in an assembled transitional reader, but for this kind of enterprise, getting into a single author and persevering through a whole text is worthwhile. Exceptions would be poetry though. I do think you can do single epic books and then take a break, no-one needs to read 24 straight books of Homer.

What about Patristic texts?

You know, I don’t know of any “Set reading list of patristic authors” for a grad program anywhere. If you do, please tell me. In any case, I have some brain space ticking over this question, because I think reading a canonical core of patristic texts in the original would do wonders for me as well.



Least of the classicists, as to one born untimely

I’m not really a classicist, I don’t pretend to be. Patristics isn’t Classics anyway, and my route to where I am was very, hmm, “liberal arts”. Across my studies I accumulated majors, or their equivalents, in Philosophy, Creative Writing, Latin, and Theology. My doctoral studies took place in a system which doesn’t have comps or the like. I, sort of, did something similar in my Masters. The assumption, in the Australian system, is that if you’re not competent in your field your thesis would reveal that anyway.

All of which leaves me feeling a little under-done in the area of classical literature in the original languages. And by classics I really do mean the canonical core of big-C Classics. Which is why I am thinking about (maybe have started?) trying to work through one of the reading lists for Classics students from a US college.

Not that US degrees are somehow better or worth more or whatever, but certainly the structure of US degrees is more rigid. And, fortunately, they tend to just post lists of the expected reading their students are meant to have covered. It’s not at all hard to compile such a list (I’ve included a selection at the end).

I don’t have a time-frame on this, I just plan to start, read what’s interesting, cover a great deal of Greek and Latin, and fill in some of those holes. I suppose, given that doctoral students might cover these in 2 years, I might do it in 8?

While I can’t imagine anyone sitting at home is thinking, “Yes, I too would like to do so”, I’ll have some related thoughts/suggestions on this later in the week.


Easily accessible Classics reading lists (no particular order or sorting):

John Hopkins: GreekLatin


Florida: MA List , PhD List (assumes MA)


Boston College (MA, PhD)





Colorado: LatinGreek



Review of Paradigms Master Pro

[Disclaimer: I was given a complimentary license key to this program in conjunction with doing this review]

I think it’s a brave person who asks me for a product review. Especially if you know the general tenor of my reviews, and general views on pedagogy. So, I had to really wrestle with whether I should do this in the first place!

Paradigms Master Pro is a relatively clean, straightforward program that allows you to test your knowledge of paradigms. It currently has options for Biblical Greek, Biblical Hebrew, and Modern Spanish. I tested out the Biblical Greek option.

When you first load it up, you’re shown a greeting screen:

Then can choose from a range of options:

Testing comes with a limited range of options. You can subdivide your categories, for instance, which allows you to focus in on what you’re currently studying (presuming your studies proceed in the traditional morphology by morphology route). You can also choose between multiple choice responses, and full parsing.

The multiple choice format looks like this. You are presented with an inflected form, and you need to select out of 4 options. Generally I find these a little too easy – you can usually work out from a selection of 4, which is correct. Of course, students will find this more difficult. You are given immediate feedback on each question: whether you got it right, and if you were wrong, you are told the correct answer. In the case of forms that could have multiple right answers, any are accepted.

There are also some ‘Ultimate’ tests, which just throw anything and everything at you. These are useful, because when you are just focused on studying a narrow range of something, the number of ‘things’ an inflected item could be are restricted. But, ‘in the wild’, you need to identify everything.

Here’s the example of what ‘full parsing’ looks like. You need to be a little extra careful, since (a) the full parsing table includes categories not applicable (here: gender, case) for all forms. Also, the program distinguishes middle, passive, and middle/passive, and will not accept ‘middle’ for ‘middle/passive’. Given my views on the passive, that tripped me up a few times!


What’s PMP good for?

I’d say, that if your approach to learning language involves or requires a great deal of memory work, learning paradigms, and drilling them, PMP could be a great go-to program for you. When I first learnt Greek, even though I now advocate different methods, I did a lot of memory work. Mainly by writing out tables by hand, and using electronic flashcards for vocabulary. These methods, in my view, are not ideal, but they are not worthless either.

Especially for the student enrolled in a course who is going to be expected to parse things by sight, and/or parse things without context, PMP is quite useful. Having a program generate forms, test you, and provide immediate feedback, is invaluable. It’s the language version of an automatic ball machine firing shots at you.

What’s PMP not good for?

I don’t fault programs for not doing what they’re not designed to do. PMP has not much to offer if you are pursuing a completely alternate pedagogy based on communication, oral or written. It’s firmly a construct useful for explicit grammatical identification and analysis, and it’s a good tool for that.

If I had some mild criticisms, they would be:

  • a feature to reverse the inputs: to be presented with a set of parsing information, and required to enter the Greek (with the option of accents required/optional; even though I think you should learn accents, it’s brutal to keep failing questions because you misplaced an accent).
  • multiple choice is often too easy to guess. Because ambiguity of forms often comes across categories, some more ‘cross-category’ groupings would let you test this a little more rigorously.
  • I think I’d redesign how the test accepts middle/passive answers. But that’s perhaps just me.
  • Use of more varied vocabulary. The program presents all the paradigms you need to know, but it does so with ‘paradigmatic’ verbs. It’s all very well and good to know your λύειν, ποιεῖν, εἶναι, etc., but testing a broader range of vocabulary, or at least having the option to, would also benefit students to move away from, “here are the textbook forms” to “here are a host of other words that follow the same patterns”.


Would I recommend PMP? Yes, but only to certain people. To students of biblical languages enrolled in a standard-style language course, or pursuing a traditional approach, I would definitely say that PMP would be of good use to them, as a tool for the necessary memory work in those programs.

The link, once more: Paradigms Master Pro

The colonial baggage of teaching EFL as a mission strategy

Within the orbit of evangelical mission activity, teaching English overseas seems like an easy and perfect fit. People ‘overseas’ want to learn English. You already know English. They often prize a native-speaker over accreditation or experience. And English provides a vehicle to the Bible and to the Gospel. Great?

Maybe not so great.

By teaching English as a foreign language, you engage in a host of complex issues and practices, and the unequivocal ‘goodness’ of this as mission quickly unravels. Teaching English as a foreigner easily buys into a set of assumptions – that you bring English to the table as a gift from a globally dominant language-and-culture, that they will be enriched and ennobled by learning English, that it provides them an entry to a broader world, that learning English is economically enabling, that Christianity is tied to English, that Christianity is tied to English-dominant countries, that the Bible is to be read in English, that Christianity is to be practiced in English, that Christianity is culturally and linguistically foreign to their native culture and language, etc..

All of these ought to trouble us. And to the extent that actual EFL practices of missionaries continue to embody such problems, requires considerable critical analysis. The Gospel, if it is truly translational, has to translate into a host culture. And to the extent that non-native-English-speakers become English-language Christians, they then face the difficult challenge of culturally translating that faith and identity across to their native identity-and-language, which is no easy thing.

This is not to say that EFL has no place in mission work. There is a danger of reacting by saying, “Well, we won’t teach you English at all!” This is colonial exclusivism – it presumes to tell people that they can’t have access to English, and to all that the Anglosphere provides. It acts as a gatekeeper to exclude, and to impoverish, and to dictate just as much to people what they can and can’t have. To put it in historical terms, would refusing to let anyone learn Latin have been any better than refusing to translate the Scriptures out of Latin? It’s patronising and just as much an exercise of power to refuse to teach English.

Which is why this is a conflicted and complicated issue, that is not so easy. Teaching English can be a colonial and imperialist act, but in some ways not-teaching English can be as problematic. Which is why I started writing this short piece – to complicate the picture.