The "Tool" Based Approach to Teaching Biblical Languages

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This page was authored by Josh Stigall (March 2014).



Overview

The study of the Christian scriptures[1] in their original languages has been an important aspect of theological education for centuries. There are two primary reasons for this. On the one hand, the influence of Humanism and the return to the “sources” of philosophical and religious texts.[2] As scholars sought to understand the Christian scriptures on their own terms, stripped of perceived ‘ecclesial baggage,’ there was renewed interest in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts that had been translated into Latin. At the forefront of this movement were men like Desiderius Erasmus, who created a critical edition of the Greek text that some think was to be used to correct errors in the Latin Vulgate.[3] On the other hand, modern evangelical scholars have studied the Christian scriptures in their original languages out of a desire to understand the text unencumbered by translations into modern languages and the perceived ‘interpretation’ that results. Regardless of the reasons for studying the Christian scriptures in their original languages, the practice is now entrenched throughout Christian theological higher education, especially at the graduate level.

The widespread practice of teaching the original biblical languages to students is not without its challenges. One of the particular challenges faced in this regard is student retention of knowledge and use of training. While official stats are difficult to find, anecdotal evidence consistently exclaims that training in biblical languages results in a “90% failure rate.”[4] This may be an exaggeration, but there is some evidence for this dire evaluation, including publications like Keep Your Greek.[5]

The seeming failure of traditional methods of teaching the biblical languages has led to a new approach mediated by technology. This new approach, the so-called ‘Tools’ based approach offers the promise of increased retention of learning and practical use of biblical languages by graduates.

Traditional Methods of Teaching Biblical Languages

Before evaluating the ‘tools’ based approach to teaching biblical languages, it is necessary to summarize the traditional methods of teaching biblical languages. These traditional methods have been critiqued by proponents of the ‘tools’ based approach (among other practitioners)[6] as inadequately preparing students or the reality of daily life once they graduate. These methods can be summarized as follows

Focus on Reading: The dominant focus of training in biblical languages has been in the area of reading. This focus is primarily the result of the fact that the material being studied is in textual form. Therefore, most scholars have not seen a need (or benefit) to training students to speak or reproduce Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. Instead, students should be trained to read the texts.

Focus on Grammar and Syntax: Because of the focus on reading students are trained, primarily, in the area of grammar and syntax. Students are exposed to declensions, paradigms, elementary grammar, etc. all in the hope that they will read the texts with greater accuracy. Typically, students need refreshers on basics of English grammar and syntax (in the case of classes conducted in English) before they can conceptualize the grammar of the biblical languages. This is often a problematic aspect of teaching biblical languages because many students do not have a solid grasp on the basics of English grammar.[7]

Focus on Vocabulary: Since students are primarily responsible to read the biblical languages, there is also a focus on learning vocabulary. Students are only required to learn words that occur in the biblical texts, therefore there is a limited corpus of words to learn and students do not learn modern words in the languages.

Drill and Practice: The focus on grammar, syntax, and vocabulary has leads to a ‘drill and practice’ pedagogy where students are encouraged to learn declensions, paradigms, vocabulary words, etc. Students must, therefore, commit many discrete aspects of grammar and vocabulary together and then to make connects as they attempt to read a text.

Individual Work: The drill and practice method rooted in a desire to teach students grammar and syntax leads to an individualized approach to study. In the end, students are responsible only for their own learning and interact with the text on their own.

The ultimate goal of this approach to teaching biblical languages is to train students for the work of translation. Indeed, students are explicitly encouraged to translate the biblical texts into idiomatic English (when English is the language used to teach).

The Rise of the 'Tools' Based Approach

The ‘tool’ based approach to the study of biblical languages arises out of frustrations experienced by students taught in the traditional method.[8] There are three primary causes of frustration:

Inability to Master Grammar, Syntax, and Vocabulary: While the corpus of literature is confined and relatively small, students find it very difficult to master the intricacies of grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. This is primarily a result of students not having enough time and resources to study these materials amidst the other demands of theological education. This is especially true for those who are studying to be church leaders and must be trained in other ways, as well.

Impractical Nature of Focus on Grammar, Syntax, and Vocabulary: Most students do not see the payoff for ministerial work of studying the biblical languages. This is a result of the focus on grammar and syntax, rather than on how the languages work to create meaning.

Availability of Translations, Commentaries, etc. Produced by Scholars: Most students see the study of biblical languages to be fruitless in the end because of the plethora of translations, commentaries, etc. produced by scholars. Indeed, most students will not have the time to become experts in the biblical languages, so it is difficult to imagine that they will have new insight unavailable to a scholar (or committee of scholars) who dedicates a lifetime to study.

The effect of these frustrations is that many students cease to use their training in any way after they complete their theological education. Thus, the time and effort devoted to their study is for naught.

Despite the fact that students rarely use their knowledge of biblical languages in any practical way after graduation, biblical scholars continue to see the value of students knowing the biblical languages for ministry and personal study.[9] As a result a new movement is beginning among biblical studies faculty to develop a ‘tools’ based approach to the field of study. In this approach courses in biblical languages are divided evenly into two sections: (1) Grammar, Syntax, Vocabulary; (2) Using technological aids in the study of the language. One example of such an approach is implemented by Dr. Mark Futato of Reformed Theological Seminary.[10] In this model, students are taught how to use technology, not simply rote memory, in order to engage the biblical languages.

The ‘tools’ approach is summarized well by Dr. Daniel Streett: “The tools approach aims to introduce students to the way the ancient languages work—declensions, conjugations, endings, participles, word order, tense, voice, mood, etc.—but without requiring lots of memorization of these forms, or intensive translation. The goal is to produce students who may not necessarily be able to parse/translate, but who know how to use tools that will parse/translate for them. You don’t need a whole year to teach students to use Greek tools. In fact, in one semester you could probably cover the basic tools for both Hebrew and Greek.”[11]

According to Streett, the ‘tools’ approach has arisen for a number of reasons:

  1. Space in a seminary/college curriculum is always tight, and Biblical studies classes have tended to get edged out by fields like practical theology, counseling, etc. which a) have increased in popularity as subjects of academic study, b) draw more students in than the languages do, and c) seem to provide more (at least immediate) payoff than language/exegesis courses.
  2. Bible software has become much more common and accessible. Any student can afford and probably will at some point purchase BibleWorks, Logos, Accordance, or any of the other packages available. Numerous free websites also perform many of the same basic tasks.
  3. Faculty and administration realize that Greek courses are dreaded by most students; so, they embrace the tools approach as something that takes away the pain by eliminating all the memorization work.
  4. Faculty realize that most students quickly forget the morphology and grammar covered in their Greek classes and end up depending on tools or Bible software for all of their subsequent work. (In fact, savvy Greek students learn to depend on it while still in their grammar classes!)
  5. Several new textbooks have been published which provide the teacher with an easy-to-follow plan for covering the bare minimum of Greek/Hebrew and introducing the students to the tools. See, e.g. Bill Mounce’s Greek for the Rest of Us, Lee Fields’ Hebrew for the Rest of Us, Sitzer/Finley’s How Biblical Languages Work, or the many “Greek/Hebrew for preachers” type of books.[12]

In the end, Streett is cautious about the new approach, but does recognize the potential benefits.

Tools of the Trade: Biblical Studies Software

The reason the ‘tools’ approach is possible is because of the rise of biblical studies software that is readily available to students of biblical languages.[13]

Bibleworks

One of the earliest programs available for students of the biblical languages is Bibleworks, available on Windows only. Currently in its ninth iteration, Bibleworks is a software program that facilitates the close reading of the Chrisitan scriptures in their original languages: “Whether you’re preparing a sermon, doing complex morphological analysis, or writing a seminary paper, scholars agree that BibleWorks is indispensable. You’ll find everything you need for close exegesis of the original text in its 200+ Bible translations in 40 languages, 40+ original language texts and morphology databases, dozens of lexical-grammatical references, plus a wealth of practical reference works! Instead of providing a loose collection of books, BibleWorks tightly integrates its databases with the most powerful morphology and analysis tools.”

A helpful video of the features of Bibleworks can be found here: http://www.bibleworks.com/content/videos/index.htm

Accordance

The leading scholarly resource, which is now available on both Mac OSX and Windows is Accordance. The most recent iteration is Accordance 10: “Accordance equips you with cutting-edge original language tools, interactive 3D maps, a dynamic interlinear, drag-and-drop graphical searching, and a host of other tools designed to take your Bible study to the next level. All of these tools come packaged in a clean and simple interface that can be customized to complement your personal Bible study goals.” Accordance is considered by many to be the scholars choice for biblical studies software.

A helpful video of the features of Accordance can be found here: http://www.accordancebible.com/.

Logos

One of the newer software programs on the market that makes explicit use of the ‘tools’ approach is Logos. In its fifth iteration, Logos is aggressively positioning itself as the software of choice for students, scholars, and laypeople.

The explicit plan of Logos to use the ‘tools’ approach can be seen in the video available here: https://www.logos.com/product/5876/learn-to-use-biblical-greek-and-hebrew-with-logos-bible-software. This pedagogical approach to teaching the biblical languages has the potential to revolutionize the discipline in biblical studies.

References

  1. Throughout I will use ‘Christian scriptures’ to refer to the so-called ‘Old Testament’ (or ‘Hebrew Bible’) and ‘New Testament.’ This follows growing convention in Christian theological higher education.
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humanism#Back_to_the_sources
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erasmus
  4. http://michaelsheiser.com/TheNakedBible/2012/12/scholars-understand-logos-learn-greek-hebrew/. Accessed March 9, 2014. Note: Michael Heisner is an employee of Logos Bible Software, which will be discussed in this article.
  5. Campbell, Constantine. (2010). Keep your greek: Strategies for busy people. Grand Rapids, Mich. Zondervan.
  6. Biblical scholars have recently begun to adopt methods used in Second Language Acquisition (SLA). One notable example is the “living biblical languages” project headed by Randall Buth: http://www.biblicallanguagecenter.com/.
  7. This problem has led to publications that seek to aid students. These publications include Scott Lamerson. (2004). English grammar to ace New Testament Greek. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan; and Mondi, Robert and Peter L. Corrigan. (2013). A student handbook of Greek and English grammar. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.
  8. For an excellent discussion of the frustrations of learning Greek from a student’s perspective see: http://christotechne.wordpress.com/2010/07/18/easing-the-frustration-of-greek-part-1/.
  9. See http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/ajet/29-2_091.pdf.
  10. http://www.rts.edu/Site/Staff/mfutato/files/Two%20Tracks%20Letter/Two%20Tracks%20Letter%202008.pdf
  11. http://danielstreett.com/2011/09/20/bible-software-greek-tools-and-a-future-for-immersion-basics-of-greek-pedagogy-pt-6/
  12. http://danielstreett.com/2011/09/20/bible-software-greek-tools-and-a-future-for-immersion-basics-of-greek-pedagogy-pt-6/
  13. Many schools now require the use of biblical studies software at enrollment. See http://www.dts.edu/logos/.