"I just don't think it makes you a better exegete ... " Theology, exegesis, and Learning Koine Greek Communicatively

Resources and methods for teaching and learning New Testament Greek.
Benjamin Kantor
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"I just don't think it makes you a better exegete ... " Theology, exegesis, and Learning Koine Greek Communicatively

Post by Benjamin Kantor » January 6th, 2019, 7:22 pm

I have recently been thinking about how teaching and learning Koine Greek as a living language can impact our theology. I think sometimes even those of us who learn Greek as a living language can underestimate its benefits. I was once told by a biblical scholar, when he heard that I specialize in teaching the biblical languages, that he just didn't think that it made a difference for exegesis.

The more I've thought about that over time the more I've come to think that even that sort of question, "Does it make you a better exegete?" fails to even address the far deeper and more profound things that learning Koine Greek as a living language does for you, such as actually begin to reconfigure your theological conceptions in a more precisely parallel way to what we find in the theological worldview of the New Testament.

I expound on this in much more detail on my blog: Theology and Communicative Teaching

I would love to get your thoughts! And in respect to the B-Greek forum, please post and discuss here and not on the actual blog post page.
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Re: "I just don't think it makes you a better exegete ... " Theology, exegesis, and Learning Koine Greek Communicatively

Post by Benjamin Kantor » January 6th, 2019, 9:02 pm

beniamin wrote:
January 6th, 2019, 7:22 pm
I was once told by a biblical scholar, when he heard that I specialize in teaching the biblical languages, that he just didn't think that it made a difference for exegesis.
This should be corrected to:
when he heard that I specialize in teaching the biblical languages as living languages
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Re: "I just don't think it makes you a better exegete ... " Theology, exegesis, and Learning Koine Greek Communicatively

Post by Paul-Nitz » January 7th, 2019, 10:57 am

Interesting blog. To sum it up, I think it is saying that there is value in discussing theology in Greek because at the same time a) it limits your vocabulary and thought to the target language and b) through the discussion in Greek you advance your understanding of Greek.

I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, but I see the point. It reminds me of when I used to preach in Chichewa. At first, I would compose in English and then try to turn what I had written into Chichewa. It just didn’t work. I would inevitably put words and conceptual approaches into my English sermon that could not easily be expressed in Chichewa. I needed to start and end in Chichewa.

I think speaking about Greek (and theology) in Greek is a wonderful goal. I would just add that I think learning Greek via communicative methods yields benefits for interpretation even if a person does not reach the level of fluency needed to be able to discuss the text or theology in Greek.

The benefits are hard to pin down because language is such a complex thing. Bi-lingual learners tend to understand the benefit intuitively. The illustration I use with my bilingual (Bantu languages + English) learners is to imagine the following. Their father wrote them a letter in their mother tongue. That letter is intercepted and translated into English by a committee of the best translators in the world. The translation is as good is it could be and conveys everything the father meant to communicate. “So,” I ask them, “do you still want to see the original letter?”

Of course, the unanimous and enthusiastic reply is “YES!” Then I ask them “Why?” Why is it so important to see the original? I’ve never heard a concise and convincing answer. I, too, can’t give a single powerful reason for why I am so dissatisfied with reading a Biblical text in translation and so very much want to see the Greek. I think answers to that question always limp because language is so complex. Ironically, using language to describe how we experience language is very difficult . We could talk about how reading fluency improves recognition of the flow of thought, ability to compose or speak in Greek helps a person to see that the author chose to say it this way instead of that other way, understanding semantic differences at gut level from having used the language, κτλ. But this only scratches the surface. The experience of understanding a language at an implicit level is far more complex than any list could describe.

When a reader approaches the text as language and communication, and when that reader has at least some degree of implicit understanding of the language, there will be increased understanding of the text. I do not think that some increase in understanding what the text communicates is realized when we approach the text as an artifact to be deciphered.

That leads to my answer to the blog title, “Does learning Koine Greek as a living language impact our understanding of theology and/or exegesis?” I believe that any language learning method can result in the sort of natural approach to a text that is most fruitful for interpretation. Learning Greek as a living language results more reliably in leading more learners to that approach.

By the way, on another thread (Joel Ellis introduction) some interesting comments were made about exegesis. Here is one of them.
Paul-Nitz wrote:
January 3rd, 2019, 12:34 pm
Barry's reminder of Daniel Street's comment brings a wry smile. It's not far off, if we understand that Street is talking about hyper-analysis.
"Exegesis is largely the attempt to control a language that one doesn't actually know."
By chance today, I found that the original comment came from R. Buth.
Street wrote:
I ran across this quote on the B-Greek discussion list today: “I define ‘exegesis’ as learning to extract meaning from a language that one does not control.” (Randall Buth)

What do you think about that quote? I find it very interesting that it’s usually only Biblical scholars who talk about ‘exegesis’ and ‘exegetical method.’ In fact, I presented a paper (at the 2011 SBL meeting) on ‘exegesis’ in the communicative Greek classroom where I remarked on this at length:

When I discuss this [teaching Greek as a living language] with other Greek teachers, one of the most common questions that comes up is: What about exegesis?
Pasted from <http://danielstreett.com/2014/09/01/exe ... mment-2140>
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Re: "I just don't think it makes you a better exegete ... " Theology, exegesis, and Learning Koine Greek Communicatively

Post by Jonathan Robie » January 7th, 2019, 12:04 pm

I have mixed feelings here.

Knowing the language will help you understand the text much better, and living language approaches really help give you a better feel for the language, especially when they focus on language actually found in Greek texts.

In your blog, you give the example of determinism versus free will. The value of using Greek is that it is closer to what the texts actually say, it is not a translation. But most theological debates about things like determinism versus free will are not very close to the Greek text in the first place, they are debates about systematic theology that is not based on a close reading of the text. So I don't think living language approaches will help much here.

The more you need to understand the nuances of a given text, the more helpful a better understanding of the Greek language is. I think there are people like Carl Conrad who know the language well but are not very oral, so I don't think living language approaches have a monopoly on this, but I do prefer them.
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Re: "I just don't think it makes you a better exegete ... " Theology, exegesis, and Learning Koine Greek Communicatively

Post by Benjamin Kantor » January 7th, 2019, 12:52 pm

Paul-Nitz wrote:
January 7th, 2019, 10:57 am
Interesting blog. To sum it up, I think it is saying that there is value in discussing theology in Greek because at the same time a) it limits your vocabulary and thought to the target language and b) through the discussion in Greek you advance your understanding of Greek.
Yes, that's the idea.
Paul-Nitz wrote:
January 7th, 2019, 10:57 am
I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, but I see the point. It reminds me of when I used to preach in Chichewa. At first, I would compose in English and then try to turn what I had written into Chichewa. It just didn’t work. I would inevitably put words and conceptual approaches into my English sermon that could not easily be expressed in Chichewa. I needed to start and end in Chichewa.
I think this is a common experience of those in such contexts. Has this led you to new insight into your own understanding of the scriptures? Simply to get at it from a different angle/
Paul-Nitz wrote:
January 7th, 2019, 10:57 am
I think speaking about Greek (and theology) in Greek is a wonderful goal. I would just add that I think learning Greek via communicative methods yields benefits for interpretation even if a person does not reach the level of fluency needed to be able to discuss the text or theology in Greek.
Absolutely agree, 100%. I think even getting 10% of the way there (to the proficiency that would be required for these more advance discussions) is tremendously helpful for interpretation and understanding the text. My blog post was kind of taking a lot that for granted and assuming that my readers had already encountered those truths. I was trying to think through an additional benefit of reaching the highest levels that doesn't get brought up too much. But by all means, at much much lower levels you already start to benefit greatly.
Paul-Nitz wrote:
January 7th, 2019, 10:57 am
The benefits are hard to pin down because language is such a complex thing. Bi-lingual learners tend to understand the benefit intuitively. The illustration I use with my bilingual (Bantu languages + English) learners is to imagine the following. Their father wrote them a letter in their mother tongue. That letter is intercepted and translated into English by a committee of the best translators in the world. The translation is as good is it could be and conveys everything the father meant to communicate. “So,” I ask them, “do you still want to see the original letter?”

Of course, the unanimous and enthusiastic reply is “YES!” Then I ask them “Why?” Why is it so important to see the original? I’ve never heard a concise and convincing answer. I, too, can’t give a single powerful reason for why I am so dissatisfied with reading a Biblical text in translation and so very much want to see the Greek. I think answers to that question always limp because language is so complex. Ironically, using language to describe how we experience language is very difficult . We could talk about how reading fluency improves recognition of the flow of thought, ability to compose or speak in Greek helps a person to see that the author chose to say it this way instead of that other way, understanding semantic differences at gut level from having used the language, κτλ. But this only scratches the surface. The experience of understanding a language at an implicit level is far more complex than any list could describe.
This is an excellent example. For me, I think the heart of my answer to such a question would be based on the fact that language is much less of an objective entity as it is a tool. What do I mean? Language is not like a math equation, which is inherently and ontologically an objective entity in itself, in the sense that the answer/result is ultimately what is important.

Language is much more like a tool or a musical instrument. While one might use a trumpet to signal one's soldiers to wake up in the morning, the tune the trumpet blows is just as important as the actual message to 'wake up!'. I highly doubt anyone who got used to the typical regal trumpet wake-up call would feel the same way about a loud-speaker that just had a boring voice say, 'wake up!', even though the meaning is exactly the same. Language, as a tool more akin to a musical instrument than a math equation, is just as much about the way in which something is expressed as it is the specific objective meaning that is expressed. Language is designed not only to communicate objective meaning but also to communicate and invoke feeling. As such, there is a certain degree of precision to the original language that can never be replicated.

Paul-Nitz wrote:
January 7th, 2019, 10:57 am

That leads to my answer to the blog title, “Does learning Koine Greek as a living language impact our understanding of theology and/or exegesis?” I believe that any language learning method can result in the sort of natural approach to a text that is most fruitful for interpretation. Learning Greek as a living language results more reliably in leading more learners to that approach.
Yes, I agree.

Jonathan Robie wrote:
January 7th, 2019, 12:04 pm
In your blog, you give the example of determinism versus free will. The value of using Greek is that it is closer to what the texts actually say, it is not a translation. But most theological debates about things like determinism versus free will are not very close to the Greek text in the first place, they are debates about systematic theology that is not based on a close reading of the text. So I don't think living language approaches will help much here.
I think this is an interesting point, and one which I appreciate. Having actually done this once (had a very brief discussion about free will and sovereignty) with a friend of mine, what I found was that discussing this issue in Koine Greek actually forced us to stay close to the biblical text. It forced us to use scriptural language to discuss the issue. In fact, it made me feel like discussing some of these issues in Koine Greek might allow us to feel more comfortable with certain tensions that we are less comfortable with in English. That was just one experience, though I can imagine if one was highly conversant with the language of Plato, they might be able to expand this conversation to a point where it did force you to deal with the tensions. My experience might have been due to my own limitation to mostly biblical vocabulary for the discussion.
Jonathan Robie wrote:
January 7th, 2019, 12:04 pm
The more you need to understand the nuances of a given text, the more helpful a better understanding of the Greek language is. I think there are people like Carl Conrad who know the language well but are not very oral, so I don't think living language approaches have a monopoly on this, but I do prefer them.
I certainly agree with that, especially when it comes to Greek (I have less confidence of this--but not none--when it comes to Hebrew, based on experience, but that is another story).

One of the difficulties about trying to drive home a certain point is that so many others go unsaid and unaddressed. But I do agree here that those who do not go for the living-language route still have very valuable contributions in understanding the nuances of the text. I have definitely benefitted from many such scholars and do to this day. And there are many instances where I would even defer to such a scholar to explain the nuances of a text far better than I could, even though they do not have a living language background.

Nevertheless, what I think there is a certain effect that only comes with a certain level of language proficiency that can only be achieved through the living language method. It is not to say that those who do not take this approach cannot express and write and contribute just about everything that those in the living approach could, but it is to say that the idea I'm getting at of actually restructuring your mental categories in a subconscious way is very unlikely to happen unless one approaches a very high degree of spoken and/or compositional fluency.


Thank you both for your feedback!
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Re: "I just don't think it makes you a better exegete ... " Theology, exegesis, and Learning Koine Greek Communicatively

Post by Jonathan Robie » January 7th, 2019, 2:26 pm

beniamin wrote:
January 7th, 2019, 12:52 pm
One of the difficulties about trying to drive home a certain point is that so many others go unsaid and unaddressed. But I do agree here that those who do not go for the living-language route still have very valuable contributions in understanding the nuances of the text. I have definitely benefitted from many such scholars and do to this day. And there are many instances where I would even defer to such a scholar to explain the nuances of a text far better than I could, even though they do not have a living language background.

Nevertheless, what I think there is a certain effect that only comes with a certain level of language proficiency that can only be achieved through the living language method. It is not to say that those who do not take this approach cannot express and write and contribute just about everything that those in the living approach could, but it is to say that the idea I'm getting at of actually restructuring your mental categories in a subconscious way is very unlikely to happen unless one approaches a very high degree of spoken and/or compositional fluency.
I agree with you - it's just hard to put your finger on exactly what that is. I know people who cannot ask or answer a Greek question who are perfectly good at translating a verse or explaining Grammar. Often, these people have done lots and lots of immersive reading, they have often done composition as well, but they are neither oral nor aural. But I've also been surprised by perfectly good translations produced by people whose knowledge of Greek is not terribly impressive.

I agree that there is a level of understanding that comes from actively using the language. In general, I suspect that immersive reading and composition may be another way of achieving the same goal as living language approaches. And what I have learned via SIOP convinces me that everyday greetings and discussing the weather may not be all that helpful for discussing texts. For those of us who cannot study with Ricco or Buth, it may be sufficient to learn to ask and answer questions about texts in order to discuss them. Both orally and in writing.

My opinion. Take it for what it's worth.
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Re: "I just don't think it makes you a better exegete ... " Theology, exegesis, and Learning Koine Greek Communicatively

Post by Benjamin Kantor » January 7th, 2019, 4:00 pm

Jonathan Robie wrote:
January 7th, 2019, 2:26 pm
beniamin wrote:
January 7th, 2019, 12:52 pm
One of the difficulties about trying to drive home a certain point is that so many others go unsaid and unaddressed. But I do agree here that those who do not go for the living-language route still have very valuable contributions in understanding the nuances of the text. I have definitely benefitted from many such scholars and do to this day. And there are many instances where I would even defer to such a scholar to explain the nuances of a text far better than I could, even though they do not have a living language background.

Nevertheless, what I think there is a certain effect that only comes with a certain level of language proficiency that can only be achieved through the living language method. It is not to say that those who do not take this approach cannot express and write and contribute just about everything that those in the living approach could, but it is to say that the idea I'm getting at of actually restructuring your mental categories in a subconscious way is very unlikely to happen unless one approaches a very high degree of spoken and/or compositional fluency.
I agree with you - it's just hard to put your finger on exactly what that is. I know people who cannot ask or answer a Greek question who are perfectly good at translating a verse or explaining Grammar. Often, these people have done lots and lots of immersive reading, they have often done composition as well, but they are neither oral nor aural. But I've also been surprised by perfectly good translations produced by people whose knowledge of Greek is not terribly impressive.

I agree that there is a level of understanding that comes from actively using the language. In general, I suspect that immersive reading and composition may be another way of achieving the same goal as living language approaches. And what I have learned via SIOP convinces me that everyday greetings and discussing the weather may not be all that helpful for discussing texts. For those of us who cannot study with Ricco or Buth, it may be sufficient to learn to ask and answer questions about texts in order to discuss them. Both orally and in writing.

My opinion. Take it for what it's worth.
I think that is one of the differences between Greek and Hebrew academically. Greek and Latin composition has a long tradition within classical studies while that is not the same for Hebrew. That is why I will always trust the top classics scholars much more han the top Hebrew scholars (if they don’t also speak the language).

In other words, I agree that intensive immersive reading and intensive composition can get you so much (or nearly all) of what speaking the languages can get you. The key here is really the following in my view...

Having to make thousands of regular and frequent decisions oneself about language usage. By speaking you simply do this more quickly, and through composition you do this more slowly yet more accurately and with more of a sensitivity to discourse.

All in all, if someone isn’t able to do speaking, you can essentially make up the difference through regular composition. I would say you can probably even get further for understanding texts if you are talking about high level composition vs. low level speaking.

The ideal, of course, is both. I agree that talking about the weather will not help you with texts if that is all you do. Though as a stepping stone to building fluency, it can eventually lead to something meaningful in that regard.

Long story short, all these things are helpful, and I think the heart of communicative teaching or composition is a high level of real-time familiarity with and recognition of the language and putting you in the place where you have to make authorial decisions yourself on a routine basis. Anything that helps with this is a positive.
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Re: "I just don't think it makes you a better exegete ... " Theology, exegesis, and Learning Koine Greek Communicatively

Post by Stirling Bartholomew » January 7th, 2019, 4:10 pm

Starting to sound like a Greek Chorus. You guys are going to kill each other off agreeing on everything.

Not too long ago someone posted a link to an article discussing research on language acquisition which concluded that composition didn't contribute significantly to acquisition. Reading and comprehending large volumes of text written by native speakers was the main factor in acquisition.
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Re: "I just don't think it makes you a better exegete ... " Theology, exegesis, and Learning Koine Greek Communicatively

Post by Jonathan Robie » January 7th, 2019, 4:40 pm

Stirling Bartholomew wrote:
January 7th, 2019, 4:10 pm
Starting to sound like a Greek Chorus. You guys are going to kill each other off agreeing on everything.

Not too long ago someone posted a link to an article discussing research on language acquisition which concluded that composition didn't contribute significantly to acquisition. Reading and comprehending large volumes of text written by native speakers was the main factor in acquisition.
Hmmm, for modern languages, at least, there's a widely held belief that all four channels are very important - listening, speaking, reading, writing. But some of this is circular, because these are also the skills that they expect someone to learn.

I think this thread is partly about what happens if one or two or three of these channels is not involved in the instruction. You seem to be saying that as long as someone reads enough, it will be mostly compensated for. Could you point me to the part of the article that says that, I would like to see how much evidence there is behind the assertion.

In my experience teaching a variety of subjects, there is a huge difference between teaching anything passively and teaching it in a way that requires regular on-target feedback from the learner.
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Re: "I just don't think it makes you a better exegete ... " Theology, exegesis, and Learning Koine Greek Communicatively

Post by Stirling Bartholomew » January 7th, 2019, 5:04 pm

I am reporting on an article that I didn't post. It was somewhere in this endless discussion. Could have been on textkit.

You may learn content better by teaching it. Earl Radmacher was an advocate of that. The article was on language acquisition using some scheme to quantify measurable test results. Composition didn't fare well in the tests. Processing native language input and comprehending it was the key factor in language acquisition.

These are not my ideas, some social scientist's work.
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