Friday, March 25, 2016

What Languages Does A New Testament Philologist Need To Know?

Question: What languages does a New Testament philologist need to know?

AP: In order to carry out the task of original research, the student of the New Testament needs a few languages. First and foremost, he or she needs a working knowledge of Koine Greek, since it was in this language that the texts of the Christian corpus were written. The student also needs to know Hebrew, the language of the Jewish Old Testament before its translation into Greek in the Septuagint (LXX). And third, he or she needs Aramaic, the language spoken at the time of Jesus and in which the sayings (logia or ispissima verb Jesu) were transmitted until they were translated into Greek at a very early date. Without a working knowledge of these three languages we cannot adequately explain numerous linguistic phenomena in New Testament Greek. The need to have recourse to the Jewish background for the explanation of many New Testament passages makes it more or less indispensable to be able to handle these languages. Knowledge of Latin on the part of the student of the New Testament must be taken for granted and does not require special justification. Beyond this, anyone who aspires to enter into intertestamental literature, the ancient translations, and other literary products from around the time of the composition of the New Testament will of course need to possess sufficient knowledge of Coptic, classical Ethiopic, Syriac, and Church Slavonic. The requirements we have just set out represent an ideal, and it is obvious that the scientific study of the New Testament, today more than ever, has to be the task of a team of specialists in which each one contributes his or her specific knowledge.

*The above is taken, with only slight modification, from Antonio Piñero and Jesús Peláez, The Study of the New Testament: A Comprehensive Introduction, trans. David E. Orton and Paul Ellingworth, Tools for Biblical Studies 3 (Leiden: Deo, 2003), 2-3.

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TWH: In addition to Antonio's answer to this question, I'd like to point our attention to a chapter in Markus Bockmuehl's book Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006). The chapter is titled "The Troubled Fortunes of New Testament Scholarship" (27-74). The whole chapter is really food for thought. Nothing against the rest of the book, but this chapter alone is worth the price of the book. Bockmuehl writes the following:
"Anyone seeking to write on a mainstream topic of New Testament scholarship is thus soon trapped in Borge's library. A corollary of that previous point, however, is the extent to which New Testament scholarship's fragmentation has in recent years been further accelerated by its practitioners' increasingly restricted field of reference and linguistic competence. Scholars tend to concern themselves with primary and secondary literature only in their own postage-stamp-sized bailiwick. A generation ago, lip service was still paid to 'keeping up' with scholarship in other languages, even if it was already a custom more honored in the breach than in the observance. For anyone included to the old-fashioned view (still widely held in the natural sciences) that serious scholarly inquiry is at least in principle a global enterprise, it can only be disheartening to observe how often footnotes in English remain remarkably untouched by directly pertinent recent publications in German, French, or Spanish–and vice versa. Rare is the scholar who bothers comprehensively with the key international publications, in part because many (formerly) distinguished institutions no longer insist that their graduate students acquire competence in the leading ancient and modern research languages. Where an author's foreign-language citations are both few in number and strikingly long in the tooth, it is hard to resist the uncharitable suspicion that they have been 'recycled.'" (35)
I recently wrote a review of Antonio's book on the apostle Paul for Filología Neotestamentaria. The book by the way is Guía para entender a Pablo de Tarso. Una interpretación del pensamiento paulino (Trotta, 2015). Here's how my review concluded: "Indeed, Spain is a thriving center of philology, and this book is yet another reminder of how much the field of New Testament studies has to gain by consulting the research arising out of the Iberian Peninsula." I spoke a little more about this on my personal website earlier in the month, saying:
"The primary drawback is the book is written in Spanish (no offense to my Spanish-speaking friends). Unfortunately, the field of New Testament studies seems to ignore the fact that Spain is a thriving center of philology. Much, especially on the Greek New Testament, is being written in Spanish, and I'm afraid many New Testament scholars, for lack of skill in the Spanish language, will fail to benefit from the contributions originating from the Iberian Peninsula." 
Of course, I say that not as a slight to Antonio or his book. What I'm saying is really a challenge to researchers of the New Testament–current and future–to not live exclusively in the world of their mother tongue. I've found myself impressed again and again by the ease at which scholars abroad engage with research in multiple languages, yet research my side of the Atlantic seems malnourished with its diet of English-only literature. Still, this is a universal challenge. In your research, engage as much of the literature in as many of the languages as you possibly can wherever you are and whatever your native tongue.

I can remember working with David Alan Black on a study dealing with εἰκῇ in Matt. 5:22. I won't soon forget sitting in his office and he told me what we needed: "So, we need to find out what everyone has said on this textual variant since 1988. We need to search English, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, and any other language we can find something in." Sure enough, people actually talked about the variant issue beyond the English language (granted not many people say very much in any language about it). Dave was the first professor that I had who encouraged his students to engage multiple languages. Even in his classes, if there was someone who spoke German, Spanish, or Korean, for example, he would often ask them to tell us about how a certain passage was rendered in that language. It was that day in his office, though, that solidified the point: If you're going to engage in research, you need to engage as much of the research as you possibly can, and that includes other languages. No single modern language has a monopoly on research. That example has continued with my time studying with Antonio, who models for his students and colleagues what it looks like to be an engaged researcher. It's an interesting expression, isn't it? Engaged researcher.

Just a final recommendation. I won't reproduce it here, but if you get a chance to read the chapter in Bockmuehl's book, find the section heading titled "The Persistence of Dragons." Priceless.

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