Language Standards for PhD Study

I just got caught up on a hot topic of discussion in the blogosphere: language standards for PhD study in New Testament. I have written about this in my book Prepare, Succeed, Advance, but I wanted to say a bit more on this topic.

I think that knowing Greek is a given, but it really must be extensive knowledge of grammar and vocabulary. Hurtado is right that one must also be able to read the critical apparatus. Listen, people, it will do you no good to rush through! Don’t give the examiners reason to believe that you don’t really know Greek!

Let me give you an example. I studied Classical Latin in high school (four years!). I picked it up again in my ThM; I did Ecclesiastical Latin for an independent study. For my dissertation, I had to do some interaction with Latin textual comparison (esp Vulgate) when trying to discern some obscure Pauline metaphors and their meaning. One of my examiners, Simon Gathercole, noticed that at one point I “forgot” to refer to the lexical form of a word. I was repeatedly citing the accusative form (by accident). Now, several people had read this section of dissertation – in fact, I published an expanded version in Restoration Quarterly and no one picked up on this faux pas. Simon did, and he was worried that I did not really know Latin, so he made me turn to the problematic word and parse it. I hadn’t had to do that out loud for over ten years! Anyway, as nervous as I was, I was able to do it (because I really did know Latin, though it was rusty). I respect Simon for doing it. He did make me sweat it out, though!

So now you know someone who got “tested.” In my case, I spent time on a Latin issue in only one chapter, for about 2 pages. It wasn’t the foundation for my whole dissertation.

What about German? While I advocate learning German early and learning it well, I don’t think it appropriate for an examiner to whip out a German text and ask the student to read. I advise that students need to be able to translate one page per 20 minutes with the use of a dictionary. If an examiner gave that time frame and a dictionary, I would say that is OK.

While German is very important, I don’t think we are in the same situation today as people like Hurtado were in the seventies. First of all, there is exponentially more literature to deal with in English now than 35 years ago. Secondly, the push for students to learn German using “for reading knowledge” textbooks (like Wilson) mean that we are working towards the most basic use of German to effectively read articles and books. I remember one year at the British NT Conference Andrew Lincoln made an extended joke in German. I felt so embarrassed that everyone laughed except me. However, our concern is reading comprehension, so that should be the priority. German verbal jokes can wait. If a concerned examiner gave me an article in German and three hours with a lexicon and my grammar, I could translate it. I really don’t think we need to expect more than that, though we can value when folks excel beyond that.

Personally, I tried to read about 15-20 German articles that were relevant to my dissertation topic and 2-3 key monographs. With French a bit less (probably 10 articles and some commentaries). As long as you tackle the eminent literature, you don’t need to feel bad. Also, some classical German commentaries are worth consulting. We need to be careful not to just throw in German quotes for the impression of international interest. Time and space are simply too short…

What about GoogleTranslate? I fully endorse using tools, but largely to help accuracy and to give aid when something is particularly obscure. It is the same with Bibleworks or Accordance. They are highly useful advanced tools, but they should never substitute for basic language knowledge.

I regularly lament that I did not take up potential opportunities to go to Germany for a course. However, I do not feel that my dissertation lacked in the necessary interaction with German/French literature directly relevant to my topic.

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4 thoughts on “Language Standards for PhD Study

  1. Thanks for this read. I read some posts about the language question in biblical studies and I was quite shocked to learn that there is a dispute about that at all.

    I hope the universities will be able to keep the standards for the PhDs high. Lowered standards will have positive effects in short-term for the universities (more PhD applicants), but long-term this will be horrible.

  2. This is making me really rethink getting a PhD in Bible and Theology after I finish my MATS that I’m just starting. I’m 42 and don’t have a lick of French or German, though I do speak fluent Spanish and am often asked by native speakers about proper spelling. I may go for the D.Miss. instead, especially considering the intercultural aspects of the ministry I’ve been involved in.

  3. I hate to put people off to doing a Biblical Studies PhD, but with so few jobs out there and funding for PhD students drying up, the standards (despite what some are saying) are extremely high for language proficiency. We do need for good missiologists!

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