Monthly Archives: May 2014

Sunday roundup #6: 5.25.14.

I’ve found another use for this weekly habit: making sure I stay on top of my links!  It also ensures that no matter how busy I get with school, I never neglect this blog entirely.

1.  I really enjoyed Abram K-J’s thoughts on “Preaching in an Age of Distraction.”  His words apply not just to preaching, but to any type of deep thinking:

An underlying theme of the book is that the ones who follow after distractions (whether preacher or congregation, or both) are “expressing the longing of a restless heart.” Kalas writes, “[W]hat gets our attention gets us.” The challenge is that not all distractions are harmful, per se; some stimulate creativity and pull us out of ruts. How to discern the difference?

2.  Brian W. Davidson recommends some summer reading:

3.  Russell Beatty applies his Greek to an exegetical problem in 1 John 3:7-10:

The difficultly of the passage can be explained by the aspect of Greek verbs or participles in the present tense.  Although it may be strange in English, I’ve added “continually” to the main present tense verbs.  That should shed some light on the passage.  Present tense verbs carry a continual aspect.  For verse 9 in particular, some modern translations will say something like: “Everyone who has been born from God doesn’t keep on sinning”, or “doesn’t continue to sin…” “…because his seed keeps on remaining in him, and he is not able to sin, because he/she has been born from God.”

4.  Scribalishness opines on “El Shaddai and the Gender of God”:

That El Shaddai means “The God of Breasts” or “The Breasted God” is supported by (1) its etymology—it derives from the Hebrew for breast (as discussed above) and (2) its usage in the Hebrew Bible. Virtually every use of El Shaddai occurs in a fertility context. What this means is that when the biblical writers wanted to emphasize that God is a God of fertility (and how better to envision such a God than as a God with breasts?) they used the name El Shaddai (or, in Ruth,Shaddai).

Have a great week, folks!


Review: “When Dead Tongues Speak: Teaching Beginning Greek and Latin.”

Right now I am listening to The Sparrow, a work of theological sci-fi in which a team of Jesuits lead a mission — part evangelization, part scientific discovery — to Rakhat, a planet with intelligent life.  One of the main characters, Fr. Emilio Santos, is a linguistic genius.  Another character, an AI researcher, spends months interviewing him to understand his language-learning techniques.  Within months of contact with the people of Rakhat, Santos has become mostly fluent in their language, despite its having no relation with any human language.

410hV8nKgBL._AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-47,22_AA300_SH20_OU15_I am not yet at Santos’ level, but I am already learning quite a bit about language acquisition from John Gruber-Miller’s edited volume, When Dead Tongues Speak: Teaching Beginning Greek and Latin.  The book features essays by classicists applying modern pedagogy research to how Greek and Latin have traditionally been taught.  Although it is written primarily for professors, it has made me think deeply about how I learn languages and what has worked and not worked for me in my education so far.  The book has been well-reviewed by Stephen M. Trzaskoma, so I won’t duplicate that, but I will focus on three chapters that were particularly illuminating for me.

Chapter Two: “Cognitive Style and Learning Strategies in Latin Instruction,” by Andrea Deagon

I would never have predicted that such an innocuously-titled chapter would give me so much insight!  Deagon delineates different learning styles and their strengths and weaknesses in the language classroom.  One of her major demarcations is the difference between comprehension and operation learners:

Comprehension learners prefer to get a feel for an entire topic before approaching details … they often look ahead and back; details fall into place last.  They learn through using a language, and are often less attuned to minor errors than operation learners.  In contrast, operation learners approach a topic methodically, preferring a step-by-step approach and building an overall picture of the topic from details.  They tend to be more rule-oriented… (29)

I am definitely more of a comprehension learner.  I look at passages as a whole, and am better at getting the sense of a Greek poem than at discerning the distinction between an aorist and perfect.  My best experiences with Greek have been when I could make connections between the language and broader questions of culture, exegesis, and literary technique.  When I took my Odyssey reading course last quarter, I had a hard time with the in-class translations, but my word analysis paper was incredibly fun.

My first-year Greek course was taught in the traditional grammar-translation method: learning grammar, then applying it to translate “textbook Greek” back into English.  As the year progressed and time became more tight, we stopped doing the passages for each chapter (in the book we used, mostly Herodotus) and diving into details about Greek culture — something that Gruber-Miller and others in this book lament as being typical.  By third quarter I was thoroughly sick of Greek, and stuck with it as a means to an end.  I had a friend in the class who seemed to be much more the operational type: he loved grammar, loved looking at its details and nuances.  Not realizing that we simply had different learning styles, I often felt stupid when working with him.

Deagon’s chapter helped me accept my learning style.  I can find ways that work for me in language, like doing word studies and reading commentaries.  I can also catch myself when I get too lazy about grammar.  Just as the operational learners might get so caught up in details that they fail to ask the big questions of meaning in the text, comprehension learners like me can fall into a habit of bullshitting our way through the technical work of translation.

Chapter Eight: “Ancient Greek in Classroom Conversation,” by Paula Saffire

One of the most helpful exercises in my Odyssey course was memorizing the first ten lines of the Odyssey.  Memorization is often scorned as “rote learning,” but I found that it gave me something concrete to hold onto.  In learning ancient languages, it’s easy to feel that there’s nothing to show for it.  If someone at a party asks me to say something in Greek or asks me to translate a sentence, I am useless.  But I can always quote “Andra moi, ennepe, Mousa…” (“Sing to me of the man, Muse…”) and feel proud of what I have done.  And every time I recall those ten lines and think through their meaning, I re-remember much about the Odyssey and Homeric Greek as well.

Since then I have tried to integrate memorization and other forms of oral learning into my Greek education.  I’m currently working on the Magnificat in Greek.  Next I hope to move onto the Lord’s Prayer.  I hope to attend Latin mass over the summer so I can internalize the sounds of that as well.  Still, I have never thought to go as far as Saffire suggests in her article.  She describes using purely conversational Greek for the first two weeks of the year, using dialogues from her own textbook.  She argues that these first two weeks make students feel comfortable with the language, enable rapid vocabulary acquisition, and make grammar acquisition move faster the rest of the year.

The number of Greek professors who make students speak ancient Greek is rather small, whether teaching Koine in biblical studies or Attic in classics.  But the few who do advocate such methods are a vocal minority.  I have definitely heard of Randall Buth, Michael Halcomb, and Daniel Streett, three New Testament scholars who advocate a “living Koine” approach.  But frankly, I’ve always been too scared to try it out.  Perhaps this summer I will order Buth’s materials or Halcomb’s Conversational Koine stuff.  Saffire concludes her essay with some success stories:

(1) Hebrew, once used only in fixed language for prayer, is now the everyday, living speech of Israel.  That was an experiment in speaking an ancient language that worked, and on a massive scale! (2) I am told that Sanskrit is still spoken in some ashrams in India. (3) Latin is still spoken in the Vatican.  I learned this in a game of Diplomacy played in Jerusalem.  While everyone else disappeared into corners to make their “top secret” plans, the two Vatican-trained priests conversed loudly and openly, secure from prying because the rapidity of their Latin made eavesdropping impossible. (179)

My Latin teacher had a similar experience – four years of conversational Latin at a Catholic high school that had recently been deconverted from a minor seminary in the 1960’s.

Chapter Nine: “Teaching Writing in Beginning Latin and Greek: Logos, Ethos, and Pathos,” by John Gruber-Miller

Gruber-Miller’s article looks at Greek and Latin composition in a new light.  Rather than discounting it as a waste of time, he argues for it as a useful pedagogical tool.

Writing in Greek is not entirely foreign to Greek pedagogy.  My Greek textbook had English sentences for Greek translation.  These were much more difficult but also much more helpful.  However, like the reading passages, we stopped doing these at some point in the second quarter.  But Gruber-Miller doesn’t think that Greek composition is only a means to the end of learning grammar.  He wants students to express their own thoughts and ideas in classical tongues.  This would be much more work than set English-to-Greek sentences, but also more rewarding in terms of student interest.  He lists several exercises that could be useful, such as making students write graffiti like the kind found at Pompeii. has two old books on Greek prose composition.  I think I’ll try them out this summer as well.

Overall, I gleaned a surprising amount of insight from such an academic tome.  I would recommend it for anyone finishing their first year of Greek or Latin.  I wish there was another volume for students, to help us figure out our learning styles and give us ideas for being a more active learner in our college Greek courses and beyond.

Sunday roundup #5: 5.18.14.

This has been a quiet week in the ancient languages blogosphere.  I only have one link!

I am headed into the final weeks of the quarter now.  So I am more focused on writing papers than on writing blog posts.  But this summer will bring two new developments.  First, I have gathered a reading group for Old English learning, including one of my university’s Anglo-Saxonists.  I hope to read such great poems as “The Wanderer,” “Seafarer,” “The Dream of the Rood,” and of course, Beowulf!  I am also curious how the Bible was translated into Old English.

Also this summer I have been hired as a research assistant for Catherine Murphy’s work to reconstruct 4QXII, a Qumran scroll containing the minor prophets.  In graduate school she worked on that text for the Discoveries in the Judean Desert series, but at the time there were many small fragments which were left unidentified due to publication deadlines.  This summer, I’ll be helping her identify those fragments and digitally reconstruct the scroll.  That should give me something to write about here!

Best of all, I discovered Lectionary Greek, a blog which seeks to find nuggets in the Greek of the lectionary every week.  The most recent post is on Acts 17:16-31.

Sunday roundup #4: 5.13.14.

Two days late, but it’s here!

I apologize for my lack of writing lately.  School has gotten to the crazy point.  This summer I am already excited to have the time to dive deep into texts.

1.  Polyglossic, On Fascinating Vs. Dull Languages:

A competent linguist might produce a solid, detailed grammar of Language X, while a less competent colleague might produce a slim and superficial grammar of neighboring Language Y; based on this work, outside observers might conclude that the first linguist was lucky to have found something as complex and interesting as Language X, while Language Y “is a rather simple and dull language.”  The truth, he argues, “is that X and Y are equally complex and interesting, if analysed in the right way.”  The problem lies in the skill of the analyst, not in the inherent qualities of either language.

I really like this idea, though I will point out that part of what makes a language fascinating for me – an ancient language anyway – is what doors it opens.  Sanskrit, Greek, and Hebrew open up some of the greatest literature ever written.  I don’t know of the same quality and quantity of writing in ancient Aramaic.

2.  Geoffrey Steadman is coming out with yet another commentary – this time on Sophocles’ Antigone:

Starting on Monday, May 26, which is Memorial Day in the United States,  I will be releasing the commentary for Sophocles’ Antigone once a week in 7-page installments (15 lines of Greek per page, with vocabulary and notes below on the same page). Eventually the installments will be stitched together into a single book. My hope is that intermediate and advanced readers will consider reading Antigone to hone their skills and develop reading habits outside of school.

3.  Pagan Steven Posch ponders the meaning of the biblical injunction to “not suffer a witch to live”:

The second was the verb, the “suffer to live” part. In Hebrew, a notoriously compact language, the entire phrase is a terse three words: Mkhashefá lo tkhayé (mem-khaf-shin-fe-he lamed-alef tav-het-yod-he). Lo is “no, not.” The root of the verb, which is second person masculine singular, is the root meaning “to live”, but in the “causative” conjugation. So the literal meaning is: “Do not cause a mkhashefa to live.” What the rabbis couldn’t decide (both opinions, typically, are preserved in the Talmud) was whether this meant that you should kill her outright or just not help her make a living, i.e. don’t patronize her. 

4.  The chapter five review of When God Spoke Greek is up — once school is out I am determined to read it!

I highly recommend this chapter. It is a valuable summary of some of the key differences between the Hebrew and Greek texts. But I would also recommend readers consider some of the studies of the translation technique of the Septuagint translators and the discussion of Septuagint variants and pseudo-variants in the works of Emanuel Tov (e.g., The Text-Critical Use of the Septuagint). These sources will contribute to further understanding of the number and type of differences between the Hebrew and Greek that could be attributed to the translator, and this understanding will result in greater ability to evaluate the evidence concerning diverse early Hebrew text forms.  

Sunday roundup #3: 5.4.14.

1.  Check out the links in the first-ever ancient languages blog carnival!

2.  Zwinglius Redivivus’ April Biblio-Blog Carnival.

3.  Polyglossic has a review of British linguist David Crystal’s book Language Death.

4.  BLT examines the word “baptism” and its roots in Plato.  Apparently Plato used it to refer to getting drunk (among other things).

Ancient Languages Carnival #1!

Greetings, and welcome to the first ever Ancient Languages Blog Carnival!

Runes, anyone?

Runes, anyone?

Although it’s not recent, I wanted to set the tone for this collection by linking to BuzzFeed’s list of The Ten Coolest Dead Languages.  In the future I hope to have more languages represented.  In the meantime, thank you to all who submitted posts present and past!


Charles Sullivan details how to translate Greek fathers and how to read miniscule Greek:

The translator cannot assume Church writers follow the same literary style and argumentation represented in the Holy Books. Rather one will discover the majority were influenced by classical Greek writers and thought — some even quoting Aristotle, Plato, and more by name. Many Christian leaders from the second through fifth centuries emerged from Greek rhetorical arts before they became Christians. Their literature reflects either a reaction or assertion to this influence.

Mike Skinner argues that we should re-examine the hina particle in John 9:3:

Consider the implications of John 9:1-3 (NIV):

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.

For many, this passage implies that God gives people sicknesses (like blindness or cancer) in order to work towards a greater good.

My friend Brian, at Winds and Waves, breaks down the sound repetitions in the first ten lines of the Odyssey and how they emphasize Odysseus’ character as a wanderer:

Consider: why do we have variations of the word polla at the very beginning of the next two lines? What is Homer trying to emphasize in regard to the follies of Odysseus’ comrades? Why is eipe, from the same root as ennepe, used towards the end of these lines? What is the effect of all those dentals (T, D, and Th) in the final line?

Allison at Polyglossic writes about the Greek roots of linguistic terms:

When the thinkers of continental Europe were developing theories and models that we have come to recognize as modern linguistic science, they drew upon their classical education for their initial ideas of how languages worked.  They also drew upon their knowledge of Greek and Latin words to coin new terms for the new concepts they were developing

Arabic and Hebrew

These posts by the Rabbi Rachel Barenblat (the Velveteen Rabbi) are a few years old, but I really enjoyed reading them for their comparisons of theologically potent cognates in Qur’anic Arabic and Biblical Hebrew.  I enjoyed her translation of one surah into Hebrew:

When I was a student at Bennington, several of my teachers encouraged us to make the translation of poetry a regular part of our writing lives. It enriches one’s attentiveness to linguistic detail, they said, and it gives one a deeper appreciation both of the original poem in the foreign tongue, and of translations into one’s own language. … This process makes me feel differently about these opening verses of the Qur’an. I know them in a new way now.

In another post, she writes about the Arabic ruh and the Hebrew ruah:

In sûrat As-Sajdah (The Prostration), we read that God “originated the creation of man from clay” (32:7) and “shaped him well and breathed into him of His spirit” (23:9.) The sense that ruh is breathed into humanity by God seems to link ruh with rih, wind: God breathes something into man, a kind of divine wind, which transforms the clay into a living being.

The resonance between this Qur’anic usage of ruh and parallel Biblical usage of the Hebrew term ruach is dazzling.

That’s all for now, folks – the first will be the quietest!

If you’d like to submit for next month, do email me at  In the meantime, I hope we can get this off the ground!