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Hallo again to all.An elementary Greek lesson, with a boy and a lion in cartoon form.

The Reverend Sydney Smith once said that he would rather meet a roaring lion on a narrow path than a well-intentioned man who was ignorant. Looking just now at the copy of A Practical Grammar for Classical Hebrew that has languished on a nearby bookshelf for close to a decade, we despair of our ignorance of Hebrew, that great rich language of the Old Testament. We'd hoped -- with the enthusiasm and energy of youth -- to tackle it and teach ourselves, but daily life intervened and good intentions went awry.

We confess to knowing Greek and Latin, but that came about largely because of the allure, to a teenage mind, of mayhem, murder, love triangles, and misbehaving men, women, and gods in fifth-century Athens. Now, as grown-ups -- and members of the Blessed Order of the Laity -- we aren't required to be able to pick our way through the New Testament in Greek (although we're glad we can).

For a very long time, the ability to read Holy Scripture in its original languages was mostly compulsory for a person seeking Holy Orders. Such a requirement was easier to fulfil in earlier times, when a university education usually meant a strong dose of Greek and Latin. Now, of course, a bachelor's degree means nothing of the sort. Men and women who enter theological training today -- often at a far later time in their lives than in previous centuries -- tend to have very little Latin and less Greek. Should being able to wrestle with scripture in its original form be a priority? Does it matter that one fully understands the shades of meaning in the dialogue between our Lord and the Syro-Phoenician woman? Or will a variety of translations, several good commentaries, and one's one mind and heart suffice?

It's a question to which we do not know the answer. Our inclination is to think that something precious has been lost in the gradual disappearance of Hebrew, Latin, and Greek from theological education (well, secular education, too, but that's a different issue). We know that some small smattering of one language or the other is required by many theological colleges, but a year or so will do very little to bring someone to a point of being able to read, with any degree of fluency, the Old and New Testament. If reading with fluency and demonstrable skill in the biblical languages was compulsory for ordinands, a vast amount of time would need to be set aside in the curriculum.

Perhaps a weakening knowledge of ancient languages has led to the growing numbers of illiterate (mostly non-Anglican, thank goodness) fundamentalists, who hold that 'the King James Version' is the literal word of God? Is it meaningful to be a fundamentalist without being able to read the languages in which 'God actually wrote'? Islamic fundamentalists have one advantage over their Christian peers: most of them can read the Koran in its original Arabic.

Perhaps are we being nostalgic for some imagined golden age of theological education. The world is a more complex place than it was before, say, the Second World War. It may be a far more important thing that a clergy person be conversant with the basic theories and concept of science than to conjugate verbs in Greek. Would our troubles in the Anglican Communion be fewer if every minister had a stiff course of ancient languages under his or her girdle? Possibly. (See Brooke Foss Westcott.) Would sermons be perhaps more interesting? Possibly. Would the Kingdom of Heaven be advanced at a faster pace? Unlikely.

Do tell us what you think. If you have studied one of the ancient languages and found that helpful in your ministry, we should be interested in knowing. If you find that study to have been of little help, please let us know that as well. If you wish you had had the opportunity of learning Hebrew, Greek, or Latin -- but didn't -- would you let us know? Can a fundamentalist hold to the literal meaning of a translated text? This is an informal late-summer / late-winter survey, entirely unscientific, which we're conducting because the question interests us and because we think it matters.

See you next week.

Cynthia McFarland's signature
Brian Reid's signature
Cynthia McFarland
Brian Reid

Last updated: 22 August 2004

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