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Five Books/Scholars that Shaped My Reading of the Bible

28th July 2009

I have been tagged in the popular  “Five Books” meme and since I want to return to blogging more regularly, I figured I would add my five to the growing list of biblical studies blogs that have responded to the meme. The original question posed over at the C. Orthodoxy blog was, “Name the five books (or scholars) that had the most immediate and lasting influence on how you read the Bible.”

1. Since the focus of the meme is on “how you read the Bible”, i.e., hermeneutics, my first book is Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method (Continuum, 2005;  buy from |  More than any other scholar, Gadamer’s hermeneutical model has shaped the way I read the Bible (and everything else for that matter).  Another scholar who has been influential in this regard is Anthony Thiselton.

2. Learning to read the Bible in its original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) has naturally had a lasting influence on how I read it. Thus, the second scholar I list is Bruce Waltke. As his student and teaching assistant, my understanding of Biblical Hebrew benefited immensely, if I didn’t always share some of his theological perspectives. His (and M. O’Connor’s) An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Eisenbrauns, 1990; |, remains within arm’s reach whenever I am trying to understand a matter of Hebrew syntax.

3. Reading the Bible for me entails dealing with ancient texts and translations. For that reason Emanuel Tov is my third choice.  Whether its in the area of textual criticism (see his Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible [Fortress, 2001; buy from |]), Septuagint studies (see my LXX pages), or (of course!) Dead Sea Scrolls (where can I start? see my Dead Sea Scrolls section of Codex), Tov has influenced my understanding of the history and development of the biblical text like few others (one other I should mention is naturally my dissertation supervisor Al Pietersma!).

4. Why do I read the Bible? I do not read it only because of its considerable influence on Western civilization, nor only because I have to prepare lecture notes or sermons ostensibly based on it! Nor do I only read it because I find it fascinating and compelling. The reason I first started reading the Bible when I was 18 was because I believed the God spoke in and through it and at that time in my life I desperately needed a word from God! That conviction remains perhaps the primary reason why I read the Bible.  A biblical scholar whose ideas  helped me in and through graduate studies is Brevard S. Childs. Whether his Introduction to Old Testament as Scripture (Fortress, 1997; buy from | or his Biblical Theology of Old and New Testaments (Fortress, 1992; buy from |, his “canonical approach” helped me appreciate the value (and the limitations) of the various higher and lower criticisms and provided me with a way to read the Christian Bible (both Old and New Testaments)  faithfully as a biblical scholar.

5. Finally, since, as I mentioned above,  I am not just interested in reading the Bible for academic or antiquarian reasons, but because I believe it is God’s word to the church, my last scholar is Karl Barth. While I do not claim to have digested all of Barth’s works (perhaps just a few crumbs from his table), I don’t think there are (m)any theologians who interact with the biblical texts to the extent he does. From his ground-breaking Commentary on Romans (Oxford, 1968; buy from | to his voluminous Church Dogmatics (Continuum, 2009; buy from |, Barth modeled a way of reading Scripture that remained focused on the Triune God.

There are many others I could list, scholars like Herman Gunkel, Robert Lowth, Gerhard von Rad, Phyllis Trible, Walter Brueggemann, Sara Japhet, John Goldingay, George Eldon Ladd, Raymond Brown, N.T. Wright, Kenton Sparks, but I won’t.

So that is my list! I won’t bother tagging anyone since I don’t want to spend the time to figure out who hasn’t been tagged yet!

I am curious what books or scholars have been influential in shaping the way you, my readers, read the Bible.

Posted in Bible, Biblioblogs, Scholars, Teaching & Learning | 4 Comments »

How to Teach Introductory Classical Hebrew

14th March 2008

How should professors teach introductory Classical Hebrew? That is the question that two recent online articles attempt to answer or at least discuss — and they approach the question from quite different perspectives. The first article by Rahel Halabe is part of the March 2008 SBL Forum, while the second article by John A. Cook was just uploaded to the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures.

As evident from the title of Rahel Halabe‘s article, “Ancient Languages are Still Around, But Do We Really Know How to Teach Them?” (SBL Forum, March 2008), she thinks there is something lacking in the way most professors teach introductory Hebrew. In a nutshell, she argues that, in contrast to the creativity and appropriate pedagogy of modern foreign language acquisition methods, the teaching methods of ancient languages are stuck in antiquity. She acknowledges that many of the most recent introductory Hebrew textbooks employ the latest information technology (e.g., vocabulary flashcard programs), but we shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking “that the emergence of real new approaches in imparting ancient languages has occurred.” She then introduces some notions of functional grammar and relates them to how Hebrew should be taught, including the need to balance breadth and depth, as well as form and function. Thus, for instance, in teaching the Hebrew verbal system, Halabe maintains:

Rather than a long and confusing list of translation options into English tenses, as usually offered by academic textbooks, one should offer in the introductory course a minimal list of the most common interpretations of any verb form and encourage the students to use context and common sense while reading a straightforward text.

She then moves on to note some insights from pedagogical grammar, such as the appropriate distinction between developmental and variational items in a language, and the need to give more attention and time to the former. Rather than load students down with grammatical rules, pedagogical grammar would suggest a large exposure to text with some simple “rules of thumb” that have descriptive and predictive power is a better way to go.

For more information on Halabe’s approach, you can check out her website Hebrew with Rahel Halabe, and especially her MEd paper, “The Introduction to Biblical Hebrew the Practical Way” available there.

John A. Cook charts out a slightly different course for introductory Classical Hebrew courses in his article, “The Vav-Prefixed Verb Forms in Elementary Hebrew Grammar” in the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures – Volume 8: Article 3 (2008). Cook similarly laments the state of introductory Hebrew textbooks, though not for the lack of pedagogical finesse, but because of the huge gap or disconnect between elementary grammars (which are being published at an ever-increasing rate) and the recent scholarly advances in understanding ancient Hebrew. Instead of offering a more general critique like Halabe, Cook picks one feature of Classical Hebrew (vav-prefixed verbal forms) and “illustrate how these forms might be explained to beginning Biblical Hebrew students in a way that takes into account recent linguistic insights.”

Cook argues that the gap noted above needs to be spanned, since “students deserve the most accurate grammar description of Biblical
Hebrew” and because “the traditional description has tended to portray the Hebrew verbal system as this strange beast without any parallel among human languages” (I find the latter reason more compelling, especially in the light of Halabe’s article). Cook then proceeds to provide examples of how introductory grammars (inadequately) explain the vav-prefixed verbal forms and how their explanations are typically based on antiquated understandings of grammar. Thus, Kittel’s use of “vav-conversive” hearkens back to the sixteenth century, while Bornemann’s use of “vav-consecutive” and Futato’s “vav-relative” derive from the 1800s. Next, Cook discusses three advances in understanding the vav-prefixed forms:

  1. recognition that the imperfect and the vav-prefixed imperfect forms are actually distinct conjugations;
  2. similar recognition that the perfect form and the vav-prefixed perfect are a single conjugation; and
  3. depending on word order, the vav-prefixed perfect form is is more closely aligned syntactically and semantically with the traditional Hebrew modal forms.

While this is not the time nor place to debate these understandings of the Hebrew vav-prefix forms, Cook’s point is well taken. There have been significant discussion of the Hebrew verbal system over the last while, much of which has not made its way into introductory grammars (with some exceptions I should note; I am thinking especially of Rocine’s Learning Biblical Hebrew: A New Approach using Discourse Analysis).

In the final section of his essay, Cook explores how one could teach the “modal” perfect form to beginning Hebrew students. I should note that this section is not just theoretical, since Cook has co-authored (and presumably used in the classroom) an introduction with Robert Holmstedt of the University of Toronto (from what I gather it is still in the pre-publication “working out the bugs” phase. A free version is available for download here).

Cook concludes my re-affirming the need to teach solid, linguistically informed understandings of the Classical Hebrew verbal system to introductory students, and that such theories can be taught in such a way that not only is comprehensible to first-year language students, rather than relying on inaccurate explanations from past centuries.

I found that both of these articles (and the larger projects on which they are based) provide much food for thought. As someone who has taught Classical Hebrew for over a decade, I can validate the concerns of both authors — even though they are slightly at odds with one another. I suspect that Halabe would balk at introducing concepts such as modality and contingency to beginning Hebrew students, while Cook would roll his eyes at the use of language such as “vav-conversive” and other”antiquated” descriptions in Halabe’s grammar.

I find myself in the middle. I try to do all that I can to ensure that my students are successful in their acquisition of Hebrew, and if I fudge on anything, it would be on the introduction of the complexities of the Hebrew verbal system, among other things. I will talk about some of the complexity and will provide handouts that get into it, but because I use Kittel and because I still see the heuristic value in it, I still talk about the vav-conversive prefix form. Now perhaps I will have to re-evaluate how I teach Hebrew and what text I use. I have become increasingly dissatisfied with Kittel (especially since the second edition really didn’t improve much), but am not sure what text I would want to adopt (and the prospect of switching too often seems like a lot of work!). At the very least I will glean what I can from both of these engaging articles and go my own way!

For a discussion of some of the different beginning Hebrew grammars on the market, check out my “Introductory Hebrew Grammars” page.

I am also curious of what some other Hebrew instructors think about either article.

Posted in Hebrew, Hebrew Grammar, Pedagogy, Teaching & Learning | 5 Comments »

Sex and Language?

17th July 2007

For the connection between Biblical Hebrew and Greek and the joy of sex, see here.

I can’t say my experiences learning biblical languages were anywhere near as bad (I do recall being very intimidated when I sat down the first day of Ugaritic class and the professor handed me a text and said “read”!)

While the rant post is quite funny, it does raise the question of how to teach biblical languages in such a way that your students don’t “off” themselves (or at least don’t write a blog post about the horrible experience some years later).

(HT Ancient Hebrew Poetry)

Posted in Greek, Hebrew, Teaching & Learning | Comments Off

Raising the Language Bar for Seminary Studies

16th July 2007

John Hobbins, in a couple of posts over at the ever-insightful Ancient Hebrew Poetry blog, has rightly lamented the state of language training in North American seminaries. The sad reality is that even those seminarians who take biblical languages end up not using them — obviously with some exceptions — and if you don’t use it, you loose it. There are probably many different reasons for this state of affairs. Most seminaries appear to have lower academic standards than in the past and minimal language training. There is also a fear of language learning among seminarians. I don’t know how many times I have heard students worrying about taking Greek or Hebrew. Perhaps the biggest problem is that many consider it irrelevant — and if you look at what is considered acceptable preaching in many churches today then a psychology degree is probably more relevant than any language training! (A friend’s dad commented the other day about a local pastor that “he a good preacher, but he doesn’t know his Bible”!?!).

And while I agree with John about the need for more language training, I would add that seminaries need to train women and men to not only exegete the Bible, but also to exegete our culture and think theologically about both.

It appears that this problem isn’t just limited to Christianity. In a more recent post, John has this excellent quote from Ismar Schorsch (then President of Jewish Theological Seminary of America) that highlights that the lack of intellectual rigour in North American religious life:

Faith once moved us to study our heritage deeply, while truth asked of us that we do it critically, in light of all that we know. Willful ignorance was never an acceptable recourse. The interaction set us apart as the vital center of modern Judaism.

Schorsch’s full speech may be found here.

Posted in Teaching & Learning | 5 Comments »

Colbert on Modern University Education and An Inconvenient Truth

31st May 2007

Last week Stephen Colbert responded to the news report of a college student refusing to watch Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim, 2006) because he “didn’t believe in it.” All educators will want to watch Stephen’s response. It’s hilarious!


Posted in Humour, Teaching & Learning | Comments Off

Improving Your Academic Writing

12th May 2007

Angela Roskop Erisman of Imaginary Grace blogspot (a fairly new one which I was not aware of, but now have added it to my blogroll) has a great post on “Writing in Biblical Studies.” Here is her lead-in to an annotated bibliography:

… ultimately, writing is about communicating ideas we think are important to other people so they might change the way they think or how they live their lives. In other words, writing matters. That is, assuming we want our work to make an impact on people. Good grammar is important. So is clarity. But so are things like grace, elegance, beauty, wit, humor, suspense. Yes, even in academic writing. These elements, which we may associate more with fictional genres, are what engage our readers’ interest and make our ideas pack a lasting punch. Here I review a few works on writing that I find immensely helpful and that have changed the way I think about the task. They’ve helped me get better at making reading and learning an easier, more enjoyable experience. But, more importantly, they have and continue to help me learn to communicate ideas more effectively both to those within and outside of the discipline of biblical studies.

The post as a whole is well worth a careful read. Of the books she notes, I have read a few, though some of them have piqued my interest.  Any reader of this blog knows I can improve my writing style!

(HT Hypotyposeis)

Posted in Academic Writing, Teaching & Learning | 1 Comment »

HBRW WTHT VWLS GN (Hebrew Without Vowels Again)

7th May 2007

In line with this previous post about how to get across to students that Biblical Hebrew was originally written without vowel indicators, I found this great example over at Davar Akher:

Th lphbt s hrd t mstr;
Rdng bck t frnt’s dsstr.
Nlss h’s rd th clssfds,
whr trth, bbrvtd, hds,
th wld-b rdr f th Bbl,
prsntd wth th txt, s lbl
t trn nd rn wth shrks nd hwls-
th hbrw Scrptrs hv n vwls!

- Jessica Shaver

I will have to use this poem next year.

Posted in Hebrew, Teaching & Learning | 4 Comments »

Class Attendance on the Decline

3rd May 2007

Chris Heard over at Higgaion pointed out a recent article in Inside Higher Ed about declining university class attendance. The article provides a bunch of data — quantitative and qualitative — about the decline in class attendance at American universities and colleges. The article notes a number of possible reasons for the declining attendance, most anecdotal, such as professors making lecture slides available to students via the web. One study cited, however, found “a surprisingly little correlation between observable characteristics of a class,” such as whether an instructor used PowerPoint or a chalkboard, and enrollment patterns. All in all the article is rather thoughtful; I encourage you to read it — and make sure to read the responses as well.

Chris’s own view is somewhat similar to my own:

In my opinion, class attendance is not a self-evident good, nor would I consider it an end to be sought in and of itself. Rather, class attendance is a means to the greater end: education. Unless students are getting something from being in class that they cannot get elsewhere, there’s really not much point in having them. My official attendance policy is “skip at your own risk�—and, by the way, this includes mentally “skipping� over the wireless network while your body is in class. In short, the onus is on me to make class time valuable enough for students to want to come—and to get their money’s worth for coming. This was not always my attitude, and I can’t claim that I’m doing a good job of it, but philosophically, this is how I see things.

I’m not quite sure I agree with the statement “class attendance is not a self-evident good” since that is supposed to be the main avenue for learning, isn’t it? At least in our current educational system. What I mean to say is that the classroom context — including lectures, discussion, group work, etc. — is a crucial part of the learning process. Reading a textbook is valuable, but the interaction with the textbook is what is more important. That being said, I totally agree with Chris’s comment that the onus is on instructors to make class sessions valuable enough that students will want to attend.

I generally have a “skip at your own risk” policy in my junior courses (with no marks for attendance). In my senior classes, however, I typically incorporate attendance and participation as 10% of the the final grade (and two unexcused absences in a once-per-week class means you forfeit your participation marks). This is primarily because I expect significant class discussion in senior classes — and if a student isn’t there, they obviously can’t participate!

I am rethinking my policy for junior courses, however. This is for a couple reasons. First, many studies have demonstrated a correlation between attendance and grade, and in over a decade of teaching I too have noticed a connection. Second, my “skip at your own risk” policy is predicated on the assumption that I am dealing with mature adults in my junior classes. While my students may be 18 years old, that does not mean they are all mature. many of these students are negotiating a major transition in their lives and may not always make decisions that are in their best interest. In light of this, I may start taking account of attendance in my junior courses. While I doubt I will verbally take attendance in each class (take too much time), I will do some sort of combination of verbal class attendance and attendance sheets.

What do you all think?

Posted in Teaching & Learning | 4 Comments »

Classroom Etiquette — Or Lack Thereof!

26th April 2007

The Constructive Curmudgeon, aka Douglas Groothuis, has a post about the “Rude Things Students Do.” In some ways the list is quite the eye-opener. I’ve definitely had some rude students in my decade of teaching, but I’ve never had students clean their toenails or clip fingernails while in class or — and I think this one takes the proverbial cake — I have nver had a student rudely interrupt a class to get me to sign a drop form (thankfully students at Taylor do not need an instructor’s permission to drop a class).

Many of the other “rude” behaviours I have experienced first hand, though I should note that I’m pretty laid back in the classroom and will usually deal with rude behaviours in creative ways. For what it is worth, here is are some of the behaviours from Groothuis’s list as well as from the comments, in no particular order:

  • Playing video games or surfing the web while in class [see my post on banning laptops]
  • Asking for the assignment two days before it is due when it was handed out two weeks earlier, or asking a question about an assignment/test the day before it is due. [While this isn't necessarily rude, it certainly doesn't instill confidence in a student's abilities.]
  • Eating entire meals in class [considering the scheduling issues with some of my classes, I don't mind students doing this as much -- as long as students are mindful of other students and clean up their mess.]
  • Reading a book or work on an assignment for another class [A mild irritant]
  • Students who think “asking a question” means “expounding a long-winded, irrelevant diatribe” [While I frequently say that the only bad question is the one left unasked, students should at least try to actually have a question somewhere in their comments!]
  • A student misses class and then asks “did I miss anything important?” [This one is rather irritating; I typically answer, "No, of course, not"]
  • Falling asleep in class [When students do fall asleep I will usually point it out to the rest of the class in some creative way. In one class I actually had another student take a picture of me standing behind a sleeping student; I would post the picture, but the student is actually going on to graduate studies and I don't want to embarrass him/her]

Don’t get me wrong; I love teaching. And many of these things don’t bother me as much as make my eyes roll.

What about other instructors or students? Any rude behaviours that top these?

Posted in Teaching & Learning | 2 Comments »

All Finished!

23rd April 2007

I am finished (in more ways than one!).

I am going to enjoy a nice bike ride into the University now and submit my final grades.

I still have to decide what I will do tonight to celebrate… but now I have to move on to some urgent publishing commitments, among other things!

No rest for the wicked weary!

Posted in Personal, Teaching & Learning | Comments Off