Re: Biblical Languages Overseas?
Fri, 6 Dec 1996 14:15:01 -0500

In a message dated 25-11-96 8:40:24 PM, you wrote:

>For a course in Theological Education Overseas, I'm examining the role
>and methods of teaching Biblical Languages in cultures other than my own.
>I'm looking for input on the following questions, especially from those of
>you who teach in non-Western cultures.
>Do all countries need people trained in the biblical languages?
>How can teaching biblical languages be reconciled with an emphasis on
>training the laity, in cases where the laity has a low basic level of
>education? Are we creating an elite group?
>What special issues are significant in teaching biblical languages overseas?

I'm not so sure the answer is as straighforward as one respondent wrote.
After having taught for several years in a seminary in Colombia as well as
short-term work in three other countries, my own experience was that the
answer as to whether or not Greek and Hebrew should be taught depended on the
setting. Granted, ideally everyone should know Greek and Hebrew and a full
slate of other items, but pragmatically many need other tools more than the
languages, especially at the lay level. And even then, I've never seen a
setting in which all laity wanted theological training, and so only a select
number of the laity will respond to become trained lay leaders. In Colombia,
those responding to the offer of training (in whatever format: workshops,
TEE, correspondence courses, etc.) tended to be lay leaders or potential lay
leaders, and in many cases were the only leaders of the churches/missions in
their local area (in other words, lay pastors, etc.). Thus, training in
biblical survey courses, general biblical background studies, counseling,
social ministry skills, administration, preaching skills, etc. were all
needed, and usually more urgently than language skills (and sometimes due to
the social turmoil and violence in the context, even more immediate needs
took precedence). So, I would say that training in the biblical languages is
needed, but is not as needful many times as other types of training for
two-thirds world laity.

At a Bible School or seminary level, by all means the languages should be
offered (whenever qualified instructors are available, which is a very real
problem in two-thirds world settings). My reason for saying that the
languages should be offered at this level is linked to the goal of developing
indigenous churches with indigenous leaders with a contextualized theology,
which in large part depends on indigenous theologians. Qualified (I realize
that term begs for definition) indigenous theologians will not develop
without first-rate training, both academically and devotionally. Long term,
this should lead to better trained lay leaders, which may include work in the
biblical languages. But short term, the needs of the churches are often such
that the training in biblical languages for the laity has to take a back

As for considerations in teaching the languages, one factor that all too
often North Americans don't consider is that in many, if not most, two-thirds
world settings, the people have already had to learn another language, and
are thus more aware of translation difficulties. I found virtually no
resistance to information about translation shortcomings, textual variants,
grammatical difficulties, etc.: theology students and most lay leaders
understood the concepts and implications without feeling threatened by them.
Perhaps an introduction to this subject (translations and their
limitations/legitimate uses) would be more appropriate for the early stages
of lay training (a History of the Bible and Spanish Versions course I taught
was well received at both the seminary and lay levels). In the USA setting,
many are simply unaware of the difficulties of transferring meanings across
cultures and languages, and so are oftentimes reluctant to consider such
questions, but this was not characteristic of my experience overseas.

On the other hand, when teaching Greek in Colombia at the seminary (which has
programs at the basic university level primarily, thus the majority of
students come with the equivalent of high school training), I found that the
students across the board learned Greek more easily than my North American
students do now. Greek (and Hebrew, but I didn't teach Hebrew) was required
of all students in the theology track (versus music or Christian Education),
and so I had both women and men. The students came primarily from settings
of poverty without the benefit of the "better" schools for their earlier
training, but, as mentioned above, had no difficulty with Greek. In fact, I
had to adjust down somewhat for students here in the USA, even though they
already had their university degrees. The students in Colombia flourished
with the pronunciation and verbalization of Greek. Indeed, while teaching in
Venezuela, a group of students began using Greek in conversations (albeit
with limited vocabulary and Koine grammar constructions), with many
conversations lasting 15 minutes or more, and this after only 3 semesters of
Greek. So my answer to your inquiry has nothing to do with the ability of
two-thirds world lay or theology students to learn the Biblical languages,
but rather with the pragmatics of the situation, which are quite different
from setting to setting.

Regarding the creation of an elitist attitude, the teacher can address this
and avoid most difficulties, while recognizing that certain persons will
follow this tendency in spite of whatever guidance is offered, even as we see
in our own cultural setting. This was not a major problem for us in

On the other hand, most students had only a basic grammar and intermediate
grammar (Dana and Mantey), small dictionary, perhaps a short lexicon and/or
concordance, and the GNT for work after their seminary training. And so a
solid base had to be provided so that the GNT was easy to use with
"applicability" in their setting, or otherwise the use of Greek fell by the
wayside, although the training still left an awareness on their approach to
the text (or so we hoped. And I might add, the same difficulty exists in the
USA, where perhaps the vast majority of our students fail to continue using
the biblical languages after graduation.) To address this need, I focused on
vocabulary extensively, taking students through Metzger's word lists down to
10 times or more. Also, we translated large sections of text from the GNT
rather than textbooks, since that would help "whet" their appetite for using
the GNT in personal study. Along with the translation, we exegeted the text
as we translated, hoping to model for them a method of exegesis as well as to
demonstrate how the study of Greek could enrich their understanding of the

I realize that this is meandering answer, but hopefully these musing might
prove helpful.

Bill Warren
Professor of Greek and New Testament
New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary