The value of studying languages for historical and theological research

Permit me to share a little bit of my personal story with you. When I was an undergraduate student many years ago I studied Classics at a major public university in the Midwest—Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Coptic. I loved the experience, especially reading Classical Greek poetry, in addition to history and philosophy by writers like Sappho, Homer, Plato, Xenophon, Sophocles, Herodotus, Thucydides, Cicero, Virgil, Tacitus, and so many more. I had the opportunity to learn other languages, like German, Sanskrit, and Lakota Sioux. One semester I was studying five languages at the same time and German bit the dust. I picked it up again later when I had more time. We all have our limits.

Sanskrit is an ancient language on which so many other Indo-European languages have their basis, and in which there are countless extant writings of the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Lakota Sioux is a language indigenous to the Great Plains region where I grew up. I had the opportunity, but I chose not to study Sanskrit and Lakota. I have very few regrets, but this is one of them. I did, however, pick up two more languages in grad school related to my academic interests, Aramaic and Syriac. I still have the desire to study languages. I am currently developing my use of French. Arabic, Ethiopic, Modern Hebrew, and Russian are on my list.

By now I hope you get my point. Studying languages is a way of learning another culture. It is very much an education in itself. And it opens doors for expanding friendships and relationships beyond the small world I inhabit. I like it when my perception of the world grows beyond just where I live.

This is also true of being a preacher and teacher of the Bible. You can certainly be an effective preacher and an effective teacher for the church without knowledge of Hebrew and Greek. There are many excellent translations available. So why reinvent the wheel, right? But I’m not just talking about translation. I’m talking about developing your exegetical skills, deepening and broadening your ability to interpret biblical texts by engaging the linguistic culture of the Bible.

So much of the Bible, when it is translated, involves the translator making a choice that doesn’t really come through in the translation, a nuance here and a fine grammatical point there, that can send the interpretive imagination in a number of different directions and, more often than not, in directions you never expected. This is the kind of thing that can deeply enrich and give more authority to your preaching and teaching. Think about it.

As a student at Ecumenical Theological Seminary you can contact the registrar to enroll for full credit and learn Greek and Hebrew for a grade or, to lighten the pressure, take it pass/fail or as an audit. If you are not enrolled in a program at ETS, you too can learn the biblical languages. Contact the registrar for details.

James Waddell, S.T.M., Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Biblical Studies

Director of the Masters Programs

Ecumenical Theological Seminary

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Taking a lesson from history … the not so obvious connection between unrestrained war and wealth disparity

As I do some preliminary preparation for a proposed (possible) travel seminar to Rome/Italy for summer 2020 (the topic of which is Roman economy of dominance and exploitation of enslaved peoples and its impact on the New Testament), I found a short segment of Rostovtzeff’s The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire to have a poignant (if not downright chilling) prophetic relevance for our American context today. Describing Greek economic conditions during the Hellenistic period Rostovtzeff writes:

“The primary cause of the steady decline of economic life in Greece proper was the constant, almost uninterrupted, succession of wars in which the cities were involved in the fourth and third centuries B.C. These wars, in spite of many efforts to minimize their ruinous effects and to subject them to some inter-state regulation, became ever more bitter, more cruel, and more disastrous for all the participants, whether victors or vanquished. The practice of devastating the enemy’s land, of destroying his crops, his vineyards and olive-groves, of burning down farm-houses, of carrying off and selling men and cattle as war booty, of feeding the troops from the resources of the invaded lands, became increasingly common. Some states, for instance the Aetolian league and the Cretan cities, specialized in conducting wars of robbery on land and sea, and the other states, not excepting the great Hellenistic monarchies, followed them on this fatal path.

“Concurrently with the external wars there raged within the Greek cities, alike in Greece proper and in most of the islands, an unceasing class-warfare, which originated in the steady growth of a well-to-do bourgeois class and the corresponding impoverishment of the masses. This class-war made the growth and development of a sound capitalistic system very difficult. Indeed, it made a healthy economic life within the city-states almost impossible. The strife in the Greek cities assumed more and more the character of an almost purely social and economic struggle. The main aim of the struggle was, not the increase of production by the betterment of labour conditions and the improvement and regulation of the relations between labour and capital, but the redistribution of property, which was generally achieved by violent revolutionary means. The war cry was the immemorial one of gēs anadasmos kai chreōn apokopē, redistribution of land and abolition of debts. This cry was so freely used as early as the end of the Peloponnesian war that the Athenians introduced into the oath of the Heliasts in 401 a clause which forbade the putting of such an issue to the vote. In the fourth century the fear of a social revolution was constantly present to the minds of Aristotle and Isocrates, and in 338 the League of Corinth formed a sort of association for protection against it. It is significant of conditions in Greece during the third century and later that a clause forbidding the redistribution of land and the cancellation of debts was introduced into the oath of the citizens of Itanos in Crete.

“The revolutions which aimed and such a redistribution of property were utterly disastrous for Greece. Revolution and reaction followed each other with brief delays, and were marked by the wholesale slaughter or expulsion of the best citizens.”

Rostovtzeff’s insights were critical of state run economies within Hellenistic monarchies. In other words, what in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries we would refer to as Fascist nationalist states, not social democracy or democratic socialism where the workers (rather than the state) have a much greater voice in the choices that are made regarding the distribution of wealth and the means of production (as labor is assigned a greater value in terms of means of production). Those who equate social democracy with state (Fascist) control of the means of production are lying to you. Rostovtzeff was critical of unregulated capitalism that trampled on the rights of the laboring classes. His interpretation of Hellenistic social and economic history is a poignant message for us today. Constant warfare in the Hellenistic period was transformed into a form of entrepreneurial capitalism by some Hellenistic cities. Privatization of warfare by the American politic reflects our ignorance in repeating this historic Hellenistic failure. Unfettered capitalism run amok, capitalism that doesn’t take into consideration the well-being of its working class, combined with an unrestrained engagement in self-interested and endless warfare, is a threat to a nation’s social and economic stability, and ultimately in the long run to the survival of the people themselves. May we please not be forced by the powers to have to learn this lesson again?

Wisdom Poured Out Like Water, a new publication co-edited by ETS faculty member James Waddell

Wisdom poured out like water

I have a new publication as co-editor that has just been released, Wisdom Poured Out Like Water: Studies on Jewish and Christian Antiquity in Honor of Gabriele Boccaccini, Deuterocanonical and Cognate Literature Studies 38 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2018). The book is co-edited by the late J. Harold Ellens (Ecumenical Seminary, Detroit), Isaac de Oliveira (Bradley University), Jason von Ehrenkrook (U. Mass. Boston), James Waddell (Ecumenical Seminary, Detroit), and Jason Zurawski (U. of Groningen), all former Ph.D. students of Professor Gabriele Boccaccini of the Department of Middle East Studies at the University of Michigan. The volume is published by De Gruyter and is now available. Volumes like this are usually priced for library purchases. To soften the blow of the cost of the entire volume for individuals, specific contributions to the volume are also available for purchase on the De Gruyter web site. My article is titled, “‘I Have Been Born Among You’: Jesus, Jews, and Christians in the Second Century.” Click here to read my contribution to this volume.

The reception of Paul the Jew in Colossians

From the Introduction … “In June 2014, the Third Nangeroni Meeting of the Enoch Seminar, titled ‘Re-Reading Paul as a Second Temple Jewish Author,’ was held at the Waldensian Faculty of Theology in Rome. Scholars of Second Temple Judaism and Pauline studies gathered together to discuss Paul afresh as a Jewish thinker. A select number of the proceedings from that meeting were subsequently edited by Gabriele Boccaccini and Carlos A. Segovia and published in Paul the Jew: Rereading the Apostle as a Figure of Second Temple Judaism (Fortress 2016). During the final session of the Third Nangeroni Meeting, participants discussed how the topic of Paul might be pursued in future venues sponsored by the Enoch Seminar. A number of participants voiced support for Isaac W. Oliver’s proposal of a conference that would center on the reception of Paul. More specifically, the conference would focus on the reception of Paul during the first two centuries that related to Paul’s Jewishness as well as his views on Judaism with the hope that such an examination might enrich our understanding of the complex, diverse nature of early Christian-Jewish relations. The plan materialized two years later, when the Seventh Nangeroni Meeting, ‘The Early Reception of Paul the Second Temple Jew,’ transpired from June 26, 2016, to June 30, 2016, in the same welcoming halls of the Waldensian School of Theology in Rome.”

The proceedings of this seminar are about to be published as The Early Reception of Paul the Second Temple Jew: Text, Narrative and Reception History. Isaac W. Oliver and Gabriele Boccaccini, editors. The Library of Second Temple Studies 92. Lester Grabbe, editor. London: Bloomsbury T.&T. Clark, 2018. My own contribution to this volume is titled “The Shadow and the Substance: Early Reception of Paul the Jew in the Letter to the Colossians” (75–87). The intent of the seminar (and the soon-to-be published volume), according to Boccaccini, is to present the definitive go-to research on the reception of Paul. It was an honor for me to be invited to participate.