Articulated texts

Articulated trucks are easier to turn ;) photo by crabchick)

In this post I am NOT thinking of the clear or muffled ar-tic-u-lation that my speech teacher prized, but the other sort. And, teaching “Understanding and Interpreting the Bible” this week the topic of textual articulation came to the fore. First in trying to explain the nature and function of a “conjunction”  to students who have no understanding of grammar (not even those who attended secondary schools with “Grammar” proudly flaunted in their historic names).

Conjunctions, I said are the (often little) words that join and articulate text. They tell us how the parts work together. As such they are very important clues to what a text is doing.

They are. And all1 languages have them. But2 not all languages have them, or use them, equally. And3 they certainly do not use them in the same places. Different languages and different speakers articulate their texts differently.

For this week on spotting the workings of text at a local level, we studied 1 Tim 6:17-19. Most of our students do not learn Greek or Hebrew :(4 so we were working on an English text and with English grammar. 1 Timothy 6:19 provides a nice example:

thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.
ἀποθησαυρίζοντας ἑαυτοῖς θεμέλιον καλὸν εἰς τὸ μέλλον, ἵνα ἐπιλάβωνται τῆς ὄντως ζωῆς.

Eduard von Grützner's Falstaff from Wikipedia

Actually the NIV makes the point more dramatically opening the verse “In this way” where the Greek just has a participle. Hebrew texts offer even more of these challenges, since the paratactic constructions favoured by the language use fewer written markers of syntax.

At which point I’ll call back my speech teacher, a grandiloquent old act-tor, for it is only by articulating a written text clearly that we can begin to understand it. For where written grammatical markers of syntax are lacking only clear articulation can “make sense” of the text.

  1. Or at least, all that I have studied so far. []
  2. Yes, I know this is the second time I have started a sentence with a conjunction :) I do hope all prescriptive grammarians are spinning like tops in their graves, or soon will be, since prescriptive grammar is unnecessary and unwanted. Well actually it is not, I need to know that starting sentences with conjunctions is “wrong” for my use of this construction to be chosen for effect, and not mere carelessness. So prescripts you may cease your rotations forthwith :) []
  3. Yes, a third! When you are on a roll it is hard to stop ;) []
  4. No, I don’t know how someone can be a serious Bible student without the languages, either. Though I note that only Greek was compulsory at Oxford, and that I failed to take Hebrew, to my shame. To Oxford’s shame I believe that even Greek is now not required for the Honours School of Theology :( []

5 comments on “Articulated texts

  1. jonathan robinson

    But why have Biblical languages become so unpopular and come to be considered unnecessary? It is not because students don’t want to learn them, colleges simply don’t consider them a priority or make space for them in the curriculum and more. I have a new conversation with a different student about once a week about how to study biblical languages and they are always excited but also wary of embarking on a course of study without support and on top of their full time study load. by not making languages part of the curriculum, it actively discourages students from persuing language learning. Even if people do not have the background of a classical education or even a basic grasp of English grammar, those things could be taught, if they were considered a priority.

  2. Tim

    Yes, except when we did teach Hebrew we only had about one Carey student every five years, and once Greek stoipped being semi-compulsory for future pastors the numbers dropped to a couple of students every now and then…

  3. jonathan robinson

    but that is the thing, if you can opt out, people will because it is hard. it needs to be compulsory, if it is important.

  4. jonathan robinson

    i mean i struggle to find the time to work on my language skills because i am fully aware how easily i can get by without them. but because i actually want to know what i am talking about instead of faking it i persevere, but the temptation to do otherwise is strong.

  5. Tim

    J, you’re preaching to the choir ;) But we can’t make it compulsory without finding space for the equivalent of a semester of work from the program overall. When the total program is only 6 semesters that would leave 5… What we’d need is either another year – too expensive, or cut the Mission and Ministry courses ruthlessly – not acceptable to the clients. Unless you have some better idea?

    My hope is that each year we have some students who see in Understanding and Interpreting the Bible that knowing what was really said might help them understand the text (the average commentary does not help with that as unless you know the languages (Hebrew and Greek and academic BS speak) you cannot understand what the issues are to see their value ;)