Every now and then an industry faces a paradigm shift, when old, trusted ways are replaced by a new and different approach to meeting a need. The iPhone (and smartphones in general) is a recent example: this new technology ended Nokia’s dominance as the world’s largest vendor of cell phones. The world of biblical studies is facing a paradigm shift with respect to the biblical languages, and Fresno Pacific University is playing a major role in that development.
In its own humble way, FPU has been INNOVATING Creatively, leading the effort to help the wider church deepen its connection to its Scriptures through a more intimate and proficient knowledge of the biblical languages, one that is accessible to most students, rather than to just a gifted few. Our vision is that as many graduates as possible will be lifelong readers of the Bible in its original languages, increasing their understanding of God’s Word and their ability and desire to apply it and live it out in their lives and communities.
To grasp what is going on, one must understand what the field of biblical studies has been doing, the unmet need this has created in the church at large and how a new and growing movement—including FPU—is seeking to address it.
The church affirms that the Bible is God’s Word, a divine communication to man which warrants understanding even its minutest details to the greatest extent possible. Doing so requires competency in the biblical languages. Accordingly, the church expects its scholars and theologians, and as much as possible, its pastors, to be competent in Hebrew and Greek.
Yet more and more seminaries are reducing biblical language requirements, and biblical language classes face cancellation because of low enrollment. Even before these reductions, it was known that few graduates continue to read the Bible in its original languages. The reasons for these dynamics are many, but it is not because faculty and administration do not understand the value of being competent in the biblical languages.
The effects are far reaching, as the following incident illustrates: a seasoned Bible translator was concerned about the biblical language skills of his most qualified translators. Even with advanced training, their skills were below what would have been acceptable had these scholars been trained to be—say—Sanskrit experts. No Sanskrit program would have hired them had their Sanskrit skills been only as good as their biblical language skills, yet in the Bible translation world these were among the best qualified.
To express his concern, he wrote a short parable and gave it to a leader of a premier Bible translation organization, someone responsible for Bible translation efforts of an entire continent. After a quick glance, the leader handed it back in protest saying: “What do you expect me to do with this? It is written in [New Testament] Greek!”
Fortunately, second language acquisition, which investigates how the adult brain learns languages, has identified that which makes language learning most effective. In short (and grossly oversimplified) form, the brain most naturally learns a language when immersed in hearing it and listening to a language with comprehension is key to being able to read it fluently. Unfortunately, traditional methods of teaching the biblical languages ignore listening immersion and hearing comprehension as irrelevant for learning to read. This, we now know, has seriously handicapped our students.
While no existing curriculum can take students from the beginning stages to full competency in Hebrew or Greek using the principles of second language acquisition, FPU has graciously allowed me and others to use this approach. Personally, this has allowed me to work with a team of scholars to develop biblical Hebrew curriculum materials. A beta version of the first-year curriculum was recently released, and is already being used by universities, seminaries and Bible translation agencies around the world. Work on the second-year curriculum is in progress.
I believe the curriculum materials being generated are more effective because I teach at Fresno Pacific University rather than at an Ivy League university, because the diversity of students we encounter is greater. For these new materials to work well here, they need to accommodate a greater range of learning styles and abilities. They need to work for the first-generation college student from a disadvantaged background as well as for the student from more privileged beginnings.
My efforts have focused on Hebrew. Pamela Johnston, Ph.D., associate professor of history, has been using a similar curriculum for teaching Greek. Though she is not involved in creating materials, her classroom is a beta test site for those who are, and her feedback is providing them with much needed perspective.
We are still a long way away from having curricula that will take students to full competency, and many more resources, human and financial, are needed to speed up the process. But we at FPU have begun helping graduates continue reading “the Bible that Jesus read” (see Luke 4), which was in Hebrew, and the letters of the apostle Paul in the language he composed them, for an ever-growing understanding of God’s Word and its power to transform lives and communities.