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Not Just Linguistic Competence

Larry Hurtado recently stirred up the biblio-blogosphere with what I thought were some rather uncontroversial comments on language competency for biblical studies.

It needs to be said that language competence is only one aspect of the cultural competence necessary for wrestling with biblical texts. You can memorize all the verbal paradigms you want, but one still needs training in (for instance) the functions of honor-shame, kinship and economic structures, conceptions of deity, rhetoric and literary conventions, etc.

Scholars and laity alike sometimes downplay the need to approach ancient texts through the gateway of ancient culture and ancient perspectives; sometimes such moves serve the interests of ideological concerns, certain kinds of theological interpretation, or literary approaches.

Meir Sternberg, who is no slouch when it comes to literary approaches, blows this notion away:

From the premise that we cannot become people of the past, it does not follow that we cannot approximate to this state by imagination and training–just as we learn the rules of any other cultural game–still less that we must not or do not make the effort.

Indeed the antihistorical argument never goes all the way, usually balking as early as the hurdle of language. Nobody, to the best of my knoweldge, has proposed that we each invent our own biblical Hebrew. But is the language any more or less of a historical datum to be reconstructed that the artistic conventions, the reality-model, the value system?

Poetics of Biblical Narrative, 10.

I owe this quote to V. Philips Long. (And as a bonus fun-fact for SAET’s paid subscribers, my wife’s aunt used to date Phil Long back in Chattanooga.)