I am entering late into this discussion (perhaps too late in blog time), but this is my first opportunity to do so. As is well known by now, Larry Hurtado has been expressing the view (here, here and here) that New Testament PhD students in Britain should have reached a certain standard of linguistic competency by the time of completion (which could include testing at the viva – no thanks, I’m scared enough as it is). For traditional NT PhDs, this seems a reasonable proposition. However, there need to be some fairly major changes to the teaching of theology in the UK if this is to be taken seriously.
At Durham, we naturally have opportunities to study both ancient and modern languages, but I wouldn’t like to have started any from scratch. I am doing this with Latin this year, but fear that I may not be able to devote the time to make it stick. Realistically, therefore, the British candidate needs a reasonable competency prior to beginning research.
In which case, there needs to be more emphasis on languages earlier in the education system. It is pretty much expected these days that applicants for PhD will have an MA in an appropriate subject. These degrees are described by the AHRC as ‘Research Preparation’ degrees since they are meant to be the preparation stage for the PhD. In my Biblical Studies MA at King’s College London, we had to take a module in a language, either ab initio or advancing previous study. This is good, but is it enough? Should there not be a larger language component if the PhD is the aim? However, one academic year is not a lot in the study of a language. This turns the spotlight on undergraduate degrees.
Which is a problem, because it is quite possible to get a degree in Theology and Religious Studies in the UK without studying any ancient languages. Then again, there are plenty of subjects within this field which do not require them. However, if we are hopeful that there will be future generations taking up the discipline, then they will need the tools to enable them to do so. This is particularly acute with ministerial training in almost all denominations (a route which many PhD students have typically taken), where courses often avoid original language study altogether.
If we enforce Hurtado’s language requirement for the PhD and do not change our earlier theological education, then I fear for those educated in the British system. I fear that this will mean in practice that the subject of traditional NT Studies will remain open to (a) those who are self-motivated enough to do the language study on their own (good for them); and (b) those who have studied Classical languages at school, which in the UK, almost entirely means public school (i.e. private school). I am not comfortable with the potential class implications of this, and indeed, it would be interesting to know how many of our current senior figures in the subject have a public school background which has contributed to their linguistic ability.
In other words, this is an important topic with implications for the structure of theological education as a whole, and not just for reasons of academic competence.