In some rather surprising and ironic ways, I think my training in a particularly obscure and technical aspect of New Testament studies made me *more* qualified to write books for a general audience than most of my colleagues and peers. Almost everyone I knew in my graduate program was interested almost exclusively in two areas of academic research: exegesis and New Testament theology. I was interested in something that most of them did not care about in the least: textual criticism. Let me explain the difference before discussing why an interest in the *least* reader-friendly field helped make me better able to make scholarship *more* reader-friendly.
“Exegesis” is the technical term used for the science and art of interpretation of texts. It may seem obvious to you that interpreting a text is a simple matter. You read what it says and you understand it. No problem, right? Wrong. In fact interpretation of texts is a highly complicated affair and requires both well-thought out methodology and rigorous discipline. We spent many years – hard years of hard work – mastering exegesis in graduate school.
The result is that when I or one of my colleagues reads John 1 or Galatians 2 or 1 Peter 3, we approach it very, very differently from the way an untrained reader does. That in itself is a long story that I won’t go into great detail about here. But I can give a couple of broad comments, focusing on the interpretation of ancient texts. What I say here would apply to whether you were being trained to interpret the New Testament, the writings of Plato, the plays of Euripides, or any other ancient text.
On the very basic level, you have to be able to read the texts in their original languages. There is simply no way to understand the nuances of what an author has to say if you are reading the text in translation. Something is always lost, and some things are hopelessly changed, any time a text is put into a different language. And so for my graduate program, our seminars were always based on the original Greek texts of the New Testament. No English translations were allowed. (That, by the way, is why I have friends who learn Russian when they want to understand Dostoevsky or Italian when they want to read Dante.)
How do you know what words mean when you read them? That may seem obvious: words mean simply what they mean, right? Well …
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