A short story of my journey to linguistics, from the Bible

When I first set out to learn the biblical languages I did so from an earnest intent to be able to, simply put, read the Bible better. The margin notes in my NASB had nagged me for years: "Lit. Hebrew is to gird." Well why not put that if that's what the Hebrew really says?! I was so baffled by these marginal notes and was so eager to read the Bible for all its worth that I decided learning Biblical Hebrew and Greek was the best way forward.

During this time — in my undergraduate degree — I learned that it wasn't so simple as finding out the "literal" meaning and that this nomenclature really deflated what was going on between the different languages. New avenues of understanding the biblical text were opened up as I began to understand my deficiency in knowing how to study my own language, let alone the complexities of another.

Needless to say, I was hooked. I couldn't look at another English translation and be content with knowing what questions were being answered (or overlooked) without my consideration. I could only be o.k. with continuing to stumble along in Hebrew, word by word, phrase by phrase — slowly piecing together what I thought I was looking at. (Greek didn't strike my fancy until years later).

This fascination led me to pursue a masters degree at Stellenbosch University, under the supervision of a scholar who is known for the linguistic acumen he brings to his understanding of Biblical Hebrew. It was there, in South Africa, that the doors to a new world were opened — linguistics.

Shortly before this transition, I'd never heard the word before, and if I did, I tuned out or fell asleep. All that changed the moment my feet landed in Stellenbosch. One of my first modules was a general introduction to linguistics; but not just any program of linguistics: the course was centered around Generative Linguistics. The hours I spent completing that module only reinforced my distaste for the field. Nothing had ever felt so contrived or mechanical. Being a person that places a high value on personal intuition, this particular stance on understanding language felt like a nasty pill I had to swallow — and all I wanted to do was spit it out.

You can imagine my relief when I discovered that my supervisor adopted a linguistic model that was utterly opposed to the central tenants of Generative Linguistics. Yes — Cognitive Linguistics was more than a breath of fresh air. While it challenged my basic assumptions of reality and pushed me to analyze how we humans mean things with our words, I felt utterly at home. It was everything but coerced.

And so began my crush.

Looking back, I see that I've always been someone who goes down the rabbit hole when I find something interesting to explore. In my single digit years it was Legos — my brother and I made all the sets and themes before Hollywood got a hold of them. As a teen who couldn't drive, I took to skating (blades and board, and even soaps) — I knew all about the best bearings and trucks and decks and the names of all the tricks I couldn't master. As a young adult there's been disc golf (knowing what -2, 2, -1, 5 mean on the disc), hammocks (knowing the pros of all the brands and related accessories), and even cocktails (the Old Fashion is my favorite and let's just say I know a few ways to make one).

Among all these hobbies I now see that at some point in Stellenbosch, linguistics found its way to my head-heart and captured my imagination.

Before Legos and skating — corny as it may sound — the Bible was my core interest and chief fascination. But as I began to see how many questions couldn't be answered without first understanding the languages it was written in, I soon became convinced that understanding language in general was the surest way to get where I wanted to be when I sat down with my B-i-b-l-e.

Having ridden down this road for several years now, I continue to be utterly fascinated by the explanatory power afforded by Cognitive Linguistics (and Cognitive Science more broadly). But in this journey, I've ceased to solely wonder how I might exploit linguistics for my own end (understanding the Bible) and continue to be spellbound by linguistics for its own sake.

The work I do at Logos naturally lends itself to extrapolating various principles from linguistics that are relevant towards building a more sophisticated hermeneutical model; and while this goal remains an ancillary interest in my personal life, my linguistic interests are by no means delimited to only those aspects that have sexy exegetical appeal. I happily dig into the polysemy of an expression (or more often the theory behind that notion) when it has no direct or immediately apparent theological payoff.

A more refined linguistic understanding is my payoff.

I will choose a proper linguistic book or article any day over a distilled version written by a biblical scholar — though the latter provides what is likely considered to be the juicy stuff. If my goal is to understand language, why would I do anything else? The native field is decades ahead of where most people are synthesizing the linguistic content for the biblical community — so why not read and personally appropriate the cutting-edge?

I fully understand that the vast majority of biblical scholars aren't interested in linguistics at all, and that even fewer are fascinated by the knit-and-grit. Understanding Paul is much more important. But I won't argue why having a solid framework for understanding how meaning and language work — let alone how Greek works in comparison to English — is paramount to interpreting Paul's words, because frankly, I'm much more interested in exploring that framework. Besides, Jesus couldn't have been clearer with what he wants. And newsflash: you don't have to be a linguist or a biblical scholar to figure it out.