Monday, September 09, 2019

Pied-Piper Teaching Techniques: In which Dr Amy describes how she moves students from no interest in Greek at all to enthusiastically transcribing manuscripts on the VMR

Peter Gurry has encouraged me (over several years!) to share my teaching strategies on the ETC blog, and here we finally are – my first blog article.

I am a strategist by nature.  I look at a situation, decide where I would like things to end up, and then think about the steps for getting there.  In this case, my goal has been to enthuse as many undergrads as possible for the study of ancient Greek, and then beyond that to convince as many as possible to go on and master intermediate textual criticism.

What I do (in various courses):

The following semester courses provide me with a chance to influence students:

  • New Testament History and Literature (taken by all NCU students, mostly freshmen)
  • Reading and Interpreting Scripture (taken by all NCU students, mostly sophomores)
  • Bible book courses (required for BATS majors and Bible minors, taken by others as electives)
All BA students are required to take one year of a language.  NCU does not offer more than one year in any languages except Hebrew, for which two years are offered, and Greek, for which a recently reinstated minor involves 4 semesters beyond the major requirements. 

In NT History and Lit I require the students to learn the Greek alphabet.  To reinforce this, I do not transliterate Greek during the lecture, but expect students to be able to write Greek words into their notes, pronounce them, and recognize (but not reproduce) them on exams.  The lecture material for this course includes several hours on textual criticism, explaining why it is necessary, and including a small TC exercise using English.  Students receive a photocopy of a folio of P75 in their packet of handouts, and some aspects of palaeography, such as scriptio continua, are explained.  There is also a section on Bible translation that points out the importance of understanding the Greek. 

In R&I there are several weeks on TC early in the semester.  The students learn to use the footnotes of their English Bibles to find variation units, and have an assignment where they look for at least two English versions that made differing text-critical decisions, then use the UBS GNT and Metzger’s commentary to understand the arguments for either decision.  Some of the best text-critical exercises in R&I are written by students who never had a day of Greek.  I also show students images of ancient manuscripts as part of the lecture on TC, and give them extra credit for spending time with our facsimile of Sinaiticus. 

In both of these introductory courses, I repeatedly encourage students to take either Greek or Hebrew the following fall.  I tout the advantages: for example, that studying an ancient language makes them stand out on applications for jobs, scholarships, and grad school; that learning an ancient language helps them with writing, grammar, and communication skills, as well as brain development; that the languages enhance their faith.  Why would a believer attend a Christian university and NOT take as many Bible and language courses as s/he can fit into his/her schedule?!

In all of my NT book courses, I read through the entire text of that document in class, spontaneously translating from the Greek while the students follow in their English versions.  I point out variation units that affect translation.  After each paragraph, I ask them to point out differences they notice and raise questions of understanding that arise.  They ask such great questions that sometimes an entire class period is spent reading and discussing the text, rather than in lecture.

All of the above is meant to intrigue students with the ancient text and encourage them to take as much Bible as possible, and either Hebrew or Greek for their required year of language.

My first-year Greek course almost always fills (25).  I teach it inductively, and we read continuous text, beginning with John 1:1 on the first day of class.  Quizzes are mostly on translation, though grammar quizzes also occur.  (Grammar paradigms are not permanently memorized for weekly quizzes, but are instead checked off on a “temporary memorization” list.)  One third of the class time is spent in small reading labs led by advanced students.  Repeatedly during the semester, I talk to the first-years about the value of doing more than one year of language, even if they are not able to complete a Greek minor. 

One class period per semester of first year is dedicated to palaeography.  On that day we meet in a café with mugs of coffee, and 5-7 advanced students teach the first-years at their table how to decipher an ancient hand.  Normally we read P66 or P75 in the fall semester and an easy minuscule in the spring.  The students are astounded that they are able to decipher the hand after just 50 minutes of training.

My last semester with any particular cohort of Greek students is usually fall semester of second year.  Now as a group of 10-12, we continue to read continuous text, spending a significant amount of the class time on palaeography, moving from early majuscules to late minuscules.  We often read the day’s assigned text straight from a manuscript facsimile rather than from the NA28.  At the same time, we look at as many variation units as we have time for.  Since Textual Criticism of the Bible was published, assigned readings help reduce the time needed for in-class teaching of TC, allowing us to move more quickly to the actual practice.  I talk through variation units as we come across them in the text, and then ask the students to do the same.  Some of the pop quizzes require the student to do a spontaneous evaluation of a variation unit, as does one of the five final exam topics. 

Special Courses
NCU has also been generous in allowing me to do a number of unusual courses over the years.  Every two to four years I have taught an entire course (called Topics) on palaeography and textual criticism during the same semester as the Birmingham Colloquium.  In Topics, the students gain significant expertise in deciphering hands and evaluating variation units.  We tend to focus on the topic of the Colloquium, which meant, for example, that the first Topics class wrote a primer on Zuntz’s The Text of the Epistles, while the most recent class studied the versions in greater detail. 

During the last month of Topics, we stage an academic conference, with each student presenting on their research paper – a 20-minute presentation and 10 minutes of Q&A, with extra points for asking good questions, and all students taking turns moderating.

Another special course was a recent Honors Seminar, in which 7 advanced students took on the further study of the text of a Gospel codex assigned to us by the Museum of the Bible.  They did transcription and reconciliation of the text, as well as codicology, a full collation to other MSS, and an evaluation of the results.

I also frequently have students in my home.  Most relevant here are the “Transcription Parties.”  Three to eight students bring their laptops, sign in to the VMR, and begin transcribing an easy minuscule.  I and the more experienced students help them get started and give advice when they run into things they don’t recognize.  Many only do a few hours of transcription, but several have completed entire Gospels.

In summary, my strategy is to first give exposure to Greek and manuscript images, and then to engage Greek students with actual use of the images in palaeography and textual criticism.  What I find is that they fall in love with the language and with the ancient manuscripts, and they keep wanting more.


  1. I am a product of this education. I was hooked from the moment we started "writing Greek" in NT History and Lit.

    Dr. Amy propelled me onward into studying Greek, taking Topics, and learning intermediate textual criticism. I could speak volumes on this. Thank you for sparking the flame that led to a fire in my soul for biblical scholarship, textual criticism and academic study.

  2. Dr. Anderson,
    First, thank you for your passion! Second, what a breath of fresh air to see a professor committed to giving her students an opportunity to gain that same passion.

  3. How many periods per semester does each of your courses take?
    What would be your strategy if the periods are reduced by your university? Which elements could be omitted, which is/are central?
    I'm especially interested in the first year stuff, the basic course(s).