Hiatus explanation

Over the last week or two I’ve been very busy doing the things I get paid to do (ie being a university chaplain) and thinking about a paper for the upcoming postgraduate conference here at UNE. I’ve also been reading Birger Pearson’s new book Ancient Gnosticism: Traditions and Literature (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007).

The chaplaincy has taken up so much time because we had a seminar yesterday on God and climate change and it took quite a lot of time to organise. I spent the first half of the week waking up in the middle of the night worrying that we wouldn’t get anyone arrive and then, after I’d done three radio interviews, the second half of the week waking up worrying that we’d get too many for the venues I’d booked. As it turned out, we got nice numbers and good discussion and lots of positive feedback.

The postgraduate conference is something of a challenge. Our university has recently been reorganised to streamline admin so we now have only two faculties and I am enrolled in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (the other is The Professions). I imagine that organising the papers being offered by postgrad students (that’s grad students if you come from the US) for that kind of range of disciplines is going to be something of a nightmare. There is a theme: “Global Directions • Regional Futures • Tomorrow’s Leaders”, but we don’t have to address it, which is just as well. I’m not sure how I could squeeze a paper on my area to fit this theme!

I’ve decided, in the interests of being accessible to as wide an audience as possible, to look at some of the psychological material on factors affecting the accuracy of eyewitness testimony and see what that might say to biblical scholars about the usefulness of being able to identify parts of the gospels as eyewitness testimony. (See my comments on Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.) I submitted the abstract earlier in the week and will now have to wait and see if it is accepted. In the meantime, I have a small stack of journal articles and a few suggestions from one of the Psychologists on staff about classic works that I need to read to get me going.

I’m about a third of the way through Pearson’s book and am finding it the most readable introduction to Gnosticism I’ve embarked on. Some of this may be due to the fact that I’m somewhat more interested in the topic than I was two years ago when I was reading to get some background for my thesis and some to the fact that this is the first book I’ve read that wasn’t a translation from another language, but so far I think that it’s money well spent. I’ll write a review once I’ve finished it.

Coptic in Twenty Lessons

Somehow or other, an early version of this was posted, rather than the version that contained a number of links and appropriate attributions to books mentioned and a more moderate comment on Layton’s approach to learning vocabulary. I am working on recreating the final version, but here is a better version in the meantime.

Bentley Layton’s new book Coptic in 20 Lessons arrived yesterday and I’ve enjoyed leafing through it. As I had guessed from the table of contents, he uses a very different method to Lambdin (Introduction to Sahidic Coptic) and obviously I haven’t worked right through it. In addition to the comments from April DeConick, some things that have struck me as I look through:

  • it’s a much smaller book than Lambdin’s. This is largely because it doesn’t have the extensive glossary at the back. This means that students will either have to learn all the vocabulary as they go (which he recommends) or get a dictionary – Smith’s A Concise Coptic-English Lexicon would probably be adequate. During the course of the book, he introduces all words that appear 50 or more times in the Sahidic Coptic New Testament and (as April has already pointed out) he uses real examples rather than made-up sentences.
  • It seems, however, also to have less explanatory text. Without trying to work through it, I’m not sure if he has simply found more concise ways of explaining things or whether it will be necessary to consult his (very expensive even in paperback) Coptic Grammar if you are working without a teacher.
  • Layton intends the student to read, write and speak (or at least read out loud) Coptic. Unlike Lambdin’s book, the exercises in Layton include “translate into Coptic” as well as “translate into English” sections. He includes a handwritten version of the Coptic alphabet and one of the exercises in the first chapter is a list of transliterations which the student is expected to re-write in Coptic script. Pedagogically, this is a better approach.
  • He groups the vocabulary in categories eg in lesson 3, he presents nouns of authority and power (continuing from ch2), nouns about daily life, and nouns about religion and ethics. In chapter 13, there are verbs about communication and mental activity, together with some conjunctions and “other expressions”. I think that Lambdin actually does this to a certain extent, he just doesn’t point it out.
  • The vocabularies are set out in three columns – Coptic, English and Greek (where applicable). this is potentially quite useful, especially for those who know Greek.
  • I wonder if he introduces too many new concepts at once in the first few chapters. I suspect some students might end up feeling rather bemused by the amount of new material at the beginning. I am used to taking a whole year to work through Lambdin, so perhaps I am expecting a slower pace than others might be used to.
  • I was first, rather stunned by the fact that I had managed to post the wrong version of this point and secondly rather stunned by the reading that “You should purchase a copy of WE Crum, A Coptic Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon, 1939 and various reprints) and start learning its contents once you’ve finished this grammar or even before.” (emphasis mine). I’ve always worked on the principle that I will learn the words that I use frequently simply by using them and once I’ve bought the dictionary, I can look up the words I don’t know. I have a very broad English vocabulary and I’ve never tried to learn the Oxford or the Macquarie (the standard Australian English dictionary) by heart, not even the concise version. Of course, I have been in trouble with various teachers/professors over this attitude since I was in primary school, so I’m well aware that the whole world does not agree with me, but my basic premise is that I buy reference books so I can refer to them as necessary, not learn them by heart.

Note for Australians:  Because the Co-op Bookshop has a branch at Macquarie University, it stocks a range of Coptic resources including Lambdin.  If you happen to be a member, you might find that it is cheaper to order through them than to buy from an overseas bookshop.

Amazon and lost books – a good news story

I buy new books from Amazon because it’s often the only place that I can get them for a half-way reasonable price, but I’ve always been a bit wary about them because of the often outrageous prices they charge for second hand books.

At the beginning of last month, I ordered a copy of Ancient Gnosticism, Birger Pearson’s new book (see April DeConick’s review) and it should have arrived by 26 July. When it still hadn’t arrived yesterday, I contacted them, fully expecting to be told that they were very sorry, but… However, I got an almost instantaneous response from a real person saying it looked as though it was lost and asking if I’d like a replacement order or a refund. I asked for a replacement and they have sent it by express international post, although the original was only coming by standard! It should arrive at about the same time as my copy of Layton.

A fascinating little addition was the information that they would be charging $16.50 to my credit card and then refunding it because they had discovered that if they send replacement books with a $0 charge overseas, the lovely people at customs hold them up for ages investigating why. It’s easier and quicker for them simply to charge it and then refund it than to try to deal with customs. :-)

Learning Coptic

April DeConick and Mark Goodacre both advocate that students of Christian origins should learn Coptic. I don’t pretend to be an expert in this area, but common sense suggests that not being able to access a signficant proportion of the source documents in their original languages puts you at a distinct disadvantage. So how to you go about learning Coptic?

For quite some time, most English speakers have used Thomas Lambdin’s Introduction to Sahidic Coptic. It’s thorough, but has several drawbacks. One is that the glossary/vocabulary at the back of the book uses English rather than Coptic conventions for its ordering. This makes it easier for English speakers to find words in it, but makes it difficult to then find your way around Crum’s A Coptic Dictionary or Smith’s A Concise Coptic-English Lexicon and (I am fairly sure) the indices in the Coptic edition of the Nag Hammadi library. Another is that some of the sentences in the exercises are designed to illustrate Coptic constructions rather than to make a great deal of sense in English, so students will sometimes find themselves wondering if they have really translated them correctly. A third is that it assumes a grasp of English grammatical terms that most contemporary students simply don’t have. It is also quite expensive because it’s published in hard cover.

Bentley Layton’s new book Coptic in 20 Lessons – Introduction to Sahidic Coptic With Exercises & Vocabularies (27 Euro) may change the teaching of Coptic. It can also be bought at Amazon for $34, so it’s significantly cheaper than Lambdin which Amazon offers for $65. This is because Layton is a paperback, so it will be interesting to see how it holds up to frequent use.

I can’t comment on the other issues that I see as problems with Lambdin, because I don’t expect my copy to arrive for several weeks yet. Neither Mark nor April have yet received of their copies of it, either, although there’s an enthusiastic recommendation for it in the comments on Mark’s site. Looking at the table of contents, however, it appears that Layton follows the approach he uses in his in his Coptic Grammar which is significantly different to Lambdin’s.

Lambdin uses an approach which is familiar to those who have learned other languages – he addresses verbal conjugations one at a time. You learn the First Perfect, then its relative forms, then the Temporal, then the Second Perfect, imperatives, the First Present and so on. Layton’s table of contents doesn’t mention any of these conjugations – instead it talks about durative sentences, non-durative conjunctions, cleft sentences etc. This is, I think, a very different way of conceptualising Coptic to Lambin’s approach. I am very interested to see whether I will find it easier, harder or just different. :-)

As far as teaching yourself Coptic is concerned, someone commented on April’s blog that they had worked through Lambdin in about a month and found that they could read The Apocryphon of John reasonably easily, if slowly, with the aid of a dictionary. This is, IMHO, an impressive achievement. Lambdin has 30 chapters and while you can whizz through the early ones fairly quickly, the later ones require a considerable amount more time. Lambdin in a month would require quite a number of hours each day. I also think that it would be quite challenging to teach yourself Coptic if you had no prior experience of learning a language other than English and even if you know another language that uses the Latin alphabet, I think learning a language that requires a new alphabet without some sort of face-to-face help would be quite challenging. If Coptic is your third, fourth, fifth language, especially if you already have some form of Greek, it would be much easier.

[Update] My preferred method, though, would be to learn from someone who already knows the language, but in Australia that’s not all that easy. Obviously, it’s taught here at the University of New England, but not every year and usually as a special unit rather than a regular offering. Macquarie University in Sydney offers it formally, as does Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne (in semester 2 they are even looking at some of the Gospel of Judas). Another option that I just found out about is the possibility to obtain an Master of Arts in Coptic Studies entirely on-line through Macquarie. I have no idea what it’s like, but it sounds like a good compromise between face to face teaching and teach yourself.

[Update – 9 August] April DeConick has posted on her blog about the new Bentley Layton book. It sounds really promising and I’m looking forward to the end of the month when my copy is due to arrive.