The Biblical Scholar-Linguist: An Ostrich among Robins

Editor’s note: this article was originally published on the blog Old School Script. We have taken over its archives and are slowly republishing pieces that have continuing importance and value. This article was originally published April 16, 2015. It was also linked to in a recently republished article, First Impressions of-Cognitive Linguistics (or, hurdles for the Biblical Scholar-Linguist), but has been unavailable from there until now. We continue to appreciate Kris Lyle’s willingness to share his writing with our readers here at

Where to begin. Why not with categories. A while back I wrote a post discussing the complexities of categories. Why it’s hard to nail down what’s a “bird”, “mammal” or for that matter, any box you can think of.

What’s a bird? A robin, sparrow, or crow? What about an eagle, ostrich, penguin or kiwi? Why weren’t those the first on your list?

But the category I’m currently concerned about is that of “the biblical scholar”.

Traditionally, this has been composed of a number of features that revolve around traits that one assumes would help a person have a better understanding of an old inspired text. Think theology, history, Greek, Hebrew, hermeneutics, social-anthropology, textual-criticism. In short, the stuff of an all-around Bible-nerd.

But for the past 30+ years, there’s been a growing presence of another discipline that few understand: “the linguist”.

My point in bringing this up is that the horizon is changing. And though the role of the biblical scholar is under constant flux due to epistemological shifts of competing cultures, a more noticeable development is underway.

The field of Linguistics is increasingly making more inroads (e.g. Campbell 2015) with present day scholarship, and is doing so in such a way that the standard biblical scholar is confronted with the appeals of this discipline (Porter 2015).

As a result, biblical scholars—the lay and elite, alike—are presented with several questions:

  • Should I care?
  • What does linguistics have to offer?
  • Is it important or necessary for me to learn a new discipline?
  • What do I make of those who use a linguistic framework?
Credit: Srikanth Santhinathan

At the moment, the only question that’s of real concern to me is the last one. What do you do with a person that begins to break the mold, who tests the bounds and ventures out?

What do you do with the biblical scholar-turned-linguist?

  • Are they frowned upon for pursuing a “secular discipline”?
  • Are they held at arm’s length until they can prove what they reap from linguistics has exegetical significance?

If so, significant in whose eyes? Perhaps the biblical scholar-turned-linguist has (“lower”) expectations with what enthralls them?

  • Or if they’re accepted, how can the established community of biblical scholars be certain they are not being duped with empty philosophy, or enticed by high sounding nonsense?

This is an especially difficult question to answer considering the fact that linguistics—just like any other discipline (think theology)—is not comprised of a blend of scholars that all agree on a singular and harmonious framework (though schools of thought certainly exist).

  • So in the end, how do you know you can trust the biblical scholar who talks like a linguist?

Do you trust an esteemed biblical scholar to make the judgment call?

Personally, this is a scary way forward: How can an expert from one field judge the scholarship of an expert in another in any meaningful way?

And this is an especially confusing scenario with the biblical scholar-linguist paradigm because you end up with a hybrid species, allowing one breed to vet a different breed since overlapping expertise are shared—in spite of the fact that the variant expertise is the one being vetted! Simply put, the biblical scholar vets the linguistic credibility of the biblical scholar-linguist.

With all of that, I’m afraid there’s no easy answer. But answers were never the point of this article.

I’m more concerned with shining light on the developing scene, and particularly, with discussing some of the implications of what this means for those who find themselves as ostriches among robins—or linguists among biblical scholars.

Here are three final questions to think about in light of the changing tides:

  • How do biblical-scholar linguists find work (i.e., a j-o-b) doing what they love if their specific mode of understanding a text is not in accordance with traditional methods?
  • Will scholastic institutions value such a breed of scholars enough to bring them on board as representatives of what the system esteems?
  • Where do you publish original research that might not carry any immediate or sexy exegetical payoff (though ultimately they inform a more accurate or comprehensive hermeneutic)?

In the end, I have no solutions, only strong wishes that the field of biblical studies would continue to value the field of linguistics; and secondarily, that biblical scholars who appropriate linguistic models would recognize the importance of holding themselves to a higher-scrutiny than they might find inside their native guild, since many of the concepts are foreign, giving their home-field audience an unfair advantage to engage with them in a critical manner.