University of Oxford

Inaugural Lecture by Prof. Jan Joosten (Oxford)

470215_10150940745254410_837526454_oOn October 27th Professor Jan Joosten gave his inaugural lecture as the newly appointed Regius Professor of Hebrew at the University of Oxford. Until recently he was on faculty at the University of Strasbourg (France), but in 2014 transitioned to his new post at Oxford.

Jan is a very prolific scholar to say the least. If you are interested in Old Testament textual studies, you will have almost certainly run into his work. If you are a graduate student interested in Old Testament and/or Septuagint studies, you should strongly consider getting in touch with Jan about supervising. Aside from being a top scholar in his field, he is very intentional about sharing his work freely. His webpage, where you can even access a full PDF of his Verbal System of Biblical Hebrew and Septuagint Vocabulary volumes, is a fine example of open-access scholarship. Although I was not able to make it to his inaugural lecture, I was very glad to see that a colleague, Marieke Dhont, did attend and recorded it. After obtaining Jan’s permission to publicize it here on the blog, I thought I would present a brief preview of the talk here, and also provide the link.

Click here to listen to the Lecture

Lecture Preview: “Hebrew: A Holy Tongue?”

The sum and substance of Joosten’s argument is that, although Hebrew did not start out as a “holy tongue,” it became one over time and may still rightly be considered as such.

The importance of Hebrew to Judaism and Christianity keeps the study of Hebrew a vibrant and ongoing discipline in universities the world over. In religious tradition, it is the language of God himself, and of all humanity prior to the confusion of Babel. Few interpreters throughout the middle ages contested this notion – on exception being Gregory of Nyssa (4th c.), who considered it unnecessary literalism. Even through the 18th c. many biblical scholars considered Hebrew to be humanity’s original language.

Certainly in today’s world of biblical scholarship things have changed significantly. Views of Hebrew have changed for many reasons. First, Hebrew is again, now for nearly seventy years, a national and living language in the modern state of Israel. It is now a language of the street once more. This makes considering it a “holy” language somewhat difficult. Secondly, previous Regius Professor of Hebrew S. R. Driver (19th c.), major contributor to the development of the historical critical approach to the OT, showed how Hebrew had changed over time. It was not some ineffable heavenly dialect, but one subject to normal linguistic change in space and time. Later, Regius Professor of Hebrew James Barr (late 20th c.) approached Hebrew from a philological perspective, showing how obscure passages could be illuminated by means of Ancient Near Eastern cognate languages. He also destroyed the notion that the “thought” of the OT was somehow inherently bound up with Hebrew per se. Thus once more, Hebrew is not uniquely equipped to express divine truths.

Thus, over the past half-millennium, study of ancient Hebrew has moved away from the idea that Hebrew is “holy.” Nevertheless, says Joosten, Hebrew may yet be reasonably considered a holy tongue that, though originally an ordinary human language, is became fit for religious purposes, and “ever so slightly unfit for everything else” (14:40-15:04 in audio recording).

The Paper in Full

I won’t summarize the entire talk, because then you wouldn’t listen to it yourself. Hopefully the taster above is just enough to make you spend the time doing the rest of the work yourself. But why listen to it when you can get the entire thing in PDF Form? If you can’t think of a reason, then you can read Jan’s lecture in full here.

British and American Style Doctoral Programs

Punting on the River Cam in Cambridge

In a previous post, I briefly outlined my work at the University of Cambridge as a doctoral student in Old Testament. In this post, I will discuss the broad differences between British and American doctoral programs in terms of application procedure and requirements. These, at least, are differences that are stereotypically true. There are innumerable permutations to doctoral programs, of course, so what I touch on here will only be so accurate in any given institution.

British and American Doctoral Programs

Most of my family and friends are befuddled when I tell them about the doctoral program at Cambridge. This befuddlement is not always related to their incredulity at my field of interest (the Septuagint), which almost always generates obnoxious yawns when I discuss it. They’re confused by what I will actually do when I show up in Cambridge, namely not go to class (among other things). At least, classes are not the main point of my program.

American Programs

Princeton University

Most Americans are used to thinking about a doctoral degree in similar terms as a graduate degree. They imagine that you apply with your report card and letter of reference from your mother, get accepted, go sit in class for a few years, and then graduate somehow with no job prospects to show for it. Some will know there is a writing aspect. And this picture is somewhat accurate (particularly the job prospect part). In reality, most American programs work something like this:

  1. Rigorous application process, often involving several phases of elimination, and possibly a face-to-face interview.
  2. Acceptance, with an award of a major source of funding, often a full ride or even stipend for “living expenses” that can reach the $30k mark (per year!) at some of the major universities.
  3. Two to Four years of required coursework in your broad field, with mountains of reading and research papers.
  4. One to Two years of teaching assistance for a professor, which may overlap with your coursework. At larger schools, doctoral students actually teach the undergraduate classes themselves, which is a major benefit.
  5. Supervisor selection and the two to three year writing phase, where students will have finished their coursework and enter into (hopefully) unadulterated research and writing with their supervisor of choice. Occasionally doctoral students are employable at this point, having completed their degree “all but dissertation” (sometimes on faculty job postings you’ll see something like “ABD required”).
  6. Most American schools will also have “comprehensive” exams, or “comps,” required somewhere along the line, which are exactly what they sound like.
  7. Graduation.

All in all, the American system is terribly involved, extremely long, and exhausting. On the flip side, you are so completely immersed in education that you come out with a lot to show for it, including teaching experience and publications. Some or all of the steps above overlap at times.

British Programs

The British (and European) model is very different. The best way I can think of to describe it is as an apprentice-mentor relationship. When you are looking to apply for a doctoral program in the British system, you are not really looking for a school as much as for a person. The idea is that by the time you are ready to pursue a doctoral degree you should be educated enough to have a clear idea of your interests and the research that needs to be done in a certain field. Accordingly, you are left to come up with a detailed research project and to find the person under whom it would be best to conduct that work. The main criteria to determine that is whether a potential “supervisor” has the same research interests as you and expertise in the field.

How most people imagine studying at Oxford or Cambridge

Of course, where that scholar is employed also matters in many ways, since the reputation of your school will go a long way. But in theory aspiring doctoral students should be looking for the best person, over the best university reputation, since the working relationship is so closely knit that most of your education will come from your supervisor rather than the school. That is particularly true in the British system where there is no coursework required at all. Only research and writing.

So a British university’s format works more like this:

  1. Rigorous application process, requiring a writing sample related to your field, identification of a prospective supervisor (who you should have developed a relationship with by then), and a full-blown, detailed dissertation proposal identifying your research project (usually 1000 words).
  2. Offer of admission, usually with stipulation of funding, if any (a big “if”).
  3. (Your desperate attempt to find sources of funding.)
  4. Student’s acceptance of the school’s offer, usually completed by submitting further criteria such as your completed masters transcript, a financial liability agreement, etc.
  5. Three years of independent research and writing, overseen only by your supervisor at semi-regular intervals. Many programs have a probationary first year to ensure you’ve got the stuff it takes.
  6. Oral defense of your completed dissertation.
  7. Graduation.

So you can see that British programs are much shorter (about half the length), but do not necessarily come with any funding, and do not (usually) provide teaching experience. On the other hand, you spare yourself the expenditure of much youthful vigor that American programs excise, and you work personally with a scholar of your choice who is ideally at the top of their field. I chose the British path almost by default because most scholars involved in Septuagint studies are located overseas.

The University & College System

Another perplexing aspect to a school like Cambridge – Oxford is the same way – is that Cambridge itself is not formally a “school,” but a corporate, guild-like institution. Cambridge is the unified front for the diversity of colleges within it. So not only are you a “Cambridge student,” but also a student of your college, which in my case is Fitzwilliam College. The application to your college is part of your application to the university, although you pick several colleges of interest, and your acceptance to one is a separate process from your acceptance to the university.

At the doctoral level, your college is important insofar as it establishes your intellectual community, should you conduct your research there, and it also can provide funding opportunities. It is not necessary for your advisor to be part of your college. Doctoral students also work with their particular faculty, in my case the Faculty of Divinity. This is both a physical building and a group of people, namely the divinity faculty members from all the colleges.

In sum, then, there are many key differences between these two systems that important to know when considering applying for a doctoral degree. Hopefully this has been of some help to those in that position, and to my understandably confused family members.

The Grinfield Lectures on Septuagint

It has been floating around the blogosphere recently, but I re-post the information nonetheless. This year’s round of the Grinfield Lectures on Septuagint will be given in a few weeks, this time by Nicholas De Lange. De Lange is professor of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at the University of Cambridge, whose recent projects include both the Grinfield Lectures and The Greek Bible in Byzantine Judaism (see here).

It occurred to me that although I’ll miss De Lange’s lectures, I will most likely be able to attend next year’s series once I begin doctoral work. Hopefully I can provide an update and review when the time comes.

The following information comes from Jim West’s blog, who says he in turn got the information via James Atiken (University of Cambridge) on Facebook:


Emeritus Professor of Hebrew and Jewish Studies, Cambridge- ‘Japheth in the Tents of Shem: Greek Bible translations in Medieval Judaism’

  • Monday 24 Feb.: ‘New light on an old question’ – Venue: Examination Schools at 5.00 pm
  • Tuesday 25 Feb.: ‘Aquila fragments from the Genizah’ – Venue: Seminar in Jewish Studies in the Greco- Roman Period, Oriental Institute, 2.30 – 4.00 pm
  • Thursday 27 Feb.: ‘The Successors of Aquila’ – Venue: Ioannou Centre, 5.00pm – 6.00 pm