Biblical Studies

Philology: Introduction to the Significance of Language Analysis

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When you first enter an ancient history or archaeology degree you are introduced to several sets of material evidence. Notably, the archaeology, material evidence, and philological evidence. But the philological side is more often than not rarely mentioned again. This is quite a shame considering some of the most interesting and revealing information comes from the ancient written sources. People generally fall into the trap of ignoring the writing in favour of the archaeology and artefacts and frankly you can’t really blame them because humans are naturally attracted to pretty visual things. I see this every day with the likes and shares on my Facebook page. But philology is all important too and if students can learn even a little about ancient writing and textual criticism, a whole new side to history and analysis opens up to them as it should.

DSCN0428BB - Clay Tablets with Liner B Script
DSCN0428BB – Clay Tablets with Liner B Script (Photo credit: archer10 (Dennis))

Philology is derived from the Greek terms φίλος (love) and λόγος (word, reason) and literally means a ‘love of words’. It is the study of language in literary sources and is a combination of literary studies, history and linguistics. Philology is generally associated with Greek and Classical Latin, in which it is termed philologia. The study of philology originated in European Renaissance Humanism in regards to Classical Philology but this has since been combined to include in its definition the study of both European and non-European languages. The idea of philology has been carried through the Greek and Latin literature into the English language around the sixteenth century through the French term philologie meaning also a ‘love of literature’ from the same word roots.

Generally philology has a focus on historical development. It helps establish the authenticity of literary texts and their original form and with this the determination of their meaning. It is a branch of knowledge that deals with the structure, historical development and relationships of a language or languages. This makes it all the more significant to study as language is one of the main building blocks of civilisation.

There are several branches of philological studies that can also be undertaken:

Comparative philology is a branch of philology which analyses the relationship or correspondences between languages. For instance, the commonalities between Latin and Etruscan or further flung languages of Asian or African provinces. It uses pre-determined techniques to discover whether languages hold common ancestors or influences. It uses comparison of grammar and spelling which was first deemed useful in the 19th century and has developed ever since. The study of comparative philology was originally defined by Sir William Jones‘ discovery in 1786 that Sanskrit was related to Greek and German as well as Latin.

Cognitive philology studies written and oral texts in consideration of the human mental processes. It uses science to compare the results of research using psychological and artificial systems.

Reconstruction of the missing Greek text on th...
Reconstruction of the missing Greek text on the Rosetta Stone

Decipherment is another branch of philology which looks at resurrecting dead languages and previously unread texts such as done and achieved by Jean-Francois Champollion in the decipherment of Hieroglyphs with the use of the Rosetta Stone. And more recently by Michael Ventris in the decipherment of Linear B. Decipherment would be key to the understanding of still little understood languages such as Linear A. Decipherment uses known languages, grammatical tools and vocabulary to find and apply comparisons within an unread text. By doing so more of the text can be read gradually as similarities and grammatical forms become better understood. The remaining text can then be filled in through further comparison, analysis, and elimination of incorrect solutions.

Textual philology editing is yet another branch of philology with includes the study of texts and their history in a sense including textual criticism. This branch was created in relation to the long traditions of Biblical studies; in particular with the variations of manuscripts. It looks at the authorship, date and provenance of the text to place it in its historical context and to produce ‘critical editions’ of the texts.

Significant Examples:

The importance of philology is exhibited in its use and achievements. Without philology the bible translation would be even more wrong, trust me read it in the original Greek. We would not be able to translate hieroglyphs, Linear B, Linear A, Sanskrit, any ancient language. Our entire written past would be blank, we would not have the information we have now on mathematics, social structure, philosophy, science, medicine, civilisation, transport, engineering, marketing, accounting, well anything really, knowledge would not have been rediscovered or passed on without the ability to study texts and language. Understand the love of words.

SSEC (Society for the Study of Early Christianity) Conference 2013

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English: Macquarie University sign

SSEC Conference 2013 

SSEC 2013 conference brochure – Link to PDF

Conference Curtain Raiser
Thursday 2 May 7.05pm

Museum of Ancient Cultures.

Professor James McLaren (ACU) Jewish actions against the
followers of Jesus: reassessing the evidence within the context of
the Roman Empire

Dr Don Barker 9850 9962
Professor Alanna Nobbs 9850 8844

Notes on Speakers
James McLaren Professor of Ancient History and
Biblical Studies in the Faculty of Theology and
Philosophy at Australian Catholic University. Currently
the Associate Dean (Research) for the Faculty and
member of the Centre for Early Christian Studies.
Dr John Dickson Honorary Fellow, Department of
Ancient History, Macquarie University; Founding
Director of the Centre for Public Christianity
Dr Chris FORBES lectures in New Testament history,
the Classical Tradition and the Hellenistic Age at
Macquarie University.
Dr Rosalinde Kearsley Honorary Research Fellow,
Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University
Dr Brent Nongbri Macquarie University Research
Mary Jane Cuyler PhD student at University of Sydney
& Field Director of OSMAP excavations of the
synagogue at Ostia
Dr Marianne Dacy University of Sydney
Rev Dr Erica Mathieson Honorary Research Fellow,
Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University
Jennifer Turner Migliore PhD Student University of


Macquarie Ancient Language School

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For all my Australian and New Zealand readers: In January 2013, a number of academics including myself will be teaching at the Macquarie Ancient Language School. If anyone is interested please read the information below and I recommend my Beginner’s Koine Greek Class 😛

This is an excellent opportunity and is fun and educational. Before starting teaching at MALS (Macquarie Ancient Language School), I took six courses over the course of my undergraduate and loved everyone of them. Hope to see some of you there.

Information below is taken from the Macquarie University Page for MALS. 

Macquarie Ancient Languages School
(within the Ancient Cultures Research Centre)
Short intensive sessions are held in a variety of ancient languages in January and July each year.

The 2013 Summer School will be held from 7 to 18 January (excluding weekend)

About the Macquarie Ancient Languages School
The Macquarie Ancient Languages School, an initiative of the Ancient History Documentary Research Centre, has been running since 1981, offering courses in a wide variety of languages associated with Ancient History and Biblical Studies. Held over two weeks in January and one week in July, the School has branched out from its beginnings in Classical Greek to include classes in Koine Greek, Latin, Egyptian Hieroglyphs, Classical Hebrew, Coptic, Akkadian, Sanskrit and a range of other ancient languages. Some are offered at each school, others on a rotational basis, for example, Aramaic, Hittite and Hieratic.

There are also opportunities to participate in hands-on courses, working with papyri, inscriptions and coins from the collections in the Museum of Ancient Cultures. New courses are incorporated into the programme on a regular basis. Recent additions include the Linear B Tablets, Latin Inscriptions, the Vindolanda Tablets, and Latin Psalms. There are also introductory courses on various topics – for example, Etruscan, Old Norse, Cuneiform and Celtic Languages.

Are you looking for a challenge in 2013?
Perhaps you are considering enrolling in a degree programme and would like to include an ancient language?
Taking part in a Macquarie Ancient Languages School is a great way to ‘test the water’, prior to enrolling in an accredited unit.
Classes in Classical Greek, Koine/New Testament Greek, Egyptian Hieroglyphs and Hebrew are offered at three levels, ranging from Beginners (requiring no prior knowledge) to Advanced level, reading from selected texts.

Classes in other ancient languages are conducted at the Beginners level in January, with follow-on classes in July, subject to student demand. Examples of languages offered in the past include Coptic, Akkadian, Aramaic, Sanskrit, Syriac, Hittite and Sumerian, and more recently, Demotic and Hieratic.

Classes are open to people of all ages (from 16 years) and are suitable for:

intending students of Greek and other ancient languages in tertiary institutions and theological colleges, and those interested in learning to read the New Testament in Greek
secondary teachers and students of Ancient History
those interested in learning more about their heritage, for example, those with Celtic, Greek or Italian ancestry
those with a general interest in language
those interested in English literature, in European civilisation, in drama, philosophy, theology, in the ancient world generally, and in the many fields in which ancient literature and thought have been for centuries a powerful influence.
Teaching is in small tutorial groups meeting either in the mornings or afternoons. The timetable is planned to allow students to enrol in more than one subject – for example, a morning class in Koine Greek might be followed by a practical session on Greek Papyri in the afternoon. The timing of both Summer and Winter Schools is designed around the Macquarie University calendar, making it possible for currently enrolled students to attend. For those considering an ancient language as part of their degree, such a course is an ideal introduction to the subject, prior to enrolling in an accredited unit. Similarly, both Schools take place in NSW school holidays, so that secondary school students and teachers may attend.

Many of our students come back year after year, not only to enjoy the contact with other like-minded students, but also to brush up on their Greek or other ancient languages, and to continue their fascination with the worlds opened up by the language and literature of these ancient cultures. Their continued attendance is testimony to the enthusiasm generated by the Macquarie Ancient Languages School over the past three decades.

For the 2013 Summer School programme, click here.

For an application form, click here.

For enquiries please contact:
Jon Dalrymple
Ancient Cultures Research Centre
Department of Ancient History
Macquarie University NSW 2109
Telephone: (02) 9850 9962
Fax: (02) 9850 9001