In the fall of 2009, I was a young, aspiring scholar of biblical studies who stepped foot on one of America's oldest and most prestigious institutions of higher education, Yale University. The traditions of excellence at Yale run deep, and I knew that. The buildings, in fact, intimidated me. I overcame that with time because I was there with a purpose: to learn from the best. I was accepted to several top-tier universities for my masters work, such as Vanderbilt and Emory. The other institutions were closer to home and would have been more convenient in that regard. But, I wanted more, and I knew Yale would provide that for me.
My advisor at Yale was the wonderful Prof. Adela Collins, from whom I learned so much. As a New Testament scholar and author of many books, including an encyclopedic commentary on the Gospel of Mark, she exemplified what it meant to be a scholar...and a wonderful human being. (I really wish to return to Prof. Collins because she listened to my 22 year old self and agreed to supervise a directed seminar that I proposed.) In my first advising session with Prof. Collins, I expressed interest in taking Prof. Harold Attridge's REL694 seminar, "Readings in Hellenistic Jewish Literature." Prof. Attridge was at that time Dean of the School of Divinity. She remarked something like, "That's a hard course, you know." She then followed up with questions about how much experience I had with Ancient Greek. I felt pretty confident, since I had taken 3.5 years of Greek grammar at Lee University, where I obtained my baccalaureate degree. With this information, Prof. Collins gave her blessing and so I signed up for Dean Attridge's course.
On September 3, 2009, I walked into a seminar room on the first floor of the Yale Divinity School full of peers. We awaited Dean Attridge's arrival. Dean Attridge was never slow, I would learn later. He was quick to move from one place to the next. He came walking swiftly through the door and it was down to business. After we went around the table introducing ourselves, Dean Attridge discussed some business related to the course. Perhaps the scariest thing we learned that day was that 80% of the student’s grade would be based on a final exam consisting of a translation of an unseen Greek text! Then, he passed out a few sheets of Greek text from the Septuagint. He said, "Just for fun, we're going to sight read some Greek." Unknowingly, I happened to have taken a seat next to where Dean Attridge would sit for the rest of the term. And on this first day of class, that meant I was up first to sight read the provided Greek text. While perspiring, I managed with some difficulty to make my way through a block of text from Joshua. I'm pretty sure Dean Attridge did this in order to gauge the skill level of those taking the course.
This course was difficult. Prof. Collins was right on the mark when she told me that. We read difficult passages from Philo, Josephus, wisdom literature, poetry, and so on. The syllabus indicated that we should read about "6-8 hours" of Greek each day in preparation for the weekly seminar. When we were in the seminar, each student took a turn reading passages in sequence from the selected text. In our second seminar on September 10, we read three chapters from 2 Maccabees. (For those who don't know, that's a lot of Greek!)
The Greek became more difficult as the course progressed. We spent the entire month of October reading Philo. And Philo is not easy to read in Greek. The grammatical constructions frequently caused me to go mad. As much of the class struggled that month, that was certainly not the case for Dean Attridge. He had a habit (tradition?) of finishing the final minutes of the class by translating the remaining portions of text from that week. (For those who don’t understand this: he is holding nothing but Greek text in his hand, translating the Greek into English in his head, and speaking that translation aloud. This is how sight reading works.) The month we read Philo, he would spend anywhere from 3-5 minutes swiftly yet gracefully translating Philo into English…beautiful, decipherable English, for us all to hear. Had I not witnessed it, I would have thought he had words marked up and parsed on his text. I sat right next to him, remember, and so I always looked onto his sheet: the man translated some very difficult Greek without assistance almost as fast as I could read a passage from some popular children’s book!
I will never forgot Prof. Attridge’s command of the Ancient Greek language. I will also never forget his willingness to talk to the students as he walked through the halls, attended events, ate in the refectory, and so on. This evening, when I learned of Prof. Attridge’s retirement after 23 years as dean, scholar, and professor (<—read this!), I could not help but sit down and reflect on my time with him at Yale. I set out to learn from the very best scholars when I attended Yale. Prof. Attridge was one of those scholars and I am grateful I had the privilege to take one of his courses and cut my teeth on some of the most difficult Greek I had experienced up to that point.
A warm congratulations on your retirement, Prof. Attridge!
PS: My score on the final exam was an HP+ (Ivy League grading, equating to B+).