By Reverend Jeremy Mills

This past year upper school students who were in the Latin I Readings Class translated the Gospel of John in its entirety. Yes, that’s right, all 21 chapters! What an amazing accomplishment! Yet, you might be wondering what, if anything, does a student gain from translating the Gospel of John from the Latin as opposed to simply reading it in English? Why is such a labor-intensive translation project worthwhile?

When it comes to the study of Latin, students are rewarded for their patience and diligence. It takes time and effort to learn a new language. First, a student must have a solid foundation of syntax and vocabulary. This was achieved through years of careful study and memorization of grammatical paradigms in the grammar school and lower logic school. Next, students build upon this foundation by beginning to translate longer and longer texts. 

By translating longer texts from Scripture, a student’s familiarity proves an advantage. Prior knowledge of a biblical text, and a general idea of its thematic flow, gives a student confidence to tackle the unfamiliar parts. It was a joy to watch my students grow more and more comfortable with the Latin language. At the beginning of the school year, it was slow going, but as we progressed through the Gospel of John, they began to recognize patterns and similarities in sentence structure. We began by translating approximately 10-15 verses at a time. By the end of the academic year, students were able to translate a whole chapter with little to no help in the span of a class period!   

When I chose the study of the Vulgate for Latin I Readings, I was confident that the students would enjoy translating Christ’s words more than they ever enjoyed translating the words of Caesar or Cicero. Yet, an unforeseen benefit was how translating the Gospel of John encouraged them to rethink old assumptions. Seeing how the various stories from the life of Christ are so familiar there is a tendency on our part to assume there is nothing new to learn from them. Yet, when translating, a student must slow down and pay attention to the many small details, which are easily missed with just a cursory reading of the text. As such, these nuances add richness and depth to the story and shine new light on the person and work of Jesus Christ. They also open new pathways of thought, and encourage conversation. 

As their teacher, my own faith was enriched by spending my afternoons huddled around God’s Word discussing the Latin language and the contents of the Gospel of John with students. I too noticed details that I had never noticed before, and I can honestly say that my classroom discussions with the students had a positive impact on my pastoral ministry. The students challenged me with their questions and insights, which inevitably spilled over into my work as a pastor. I will forever be grateful for this unexpected blessing.  

The chief advantage of teaching at a classical Christian school is the ability to join secular knowledge with sacred knowledge. Nowhere is this conjunction more apparent than when translating the Holy Bible. Therein the language of classical Latin is brought to bear on the narrative of sacred Scripture.  This creates a unique and rewarding experience for students. For centuries, the mother tongue of Christianity was Latin. As such, modern-day students are connected across time and space to the original grammar of ancient Christian thinkers. Periodically, I would supplement our translation of John with various sections of ancient texts and hymns. We even spent a few class periods translating ancient liturgical rites, which proved interesting and helpful to those students who traveled to Italy this past year. It is an honor and a privilege to share these days at school thinking about God and His Word, conversing about matters of faith, and growing with students in knowledge and understanding.