By Published: Sept. 1, 2017

babel illustration

Like millions of Americans before him and after, Samuel Boyd took high school Spanish.

Since then, he’s learned some other foreign languages, bringing his total, at last count, to 26, including dialects — and he’s got room in his head for more.

“I started to learn Sumerian but had some scheduling conflicts,” said the 38-year-old CU Boulder professor, referring to a language spoken about 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, now part of Iraq. “I’d like to come back to it.”

Nearly all Boyd’s languages are “dead” — no longer spoken, except as a scholarly exercise. Few use the Roman alphabet (the ABCs).

But they’re all key tools in his work as a professional student of the Bible, the Western world’s most famous book.

Reading the languages of the ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean cultures that produced it some 2,500 years ago helps him assess subtleties lost in translation. It also allows him to decipher contemporaneous records that illuminate context and meaning.

Boyd's cover band, The Dead Sea Trolls, nodded cheekily to the scholarly life ahead of him.

Guiding this work are two endlessly ponderable questions: “What is the Bible, and what are we supposed to use it for?”

These are not questions with final answers.

But meticulous study of the literary and archaeological evidence left by biblical cultures informs current understanding of what the Bible’s authors meant to convey. This shapes how people interpret and act on those messages now.

"I'm not here to convert anybody out of or into a particular religious tradition,” Boyd said. “I’m here to help people think critically.”

Boyd first grew interested in ancient languages while working as a currency derivatives analyst at a big bank in Charlotte, N.C. It was the early 2000s and he was fresh out of college.

Inspired by debates about religious fanaticism after the Sept. 11 attacks, by his upbringing in the heavily Christian American South and by a childhood obsession with Indiana Jones, he enrolled in an online course in ancient Greek. He wanted to read the New Testament as it was first written.

Greek sucked him in.

Professor Samuel Boyd knows 26 foreign languages, including dialects. A sample:

  1. Hebrew
  2. Greek
  3. Akkadian
  4. Hittite
  5. Syriac
  6. Aramaic
  7. Ge'ez
  8. Phoenician
  9. Ugaritic
  10. Moabite
  11. Classical Arabic

“I’ve got the bug,” Boyd told his bosses at the bank, where he also played guitar in a cover band called The Dead Sea Trolls, a cheeky nod to the latent interests that led to a new life.

Within 18 months he’d left finance and begun a master’s program focused on extinct languages. He added more as a PhD student.

Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic came after ancient Greek, then Ugaritic and some modern languages, German and French, which he also reads better than he speaks.

Eventually Boyd picked up Akkadian, Syriac and Classical Ethiopic (also known as Ge’ez), as well as Phoenician, Moabite and Hittite, among about a dozen others.

He even helped identify and decipher a lost Aramaic dialect inscribed on a nearly 3,000-year-old monument discovered in Turkey.

Scholars of the Bible tend to know many languages — often half a dozen or so, according to Jeffrey Stackert, one of Boyd’s graduate school professors at the University of Chicago. It’s really the only way to do the job. Stackert himself knows 12, including dialects.

But even among his peers and mentors, Boyd stands out.

Two big questions guide his work: "What is the Bible and what are we supposed to use it for?"

“This level of language competence is pretty uncommon,” said Stackert, who called Boyd “a natural” who “combines a remarkable memory with a keen interest and indefatigable drive.”

Boyd candidly noted another secret to his success: Many languages in his repertoire are related.

Phoenician, Hebrew and Moabite, for example, belong to the northwest Semitic language family and share many common features, including certain characters used to form words and convey ideas, aspects of grammar and some vocabulary. Punic and Ammonite, once spoken in North Africa and what is now Jordan, respectively, in turn resemble Moabite.

In a Western context, this is like someone knowing Italian and Spanish and adding Portuguese or French — other Romance languages.

Still, it takes a lot of study, and Boyd spent years heads-down.

It helped that “I was a single guy” during graduate school, he said.

Now married with children, Boyd emerged as an uncommon talent whose linguistic abilities make him a versatile scholar.

“He is able to address complex research questions that span significant time, geography and culture and that require considering a number of different types of evidence in ways that few scholars can,” Stackert said.

Sometimes the dictionary is wrong.

At home at night, Boyd reads Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things Are aloud to his children in Hebrew.

Despite his linguistic aptitude, Boyd doesn’t consider himself a hyperpolyglot — a person who speaks lots oflanguages. (Zaid Fazah of Lebanon claims to read and speak about 60.)

“Texts are my thing,” he said.

Predictably, Boyd's office shelves all but sag with dictionaries, which he consults freely — and skeptically.

“Sometimes, the dictionary might be wrong," he said.

Illustrations by Michael Waraska