Of all the people living in Forest Park, Noppawat “Vis” Kumpeeroskul is probably the only resident fluent in Thai, English, Koine Greek and biblical Hebrew. He also studied German.
Born in Chonburi, Thailand in 1987, Vis came to Concordia Seminary in St. Louis eight years ago with the goal of earning a PhD in biblical studies with a focus on biblical Greek and Hebrew.
After living intensely in the world of classical languages at Concordia, he decided to immerse himself for one year in the life of St. Paul Thai Lutheran Church, in a kind of residency, to become more acquainted with the practical side of working in a church.
His journey in linguistics began when he was a student in a Catholic elementary school in Chonburi where most classes were taught in Thai, but where one class a day was devoted to learning English.
“The way they taught English there,” he recalled, “was to focus on grammar and vocabulary. We had to memorize five new vocabulary words every day.”
Though most of us would consider that enterprise tedious and boring, Vis said, “I loved it. I was good at it, and it provided a foundation for learning languages as I continued my education.”
In high school, he had a sense that God was calling him to do something that might be called ministry, but he wasn’t mature enough to study at a seminary, so he went to a nearby university where he earned a degree in civil engineering.
God’s calling, however, persisted as did his growing awareness of his aptitude for, and love of, learning languages, so after receiving a bachelor’s degree, he began his studies at the Bangkok Institute of Theology where he focused on the two original biblical languages, and then a professor urged him to do graduate study at Concordia, which has a reputation for its work in biblical languages.
In addition to his interest and aptitude, Vis has a concern. There are so many translations of the Bible on the market that they be quite different in how they phrase certain passages. Vis’ goal is to get fluent enough with the two ancient languages used in the Bible so that he can go back to the sources and see what the scriptures meant in their original context before being translated into Thai.
Another problem is certain idioms in one language that are difficult to translate to another. That’s why Thai church translations, either from Thai to English or vice versa, are often lengthy because idioms and concepts have to be explained.
Extra challenging for Vis was that in his classes at Concordia all the work with the two languages would be translated into English. Here was a young man from Chonburi translating an ancient language into his second language and then trying to understand that translation in his own heart language, which is Thai.
Vis also understands that every language grows out of the particular culture in which it is rooted. What Christians refer to as the New Testament is written in Greek and is already a translation from the Aramaic Jesus spoke, and the Hebrew in the Old Testament comes out of a time and culture quite different from the world in which the New Testament writers lived.
That makes Vis not only a linguist but also an archaeologist and anthropologist. Even before he studied Greek and Hebrew, he understood from experience how language always has a cultural context.
Thai culture is more communal than American culture which is more individualistic. In Thailand compromise is a way of life because maintaining group unity is more important than needing to assert your own opinion. “We” is more important than “I.”
When Americans use the word “free,” they tend to think of individual rights, but when Thais use that word, they think of themselves as being free because they are citizens in a country which has never been colonized by a European power. Thais are free because they belong to their own country.
What makes life even more complicated and nuanced is that Vis thinks about language and culture not just on a secular level. Jesus talked a lot about the Kingdom of God which has its own culture. When asked to talk about which culture is better, Thai or American, he said both cultures have to be judged by the culture of the Kingdom of God about which he reads in the original Greek used by the New Testament writers.
He remembers the time a member of his Thai church saw him in the church kitchen washing dishes after the meal served after every Sunday service. When that person asked him why he was doing menial work when he was an “ajahn” with a doctor’s degree, he replied, “I think Jesus Christ is the best example. In the Bible stories he is humble. In the Kingdom of God the position of ajahn is meaningless.”