Teaching and Learning Biblical Languages

There is an interesting article up over at the SBL Forum this month. The article, by Rahel Halabe, covers a variety of issues surrounding teaching Biblical languages, namely Hebrew, to students in an academic setting. There are some really excellent points made, not least of which is the need to teach what is needed at the beginning level and not to go overboard with grammatical issues in an introductory course. The Hebrew program especially at GCTS could learn quite a bit from this approach. Halabe also brings up another important point: the need to begin working with “authentic texts” as soon as possible.

In regards to all this, I still propose the textbook used by my Hebrew professor in undergrad, as the current, best resource to accomplish these things. Biblical Hebrew, by Bonnie Pedrotti Kittel, et al. (note, the link is to the second edition, which I have only looked at briefly, the following comments are based on the first edition) is an Hebrew textbook that I honestly can’t say enough good things about. It isn’t perfect. But it succeeds admirably at leaving aside unneeded encumbrances to learning the language, and at immediately presenting the students with the Hebrew Bible, not sentences constructed by a professor/scholar.

To give an idea of what I mean, let me use an example from Lesson 1 of Kittel’s text:

The lesson introduces the Qal, wayyiqtol (which Bonnie calls the prefix form with vav conversive). Dagesh forte is briefly discussed, as well as the idea that one must “find the root.” It makes learning Hebrew fun. Immediately the student is presented with a phrase lifted directly from the Hebrew Bible. Terms such as stem, form, and PGN are defined, and then the lesson is pretty much over. By the end of lesson two, students have translated Exodus 6.2, the Pi’el stem has been introduced, various parsing issues have been clarified, and the assignment for the next lesson is to translate all, or portions, of Hosea 1.2, Exodus, 6.13, 32.21, and Judges 11.13. Lesson three is absolutely brilliant in its introduction of first yod verbs. Bonnie has chosen to introduce 1st yod verbs by using the root הלך, which is, of course, not a first yod verb–but it behaves as one (Bonnie wisely leaves aside discussions of morphology and explanations as to why הלך behaves as it does. These may be covered once students have the basics down). As a result students are never going to forget what הלך looks like.

I think the above is sufficient to make my point. This textbook does not seek to teach the language in a systematized manner (though there is a reason and logic behind the format of the book), but rather to engage students in reading verses lifted directly from the Hebrew Bible immediately, to help them read the language well, and to leave more in depth questions of grammar to further study. Bonnie Kittel’s textbook, coupled with a teacher who is able to teach the language well, and help it come alive for students, is an excellent answer to many of the discussions I’ve seen taking place over the past several months in regard to teaching Hebrew. Will one, eventually, need a more systematic understanding of Biblical Hebrew grammar? Certainly, but that can be had during a second year of study once one already has a grasp on the language and can read the majority of prose passages without undue amounts of stress. Perhaps someone will eventually come out with a superior text to Bonnie’s, there are things that I might do a little differently (and Randall Buth’s method intrigues me). Nevertheless, it remains the best textbook of which I am aware for helping students taste the language immediately and forever acquire a love of it. Without this love of the language, pastors will never use it, and even scholars will see it as only one of many tools to be used, rather than something to be enjoyed.


9 thoughts on “Teaching and Learning Biblical Languages

  1. Bonnie’s book made learning Hebrew amazingly easy. I am still astounded at the difficulty Greek gives me simply because of the lack of inductive method that I became familiar with using Bonnie’s Grammar.

    Before selling my soul to the Historical Studies devil I considered becoming a Greek Scholar simply to write a text book equivalent to what Bonnie’s Grammar provided. I decided against it, but think that you might want to consider such a task. *wink, wink*


  2. Calvin: Of course I agree with you!
    Earl: I’ve had similar notions. I’m determined now to write a good Aramaic grammar at some point…

  3. Should I try to earn Aramaic first?

    It occurred to me recently that, in learning the biblical languages, starting with Aramaic (before Hebrew or Greek) might have some advantages. Since biblical Aramaic it is so limited in scope (to just a few chapters in Daniel, and a few isolated NT words), it presumably would present fewer vocabulary words and grammatical rules than the other two languages, and in a relatively shorter period, one could learn it to the extent of being able to read and translate those Aramaic chapters in their entirety. At the same time, its similarity to Hebrew might serve as an introduction to that language (or at least a foretaste…). Eventually, of course, I’d want to go on to study both Hebrew and Greek, not necessarily in that order. (I tried a semester of Greek at Houston Graduate School of Theology before giving up (I changed to audit), since I found it to be worse than trying to learn German.) Does this make any sense? Can anyone recommend any texts and/or approaches for Aramaic self-study?

  4. Bob,

    I would still recommend learning Hebrew first. Although the points you raise are correct (though, there is a chapter or two in Ezra that is in Aramaic as well as Daniel), many Aramaic grammar assume exposure to Hebrew. As a result, they tend to move more quickly. In addition, there are many, many helps out there for Hebrew. There are even some self-study courses (such as at http://www.biblicalulpan.com). I’m not aware of the same breadth of resources for Aramaic study.

    Beyond this, learning Hebrew first has some advantages. For instance, because it is a larger corpus, there is more to interact with. This can be a very good thing. Generally speaking, I think once you know Hebrew you could pick up Aramaic with about a month of study, maybe two if you want to learn the vocab well.

  5. Does Bonnie Kittel’s Biblical Hebrew have answers to exercises or is there a separate volume?

    I am currently using Page’s Biblical Hebrew: An Introductory Grammar.

  6. Richard, Bonnie’s text doesn’t include answers to exercises. I’m unaware of any seperate volume, though it is not an impossibility. The exercises consist of translating verses or sections of verses, and once one has the basics down, translating more lengthy passages. The passages that one translates have guides in the back of the book which walk the student through any odd or otherwise surprising constructions.

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