Learning Biblical Languages in Seminary

I’ve received a few emails over the past week or two, normally from new seminary students, asking for my thoughts on learning Biblical Languages, and specifically learning them in a seminary setting. Should one take Hebrew and Greek at the same time (depends.)? Is Hebrew harder than Greek (No.)? How much time should one put into studying for a Greek or Hebrew course each week (that really depends on you, but…a lot)?

I’m not always sure why those of you who email me decide to, but I’m more than happy to help someone when it comes to learning languages. Because of this I’ve decided to compile a retrospective on some of the posts I’ve done in the past related to Biblical languages, and then add some additional thoughts.

A Student’s Thoughts on Learning Hebrew – This post deals with the question of why seminary students bother to learn Hebrew and Greek in the first place. It interactions with thoughts by John Hobbins and David Ker. I ultimately come to the conclusion that seminaries don’t teach Hebrew well, and that students don’t really want to learn the languages for anything more than a course credit.

Some Observations Regarding Biblical Languages – In this post I make some overarching observations about learning Biblical Languages that I picked up during the Spring 2008 semester at GCTS. They are all fairly self-evident, but might help those who’ve never studied a dead language before.

Teaching and Learning Biblical Languages – In this post I review the Best Hebrew Textbook of All Time. This probably won’t help you much if your professor isn’t using Bonnie Kittel’s Biblical Hebrew but it might convince you to go pick up her textbook for your own benefit. It would be money well spent.

I’ve plenty of other posts on Biblical Languages, but I think that those three will help those of you who may be in seminary and wandering if you should take Hebrew and Greek separately, or together, or at all. I have a few additional thoughts regarding learning Hebrew and Greek in seminary:

1. If you’re only learning the languages because its a requirement for your M.Div. you’re probably going to hate the languages and never use them again. If you plan to be a pastor (of any kind; senior pastor, associate pastor, youth pastor, CE pastor, whatever), you really should know the languages. So, decide that you need to learn them for more than a credit on your transcript, no matter how much you may hate learning languages.

2. A very popular question is whether one should take more than one language at a time. Ideally, we would all take one class a semester, spend all our time on that topic, and have the professor all to ourselves. However, such a scenario doesn’t exist in this little piece of the universe we call reality. In lieu of a perfect scenario, taking only one language at a time may help those who aren’t used to learning languages. The question of whether or not to take Hebrew and Greek in the same semester really boils down to whether or not you are good at learning languages. My wife, for instance, will be taking three different language courses this semester (one brand new, one new but a cognate of Hebrew, and one continuing a language to which she has already been introduced). She’ll do very well in all three courses and have nice shiny A’s–its just what she does. So, ultimately move at the pace that is comfortable to you, but if you’re learning a dead language for the first time it’s probably a good idea to learn Hebrew your first year, and then Greek your second (of course, many seminary programs are designed to learn them in the opposite order…so you may not have a choice).

3. As far as summer language courses go (the question of, “Should I take a summer Greek or Hebrew course?”), I don’t really recommend them. Part of learning a language is repetition, and having 10-15 weeks of repetition for Hebrew I or Greek I is infinitely better than having 3-4 weeks of repetition for those same courses. On the other hand, sometimes a student has a grant that expects her to complete her seminary training in three years, and so taking a summer Hebrew program is the best way to stay on track without overloaded semesters. It’s the nature of the beast, I’m afraid, but I’d still say to avoid it if possible. If it’s truly impossible to avoid taking a summer Hebrew or Greek course, then remember to learn vocab. I know of many summer Hebrew courses that let students slack on vocab in Hebrew II. Part of the problem is trying to learn all of the vocab in such a short amount of time. But push yourself; force yourself to learn the vocab, you’ll thank yourself later.

4. I’ve also had people ask in the past how one should go about keeping Hebrew fresh. As anyone can tell you, the best way to do this is to read more Hebrew. But reading Hebrew can be frustrating when you’ve only had two semesters of it and only know 350-450 words. Using a graded reader can be helpful, but ultimately I’d recommend pushing yourself, learning all the Hebrew words that occur more than 70 times (about 506 words), or better 50 times (about 642 words), and then using the Reader’s Hebrew Bible. You can actually use the Reader’s Hebrew Bible knowing only words that occur 100 times or more, but the extra 150 (if you learn down to 70 times) words will mean you have to look at the bottom of the page less often, thereby making it even less frustrating to read the Hebrew Bible.

That about covers the normal questions I receive. Of course, I’m sure other Bibliobloggers may have additional advice on the topic, so why not search some of the blogs in my blogroll?

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