Reason #264

Reason 264 to learn Hebrew, Greek and other ancient languages as part of our efforts to study the Bible: learning the language helps us to understand the culture. I am extremely glad that I have learned Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic. I’m also glad that I’ve had the opportunity to formally study Ugaritic, Akkadian, Middle Egyptian and various NWS (NorthWest Semitic) dialects. But, much like Duane, I don’t think that the primary benefit is simply to be able to compare cognate words.

In addressing why a “serious student” of the Hebrew Bible or New Testament might want to learn some of the other languages I listed above, Duane writes:

Contrary to what is sometimes thought, the reason for knowing those other ancient languages is not primarily etymology or other narrow linguistic concerns. It is to understand as much as we can about the cultural context in which Biblical players worked, wrote and read…The first thing required of the serious Biblical studies student is knowledge of the literature, both the literature of the Bible itself but also of that mass of literature in many ancient languages but predominately in Hebrew, Aramaic, Hellenistic Greek, Akkadian, Ugaritic, Phoenician (plus Moabite and Ammonite), Egyptian, Classical Greek and Hittite that make up the literary and cultural context of Biblical literature.

I don’t expect pastors to learn Akkadian, Ugaritic, Egyptian, or Hittite. I don’t think it is asking too much, however, that pastors (including youth pastors, or even interested lay people) have a solid knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, and preferably Aramaic. Learning these languages allows the reader not only to read the texts without an intermediary (i.e., a translation–after all, traduttore, traditore) but also to better understand the culture and background of the texts. In other words, learning the language that a text was originally written in also opens wide vistas for the reader to understand the background and culture of that text.

Culture and language are inseparably linked, as this Wall Street Journal article hints. There is an irony in their use of an image of the tower of Babel in this article, especially for our purposes. Regardless of one’s theology, we must acknowledge that the Hebrew Bible is a product of time and space and that, by it’s very nature as a document written in a particular language, it represents a particular culture. That culture, and all it entails, is much better understood when you know the language.


The End of Another Semester

This is my obligatory end of semester post. I realize every student blogger out there is posting something similar, and it pains me to be part of the herd (flock?) of lemmings in this case, but I like reflecting on a semester after it has concluded.

In this case, the semester isn’t quite over yet. I have two finals next week (Aramaic and Greek) and a take-home final (Theology of the Pentatuech) that I need to sit down and actually complete at some point. Either way, classes are over and that’s good enough for me.

Greek II – I have completed my first year of Greek–for the second time. I can’t express how happy I am that I decided to not attempt to test out of Greek I and II. Retaking the first year of Greek was certainly what I needed. I feel like I actually have a good chance of retaining the information this time. I’m looking forward to Intermediate Greek this summer. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve enjoyed the experience and as a result I’ll have a much easier time reviewing and keeping up with my Greek.

Aramaic – The first half of the semester was not my idea of fun. It actually wasn’t my idea of learning a language either (learning paradigms != learning a language). However, the second half of the semester, in which we simply translated Biblical Aramaic and even got into a different pointing system and some unpointed Imperial Aramaic was much, much better. In fact, I really enjoyed the second portion of the course, and I learned a ton. It is somewhat odd; I’m the least anxious for this final. I think this is primarily because the final involves parsing and translation. I know I can do this. There are no paradigms to reproduce, which means all I need to do is show that I know the language as well as any first year Aramaic student could be expected to know it.

Spiritual Formation for Ministry – I took this class as a Semlink, and I’m glad I did. I still have several months to finish it, but I’m hoping to complete it by June (earlier, if I can manage it). This is a course that could be extremely helpful and useful, but has proven to be neither. The lectures have been mediocre, and the readings are the same. I’m glad I took it as a Semlink.

Theology of the Pentateuch – This was the most disappointing course this semester. Actually, it is currently running neck and neck with my Systematic Theology courses from undergrad as the most unhelpful course I have ever taken. I don’t want to have this post descend into negativity at the end, so I will content myself with saying that it would have made a decent Biblical theology course. As a Theology of the Pentateuch course it was unfruitful at best. The problems generally revolve around using categories from systematic theology (instead of simply working through the text) and in having as our corpus the entirety of the Christian Bible (yes, including the NT) instead of restricting our searching to the Pentateuch (or even the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament).

So, two classes where I learned a ton, one that was mediocre, and one that was a complete disappointment. I suppose it could have been worse. All in all though, this semester has not been the worst I’ve ever had, and Greek and Aramaic thoroughly redeem it. So, onward to next Wednesday and my Greek and Aramaic finals.

The end of another semester

This semester is quickly coming to a close. It’s always amazing to me, as I sit at the end of a semester, that another three(ish) months have rushed by. I will be honest, this semester was much easier than last semester. I still have a Semlink course to finish up, but that is pretty much some reading, finishing the lecture mp3s, and then writing two short papers. For my actual resident courses I’m finished aside from finals and a few articles that I still need to read for Theology of the Pentateuch. Some of my reflections from this semester follow:

Greek II – I’m amazed at how fun Greek has been this year. Greek I was excellent, and Greek II was equally so. I’m feeling very confident in my knowledge of the language. I realize I’m only at a very basic level, but I think I have the basics down well. I’m actually really looking forward to taking Intermediate Greek in a summer module.

Theology of the Pentateuch – This class has been beyond disappointing. The reading has been next to worthless. The class sessions themselves have been more about systematic theology and proof texting (and not even limiting the proof-texts to the Pentateuch!) then about anything else. I don’t want to descend into complaining. I’ll simply say that the class is not what I had hoped for or expected. I’m still trying to figure out how what I’ve received fits with the course name or description.

Aramaic – Many will remember that this class had me panicking at the beginning of the semester. Not so anymore. I have very much enjoyed the second half of the semester. The primary reason for this is that I haven’t had to worry about memorizing paradigms during the second half of the semester. Dr. Stuart has required that we translate all every word of Aramaic in the Bible, and now we’re working on a targum of Genesis 1 (with Babylonian pointings!) and an unpointed text from Elephantine. I’m actually enjoying the course immensely now. Not as much as Hebrew, or even as much as Greek, but quite a bit nonetheless.

As for the future, I’m still working out what next semester is going to look like, but I do know that I’m taking Intermediate Greek this summer, as I mentioned above. I’ll actually have another post with a few questions related to that sometime this weekend.

Some Observations Regarding Biblical Languages

It’s hard to believe but there are only a few weeks left in the semester. There is no Aramaic next Monday, and the following week will be our last meeting before the final. In Greek we have, I think, less than five chapters left. We are moving rapidly through the non-indicative moods (we’ve covered participles, subjunctives, infinitives, and on Friday we’ll cover imperatives). I’m still really enjoying Greek. Taking Intermediate Greek during the Summer I module should be a blast.

As for Aramaic, the second half of the semester has been much better than the first half. As of today we have translated every word of Biblical Aramaic. Our final class will be spent translating and discussing a Targum of Genesis and Papyri #30 from Elephantine. The targum uses supralineal pointing whereas the papyri contains only the consonantal text. It’ll be a different experience, but one that I’m looking forward to. Not having to worry about paradigms has made learning the language so much more enjoyable.

A few observations I’ve made from learning languages this semester:
1. Every time I learn a new language it seems that it becomes a little easier. I have more points of connection to hang things on. Even when the languages are very different (say Greek and Aramaic), there are still certain similarities. Taking languages that are similar heightens this effect (Aramaic and Hebrew, for instance. My hunch is this will prove true when taking Ugaritic next semester).
2. It’s surprising how easily one is able to read a language when one knows the required vocabulary. I’ve always known this, but it strikes me as incredibly important. Biblical Aramaic is an extremely small corpus, and so knowing the vocab is actually quite easy. I’m amazed at how far 400 words can get you. My goal this summer is to review my Hebrew vocabulary and ensure that I have down to 50 occurrences completely memorized. I hope to do the same for Greek.
3. Languages are actually really fun to learn. I’m still partial to Hebrew, but even Aramaic and Greek and quite interesting. As much as some people are into archeology or mythology I’m finding that I’m into languages.
4. Learning other languages well increases one’s grasp of English tremendously. I’ve known this since I took Hebrew I in undergrad, but this semester I have been reminded of it again and again. Conversely, when you know English well it becomes much easier to see what is going on in other languages–or at least to be able to explain what is going on in other languages in terms relative to English. It’s all part of a web I see developing in my mind that now includes four languages (English, Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic). Now, if only I could get to the point where I can think in something other than the first of those.


Mandy and I are finally through midterms, as she has already mentioned.

Overall, I’m not too displeased. I didn’t do as well as I would have liked on my Theology of the Pentateuch midterm. It is only 20% of the final grade though. The final is 70%, so I should still be able to manage an A or A- in the course. The final will consist of three essay questions and I tend to do better with essay questions than with multiple choice, which is the sole type of question that was on the midterm.

I, like Mandy, feel much more confident about the midterm in Aramaic than I thought I would. Eric‘s advice paid off, and I know I nailed the vocab and paradigms. I also know I did decent on translation and parsing, though I made a few mistakes (stupid Afel imperative). I’m anxious to get back the midterm and see exactly how well I did. Again, the final is worth a larger chunk of the pie, so if I didn’t do as well as I hope I can study hard and pull things up a bit with the final, which will lack any paradigms and consist of translation from Ezra, Daniel, and the Targum and Papyri we’ll be translating later in the semester.

So, midterms are finished, and I’m happy for that. I have my second Greek exam next Wednesday, so this weekend will be devoted to studying for that, in addition to making a serious dent in my semlink course work.

Why some people hate Hebrew

Aramaic Paradigms

The above is a picture of the paradigms I am supposed to have memorized by Monday for the midterm. Now, these are Aramaic paradigms…for the strong verb, as opposed to Hebrew. 26 of them, in total. In Greek II, I’m only required to know around 10. I am finally realizing how utterly frustrated people become when learning Hebrew. There is no reason in heaven or on earth to require the memorization of all of these paradigms. Dr. Stuart, my Aramaic prof, feels that if you don’t know the paradigms you’ll never be able to score above a C+ in a language course. Odd, considering I managed an A last semester in Intermediate Hebrew Grammar with him, but that’s besides the point.

Relatedly, many of you will remember how I was panicking about Aramaic before. That is no longer the case, as I’ve taken Eric’s advice. I’m feeling more confident every day with vocab and parsing. The paradigms still worry me, and I know that’s where I’m going to lose a ton of points, but I’m hoping he gives us the standard Pe’al and Pa’el paradigms, as opposed to the others, which I don’t know nearly as well (I can parse any verb in those other stems, mind you, I just can’t reproduce the paradigm). Mandy and I have decided that an Aramaic version of Bonnie is needed.

Aramaic Panic

Ok, so I’m taking Aramaic this semester. I really enjoy learning languages. I enjoy studying the Bible. It’ll look good on my transcript when I go on for PhD work (the issue of a youth pastor having a PhD in Hebrew Bible is not one that I wish to get into at present…I’m the oldest child in my family, I’m used to blazing new trails). It also, if I manage an A or A+ in the course, opens the door to taking both Targumic Aramaic and Syriac as a directed study. So, those would both be awesome.

Now, on to the topic of this post. I am, in no small way, panicking. Let me explain what our first week of work included in this class:

  • 143 Vocabulary words (some are exact Hebrew cognates, so no big deal. Others aren’t hard if you sorta know the Bible (ie, bar for “son”…but even then there are probably around 90 words that don’t fall into that category)
  • 8 Paradigms (Personal pronouns, absolute and construct nouns, Peal strong verb perfect, imperfect, imperative, participle, passive participle and infinitive.
  • We were responsible to read ahead in the textbook (A Short Grammar of Biblical Aramaic by Alger Johns), and do the exercises for material we had not yet covered in class.
  • There were 50 of these exercises, which wasn’t a horrible number as they are fairly simple sentences.
  • Of those chapters in the textbook we were supposed to work through, there were 5.

This is, according to the syllabus, what I can expect for the first half of the semester. I’m not complaining, this is, after all, graduate school. I am panicking! We are making our way through the entire grammar in about five weeks. Which, my instinct is, wouldn’t be bad–if we were actually covering the lessons in class and then doing the exercises, etc. However, we are supposed to just read the chapter, understand enough to do the exercises, and then show up in class–which is spent going over the exercises and having the entire class ask questions that waste time because they’re overly simple but we don’t know them because we were never actually taught the material. Beyond that, if I have 8 paradigms to memorize every week, aside from being a horrible way to learn a language, it means that I am going to be responsible for at least 40 paradigms on the mid-term. Now, we won’t have to reproduce all 40. But since Dr. Stuart refuses to tell us which ones will be on the mid-term we will have to know all 40. Add to this trying to learn and retain ~100 vocab words a week, and I’m just freaking out. Do people actually learn languages like this?

Now that I’ve vented my frustrations and panicked ravings enough to get on with life I’m going to return to the insurmountable number of vocab words and paradigms I have to learn. Because I’m already behind.