The German Bible Society has created online versions of their ancient language resources. I, for one, am excited about this. These resources, although searchable, really aren’t going to be a replacement for dedicated programs like Accordance, Logos or Bibleworks. However, the fonts are very nice and display brilliantly (something that is normally lacking in complex-text language Bibles on the internet). If I just need to look something up quickly and I’m not near my own computer, I imagine this might be a helpful resource.
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?
Michael Spencer, that conservative internet monk, has a post up about Bible translations. Of course this is too much fun to pass up since plenty of bloggers within the biblioblogosphere have recently been posting on translation (and for those I didn’t link to you can check out the most recent Biblical Studies Carnival at Ketuvim).
So, on to Michael’s thoughts. After a lengthy disclaimer he gets to the meat of what he wants to say, which is basically: “Conservatives should stop yelling at each other about what Bible translation one uses, since they are all translations made by scholars.” Michael is right; in fact, often the same scholars work on vastly different translations. As a case in point, Moises Silva, whom Michael mentions as one of the translators for the NLT, also served as a translator for the ESV and the NASB (source here and here).
I personally think that we could get rid of the problem entirely by actually teaching Hebrew and Greek in our churches, but this opinion apparently makes me a “Bible Expert,” (though, to be fair, I think the Bible perfectly understandable–more or less–in any of the English translations we have). Ultimately I find all of these discussions about translation and translation philosophy extremely stimulating. But, at the end of the day I would still rather be reading Hebrew or Greek with the students in my youth ministry.
It’s true. Teaching others to read the language is far more exciting, to me, than discussing how one tries to make Hebrew make sense in English with any kind of regularity. It is also true that I have four high school students or recent graduates who are learning Greek. It’s an odd story, but extremely exciting. To be sure, anyone can learn Greek (and Hebrew is even easier). The amazing thing is not so much that they are learning Greek, but that they want to learn it. Someone should write a book about church youth ministries using language study as their main paradigm for ministry. Now that would be exciting!
In fact, writing this post has been somewhat of an inspiration to me. I plan to talk with my Greek students this evening about their preferred translations and why they prefer them. Of course, eventually, they won’t need them–does that make them Bible experts too?
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.
There has been an bit of a discussion going on in the bibioblogosphere recently. Perhaps it might be better labeled a resurgence of a long-standing discussion, but that detail is somewhat superfluous. You can read the relevant posts by John Hobbins (and everywhere else on his blog), Mark Hoffman, David Ker (also here), and my own previous comments. As I’ve been turning all the arguments over in my head over the past couple days, I’ve come to a few conclusions. Hopefully this will help to continue the conversation.
I think part of this discussion is based on a difference of goals. John Hobbins and David Ker have both mentioned this briefly. Most of my classmates in seminary (specifically at Gordon-Conwell), want to learn the languages as a tool. At first glance, that might not seem like a bad idea, but in reality I think it carries with it many problems. For instance, at Gordon-Conwell Greek and Hebrew are seen as tools not only for ministry/scholarship after graduation, but for use in one’s required exegesis courses (for those not in the know, GCTS exegesis courses consist of translating about 10 chapters from the Hebrew or Greek, about one a week, some exams on relevant material covered in class lectures, and a paper where one is asked to interact with the Greek or Hebrew text and answer issues of grammar, syntax, etc, after having translated the pericope from the original). I took an exegesis class in the Samuel corpus, and learned quite a bit. However, I already had two full years of Hebrew under my belt, and I was taking Intermediate Hebrew Grammar at GCTS concurrently. Most of the students only had a year of Hebrew. What does all of this have to do with learning Hebrew? Only this:
Hebrew is seen, by seminary students, as a tool for passing an exegesis course. As a result, they are required to learn the grammar, syntax, etc, in order to be able to play commentator in an exegesis paper. Obviously the grammar of a language is important. However, in seminaries it is normally taught first, and actually knowing the language is left somewhat to one’s own devices. Reading and pronouncing the language is given a priority somewhere near the bottom of the list–if at all. What this means is that trying to teach a language inductively is often not an option, because of other class requirements.
I’m not saying this means it is a hopeless situation. Quite the opposite, I think that any layperson is quite capable of learning Hebrew and Greek (they are not that difficult), and reading the text in its original language. Certainly there will be difficulties at first, but as one becomes more familiar with the text, as one reads it in the original more and more often, it will become that much more natural.
Ultimately, I think we need to expect both more and less from students in language courses. I think the expectation needs to be on reading the text, not translating the text. The focus needs to be on grasping what the text is saying, not giving a technical explanation of the grammar. Students should learn the grammar and syntax of the language, but it should come later. Let them learn to be comfortable with the language first. I think, if we adopted a process like this there would be far more students who enjoyed the Biblical languages (and other dead languages!), and when they did learn the grammar, they would know it much better.
The problem with language classes as I have been exposed to them here at GCTS, and as David Ker has been exposed to them, is that they don’t actually help one to enjoy the language. They suck the joy out of it. I’m lucky enough to have had an incredible Hebrew prof in undergrad, Dr. George Snyder, who made learning the Hebrew fun. If not for him, I’m sure I would hate Hebrew, and never want to go any further with it than what my exegesis classes require. Perhaps ultimately what we need are good language teachers. Ones who realize that instilling a love of the language should come before explaining the finer points of grammar, syntax, morphology, et al.
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.
Over the past week or so I’ve read a number of excellent posts on other blogs that I’ve wanted to comment about. However, some of them I don’t really have enough to say to warrant an entire post. Most of them I simply don’t have the time to give a full post to. So, I’m going to lump them all into a single post, with links, a few observations from yours truly, and an overall encouragement that you read them.
The Thoughts of a Medialist – Kevin Wilson has a good read with a nice little anecdote about his own time at Johns Hopkins. What is perhaps most interesting in this entire debate is that almost everyone wants to say they are in the middle. William Dever does not consider himself a maximalist. Of course, Kevin doesn’t consider himself one either–though perhaps he considers Dever one, I don’t know. He also has some good thoughts on what amounts to demonizing people in order to “win” the debate. Which reminds me of a recent post by Art.
demonizing: the leading tactic in christian debate – Art is absolutely right. It’s unfortunate, but I’ve seen this all too often. Even recently, I’ve seen this take place. Honest questions are easily dismissed when the questioner can be made out to be something less than a person, or at least the type of person that one normally associates with.
Pensive Thoughts on Faith and Calling – Earl has some open and honest thoughts about calling. He and I have had many a discussion over coffee on this very topic. It’s always fascinating to watch as a person’s thinking on a topic develops, and Earl’s has developed greatly. As my comment on his blog indicates, I think the two of us are in a very similar boat. Regardless of all that, it’s a post worth reading and you should really check it out. It brings up some excellent topics, not least of which is the separation between the laity and academia in Christendom.
Not really a radical… – On a somewhat related topic, Wezlo waxes eloquent about how he’s not really a radical. I say he just needs to keep telling himself that. But in all seriousness, Wezlo brings up some good topics. The idea of seeing the way forward through the past isn’t new, but it’s always good to think about. Furthermore, Wezlo tries to differentiate between an activist and an idealist, a discussion that is worth having.
Sadistic Approaches to Teaching Biblical Languages – This is simply a brilliant post by John Hobbins. You should read it, twice. I have a few professors here at GCTS I’d like to force to read it. I’ve long been of the opinion that languages are best learned inductively. Memorizing endless paradigms, although helpful at points, is an extremely boring way to learn a language. The textbook I used for Hebrew I and II introduced each lesson with a sentence from the Hebrew Bible. Each time we learned something, we were learning it in context. It was a great way to learn. I’m taking Aramaic this semester, and although the language isn’t that different from Hebrew, the professor I have is much different from my Hebrew prof in undergrad. I was never made to learn paradigms, beyond the basic ones, in my undergrad Hebrew courses. Regardless of how one might feel on the necessity of learning paradigms, I managed an A+ in Intermediate Hebrew Grammar last semester. That means I did better than most of the people who had memorized all the paradigms. Yet, in our first Aramaic session of the semester, the class was assured that if one did not memorize a plethora of paradigms, one would not be able to achieve above a C in Hebrew, and likewise in Aramaic. All of this to simply say that there is no excuse for making a language boring and cold to your students.
At this point I’ll stop. Some great posts there, and I recommend you take a few moments to check them out.