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.



Anyone who has been this blog for a year or longer knows well that I used to dislike Greek. You can read about my strong feelings for the language here. I believe the phrase used those many months ago was “the bane of my existence.” How times have changed.

Within a few short weeks after the post linked above, I was already feeling much better about Greek. Like I had a real handle on it. Doing a simple search for “Greek” on my blog will reveal that this feeling has continued and escalated. In fact, at this point I’d go as far as to say that I love Greek. This is thanks, in no small part, to my TA. I’ll take a small amount of credit because I’ve worked my butt off studying, memorizing vocab and paradigms, translating, etc. I actually get how the verb system works now. Interestingly enough, Jim was right.

As I look back, I realize that I knew Greek before, though I needed to refresh things, but I never felt like I knew it. I wasn’t confident with it. Now I feel confident with it. We’re currently in participles, and although the perfect participle is still giving me some headaches regarding exactly how to translate it with any semblance of aspect intact, it’s not depressingly frustrating. I’m actually planning on registering for Intermediate Greek in Summer I. It’ll be the first summer course I’ve ever taken. But I’d really like to continue studying Greek. This may come as a surprise to some of you, who know I’m into the Hebrew Bible. But let’s think for a moment, there’s the LXX for starters. In addition, Wisdom of Solomon was penned in Greek, and my interests run towards the Wisdom Literature. Leaving aside the fact that I do, in fact, read the New Testament. I’m just having a great time learning languages: Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, next year Ugaritic, if I can pull a high enough grade in Aramaic I might take Syriac, there are also BTI courses: Rapid Hebrew Reading, Coptic(!), and various seminars.

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.

Posts worth reading, Vol 1

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.