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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Done!

Yesterday I took my last two finals. It’s wonderful. I need to finish up some paperwork for Mentored Ministry, and then I’ll be busy with church responsibilities that didn’t get taken care of earlier this week because of studying. Still, it’s a great feeling to be done, or near enough that it doesn’t matter.

Also, I took a “Reformed Theology Quiz” on facebook, which Len sent me. I scored as a five-point Calvinist. How does that happen? Those of you who know me will know that I don’t play those games. Five-point Calvinist. Honestly. I like the Pope! I said the Westminster Confession should be amended! How do I come out a five-point Calvinist? Oh well, it was a fun way to blow off steam while it lasted.

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.

Midterms

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.

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.

Mosaic Authorship and Conservative Pentateuch classes

Where to begin? Yesterday was my first Theology of the Pentateuch class session. It’s a requirement for graduating from the M.Div. program here at GCTS (well, either that or OT Intro, but I thought Theology of the Pentateuch would be more helpful for me). I was hoping for a class that could introduce me to some of the critical issues surrounding the Pentateuch and also look at what theology the Pentateuch really espouses, and perhaps the differences between that theology and Christian dogmatic theology. Of course, I should have known better.

Dr. Neihaus is teaching the class. I haven’t had him yet, so it’s good that I get to take a class with one of the few OT profs here that I haven’t had yet. The class started out well enough, with us discussing three different form critical approaches to Genesis 1. I’m not sure if any of the approaches we looked at completely fit, but it was interesting. Then, somewhere along the line we ended up in Genesis 3, with Satan “possessing” the serpent. Which is something I’ve heard of before. But with the mention of possession we somehow ended up in the New Testament and for the next twenty minutes heard about demon possession and what not. Now, I’m not trying to be insensitive here. I know that many people feel that demon possession is a very real and present issue. I don’t take that road, but neither do I reject entirely the possibility of such things. Either way, it is my opinion that such discussion has no place in a Theology of the Pentateuch class, unless perhaps we’re talking about ANE ideas about demonic possession, or Azazel, or something. After this we meandered a bit, but eventually ended up on the topic of Critical approaches to the Pentateuch. I was enthused–for all of five seconds.

It became quickly apparent that Dr. Neihaus subscribes to the idea of Mosaic authorship of the Torah. This in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. I know many people who feel that Moses wrote the Torah (or at least huge chunks of it) and they are capable of researching things, and doing real scholarship. They’re also okay if you don’t think Moses wrote the Torah. Dr. Neihaus, however, very nearly equated belief in Moses writing the Torah with belief in Jesus as the Son of God. Such things are ridiculous. I actually asked him, during class, why we were assuming that Moses had to have written the Torah, since I didn’t remember anywhere within the Torah where it was claimed that Moses wrote it (of course, I’m of the opinion that even if it did claim such a thing that doesn’t require one to subscribe to Mosaic authorship of the entire thing). He agreed that there wasn’t much within the Pentateuch itself, so again we jaunted over to the New Testament and began talking about how Jesus says “Moses gave you the law,” which must clearly mean that he wrote the entire Torah. Himself. In the 2nd Millennium BCE. Except the part after he died. Because that would be crazy.

After a quick Bible search I see no reason that one who wanted to take a very conservative view of Scripture would be forced to conclude that Moses authored the Torah. In the Gospels Jesus often refers to the Torah by saying “Moses commanded such and such.” But this does not mean that Moses had to have written the entire thing. It would be much like saying “The founding fathers wrote in the constitution…” when we are actually talking about the Bill of Rights, or another later addition to the constitution. It is not inaccurate to use the former designation, now does it in any way whatsoever twist the truth. In addition, there are a few times were Jesus refers to the Torah as the Law of Moses, which I take to be a colloquial designation for the books, not an authoritative statement regarding their authorship. I’m honestly mystified as to why Mosaic authorship of the Torah is such a massive issue in conservative circles. I think one could even fuller affirm the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and not hold to complete Mosaic authorship of the Torah. I’m of the opinion that the authorship of the Pentateuch is somewhat superfluous. To be sure, Seitz im leben can be helpful to interpretation. But ultimately the Torah tells us a story, and that story is true regardless of who wrote it.

Now, in fairness, I will be introduced to critical methods of examining the Pentateuch. It will just be from the perspective that those methods are invalid and wrong – perhaps borderline “unChristian.” I doubt we’ll do much looking at the Theology of the Pentateuch as compared to Christian dogmatics or to the rest of the Hebrew Bible. I thought quite hard about dropping the class. Mandy is of the opinion that as much as I need to read people who disagree with me on the “left” I also need to hear people who disagree with me on the “right” and decide for myself. She’s normally correct about such things. At least she and Adam are taking the course with me. All hope is not lost.