Learning Greek and Hebrew: joy or torment?

Different bloggers have been expressing very different opinions on the importance for pastors, priests and rabbis of learning biblical Greek and Hebrew. John Hobbins and Iyov, who both have a very scholarly perspective, seem to consider high levels of biblical language understanding essential for these callings, and regret that North American seminaries do not insist on this – and the situation is little different here in Britain. On the other hand, Suzanne McCarthy reminds us that book learning of this kind is not enough to make a good pastor:

I don’t really need a spiritual counselor who knows Greek or Hebrew. It can help, but empathy and knowledge of the human condition go further. If they can be combined with language knowledge – well that’s a different thing.

Lingamish, in his usual hyperbolic style, goes further. He writes:

Greek sucks. Hebrew hurts.

I don’t agree. But I understand what he is getting at when I read on:

One semester of Bible Greek is enough to turn any normal human being off “the original” for a lifetime. Didactic methods in our Bible schools and seminaries are bad. …

So keep on reading all the scribes and Pharisees who want you to believe that mastering the languages of Moses and Paul is the prerequisite to getting deep insights into the Book of books. But don’t believe them.

Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, Lingamish. Please do believe me that “mastering the languages of Moses and Paul is the prerequisite to getting deep insights into the Book of books”, at least for getting the deepest insights which are hidden by translations that suck (which is all of them, in one way or another, if you try to use them to get “deep insights”). That is to say, if you want to really understand what the Bible is saying, and explain it reliably, you need to know Greek and Hebrew. I would suggest that all Bible teachers really do need a reasonable level of both languages, although maybe not to the advanced level suggested by John Hobbins.

The problem, as Lingamish noted, is largely with the teaching methods. Biblical languages should be learned like normal languages, which means not out of grammar books. Well, 40 years ago they were still trying to teach me French out of a grammar book. But these methods were already on the way out then. When I started Russian, in 1969 I think, we were taught using natural sentences, initially only spoken. I still remember our first two sentences, Seryozha idyot and Seryozha idyot v park, illustrated with pictures of a boy walking down the street and going into a park; they really mean “Seryozha is walking” and “Seryozha is walking to the park”, but we schoolboys all understood the first one as “Seryozha is an idiot”. I suppose my French course started with a paradigm like j’aime, tu aimes, il aime, but that is not quite as memorable.

I learned Hebrew in a natural way, initially as spoken language as I did Russian, and later mostly by reading the biblical text. I learned in 1995 when I was 40, so I was not too old to learn a language in this way. This was at an intensive course at the SIL British School (now ETP, sadly the course is no longer offered) led by the late John Dobson, whose book Learn New Testament Greek had already been published, and whose Learn Biblical Hebrew course we used in draft form on that course. Similar learning methods are used in the Greek and Hebrew Biblical Ulpan courses developed by former Bible translation consultant Randall Buth. Buth’s courses have the added benefit of being based in Israel, but the course materials are also available through the Biblical Ulpan website in book and CD form.

I don’t think anyone would come through courses like these and say “Greek sucks” or “Hebrew hurts”. For, as probably Buth writes on his website:

It turns out that the most efficient methods for learning a language are also the most enjoyable.

Certainly Dobson’s course, although intensive for six weeks, was a great deal of fun. I am also sure that I learned far more Hebrew in this time than I would have done from the same amount of time working through an old fashioned grammar book. And I was able to retain this Hebrew because I was plunged straight into using it regularly, checking an Old Testament translation.

I would urge anyone who wants to be a serious Bible teacher to learn Greek, and if possible Hebrew, using methods like these. And I would urge seminaries, indeed anyone teaching these languages, to throw away the old textbooks which Lingamish describes, the ones which teach things which only specialist scholars need to know in an extremely boring way, and to move on to appropriate and modern methods and course materials like Dobson’s and Buth’s.

6 thoughts on “Learning Greek and Hebrew: joy or torment?

  1. Do you think there is a danger of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing here?

    For myself, I was just trying to figure out if I could pick up a useful amount of Greek from Dobson’s book.

  2. John, that is a good question. Yes, a little knowledge of Greek or Hebrew can be a dangerous thing, especially for those who don’t realise that their knowledge is little, or have a tendency to show it off in an attempt to win a point by overawing their listeners. Dobson’s books are a good start, but you shouldn’t think that by finishing one of them, or any other introductory grammar, you have become an expert in either language. You need to keep going. Reading the Bible in Greek or Hebrew is a good way to do this. I took my Greek beyond the basics by studying the New Testament for an MA, and my Hebrew by checking a translation against it. But this needs ongoing work, not sitting back and thinking that you know it all.

    Meanwhile John Hobbins has posted about how he learned Hebrew, which seems rather similar to me. He has also endorsed Randall Buth’s courses. All this without reading my post first.

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