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A wonderful post -- I've posted some further thought here.

Simon Holloway

Israel is the "home away from home of all self-respecting Diaspora Jews"? I take that statement as an example of rhetoric, and not indicative of what you necessarily believe. After all, what about those of us who think that the very notion of a diaspora is political nonsense? With my parents from Europe and me being raised in Australia, the idea that Israel constitutes a "homeland" strikes me as a dogma that I cannot justify with genuine belief.

Simon Holloway

Oh, and an excellent post by the way. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

John Hobbins

You're right, Simon. The adjective "self-respecting" before Jews was thoughtless. I'll change it to "many." Herzl himself may well have taken offense at my formulation.

Rev Sam

Why just languages? As I understand it Roman Catholic seminaries require three years of grounding in philosophy before embarking on theology - the one is a necessary prerequisite for the other. And what about history? Surely it's not possible to understand Scripture without some awareness of the context - and indeed some notion of historiography. I'm not wanting to disagree - at all! - I just wonder why Biblical language is singled out. Possibly a Protestant/rabbinical emphasis?

John Hobbins

Welcome, Rev. Sam. You have a wonderful blog.

Thanks for calling attention to other areas of knowledge which enrich the life of the soul, and the care of the soul, I might add.

Peter Kirk

John, do I take it that Waldensian pastors are selected at age 18-19, all necessarily from an elite sent to special high schools, and are let loose from seminary at age 25 with no adult experience of the real world? They may have plenty of good theology, but are they genuinely called of God and equipped for pastoral ministry? Perhaps the North American seminary deans and profs realise that what makes a good pastor is not so much excellence in theology and biblical languages, but more the practical preparation needed for the job.

John Hobbins

Good questions, Peter.

Those who begin at 18-19 tend be PK's (preacher's kids). Traditionally, pastors send their kids to a liceo classico if they have the aptitude for it. An equivalent tradition reigns in Germany.

Those who are not coming off of schooling in a liceo classico or equivalent do a year or longer of propaedeutic study.

I agree that North American seminary deans and profs seem to think it's more important for a pastor to be well-trained in what we call in Italian la cura d'anima (the care of the soul) than to know the biblical languages, philosophy and theology, and preach an intellectually challenging sermon.

I'm a both/and kind of person, as you know by now, so I reject the dumbing down of the pastoral mind that afflicts North American Christianity.

Charles Halton

As usual, great post. I must say though, I am at a Jewish seminary and I can tell you that the future rabbis here don't know Hebrew half as well as some might think. The problems that you discuss cut across all of seminary education in the United States. I'm interested to hear about the things you're doing at your parish.


I suspect that the more you travel towards the Orthodox, the better the average level of Hebrew gets. As someone once pointed out to me -- despite the problems with the Israeli rabbinate semikah examination, at least the subjects are taking it in Hebrew.


Thanks for commenting on these wonderfully important issues! The problems in theological education to which you point are indicative of a broader issue within the American educational system. How could a collegian learn Hebrew when he does not know the grammar of his native tongue? How can she understand philosophy when no one has taught her logic? The seminary or university, which may want to have higher standards, is forced to adjust to the limited skills of the incoming student.

I do not know the answer to this dilemma in its entirety, but one way to go is to require higher educational standards at every level (read: higher requirements of students!). This includes more Greek for the seminarian, more liberal arts for the collegian, and more grammar for the grammar student. The problem is not that the classes are not offered (nearly every liberal arts college has a least introductory courses in classics and philosophy), but that no one is taking them. No one takes them, because they are not seen as important. They are not important because they are not required (1) to get a job or (2) to graduate from our institutions!

Charles Halton

Iyov, part of the problem that I see with the Hebrew of some rabbinical students is that since they know (at least some) Modern Hebrew, they then think that they simultaneously know biblical Hebrew. However, many would argue that the structure of Modern Hebrew is not even Semitic. Reading biblical Hebrew is a very different ball-game than Modern. But, I agree with you that the closer to Orthodox the better it probably gets.


I'm sure glad to be WELS..our Pastors are required to be able to read the Bible THOROUGLY cover to cover..leaving NO room for doubt in our minds on whether or not our doctrines and truths stem from true Scripture..or faulty Biblical Interpretation..

:) :D



I won't tell you what happens if I open up my Hebrew Bible and ask the average WELS pastor to read, translate, and comment. Not surprisingly, they are not up to it.

They do have wonderful and sometimes not-so-wonderful memories of studying Hebrew at seminary.


In regards to the main entry on this page, it seems that one of the main reasons as to why seminaries in America don’t emphasize the importance of studying the main languages of the Bible as stated in your post is that America as a whole doesn’t put almost any stress on how valuable foreign languages are. With a few groups of seminaries exempt in this field because they do in fact require the study of at least one of these languages, but in a nation such as this, it is difficult to care about “dead languages.” However it’s key to realize that one cannot know where to go, if they do not know what they came from, and with something such as the Bible it’s essential to understand all aspects from when it was first written in order to full grasp all of its meanings. It seems that seminaries use a system now, that doesn’t allow much room for deviation, and the thought of requiring young men to have previous study of these languages before they enter school would turn too many away, resulting in greater harm than good. What I am curious to know is how seminaries vary by country, in dealing with their requirements, focuses on languages or studies and also the variances of different denominations of Christianity. I would think that the areas where the religions came from, or where their head is, such as Rome for Catholics, would play a factor in how the seminaries run.


Salvation does not come through a knowledge of Biblical languages or philosophy. It comes through faith in the life and death and resurrection of Christ.

Biblical languages are useful as long as they contribute to one's understanding of the salvific dimensions of the Christ event. Beyond that, their value is, in certain respects, harmful.

How so? Well, for example, China. A place open as never before to Western influences. All the time you spend on a dead language is time you are not spending on Mandarin, a language which will give you access to ~a billion prospective believers.

The value of Hebrew or Greek in communicating redemptive truth to Mandarin speakers is virtually nil. The value of Mandarin in communicating redemptive truth to Mandarin speakers is inestimable.

Interestingly, Mandarin will also open doors to mountain tribes in other areas of Asia, people who have ties to China but live in other places, such as Laos.

I enjoyed studying both Greek and Hebrew. I understand why people study and enjoy both languages; however, I also know first hand the lost opportunities caused by insufficient Mandarin.

John Hobbins


First of all, all power to you for dedicating your life to the spreading of the gospel where you are.

The value of Hebrew and Greek in communicating redemptive truth to people of *all* non-Hebrew and non-Greek speaking cultures is virtually nil. It is about as helpful as speaking in tongues without interpretation in worship.

On the other hand, a strong foundation of solid exegesis is mastery of the source languages. A great number of mistakes are avoidable in this way. Will redemptive truth still shine through in the thicket of mistakes that people who do not know the texts in the original languages normally make? With the help of the Holy Spirit, a believer would say "yes."

But that is no excuse for not using all the gifts God has given us to search the Scriptures and search them with accuracy.

It is only a matter of time before excellent Mandarin-literate scholars of Hebrew and Greek will write commentaries on books of the Bible in which the honor that ought to be accorded to knowledge of the original languages will be given due weight.


John, Your assertion that a "great number of mistakes"/"thicket of mistakes" awaits those who approach Scripture without a "mastery of the source languages" borders on the absurd.

It's like me saying that everyone who doesn't have a vision of Christ after a three week fast while reading the NT in a jail cell can't really have a personal knowledge of God.

In general, insisting that people study the OLs or face a "thicket of mistakes" is going to drive people away from Scripture rather than inspire them to study the OLs.

Those people who have been blessed with mastery of the OLS can provide a valuable service to those of us who haven't by translating Scripture without allowing their opinions and prejudices to influence the translation.

People who think Scripture is a "thicket of mistakes," whether in the OL or in translation, are likely to make a shipwreck of faith, both their own, if they ever had any, and that of others.

John Hobbins

Hi Hansen,

I agree with you that someone who thinks that what they read is a thicket of mistakes is likely going to make a mess of things.

The opposite is also the case. Without sufficient knowledge of the source languages and cultures and literary genres the texts reflect, someone who thinks that what they read is divine truth is likely going to impose all kinds of meanings on to the text that are not in the text.

Don't be surprised if the truths you claim to find in Scripture, if they cannot be confirmed by study of the kind I advocate for, are tossed aside as the product of an idiosyncratic mind. That is exactly what they are, if they have no basis in the original language texts.


Hi John,

Isn't there quite a difference between "mastery" of the OL and "sufficient knowledge" of the OL?

A lot depends on what one is doing. To do translation, sufficient knowledge would likely be mastery, if you define mastery as fluency. On the other hand, if one simply wants to understand the meaning of a particular word and see how it is used in various places in Scripture, knowledge sufficient for that task would hardly be mastery/fluency.

Considerng the frequent appearance of the LXX in the NT, one might make a strong case that Greek, not Hebrew, is the most important language of Scripture. It offers both testaments in one language, including a transitional period displayed by the apocrypha.

Fluency/mastery is certainly not required to locate all appearances of a single word in both testaments. All that is required is the Online Bible and a sufficient knowledge of the OL.

The implications of those appearances is where the theology begins and the language study stops. An atheist can find the passages. He/she will not understand their redemptive significance.

John Hobbins

Hi Hansen,

Are you familiar with a work by James Barr entitled "The Semantics of Biblical Language"? It is a classic expose of, among other things, the grave limits of the word study approach to the theology of the Old and New Testaments. Some of your remarks seem to hinge on the notion that meaning can be established, even if you don't know the languages well, with the help of a concordance and common sense.

That is not the case. The meaning of a sentence, a paragraph, or a composition cannot be deduced with the help of a dictionary and a concordance. It is very easy to go astray with that approach. Sufficient knowledge *is* mastery of the language.

Someone who claimed to understand Homer or Vergil or Dante or Milton but couldn't read the text in Greek, Latin, Italian, or English, respectively, except with the help of a dictionary and grammar every other sentence, would be viewed with great suspicion among scholars. Rightly so. It is no different in the study of the Bible.

For the rest, the Septuagint has a very important place in the study of the Bible, especially if one wants to understand the New Testament interpretation of the Old. But if one is interested in what a part of the Old Testament meant for its original author and those he had in mind, it is best to concentrate on the Hebrew and/or Aramaic.



The various motifs of Scripture are frequently referred to by various writers but much less often defined. Terms such as redemption, justification, redemption, perfection, gospel, and imputation, for example.

Their frequent use assumes a knowledge of what I call key texts, that is, definitive ones.

For instance, Romans 5:1 says "Being therefore justified by faith, we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand."

Being "justified by faith" is mentioned, but not explained. Does it mean "declared righteous", "made righteous" or does it mean something else?

We must go back to chapter 4:1,2 to find the definition of justification that pertains to its use in chapter 5. Actually, the entire chapter 4 is devoted to explaining just what justification is, with illustrations:

2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not toward God.
3 For what saith the scripture? And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness.

Here, Scripture plainly describes justification as a judicial finding. To be justified by faith is to have righteousness reckoned to you.

This corresponds well with a key justification passage in Deuteronomy:

Deut. 25:1 If there be a controversy between men, and they come unto judgment, and the judges judge them; then they shall justify the righteous, and condemn the wicked;

Absalom longed to "justify," as a judge, those who brought a cause to the king (2 Sam. 15:4).

I like what you said on the other thread about the "master metaphor." In this case, the "master metaphor" indicates a declaration of righteousness; however, in certain cases, some passages may mean "make [rather than declare] righteous."

Few, if any people have the "common sense" necessary to define terms according to the Bible definitions. We must rid ourselves of "common sense," which may be thinly veiled bigotry or prejudice, to find the defining texts of Scripture, those passages upon which others are hinged.

Short of fluency and a photographic memory, I suggest using a concordance. Even with Hatch and Redpath before their eyes, many people can not see the trees for the forest.

John Hobbins

Hi Hansen,

Forensic justification is a very important way (not the only way) biblical authors (not all biblical authors) thought of salvation. I deal with it at some length in a review essay to appear shortly. I will play it up when it comes out.

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  • גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב
    by David Miller, Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism, Briercrest College & Seminary, Caronport, Saskatchewan, Canada
  • ואל-תמכר
    Buy truth and do not sell: wisdom, instruction, and understanding - a blog by Mitchell Powell, student of life at the intersection of Christ, Christianity, and Christendom
  • משלי אדם
    exploring wisdom literature, religion, and other academic pursuits, by Adam Couturier, M.A. in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)

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  • Ancient Hebrew Poetry is a weblog of John F. Hobbins. Opinions expressed herein do not reflect those of his professional affiliations. Unless otherwise indicated, the contents of Ancient Hebrew Poetry, including all text, images, and other media, are original and licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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