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I'm in enough trouble for using the f-word in a recent post on raising boys. Now you resurrect this scandalous old post!

I don't use Hebrew but I do use Greek as much as possible, but not in the sense of reading it fluently. Rather I'm interested in constituent order, interaction of verb morphology and some comparative work when I'm trying to understand how to express a Greek word in another language. For all of those activities an electronic interlinear tied to a lexicon/concordance plus access to commentaries and journals will get you much farther than the gawd-awful methodologies advocated in seminaries.

John Hobbins

It's a lot more fun, David, to know a language well enough not to depend on an interlinear.


I think your teacher brought a lot of fun into your class 35 years ago at a crucial time. But reading without the use of tools like interlinears and lexicons is prone to another set of traps. Don't get me started!

dave b

John--I wish you taught me Hebrew!!! I fear I will not know Hebrew well enough until I am able to teach it for a couple of years.
When can we expect the release of the John Hobbins Grammar of Biblical Hebrew?--which is sure to become a classic!



I'm not against the use of lexica, though almost all of them seem to be designed to get you thinking in the wrong language. In many ways, the best lexicon of biblical Hebrew is contained in Even-Shoshan's concordance, in which he glosses Hebrew with Hebrew. Anyone who reads a language well uses a dictionary of that language, unilingual, for insights.

As for interlinears, they don't even exist except in the wierd world of bibliology. Try to purchase an interlinear of any major author of any major language. They're very hard to find, and for several good reasons.

The real issue is how to get from point A (a knowledge of Language with a capital "L," which you, Lingamish, have in rare abundance) to point B (knowledge of Greek such that you could just pick up the NT and read it). I know with Randall Buth's help you could do it. There are probably many ways of getting to that destination.

But I would understand completely if you were to tell me that point B is not a priority for you given the tasks with which you are charged.



the textbook is not as important as one might think. More important are the goals one sets, irrespective of the textbook, and whether you have a teacher who knows Hebrew in the sense that you want to know Hebrew - that is, well enough, to begin with, to pick up and read almost anything in Genesis-2 Kings without great difficulty and with minimal use of a lexicon.

It's hard to teach students something you yourself can't do.

dave b

what advice to you have for the vast majority of us who have access only to the typical ways of learning Hebrew in seminaries/Bible colleges but who want to learn Hebrew well?


There are several ways to make up for the deficiencies of the way biblical Hebrew is usually taught.

If modern Hebrew is taught where you are, and taught well, that can help immensely. It is often possible for students of biblical Hebrew to get a scholarship to study in Israel. I was offered one on three different occasions over the years. There was always a girlfriend, or family, that stood in the way. But if you can swing that, you will not regret it.

If you don't do it already, listen to biblical Hebrew (see the audio files listed under links of interest in the right hand sidebar). To begin with, choose a passage you already know well, and repeat listening to it until you hear and understand simultaneously. Then branch out with passages you don't know well.

Music is another way to learn. Lekhah Dodi in some melodies is very catchy. I posted on other examples a few moons ago, which reminds me, I need to index things better. I myself can't find what I'm looking for on my blog. The more Hebrew you get into your system, down cold, so to speak, the better. Is there a synagogue near you? Nice way to spend a Friday evening. You will be surprised at how much of the liturgy you already understand.


One of the saddest features of the teaching of Biblical languages is the fact that modern research on language pedagogy seems to have passed them by altogether. Language is designed for communication and languages are learned by using them for communication. People like Randall Buth and the late John Dobson who have designed communicative methodologies for Biblical language instruction are all too rare.

Like the sainted Lingamish, I've worked as a Bible translator in rural Africa. The methods I had at my disposal to help me learn an unwritten African language made the way I was taught Koine Greek look as old as the language itself.



thanks for chiming in here. For those of you who have never visited his Kouya Chronicle, take a look, you're in for a treat.


Eddie said that "languages are designed for communication and languages are learned by using them for communication." My first question would be how are you using Biblical Hebrew to communicate? I know that Randall Buth's methods utilize communication as a pedagogical tool, but I don't think anyone is expecting people to begin to communicate afresh in Biblical Hebrew. My point is that I think we need to back up one more step before we talk about pedagogy and examine what the goal of the instruction is (which is what John suggested in a comment above: "More important [than textbooks] are the goals one sets"). What will the end-use of the coursework be? Will the student be a biblical scholar (i.e. Hebraicist, text critic, OT scholar)? A translator? A pastor looking to the Hebrew text for sermon preparation? Do all these different goals/uses of the language require the same curriculum? I don't think so. I think one reason we fail so miserably at good Hebrew instruction in seminary language courses is that we do not equip students with sustainable skills that match the manner in which the language will be used. I think we need to first specifically define the goal (not just "understand Hebrew" or "read Hebrew texts"). Then we need to identify the areas of language necessary to meet that specific competency. Finally, we develop the pedagogy that best communicates that material. And of course good pedagogy should look for ways that accommodate the way a specific student "receives" the instruction. What communicates well to one person, may not to another.


Sorry, I spaced out there for a minute.

I replied.



Your cousin Cameron has the right idea, but back in the days of the Spectator, how do you think people acquired Latin, Greek, and Hebrew?

No matter how hard they looked, they would not have found the Israeli girlfriend to get them dreaming in Hebrew. They had to learn the language a more old-fashioned way.

I'm not as pessimistic as you. This site and others can function as an online Spectator for our day. Or at least, it is worthing moving in that direction.



you make some excellent points.

For the future pastor or priest, I would think they need to know Hebrew well enough to pick up and read almost anything in Genesis-2 Kings without great difficulty and with minimal use of a lexicon. Otherwise, I don't see them continuing to read in the first place. There also has to be a support network in place for clergy who continue to read Hebrew beyond seminary.

I would love to hear from clergy who continue to read Hebrew after seminary, in order to understand and address their needs.

It would be fun to start a "confederation of polyglots" for those interested in keeping up on one or more of the ancient languages of the synagogue and the church beyond seminary. It might offer workshops and seminars and develop resources for teaching the languages at the congregational level.


I think you are describing a very small subset of the community of pastors when you say they should be able to read Gen-2Kings with minimal use of a lexicon. I would like to agree with you, but the reality for the majority of pastors is that they just do not do that (John, you are a first class anomaly). Should they? That is another question. What are they doing then? Using the Hebrew they learned to engage commentaries and to utilize tools (name your favorite). So while we may look to change the expectations and hope for a new breed of scholar-pastors, we also need to accommodate the group of pastors who learn the languages, but only minimally (or learn about them). How can we better equip seminarians? Adding more years of study is just not going to happen in most places. So we need to get the most "bang for the buck" out of the short time they are actually able to study the language. Anyone who wants to go further on their own will be determined enough to find ways to do that. It is the others that I want to think about. If they are only going to have a year (or maybe if they are lucky, two years) to study the language, we have to choose very carefully what we want them to learn and what they can sustain. I think we might be able to glean from the Language Learning for a Specific Purpose (LLSP) research.


Thanks, Karyn, for raising many helpful and pointed questions.

I agree with you about the current situation. Few pastors cultivate their biblical language skills. The one or two years of seminary language courses, so long as they remain an isolated moment in one's training, will never make much difference, will they?

But it's not difficult to figure out the direction we need to take. First of all, the possibilities of learning the biblical languages before arriving at seminary need to be multiplied and held up to young people as a high calling, whether or not they go into ordained ministry. Secondly, students with the right aptitudes should be encouraged to "major" in the biblical languages at seminary. Tests need to be devised which will put the proficiency bar much higher than it is now, and those who go over the bar - and a few will, trust me, if given the opportunity and the challenge - need to be honored in their communities, and their knowledge drawn upon. If they are following a lectionary or some other pattern, ministers like to get together and talk over the passage. Very few know their Bible backwards and forwards in any language, not to mention Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. But I think they would appreciate someone who does and who is trained to pass that knowledge on. Here, I think, we might learn something from Bible translators.

I don't see why the serious study of biblical literature needs to remain the domain of a handful of experts. It was not always so.



I think you have some good thoughts here, and I would add to what you said to Karyn. Only by encouraging students (read: teenagers or younger) to learn the Biblical languages will these things change. As a seminary student who is passionate about language study, it's difficult to hear many of my classmates make comments about how they are only taking Hebrew or Greek because it is required. It is this thinking that, ultimately, needs to be changed. Of course that can only happen at the Parish level, or at least so I believe. Teaching the languages in a different way would go a long way towards this, as you've already pointed out.

Nevertheless, what Karyn points out is true--we have a whole generation of pastors who do not know the languages well, have little interest in learning them better, etc. What to do with them?


I agree with your statements, Calvin, and I find your final question thought-provoking.

I've been reading up about Hebrew language instruction for children and teenagers in reformed / conservative synagogues, and notice that they see themselves as in a crisis situation. Still, this is the best age to begin, and I have some ideas I'm working on that might help the process to be effective.

What I would like to see is an association of students of ancient Hebrew started up, open to anyone, lay or clergy, rabbi or rastafarian. In order to join, one would have to pass a pretty hard proficiency exam in the language. The association would provide a study guide for the purposes of preparing for the exam. It would also offer more stringent proficiency exams so that one might eventually get - excuse the metaphor - a black belt in ancient Hebrew. The association might begin by putting out an online newsletter, and, after a year or two, put on seminars / workshops in conjunction with the annual SBL meetings.


John, I've just written a post arguing for a more inductive approach for teaching Greek using linguistics & grammatical analysis:

I thought you might be interested.

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