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Recovering the lost art of reading the biblical languages

Guest commentary by Melissa Ramos

How many scholars in the church can read the biblical languages — and I mean really read them? How many can read them without looking up every other word using Bible software and without lexical helps or other technical assists in a single sentence?

Biblical scholars who are able to read biblical Greek and Hebrew in the manner described are becoming an endangered species. I would argue that a fair number of New Testament scholars remain who can read Greek; however, I contend that far fewer Hebrew scholars within the church can read biblical Hebrew or Northwest Semitic inscriptions with robust competence.

The study of biblical languages was once required learning for pastors and Christian educators in seminaries for the benefit of a deep study of the Scriptures in service to the church. Yet the enrollments in most seminaries are in a sustained downward drop. Moreover, the shrinking requirements of seminary degrees has in many cases reduced the study of biblical languages to courses that cover the scripts only and the use of online Bible software programs in order to “decode” the text when (and only when) languages are required at all. Furthermore, even though master’s-level programs may require a semester or a year of biblical Greek or Hebrew, it’s not enough study to grant a student the kind of competence in these languages required to read them well. Sustained study for a period of two or more years is required in order to yield the kind of results that come from the arduous work of language acquisition particularly of ancient languages.

Perhaps we can take comfort that biblical studies faculty members at seminaries and Christian colleges are still able to read the biblical languages. It is cold comfort indeed that many seminary doctoral programs in Old Testament study do not require a robust study of the Hebrew Bible in Hebrew nor do exams in biblical Hebrew require doctoral students to read without lexical helps. The study of biblical languages, thus, remains robust primarily within secular research universities and in seminaries with strong endowments that are not tuition-based. To further compound the problem, faculty who have a robust competence in biblical languages often do not use these language skills to teach or to publish and those skills go unused and may wane into oblivion. The outworking of these practical problems means that the study of biblical languages remains largely the work of academics within the purview of secular institutions and yeshivas, with a small number who serve the church in some capacity but whose work is primarily to publish in their own fields and to teach subjects other than biblical languages.

The struggling enrollment at seminaries has led toward a trend of shortening the length of programs, reducing the overall coursework required, and a somewhat reductionistic bent of programs toward perceived practical outcomes. Seminaries may hesitate to require too much of their “paying clients” as they fight for financial solvency (which is a legitimate concern). These economic struggles have contributed to a far more complete bifurcation in biblical studies: scholarship in original languages and historical studies is done at research universities (and Hebrew largely in Jewish universities and seminaries) while increasingly only the more practical applications of study take place in Christian seminaries, where they have more readily evident and demonstrative value. Thus, the study of biblical languages for the sake of the church is at terrible risk of extinction and most at risk is the study of biblical Hebrew.

In defense of the study of biblical languages

The importance of the study of biblical languages is often a matter of perception. Many churchgoers, particularly those in North America, may not be aware that the Bible was not written in English, or if they do, they assume that their English translations and study Bibles are sufficient. This latter perspective (that translations in one’s own contemporary language are sufficient), of course, is not entirely wrong. The value of the study of Hebrew is not in providing brand-new or sensational translations that upend historical Christianity. Rather, the importance placed upon the study of classical Hebrew is a measure of the church’s valuing of the Scriptures themselves. If the study of Hebrew goes extinct within the church, who will remain to produce translations? Will we rely on rabbis and secular scholars to produce these on our behalf? Or will we satisfy ourselves with translations of translations, or translations compiled by those whose qualifications consist of the use of Bible software programs? Moreover, the study of Hebrew indeed has practical applications within the church’s everyday life and practical outworking in doing theology that serves a life of faith

Psalm 23: A case study

As a means of demonstrating the value of the study of biblical languages for the sake of the church, I have selected a well-known biblical passage as a case study. This case study presents an example of how the study of the Old Testament in Hebrew, in particular, enhances the reading of Scripture in ways that have practical value and significance for understanding the character of God.

Psalm 23 is a well-known passage of Scripture commonly read in services of worship and, in particular, in memorial or funeral services. Psalm 23:6 is traditionally read “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” (NRSV adapted). Something I have noticed in the Hebrew text is that the word translated as “follow” is radaph (רדפ) in Hebrew, which is a far more active and specific word. Radaph more commonly means to pursue with intent to harm, to chase someone who is an enemy, to hunt prey or even to persecute someone. When read within the larger context of Psalm 23, this verb illumines the perhaps surprising nature of God’s persistent, steadfast love:

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil,
For your rod and your staff they comfort me.
You prepare a table for me in the midst of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Goodness and mercy shall pursue (radaph) me all the days of my life
And I shall make my home in the house of God for all the days to come.
(Psalm 23:4-6)

The scene portrayed in this passage is one of fear and trembling, when shadows and death beset the one who prays this prayer seeking the comfort of God. Even in the midst of enemies, the psalmist finds the provision of God. The language of pursuit, radaph, is one that a reader might expect of enemies, or fearful persecution by enemies on the hunt, pursuit by shadows and death. And yet in a dramatic turn of phrase, the one pursued and hunted discovers that it is God’s goodness and mercy that pursues her or him, rather than shadows and death. Perhaps to push the bounds of translation further, the verse suggests perhaps that it is God’s goodness and mercy that hunt us down in order to overtake us.

Now, one might ask the question of whether it is necessary to sight-read biblical Hebrew in order to arrive at this insight. After all, many commentaries are available to an English-only reader and anyone with Bible software might look up radaphwithout a strong competence in the language. I challenge the reader to find a commentary where this verb in Psalm 23 is mentioned. Authors of commentaries are restricted by word counts and so an exhaustive review of each word used in each chapter and verse is not possible. Most commentaries, thus, focus word studies on nouns and unusual words rather than ordinary or commonly used ones. However, for one who has read widely in the Hebrew Bible and in Semitic languages more broadly, the typical context of warfare in which this verb is typically used is more readily apparent. The exercise of reading widely and broadly with attention to social and historical contexts, thus, produces particular insights that are less accessible by using language tools available through commentaries and software products.

Through this case study I wish to demonstrate that the study of biblical languages does more than promote intellectual speculation or study of the language of the Scriptures for its own sake. The reading of this passage in Hebrew enhances its value for preaching and teaching within the church. This type of study enriches our understanding of the Scripture and its richness in a way that reaches beyond the realm of what are sometimes dry academics and enables the reader (or listener) to better understand the character of God. Moreover, this is just one example of the way in which strong competence in Hebrew language skills, a broad reading repertoire and social-historical context enables a richer understanding of even a well-known passage. The same could be done for nearly any passage in the Bible.

The full gift of the Scriptures

The importance that we place on reading biblical languages is a symbol of the overall weight and value we place on the Scriptures themselves. The declining demand for scholars, pastors and church leaders who have competence in biblical languages is suggestive of a declining interest in knowing the Scriptures deeply. To study biblical languages is a significant investment that requires much time, energy, and funding for tuition expenses. This is likely the reason that fewer and fewer are willing to pay the cost of time and talent. Yet a far higher price to pay would be for the church to lose the Scriptures in their original languages altogether — and this a looming prospect.

It is incumbent upon the church to ensure that the gift of the Scriptures in all their fullness are passed down to succeeding generations. As John Calvin observed, “by his Word, God rendered faith unambiguous forever in the world with a continuing succession of teaching (that it might) survive through all ages.”

MELISSA RAMOS is assistant professor of biblical studies at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, and teaches Old Testament at Portland Seminary. She is a pastor member of Southern Kansas Presbytery.