Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Hebrew and the New Testament Scholar

I have been in Israel for the last two weeks participating in the Tel Gezer excavations. This is my second time and this time I am here as staff. I am the camp manager which means that I keep things going and make sure that everyone gets to the dig on time every morning.

One of my main duties includes shopping every other day for breakfast items. We have sixty people here and we feed them breakfast at the Tel each day at 8:30. One thing this job has helped me to realize is the limitations of my Hebrew. I find that I go into one shop and I converse and do fine, but the in the next shop I am lost. I took two sections of modern Hebrew in 1998 and I took several courses in biblical Hebrew. But I am simply not prepared to talk to the woman behind the counter about how I want the 6 kilos of cheese packaged that I just bought.

Being in Israel with some knowledge of Hebrew can be frustrating. I can read most of the signs and if I don't know all the words I can usually get by. And of course all road signs are in English as well as Hebrew and Arabic, so I can get from point A to point B with relatively little difficulty. But don't ask me how I want my cheese packaged or any number of other questions that I don't I understand. What you realize very soon is that although you can survive you can't thrive and there is a lot going on around you that you simply will never get until you understand the language.

I think there are some parallels here for New Testament scholars. I know a number of them who cannot read Hebrew. They can use a lexicon and they might have a primitive grasp of the language, but they really don't know it and would struggle to sit down and simply read the text. In short, they would not know how to tell someone how to package their cheese. Like me in the grocery store, there is a lot going on around them in the biblical text, but they are not understanding it. They are surviving but not thriving.

I know the above scenario to be true because about 4 years ago I realized I had let me Hebrew slip. And I decided that it I needed to get a better grasp of it and I have been working hard ever since. The more I read my Bible in Hebrew the more I enter into the world of the author and the text. I am seeing things that I cannot in the English. My work in Cain and Abel traditions was much richer because of my grasp of the Hebrew text.

Now some would argue that Hebrew is not as important as Greek for the New Testament scholar. After all, the New Testament authors quote mostly from the Greek Old Testament, not the Hebrew.

But while this is true, there are times when it seems clear that a NT author who quotes the Greek OT also is aware of what is going on in the Hebrew. For instance, in Romans 1:17 Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4 "the righteous shall live by faith." The Hebrew version says "by his faith" and the Greek "by my faith." Paul does not quote it like either of these texts. But his context suggests that he understands it to be God's faithfulness when he introduces the quote with a claim that God's righteousness is being revealed. So while he may be quoting the Greek, he seems quite aware of what is going on in the Hebrew. Similarly, there are times when it is clear that Josephus is using the Greek Old Testament that he is including details only found in the Hebrew. And of course I could also mention all of the material among the Dead Sea Scrolls that help us to better understand the matrix of the New Testament. Not knowing Hebrew means once again being tethered to an English translation and, consequently, someone else's interpretation of that text.

So I would encourage my colleagues in New Testament to retain and strengthen their Hebrew so that they can thrive and not just merely survive. so that when they read their Bible they won't be like me in the grocery store, wondering what all is going on around me.


  1. I'll take 1 kilo of that cheese. :o)

  2. just be sure and eat plenty of falaffels (sp) those were my favorite. question... you mentioned the LXX... is the greek from the N.T. vastly diffrent from the LXX or pretty similar? I know the Vocab is quite diffrent... just curious... i am a rookie in greek... just learning

  3. oops... forgot to mention my name... Noah Schumacher

  4. Technically the LXX is only the Pentateuch, thus the reason say Greek OT.

  5. Greek made sense to me. I struggled horribly with brain refused to work backwards. I saw the value...continue to, but sadly own that my Hebrew is completely gone. I've been surprised at how much Greek I retained after not using it for over a decade. Tina

  6. I greatly enjoyed reading your post! I agree with you about the need to learn both Greek and Hebrew. The aspects of both languages also coinside with the culture of the time of those languages, thus the need to understand the Hebrew language in understanding the origin of what was trying to be conveyed in that particular point in time. Things often get lost in translation, so even though it is awesome to know Greek when working with both the Old and New Covenants, to know the Hebrew makes the experience that much richer!
    I think the trip you are currently on is one that I desire to go on one day! I was so excited to see it in the course description at Ashland Seminary!
    I currently have taken one year of Greek with Professor Goulet at MSI and I am looking to take it again at Ashland to get much stronger in it along with taking Intermediate Greek. I have taken one year of biblical Hebrew, but I desire to take it again because my Greek currently is much stronger than my Hebrew. But I am determined to get stronger in my Hebrew as well and eventually I'd like to have a working knowledge of Aramaic.
    To learn the biblical languages has opened up a whole new aspect of God's Word, which is His narrative. For me it is like the archaelogical dig you are currently on, a continuous digging and celebration when you find even smallest nugget! It is simply spectacular!!! Thanks again for sharing. Sylvia

  7. I don't know how you find time to continue your blog while you are busy digging in the dirt and negotiating cheese purchases in Hebrew... but I am glad you are continuing.
    We miss you both! Hugs to your sweet wife.