Saturday, July 3, 2010

Why Doesn’t Hebrew Get Any Love?

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (1995 edition).

Watch this excellent music video on YouTube by some students at Biola University called “All Things Are Better in Koine,” referring to the original language of the New Testament: κοινή (koine—pronounced koy-NAY—or “common”/“everyday”) Greek. (The song is written and recorded by Derek North, and the rap section is composed by Sam Casucci. The video was directed and edited by Nick Casucci.)

The video is extremely well done and is pretty funny. There is even a reference to D.A. Carson, a well-known New Testament scholar. In the video description, it is described as “tongue-in-cheek.” The video often points out that Koine Greek communicates what the Bible is actually saying, and that’s true—at least what the New Testament is actually saying, anyway.

I found this great comment in the “Comments” section (video accessed June 25, 2010): “Where’s the ancient Hebrew video?...Why doesn’t Hebrew get any love?”

Indeed. Why doesn’t Hebrew get any love? Greek seems to be the popular kid on the block.

Note what scholars Richard Goodrich and Albert Lukaszewski say:

One of the most interesting trends of the past decade has been the resurgence of interest in learning biblical Greek. While Classics departments in major universities suffer budget cuts or outright closure for lack of students, publishers of biblical Greek teaching materials report increasing sales and expanding product lines. Seminaries and Bible colleges have found their Greek courses attracting more students. Beyond the walls of the academy we can find countless numbers of small groups of independent learners, meeting weekly in homes and churches to learn the language of the New Testament. The pool of students contending for mastery of this language is both large and expanding. [See Richard J. Goodrich and Albert Lukaszewski, “Introduction,” A Reader’s Greek New Testament: Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 7.]

I’m certainly pleased to hear about this trend. On the same page, the authors observe, “This renaissance is even more amazing when we consider the difficulty of the task. For most, the acquisition of a second language requires a great deal of time and effort. Moreover, Koine Greek is not one of the easier languages to learn.” At least there is renewed interest in learning the original language of the New Testament (and these people are actually learning the language itself—not just committing to memory a few transliterated words without any meaningful knowledge of the language). I heartily applaud the people who are making the effort to learn Koine Greek.

But compare that with the comments by Hebrew scholars A. Philip Brown II and Bryan W. Smith, editors of the companion Reader’s Hebrew Bible:

As teachers of the biblical languages, it has been our observation that less than 20 percent of the students who study Hebrew in college or seminary actually maintain a functional use the language. The percentage that remains functional in Aramaic is, sadly, miniscule. Although Bible software has made tremendous strides in making the original languages accessible, we believe there is still a great need for a tool to aid students in gaining and retaining knowledge of the biblical languages, there is no better way to maintain a functional knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic than to read the text of the Hebrew Bible regularly. [See A. Philip Brown II and Bryan W. Smith, “Introduction,” A Reader’s Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), xii.]

So if “All Things Are Better in Koine,” why not make a music video that says “Biblical Hebrew Is So Cool”? (Yes, the title’s lame, but at least it has the same number of syllables.) Of course, evangelicals often retain Greek more than Hebrew because (1) they end up preaching more from the New Testament than they do from the Old, and (2) Greek comes easier for many people than Hebrew.

I took biblical Hebrew at a public university from an excellent professor who made sure we knew the language well before the end of year. She drilled it into us with the goal that we would be able to actually read major portions of the biblical text—with the help of the standard Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon—completely on our own. Then I took a year of biblical Greek. Hebrew is still my favorite, but I also really enjoy Greek.

Having taken both languages, I passionately think that no substitute exists for the study of Hebrew and Greek with respect to gaining a deeper understanding of the biblical text. Think about it: Let’s say that you’re a native Spanish-speaker who doesn’t know English (in which case, you wouldn’t be reading this blog), and you wanted to study Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit. Would you get the most out of your study of Little Dorrit by studying a Spanish translation of the book? Of course not! The book was originally written in nineteenth-century English. So the answer should be obvious—you would need to learn how to read nineteenth-century English in order to really get at what Dickens is saying.

But the topic of this blog post is the fact that more people in the church are learning Greek than Hebrew. Learning Greek is great, but even if your goal is just to read the New Testament in its original language, you’re missing out if you don’t know Hebrew. Why? The New Testament constantly quotes the Hebrew Bible. And the LXX (Septuagint) is a translation of the Old Testament Hebrew—Greek is not the original language of the OT. And the New Testament doesn’t always use the Septuagint when it quotes the OT (cf. Rom. 1:17 with Hab. 2:4, for example).

To prove why learning Hebrew is also useful, here is a quotation from Exodus 34:6:

“Then the LORD passed by in front of him [Moses] and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth’” (Exodus 34:6).

The Hebrew term for “slow to anger” is אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם (’erekh ’apayim), which literally means “long of nose.” The picture here is of a God whose nostrils are so long that it takes a long time for them to flare—it’s long before He gets angry. Says something pretty amazing about our God!