Question: Off topic?

Fred Putnam fputnam at
Fri Mar 15 08:59:00 EST 2002

Like many other Hebrew teachers (I suspect), I feel the need to encourage students by 
justifying the time, energy, and money that they are going to spend in studying BH. Here 
are a few of the reasons that I suggest.

1. Because no two languages are isomorphic, translation entails compromise. A 
working knowledge of Hebrew suggests where some of those compromises have been 
made. I am not training translators, per se, but studying Hebrew should enable students 
to evaluate different renderings of many, if not most vv. This is, in fact, the final project 
in Hebrew 3 (elective) at Biblical. Using an assigned passage and assigned English 
versions, students compare all differences (not just semantic and grammatical choice, 
but including, e.g., paragraphing, and the type used for verse numbering), and explain 
them based on (1) the Hebrew text that they represent, and (2) the introduction to the 
versions. Students consistently testify that this is one of the most popular, enjoyable, 
and useful assignments that they do in seminary.

2. Studying Hebrew deprioritizes--mitigates the assumed authority of--the English 
"version of the moment" (see #3, below).

3. Studying--and even merely reading--biblical stories in Hebrew often saves us from 
gliding over the surface of the text. I.e., we have all heard biblical stories taught, 
preached on, seen flannelgraph (in Sunday School) and illustrated children's versions, 
so that it is difficult to even hear the story itself. Reading it in Hebrew, however, often 
causes us to pause and say, "I never knew that was there!"
	IMO, modern homogenized translations, which have passed through multiple 
stages and levels of revision, and especially the final "English style" committees, whose 
job is to ensure uniformity of style and reading level from Genesis to [Chronicles or] 
Revelation, trick readers into this sort of surface reading because the words 
(sentences, &c.) are easy to understand.
	In this connection, I read to the class "Readings", a poem by Czeslaw Milosz, 
which begins "You asked me what is the good of reading the Gospels in Greek. / I reply 
that ..." He goes on to suggest that reading the Bible in its original languages means 
that we are "Compelled to be attentive ..."

4. Many of those who study Hebrew are preparing for religious professions. If we met a 
professor of French history who didn't know French, or a Russian literature prof who 
couldn't read Russian, or a medical doctor who didn't know the bones of the body, 
wouldn't we suspect their commitment to their discipline, as well as the quality of their 
work? Mutatis mutandis for Hebrew and the ministry.

[On the other hand, I warn them that Hebrew is not a pair of magic lenses that causes 
sermon outlines to leap full-blown from the text.]  :-)

I have a prepared bibliography of works on the benefits of learning Hebrew (and Greek); 
if you would like a copy, I can e-mail it to you as an attachment (MSWord 2000).

All best wishes,
Frederic Clarke Putnam, Ph.D.
"Dominus illuminatio mea."

Professor of Old Testament
Biblical Theological Seminary
fputnam at
215-368-5000x150 (office & voice-mail)

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