OFF TOPIC Modern Hebrew question

Trevor Peterson 06PETERSON at
Fri May 17 11:12:31 EDT 2002

>===== Original Message From Jim West <jwest at> =====
>why is it necessary to read modern
>hebrew to be a student of the bible?  i am extraordinarily curious as to how
>reading modern hebrew or for that matter any modern language at ALL will
>help one read documents well over 2000 years old.  if so- how so?  and which
>modern languages must we have control of in order to meet whatever
>requirements are set for us in the field of biblical studies?  and who are
>these people setting the linguistic requirements anyway?  is it an
>individual? a committee? when did this committee meet?  where?  for how
>long?  where are the minutes of their meeting so we can examine them and see
>their reasons for their choices?

I wouldn't presume to speak for Randall, but I will venture a few remarks for 
my own part. I suspect that at least part of what he was trying to address is 
the issue of how one achieves real fluency in a language like Biblical Hebrew. 
The vocabulary is too small and the range of attested applications too narrow 
to suit the needs of day-to-day speech. In other words, it is not a living 
language and lacks the materials for a proper revival. I suppose it depends on 
how we're going to define fluency (and I'm not the one to do it), but by what 
I think are some justifiable criteria, it could be safely said that fluency in 
Biblical Hebrew as such is impossible. One strategy for addressing this issue 
would be to attain fluency in Modern Hebrew and adjust for the distinctives of 
Biblical Hebrew. Another would be to develop a hybrid of sorts, which is what 
I suspect happens in a program like Randall's Biblical Ulpan. As much as 
possible is based on Biblical Hebrew vocabulary and grammar, but where gaps 
appear, they are filled in with later material. To do that requires fluency in 
Modern Hebrew, at least on the part of the instructor, and partial fluency for 
the students, since they end up learning elements of Modern Hebrew in the mix. 
Of course, a danger of either strategy is that elements of Modern Hebrew 
grammar will be illegitimately applied to Biblical Hebrew; but that may 
actually be an issue best addressed by fluency in Modern Hebrew to begin with, 
since the teaching of Biblical Hebrew can then focus on the differences.

Another issue that could be raised is that of general scholarship. Most 
graduate programs allow that English is not enough for the well-versed 
scholar. In fields like Biblical Studies and Semitic Languages, German and 
French are almost universal requirements. In some programs, Modern Hebrew is 
also required, but as far as I know, that's generally limited to programs that 
have a Jewish Studies component. Still, the question is worth asking, whether 
familiarity with Modern Hebrew scholarship is worthwhile or perhaps even 
essential for anyone who wants to do serious work in the field. I realize it's 
a tough issue, and who decides whether Spanish, Dutch, or Italian is 
significant enough that it should be known? But scholarly writing in Modern 
Hebrew is growing, and whatever we may think of that trend, we do have to 
decide what we're going to do (or not do) with this literature.

Trevor Peterson

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