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Exit learning Hebrew?

March 2010
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Learning Hebrew is still obligatory in the theological studies, both in my country, Norway, as well as in several other countries and their theological institutions. But signs are visible in the horizon that might make one argue that time has come to consider a change. Here are some reflections on whether it is the time now to consider if the time of Hebrew language courses as obligatory in a theological pastoral education is over. By a pastoral education I mean the education/ curriculum necessary to be ordained as a pastor. Most often the various denominations have some fixed sets of requirements to be met to be ordained as a pastor, but not very specific requirements. The Church of Norway, as far as I know, has never made any specific requirements involving the specific curriculums, but leave it to the theological schools. Hence one should be free to decide if Hebrew is obligatory or not.
In other countries, the situation is similar. Very few churches set specific demands.

Should a pastor know Hebrew?
The criteria for being a pastor should be various and manyfaceted. Personal abilities as well as professional education and congregational experiences are most often focused. But does the ability to read some Hebrew belong to the professional education needed? Here are some arguments brought forth that might be considered
I would like very much if your stated your opinions in the comments field at the end of this post.

Arguments Pro et Contra
Pro arguments:
1. Hebrew has always been in the theological curriculums (at least in Norway). Together with Greek and Latin it has been considered one of the three “theological languages”. But Latin are now left out as obligatory in many institutions.
2. The Bible contains both the Old and New Testament (or the First and SecondTestaments, if you prefer that labelling). Pastors are supposed to be able to handle issues of translation and exegesis of both parts; hence Hebrew is necesarry as well as Greek.
3. One cannot readily understand the meaning of the New Testament authors without an understanding of the Hebraic mindset that hermeneutically underlies their message. Many problems in exegesis and doctrine arise because Christians without knowledge of the Jewish scriptures have imposed a Greek/Western mindset onto the pages of the Hebrew  Scriptures.
4. Leaving Hebrew out will make students and pastors liable to be too dependent on those who know Hebrew. They might tend to become “close-minded traditionalists” who clutch their inherited ideas, or “open-ended relativists” who don’t care much about doctrinal formulations.

Contra arguments:
1 Most students struggle with learning Hebrew, and very few pastors are able to uphold the knowledge of the Hebrew they once acquired. Biblia Hebraica is often one of the first books to be stored away when entering a pastorate. In the United States I have been told that less than 20 % of the pastors are able to keep up with the Biblical languages. They don’t have enough time and energy to keep up their knowledge of two biblical languages.
2 Pastors have very little need for the skills to read Hebrew. They preach very rarely from the Old Testament; and if they have too, there are lots of literature to help the lack of Hebrew.
3 The first Christians did not know Hebrew! While the first apostles and Palestinian Christians knew Hebrew this knowledge soon vanished. The New Testament is written in Greek, and they used the Greek Septuagint as their “Old Testament”: Hence Pastors today should focus on the Greek.
4Theological education and curriculums are in a pressed situation today. There is a great need to revise present curriculums in order to make students more able to ‘read’ the world of today (more than Hebrew): Hence theological curriculums should leave out Hebrew as obligatory, and make room for more social science knowledge and social world expertise.

How do you evaluate these arguments? What should a student have to learn to be allowed into a pastorate? What do you think about the role of Hebrew for a Pastor of today?


4 Comments

  1. Thanks for your thoughtful post. A pastor who does not know Hebrew and preaches from the Bible is like a professor of English literature who critiques Shakespeare but who has never actually read any Shakespeare. You can’t preach with authority just from a translation; you need to read the original text. Hebrew is therefore essential. Also, the idea that Jesus and the disciples could not read or understand Hebrew is weird. When Jesus read from the scrolls in the synagogue, he would not be reading Greek! Josephus tells us that he (a Jew) could hardly speak Greek, only a few people he knew could, and that learning Greek was frowned upon!

  2. TorreyS says:

    Thanks, but I find yur comparison with Shakespeare somewhat flawed, esp. if you compare a preacher well versed in the OT to some who has not read Shakespeare.
    As to my other argument, I did not write that Jesus and the apostles did not know Hebrew; of course they did, but I wrote about the early Christians who wrote the New Testament. Not all of them were well versed in Hebrew, why did they then quote the Septuagint?

    And would you really say that all the Diaspora Jews at that time, e.g., Philo, that did not know Hebrew, were second hand Jews?

  3. My original denomination was of the Reformed church but today I attend a large non-denominational church. I’m 58 years old and have been saved for 30 years. I’ve easily spent more than 10,000 hours in studying the Bible. No college degree and no seminary. My career is in computer software.

    I know almost no pastors who use any Hebrew or Greek they were taught and when they do I feel it is little more than what anyone can quickly look up online. I believe they are great skills to have, but not as important as learning to study and love God’s Word. I find the Bible the most interesting and valuable book I’ve ever read. It is so complex that I can’t keep track of all the different things I come across that I want to study. Probably my biggest frustration about pastor’s and others Bible knowledge is that even when they teach directly from the scriptures, so much of what they say is not found there. There’s too much reading between the lines. I also find it frustrating that some scholars who know Greek and Hebrew seem to spend so much effort trying to figure out why this or that author wrote something instead, of simply reading what God wrote.

    Conclusion: I’d rather see our scholars learn how to really study and understand God’s word than try to “interpret” it. Then they could teach others how to do the same. Hope that makes sense.

  4. […] 4 years ago, I had a posting discussing the future of Hebrew in theological curriculums; see   Exit learning Hebrew?. I did not draw any firm conclusions, just presenting some pro and contra […]

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