“Yes, you say, but many of the fathers were saved and even became teachers without the languages. That is true. But how do you account for the fact that they so often erred in the Scriptures?…” – Martin Luther
Nothing puts the fear of God into Bible students quite like the daunting Biblical language course requirements in their degree. Students who once boasted high and mightily of their proud theology, or ability to just “do life together” find themselves utterly bereft of help amidst this cataract.
“Calvin! Calvin! To the TULIP!” Reformer fanboys once cried as the end all answer, forgetting that they only see his Latin and French through a glass, darkly.
“All we need is Jesus and life connections!” come the reply from the rest.
“No! Know the Languages! They spoke of him!” a professor would reply. “Aides and displays of ignorance fall before the mighty beast that is Languages. Know it yourself.”
As Luther admitted, one can get by without the biblical languages in the Christian faith. You can come to saving faith and formulate a decent theology to be sure. The translators of our English (or your native tongue) put in a great deal of effort to produce them. They are experts in their fields, and did their best to render the Scriptures in another language. Their work is the nobilest duty a Christian can perform. I would have been lost without my ESV who has now found a suitable helper in my CSB.
The problem, however, is that you can only just get by. The translators know both sides of the language divide, whereas many of us can only read the Scriptures from one. When they say “run” they know its particular nuance. The… Click To Tweet
To put it in nerdy language: you will be able watch your movie in 480p black and white and understand the purpose of the narrative. We can all agree, however, that 4K makes for a much better viewing experience. It was in color that the Reformers chose to watch their Netflix after all.
David crying to God for a cleansed heart (Ps. 51), which for Americans draws upon notions of our emotions, takes on a much fuller meaning in David’s native tongue. He beseeches God for a new levav which not only functions in Israelite thought as the place of emotions, but of critical thinking and decision making as well. It encompassed our American concepts of “mind” and “heart” to describe the whole inner person of the Israelite.
David did not ask for cleansed feelings only, but for a new means of being human. Dare I say, an entirely new way of being David. His levav, emotionally and mentally, lead him to adultery and the murder of faithful soldiers (2 Sam. 11:14-17). He begged God to scrub away the inner corruption of all his faculties.
The sum of his being, the experiences that shaped him and called him to respond, had still left him destitute here He had followed his heart when it called to him, and it lead him astray. His heart was deceitful above all things (Jer. 17:9). The English was good and sufficient to a point, but the Hebrew was fuller.
So if God has disposed you to take up the study, take it up! You will be enriched beyond your wildest dreams, the blank edges of your Bible being filled in as you live and breathe their words. I hope these resources will prove useful to you, even if they only point you towards a more fruitful suggestion.
Again, I have stuck to works that I know personally. There are many more out there, each with their own unique strength.
1.Beginning Biblical Hebrew by Mark Futato
At first I was put off by the stark white pages contrasted against the black and blue font of the book. While this may sound ludicrous (of course books are black and white), you will know what I mean when you crack open a page. The book is not very easy on the eyes at first glance, especially in certain types of lighting. So why am I recommending what sounds like an eyesore?
Chill, your eyes will adjust.
Futato’s “division of labor” when it comes to learning Hebrew is natural. Not too much is thrown at the student per chapter which is a huge blessing for beginners. As it has been described to me by past professors, the difficulty level of Hebrew and Greek are inverted.
Greek is fairly easy early on, but exponentially grows in difficulty the further you go. Hebrew is the reverse. It begins with a steep, near 90 degree incline as you grapple with a very “alien” alphabet and strange pronunciations (many of which you will not be able to make unless you take professional linguist courses). Worse, unlike Greek you must train your eyes and mind to read from right-to-left rather than left-to-right.
Finally, while it may sound simple, having an entire vocabulary built upon a three consonant system (more often than not) with little dashes and dots to designate vowels gets muddled quickly in your head.
Often I have had to send Qamets Hatuf into a corner and think about what he has done, while Qibbuts gets a cookie for being so gosh-darn recognizable and rare. You will know what I mean when you get there in the grammar.
The benefit is, once you have cleared that incline, the difficulty level of Hebrew begins to plateau as it sticks to normal patterns. Variations occur due to many factors, but that will likely fall into the roughly 10% category of what you will be reading from that point on.
That is except for the Psalms. The Psalms are the stuff of lingual nightmares.
This is why Futato is helpful. His textbook gradually helps the student become accustomed to the characters and vocabulary. While the definitions of certain words are occasionally too basic, it is just enough to build confidence that you can in fact learn another language. I personally enjoyed the division of verbal stems.
Some grammars make you flip between multiple chapters to see the entire spread, but here they are often in one convenient chapter and appendices. I also own A Grammar for Biblical Hebrew by C.L. Seow, one of Princeton’s Hebrew grammars, and I can attest how helpful it is to have everything located in one to two chapters. This is not to discount the useful of Seow’s grammar, but to emphasize that each grammar has a particular strength.
What is better is that Futato comes with its own set of questions for you to practice with after every chapter. This is essential for retaining the language and becoming accustomed to treating it as genuine language.
2.Invitation to Biblical Hebrew by Russell Fuller & Kyoungwon Choi
You just recommended two Hebrew Grammars, really Matt? Yes I did, and with good reason. Having Fuller’s grammar to compare with Futato’s I found to be very helpful when studying Hebrew. The thing with Hebrew morphemes (no I did not make that word up) is that … well they are weird.
Hebrew is obsessed with keeping its vocab short and sweet as you add prefixes and suffixes. Greek functions is the opposite manner, their words get longer and longer as you add prefixes and suffixes. Hebrew morphology involves consonants dropping out, vowel sounds being reduced, etc. in a maddening effort to keep their guttural language moving.
Sometimes, the difference between one noun and another, or verbal sense, is one alteration. How does one account for these changes? Is there no rhyme or reason?
This is where Fuller is helpful. There are two schools of thought when it comes to teaching Biblical Hebrew which can be divided along the lines of how deep to focus on the grammatical rules. Fuller takes the approach to teach the depths of grammar, which in the case of understanding morphology is beneficial.
Chapter six is crucial to get down, and even now as I have used other grammars and practice translating I have found his insights extremely helpful in understanding what I see and why.
I would not recommend it as your primary grammar, but a useful aid alongside others. To get the full use out of this book, you will need to purchase the accompanying workbook as well.
3.Basics of Biblical Greek by William Mounce
Where to begin with Mounce’s grammar? It is as near perfect of a language grammar as I have encountered so far. Together with the accompanying workbook (sold separately), this was the textbook used by both my undergraduate and seminary Greek courses.
I actually first cut my teeth on Greek in seminary, and due to the nature of my online class and personal schedule, I had to heavily rely on the book rather than synopsis lectures provided by my professor. With that said: I got an A in Greek. I was equally amazed that I got this grade because this was my first time taking an online course.
That is how good the book is and why I still return to it when I need to freshen up my basics. I guarantee anyone could pick up the book and have little trouble grasping the basics of the language.
Like Futato, Mounce gradually introduces the reader to the Greek language. First off is the basic nouns, pronouns and adjectives with the accompanying suffixes that designate word order and function. This is what Mounce calls “the fog” (see pp 38). Unlike Hebrew which has a generally regular word order (i.e. Verb, subject, object), Greek is entirely dependent on suffixes to indicate word order within its clauses. These, however, are fairly easy to recognize once you know what to look for, and so the reader should not stress out that the subject matter is beyond them. To quote from the book:
“You are now entering the fog. You will have read this chapter and think you understand it -and perhaps you do- but it will seem foggy. That’s okay. If living in the fog becomes discouraging, look two chapters back and you should understand that chapter clearly. In two more chapters this chapter will be clear, assuming you keep studying.” -pp38
However, I would caution readers to beware “the second fog” as I will call it. I say this as a personal warning. Beginning in chapter 26 through the end of the book, you will get slammed with advanced verbal stems and “moods” that will require you to memorize them in quick succession. It is not that Mounce tries to overwhelm the reader, but verbs are the lifeblood of any language and thus important to learn. Half the book is dedicated to verbs if that gives you any indication as to their importance.
The issue with the final two sections of the book is that you will need to pay close attention to the similarities/dissimilarities between the construction and intended meaning of the new verbal constructions. If you are not careful, they will all begin to blend together and will leave you feeling lost.
I know I felt stuck at times, especially when adding the layers of voice (active/middle/passive), tense (present/future/aorist), and mood (indicative/participle/subjunctive/imperative/infinitive) into the mix on top of studying new vocabulary.
In my own personal studies, these are the two sections I return to most often. Keep going is all I can say as this is the make or break moment to gaining an adequate knowledge of Biblical Greek. Trust Mounce, he is an incredible teacher.
4.Biblical Greek Survival Kit by William Mounce
As if producing a workbook was not enough, Mounce comes to the rescue with a handy Survival Kit that includes not only flashcards for each chapter and beyond (2,000+ vocabulary cards), but a CD which includes the proper pronunciations of vocabulary.
This was a great resource for me as it saved hours of time creating flashcards, and offered an opportunity to learn Greek from an auditory standpoint as well. It is not essential to have this kit, but if you have the money to spend it provides invaluable help.
Let it be known though, that the vocabulary definitions provided here are only the general senses of the word. Proper names are obviously exceptions to this rule, but as you advance in your studies it would do you well to pick up a lexicon. Lexicon is a fancy word for a dictionary for those of you who do not know. There is more to it than that, but why break our theme of the general sense?
5.The Vocabulary Guide to Biblical Hebrew by Van Pelt & Pratico
While lacking the handiness of flashcards and audio files, this book makes it up to the reader by providing you with 22% of the entire Hebrew lexical vocabulary. The reason for only including 22% of Hebrew vocabulary (1,903 words) is that the remaining 88% are infrequent (6,776 words). This 88% only makes up 10% of what you will encounter in the Hebrew Bible, and will only occur less than 10x in the Bible each! The 22% that Van Pelt & Pratico provide in the book will make up 90% of everything you will read. I would say the trade off is well worth it.
The great thing about this book is that it lists the vocabulary terms in a variety of ways. By far the most useful for studying will be the first list: Hebrew Words Arranged by Frequency. As the chapter name suggests, all 1,903 terms are given to you by order of frequency. This is the quickest way to build up your confidence and ability to begin reading Hebrew. Memorization of the first fifty words will enable you to recognize 55% of what you will encounter in the text. Memorizing 641 will get you 80% of the way there, and finally 1,903 will bring you to 90%. Pretty encouraging right?
The remaining chapters break down the vocabulary alphabetically under both noun and verbal headings. I have found these two chapters useful when I am in need of looking up something quickly rather than for memorization purposes. Others, however, may find it a useful study focus. Finally, the chapter gives you a couple appendices, and most usefully, a chapter dedicated to “Identical Words with Different Meanings” organized alphabetically. Yes, you read that right: identical words that can only be distinguished by context alone. I will bet you were thinking everything could only look Greek to you.
As I stated above, this is no long-term substitute for a lexicon. It is meant as a helpful guide for beginners laying down vocabulary foundations. The definitions provided here will give you the general sense of a word’s meaning. It is meant to establish an acquaintance between the two of you, not an intimate relationship.
A lexicon will provide you with the various shades of meaning, immersing you in their usage.
6.Greek & Hebrew Bible
“Alright class, how do we learn to recognize our verbal paradigms?”
“By studying them in their natural habitat.”
That was the general gist of why this particular course pushed their students to read their Greek and Latin texts at home and on command in the classroom. Sitting in on a class during my visit to Hebrew Union College last February was definitely intimidating. Not only was I suffering from jetlag after having flown in to visit a potential doctoral school early that morning, but I had to follow along as students were required to translate passages of the Church Father Origen first in Greek, then switch seamlessly into the Latin translation of the same text to compare.
The professor was very patient with each student, inserting a correction where needed, and continuously encouraging them to continue translating as it was the best way to engrain the language into their heads.
This reflected my experiences studying Greek at my seminary. Unlike my Hebrew Year 1 courses, my professor assigned as a required textbook a Greek Bible which he encouraged us to read daily. At first it was simply to recognize parts of sentences, but soon it turned into translating as much as we could.
While studying vocabulary and grammar was definitely helpful, translating 1 John 1 and John 17 (the required passages for Greek Year 1 Finals) did more to instill confidence and familiarity with Greek than anything else.
This is why I am putting down a Greek and Hebrew Bible as recommended resources for beginners. Newcomers need to get into the text as quickly as possible, and pushing yourself (with realistic expectations) to translate will be the most fruitful endeavor you can take.
So what Greek and Hebrew Bibles do I recommend?
As far as Hebrew goes there is really only one kid on the block and that is the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia which comprised my Hebrew Year 2 textbook in college. While the Reader’s Hebrew Bible is useful for its inclusion of difficult verbs in the footnotes, BHS will go a longer way if you plan on studying the Hebrew Bible beyond the basics. It includes textual notes and other various tools.
It is the Hebrew Bible I use and many Hebrew Professors will as well. The downside of this version is the small type used which can be straining at times. The forthcoming Biblia Hebraica Quinta will include more user friendly typeset as well as other additional material, but as of yet the project is not complete. If you simply want something that is easier on the eyes, then RHB will suffice.
Both run upwards of $20-$30 which is why I still believe the BHS gives you more bang for your buck. Below you can see a comparison of the two, BHS and RHB, respectively.
The required Greek Bible for my classes was the trusty Nestle-Aland 28 which was a handy version to have. For those who want to take it on the go it is good because it includes a list of vocabulary in the back for quick reference. It really is the one-stop-shop as far as Greek Bibles go, but it is not the one I would recommend for beginners.
The reason for this is because of the recently published The Greek New Testament from the Tyndale House which I find to be superior as a reading Bible for a few reasons. First, it is cheaper, like 50% cheaper. NA28 presently will run you around $65 before tax, whereas TGNT will only cost you around $30 if you get the basic edition.
Second, the layout of the text is much more conducive to reading. Like the BHS, the NA28 includes textual notes which will take up half the page or more whereas the TGNT keeps this to a minimum. Compare below the NA28,
… and the TGNT taken from their website.
See what I mean? I picked up the TGNT when it first came out and use it as my go-to Greek Bible. For the purpose of practicing and reading Greek, the TGNT is a great place to start. Now the two versions do differ in places, and this has lead to debate between scholars on one side or the other as to which they prefer. Why will I not focus on the textual questions between the two versions as reasons to go with one or the other?
It is because we are beginners gosh darn it! “Ain’t nobody got time for” textual criticism right now. That can wait for Greek Year 2.
Knowing how to parse and specific vocabulary is helpful on a whim, but there is no better teacher than to see each part function in its natural habitat. This is why I recommended these two Bibles. Start out slow, especially if it has been awhile since you last studied intensively. I find that I have to be very generous when I return to a language I have not had the opportunity to study due to the demands placed upon my schedule, but in time when I practice translating all those skills begin to come back.
To Dr. Bayer, who taught me to love the fountain of biblical languages, Hebrew,
and to Dr. Chipman, who made the New Testament a little less “Greek” to me.