Remarks by Laurence M. Vance at the Society of Biblical Literature November 2006 Annual Meeting in Washington DC

National Association of Professors of Hebrew panel discussion in response to issues raised by Fred Greenspahn in his 2005 SBL Forum essay entitled: “Why Hebrew Textbooks Are Different from Those for Other Languages.”

I am grateful for the opportunity to serve on this panel.

Professor Greenspahn’s article is an important one, and should be read by all those who teach or may teach biblical Hebrew, those who have written or intend to write a Hebrew grammar book, and those who are involved in the publication of Hebrew grammars or reference works.

Upon first reading Greenspahn’s seminal article, I immediately thought of another very significant article that I remembered reading on a similar theme by the recently deceased distinguished biblical scholar and emeritus Hebrew professor James Barr. Written on the occasion of the publication by the British and Foreign Bible Society of its new edition of the Hebrew Bible, Barr’s “The Position of Hebrew Language in Theological Education,” was first published in the International Review of Missions in 1961, and reprinted in The Princeton Seminary Bulletin in 1962.

Although Barr was writing about Hebrew education and not Hebrew textbooks, the former presupposes the latter, and is to a great extent dependent upon it. Three relevant points by Barr that echo conclusions reached by Greenspahn include the following:

The first point about the traditional Hebrew course is that it is clearly a reading course, and its implicit design and purpose is to achieve a reasonable level of reading fluency in the Hebrew Biblical text. The brevity of the course, in marked contrast with the practice of normal linguistic education, causes a concentration on reading ability as against (for example) the ability to translate into Hebrew.
Though the traditional course is designed for the attainment of a reading knowledge in the Biblical text, it cannot be said that it has succeeded in providing this within the trained ministry.

Thus if the purpose of a Hebrew course is to provide some degree of critical judgment in handling Biblical linguistic data, and if this newer emphasis on Hebrew as the necessary gateway to Hebrew thought, and thus to theological truth, is to continue, then it is justified to claim that this emphasis demands that there should be an education in Hebrew; but the education in Hebrew that it demands is not the education in Hebrew which in fact we have.

I shall return to Barr soon.

Greenspahn reminds us of the numerous ways in which Hebrew grammars are quite different from those for other languages: the lack of color, photographs, illustrations, and drawings; the focus on translation; the rapid exposure to the original text; the massive amount of detail; the attempt to account for every idiosyncrasy; the emphasis on irregularities. The result of this is that the typical biblical Hebrew grammar teaches “too much too fast.

This radical difference in approach should be maintained. First, because the goal of Hebrew language instruction in a Bible college or seminary is, or should be, to teach the language of a particular text. Second, because the typical study of a foreign language in high school or college includes the study of the culture, customs, history, and geography of a group of people in addition to their language, the textbook used will naturally be quite different from that used to teach biblical Hebrew. As they relate to the Hebrew language, the things I mentioned are usually covered in an Old Testament survey course. Third, theological students who study Hebrew face a daunting enough task already just focusing on the Hebrew text of the Bible. And as Barr said: “They appreciate that in theory Hebrew can be of great value for them in their use of the Bible. But they are unlikely to have a similar interest in Hebrew for itself.” True, as Greenspahn says, they do get “too much too fast,” but, again, as Barr remarks: “An ability to understand the problems of textual criticism, and a certain independence of translations in Biblical study, may be attitudes which remain after the Hebrew itself has been lost.” And fourth, as to biblical Hebrew being taught by people who are trained in some form of biblical studies and not language instruction, I see no problem with that, but do agree with one of the panelists who wrote that “teaching a language requires a special skill.”

One of Greenspahn’s canons for an effective biblical Hebrew grammar is that no “positive purpose is served by expecting students to read direct quotations from the Bible from the start.” In my independent, conservative tradition, it is pointless to have students attempt to read and translate biblical quotations because the students I taught were too familiar with the Bible. Another canon is that of a thorough presentation “of the language’s regularities.” I wholeheartedly agree. That is why I am not in favor of the practice of introducing irregular verbs in conjunction with regular verbs. Yet another canon is that descriptions should be in “simple, everyday English.” Again, I couldn’t agree more. Failure to do so is not only detrimental to the student, it contributes to the problem of “the guild of ‘experts’” that is also addressed by Professor Greenspahn in his essay. Still another canon is “a substantial amount of drill.” Although I agree, I don’t think the amount of drill should be built into the grammar book. This can be effected by the teacher regardless of the grammar book used.

So how does my Hebrew grammar book measure up? My work is entitled A Practical Grammar of Basic Biblical Hebrew. It has been expressly designed for the beginning student. It assumes no knowledge of Greek or any other language. The emphasis of the short vocabularies is on variety rather than the memorization of a large number of the most frequently used words. All irregular nouns are fully explained, and irregular verbs are not introduced until the end. The tradesman terminology has been kept to an absolute minimum. There is no mention of textual criticism. Clear examples are provided to illustrate every point of syntax introduced. It does not use examples from the actual Hebrew text; rather, the exercises conform to the syntax of the Hebrew Bible. The exercises have also been carefully constructed to continually make full use of all words and concepts previously learned. Answers to selected exercises are provided so the student outside the classroom can check his work. Special lessons are provided on the Hebrew lexicon, the Hebrew Bible, and the availability and merit of the various Hebrew reference tools. As the most basic of all basic Hebrew grammars, it is not designed to teach one to read the Hebrew Bible. And neither will it enable one to speak or understandably read modern Hebrew.

The problem with my book is that it was written specifically for use by undergraduates in a two-semester Hebrew course that met two evenings a week that I taught at a Bible institute. Because these students came from a tradition that focused on the English Bible, the book was designed to equip them with a sufficient knowledge of the Hebrew language to understand not only the references to Hebrew that appear in commentaries, reference books, and articles, but to defend the Bible from the attacks made upon it using the Hebrew. So, due to its very narrow target audience, it is not a grammar book that would be suitable for use under different circumstances without extensive revision.