Imagine a friend hands you a book with the explanation that you may find it enlightening. You examine the cover for a moment and then comment that the author’s name is absent. Which prompts you to ask: Who wrote this book? You’d like to know who the writer is before committing to reading the book. In answer to your query, the friend tells you that no one knows who the writers were. And, according to scholars, it was written by separate groups. The culmination of the various writers resulted in the book you hold.
Your friend informs you that the words in the book are over two millennia old. Thinking about this statement, you ask if one of the famous philosophers had a hand in the book. What about Aristotle, Plato, Epictetus, Epicurus, or Zeno of Citium? None of those. Your friend reiterates that the writers are unknown, and the edition you hold is a translation into English. With your interest piqued, you wonder what language you need to read the original book.
The referenced book in the scenarios above is the Old Testament or Jewish Bible. The original language of it was Hebrew, with a few short passages in Aramaic. The first five books or Pentateuch were written around 1445-1440 BCE. Biblical scholars opine that the last book in the Old Testament, Malachi, was written between 600 to 450 BCE. Between 285 and 247 BCE, 70 Jewish priests translated the Old Testament into Greek. It became known as the Greek Old Testament or Septuagint (70).
What language is best?
As a prospective student entering a graduate program in divinity or related discipline, such as religious studies, Hebrew should be the language of choice. Fluency is not required; however, the ability to read Hebrew allows students to read the Old Testament as composed by the Jewish writers. Learning institutions recognize the necessity of this language as many master’s programs include Hebrew in the curriculum. At the undergraduate level, some schools have Hebrew in the study plan.
The Bachelor of Arts in Divinity at Grace College of Divinity in Fayetteville, North Carolina, studies the Old and New Testaments but doesn’t offer Hebrew courses. Under their list of Program Nonelectives, there are three credit hours of Greek. Hardly enough to gain an understanding of Greek, which would benefit divinity students. The Jewish scholars translated the Old Testament by the mid-third century BCE, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Around that date, Greek was the language of the land, for example, Israel and Egypt. Only the Pentateuch or Torah was translated into Greek. Scholars later translated the remaining books of the Old Testament in the second century BCE.
Reading Hebrew allows students to read the original words, some of which do not have equivalent meanings in English. For example, the Hebrew word tiqva ( תקוה) comes from the root קוה (qwh), which is used once in the Bible to mean cord or line, but otherwise, it represents hope or longing.
Anyone analyzing and interpreting the Old Testament will find Hebrew advantageous. However, many colleges and universities omit language classes. The Master of Divinity at Duke University is one example. You will find Hebrew and Greek courses at Denver Seminary’s online M.Div. in your first year. Their 79-credit hours’ program has six hours each of Greek and Hebrew.
The Jewish Bible was first in Hebrew before being translated into Greek, which is also the original language for the New Testament writers. One school firmly believes in studying Greek and Hebrew is the Evangelical Seminary in Myerstown, Pennsylvania. Their 76-credits Master of Divinity site poses several questions and answers to assist students contemplating the degree.
One of the Seminary questions is: Do I need to study Greek or Hebrew to get an MDiv? The school states that the degree is a professional degree, meaning it provides skills directly applicable to one’s work. The Evangelical Seminary feels so strongly about the two languages that it cautions students against selecting a program that excludes these languages. Despite the emphasis on Greek and Hebrew, the curriculum devotes only three hours each to the two. (Law, Doctor of Medicine (MD), and most doctorate degrees are professional degrees).
Fluency refers to the ability to speak a language comfortably and without hesitation. You do not need to be knowledgeable about grammar or sentence structure to become fluent. Generally, students enrolled in a M.Div. will not have enough hours to converse in Hebrew or Greek fluently. Therefore, self-study might be in order, depending on how you intend to use the degree. Outside of your academics, there will be little need to master a foreign language.