New Life for Old Testament Language Demand for Hebrew Is Fueled by Archeology and Desire to Explore Bible's Roots

By Gail Russell Chaddock , writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, August 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

New Life for Old Testament Language Demand for Hebrew Is Fueled by Archeology and Desire to Explore Bible's Roots


Gail Russell Chaddock , writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Learning Hebrew is not as tedious as James Madison was led to believe.

As a freshman at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) in 1769, the soon-to-be Founding Father was told that mastery of ancient languages, such as Latin and Greek, was critical. However, unless he planned on becoming a minister, he could take a pass on Hebrew, as it had become "unhappily unpopular" with students.

About two centuries later, many mainline seminaries came around to the same conclusion - and started bumping the original language of the Old Testament off their required list.

But the language that would not die is on a rebound in places you might not expect. Everyone from adults to children in grade schools is finding new ways - and reasons - to study it on their own. And a spike of Web sites, CD-Roms, periodicals, classes, books, and study aides is meeting the new demand.

Take Oilton, Okla., population 1,060. Last year, the Cimarron Christian Academy began teaching Hebrew to all 103 of their students, starting in kindergarten. Their instructor is a graduate student at nearby Oral Roberts University, in Tulsa.

"The pastor of our church felt that the Hebrew language would give children the foundation they need to read the Bible and to build character," says Cimarron Principal Deborah Jones. "So far," she says, "we only teach classes once a week. But there's such enthusiasm, we'd like to expand it. We take our students to the Jewish museum in Tulsa to add depth to their Bible study. A majority of our adult congregation has visited Israel at least once."

Nor are such ventures the odd exception. Hebrew educators say they are seeing a groundswell of new interest in the language. For some learners, it's the prospect of travel and study in Israel, or the excitement of archeological discoveries, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Others want to hear and feel the poetry of the Old Testament in the original language.

"Every literary work suffers in translation. But of all the world's classics, the Bible suffers most from translation," says David Friedman, who has taught Hebrew in seminaries and universities for more than 50 years.

"The seminaries are generally not requiring Hebrew and Greek anymore, because they're not requiring languages in graduate school. But there's a revival of Hebrew going across the board, chiefly because of the existence of the state of Israel. That gives you a much broader base. And the discoveries in archeology excite everybody," he adds.

Much of the new demand for Hebrew learning materials is coming from non-mainstream Christian groups who want to understand the Hebrew roots of the Bible. Parents interested in home-schooling are building a market for Hebrew-language materials.

At the same time, some Jewish groups are trying to halt what some call a "meltdown" of Jewish life in the US, where fewer than 1 in 5 American Jews can still read a text in the language of the Torah.

For both groups, the possibility of distance learning over the Internet is opening new ways into one of the world's oldest languages. Suppliers say that requests for Hebrew materials have gone from a trickle a few years ago to a flood.

"In Hebrew, it's not the nouns that are important, it's the verbs. Hebrew {in the Old Testament} paints pictures of the heart. The Hebrew language can change lives," says Cheryle Holeman in Independence, Kan. She quit teaching elementary school in 1981 - "I was fed up: The kids weren't expected to read or do homework" -and began developing material for Christian home-schoolers, especially related to Hebrew language and culture. …

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