Students immerse selves in Biblical Hebrew

FPU leads the way among U.S. universities

Remember when you were a baby?

Probably not, so here's what happened: You were surrounded by people much larger than you, who were making noises and moving their faces, hands and arms in ways that made sense to them. After awhile, you realized that these noises and gestures meant things--some good, like food and hugs; some not so good, like night-nights.

Fascinated, you copied those sounds and gestures. Then you discovered frustration as what you did didn't bring the desired result. Still, the big people were encouraging, so you kept trying.

One day, success! You did something and the big people responded. From then on, no one could shut you up.

That method--immersion--is how you learned your first language. Immersion is also how Brian Schultz teaches biblical Hebrew. Schultz--with wife Rachel, who co-teaches the class, and Scott Metcalf, who records the sessions--is making FPU a leader among American universities, though immersion is not without controversy.

Schultz, a biblical and religious studies professor here since 2007, first experienced biblical Hebrew immersion as a teacher's assistant in Israel in 2003. This system comes from the Biblical Language Center, founded and led by Randall Buth ( Today Schultz serves on the BLC board.

Why bother with biblical Hebrew?

"In the same way a scholar of Goethe needs to know German, it is important for scholars of the Bible to know biblical languages," Schultz says. Translations are general equivalencies and there is always a dimension that is lost.

In the Bible story of the woman accused of adultery, for example, the original Hebrew talks about the woman "breaking faith" with her husband. "Breaking faith" is a term used throughout the Old Testament to describe what happen when humans turn from God, Schultz says, so the text draws a parallel between the relationship between God and people and husband and wife.

"All these things can be explained in a commentary, but there's something about reading it yourself," Schultz says.

Why immersion?

"Your brain is wired to learn a new language the same way you learned your mother tongue," Schultz says. The brain doesn't care if a language is living or dead.

In addition, true communication includes what is being said and how it is being said. Speaking is part of making those distinctions and catching those subtleties. "If all you do is read you are never producing the language," he says.

How does the class work?

For the first six weeks students only hear Hebrew, just as young children first hear the language their parents speak. They move on to simple vocabulary and skits, actions as simple as walking to the board and writing something.

"The more we go along the more we try to create what I call live situations in the classroom where the students use the language," he says. Students start reading the Bible about two months in.

No one has spoken biblical Hebrew since...well, Hebrew times. How do you teach speech?

All the grammar of modern Hebrew is included in biblical Hebrew. "In some ways modern Hebrew is a simplification of biblical Hebrew," Schultz says. The big difference is vocabulary.

Here's where Metcalf comes in. His class recordings, along with vocabulary, dialogs and Bible readings are all available to students to listen to and view on their MP3 players, continuing the immersion experience between classes.

And this is popular with students--at 9:00 a.m.?

His first semester Schultz had 10 students; the second six. The plan was for a one-year program, but students asked for more. Veterans promoted class the next fall. "Before school was out last spring I had seven or eight students. Then over the summer it went up to 28. Then the first day of class I had one or two students want to sit in," Schultz says. The count stabilized at 27.

What makes biblical Hebrew cool?

Dan Crosby, a senior majoring in history and classics who has already taken Latin and biblical Greek, signed up, along with Pam Johnston, history and classics faculty. "I'm very impressed with the amount of work that has gone into the materials and the amount of study on the psychology of learning languages. I'd highly recommend it to anyone who is entering biblical studies," Crosby says.

The class overturns the perception that biblical languages are beyond the average person. "I've already had two students this year tell me it's their favorite class," Schultz says. "They're hearing and understanding. And because of their love of the Bible, that drives the rest of the motivation."

Why the resistance to immersion?

It's not the way we've always done it. "(Immersion) requires a paradigm can't ease your way into it, it's almost all or nothing," Schultz says.

The most common, but rarely mentioned, objection is that most biblical profs do not have the ability to use the immersion method. "It takes a lot of retooling," he says.

After a semester as a student, Pam Johnston is energized, not exhausted, and looks forward to using immersion in her teaching of Latin and biblical Greek. (This would make FPU the first or among the first in the U.S. to use immersion with Greek; a few do so with Latin.) "It's that groundbreaking," she says.

This article, written by Wayne Steffen, was originally published in Pacific, March 2010.

Return to Living Biblical Hebrew page.