Study Biblical Hebrew

The department offers 2 years (4 semesters) of Biblical Hebrew. Hebrew 101 and 102 offer an intensive study of the structure and the basic vocabulary of Biblical Hebrew, bringing students to the point of being able to read any part of the Hebrew Bible with the aid of a lexicon. The texts used are all taken from the Bible without modifications.

Hebrew 201 covers readings in prose sections of Biblical Hebrew, mainly narratives. Hebrew 202 offers readings in Biblical Hebrew poetry - including selections from the psalms and the prophets. Hebrew 201 and 202 are cross-listed as Religion 205 and 206.

Biblical Hebrew courses can fulfill W&M's foreign language proficiency.

Why study Biblical Hebrew?
For a Deeper Understanding

In studying Biblical Hebrew, you'll be reading a text that is one of the foundational documents of European civilization, yet is written in a language and from a view point that is definitely not Indo-European. If you wish to get a better sense of the full complexity and richness of the texts that gave rise to both Judaism and Christianity, you will not regret taking Hebrew. The ideas and concepts that you will discover will be very different from the Greek model that dominates Western Philosophy.

The Hebrew Bible is an extremely important and very beautiful piece of literature, one of the most influential books in history, and deserves to be read in the original. Even the best translation does not approach the beauty and the shades of meaning of the original text-even to the degree that these can be appreciated by beginning students.

The world of ideas reflected in the Hebrew Bible is very different from that reflected in the Greek classics. Both Athens and Jerusalem were relatively small, fairly unimportant political and economic entities. Both developed against a similar Eastern Mediterranean culture, ancient and varied, sharing and exchanging gods and goddesses, myths and prophecy, technology and commerce. And both ended up affecting world civilization far out of proportion to their importance in their own time and place.

For Learning other Languages

Even though words such as "bus" and "ice cream" are not Biblical, the rules that govern their form and their use are the same as those you would learn in a Biblical Hebrew class. If you wish to learn Modern Hebrew, you might as well start with Biblical Hebrew, then visit Israel to immerse yourself in the language and practice conversational skills.

If you are interested in Modern Hebrew beyond tourist-conversation level, you should take into account that the Bible in Hebrew is the bedrock of Hebrew literature and writings of any period, including the present. It is and has always been more widely read and studied by Jews than any piece of English literature has been in English-speaking countries. This creates a shared knowledge of vocabulary, phrases, sayings, personalities, and images that is taken for granted and is used by writers of all but the most basic level. Even if your interests are limited to Hebrew political writings of the 20th century, you would miss a great deal if you do not know the Biblical background and connotations of words and phrases.

Once you are familiar with Biblical Hebrew, you will find it relatively easy to master the reading of Hebrew of any other period with a small additional investment of labor; and once you internalize the morphology you learn in Biblical Hebrew, you'll find it possible (in fact, natural) to read Hebrew of all periods.

Hebrew belongs to the Semitic family of languages, which includes also Arabic as well as several ancient languages such as Assyrian and Ugaritic, of which abundant stores of writings and literature have been uncovered by archaeologists. Learning Hebrew can go a long way toward making it easier for you to learn these other languages.

The grammatical concepts you'll need to master for Hebrew will be very different from anything you might encounter in French, German, or Spanish - or even Latin or Greek. Yet Hebrew, while having a steep learning curve, also has a very strong internal logic and a relatively small set of basic rules which interact to cause most of the exceptions to the general paradigms. Once you reach a certain level, the language horizons will open up and you'll find it relatively easy to achieve ever-greater mastery of the language.

Hebrew is no substitute for Greek or Latin. But if you are fascinated by ancient languages and texts, Hebrew can be a great addition to your studies. Some of the grammatical concepts you'll encounter-like genders, inflected verbs, and a flexible syntax-will be familiar to you. Others, like roots and stems, will be new. 

For a Different Perspective

The natural world behind the Bible is the same Mediterranean world you encounter in Greece and Italy: olives, vineyards, fig trees, fields of wheat, mild winters and hot summers, and ancient, powerful civilizations beyond one's borders (such as Egypt, Assyria, Babylon and Persia). Other aspects of the natural world are different: a greater fear of drought and appreciation of rain, the presence of a desert, and a sea that forms a border rather than a pathway for communications. Both Athens and Jerusalem were relatively small, fairly unimportant political and economical entities-Judea even more so than Athens. Yet both ended up affecting world civilization far out of proportion to their importance in their own time and place. The world of ideas reflected in the Hebrew Bible is very different from that reflected in the Greek classics. Yet both developed against a similar Eastern Mediterranean culture, ancient and varied, sharing and exchanging gods and goddesses, myths and prophecy, technology and commerce.