I’ve been thinking a little more about my rather maximalist comments the other day concerning the languages a serious student of the Hebrew Bible or the Christian New Testament needed to know. I have two worries. First I worry that I was a little dogmatic. Second, I worry that I was not broad enough.
First things first: The list of languages I suggested as requirements for serious study of the Hebrew Bible were Hebrew, Aramaic, Hellenistic Greek, Akkadian including peripheral Akkadian, Ugaritic, Phoenician, Egyptian, Classical Greek and Hittite. I noted that I didn’t have all these tools in my tool box. But perhaps I should have put it somewhat differently. It’s not so much that, excepting Hebrew, Aramaic, and Hellenistic Greek, every serious students must formally learn all these languages than that every serious student of the Hebrew Bible will encounter situations where he or she wishes they knew these languages. So why not just learn them as early as possible?
Second things second: Depending on one’s research program, my extended list of required ancient language tools may not be long enough or may be askew in one of several ways. This thought reminded me of something Mark Wilson wrote in his book Wandering Significance: An Essay on Conceptual Behavior,
Even the devoted study of, e.g. the life of a sea squid is apt to carry one eventually into chemistry, physics, mathematics and perhaps a spot of philosophy, for the backyard of every science opens onto all others. (14)
This is without question true. It is just as true of the humanities in general and Biblical Studies in particular.
Bonus third thing: Contrary to what is sometimes thought, the reason for knowing those other ancient languages is not primarily etymology or other narrow linguistic concerns. It is to understand as much as we can about the cultural context in which Biblical players worked, wrote and read. We can only know but a fraction of what they knew or of what they thought and felt about their world. For this reason, we much cast our nets rather broadly in the hope of catching a more complete glimpse of their world. The first thing required of the serious Biblical studies student is knowledge of the literature, both the literature of the Bible itself but also of that mass of literature in many ancient languages but predominately in Hebrew, Aramaic, Hellenistic Greek, Akkadian, Ugaritic, Phoenician (plus Moabite and Ammonite), Egyptian, Classical Greek and Hittite that make up the literary and cultural context of Biblical literature. In truth, much of this can be acquired without knowledge of the various languages in which it was written. But not all of it, not even all of the abnormally interesting parts of it have been translated (and in some cases even properly published). To understand that literature in depth one must be able to read it in its original language. The arguments for this last point are the same as the argument for knowing Hebrew, Aramaic and Hellenistic Greek. Can we ever know it all? Not in any single lifetime! But that is not an excuse for reluctance to try.