What is the Benefit of Greek & Hebrew?

Some say reading in Greek and Hebrew versus reading in English is like the difference between watching a show in color versus black and white. Others might say something like 2D versus 3D. I don’t think these metaphors are the best ways to describe the experience. Reading in Greek and Hebrew slows me down and helps me rummage around in the text and reflect. For me, that’s the core idea. It gives me something to do.

I’m asking and answering this question as someone who initially learned the languages to read and teach Scripture. I’m going to write more about other benefits and things that flow from this rummaging and slow down, but in this post I just want to lay the foundation. How many times have you sat down to prepare to teach or preach and you read your passage and think, “Ok, now what?” If you are reading in the original languages you have so many different resources and tools to explore, and I’m thinking primarily about lexicons and concordances. If you don’t regularly read and work with the original languages, all you can do is skim the surface of an entry in BDAG or HALOT. Exploring contemporary literature, figures of speech, the metaphors used in your passage, looking at a words full range of meaning and determining which meaning is relevant for your passage — these are things you can actually engage in yourself if you can read the language.

But in my opinion, those things are not the primary benefit of the original language slow down. The real benefit comes in your day-to-day reading. It’s about stripping away the familiarity of your natural language and lingering over the original words. Especially for the first few years of reading, you have to decipher every word and phrase, and the fog never really lifts. Sure, after a few years, you may be able to read one or two or four chapters in an hour, but it’s still not English. You’re moving slower, and when I do this, I find that I make connections with other portions of scripture that I wouldn’t make otherwise. With certain phrases come flashes of other stories or scenes, and my imagination takes off. This sort of reading isn’t about exegesis. It’s about rummaging. It’s about trying to step through the wardrobe into the real world of God’s presence.

On Reading Groups

There is only one type of reading group I have stuck with and enjoyed, and that’s a digital reading group of two. I once made the mistake of trying to lead a Facebook reading group. Won’t do that again. It just takes too much time to maintain all the join requests and administrative notifications, and if you have a large group, keeping up with the comments drains your time to read, which is the whole point.

For over a year now, my Greek reading group has had only one other member, Abram KJ. He and I just finished a GNT read through and are starting on the Pentateuch. We do not live in the same area so our workflow is completely digital. We don’t meet, but as I mentioned in the last post, we’ve used Todoist to manage a shared reading plan, and it has worked wonderfully. For the GNT we commented on tasks in Todoist to facilitate reading discussion, but for our Pentateuch journey we are trying out Twist (initial thoughts here). We will use use Todoist for the reading plan and Twist to manage our comments. Any sort of live discussion usually takes place on iMessage.

Reading time is in one sense a luxury, but in another sense it’s as essential as food. I work at the library as a research aid for students, and someone asked me the other day how to find time for Greek and Hebrew reading while managing seminar papers and the rest of life. I think you have to prioritize reading on the same level as eating. You simply cannot wait until life isn’t busy to read. Isn’t reading the whole point of the education? You take all these language classes for the purpose of reading the literature written in the languages. Everyone finds time to eat, and everyone can find time to read. Groups help, however, because reading big books can be a lonely journey. It’s always nice to know someone is walking with you.

I think the key for any reading group is to keep everything as simple as possible, even when it comes to expectations. Our “plan” is simply a list of chapters (Abram Gen 1, Brian Gen 1, Abram Gen 2, Brian Gen 2, etc.) Each chapter is a task in a Todoist project called Greek Reading. Ideally, we will both read one chapter a day, but that rarely happens. No worries. Just read when you can, and keep going. If someone falls a little behind, send an encouraging text. If someone falls far behind, the other person can read something else for a week or two and let the other catch up. We are both committed to regular reading, but over the past year each of us fell behind more than once and we always caught up with each other eventually. Schedules vary, and each person has certain seasons that are more busy than others. That’s why the digital notes are so helpful. If I fall behind, I can check out Abram’s comments on each chapter as I catch up.

To sum up, here are my suggestions for digital reading groups:

  • Keep the group as small as you can.
  • Keep the plan as simple as you can.
  • Be flexible and know that you won’t always stay together.
  • Just keep reading.

Twist for Reading Team Communication

The company that makes Todoist just released a team messaging app called Twist. I love Todoist so when a friend messaged me about this I was definitely interested. Having used Twist for a couple days, I’m not so sure if it is going to work for us.

He and I have used Todoist over the past year to keep up with a shared reading plan, and we used the comment features in Todoist to discuss the readings. Todoist was fantastic for keeping up with our shared reading plan, and the way we used the app for discussion was OK. We would create a task for each major section of the book, and then simply comment on that task, turning it from an actual task to a hub for discussion. Not ideal, but functional.

I know a reading team of two is not exactly the sort of team Twist is intended to help. The app may be overkill for our purposes, but I wanted to try it out because it could potentially make our discussions a lot easier to keep up with. If you google twist doist you will find that the headlines describe it as something like “a less distracting take on Slack” (Engadget, for example). I’ve never used Slack, but everyone I know who uses a team communication app does. I’m confident that since Doist is behind this app it will get better and likely be a (the first?) genuine rival to Slack.

Here’s my take after a couple days. At this point, Twist is frustrating, but we’re bearing with it. Part of my frustration comes, no doubt, from the fact that I like to keep my app game as simple as possible, and I’m just experiencing new app growing pains. There are a few other things, however. First, every time I send a message I get a pop up asking me if I’m sure I want to notify everyone in the channel. This happens anytime I comment on anything, and I do not see a way to make it stop (update: a friend showed me that if you only have individuals of a team selected and note some variation of “everyone” the pop up goes away). Second, our reading team of two is now a reading team of three because Twist automatically adds “Ada Bot,” a messaging bot that I can’t figure out how to kill. I asked it, “How can I delete you.” It said, “I need a lot more training. Please contact support …” Just seeing that silly bot everywhere is so annoying. Finally, I’ve struggled a little navigating the various portions of the app — teams, groups, channels, threads, and comments. For me, it’s a bit cumbersome. I’d be interested to hear from Slack users what they think about the Twist UI.

I do like the inbox feature, which allows me to see a list of every post no matter what channel it is posted in. And again, I love that Doist is behind it. Todoist is spectacular, and I expect Twist will be too within a few months.

Twist website

Genesis 12 & the Exodus

In a sense, Genesis 12 foreshadows the Exodus. After Abram got Sarai to agree to lie about her relationship with him, they entered Egypt. As expected, she is taken into Pharaoh’s palace, and as expected:

12:16 – It went well for Abram. He gained flocks and cattle, male and female servants, donkeys, and camels.

God strikes Pharaoh and his people, and then at the end of the chapter:

12:20 – Pharaoh commanded his men concerning Abram, and they sent him out with his wife and all his possessions.

Through human compromise and sin and because of the broken world — famine, in this case — the people of God go down to Egypt, and through trickery, they plunder the Egyptians.

Hebrew text

Ways of Reading

Here’s a collection of posts I’ve written on different ways of reading original language texts. I find myself frequently moving from one way of reading to another. Sometimes I read one way for a week or a month or a year, but it’s bound to change. That’s a theme that runs throughout the posts. There isn’t one right way to read. Read however you want. Just read.

Reading with Text & Lexicon

Reading with a print text and a print lexicon is as basic as it gets. This is the way I read today, but like all the other ways of reading, it has its benefits and haunting feelings of guilt.

Setup

There is freedom here. No notebooks on the table, no pens to refill with ink, no laptop or tablet needed. Just a text and lexicon. When reading this way, I prefer to use a concise lexicon. So on the table I would have BHS and The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, NA28 and Danker’sConcise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, or Rahlfs and Muraoka or LEH. Sure, Muraoka claims to be a “fully-fledged lexicon,” but it better fits my expectations of a concise or intermediate lexicon. For Biblical Aramaic, Vogt and Fitzmyer is great. When a more comprehensive lexicon is needed, I will generally open an electronic version of HALOT, BDAG, or LSJ. If I’m home, BrillDAG is always handy.

Experience

This is a reading workflow that minimizes distraction because only rarely will the concise lexicons be unable to answer whatever vocab related questions that arise. I’m able to forget about everything else and be more immersed in the text.

In addition to the lack digital distractions, there is also the fact that I don’t have to worry about taking notes. When you take notes on everything you look up, the reading experience can turn into more of a note taking experience. When you close the books, it doesn’t feel like you have just stepped out of the wardrobe, but out of the classroom, where the teachers are dead lexicographers.

Of course, reading this way also forces me to think through the morphology of forms and not rely on digital helps to parse words, but I do this no matter how I read. I have never made digital resources crutches. I don’t personally know anyone who has. I think many who recommend a completely analog way of reading do so for fear of “digital crutches.” While this is no doubt a legitimate concern in a seminary classroom filled with students juggling family and church and work and academic schedules, anyone reading this far into this post should probably shirk such feelings of guilt. You are sufficiently dedicated to reading texts in their original languages that any sort of guilty feeling concerning digital crutches is misplaced guilt.

Reading with print text and lexicon encourages me to linger a little longer over the lexicon entry. I want to remember the word’s semantic range next time I come across it, and I am not taking notes I can look back on. In a related line of thought, I’m also not dependent upon the gloss provided by a reader’s text. I can get the full semantic range every time I look up a word — or at least the full semantic range a word has in a given body of literature. If I’m working with a good concise lexicon, at a glance I will also see all the forms of the word or at least its principal parts.

Finally, this way of reading will work with any language or body of literature. You don’t have to wait on someone to make a reader’s this or that. As long as you have a text and lexicon, you are good to go.

Wrapping Up

This way of reading is a little slower than reading with a reader’s text and faster than reading with paper and pen, but is it a happy medium? Well, it is hard to shake the feeling that I should be taking notes on everything I look up, but I think it is. Using a print text and lexicon is a solid way of reading, and the benefits far out weigh the negatives. I think I was first encouraged to read this way by Charles Halton in a Hebrew exegesis class, but I haven’t spent as much time with this MO as others. I’m going to continue reading this way over the summer, but you read however you want.

Just read.

Reading & Digital Notetaking

I’ve read with paper and pen, but these days if I am taking notes while reading, I use GoodNotes and a 9.7” iPad Pro with the Apple Pencil. I don’t know how many times I’ve been working with someone and wanted to check my notes but didn’t have the right little notebook with me. That’s no longer a problem.

Text

There are three elements to this way of reading: print text, lexicon, and iPad. If I’m reading Greek or Hebrew, I prefer to read from a print text — NA28, BHS, Loeb, or a reader’s text. I don’t mind reading on my iPad, I just prefer a print text for this type of literature.

Lexicon

It’s a different story for the lexicon: about half the time I use a digital lexicon on my iPad and other times I prefer a concise, print lexicon. The lexicon varies depending on the medium.

If I’m using a print lexicon, then it is either Clines’ Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, Danker’s Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Liddell and Scott’s Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, or for the Septuagint, either LEH or Muraoka’s.

If I’m working off my iPad, then it’s either HALOT and Clines’ CDCH, BDAG, or LSJ in Accordance. It’s never really just one, and that’s the big benefit of a digital lexicon — you can easily switch between HALOT, BDB, CDCH, and DCH.

GoodNotes

GoodNotes is the distinctive feature. GoodNotes allows me to reap all the benefits of taking notes by hand, while simultaneously storing my notes in a digital platform I can access anywhere. The cherry on top is that GoodNotes automatically recognizes the text of your notes — even cursive — and you can search them. Unfortunately, it does not recognize Greek or Hebrew, but what app really does a halfway decent job with that apart from ABBYY FineReader. It would be unreasonable to expect GoodNotes to turn handwritten Greek or Hebrew into digital text, but one can dream.

You can pinch zoom on the GoodNotes paper and write, but I recently started using the zoom window, which allows me to have a larger writing line, while also letting me see more of the page.

As far as what type of notes I write down, this is my rule: If I look it up for any reason, I write it down. Usually it’s vocab notes, sometimes notes from a grammar, and occasionally something more reflective.

There are times when I use Accordance and GoodNotes in split screen. Because of the auto-advance feature of the zoom window, I can write continuously even though I have a relatively small space, half of a horizontal 9.7″ screen. You can see an example and more explanation of this feature at the bottom of this page, but check this out, too.

I can also copy and paste right along side my hand writing, and if I don’t like the way something looks, I can erase and rewrite it or cut and paste it somewhere else — yes, even the handwriting.

Wrapping up

I read at odd times throughout the day. Maybe it’s in the thirty minutes I have just before the students come streaming in, or maybe it’s while they are taking a quiz. Coffee shop, office, whatever — no matter when and where, I have my notes with me. Being able to share my notes with others is pretty sweet, as well.

GoodNotes and the Apple Pencil work so well together that taking reading notes sometimes feels like art. I can’t imagine a better digital notetaking environment.

A couple more pics:

Hebrew Just Takes Longer

Compared to Greek, I think it takes about twice as long to make it through the elementary grammar phase of learning biblical Hebrew. This is discouraging for many students. I know it was for me. If you are struggling with first or second year Hebrew, just know that this is normal — you’re OK.

Why is Hebrew so much more difficult? Morphology. Think about how much time you spent on morphology in your Greek classes compared to Hebrew. Some spend an entire year on Hebrew morphology before moving on to syntax. Others have a more balanced approach, but all spend more time on Hebrew morphology than Greek.

If you are at least halfway open to the idea that our approach to teaching Hebrew might be skewed, check out William P. Griffin’s essay “Killing a Dead Language: A Case against Emphasizing Vowel Points when Teaching Biblical Hebrew.” Why do so many give up on Hebrew? Griffin answers,

We are not teaching one language, but two; if we emphasize the accents, make that two and a half. We demand that our students understand and replicate an elaborate cellophane overlay that is more complicated than the language it attempts to clarify.

Griffin has written a grammar that de-emphasizes the vowel points, Hebrew for Reading Comprehension. I could not find a print copy online, but the grammar is sold by Logos and Griffin has a website devoted to it where you can check out some samples. I don’t know if this is the answer or not, but I am intrigued.

I was never able to master all the morphological rules for weak verbs though I certainly gave it my best effort. I have multiple notecards for every chapter of Fuller’s grammar, and I think I’ve gone through the book from cover to cover three times. It just doesn’t stick, and I’m OK with this. I can read Hebrew, and if I need to look up some rule on weak verbs, I know where to turn.

If you struggle with Hebrew, grace and peace to you. Don’t listen to that little voice coming from your skewed grammatical conscience that says, “You can’t start reading your Hebrew Bible if you can’t recite all the rules for germinate verbs. That’s cheating!” Read. Keep at it, and know that you aren’t alone. Hebrew just takes longer, and the fog doesn’t start to lift until you start reading.

RSS in Safari

My feed reader died back in 2013 like everyone else’s. After Google Reader, I tried Feedly and a couple other services but never really settled in. Twitter eventually filled the void, but the problem is that it never stopped pouring. The demise of Google Reader left me drowning in social media.

I killed Facebook as a New Year’s resolution in 2016 — the only one I’ve ever successfully kept — and now I’m trying to take a step back from Twitter by using Safari’s Shared Links feature. I think I would have discovered this feature earlier if it weren’t so poorly named. I have no idea what “shared links” is supposed to mean in light of what the feature does. I’m trying to keep up with pages or posts, not links, and neither I nor the authors have shared them.

The name aside, using Shared Links is simple. Just navigate to a favorite site, click the share button, and select Add Website to Shared Links.

Do the same thing with as many sites as you would like to keep up with, and then click View, Show Shared Links Sidebar (command + shift + 3) to see a list of the most recent posts from these sites.

To view your feed on an iOS device, select the little book icon and the @ symbol.

Adding sites to Shared Links on an iOS device is a little different. Once you are on a site you want to follow, do this:

  • Click the book icon.
  • Click the @ symbol.
  • Click Subscriptions at the bottom of your list of posts.
  • Click Add Current Site.

I like reading posts as they appear on the actual websites to which they belong, and navigating to a post via your Shared Links feed allows you to do this.

One other cool feature: After you finish reading a post, there is an UP NEXT banner at the bottom of the screen that allows you to scroll down and go straight to the next post in your feed.

You can check out iMore for their intro to Shared Links.

Also, Brian Renshaw has other ways of keeping up with sites, but I prefer to just use Safari.