Why Catholics Should Learn Hebrew
On the Importance of Biblical Hebrew
in Catholic Seminaries and Academic Institutions
André Villeneuve, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Theology
Saint John Vianney Seminary, Denver, CO
The article below is a summary.
In Heaven only shall we be in possession of the clear truth. On earth, even in matters of Holy Scripture, our vision is dim. It distresses me to see the differences in its translations, and had I been a Priest I would have learned Hebrew, so as to read the Word of God as He deigned to utter it in human speech. – St. Thérèse of Lisieux
When God first uttered His eternal Word to man in human speech, He did so in the Hebrew language. And yet we often see a disproportionate emphasis on Latin and Greek in Catholic academic institutions at the expense of Hebrew. Why this imbalance? Is Hebrew less important than Greek for the study of the Sacred Page? Is it too difficult to learn? Is it neglected for theological reasons, because of neo-Marcionist or supersessionist attitudes that tend to depreciate the value of the Old Testament? Is Hebrew given less attention because of a “classical bias” favoring Latin and Greek over Hebrew and the Semitic languages? I would like to propose ten reasons why Catholics should study and learn Hebrew, and why the Hebrew language is essential—and at least as important as Greek and Latin—for the study of theology in Catholic seminaries and academic institutions.
1. The Church Says So
The Church asserts that acquiring knowledge of the biblical languages is a foundational prerequisite to gain a sound understanding of the Sacred Scriptures. Pope Leo XIII encouraged the study of the biblical tongues, “especially the Semitic” (Providentissimus Deus, 1893). Pius XII also underlined the importance of learning Hebrew (Divino Afflante Spiritu, 1943). The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Priestly Training (1965) asserts that “a suitable knowledge of the languages of the Bible” should be “greatly encouraged” among seminarians. The USCCB’s Program of Priestly Formation (2006) adds that a knowledge not only of Latin but also of the biblical languages is “foundational and should be given the emphasis that the Church accords it.” Most recently, the document by the Congregation for Clergy,The Gift of the Priestly Vocation (Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis, 2016) asserts:
Seminarians should be provided with the opportunity to learn some elements of biblical Hebrew and Greek, through which they can engage with the original biblical texts. Special attention should also be given to a knowledge of the biblical culture and context, especially the history of the People of Israel, so as to improve the understanding of Sacred Scripture and to come to a proper relationship with the people of the Old Covenant.
2. The Holy Language
Hebrew is the principal language of divine inspiration and revelation: about two thirds of the Catholic Bible was originally revealed and written in Hebrew. The Hebrew Old Testament records and transmits to us the actual words God used to reveal Himself to Israel and to the world. (By contrast, the sayings of Jesus as recorded in the Greek Gospels and New Testament are not his actual words but a translation.) In Jewish tradition, Hebrew is sacred and imbued with a deep mystical meaning, going back to the origins of the universe: it is the language of creation, the language that God spoke when he uttered the words that brought the world into existence. In the fourth century, St. Jerome concurred with the rabbis: He was convinced that Hebrew, being “God’s language,” possesses an inherent sanctity and mystical meaning that is conveyed only partially and imperfectly in even the best translation.
3. Bridging the Historical, Geographical and Cultural Gap
Scripture itself affirms the importance of knowing Hebrew in order to understand Scripture. The Greek translator of the Book of Sirach, writing only two generations after his grandfather authored the book, expresses dissatisfaction with his own translation, writing in the prologue: “For what was originally expressed in Hebrew does not have exactly the same sense when translated into another language. Not only this work, but even the law itself, the prophecies, and the rest of the books differ not a little as originally expressed.” If this is the case for a work that was translated from Hebrew to Greek barely 60 years after it was authored, imagine what happens to a text read in translation thousands of years after it was written, thousands of miles away from its geographical setting, in a language and culture radically different from its original Semitic context. How much more is “lost in translation” in the vast gap of 2,500-3,000 years that stand between the original text of the Hebrew Bible and our modern English translations—not to mention the geographical and cultural gap between the ancient Semitic culture of the Levant and twenty-first century America. Does this great chasm not justify the study of the language of divine revelation if one is serious about understanding what God has to tell us?
4. Understanding the Old Testament
It has been rightly said that “reading the Bible in translation is like kissing your new bride through a veil.” Every translation is an interpretation because every language has nuances, expressions, idioms and ideas that are difficult or impossible to translate accurately. Semitic languages in particular are quite different from English and other European languages that derive from Greek and Latin. Generally, Biblical Hebrew is less precise than English (and Greek). It has no verbal tenses—no past, present or future—or moods, so that it is difficult to differentiate between statements of fact, doubtful assertions, wishes or commands. Statements that may seem clear or precise in Greek or in English can be ambiguous in Hebrew, so that words must derive their meaning from context much more than in the classical and European languages. In other cases, Hebrew is more precise than English, so that even the best translation can obscure entire passages of Scripture. Behind a language, moreover, stands a whole mentality and worldview. Unlike Greek, which is precise, descriptive, and excellent in communicating abstractions, Hebrew is concrete, action-centered, and lacking in abstract terms. For the Hebrews, “truth was not so much an idea to be contemplated as an experience to be lived, a deed to be done.” Some Hebrew terms—often theologically significant—are virtually untranslatable, so that important theological insights are easily missed without knowledge of Hebrew. Many examples (see the full-length paper) demonstrate the limitations of translations and raise the question: Should Catholics—and especially future priests—be content with “listening to God through an interpreter”? God’s word is worthy of some investment in time and effort, so that we may understand as accurately as possible what the Lord has to say to His people.
5. Understanding Jesus and the New Testament
Even though the New Testament is written in Greek, it remains a thoroughly Jewish book, written almost entirely by Jewish authors who spoke Hebrew. This means that a knowledge of Hebrew is essential not only for understanding the Old Testament, but for entering into the mind of the New as well. Jesus was and always remained an observant, orthodox Jew who knew, spoke, and prayed in Hebrew. The eternal Word became flesh as a Jewish, Hebrew-speaking man who was “at home in the Jewish tradition of his time, and was decisively shaped by this religious milieu.” One may ask, then, to what extent it is possible to really know Jesus in his humanity—his Jewish humanity—without some understanding of Judaism and the Hebraic mindset. Accordingly, “the Hebrew language is the best language of all... because no one can really understand the Scriptures without it. For although the New Testament is written in Greek, it is full of Hebraisms and Hebrew expressions. It has therefore been aptly said that the Hebrews drink from the spring, the Greeks from the stream that flows from it, and the Latins from a downstream pool .”
Because of a “classical bias,” however, New Testament Greek has been historically viewed through the lens of classical Greek, rather than through the lens of Hebrew or Aramaic, the first language(s) of the New Testament authors. Many of Jesus’ sayings are Hebrew idioms, so that many Gospel expressions are not just poor Greek, but actually meaningless in Greek. Difficult or cryptic expressions in Greek, often mistranslated in English, become clear when one discovers the Hebraisms that lie behind them. It is thus “most unfortunate that our Bible colleges and seminaries focus their attention on Greek and Hellenistic theology, and fail, by and large, to equip their students with the proper tools that would allow them to do serious biblical exegesis… It cannot be overemphasized, that the key to an understanding of the New Testament is a fluent knowledge of Hebrew and an intimate acquaintance with Jewish history, culture, and Rabbinic Literature.”
Is it right, then, to deprive Catholic seminarians and future priests of such essential keys to unlock and access the Sacred Scriptures? This deficiency impacts not only exegesis but also Christian spirituality: without deep immersion into the spirit of the Hebrew Scriptures, Christians are left with “a truncated vision of Jesus’ message… and hence an emaciated version of Christian spirituality.”
6. Praying the Psalms
Jesus prayed the psalms in Hebrew. The Psalter is the beating heart of both Synagogue and Church—and a great bridge between them. The Psalms are moving when prayed in any language, but they are particularly beautiful and powerful when prayed in the original Hebrew, communicating the raw emotion of their human authors, the nuances and poignant expressions of Hebrew poetry, and the power of their divine inspiration. What better way to pray the psalms with “new warmth” and to come to a deeper understanding of them, as Pope Paul VI asks the Church (Laudis Canticum, 1970), than to learn the original language in which they were composed, prayed and sung?
7. Recovering Our Jewish Roots
The importance of Hebrew in the Church touches upon the broader issue of the Jewish roots of the Christian faith. It is now widely acknowledged that Christianity suffered no small loss as it gradually separated itself from its Jewish heritage in the early centuries of the Church. The Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews asserts: “Without her Jewish roots the Church would be in danger of losing its soteriological anchoring in salvation history and would slide into an ultimately unhistorical Gnosis.” Many important voices in the Church see the original split between Judaism and Christianity as the “proto-schism” that has historically impoverished Catholicism by the loss of living contact with its Judaic roots. This impoverishment has had far-reaching consequences. What began as a shift from Hebrew to Greek thought soon led to the development of supersessionist theology claiming—contrary to Scripture—that God had rejected Israel as His chosen people and replaced them by the Church.
Even though there has been a substantial recovery of the Jewish roots of Christianity in the academic world in the past few decades, encouraged by the popes and the Magisterium of the Church, we may ask whether this recovery has effectively made its way to the seminary classroom, to the pews, and to the average Catholic. Without questioning the positive values of our classic heritage, it is undeniable that Greek and Latin have so dominated the Western Christian tradition that the distancing of the Church from her Jewish and Hebrew roots has not been overcome. It is telling that even today, Catholic seminarians typically spend considerably more time studying philosophy and Latin in the classroom than Sacred Scripture and Hebrew. Is the Word of God really being given its proper priority in Catholic formation if it is the “soul of sacred theology”?
8. Resurrection of a Language and Nation
Hebrew is the only ancient language that has ever been revived as a modern spoken language. One hundred and fifty years ago, Hebrew was virtually a dead language, with not a single native Hebrew speaker in the world. Today, the ancient, sacred language of the Bible has come back to life as the living language of a modern nation, spoken by about 9 million people, including over 5 million native speakers. Furthermore, alongside the resurrection of the Hebrew language came the “resurrection” of the nation of Israel. The return of the Jews to the land of Israel in the past century, together with the birth of the modern State of Israel, is in itself an extraordinary event. The most repeated prophecy in the Hebrew Scriptures (never revoked in the New Testament) is the promise that God will return His people to their land. Could the return of the Jews to Israel in the past century have something to do with the fulfillment of God’s ancient promises to His people? If the modern restoration of Israel is indeed related to the fulfillment of God’s salvific designs, then learning Hebrew not only connects us with past salvation history; it also connects us with salvation history as it continues to unfold today.
9. Resurrection of the Jewish Church
The prophets often link the return of the people of Israel to their land with a spiritual resurrection. According to Ezekiel, Israel will come back to life in a two-staged process: first, the Lord will bring His people back to their land. Second, they will experience a spiritual resurrection when God pours out His Spirit upon them (Ezek 36-37). The future spiritual resurrection of Israel is an integral part of the message of the New Testament: Saint Paul expresses great hope that “all Israel will be saved” after “the full number of the Gentiles come in” (Rom 11:25-26). The Catholic Church has adopted this view as her own, believing and hoping in the eschatological salvation of Israel in the fullness of time (CCC 674). In his famous analogy of the olive tree (Rom 11:17-24), St. Paul sketches out a “road map of salvation” describing the following four steps in the historic relationship of Jews and Gentiles to the Gospel:
1) Jews reject > 2) Gentiles accept > 3) Gentiles reject > 4) Jews accept
It is significant that in the midst of the great exodus from religious practice in Gentile Christianity in the past century, the Church of the Circumcision has come back to life. Since the 1967 Six Day War, tens of thousands of Jews across the globe have come to faith in Jesus of Nazareth, in what has become known as the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Catholic movements. Could the rebirth of the Jewish Church be a sign that we are beginning to enter into the final stage of St. Paul’s “road map” that will precede the Lord’s final return?
Closely related to the growth of Messianic Judaism and Hebrew Catholicism is the growth of the “Jewish Roots” movement within Christianity. For centuries, a Christianity that appeared to be largely based on Greek and Latin thought had little to commend itself to Jews, who perceived it as alien to their own religious and cultural heritage. As Christianity recovers its Hebrew roots and returns to more Jewish forms of expression, many Jews are realizing that Christianity is in fact not a “Gentile religion” foreign to the spirit of Judaism, but really its true fulfillment. This underscores again the importance of having the priests and theologians of the Church formed in the Hebrew language and culture. Will Catholics lead the way or trail behind in the recovery of Christianity’s Hebraic roots?
10. Will Catholics be “Left Behind”?
“Fancy the priests of a religion unable to read their own sacred books! … Can one imagine a person who is going to devote his life to appreciating and helping others to appreciate French literature never bothering to learn French? How much less excusable is an ignorance of Hebrew on the part of those who believe the Old Testament to be part of God's vital message to man.”
Will Catholics be “left behind” in the current “amazing apathy towards Hebrew”? Or will Catholics join the great renaissance of Hebrew roots that has revitalized the Christian world in the last generation? This renaissance is also of great significance for the new evangelization, for the Christian recovery of Yeshua—Jesus—as Jewish Messiah is turning out to be closely linked to the Jewish discovery of the same Yeshua. Yet it would appear that this Hebrew revival has only slowly trickled down to the Catholic pew. Although an increasing number of Catholics are interested in rediscovering their long-lost Hebrew roots, they often trail behind their Protestant peers in this respect. Does it make sense in the twenty-first century that Catholic priests who preach the Word of God every day are unable to access the Bible in its original language?
It is time for Catholic seminaries and academic institutions to restore the Hebrew language to its rightful place in the study of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Theology. As important as the language of Caesar, Augustine and Aquinas may be, do Catholics not owe at least as much attention, veneration and love to the language of Moses, David and Jesus? Hebrew is neither excessively difficult, nor is it a dispensable luxury for any serious student of Sacred Scripture—let alone for priests. Studying the sacred language of Hebrew follows from our conviction about the importance of the Word of God: It is a fundamental necessity in order to recover the fullness of God’s “vital message to man.”