The premise is that rabbinical students learn Hebrew better than Christian seminary students learn the biblical languages, and that knowledge of he biblical languages should be a prerequisite for entrance into a seminary program.
I have been thinking about this quite a bit for the last few years and can only see it as a multidimensional problem.
First, do we really want to have only top language students, those who through intensive or early study mastered the languages, as our pastors. I would suggest not. I have recently sat under the ministry of those who have come out of a deep knowledge of spiritual literature, but only in English, or those who have studied psychology and counseling. Frankly, hands down, any day, I would seek spiritual counsel from someone with a background in psychology before someone who could out-argue me in Greek. Maybe that’s just me, I dunno.
For example, a top Christian Hebrew scholar might say (has said) that divorce is a result of modern day role reversal. Wow. What are hurting men and women going to do with that? It might be more useful to talk with someone who is all too aware of the excruciating marital circumstances of the greats throughout the centuries – someone who has read the personal spiritual pilgrimages of men like John Milton and Karl Barth, not to mention Augustine.
The problem these days is that women don’t usually check out early from death by childbirth the way they used to. Naturally, if more women – and men – are going to live past 4o there are simply going to be more divorces. That’s how statistics works.
I don’t really need a spiritual counselor who knows Greek or Hebrew. It can help, but empathy and knowledge of the human condition go further. If they can be combined with language knowledge – well that’s a different thing.
Now, the real question. Is the present state of language skill in Christian seminaries in North America up to snuff? I have been saying it isn’t since I started writing here. If we are going to talk about what makes a Bible scholar then I am pretty disappointed with the standards.
Here are some of my assumptions. First, I would assume that language knowledge is worse now than it used to be in many previous centuries. Sure, more manuscripts are available but that’s about it. Software does not increase or replace knowledge of a language – it speeds up the production of research papers. I would argue that the famous database studies of authentein, kephale and Junia, etc. are of little intrinsic interest. I only read them and analyze them to prove how shallow they are. That’s it. (Okay, that isn’t very nuanced – maybe someone will disagree with me.)
Next, yes I definitely agree that you gain a different and more available kind of knowledge in a subject when you are young. Whether it is a language, mathematics or music, I just don’t think most people have the time it would take to start a regular university program in these subjects in their mid twenties and expect to compete. It is probably only the rare individual who could catch up. Think of, say, learning how to play a violin. Yes, there are those rare individuals who start as late as 9 or 10 but most start at 4. Age is not an absolute but it is very, very important.
Surprisingly the gender thing reared its weary head on Mississippi Fred’s blog. The problem I see, on anecdotal evidence, is that going into university men are drawn more to maths and science and women more to humanities and languages. I think we need to start with looking at the overall decline in language learning and see whether there is also a gender imbalance. That is, how can we make language learning more attractive to young people, and specifically young men.
On one very minor point, I question Iyov when he says you should only learn one language at a time. Both John Hobbins and I have the opposite experience. We studied the biblical languages while working in another language, French or Italian. Learning more than one language at a time can really open up one’s mind to understanding how much our thinking is bound by language. It can be an amazing experience.
In sum, top qualifications for pastor for myself are a well-educated and caring older woman. I simply believe that spiritual leadership must include both men and women.
In biblical scholarship and translation, present day North America has a lot of problems. While there are many top institutions, the populist level of scholarship, with minimal background in languages, has probably not seen a precedent in several centuries.