A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Anthony Lipscomb
The biblical languages are the badges of honor of your seminary or college education, not so much because you mastered them, but because you survived them. Verb charts and flash cards, jingles and rhymes, puns and paronomasia—the implements and strategies in a long, drawn-out rite of passage to “do ministry”—are now relics of a time when it seems you were at the height of your exegetical prowess. Visions of your future sermon prep predicated on mining the profound truths of Scripture, accessible only in the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, eventually acquiesced to the sober reality that serving humans is complicated, time-consuming, and risky. For many this story is all-too familiar. At least those semesters of mental (di)stress make for great anecdotes.
What can you do to reclaim what you fought so hard to achieve? Perhaps you considered dusting off that introductory grammar and fishing those flash cards out of storage, but let’s be honest, where’s the fun in that? Replicating your coursework, this time on your own, has as much appeal as a donut made completely of kale. The sweet idea of retrieving your biblical language facility is tempered by the bitter realization that language study is hard work that involves time, which you don’t have, and boredom, which you don’t want. The reclamation of knowledge trapped in the recesses of distant memory seems nigh impossible.
Consistency and Vocabulary
Reclaiming and maintaining the biblical languages requires consistent effort, but the effort need not be boring nor require hours at a time. With the right strategy and resources, the process of language retrieval can prove productive, and it all starts with vocabulary. At the heart of every language is its vocabulary, and consistent vocab review goes a long way to retrieving language facility. But not all methods of vocab review are created equal.
With the advent of smartphones, flash card applications have reimagined an old school method of study. But by-and-large, flash cards, especially those created for biblical languages, whether paper or electronic, tend to decontextualize vocabulary. Words are presented in isolation, accompanied by a sample of their most common English equivalents. Many students learn to recognize the basic flash card form of a word, but often struggle to recognize the same word in the context of a biblical passage, especially when they are modified by affixes or morphological transformation required by the context. The flash card method certainly has its drawbacks for first-time language learners, let alone for students trying to reclaim and maintain the languages.
This is where Hendrickson Publisher’s new Keep Up series comes in handy. Compiled and edited by Jonathan Kline (PhD, Harvard), academic editor at Hendrickson, the Keep Up series is designed to help students of the biblical languages review and maintain their vocabulary in context in as little as two minutes a day, with one review session for each day of the (non-leap) year. The series covers Greek (two volumes), Hebrew (two volumes), and Aramaic (one volume).
Description and Evaluation
Keep Up Your Biblical Aramaic exemplifies what users can expect from the series. At 5 1/8 x 7 3/8 inches, bound in a handsome (gray) stamped hard flexisoft, and equipped with two ribbon bookmarks, the volume has the look and feel of a compact Bible. A Preface and Index of Scripture References accompany the core of the volume: 365 days of vocab review, with one page of review per day. In the Preface, Kline explains his logic and choices that have gone into producing the daily lessons, as well as various strategies for using the volume, all of which are worth considering.
The lessons begin with the most frequently occurring words in Biblical Aramaic, covering nearly all words that occur in the Biblical Aramaic corpus (Gen 31:47; Jer 10:11; Ezra 4-7; Daniel 2-7). A typical lesson introduces two words in the following format:
- Page header: Verse Reference and Date (e.g. Ezra 5:3, Jan 1, Week 1, Day 1)
- Verse of the day printed in English translation
- Chart of select vocabulary
- Verse of the day printed in pointed Biblical Aramaic
- Phrase-by-phrase interlinear of the verse of the day
Design and Format
This resource is not designed to replace the grammars, but to complement them. It is a simple resource intended to help students of Biblical Aramaic “keep up” or refresh what they have learned in a previous course of study. But I do not use the term “simple” in any pejorative sense; Kline’s lesson design is brilliantly simple. Working within the limitations of grayscale font, he makes smart use of formatting to highlight essential data points on the page without the visuals becoming a distraction. There is a nice balance of white space to text on each page that communicates the feasibility of completing the daily review in as little as two minutes.
This simple but strategic page design supports Kline’s contextual approach to vocab review, which allows users to review terms within the context of actual word usage. This contextual approach is in fact a reading approach rather than a method of rote memorization. It therefore works as a more intellectually engaging means of interacting with the biblical language that has low time-limit expectations. In a way, it works as a bridge between a set of flash cards and a reader’s edition of the Bible in its original languages.
Verse of the Day in English
The verse of the day always appears in one of the following English translations: NRSV, ESV, NASB, NIV, CSB, and MLB. For each verse. Kline has chosen the translation he feels best expresses the Aramaic. Within the English translation, Kline has bolded the English word that translates the day’s select Aramaic term(s) and included the term in parentheses next to its English equivalent.
Chart of Select Aramaic Terms
The chart of the select Aramaic term(s) includes a technical Roman transliteration, its frequency in the biblical corpus, and “every attested meaning a word has in Biblical Aramaic” (ix). Beginning on Day 226, words occurring only once in Biblical Aramaic are introduced, and up to six words may be selected for review at a time, though sometimes only one word has been selected.
A point of aid for the user not mentioned in the thoroughly articulated Preface pertains to the Roman transliteration. The inclusion of transliteration is intended to help users pronounce the select Aramaic terms, which aids the learning process. However, what often gets lost in transliteration is which syllable receives stress (or accent) in pronunciation. Uncertainty of correct pronunciation can inhibit a student’s ability to focus on internalizing vocabulary. Kline helps to mitigate this mental block by bolding the syllable that receives stress, e.g. in the name אַרְתַּחְשַׁשְׂתְּא “Artaxerxes” (Ezra 4:8, Day 99), the transliteration is provided as ʾartaḥšaśtěʾ, where the stressed syllable –šaś– is bolded for the user’s benefit. All verbs are transliterated according to the third masculine singular perfect G-stem (Peal = Qal in Biblical Hebrew) paradigm, even when the select verb is not attested in the G-stem in Biblical Aramaic.
When a verb is listed as a select term, only basic lexical information is provided, namely, its verbal stem (binyan) with English equivalent(s). If the verb occurs in more than one stem, then the additional stems (binyanim) are included with English equivalents, e.g. the verb שׁוה (šěvâ) is selected for Day 193 from Dan 3:29; this verb occurs in the tD-stem in Dan 3:29, but since it also occurs in the Gp and D stems in Biblical Aramaic, the additional stem information is included in the verb chart. Kline defines the stem abbreviations (e.g., tD, Gp) in the Preface. Unfortunately, verbs are not parsed according to their form in the verse of the day, but parsing may be deduced from the translation if users are not ready to parse from the Aramaic directly. The decision to not include verb parsing may have been motivated by page-layout considerations.
Verse of the Day in Aramaic
The verse of the day is re-presented in its Aramaic script, with full Masoretic vowel pointing (but no accents). The select terms are highlighted for easy identification.
Half of the page is comprised of what I call an interlinear, for lack of a better term. Here, Kline places side-by-side the English (left) and Aramaic (right) texts, divided into short sense units according to the Aramaic word order. The select terms are highlighted in the Aramaic column and bolded in the English column. The contextual-reading approach also provides the opportunity to review inductively Aramaic grammar in context, and the phrase-by-phrase interlinear is especially useful toward this end. Of course, specific questions about grammar should be answered by recourse to grammar books.
Kline provides an invaluable resource for students of the biblical languages, offering a simple yet engaging alternative to flash cards and rereading of introductory grammar books for language review. Kline has invested a great deal of creativity and thoughtfulness into standardizing the daily lesson format, giving daily review the sense of structure and consistency that one might find in a daily devotional. I am confident that users of various time constraints will find this resource immensely effective. I highly recommend the Keep Up series!
Anthony Lipscomb is a PhD student in Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near East at Brandeis University.
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Keep Up Your Aramaic in Two Minutes a Day