Getting to Know You: Prof. Owens Introduces Students to Biblical Hebrew

Prof. Owens shows students a Torah Scroll

In the one-day seminar Shake Hands with Biblical Hebrew held on May 30, the Rev. Dr. Robert J. Owens, Professor of Old Testament at General Seminary, invited students to become acquainted with the ancient language.

The seminar included: basic instruction about the alphabet and grammar of Biblical Hebrew; teaching about the language’s historical context and its relationship to other Ancient Near Eastern languages, such as Akkadian; an introduction to the efforts of Masoretes, Jewish scholars who, beginning around 600 CE, developed a vowel notation system for the ancient language; and thoughtful examples of the translation and meaning of biblical texts. For example, Owens explained why the original lack of vowel signs in Biblical Hebrew manuscripts left room for different understandings about the precise meaning of the very first words of the Book of Genesis.

Throughout the day, students participated in delightful language exercises, such as a word search using an ancient Hebrew text, practice in writing words using both block and script letters, and simple sentence translation. The day also included a visit to the Christoph Keller, Jr. Library, where Owens showed the students a centuries-old Torah scroll, describing how it was made and noting the lack of illumination, which was prohibited, and yet the occasional letter ornamentation by the sofer, or scribe. Owens also taught about the use of Biblical Hebrew and Torah scrolls in contemporary Jewish worship.

“That I,” said one student, “who have never studied Hebrew, could come away after just a few hours so excited about being able to write the word Ruach using Hebrew letters and to recognize the Shema in Biblical Hebrew is just wonderful!”

The seminar is an example of special learning events which General Seminary offers in order to bring the teaching of the faculty to a wider audience. On Tuesday, June 18, 2013, for example, Owens will offer a free webinar on the historical context of the Cyrus Cylinder, a small, cylinder-shaped baked clay tablet from the 6th century BCE that is arguably one of the most important texts and objects from the Ancient Near Eastern world. The Cyrus Cylinder is currently touring museums in the United States.

To stay informed about these kinds of learning opportunities, join the seminary email community here.