by James F. McGrath
If the pandemic’s isolation of us all persists for another three years, you’ll be happy I recommended all three of these volumes to you. But more likely it will simply be the case that they will be useful to you despite being able to get back out and do other things more than you currently can. Either way, it would be easy to simply wallow in distractions under the circumstances in which I currently find myself, but forcing myself to try to concentrate on something, one good option was to return to my too-long neglected pile of books that I have received from publishers to review and give them the attention they deserve, with apologies that the reviews are long overdue.
Some books that quickly rose to the top of the pile are three volumes that Hendrickson published as part of a series with the overarching title of The Two Minutes a Day Biblical Language Series. The volumes I have are a single volume, Keep Up Your Biblical Aramaic in Two Minutes a Day, and Keep Up Your Biblical Hebrew in Two Minutes a Day Volume 1 and Volume 2. These are lovely leather-bound volumes that look rather like Bibles, and the content is largely biblical which makes that appropriate. The format may seem puzzling at first for those who are tempted, as I was, to think that, knowing their way around both Bibles and language acquisition materials, it would be fine to skip the introduction and turn straight to the first reading. While I suspect that more potential readers will be in a hurry to learn biblical Hebrew, for me it was Aramaic that most grabbed my interest, given my work on Aramaic from a later time and in other dialects. The Aramaic parts of Daniel and Ezra-Nehemiah are often neglected by readers of the Bible in the original languages precisely because it scarcely seems worth the effort of learning another language to read such a small part of the Bible. However, for those who recognize the broader usefulness of learning Aramaic, perhaps for the purpose of reading texts from later time, or interest in the historical Jesus, or perhaps interest in literature in Syriac and/or Mandaic, if there is an acquaintance with the Bible then this makes a good possible entry point once one has learned at least a little of Aramaic’s distinctive grammatical features.
As I said, the layout may seem puzzling, since each page starts with an English verse with just a couple of words in Aramaic (or Hebrew) in parentheses. Below this a definition of those words appears. Next is the Aramaic (or Hebrew) original, followed by a treatment of the entire verse by words, phrases, or other sense units, giving these in both the original language and in English translation.
These are not intended as a very first foray into these languages, but the puzzling features reflect the fact that their creator, Jonathan Cline, intends them to serve the interests of language learners at a variety of levels. For true beginners, they can read the English text and be introduced to a couple of words in the other language each day. For those trying to acquire a greater proficiency or revive neglected language knowledge, the same reading plan will allow them to encounter the entire verse in both languages, with enough aids to figure out anything they did not already know. One can start at one level and return to the same readings again at the next.
The Hebrew volumes add one additional feature, which is to single out on each page some words that have been learned previously. Every day from day two onward in the reading plan offers such opportunity for review as well as new vocabulary, and review of this sort is a crucial part of learning and of maintaining proficiency in a language (as all language-learners who’ve ever made progress in learning any language know very well).
I have the impression that publishers have begun shipping books again and that major outlets like Amazon are also delivering. And so if you’ve considered using your time of social distancing to acquire a new ancient language or brush up on one learned previously, these volumes will serve you well for that purpose.
(If you already know these languages and what you really want to do is learn Ge’ez, the language of ancient Ethiopia, important for the study of works such as 1 Enoch, let me know – I know someone who is offering lessons during the pandemic!)