EDITOR’S NOTE: Below, Russell T. Fuller, professor of Old Testament interpretation, talks with Towers writer Andrew J.W. Smith about this new grammar, An Invitation to Biblical Hebrew: An intermediate grammar.
AJWS: Students around campus will refer to your Hebrew pedagogy as the “Fuller method.” Can you briefly explain what that involves?
RF: It’s basically three steps. The first step is understanding the sounds of the language. What sounds can go together, what sounds can’t go together. This is called phonology, and if you understand those rules well, it will reduce a lot of memorization when you’re learning the forms. So, morphology — the study of the forms — is what students struggle with. Frequently, they just want to memorize those forms. But there are so many forms to memorize in a language; it’s very difficult. But if you understand the phonology, if you understand the rules of the sounds, then you can rationally learn the forms and reduce memorization.
Now, there’s always memorization in studying a language. But if you want to cut the memorization down, then you have to really understand the phonology. So, I start with the basic rules of the language. And then from there we apply them by parsing or creating a form. Then, the final step is the syntax. And that’s what people enjoy because that’s where you do your exegesis, your interpretation, things like that. So, that’s the last step of my method.
My method’s not new. It’s a throwback. It’s the way classical languages have been taught for centuries. So if you go back to look at how they teach classical Greek and classical Latin, this is how they did it — they would learn the sounds first, and the rules of the sounds, then they’d construct the forms (or the morphology), and then they’d put that layer of syntax on it through composition exercises. So let’s say you would compose something from English into Greek or Hebrew. Then, you would orally recite the Hebrew looking only at the English, you’re speaking the Greek, the Latin, or whatever. And that’s how they taught classical languages for centuries.
So, it’s not my method at all. There’s nothing new under the sun. People have studied languages going back to the Tower of Babel. So I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel here. There are people who have been doing this for a long time.
AJWS: How is this grammar an expansion of your beginning grammar?
RF: The first grammar really focuses on the phonology and morphology. This new grammar focuses on syntax. There is about a 200-page section on syntax. You could boil it down to around a 100 pages, but I wanted a lot of examples for students. The more examples they see, the better.
Then I have a section of compositions, about a 100 pages. And there, again, what we’re doing is the old school way of learning syntax. I’m not just showing you a construction; you’re having to construct them, and you’re going to have to speak it to me. You’re actively learning syntax, not passively. When they have to do composition, they’re actively creating the syntactical constructions, and then they’re having to speak those constructions to me.
The final section of my new grammar coming out will be on the Masoretic accents. These are the things that are used for chanting in the synagogue, but they’re also very important for interpretation of the text. Then I have drills so that you can learn the syntactical constructions individually. And then I have answer keys so if a person wants to do everything on their own, they can do it.
AJWS: What does a student need to know before taking on Biblical Hebrew?
RF: Yeah, let me compare it to something like systematic theology. When you go into a systematic theology class, as soon as the professor speaks, you’re immediately going to see how things connect and how this is helpful for you in ministry.
When you take Greek and Hebrew, for the first two or three semesters, it’s going to take awhile before the benefits are realized. It really takes about three or four semesters of each language before you really start feeling comfortable and start reaping the benefits. But I think that if you’ll take the time, and do it right — both Greek and Hebrew — the benefits that those two languages can give you, for understanding the interpretation of Scripture — there’s just nothing like it.
We had a professor who used to teach here who was a Green Beret, special forces, and he once said to me: “All fights end up on the ground.” And when it comes to theology, when the fight goes to the ground, you’re going to have to deal with the Greek and the Hebrew. If you go back and look at the old Protestant creeds, like the Westminster Confession, it says, “The Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek as being immediately inspired by God, and by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as in all controversies of religion the Church is finally to appeal unto them,” meaning unto the Greek and the Hebrew. That’s what you ultimately have to appeal to.
So, if systematic theology is the penthouse, then Greek and Hebrew is the ground floor upon which we want our students to construct their theology. You’ve got to start with the languages and then build up and work until you bring it all together in systematics.
AJWS: What does the especially motivated student who wants to learn on his own need to know?
RF: The reason I wrote both my grammars with answer keys is so people who are not here at Southern Seminary can do it on their own. With all the keys I’m putting in the second book, you could teach yourself, if you’re highly motivated.
One time, Duane Garrett told me that, I think it was Harvard University uses his grammar. And I had to one up him, of course, so told him, “I know two prisons that use my grammar!” There are two prisons, Ironwood in California and one in Indiana, that use my books. Every once in awhile, the prisoners will write me and show me their work, and some are highly motivated students. One reason they’re using my books is because there’s an answer key, so they can do it on their own.
AJWS: I took Elementary Hebrew from Dr. Hamilton using your method in 2014, and then I didn’t take Syntax and Exegesis until 2016, which was a very poor decision. So, for pastors or alumni who took Hebrew back in the day but haven’t worked on it since, what are some ways they can ramp back up and restart?
RF: Well, they could take either my grammar or some other grammar that they’ve had in the past, and go through it little-by-little. You don’t have to go through it as hard as you did in class, necessarily. Even if you could put in 15 minutes a day — and I know it doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up. You know, especially as a pastor, I know how busy pastors can be.
The one reason I teach Hebrew the way I do here, and it’s hard, but I do it on purpose because I realize that if you come out of seminary and your Hebrew is kind of so-so, there’s no way you can use it in ministry. The pressures of time in ministry are so great that if you don’t know the language well, it will be of little help. But if you learn it well and try to keep it up a little — even 15 minutes a day — you can actually use it in ministry and it will save you time in preparation.
I was pastoring a church down in South Fulton, Tennessee, and I had worked hard on a sermon. It was Wednesday night, but business meeting ran long, and I knew I couldn’t do the whole sermon. But I didn’t want to waste it. I didn’t want to do something quick on it and ruin all the time I used in preparation. And so, I knew this thing was going long, so I took my Hebrew Bible and I started looking at a psalm. And in about ten minutes, I broke it down grammatically, got up, and just went through the grammar of it. Not technically to the people, but just went through the grammar of it, and it worked out well. I couldn’t do that every week, but occasionally, if I’m pushed on something, I can look at the grammar and just break it down and have something of a sermonette.
But it really speeds up my sermon preparation. Once I pick my topic and know what my main point is going to be, then the Greek and the Hebrew really speed the process up. I’ll sometimes look at commentaries, but not a lot of them. So, believe it or not, if you’ll pay the price, it’ll save you time later.
AJWS: What’s a kernel of exegetical or theological insight that a reader wouldn’t be able to see unless they are working directly with the Hebrew text?
RF: When you read a translation, it’s like reading the Bible in black and white. If you can read it in Greek and Hebrew, it’s like reading it in color. So I was reading, for instance, in Isaiah around chapters 10-14 just the past couple days, and I was initially looking at an English Bible. When I looked at the Hebrew, I was learning far more than an English translation could give me. It was giving me certain emphases that you just can’t see in an English Bible — it’s not there.
We’re Protestants! And with Protestants, the Bible is the ultimate source, so if we’re going to be mighty in the Scriptures, if we really want to get to the bottom line of what Scripture is teaching, we have to get to the Greek and Hebrew.
Now I’m not an elitist who believes that if you can’t read Greek and Hebrew, you just can’t understand the Bible. There are many people who read their Bible, and they’ve read it for many years, over and over, and they know their Bible and they’re mighty in the Scriptures.
But as seminary-trained people with the ability to do the Greek and the Hebrew, you can just take it to another level. And again, not that Greek and Hebrew is going to settle every theological problem. But it’s going to be immensely helpful.