An ongoing course by a Catholic priest offers community a chance to learn ancient Biblical Hebrew and Greek
Father Walter D'Souza has been conducting the Hebrew course at Our Lady’s Home in Parel for the last one year. Pic/Shadab Khan
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. At his Parel office, Father Walter D'Souza reads the memorable and authoritative opening line of the Bible's Old Testament to us. Just that it is not in English, but ancient Hebrew -- the language in which the earliest manuscripts of the Old Testament were written in.
Fr Walter, who heads a minor seminary at Our Lady's Home Training Centre in Parel, runs a course on Biblical Hebrew and Greek. The course, comprising 15 sessions, has been on for the last one year and has so far seen a modest number of dedicated takers. Classes are held every Saturday inside the orphanage's premises.
"Ancient Hebrew is a lot similar to the modern version of the language. The consonants, the vowels and the sentence structure of both the modern and ancient languages are similar. What modern Hebrew has is a far wider range of vocabulary," says Fr Walter.
Father Walter D'Souza, head of the Archdiocese of Bombay's Bible Committee
As head of the Archdiocese of Bombay's Bible Committee, Fr Walter initiated the course last year in a bid to draw more interest to the Bible, as well as the study of the ancient language. "Most of the participants, who sign up for the course have previously attended a Bible study class. Through this course, many wish to know more about the Bible in its original form and thus, get a closer understanding of the scripture," says Fr Walter.
However, Fr Walter says that learning an ancient language, especially when it is not spoken widely in India, is incredibly tough. He has had first-hand knowledge of the gruelling study that was demanded of him at St. Peter's Pontifical Seminary in Bengaluru, where he was doing his Masters in Biblical Theology. "It gave us sleepless nights," he laughs, adding, "You have to start with the very basics and, in some cases just by heart the words without trying to make logical sense of them."
To make it simpler for his students, Fr Walter has divided the course into four parts and even authored a textbook that breaks down ancient Hebrew for modern learners — right from the alphabets to necessary vocabulary. The course costs Rs 3,000 and participants as young as 19, up to the age of 60, have enrolled.
Fr Walter says that learning ancient Hebrew is not for everyone as it is an intellectual exercise. Level one of the course also includes comprehending the famous first chapter of Genesis, a seemingly simple task, but arduous to achieve. With homework, a test in every session and an examination at the end of the course, Fr Walter says that just a few make it till the end.
One such student is Metilda Stanley, a resident of Chembur and the vice-president of a life insurance firm. "My primary reason for joining the course was to have a deeper learning of the Bible, which, as many of us know, has undergone numerous transliterations. My other reason is that I wanted to know a new language. But, ancient Hebrew is not easy," she says. Her friends reacted with surprise when they heard about the course that she was doing. "I explained to them that it is a lot like the manner in which Muslims study the Koran in its original form, which was in Aramaic," she explains. Having passed the first level, Stanley now assists Fr Walter with the course.
Requirements for the course include prior knowledge of English grammar. You also need to either be a Catholic or belong to a other denomination of Christianity. "The study of an ancient language needs to come with a purpose. As this is the study of Hebrew through the Bible, we do not think that secular people or those of other faiths will be interested in it. People might be interested in learning modern languages, such as Italian or Spanish," says Fr Walter.
The priest has also initiated a study of ancient Greek through the New Testament, the language in which this section of the Bible was written in. However, that course is yet to see takers. Meanwhile, Fr Walter hopes to make a trip to Israel to pursue a three-month course on archaeology and Hebrew.
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