Thursday, July 10, 2008

Studying Hebrew Bible at Wisconsin

Studying Hebrew at the University of Wisconsin - Madison is not for everyone.  Here are my thoughts on what we do best, what we dabble in, and what we don't do at all.

What We Do Best

1.  Hebrew, Hebrew, and more Hebrew.  You'll know the ins and outs of the language better than you ever thought possible or even necessary.  This is our biggest strength -- rigorous attention to the fundamentals of language.  By the end of PhD coursework, you'll be able to read Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Ugaritic, Phoenician, Moabite, Ammonite, and Philistine Canaanite.  (Granted very little is written in the last 3 but it makes for a more impressive list.)

2.  Text & Versions.  We use our language skills to read and interpret ancient texts from the Hebrew Bible to the Dead Sea Scrolls to rabbinic midrash to Syriac homilies and much more.  We also spend a lot of time in the ancient versions of the Bible -- using the Septuagint, Peshitta, and Targums for text criticism.

3.  Northwest Semitics.  I mentioned above the other NW Semitic languages we learn.  This part makes the program about more than just Hebrew Bible and Hebrew language.  Through studying NW Semitics, we get access to the wider world of the Ancient Near East.  We read texts from Ugarit to Elephantine that help us understand the world of the Bible.

4.  Ancient Judaism.  Much of what we study provides a window into Judaism as it developed in the Second Temple period going into the Rabbinic period.  It's a fascinating time period to study as new genres of Jewish literature were developing such as apocalyptic.

What We Dabble In

1.  Biblical Archaeology.  This used to be a bigger part of the program and may be again someday.  For now, we're mainly armchair archaeologists.  We understand the basic principles of archaeology, but to be honest, we don't care what you dug up unless it has writing on it.

2.  Ideological Criticism.  No, not criticizing ideologies.  I'm thinking of methods of biblical criticism that intentionally take a specific perspective on the text like feminist criticism or libertarian criticism or canonical criticism or deconstructionism.  We learn about these methods, who uses them, and why, but we don't apply them ourselves.  We're more traditional that way.  Most of us prefer the methods outlined in Part One of To Each Its Own Meaning - historical-critical method, source criticism, form criticism, tradition history, and redaction criticism.  That doesn't mean we might not pick up ideas and perspectives from the "newer" criticisms.  Some of us like rhetorical criticism and intertextuality, for example.

3.  Ancient Near Eastern History.  We have to read pretty extensively in the subject for our exams, but our coursework only includes ANE history if it's relevant for the setting of a specific biblical book like First Isaiah and the Assyrian Empire or Ezekiel and Babylon.

What We Don't Do At All

1.  Akkadian or Arabic.  Yes, it's the Department of Hebrew & Semitic Studies, but it's really just Northwest Semitic Studies.  Plus we learn so many languages already, who has time for more?

2.  Theology.  We do exegesis on the biblical text but we're never doing theology.  We're interested in the history of interpretation of the text and in the beliefs that the writers or redactors may have had, but we're never trying to fit our exegesis into a theological system of any kind -- Jewish or Christian.  This is an issue for faith-based scholars because their exegesis might be limited by what conclusions fit their theology.  I think it's valuable to try to be objective, not preference any particular interpretation, and see how beliefs can subtly influence interpretations.

3.  Compete.  We've heard of other programs where competition is fierce and every student's first goal is to get rid of the closest classmate.  At Wisconsin, we realize that grad school here is tough enough without the fear that your friends are going to undermine your progress at the next available opportunity.  We prefer to encourage each other, study together when appropriate, and share information when relevant.  We think it creates a healthy environment for learning.

4.  Funding.  It's not that we don't have funding.  It's just that we don't have full funding for all like a lot of the larger programs do.  There are teaching and project assistantships available but there are often more students than positions.  For your first year, the chance of funding is virtually nil unless you're lucky enough to get a University fellowship.  This is important for tuition purposes.  If you're a non-resident of Wisconsin, tuition is around $21,000 per year.  A resident pays around $8500.  If Wisconsin is the place for you, think about moving here before you apply or at least talk to the Graduate Program Director about it or visit us first.

There you have it.  This is pretty much everything I would say to a prospective student visiting our department.  Now I can save myself the energy and just direct them to my blog.


  1. Very helpful post for students and interesting to some of us who did a PhD elsewhere.

  2. Looks like a pretty good program!

  3. Hey Douglas,

    Nice to know of another Hebraist blogging in Wisconsin. But who is this Tod guy, and what is the Master Syllabus Project to which I am not invited?

    BTW, if you want to, you can also learn Arabic and modern Hebrew at the UW-Madison, but they are not requirements for the program. Furthermore, you can arrange to learn Akkadian and/or Egyptian.ark Chavalas.

    Soon enough, you will be on my blogroll, and highlighted in the Aug 1 Carnival.

  4. I am quite thankful I ran into your blog via biblioblogs. I have been eyeing UW - Madison for some time, hoping to enroll in the Hebrew/Semitics program. I have talked with my professor - who is himself a graduate from UW - Madison - about Madison and he has continually suggested I apply there, only, he is not sure how long Dr. Fox will be there and what impact his retirement will bring.

    Seeing that you are a current student, are you able to give me any inside information on the program with respect to any possible changes due to the retirement of Dr. Fox. I know that he has not announced his retirement, however, I am assuming that it is not too far off. Moreover I heard from another student (Timothy Mackie) to hold off enrolling until it becomes more clear what will happen to the program.


  5. Matthew,
    I don't think Fox's retirement plans are secret or anything. It hasn't been officially announced though, so I don't want to publish his tentative plan in a public forum like this. I'd be happy to give you more advice about UW-Madison if you want to contact me directly at dtmangum AT gmail DOT com.