The Study of the Hebrew Bible

Since the founding of the department, the graduate program in Hebrew Bible/Northwest Semitics has focused on providing students with the philological tools to be able to study the Hebrew Bible in its original languages (Classical Hebrew, Aramaic), as well as analyzing the various textual witnesses to the Hebrew Bible via primary texts: Septuagint (Greek), Dead Sea Scrolls (Qumran Hebrew and Aramaic), Targums (Aramaic), and to a lesser extent the Peshitta (Syriac) and Vulgate (Latin).

The study of the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible forms the core of the program. Students read a wide variety of texts in Hebrew each semester. The three-year cycle of courses includes Archaic Biblical Poetry, Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomistic History (Book of Kings), Prophetic Literature (The Book of Ezekiel), Wisdom Literature (The Book of Job, Qohelet (Ecclesiastes)), and Persian Period Texts. The approach of each course varies yet common methodologies include textual criticism, historical linguistics, literary criticism, and the application of socio-scientific methods.

Northwest Semitic Cognate Languages

The academic study of the Hebrew Bible as an ancient Near Eastern text requires additional training in cognate languages. In addition to a student’s minor language (two to three years of Akkadian and/or Egyptian, see below), students must also master other languages in the Northwest Semitic language family, especially Aramaic and Ugaritic. Most graduate students entering the program have already studied some Aramaic (typically Biblical Aramaic and/or Targumic Aramaic).

Advanced Aramaic is taught via a survey course that covers Old Aramaic, Imperial Aramaic, Middle Aramaic, Late Aramaic, and occasionally Syriac. Johns Hopkins is one of a handful of programs that teach a full year of Ugaritic. A yearlong course allows students to read not only the well-known mythological texts, but also the equally important ritual texts.


Johns Hopkins has long been known for its expertise in epigraphy, ever since the groundbreaking work on the Dead Sea Scrolls by William Foxwell Albright and Samuel Iwry.

Students are trained in epigraphic methods (both conventional and digital) through dedicated courses covering epigraphic Hebrew, Aramaic, Phoenician, and Moabite, as well as texts that resist easy classification such as the TransJordanian Deir Alla texts. In addition, the advanced course in Aramaic deals almost exclusively with epigraphic Aramaic (especially concentrating on Old Aramaic inscriptions). All Ugaritic texts are read from the original alphabetic cuneiform inscriptions.

Profs. McCarter and Lewis are longtime associates of the West Semitic Research Project (based at the University of Southern California), working with its InscriptiFact database for Northwest Semitic epigraphy. All students use this database in coursework with a select few (especially those working with inscriptions abroad) being chosen for additional training at the University of Southern California.

Emphasis on Interdisciplinary Study

Ever since its origin in 1883 as the first program in the United States to offer a PhD in the field, the Department of Near Eastern Studies has held a longstanding conviction that the best scholars of the Hebrew Bible and Northwest Semitics are those who are trained broadly in studying the entire Ancient Near East.

Thus Hebrew Bible/Northwest Semitic concentrators study the history, literature, cultures, and religions of Egypt, Syria, Israel, and Mesopotamia. All students complete a three-year Near Eastern history cycle: a year each of Egyptian history, Mesopotamian history, and Syro-Palestinian history. Seminars (e.g., The Seminar in Israelite Religion) regularly situate topics under discussion (e.g., Divinity, Royal Cult, Domestic Religion, Sacred Space, Blood Rituals, Divination) in their broader ancient Near Eastern cultural context.

All Hebrew Bible/Northwest Semitic concentrators, in addition to their study of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Ugaritic, are also required to study two to three years of a minor language, typically Akkadian or Egyptian. A select few have studied both Akkadian and Egyptian, but we do not advise this for most concentrators. Some also study Arabic, especially for comparative purposes. Interdisciplinary language work is also commonplace in several courses ranging from formal courses in Comparative Semitics and Historical Hebrew Grammar to Ugaritic, where the knowledge of multiple Near Eastern languages is essential for reconstruction. Students also read texts that are bilingual in nature (e.g., the Tell Fekheriyeh Akkadian-Old Aramaic inscription) or treaties with close parallels (e.g., the Old Aramaic Sefire inscription and the Neo-Assyrian treaty of Assurnirari V with Mati’ilu).

All students in Hebrew Bible/Northwest Semitics are strongly encouraged to study material culture. Through the efforts of William Foxwell Albright, Johns Hopkins University gave birth to the discipline of Syro-Palestinian Archaeology (formerly termed “Biblical Archaeology”). We have a very strong graduate program in Near Eastern Archaeology, one of our four areas of concentration. Our department does not sponsor any excavations in Israel, but our graduate students participate in excavations of our colleagues working in Israel. In recent years our students have excavated at the following sites (institutional support in parentheses):

  • Ashkelon (Harvard University)
  • Bethsaida (University of Nebraska)
  • Khirbet Qeiyafa (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
  • Tel Dan (Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion)
  • Tel Hazor (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
  • Tel Megiddo (Tel Aviv University)
  • Tel Rehov (Hebrew University of Jerusalem).

Occasionally our Hebrew Bible/Northwest Semitics students have been invited to work as staff on other excavations. We have also had the recent good fortune of having visiting professors teach courses in the archaeology of Iron Age Israel (e.g., David Ilan, the Director of the Tel Dan excavations, and Barry Gittlen of the Ekron excavations). Three endowed lecture series (the Albright Lecture, the Iwry Lecture, and the Asher Achinstein Lecture) also bring in noted scholars to address particular topics, occasionally on the archaeology of the Iron Age Levant.

Comprehensive Examinations

In order to qualify for taking comprehensive examinations, concentrators in Hebrew Bible/Northwest Semitics must have passed all language requirements (e.g., German, French, Greek). Comprehensive examinations are given in four areas:

  • Translating any part of the Hebrew Bible (including those texts written in Aramaic) with special focus on texts taken in coursework
  • Writing essays on various topics of biblical criticism
  • Writing essays with regard to Syro-Palestinian history
  • Translating texts in their minor language (either Akkadian or Egyptian).

Students may also petition the department to take an examination in a related concentration (e.g., Northwest Semitic Linguistics).

Recent Graduate Placement

The Hebrew Bible/Northwest Semitics program has steadily produced PhDs, with recent graduates finding positions at the following universities:

  • Baltimore Hebrew University
  • Baylor University
  • Emmanuel School of Religion
  • Hannam University in South Korea
  • Hansei University in South Korea
  • Indiana University of Pennsylvania
  • Princeton Theological Seminary
  • Rhodes College
  • Sacred Heart School of Theology
  • Saint Joseph’s University
  • Seattle University
  • Seoul Women’s University in South Korea
  • Towson University
  • Trinity College
  • Vanderbilt University
  • and Wake Forest University