I have had several people email me who are interested in pursuing a PhD in Semitics or ancient Near Eastern fields. To help others who might be thinking of these things, I have compiled a short list of North American programs that I think are worthy of serious consideration to anyone who is interested in these areas (a list of non-North American programs is forthcoming). This list is also included in the links at the left of the page.

A note or two about the programs that I included (and didn’t include) lest I receive the ire of many a professor and/or program director. This particular list includes programs that are traditionally focused more on the primary sources of the languages and cultures of the ancient Near East during and before the Achaemenid period than secondary literature (one could include other foci of study such as Qumran texts, Septuagint(s) study, etc. but this isn’t the focus of this particular site). This list does not include traditional Old Testament/Hebrew Bible programs of which there are many good ones. I am personally persuaded that if someone is interested in biblical studies, the best way to prepare for this is to get intense training in biblical and cognate languages and cultures and take a few classes or study the secondary literature and modern approaches on your own. In other words, in traditional humanistic spirit–ad fontes! Therefore, this list reflects this bias.

I may have inadvertently omitted a program or two and if you feel this is the case, please let me know.

About the author

Charles Halton

25 Comments. Leave your Comment right now:

  1. by Alan Lenzi

    RE: training for biblical scholarship:

    I agree that ANE Studies is key to success in interpreting the Bible in its earliest context. But I wouldn’t underestimate Bible course work; reading Bible closely with a scholar like Marc Brettler is a tour de force in method. With class prep time between 4-6 hours per session (with 3 sessions a week), one can’t help but learn.

    Brettler teaches at Brandeis, of course, which is missing from your list! It’s a small, but very thorough program. The other two profs in the program are Tzvi Abusch and David Wright. No one reads Akkadian texts as closely as Abusch, who also gives classes in ANE Magic and Myth. And Wright offers a multitude of ANE languages, with comparative semitics to boot, and brings inter-disciplinary perspectives to bear on ANE culture, drawing on ritual studies, ethnomusicology, and comparative law. It’s all good.

    Brandeis basically requires its students to do three things in course work: NWS, Akkadian, and Bible, taking comps on all three. (The Bible comp was the longest test I’ve ever taken. We were given 24 hours; I took 17). When it comes time to write the dissertation, a student can use all kinds of data because they’re totally prepared. It’s a tough program, but our grads are finding jobs.

    It may not fit on your pure Semitics/ANE list, but I wanted to make sure Brandeis caught blog browsers’ attention. It’s worthy of consideration.

  2. Alan, you are certainly right to include Brandeis, that was clearly a program that I inadvertently missed. The three profs that you mention are top-notch and anyone studying under them would be very well prepared for teaching and research.

  3. Hi Charles,

    Good list. Concerning your comment “…if someone is interested in biblical studies…,” in the context of these programs, this was my exact reasoning when I went to Chicago, and I am very proud of and confident in my training in the “languages/cultures” of the ANE as it relates to the Bible. However, if someone is hoping for an actual *JOB* in biblical studies, my anecdotal experience is that a PhD in one of these ANE/Semitics programs might actually be detrimental to getting consideration in a straight “Hebrew Bible” position.

    That said, Alan’s testimony may indicate that Brandeis is a good bridge program between ANE and Bible. He has an actual *JOB* in a Hebrew Bible position.

    I would be interested in finding out who are some recent graduates from these programs (ANE/Semitics) employed in positions advertised as “Hebrew Bible,” particularly in non-seminary/non-sectarian institutions. My sense is that we are 1) employed in sectarian/seminary jobs, 2) employed in ANE/Semitics jobs, of which there are precious few (and many of which also fit into the next category), 3) trapped in perpetual visiting/adjunct/lecturer positions, or 4) unemployed.

    That would be my warning to those prospective students thinking along the same lines as I did. My warning is particularly pointed to those of you who think you might want to return to teach at your particular seminary or sectarian institution: No matter how committed you might be to your particular confessional tradition, your views on the Bible and theology will change. In my experience, very few of you will be able to return. (Off the top of my head, I can think of one Presbyterian, and one Mormon, who returned to sectarian institutions. I can think of half a dozen who could not.) It is my experience that most of those who successfully return to their sectarian institutions earned their PhDs in Europe.

    I must add, my “warning” is really an invitation–an invitation to let your mind expand, your perspective broaden. Come on in, the water’s fine.

    Blane Conklin
    (PhD, Chicago – 2005)

  4. Blane, I am fascinated by your observation about the majority of people returning to sectarian institutions are those who did their PhDs in Europe. I had not thought of this until you mentioned it, but I think that you describe a real trend. What do you think accounts for it? Possibly the fewer classes and more focused research in Europe allows people to bypass some of the difficult issues raised in critical studies?

  5. by jake mccarty

    Charles:

    I think Blane’s comments are right on track. I can only add my two-cents on points on which he’s already directly remarked or hinted at.

    1) I noticed that people from conservative (or sectarian to use Blane’s words) institutions sometimes go into ANE studies to avoid Biblical studies. I once heard it phrased as “hiding under a rock.” Do you think there is any truth to this statement?

    2) I don’t think a PhD at a place like Yale (NELC), which doesn’t even offer Semitics, would be wise for Hebrew Bible. Taking a degree in Egyptology would be good, but I don’t think there are many Egyptologists that have read Wellhausen critically in their programs. I have mixed feelings about the frequency of true autodidacts.

    3) My institution (JHU) has made a conscious approach in this respect in the last 5 years. We offer some sort of rapid reading Hebrew Bible course every semester, hold seminars on recent critical issues (recently we did Farewell to the Yahwist), and have classes on DSS, ancient Israelite Religion, etc… in addition to NW Semitics and the other ANE history and language courses. Most of our graduates seem to have gotten good jobs at seminaries and universities.

    4) How important do you think archaeology is to ancient Near Eastern studies? My wife’s program CUA doesn’t have it, nor do some other programs on the list.

  6. by jake

    I’ve noticed this trend also. I’ve heard it (from those who did PhD’s at Cambridge/Oxford et al) in these different ways.

    1) I already went to seminary and didn’t need more course work.
    2) I wasn’t forced to interact with critical issues (or write from that perspective).
    3) Since European PhD are more dissertation focused your dissertation tends to be more scholarly.

    I also heard (from a friend at Oxford): “I know that my degree isn’t as rigorous, but I just need to get this thing done! I’ve got kids, etc… and I don’t have enough time.”

  7. by Blane

    I want to again qualify my observation as “anecdotal,” but in the seminary I attended all three OT profs got their PhDs abroad. They encouraged me to consider this option, and gave me names of 3 or 4 alumni from the seminary who had gone that route. Since I graduated from there in ’99, they have hired four young professors in their Bible department (2 NT; 2 OT), and all four got their degrees from Britain. On the other hand, three new hires in other departments (theology, church history) got their degrees from domestic “Christian” institutions (Westminster, Trinity).

    I think the reason you cite is probably the best explanation.

  8. by Alan Lenzi

    As someone who has only recently come off the job market (Brandeis PhD 2/2006; started at the Univ. of the Pacific in Fall 2006) and have now served on a NT/Early Christianity search committee, I think everyone getting advanced degrees in the fields discussed here should think long and hard not just about with whom, precisely what, and where they are studying but also about how their degree(s) will translate to search committees. Many hiring committees stateside are aware of the issues related to seminary degrees and/or seminarians, especially from conservative TSs, who have gone to Europe to study. Whatever your true intellectual state of affairs, when a committee is sifting 120 applications (or more), schools on the c.v., for good or ill, will be the (or at least one of the) first sorting mechanism(s). Mind you, this is not my practice because I am sensitive to the fact that so many people change through grad school–and certainly others are sensitive to this, too. But, I have seen this mechanism in operation. And I think I have been a victim of it many times (BA from Bible College, MAR from Westminster TS-Philly, MA,PhD from Brandeis = conservative Christian, which reflects my history but not my present intellectual/religious state; I suspect HUC grads may also suffer from this). You can say what you want in your letter of interest, but the c.v. is probably going to be the first thing they look at (right after the initials following your name: ABD vs. PhD).

    I also want to throw something out a little more provocative. It’s true that most of us develop interest in these fields because of our religion. But for those of us who don’t (or don’t want to or can’t, as Blane mentions) teach in a seminary, might it not be a better (more forward thinking!) professional decision to forego seminary altogether? Does anyone really think that their seminary course adequately prepared them for a scholarly career in Bible!? In fact, a religious studies M.A. would probably make a person more marketable and actually better prepared to teach in Religious Studies depts.

    Or, if you really want to do pure Semitics/ANE Studies, why not get a history / classics M.A. or linguistics M.A. before the PhD, so you can teach ancient history (while doing research on Babylonian economic practices) or some general linguistics (while doing research on the verb in Sumerian)?

    Foregoing seminary and / or adding another M.A. into the mix may not be practical or possible for those who have already started seminary or have life issues prohibiting a more protracted education. But, as scholars looking back while also looking around it is important for us to give good advice to our younger, up and coming colleagues graduating college now.

  9. Alan, you have several very good thoughts.

    Unfortunately, while the academic guild outwardly professes a non-biased perspective toward academic exploration, it is impossible to not be classified in some respect and for schools to make hiring decisions, unconscious or otherwise, based upon this. Each degree that one acquires or place that one teaches, even if it is only adjunct, carries baggage–some good, some bad. As you point out, a degree from HUC will often lead a search committee member to form some expectations. The journals in which someone publishes, conference presentations, dissertation topics, teaching positions, etc. all contain baggage as well. I think your advice that younger scholars think carefully about the choices they make is very important, but in many cases, when the decisions are made, young scholars are not aware of these issues and their own perspectives may also change over time. Some of these early decisions are very important but are very difficult at the same time (for example: should someone take an opportunity to gain teaching experience or forgo this since some baggage may accrue, or should someone attend a school that might have a certain image even though it is a better fit for a family or financial situation, etc.)

    I think your advice on forgoing seminary or biblical studies training is very reasonable for many people wishing to focus upon pure semitics/ANE. However, there are precious few programs that would be interested in a person with this background. There are many institutions that teach biblical or religious studies classes, but there are very few semitics and ANE programs. I think it would be wise from an employment perspective to have at least an M.A. in a biblical or religious studies related program in addition to a PhD in semitics/ANE even though for some people a linguistics degree might be more beneficial.

    I am very glad that you are sensitive to people with different educational backgrounds and I hope there are more people on search committees that have your perspective. I am sensitive to this as well since I have taken purposefully different approach to my training than is typically valued in the academy. From the very beginning I wanted to get a very broad educational experience because I thought it would make me a more rounded person and ultimately a better teacher. Therefore, I studied in a business college at a secular state school for my undergrad, a conservative protestant seminary for a masters, and a liberal Jewish graduate school for a PhD. I think this exposure has been beneficial to me, although I am aware of some of the perceptions that people may have toward it as well.

    Each scholar must decide what path is right for their dreams and any decision will have pros and cons–hopefully the cons will not be insurmountable.

  10. by Alan Lenzi

    I actually know a couple–no, three people who have pure ANE degrees working in history departments. No, make that four. It happens. In one case, I know for a fact that the guy got a Masters in ancient history first before studying Sumerology.

    . . .

    This whole discussion raises the point that there really needs to be a better mechanism to make the professional situations and issues known to younger, would-be scholars: seminary vs. university; frank talk about employment opportunities and chances to land a job; issues of “baggage,” professional image, and professional development; etc. These are all important but few of us get good information until we’re in grad school (and even then it’s hit or miss). Maybe a “so you want to be a … ” blog would help!?

    On a different note: I just noticed that I spelled forgo wrong in my last post, twice. DOH!

  11. by Blane

    I wonder if the U of Minnesota (Classical and Near Eastern Studies department) should be on the list as well, especially as a bridge department between ANE and Bible. With Bernard Levinson (Brandeis grad) and Eva von Dassow (ANE scholar), along with (as Jake mentioned) archeologists like Andrea Berlin, and they hired a new person also from Brandeis (whose name eludes me now). They also have the added benefit of being together in a department with Classical/Ancient Mediterranean scholars, which I think is a good connection to make.

    N.B.: I am able to say all these nice things, even though they didn’t hire *me* last year. 😉

  12. Good suggestion regarding U or Minnesota, I’ll add it to the list.

  13. by Chris

    Charles,

    I enjoy your blog, and am a firm believer that ANE languages and culture are a necessity for understanding the Bible. Having said that, I find the tone of this post apologetic. What if someone said this:

    “I am personally persuaded that if someone is interested in practicing medicine, the best way to prepare for this is to get intense training in biology and chemistry and take a few classes on actual medical practice, or study the secondary literature and modern approaches on your own.”

    I think I would like to have a doctor who was trained in a “hand-on” manner to do what s/he is actually doing. I am not denigrating the fine schools on your list; I am saying that every choice in one’s training has advantages and disadvantages. You sacrifice something to get something.

    I would also add that in 99 percent of teaching situations (i.e. at anything but a high-powered research school), the fact that one knows, say, four dead languages (say, Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin) already will make one appear to be a bit of an antiquarian. Once one adds half a dozen more (Akkadian, Ugaritic, Syriac, various flavors of NWS), a lot of places will wonder whether you will work well in their context. A lot of college kids think the 1950s is ancient history, and one search committee member from a seminary actually snickered when I noted in passing that I could teach ANE languages — “Yeah, we have a lot of demand for *that*,” he said. Now, that’s reflective of some ignorance, and I wouldn’t trade my ANE languages for anything, but if practical job-seeking issues weigh in a student’s decision at all, a broader program seems to be more marketable — as a number of others have pointed out.

    So, having said that, I would add that there are programs out here that offer ANE languages in the context of a Bible program, not the other way around. But the ones I’m thinking of are not on your list.

  14. Chris,

    Thanks for your comments and I accept your observation with respect to the apologetic tone of the post. This certainly reflects my own personal view and it is the path that I have chosen for myself, but I agree with you that different people have different interests and this might necessitate different training.

    It is interesting to me that you bring up the analogy of a medical doctor as my wife is a radiology resident. There are various approaches to learning radiology. Some residents don’t study the fundamental issues of radiology such as how the diagnostic equipment works, disease and injury and how this effects the body, in other words, many radiologists in training do not understand the primary data of radiology. Instead, they read case after case and basically memorize the “tell-signs” and link them with the standard diagnosis. But what happens when there are subtitles that this doctor has not seen before, or maybe a patient presents in an unexpected way, etc. What kind of physician do you want in this example? Personally, I would want a physician who had a firm grasp on the both the foundations of the medical field and the human body as well as “hands-on” training.

    There are also different types of residency programs for radiology. There are some community-based programs in which almost all the residents receive is hands-on training and thus they learn the “tells” very well–but do they really know radiology? Other programs are university-based and have extensive seminars, lectures, and research projects as well as a lot of hands-on training.

    As I see it, I think that learning languages deeply is more difficult to do by oneself than it is to gain an understanding of secondary sources. I value an ability to deftly interact with primary sources much more valuable than that of using secondary observations, while I do think having a pulse on modern scholarly though is important. That is why I chose to do a PhD in the areas of Bible and ancient Near East. As I have gone through the program I have taken some very rewarding classes on interpretive approaches and more general topics that relate to biblical studies because I do think these things are important.

    I agree with you that many departments view this specialized training as a negative (I had one such department head tell me that I was *overqualified* since they didn’t teach Sumerian and Ugaritic, however, later in the discussion once he saw that I knew the field of biblical studies well he thought that my research in ANE languages would sound *exotic* and thus be beneficial to the department). However, this initial skepticism can be overcome with an engaging teaching presence, demonstrating a broad knowledge of biblical studies, and a ready answer on how study in these *esoteric* fields helps one–and in my mind is necessary to– teach introductory classes.

    I think you are right to say that there are many good programs out there that didn’t make my list. I am not trying to denigrate them in any way–they just aren’t Semitics and ANE centered programs. I think the key is to get a good mix of primary source training and methodological/secondary source exposure. However, for me the “good mix” is heavily weighted toward primary sources.

  15. by Chris

    Charles,

    I guess I need clarification:

    1. You say, “I value an ability to deftly interact with primary sources.” I assume you are counting the Bible itself as a primary source. Do you think a NELC/ANE grad necessarily has better Hebrew chops than a HB/OT grad?

    2. I referred to “programs … that offer ANE languages in the context of a Bible program.” You seem to have interpreted “learning languages … by oneself.” Can you explain how you got there?

  16. Chris,

    1) I am counting the Bible as a primary source but for biblical studies there are many other primary sources besides the Bible not to mention more ancillary sources that are still very important. For instance, there are many studies of biblical prophecy done by biblical scholars that make either no or hardly any mention of prophecy within the documents from Mari and Nineveh. I find this to be a terribly big oversight and I would consider these sources very important to understanding biblical prophecy. And yes, in general I think that NELC/ANE people have better chops with primary sources, Hebrew being the one that you mention–but the HB/OT also contains Aramaic as well, not to mention Greek, Persian, Akkadian, Egyptian, etc. loan words–than HB/OT grads, but there are certainly exceptions to this. Note that I didn’t say that they are generally better interpreters or such, but I think that almost by definition the course work produces better Hebrew philologists. I guess it really is a matter of degrees. If one has taken two years of Hebrew in the course of a OT degree or say someone who has taken three years of Hebrew and a cognate language plus at least a semester each of NW Semitic inscriptions, Ugaritic, post-biblical Hebrew, etc. who knows Hebrew better?

    2) I may have made an inappropriate jump based on your comment. What I meant was that I agree with you that something always has to give–one can’t take courses forever and if I had to made a painful decision on which courses to maximize it would be languages, archaeology, and other courses that give access to primary data.

  17. by Chris

    What if someone has taken TA’d Biblical Hebrew four times, taught it himself once as an adjunct prof, taken some form of advanced Hebrew every semester through coursework, passed a Hebrew comp, had two years of Akkadian, plus Aramaic and “at least a semester each of NW Semitic inscriptions, Ugaritic, post-biblical Hebrew, etc.”?

    That’s my profile, coming out of a little old HB/OT program. And I don’t think I’m that unusual. But now I’m being apologetic, for which I apologize.

  18. by Chris

    Typo: “taken” should be deleted in the first line of my post.

  19. Chris,

    Apology accepted 🙂

    I certainly am not questioning your Hebrew ability and it sounds like you have a very solid background. I would think that you *are* a bit unusual for a standard HB/OT program, but maybe I am mistaken. From my unscientific observation I have noticed that for many HB/OT grads they are unusual for studying Aramaic and post-biblical Hebrew let alone the other stuff. You did say, “I would also add that in 99 percent of teaching situations (i.e. at anything but a high-powered research school), the fact that one knows, say, four dead languages (say, Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin) already will make one appear to be a bit of an antiquarian. Once one adds half a dozen more (Akkadian, Ugaritic, Syriac, various flavors of NWS), a lot of places will wonder whether you will work well in their context.” I would think with this comment that you are admitting that most institutions are not accustomed to hiring people with language-intensive backgrounds.

    If I am mistaken and the majority of HB/OT grads have a solid background in Semitics I’m happy!

  20. by Chris

    Charles,

    My “antiquarian” comment was actually a bit of a lament, and I think all Bible people suffer from it a bit in the broader job market — it’s the whole “Oh, you’re a *text* person” attitude you can sometimes get from a certain faction of AAR.

    More specifically, when someone sees my ANE-ish dissertation, I think I have to go the extra mile to prove that I know how to talk to their school’s 18-year-old freshmen or their seminarians. It’s not fair, but that’s my perception.

    As for HB/OT, I guess I don’t know what the norm is, worldwide.

    Be well, man.

  21. by jake

    Charles and Chris:

    Very interesting discussion. You both make astute points, and I’d have to agree that there are several Bible programs/seminaries that allow students to take several Semitics classes.

    Case in point: Charles is taking his doctorate from a Jewish Seminary–not a NELC department per se–yet he’s able to write his dissertation on Sumerian and do the same work that one would do in a NELC dept. To some degree the same could be done at HDS and PTS, and other places such as where Chris studied (?).

    One important difference, I think, is the general orientation and ethos that pervades a theological instition vis-a-vis a NELC department. Questions are framed differently.

    I still think a degree in pure Assyriology, without advanced work in NW Semitic is not the best route to go. Thus I’d remove Yale. Their program in NWS no longer exists. But then again, that’s where P. Machinist graduated from.

    Lastly, regardless of whether certain CV’s make the job market more difficult, being married to a radiologist still puts one in a higher tax bracket than a tenured position at Harvard. 😉

  22. by jake rosenberg

    Jake? this is jake.

  23. by Joe

    Thank you very much for your insightful discussion.

    I am a Trinity graduate, a Chinese, a pastor now.

    May I ask, which school you listed is easier to get in for those from conservative background, like me?

  24. by Stephen

    How do you feel about the program at U Penn as of now. Also out of the ones you listed which do you feel is the best?

  25. by Dave

    Charles,

    Thanks for all the comments and advice you’ve given. How do you feel about CUA right now (I’m noticing the caution about their Semitics faculty)?Have they repopulated well? Thanks for any and all feedback.

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