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The Hebrew University of Jerusalem awarded 328 doctoral degrees this year, in a ceremony which took place last week. Hundreds of new scientists completed doctorates in molecular biology, biochemistry, computer sciences, and other fields which have been popular in recent years. But the Bible Department, which is one of the university's finest departments, awarded only six new doctorates.

Like many other humanities disciplines in Israel, biblical research has suffered from a steady decline in popularity, and few students seek advanced degrees in that field. Among the six students who did receive a doctorate, two are Israeli, one is American, and three are Koreans, who have become the dominant group among the department's graduates this year.

Young Sik Cho wrote a doctorate about "concepts of wealth in the Book of Proverbs." Yun Ho Chong examined the "factors which created a negative stance toward the Golden Calf cult in the Bible." Song-Yun Shin investigated the "language of Hagai-Zecharia-Malachi and its place in the history of the Hebrew Bible." In addition to them, Song Dal Quan completed a doctorate in the Hebrew Language Department which pertained to "use of 'haya (to be)' syntax in biblical language."

The roster of newly awarded doctorates expressed the large number of Korean students in the Hebrew University Bible and other departments, particularly those which offer Jewish studies.

"There is a growing demand for biblical studies here, on the part of non-Jewish Asian students," notes Professor Emanuel Tov, who served as the academic advisor to a few of the Korean doctoral candidates.

Tov says that these students are "mainly Japanese and Koreans, but the Japanese students usually do not complete advanced degrees. Korean students who make it to the finish line - the doctorate - are more dedicated. They know that our Bible studies are the most demanding, but also the best."

What impels dozens of Koreans to learn Hebrew at an advanced level and study the Bible in Israeli universities? Their primary motivation is Protestant or Catholic religious faith.

"I am religious, and I wanted to discover the source of life," explains Kim Myung-Suk, a Catholic student who is writing a doctorate about "the Creation of the World and the Exodus from Egypt in Isaiah II," under the auspices of her advisor, Professor Shalom Paul. "I came to the conclusion that the Bible would provide the answer. And because the Bible is written in the Hebrew language, I decided that I must study Hebrew."

Kim speaks fluent Hebrew, and as a natural result of her academic studies, she has mastered the language at a very high level. She admits that studying Hebrew is a difficult obstacle to overcome, but she says that "because of the difficult words, there are open questions to which it is possible to find your answer."

Kim Jin Sun is also writing a doctorate on the subject of "the biblical dialogue between the prophets and the angels." Sun is a Protestant minister, who leads a small Protestant congregation which is comprised mostly of Korean students like himself. He says that most Korean students hear about Israel from their professors, who also studied in Jerusalem.

"Many students come to study the New Testament, but most courses in Israel focus on the Old Testament, and that is how they approach Bible studies," Sun relates.

The Korean students reveal a great deal of enthusiasm regarding Israel.

"We have respect for Israel," says Kim Hid Taia, who is writing a doctorate about "Shmita [Sabbatical Year] laws in Deuteronomy."

He would like to teach Bible and Judaism in Korea after he finishes his doctorate. "We learn about Israel and the Bible in church, and we want to know about the ancient wisdom of Israel," he says.

Despite that, some of the Koreans arrive here without any knowledge of contemporary Israel. Kim Myung-Suk knew almost nothing about Israel when she arrived, except that it was the land of the Bible.

"I did not even know that it was a Jewish state," she says. "I didn't actually know what a Jew was. Only after I arrived did I realize, one day, that I was among Jews."