ChurchETHOS

Biblical Languages

Posted in christian thought, church reform by Nathan Creitz on June 30, 2008

Is it worth studying Hebrew and Greek? Can understanding the original languages of the Bible really help a pastor or teacher? Don’t we have sufficient English translations?

Here are 10 reasons why I think those in ministry should study the Biblical languages. Keep in mind, I take my Hebrew final tomorrow so you’d think I’d be biased against the languages at this point, but it really has been rewarding.

10. Culture is wrapped up in the language and to better understand the culture of the Bible, you need to know the languages.

9. A related point: Hebrew was the language of the Jewish people and the languages help us to study the forms, and covenants, and culture of the Jewish people of the Bible.

8. Another related point: Greek has made a huge impact on our current languages. Our alphabet comes from the Greek and many of our words do also. No one can underestimate the influence of Greek culture on the spread of the Gospel.

7. By way of a bonus, you will be able to get by in Israel if you ever decide to travel there, you can also pick up a book by Plato or any of the other Greek philosophers and read it in the original language. Understanding Hebrew and Greek unlocks the door for an understanding of millennia of thought, philosophy, and culture.

6. We do have some very good quality English translations, but having an understanding of the nuances of the language can help make reading the Bible like reading it in High Def.

5. No translation is perfect, not even mine. However, as you grapple with the text, you begin to immerse yourself in the language of the Bible. Wrestling with the text breeds love for the One who gave it to us. My professor taught us that using the original languages forces you to slow down and really look at what’s going on in the text. Often, we get to a familiar passage and skim over it because we already know what it says…but I don’t know too many people who have the verse memorized in Greek.

4. Because Martin Luther said it’s important: “In the Christian Church all teaching must be judged. For this a knowledge of the language is needed above all else. The preacher(s) or teacher(s) can expound the Bible from beginning to end as [they] please, accurately or inaccurately, if there is no one there to judge whether [they are] doing it right or wrong. But in order to judge, one must have a knowledge of the languages; it cannot be done in any other way. Therefore, although faith and the gospel may indeed be proclaimed by simple preachers without a knowledge of the languages, such preaching is flat and tame; people finally become weary and bored with it, and it falls to the ground. But where the preacher is versed in the languages, there is a freshness and vigor in preaching, Scripture is treated in its entirety, and faith finds itself constantly renewed by a continual variety of words and illustrations.”

3. Some commentaries are off limits to someone who doesn’t know Greek or Hebrew. Learning the languages opens the door for some really incredible tools that are out there.

2. Pastoral ministry is richer when we have disciplined ourselves to know the languages. Those we minister to understand the discipline and professionalism of our study and a bond of trust is established.

1. I don’t know that I will discover anything earthshakingly new, but there is value in being certain of what you are preaching. Martin Luther said, “If the languages had not made me positive as to the true meaning of the word, I might have still remained a chained monk, engaged in quietly preaching Romish errors in the obscurity of a cloister; the pope, the sophists, and their anti-Christian empire would have remained unshaken.”

Got another reason to study the Biblical languages? Let me know.

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5 Responses

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  1. Matt said, on July 2, 2008 at 1.26 pm

    Great post, and thanks for the link to my site.

    I think numbers 6 and 3 are the top reasons for me. After my first year in seminary, I decided that I was there to learn how to study the Bible in the original languages. You can learn the practical stuff about “doing church” in an internship or on the job, but you can only learn Hebrew in seminary.

    Nice analogy that reading the scriptures in the originals is like reading in hi-def. Our English Bibles are great, and I’ll never be able to produce a better translation than the NIV, ESV, RSV, ASV etc. However, there is something about reading in the originals that opens them up in a new and fresh way.

    Plus the commentary thing is huge. The top OT and NT scholarship is intentionally only available to those who know the original languages. It’s a safeguard–a way to make sure people do their homework before they dive into the depths of cutting-edge biblical scholarship.

    Keep studying the Hebrew!

  2. lopbreiser said, on July 3, 2008 at 9.45 am

    “However, as you grapple with the text, you begin to immerse yourself in the language of the Bible. Wrestling with the text breeds love for the One who gave it to us.”

    -> yeah, this speaks from my heard!

    “…simple preachers without a knowledge of the languages, such preaching is flat and tame; people finally become weary and bored with it,…”

    -> don´t you think that the holy spirit can speak to the heard of a simple preacher without a knowlege of the language, and the word is directly from heaven, fresh and powerful to touch (and change) the heards of the believers und unbelievers.
    in those case, god is absolutly independent from the knowlege of the language.

    be blessed
    markus

  3. Michael Cline said, on July 3, 2008 at 7.33 pm

    Original language study has dropped significantly in seminaries over the last few decades. If most of us asked our elder mentors which language they chose to take in seminary, they would respond: “Which? Chose? I HAD to take both!”

    Why is this? Two main reasons:
    (1) The “vocational school” approach to seminary is booming. Fly in and fly out, online classes, week long intensives. It’s like a tech school– you only learn the tools of the trade that SEEM immediately applicable. Liberal arts are being devalued, and with it goes the languages. As a more classical learner, this drives me crazy, but admissions programs don’t care–the online stuff is selling hardcore!

    (2) Postmodern approaches to scripture. As pragmatic hermeneutics and reader-response theories began to infiltrate seminary education, original languages were tossed. Why? Because who needs to know Greek if authorial intent isn’t as important for our exegesis? What the author was trying to get at isn’t accessible to us anymore, so why study Hebrew when I my crew can get together and decide what the Creation Narrative means for us?

    Nathan, the blog is high quality. Thanks for the good read tonight. Feel free to stop by my own site from time to time (www.reclinerramblings.blogspot.com and http://www.jesusmanifesto.com)

  4. Creitz said, on July 3, 2008 at 9.40 pm

    Michael,
    Yeah, at my seminary we are required to have both Hebrew and Greek for at least 3 semesters each. It’s intense but you can’t do the languages any other way and really grasp them. On the other hand, they also offer quite a few options and I can see how some of the options are not as good quality as others. I am able to take classes through the main campus, via Semlink (dvd lessons you do on your own), an urban campus with night and weekend classes, and via the BTI which allows you to cross register with any of the other seminaries in Boston. I’ve enjoyed the different offerings but I must say, the education received on the main campus is by far superior to any of the others. I’ve benefited from the variety but I can’t imagine doing only the urban campus or only the Semlink for my entire degree. Somehow, I think I would be missing out on some of the academics. Thanks for your post.

    Lopbreiser,
    There is certainly room for God to work in amazing ways through those who have no knowledge of the languages. I have many friends, and have many heroes who never had a desire (or a calling if you will) to learn the languages. They are doing some great things for the glory of God. No doubt.

    Matt,
    Thanks for your comment. I definitely agree that while you are in seminary, you might as well learn the languages. As you said, you will learn a lot of the practical stuff “on-the-job”. Seminary has its weaknesses and while they make a strong effort at teaching some of the practical hands on stuff, the best thing about seminary is the Biblical training. This should be the focus of a seminary education.

  5. Ben said, on July 4, 2008 at 12.43 am

    This is something I am facing as I consider Bible college in 2010. My minister said that the most compelling reason to study Greek, for him, is that all the most significant texts about Jesus (i.e. the gospels) are in Greek, so it pays to understand those texts on their own terms, rather than through someone else’s lens.

    As for Hebrew…well, I just think Hebrew is cool.


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