In Defense of the Biblical Languages

Five years ago, I was a sophomore in college in the midst of a semester that was changing my life. Four days a week, at 2 pm, I spent fifty minutes in a class that I was both terrified by and excited about. The class was Elementary Greek and it was the first of many, many semesters I would spend studying Greek, Hebrew, or both. Before I registered for this class (at the recommendation of a friend) I honestly did not fully understand the importance of the biblical languages. Like many, I found the study of a single English translation sufficient. Five years later, I know just how wrong I was.

The study and use of the biblical languages is one of the most important practices in which a student of the Bible can participate. Unfortunately, the amount of both laymen and those in the ministry that disagree with and/or throw away that statement is alarming. Thus, this post.

But what makes the biblical languages so important? We have the Bible in today’s English. It is perfectly accessible in the language we have it in. For those in ministry, we have advanced Bible software that is programmed to do the language footwork for us. Besides, going back to the biblical languages just goes over the heads of the laymen and makes them think they can’t understand Scripture on their own. Talking about the biblical languages just intimidates laymen and scares them away from studying the Bible on their own. It’s just not necessary in this day and age.

I have heard this whole paragraph of arguments in some form or another and in bits and pieces or as a whole many, many times over the years. There are many things that could be said about each argument. I have limited myself to just two specific points for this post. I hope to write more on this in the coming weeks.

We have the Bible in today’s English – why do we need to go back to the original languages if the Bible is perfectly understandable as we currently have it?

In simple terms, the question answers itself. We need to go back to the original languages because they are… well… the original languages. The language a text was initially written in is of the utmost importance. It provides a point of reference to meaning and nuance. The phrase “lost in translation” comes to mind here. Even the best translations are not perfect. Meaning gets lost, words used in the translation change in meaning over time, and nuance gets missed.

Let me pause here and clarify something: I am not saying that it is impossible to understand Scripture without knowing the biblical languages. Anyone seeking to read the Bible for understanding can sit down with an English translation and learn from the Bible. God’s Word is perfectly accessible in the translations we have available to us. I’m glad we could clear that up.

However, if a person merely sits and reads, he/she is only going to achieve rudimentary understanding. My favorite thing about the gospel is that it is simple enough for even a young child to understand but complex enough to baffle even the wisest theologian. Growth in your relationship with God requires effort. Reading and learning from your Bible takes time and careful study. Furthermore, if you’re struggling with a difficult passage, the best place to go to is… wait for it… the biblical languages.

What does this mean for someone who isn’t in ministry and has never had the opportunity to study biblical languages? Are those who fall in this category doomed to be left out in the cold to never understand a difficult passage? Are they simply not good enough or elevated enough to understand? Absolutely not. Every single person can learn as much from Scripture as they desire. This includes being able to learn from the biblical languages (if not learn them yourself). Reading commentaries and other Bible reference books can help those who do not know the biblical languages understand how the original language is working a given passage. I highly recommend that those serious about studying the Bible acquire at least one solid exegetical commentary for this reason.  Not sure of which one to purchase? Talk with your pastor or someone you trust to provide good recommendations! If you’re unable to spend the money on Bible study resources like commentaries (which tend to be more expensive, but the good ones are absolutely worth their weight in gold), there are free resources available to you. E-Sword is a free Bible study software that allows you to search the Scriptures, learn from Bible resources, and even compare translations! Additionally, e-Sword has resources that provide helpful insights into the biblical languages. Although I have not personally used e-Sword, it comes highly recommended (and used) by professors at my alma mater. These are men who have PhDs in the biblical field, be it Counseling, Old or New Testament Interpretation, or Theology. They use and trust e-Sword and encourage students to acquire it.

Another Bible study software that is available is Logos. I have had Logos for some time and love the resources available in their various packages. There are tons of package levels and there is something for everyone. However, this software does not come cheap. The higher you go, the more you pay. What I love about their pricing is that if you already own a resource, they don’t charge you for it. And when upgrading from one package to another, you receive a discount based on which package you have. You never pay more than once for your resources.

However, as great as Bible study resources and software programs are, my recommendations come with a warning. I will address this warning in the next point.

If we have these elaborate (and often expensive) Bible study programs that do the language footwork for us, what is the point of pastors and teachers learning the Biblical languages? It seems kind of redundant.

“A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.”

Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism

If you’re not familiar with the term “Pierian spring,” dictionary.com defines it as “a sacred fountain in Pieria, in Greece, fabled to inspire those who drank from it.” Essentially, it is a fountain of knowledge. Alexander Pope warns us in his Essay on Criticism that merely tasting of knowledge is dangerous. If there is one thing I learned from my time in seminary (and I learned a lot), it is that the more you know, the more you realize just how little you actually know. To realize this is a very humbling experience. I’ve seen the dangers of this play out in real time. Back when I was on Twitter, popular “Christian” feminist writer sent out a tweet that claimed that a name of God meant “many breasted one.” She went on to claim that this meant that God can (and should) be referred to as a “she,” since “she births life and nurtures life.” This is a complete, utter, and blatant heresy. But how on earth did she make sure a horrific mistake? Because she possessed a little knowledge. The root of the word for the name of God that she referenced and the root of the word for breast are off by one character. Because of the complex rules of Hebrew, these words in various forms may look similar or even the same to someone who has little to no (or even poor) training. I was in the midst of a doctoral-level Hebrew class when I read this tweet. I shared it and demonstrated where the mistake was made and showed how it could be cleared up. I share this instance not to show you how superior my knowledge is (this woman has an MA in biblical studies, but was clearly not using her education properly), but to demonstrate just how important education is. And not only having education, but also using your education well. 

Relying only on Bible study software, no matter how good, to help you construct a sermon or lesson on the Bible is both lazy and dangerous. First, no matter how well-programmed a Bible study software may be, it is still manmade and still contains mistakes (no matter how few and far between they may be). If you have taken the time to learn and study the biblical languages and maintain your knowledge of them, it will not be as hard to identify those mistakes. Second, even if there are no mistakes, you are simply not going to understand as thoroughly what is going on in the original language unless you know it for yourself. You will learn things, but you will also miss things. This is why I encourage even laymen to learn and study Greek and Hebrew if they get the opportunity (or to seek out opportunities!). Bible software, as helpful as it is, can only do so much. Nothing, nothing, can replace good, old fashioned hard work.

When those of us who are committed to preaching and/or teaching the Word of God discredit the learning of biblical languages, we step into dangerous territory. When you commit yourself to teaching others about the Word of God whether it be in a pastoral role, a classroom, a book, or a blog, you automatically put yourself in a place with more strict accountability. It is far worse for a teacher of the Bible to mislead his or her students than it is for an individual student of the Bible to misinterpret a Scripture passage. The latter is leading only himself astray, the former is leading countless others astray.

Laymen (those who are not directly involved in ministry): if your pastor, church leaders, or anyone trying to teach you anything about Scripture tells you they didn’t feel the need to bother with learning the biblical languages themselves and/or discredits those who do and use them in their preaching and teaching, run. Run as fast as you can, as far as you can. That person is not here to help you. Whether or not they realize it, they can and will harm you. I may sound harsh, but I must be. The learning of the original languages of the Word of God is the most important and necessary thing a preacher or teacher of the Bible can do for their education.

Pastors, teachers, writers, and anyone else who aims to lead and/or educate fellow Christians on the Word of God: I cannot stress enough how important it is that you learn the biblical languages. If you do not want to learn them or think because you have the fanciest Bible software money has to offer you don’t need to learn them, do not pass GO. Do not collect $200. Reconsider your desire to be in ministry. If you do not want to or think you do not need to put in the work, you have no business being a minister of the Word of God. There is no room for laziness when souls are on the line.

The bottom line is this: if you want to be involved in ministry, you need to learn the biblical languages. Greek and Hebrew at minimum. If you know Hebrew, Aramaic is easier to pick up as you go (since there are only a few chapters in the Bible in Aramaic). If you are not directly involved in ministry, but want to deepen your understanding of Scripture, you should learn the biblical languages. At minimum, you should look into Bible study softwares and/or exegetical commentaries that walk you through understanding what the language is doing in a given passage. You can learn from Scripture simply by reading and studying one of the many wonderful English translations we have today (I especially recommend the ESV and NASB (especially for you academic types). The KJV is also a good translation and was the best in its time. I will write more on translations another time). But why stop there? Why not look for ways to deepen your understanding of Scripture?!

Our hunger for the deep understanding and study of Scripture should lead us into the deep waters that are the biblical languages. Please do not be afraid go there. Do not be afraid to learn. If you are in ministry and you skipped those classes when getting your degree, it is not too late. If you are a layman and want to deepen your study of Scripture, but think you can’t learn the biblical languages, you can. It may not happen as fast as you want, but it can happen. You can learn.

Both of my undergraduate Greek professors, having once been baby Greek students, were very in-tune to their students. They could see when we were discouraged, or felt like we could not continue another day. Whenever a classmate dropped out of Greek, they mourned along with us, because they also knew the pain of reaching the point of not knowing if you could continue. They used these moments as lessons for us. Through taking classes in Greek and Hebrew, I learned so much about God that I never expected to learn through a college class. I learned to trust him, to lean on him for strength. I learned the value of his Word and the importance of learning the languages he chose to write it in.

I’ll never forget what my first-year Greek teacher emphasized with my classmates and I when we thought the task before us was impossible (I may be missing the exact wording, but the principle is still there 😉 ):

The God who created language and who breathed out his Word in the languages of his choosing did not make these languages impossible to learn. God and his Word are not unapproachable. Learning the biblical languages is not impossible. Difficult, but not impossible. By God’s grace, you can do this.

 

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