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To pick up where we left off in our previous blog article (THE PASTOR IN HIS SERMON: “The English Says, …”), how much benefit is there in acquiring knowledge of the original languages of Scripture, Hebrew, Greek, and the occasional Aramaic? It truly is much in every way, but those ways might not be what you think or expect if all your experience with the languages is from hearing comments from preachers or seeing occasional comments in devotional materials. Contrary to popular opinion knowledge of the original language does not solve all the thorny theological problems. Nearly always any significant theological debate on a passage revolves around macro-hermeneutical and theological issues, not on a point of grammar. One of the major controversies of the ancient church was Arianism. Arius, who knew ancient Greek as a living language, came to the conclusion that Jesus Christ was a created being, not the eternal Son of God. He did so not because of Greek grammar and syntax, but because of various philosophical commitments. These commitments functioned as biases, a sort of grid through which he read the Scriptures. This enabled him to ignore even plain statements and direct speech in Scripture that disagreed with his position. Those of us involved in debate and discussion with people of varying religious persuasions see this all the time and have occasionally been guilty of it ourselves.
What knowledge of the languages does enable us to do is grasp the range of interpretation possible for a given text. It also often sharpens our understanding and appreciation of the text in surprising ways. The best way to obtain this benefit is through thorough knowledge of the languages involved. The student needs to learn them as actual languages. As I mentioned in the previous article, however, that is often not how the languages are taught at our various institutions. If we compare the way German or French are taught at practically any college or university with the way Greek and Hebrew are taught at most bible colleges or seminaries, we see a big difference. First, we observe that the quantity of instruction is a fraction of that for a modern language. Secondly, the quality of instruction is markedly inferior for students of the biblical languages. Students of modern languages are trained to internalize the language, taught to think in it, through practice in speaking and writing in the language. The goal is to develop fluency. Students of the biblical languages, on the other hand, are taught them in order better to do exegesis, in order to be better preachers and apologists.
Now, what’s wrong with that? We certainly want better preachers and apologists, but what we get are graduates who have a barely functional ability with the languages. They can read it aloud, often painfully. When faced with a Greek sentence, they can slowly work through it with the help of a lexicon and sometime a parsing guide. They can identify the forms of words and recognize at least some grammatical constructions. They have been given instruction in how to adapt these to their preaching and teaching.
In other words, their reading comprehension and understanding of the language is substantially below that of a ten-year-old native speaker. This means that the real benefits of knowing the language remain unobtainable to the student who is taught in that manner. These benefits come from fluency in the language, and for an ancient language, that means reading fluency.
Now, before I get to the specific benefits, let me include a paragraph or two devoted to beginning to solve this problem. While it will take great effort to solve it at the institutional level, I can still give some practical advice for those who have learned their Greek and Hebrew in this way. And if you haven’t studied the languages at all, hang on, there’s quite a bit for you too. Let this advice function as hints on how to get started, about which also I’ll have more to say below.
What you really need to do, more than anything is read as much Greek as possible. When I say read, I don’t mean looking up every word in the dictionary, parsing all the forms, and sentence diagramming. I mean forcing yourself to read the text without translating but allowing the meaning to register. Start by reading through the text quickly. If you are new at this, you are not going to get it the first time. Then go back and do it more slowly. Now, look at your forms. Go word by word, thinking of the meaning of the individual items in the context of the sentence. Yes, you are still going to have to look up words, but when you do, don’t just quickly select one gloss. Carefully read through the entire range of meaning to pick the best gloss for the context. If you have to look it up a word more than three times, make up a vocabulary card and memorize it. If your lexicon offers Greek synonyms, make sure you write those synonyms down as part of the definition.
When I say read as much Greek as possible, I don’t mean only the NT or even the NT and the LXX. I mean ancient Greek authors outside of the Bible. The more variety of Greek literature that you read, the better you are able to handle the Greek of the NT. When you have seen a grammatical construction several thousand times in different Greek authors, it makes much better sense when you see that same construction in the NT. Such reading keeps the NT from being an artifact or a closed curriculum. You will be able to see the Greek itself in its broader linguistic context, and thus have a deeper understanding and appreciation of your NT studies in the original language.
Now, the reason I have emphasized this here is that the knowledge at this level is what is necessary to benefit maximally from working in the languages. One of the most common descriptions of how the languages benefit the student is this: “It’s like the difference between black and white and color television. With color television, you just see more.” Now that sounds a bit on the profound side when you first hear it, and it really is true, but what does it mean? What is the “more” that one competent in the languages can see that good students of the English versions might miss?
- As stated above, it allows us to grasp the range of interpretations possible for a given text. It helps us limit the range of possibilities. There are times when an English translation might be a fairly accurate rendering but opens up an interpretation which the original does not really allow, or conversely, closes off an interpretation that might be possible from the original. The English only reader is blind to this.
- There is a certain cognitive process that takes place when reading a second language. The reader goes a little slower and is forced to think about what he is reading in order to ensure getting it right. This will sometimes bring to his attention something from the text that he might otherwise have missed. The reader asks the question, “Does it really say that?” If he checks, he finds it either does or doesn’t, but either way, reading it in the original has forced him to think through the text in a more focused way than reading it in his native language.
- Many, many times a teacher or preacher will make a point based on the original languages. It is a common apologetic practice on the part of the cults and other false teachers to buttress their arguments with such an appeal. One who has studied the languages is able to answer these arguments from a matrix of knowledge about the languages, and so give a better informed and more accurate response. It also helps better to see when such appeals and arguments are being used appropriately.
- Language reflects both the thought world of the writer and the cultural context in which he writes. Nothing gets us better into the thought world of the writer and his context than the ability to read what he has written literally in his own words, in the writer’s own language. This results in an intuitively deeper understanding of the text that cannot be obtained from reading it only in translation.
- A deeper understanding of God’s word enables the reader better to explain God’s word to others even using the English text. You want to avoid constantly referring to the Greek or Hebrew as though the insights can only be obtained from such study, but you want to allow the insights obtained from your study to enhance your teaching ministry.
How does the student of God’s word who has not studied the original languages obtain some of these benefits, and avoid the pitfalls? Let me suggest three ways which I will then unpack below.
- Listening to good preachers/teachers who use the original languages correctly
- Using well written exegetical commentaries
- Using print or electronic study aids
The trick is finding these preachers and teachers, and it may not be possible in your area. But if they do exist, how do you recognize them? The best way to notice is that they will have preaching and teaching with good insight that is faithful to the text, but not immediately apparent from it. Now, this doesn’t mean that you run away from your church to find a pastor-scholar somewhere else. But if you are looking of a church for legitimate reasons, this is one thing to keep in mind.
Exegetical commentaries often summarize and crystalize insights taken from the original languages in a form digestible for the reader who is not competent in those languages. The have the advantage of citing the original languages and then directly explaining how the insights are derived. This really is the best way for the non-specialist to obtain these insights. A word of caution, though, not all commentaries are written from a perspective conducive to the Bible as the inspired word of God. Use discernment in building your library as you would with anything else.
Study tools, and especially electronic aids are prevalent and can be very helpful supplements to gain some of the insights that normally can be derived only from reading in the original languages. But I must offer a major caveat here. These tools are not a substitute for reading in the original, and in fact, are most useful to someone who has at least a working knowledge of the languages. This does not mean that the non-specialist cannot use them profitably but be aware of the limitations. Some years ago, I had a rather vigorous discussion with an individual who really believed that with the advent of Bible study software (just becoming available at the time); it was no longer necessary to study the languages “the old fashioned way.” Experience has simply proven this wrong. Many times, I have seen individuals come to conclusions about a text, using electronic tools, which are simply erroneous. They have isolated certain facts out of context or in some other way misunderstood or misapplied the results. In a recent example, one person misidentified the form of a Greek word (actually in a passage from Josephus) based on an electronic analysis of the word which gave it a 78% chance that the word was singular genitive rather than accusative plural. The only problem was that the software was reading the Greek from a different dialect than Josephus wrote. Always vet your results from the use of study tools. Check it against the commentaries and run it by competent individuals. If nobody else is coming to your conclusions, then you are probably missing something important and you need to go back to the beginning.
To summarize, as I said in the previous article, a good English translation can get you a long way. Knowledge of the original languages can get you even farther. If you have the opportunity to learn the languages, take it. If you have learned the languages, use every opportunity to deepen your knowledge of them. If neither, learn to use responsibly the various study tools now available to help you in your study of God’s word.
I have written this article largely out of my own experience and that of colleagues and students with whom I’ve interacted over the years. Another article on this very subject recently was published by Themelios, a journal devoted to helping Bible students with hermeneutical issues, higher criticism, and the like. This article was written from a historical perspective, and I heartily recommend it.
 While I’m trying to be comprehensive in this, most of my examples will come from Greek because the great weight of my experience is in that language.
 Hebrew doesn’t work quite the same way, for the simple reason that we don’t have large amounts of extra-biblical Hebrew concurrent with biblical Hebrew. Perhaps an OT scholar can make better suggestions but do try to read as much biblical Hebrew as you can on a daily basis.