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“It’s all Greek to me.” Why should I study biblical languages?

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“It’s all Greek to me.” Why should I study biblical languages?

Petronio M. Genebago

Petronio M. Genebago, MMin, MAR, is a doctoral student in Old Testament at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies (AIIAS) in Silang, Cavite, Philippines.He won the grand prize in the 2016–2017 Ministry student writing contest for this article.

 

Why should pastors and Bible teachers in training study biblical languages? How does a basic knowledge of biblical languages enhance one’s ministry in preaching or teaching? Seeking to complete an undergraduate religion major or seminary training and skipping courses in Hebrew or Greek is often a temptation for future Bible teachers or pastors. Such an attitude toward biblical languages may arise from any number of reasons. Some may argue that their ministry would be in a nonacademic setting, and, hence, they need not learn the original languages of the Bible. Others may insist that their ministry may never call for the use of Hebrew or Greek. They may further advise: “ ‘The seminaries could spare their ministerial students a lot of grief and frustration by making it optional.’ ” Still others would point to the availability of multiple Bible translations to arrive at what exactly a particular text says, without going through the agony of studying Hebrew or Greek. Then there is the simple reason: face it, neither Hebrew nor Greek is easy to learn.

Such objections overlook the incredible blessing that literacy in biblical languages can bring to Bible teaching and pastoral ministry. This article reviews four reasons why a basic knowledge of biblical languages is an essential aid for effective ministry.

Reason 1: Knowing the Bible in the original language

In reading, studying, or researching any literature, there is always an advantage in going back to the original text and language in which it was written. How much more so when it comes to the study of God’s Word. The Bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Jacques Doukhan points out that intimacy with God can be enhanced by understanding the context of ancient Israel, whose authors have reported their experiences in two thousand years of the Hebrew language. This may also be true for Greek.

Studying the Bible in these languages will help the reader understand better what God has revealed. William Mounce says that learning Greek can help the person “effectively make known the grace of God to all people.” Long before this, Martin Luther testified, “Although the gospel came and still comes to us through the Holy Spirit alone, we cannot deny that it came through the medium of languages. . . . For just when God wanted to spread the gospel throughout the world by means of the apostles he gave the tongues for that purpose.” Larry Lee Walker argues, “No translation can replace the original languages of the Bible in primary importance for conveying and perpetuating divine revelation.” Thus, studying the Bible in its original languages can deepen one’s under-standing of God and help the pastor to share the gospel effectively.

Reason 2: The exegesis requires knowledge of original languages

Exegesis is defined as the “careful,systematic study of the Scripture to discover the original, intended mean-ing. This is basically a historical task. It is the attempt to hear the Word as the original recipients were to have heard it, to find out what was the original intent of the words of the Bible.

Dallas Willard suggests three ways in which exegesis helps in the study of a text: to understand the grammar of the passage, to know the meaning of particular words in a sentence, and to grasp the message of the text as a whole. The first and second approaches call for a knowledge of biblical languages. John Henry Bennetch suggests that “any thorough-going study of the Bible—true penetration into the reaches of divine truth—necessitates a working knowledge of the original.” Luther argued that the church fathers misinterpreted the Scriptures when they tried to defend certain teachings because of their lack of knowledge of original languages. An interpreter can easily err and do selective exegesis (reading one’s “own, completely foreign, ideas into a text”) when he or she does not have adequate knowledge of biblical languages. To avoid inadequate or wrong exegesis, pastors, teachers, and preachers need to have adequate knowledge of original languages.

Ekkehardt Mueller argues: “All those who do not have access to the respective biblical language should consult—where possible—a number of good translations.” Tarsee Li concurs: “There is no substitute to being able to read the Bible in the original languages. When that is not possible, several translations should be compared with one another to make sure the text says the same in English as in the original languages.” While diligent comparison with different translations is helpful, without adequate knowledge of original languages, interpreters are limiting themselves to others’ translations and interpretations. To that extent, such an interpretation suffers an exegetic limitation. Mueller clarifies, “Nuances and options exist that no translation can ever capture. The translators have already made certain decisions, and even the best translation is already an interpretation.” Grant Osborne opines that interpreters will find great difficulty in dealing with grammar and syntax without knowing the original languages. Although they are not hope-less, the “problem is that they must then depend on secondary sources, mainly translations and the better commentaries.”

Interpreters need to have an adequate working knowledge of biblical languages to exegete properly and not depend on translations and commentaries. Without it, such an exegesis will not be true to its spirit. Figure 1 shows how deep one can go in studying the Bible (Editor's note: Please see the PDF for Figure 1). Without the adequate knowledge of biblical languages, one can go as deep as level two only. With language skills, one can reach level three, where are found “unexpected treasures that surprise and delight the soul.” Mounce appreciates “good translations” of the Bible as a way for the preacher to understand the Word and be a good preacher. However, in the absence of “proper tools,” preachers are limited in their “ability to deal with the text.” Luther says: “A simple preacher (it is true) has so many clear passages and texts available through translations that he can know and teach Christ, lead a holy life, and preach to others. But when it comes to interpreting Scripture, and working with it on your own, and disputing with those who cite it incorrectly, he is unequal to the task; that cannot be done without languages.”

However, armed with adequate knowledge of Bible languages, the person can have a deeper, level 3, understanding of Scripture that will help in effective teaching and preaching. Figure 2 illustrates how Bible students with a knowledge of original languages can plunge deeply in the study of the Bible and experience its effect on teaching and preaching (Editor's note: Please see the PDF for Figure 2).

Reason 3: Difficulty of recognizing original expressions after translation

The original languages have expressions that are difficult to express in translations. Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart recognize this phenomenon in wordplays in original expressions of poetry in both the testaments. They write: “Wordplays tend to abound in most languages, but they are always unique to the original language and can almost never be ‘translated’ into a receptor language.”1 William C. Williams validates this in the study of the Old Testament. He says that those studying Hebrew would be able to “understand expressions in the Hebrew language that are simply impossible to fully translate” and assures them that learning those expressions directly from studying the original language would bless their hearts.2 For instance, Ruth 1:1–7 illustrates the wordplay that can be found in Hebrew that is lost in translation. Verses 1 and 2 record, “In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn inthe country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there” (ESV; emphasis added).

Wordplay present in this passage inHebrew is not obvious in English. Thepassage relates that there was a faminein the land that caused Elimelech’sfamily to leave Bethlehem for Moab.Bethlehem, mentioned here twice, is in Hebrew bet lechem, which means“house of bread.”3 In verse 6, the word lechem is mentioned. Studying the passage closely, one can notice that there was a famine in the house of bread. Could there be a famine in the house of bread? The lack of bread was the reason why Elimelech with his family left the house of bread, and bread was also the reason why Naomi with Ruth returned to Bethlehem, because God visited His people by giving them lechem. The wordplay is clear: “there is no bread in the house of bread,” or “there is no food in the house of food.”4

This wordplay may raise questionsin one’s mind. What was the reason the house of bread experienced the lack of bread? Matthew Henry observes,“When the land had rest, yet it had not plenty; even in Bethlehem, which signifies the house of bread, there was scarcity. A fruitful land is turned into barrenness, to correct and restrain the luxury and wantonness of those that dwell therein.”5

God was the source of both the physical bread for Bethlehem during the time of Ruth and the spiritual bread when the seed of Ruth was born in Bethlehem. Did not Jesus say, “I amthe bread of life” (John 6:35)? Thus, it is easy to miss a wordplay and a message when there is lack of knowledge in the biblical languages.

Reason 4: The witness of scholars

The fourth reason for the study of original languages is the testimony of scholars who were able to mine the richest treasures of the Word because of their knowledge of the original languages. James M. Efird recognizes that studying Greek “can be exciting,” but“it will entail a great deal of detailed work.”6 Doukhan comments that some (seminarians and pastors) resorted to an analytical lexicon because of the “valid and invalid” grounds ahead of them in the study of biblical languages.7

Yes, the study of biblical languages may be difficult and time-consuming but, surely, not a waste of time. A number of scholars can testify to the merit of studying biblical languages. Efird expresses that studying Greek entails “a great deal of detailed work, but the most important consideration must be that after the hard work one will be able to read the New Testament in its original language. That is the foundation stone of correct and proper exegesis and interpretation.”8

Bennetch provides a list of great leaders in the history of the church who made use of biblical languages: Augustine and John Calvin, Jerome and Erasmus, Luther and Wesley—even Charles Spurgeon and Dwight L. Moody, who had no formal theological education.9 Doukhan mentions several witnesses, from the church fathers and Reformers to modern theologians, who emphasized the merit and worth of studying the original language.10 Mounce speaks of John Wesley, who could“quote Scripture in Greek better than in English.”11 Jonathan Edwards received diligent instruction from both home and school in Greek and Hebrew.12 Both scholars and nonscholars can testify that learning the original languages is beneficial. Many believed that the depth of preaching and teaching depends on one’s solid understanding and knowledge of the New Testament Greek13 and other languages. Luther illustrates the benefits of knowing the biblical languages: “When our faith is thus held up to ridicule, where does the fault lie?It lies in our ignorance of the languages; and there is no other way out than to learn the languages. Was not St. Jerome compelled to translate the Psalter anew from the Hebrew because, when we quoted our Psalter in disputes with the Jews, they sneered at us, pointing out that our texts did not read that way in the original Hebrew? Now the expositions of all the early fathers who dealt withScripture apart from a knowledge of the languages (even when their teachingis not in error) are such that they often employ uncertain, indefensible, and inappropriate expressions. They grope their way like a blind man along the wall, frequently missing the sense of the text and twisting it to suit their fancy.”14

With the meaning and authenticity of Scripture shown in its original language, the study of the Bible can lead to a deeper understanding of God’s Word and help in effective teaching and preaching. “The sharper our interpretive tools, the deeper our understanding of the text of Scripture and, consequently, the greater the impact on our lives and ministries.”15

Conclusion

The study of the Bible in its original languages leads to a deeper understanding of Scripture. Bible scholars, pastors, and teachers who are interested in deepening their understanding of God’s Word, as well as teaching and preaching Scripture more effectively, would do well to know the original biblical languages.Such a linguistic skill may be obtained through personal study, taking language classes in colleges and seminaries, and through correspondence courses. The task is challenging, but the benefits are immense. Adventist colleges and seminaries should encourage their future Bible instructors, teachers, and pastors to plow through the classes in Hebrew and Greek. The start may be difficult, but once they have finished the course, such students will find their future ministry immensely rewarding and authoritative. A working knowledge of biblical languages is a priceless treasure both to personal spiritual enrichment and to ministry at large.

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1 Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 46, 47.” 46, 47.

2 William C. Williams, Hebrew I Language Study: A Study Guide (Brussels, Belgium: International Correspondence Institute, 1986), 7.

3 John R. Kohlenberger III and William D. Mounce, eds., Kohlenberger/Mounce Concise Hebrew–Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament (Accordance Bible software), s.v. “Bethlehem.”

4 Jon L. Dybdahl, ed., Andrews Study Bible, New King James Version (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2010), 329.

5 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 2, Joshua to Esther (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1935), 253, emphasis original.

6 James M. Efird, A Grammar for New Testament Greek (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1990), xvii.

7 Allan R. McAllaster, “A Functional Approach to the Biblical Languages,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 7, no. 2 (Summer 1980): 119, accessed Sept. 1, 2015, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCO.

8 Efird, A Grammar for New Testament Greek, xvii.

9 Bennetch, “The Advantage in Knowing the Biblical Languages,” 185.

10 Doukhan, Hebrew for Theologians, xvii.

11 Mounce, Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar, 4.

12 See David C. Brand, Profile of the Last Puritan: Jonathan Edwards, Self-Love and the Dawn of the Beatific (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1991), 9, 10, and Iain H. Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987), 27.

13 David Alan Black, It’s Still Greek to Me: An Easy-to-Understand Guide to Intermediate Greek (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 11.

14 Martin Luther, “The Importance of the Biblical Languages,” 3.

15 George H. Guthrie and J. Scott Duvall, Biblical Greek Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 19.

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