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Learning Biblical Languages [repost]

Hebrew-BibleI am not at all naturally inclined to study languages myself so I’m not writing as a language buff. But I think “correctly handling the word of truth” means a certain level of knowledge about the way that word was written and how it can and cannot be handled.

What is the semantic range of this word? Do I realize how meaning can change depending on which prepositions are attached or what verb stem it’s in? Do I at least understand the arguments for why the New World Translation gets John 1:1 wrong? I think a pastor should have a handle on this kind of stuff – not that they can necessarily weigh in with great scholarship but that they at least know why the NIV says what it says and can justify it if they disagree.

And it can have revolutionary significance.  Think of Matthew 4:17 – the Vulgate says ‘Do penance’ but when Luther sees it’s actually “Repent” it becomes the very first of his 95 theses.

I’m not saying someone can’t have a hugely powerful ministry without knowing the original languages (who can deny that in places where the church is growing fastest, pastors very often don’t). And I’m not saying every pastor needs to get to the level where they do all their prep and quiet times in Hebrew. But if our pastors have been given significant formal preparation for word ministry then studying those words in the original languages should be a key component of that. It’s surely not right that pastors have a hundred opinions on the new perspective but don’t actually understand the linguistics behind “pistis Christou” for instance.

I think the tools of a pastor’s trade are words – the bible’s words more specifically. I wouldn’t have confidence in a car mechanic who said “We just need to twist the doo-hickey until the thingumy-jig pops out.”

I'm not suggesting that pastors need to be fluent or anything like it.  You don’t need to be able to speak these languages or hear them or even write them.  Just to read them, painstakingly slowly and usually with some bible software close to hand!

But it pays off. Very quickly you’re able to see a thousand links that are there to see in the original languages but (necessarily) obscured by translations.  Let me give some examples:

Last week I preached on Isaiah 2 and then 1 Corinthians 7:

Isaiah 2:

All translations conceal just how much ideas of highness, loftiness are repeated in verses 11-17. Reading this in the Hebrew definitely allowed the word to dwell in me more richly. I was more impacted by the word because of reading in the Hebrew.

Searching for a theology of trees and hills was easier to do with knowledge of the Hebrew. (Of course it’s not impossible to do without Hebrew but it takes longer and you end up relying on things like bible dictionaries – and I’m never sure if I’m always on the same page as the bible dictionary contributors (esp on OT)).

In v10, ‘The Rock’ vs ‘the rocks’ – I might decide to prefer ESV because of many factors, but surely the best factor is that the Hebrew says bazur not bazurim. This was a key point in my sermon – a big talking point afterwards. I’m glad I know something of Hebrew when those conversations come up. If you’re going to argue for Christ in OT (which I am), the majority of your biblical scholarship / commentary help is at least 300 years old. It’s brilliant stuff, but a lot of the contemporary stuff is just not that interested in christocentric detail. But, learn Hebrew yourself and you’ll see it on every page.

1 Corinthians 7:
There are so many minefields here – and so many ethical issues that depend on language debates. I’m nowhere near in a position to contribute to these debates, but it’s very helpful to be able to follow them especially when I’m telling certain people they can’t marry or can’t divorce and telling them on the basis of these ten Greek words which have multiple interpretations.

e.g. what’s the difference between ‘separating’ in v10 and ‘divorcing’ in v11-13? What does it mean for the woman not to be ‘bound’? in v15? Is that relevantly similar to the word for ‘bound’ in v39? Your stance on divorce and remarriage is fundamentally affected by that question.

Now the language alone is not going to decide it and not everyone needs to have language knowledge. But I’m recommending an investment of time in languages that better places you to think through all these issues.

On the one hand learning languages saves you time. It really does – searches are far faster, technical commentaries are much easier to read. If you’re at all interested in the detail of the text, knowing some Greek and Hebrew makes things faster not slower. On the other hand, it slows you down in the right way. Reading the passage in the original allows you to see details and emphases and repetitions that are necessarily filtered out in translations, to see things of Christ that aren’t usually picked up on. It comes home a bit stronger. Maybe none of that will translate to the pulpit, but it translates to my heart – and that’s good for my ministry.

So here’s what I’m saying: It is a tremendous help in correctly handling the word if you know enough about Greek and Hebrew to at least be able to read the technical commentaries and use the bible software. This will mean that, with help from commentaries and Bibleworks etc, you are preparing sermons from the Hebrew and Greek and not simply from the English translations. I really think this makes a significant difference to your word ministry. Enough difference that it is worth the expenditure of, say, 160 hours in training – i.e. 4 hours a week (2 in classroom, 2 in homework) for 40 weeks or something? To be honest you could probably get away with less. And you do NOT have to be a language buff to be able to get to this level. I am in no way naturally gifted for languages, but I found huge payoffs in forcing myself to do it.

Now put that 160 hours (or less) in context. I’ve spent many times over that amount in studying church history, many times over that amount simply reading theologians, simply reading systematics, simply reading Christian paperbacks. I’ve spent hugely more time blogging!

I’m not talking about secret knowledge that takes decades of training and special anointing. I’m talking about learning alphabets and a bit of vocab, learning some verb and noun tables and then figuring out how clauses and sentences fit together. Most of that is dead boring – but these are the nuts and bolts of God’s revelation to us. And pastors deal in God’s revelation. Yes we deal in people and that is crucial (Tit 1:6-8). But we also deal in the word (Tit 1:9). We find time for all sorts of other nonsense in preparation for word ministry (JEPD anyone?!) languages is a really good investment of time. If you have the chance to do it, do it.

11 thoughts on “Learning Biblical Languages [repost]

  1. Michael

    Thanks for this Glen!
    What about for the young Christian/student/young professional? What should their priorities be? Should they focus on the hard-hitters in historical theology (i.e. Athanasius/Augustine/Calvin/Luther/Edwards/Barth etc.), reading commentaries on individual books (BST vs technical?), beginning to learn some Greek (I actually know quite a few people doing online courses or teaching themselves from textbooks & CDs), contemporary STs (Bavinck/Frame/Grudem) or modern classics (Knowing God, Cross of Christ, C.S. Lewis etc.)?
    Aside from daily devotions and study of the Bible, of course. (Or rather, on top of.)
    Would be very interested to know what you think their priorities should be for investing reading time properly...particularly for people who are not likely to go to seminary or theological college.

  2. Michael

    P.S. I have a feeling it's not going to be the penultimate one, given the names I put in there ;)

  3. Vanessa

    I have discovered the Online Parallel Bible in recent years. It gives you Hebrew and Greek word for word translations so no need to learn the languages. :)

  4. Howard

    One of the things I value from my earlier Christian days was learning to use the Amplified bible, which gives you a great deal more of the richness used in the original language, especially in the Greek. I also invested in those days in a Strong's Bible Concordance and a Thompson Chain Reference Bible. If you add to this a good interlinear and Vine's word concordance, you pretty much have the tools to examine the scriptures in a viable fashion. Of course, one or two learned doctors 'leaning over your shoulder' as you study can also prove highly valuable.

  5. Glen

    Hey Michael, all those things you mention sound really fruitful (perhaps with the exception of commentaries!) All of them are best done in community - so partly it will depend on what your mates are up for. As for learning languages - I think the non-preacher can happily get by with Howard's suggestions: a couple of more literal translations open and a concordance, etc. But, again, if you can find a friend or two to join you - go for it.

    Vanessa - yes a place like blueletterbible.org is really helpful for that kind of thing. But just beware that meanings for words and phrases change depending on context and on many, many linguistic features that need to be learnt.

  6. Glen

    :) Let me put it this way... Next time you're preparing a talk, read, re-read, re-re-read the passage, get out your concordance, do all the word studies associated, read every other passage that seems remotely relevant, consult those other theological works you've mentioned, pray it all over, and *then* read a commentary that's been written in the last few centuries... if you still find it useful, good! Let's just say that the practical divorce of biblical studies both from the life of the church and from theology proper has not left it in a healthy state.

  7. Pingback: Hebrew and Greek | 言の葉のぷにゅーま

  8. william hamel

    All knowledge that can be acquired in the course of life are very important in order to understand the issues of the church in a professional and reasonable.

  9. Pingback: Some cool things about Hebrew | Christ the Truth

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