5 Reasons Studying the Original Languages Is Worth the Pain

greek hebrewShould pastors and other Bible teachers bother to learn Greek and Hebrew? You can use Greek and Hebrew without having to memorize a single paradigm, let alone 3,000 vocab words, so why torture yourself?

I’ll give you ten reasons studying the original languages is worth the pain, five this week and five next.

1. Because they increase interpretive accuracy.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones was a medical doctor by training. He had no formal theological education. Yet he went on to become one of the twentieth century’s most influential preachers—and a proponent of studying the Greek and Hebrew. He said that the languages

. . . are of great value for the sake of accuracy; no more, that is all. They cannot guarantee accuracy but they promote it. (Preaching and Preachers, 127–128)

Lloyd-Jones knew that some preachers would be tempted to treat a sanctuary like a linguistics classroom, and he discouraged that. But he also understood the interpretive power of Greek and Hebrew study. This pulpit master, in his classic work on preaching, goes on to rigorously subsume the value of the original languages to the end goal of conveying the biblical message to people. And it’s key that, in his view, they only “promote”—not “guarantee”—hermeneutical and homiletical accuracy.

I have heard comparatively untutored preachers teach Scripture accurately to groups that included numerous biblical studies PhDs. I have also heard the opposite; I have sometimes thought to myself, “Does this guy have any idea who he’s talking to?” (Indeed, the phrase “the gall!” has only ever come to my mind while listening to preachers.) If you are a Greek/Hebrew novice, by dabbling into something you don’t know, you may very well limit the effectiveness of your ministry to the educated by unwitting inaccuracies.

2. Because they make contextual connections which are necessarily obscured by translation.

There’s an apparently awkward break in the chain of Jesus’ reasoning in English translations of John 15:1–4. See if you can catch it:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.

One of these sentences doesn’t at first seem to flow very well with what comes before and after it. Why does he break out of his vine and fruit talk to mention, “Already you are clean”? That “already” implies some contrast with uncleanness—but he was just talking about pruning, not cleaning. And after his reference to cleaning, he goes back to talking about the main topic of the paragraph, namely branches and vines.

This is a perfect example of the kind of thing that knowing Greek can do for you. The word translated “clean” and the word translated “prunes” in the previous sentence are from the same Greek root (καθαρος). Jesus isn’t awkwardly lurching; he’s making a bit of a pun that’s hard to put into English. You can’t make these sorts of connections (the sorts that are necessarily obscured by translation) without knowing the original languages.

3. Because they rule out some interpretations.

Knowing original languages is more often helpful for ruling out bad interpretations than anointing true ones. Consider Psalm 14:1.

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good. (ESV)

In the English Bible translation I grew up with, the KJV, the words “There is” are italicized, meaning that they were supplied by the translators and not present in the original Hebrew. That’s true.

So I have heard numerous people say over the years that, supposedly, the italics indicate that the original Hebrew reads, “The fool hath said in his heart, ‘No, God!’” (I particularly remember hearing this from a clever roommate in college, who won the smarter-than-thou award for that day.)

But once I learned Hebrew I discovered that there’s a significant problem with this argument: the Hebrew word translated “no” doesn’t mean “no,” as in the opposite of “yes.” It means “non-existence of.” The fool described in Psalm 14:1 is denying God’s existence, not saying “No” to God.

Knowing Hebrew didn’t give me the right interpretation of this verse; that was something I already knew from my English translation(s). It just enabled me to decisively rule out the urban legend interpretation.

4. Because they enable you to follow commentaries.

Learning Greek and/or Hebrew will give you access to some of the best and most detailed Bible teaching in existence: commentaries. As Moisés Silva, a linguist influential in the field biblical studies, put it,“While we are blessed with a multitude of fine commentaries, they can prove to be almost useless if we cannot follow the linguistic arguments involved.” (278)

I remember the first time I picked up a commentary. I also remember that it didn’t do anything for me.

Good commentaries dig into the grammar and vocabulary of Hebrew or Greek. They’re easier to follow if you know what’s going on, particularly when commentaries get technical.

Most users of commentaries are not going to know Greek or (certainly) Hebrew better than the major scholarly commentators. I do defer to them, perhaps more often than I realize. But they don’t always agree, and I have no hope of weighing one against another if I can’t read Greek or Hebrew.

5. Because they will help you impress people with your superior knowledge.

If you learn Greek or Hebrew you will put people in their place and be able to lord your learning over them. They won’t dream of contradicting or even doubting your theology—because you, after all, can read Greek. And if you can read Hebrew your vats will be filled with new wine and you’ll finally persuade all your theological opponents that they’re wrong and your church will grow and your car will stop having problems and you’ll be happy, healthy, and wise.

Uh, no.

Actually, I’m with Moisés Silva, who says that as he got to know Greek better, his references to it in sermons decreased. I also live by the wisdom of the late Greek guru Rod Decker, who said:

I often tell my students that if you cannot show a local church audience the meaning of a passage from an English Bible, then you should think twice as to whether you really want to insist on a particular interpretation.

Most of the time I hear preachers explicitly reference Greek or Hebrew—most of the time—they do a bit more harm than good. Sometimes the whole reason they are appealing to Greek is that their interpretation is tenuous and they have to buttress it with a rhetorical appeal that they know will exceed their listeners’ capacity to contradict. Usually, however, their interpretation of the passage is fine, but their references to Greek and/or Hebrew have the unintended consequence of giving their hearers permission to leave all the Bible study to the professionals. If it takes Greek to understand this, what hope do most Christians have?

You won’t get credit for knowing Greek and Hebrew when you use them well; people listening to you will likely not realize what labors it took to acquire your interpretive skill. But the effect will be there. It does make a major difference; with the practiced eye of someone who does know the languages, I’ve seen that positive difference over and over.

Conclusion

God does not call everyone to learn Greek and Hebrew; you can live a godly and obedient life without that knowledge. And knowing the original languages should never lift you up in pride. But if you have the opportunity to spend six or eight semesters improving your interpretive accuracy for the sake of a ministry that may last decades, don’t you have a moral obligation to do so? If you have the opportunity to pick up contextual connections that translations obscure, shouldn’t you? If you can avoid the trouble of taking interpretations that, unbeknownst to you, are simply grammatically impossible—wouldn’t that be a help for Bible teaching?

In 26 years of formal education I never remember feeling as much drudgery as I did during one discrete portion of first-semester Hebrew. But I asked God for grace and I invested the hours and energy necessary. I’m so glad I did. The pain was more worthwhile than I can explain, and probably more than I know.


Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.

 

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Comments

  1. Genghis says:

    Hi there,

    On the whole, I quite agree with your ideas on the benefits of original language study.

    Languages capture the thinking and customs of any civilization. Understanding the mind of a people is important to understanding the matrix in which ideas are conveyed. Often that mind will help with understanding the likely unspoken assumptions that might guide how the meaning of a text can be interpreted.

    However you did make one assertion that raised questions for me:

    Quote: “This is a perfect example of the kind of thing that knowing Greek can do for you. The word translated “clean” and the word translated “prunes” in the previous sentence are from the same Greek root (καθαρος). Jesus isn’t awkwardly lurching; he’s making a bit of a pun that’s hard to put into English. You can’t make these sorts of connections (the sorts that are necessarily obscured by translation) without knowing the original languages.”

    How does this work if it was thought that Jesus spoke Aramaic?

    • Running out the door to catch the bus, but here’s a discussion you might find helpful. Even if he did speak Aramaic and not Greek, what Christians have been given by inspiration is the Greek. Even if this is John’s inspired summary of Jesus’ words and not a precise quotation, the pun is still relevant for exegesis. A supposed Aramaic “Vorlage” can only ever provide highly speculative “results” for exegesis, though surely at times very interesting ones.

      And I’d want to qualify the tie between a language and the thinking and customs of those who speak it. Some very different people with vastly differing worldviews and customs speak English. That was surely true of Koine Greek, too, perhaps even more so.

      • Genghis says:

        “And I’d want to qualify the tie between a language and the thinking and customs of those who speak it. Some very different people with vastly differing worldviews and customs speak English. That was surely true of Koine Greek, too, perhaps even more so.”

        Absolutely. Thus it is risky to say without question that just because a text came to us in Greek, means that the speaker or writer is steeped in the Greek cultural matrix with all its worldviews and customs.

        Equally, if a Jew was expressing himself to other Jews even in Greek, he or she may be trying to give expression to distinctly Jewish concepts and ideas rather than Greek ones. This is why the Septuagint is so important in understanding how Jews might have tried to express their ideas through their choice of Greek words when combined with as much as we know about Jewish first century thinking.

      • Genghis says:

        “Running out the door to catch the bus, but here’s a discussion you might find helpful: https://academic.logos.com/did-jesus-speak-greek/

        Thanks for the useful link. It became the subject of discussion over a family dinner last Friday night and helped expand our conception of the Historical Jesus.

  2. Αndrew says:

    If “The word translated ‘clean’ and the word translated ‘prunes’ in the previous sentence are from the same Greek root (καθαρος)” is true, then why in Logos does it say that the root for καθαίρω (to prune) is αιρω (to take away/up)? It would appear incorrect to say that καθαίρω’s root is καθαρος, since καθαίρω can easily be broken down into κατα (shortened to καθ-) + αιρω.

    • The root of καθαρος is κατα + αιρω, too. And even if they weren’t, even if they were something akin to false cognates within a language (that is, if they had separate etymological histories that only happened to converge—like “ear” of corn and “ear” on a human do), the play on words would still be going on.

      Here’s Carson:

      The Greek displays a play on words that is hard to render in English. The Father ‘cuts off’ (airei) every dead branch; he ‘trims’ (kathairei) every fruit-bearing branch; indeed the disciples listening to Jesus are already ‘clean’ (katharoi, v. 3) because of the word Jesus has spoken to them. The verb kathairei and its cognate adjective katharoi are appropriate to both an agricultural…and a moral or religious context. Cf. Additional Note.

      D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), 515.

      See also DELG.