3 Reasons To Study Greek, and 3 Reasons Not To


You want to learn New Testament Greek?

Presumably, you’re a Christian, so my advice on this topic will be written for those who desire to love God and neighbor in all they do—even and especially in learning New Testament Greek.

Thinking carefully at the outset about why you want to learn Greek will enrich your study and help ensure that your work is an offering to the Lord.

Here are three reasons not to study Greek—and three to study it.

1. Don’t aim to discover errors in existing translations.

Some wheels need to be reinvented—for example, we need phone batteries that last for weeks rather than hours, and we need them now, people—but English Bible translation is not such a wheel. The level of expertise required to discover genuine errors in major translations is equal to the level required to produce those translations—and you don’t get that level of expertise by aiming for it, anyway. Only love for the study will drive you that far.

When students with two years of Greek under their belts gleefully reveal the “errors” in the NIV, one is justified in rolling one’s eyes like a Chinese journalist.

2. Don’t aim to impress others.

Jesus said that those who do their good works to impress others “have their reward” (Matt 6:2). It’s a terse and powerful phrase on its own. When teaching the text, it does not help you to say something like, “The Greek here is the word misthos, which means—according to the pre-eminent Greek-English lexicon, Bauer-Danker-Arndt-Gingrich—‘recognition (mostly by God) for the moral quality of an action.’” That’s just showing off. It puts you on a pedestal and makes others assume they can’t join you at your altitude of Bible study. If you do that, you have your reward.

If you know how to look up a Greek word in BDAG (it’s as easy as a right-click in Logos), by all means use what you find, but any attempts you make to put your learning on display are likely to backfire. Trust me. Wear your learning lightly, whatever level you’ve reached. You’ll have a better misthos.

3. Don’t aim to discover the “true meaning” of NT Greek words.

Our many excellent Bible translations are not hiding anything. They already tell us, sometimes with a little help from commentaries, the “true meaning” of Bible words. The Greek words in the New Testament mean what our translations and dictionaries say they mean. Studying Greek will not give you access to word meanings everybody else is missing. Don’t enter the quest for Greek with this El Dorado in mind; it’s only a legend.

Now some good motivations.

1. Do aim to know God.

Here’s the ultimate positive goal for studying Greek: knowing God. I never want to suggest that those who don’t know Greek don’t know God, of course. There are Christians whose knowledge of God is far broader and deeper than mine who can’t tell an alpha from an omega.

I also don’t want to spiritualize something that ought to be practical. But how could studying God’s words be merely practical? God has to be the ultimate goal of all our actions; certainly he’s got to be the point of Greek study.

Ideally, knowing Greek gives you a kind of confidence and interpretive precision—confidence because of interpretive precision—that can indeed bring you closer to God than you were before. It’s not an automatic ticket, by any means. But shouldn’t it be this way? Shouldn’t it be that peering ever closer at God’s words bring you ever closer to him? Make this your prayer, and your ultimate motivation, as you study.

2. Do aim to follow the work of commentators.

Some of the most insightful words ever written about the New Testament are found in commentaries. And some of the best of those commentaries aren’t based on English translations; they’re based on the original Greek. And even those that aren’t based on the Greek are inevitably sprinkled with discussions of Greek words. The good news is, not all of these are highly technical; you’ll be surprised how many arguments open up to you when you can just follow along with the words being discussed. Simply being able to read those weird little Greek characters when they’re mentioned in a commentary is freeing. And even an elementary understanding of how the Greek language works will help you follow the arguments of these commentators.

The words Charles Spurgeon gave aspiring preachers over a century ago are still perfectly true:

In order to be able to expound the Scriptures … you will need to be familiar with the commentators: a glorious army, let me tell you, whose acquaintance will be your delight and profit. Of course, you are not such wiseacres as to think or say that you can expound Scripture without assistance from the works of divines and learned men who have laboured before you in the field of exposition. (11)

Some technical commentaries will remain out of reach unless you advance far in Greek. Most commentators today, however, want to sell copies of their volumes—so their work is purposefully designed to be accessible to those who have not achieved expert status. From Andersen on Job to Jobes on 1 Peter, you’ll find that good commentaries on books in both testaments are useful no matter how much language training you have—but more useful if you’ve done some language study.

3. Do aim to eliminate bad interpretive possibilities.

Studying Greek will not increase your understanding of the Bible by ten or even five times. You’ll have just a small percentage increase; you’ll be able to slow down and focus on smaller things in the text.

And, importantly, you’ll decrease the number of minor falsehoods you come to believe in your Bible study. If you teach the Bible to others, this is especially valuable. And it’s especially true if you’ll combine your Greek study with some reading in basic linguistics. The real value in studying Greek is often simply being able to eliminate impossible interpretations, rather than in coming up with the 100% certain one you couldn’t see before.

Conclusion

Only the Bible is worth this kind of attention if you have a full-time job that doesn’t involve biblical scholarship. I don’t care a great deal if I commit basic errors in understanding Dante’s Inferno or even Shakespeare. There’s no way I’m learning medieval Italian (or the very finest points of Elizabethan English!) to increase my proficiency in those texts. But the Bible is worth the effort.

Dr. John Schwandt’s interactive Greek alphabet course is the place to start to get you going using Greek in Bible study. And his brand new Biblical Greek Foundational Certificate Program—which is a rare 45% off right now during Logos March Madness—is the perfect next step.

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Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as an Academic Editor at Lexham Press, the publishing imprint at Faithlife. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible.

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Comments

  1. With all the newspeak and nonsense being written these days, it is refreshing to see someone like Mark Ward who continues to write meaningful, helpful blog posts and articles. His posts are not only thoughtful, but don’t seem to be written for the sole purpose of marketing something. Rather, they encourage and stimulate.

    Thank you, Mark!

  2. Mark, another very good article.

  3. Daniel Warren says:

    Thank you Mark for your insight,

    Someone once pointed out to me, that it is as easy to misinterpret a Greek text, as it is an English text. He said, “we can make as many erroneous conclusions using the Greek language, as we can employing English.”

    This made a lot of sense to me, considering 2 Peter 3:15-17 and that people must have been in error. Be it deliberate or even in a deceived state, they must have made this very interpretative mistake when using the original inspired Greek texts. So what’s to stop us from doing the same?

    My friends point, was to encourage a cautious use of Greek tools and to always check our attitude and hearts when we approach Bible Study.
    Would you be able to add some further insight to my friends comments?

    • That’s a great insight. In fact, native speakers know contemporary English better than anyone could know Greek. *And* a lot of people who’ve studied some Greek have failed to realize that Greek Is Not Math. Greek study is still well worth one’s time. But setting up good expectations and goals and motivations in advance will help a great deal.

      Only God can tell, in the end, which faulty interpretations are honest mistakes (a result of human finiteness) and which make us culpable (a result of human fallenness). I often think of Jesus’ question, “Have you not read…?” And I think, too, of that scene in Lewis’ The Great Divorce in which two Anglican clerics argue this point. It’s brilliant. I just pray for hermeneutical grace and illumination.

  4. Deacon Rick Bauer says:

    As always, Mark. great article. I would add one additional benefit: you can tell when a fellow preacher is faking it with respect to knowledge of the Koine. If you have to make a big show about it (i.e., “Now, in the original Greek language, this means ____ (if you use slides, make sure you don’t transliterate it or make it easier to remember, either). that’s now what we need in our pulpits.

    Something more like “now originally, this word for the type of giver God loves is the word “hilaros” in 1 Corinthians, and it’s actually where we get the word “hilarious.” Am I that kind of giver?” That’s all you need. Playing “stump the translator” is a foolish errand, to be sure.

    Every now and then, you get an insight that may not be apparent in the English translation, and it really changes your perspective on God, Christ, the church, etc. That maturity is not something you tout in the synagogue (err, congregation), to be seen by men. Otherwise, you have received your reward in full.

    We are not commanded to be brilliant or flashy in our preaching, only faithful. Sometimes our learning something in the original Greek (or Hebrew) makes that quiet, unseen study, worth its weight in a treasure that does not perish.

    And it just may help someone in the pew who is struggling with having a fuller, deeper, more loving picture of God.

    That’s why you did that work.

    • Excellent.

      I ran across a funny one in the LXX the other day; too bad it doesn’t show up in the NT:

      ἐκ στόματος ἀφρόνων βακτηρία ὕβρεως

      The word bakteria is “rod,” apparently because some bacteria are rod-shaped. So should a preacher say, “The word ‘rod’ here is where we get our word bacteria.” =)

  5. dave thawley says:

    Another great Blog Mark, Thanks I truly value what you say and your educated balanced opinion on things. I really want to learn greek. At the moment thou I am looking at it like climbing a mountain. But I guess it is just one step at a time.

    • Happy to be of service. Do take a look at John Schwandt’s courses. I know and trust him.

      • Hi Mark,

        I think I will take your advice here :-) . I was wondering if you know if there is much of a difference between John’s course and Johnny Cisneros’s LA161 “using biblical Greek with logos”

        • John Schwandt says:

          This is a great question because the two courses are quite different. LA161 looks at Greek from the outside. The first two units cover how to use English resources and tools to study original texts without having to know Greek. The remaining units explain the ways Greek functions grammatically, so you can ask questions of the text that would not come up if you were merely studying an English translation. LA161 is more of a course “about” Greek than a course “in” Greek.

          GK101 is a traditional Greek language course that will teach you how to translate and even compose in Greek if you want to. Composition skills are important if you want to ask questions along the lines of “Why did the author say it this way when he could have expressed himself thus?” Another example of the difference is that GK101 teaches vocabulary, parsing, and training for mastering grammatical forms, so you don’t have to use tools to parse words. Another difference is that GK101 follows a traditionally styled Greek grammar with exercises through the course. Both courses are fantastic (if I do say so myself😊) and are designed to serve different needs and provide different but complementary outcomes.

          • dave thawley says:

            Hiya John. Thanks for joining in the discussion. I thought after reading the descriptions this would be the case but its great to hear this from the horses mouth as it were. I’m convinced now so thanks. I hope you are a good teacher because I find English difficult so learning Greek is going to be even harder lol. I am Looking forward to this though. It is something I have been wanting to do for the last few years :-) I will try and get the the LA course as well as I think the two may be useful together :-)

            God bless, and thanks
            Dave

  6. Maybe I shouldn’t jump in here. I certainly have a lot more things to do than engage in a (possibly) lengthy email exchange.
    You are trying here to encourage people to study Greek. That is a worthy cause. I think maybe you were trying a little too hard with trying to balance your article between reasons why not to study Greek and reasons why someone should. A few things are prompting me to respond.
    No, I didn’t start to study Greek to look for errors in existing translations. But because of my studying Greek, there are a number of English translations that I will never use, one being the NIV which you refer to. And two years of Greek is well enough time to see the problems in it.
    As for the “true meaning” of Greek words, there is definitely a play on words in John 21 when Jesus asks Peter some questions, even though some commentators might deny it. No point in Jesus and Peter talking the way they did if the words were basically the same. And, no, the English translations don’t give you a clue to what is going on.
    If you teach or preach the Bible, you should learn Greek. Having Logos will save you the need to have to memorize all the words. If you are a real serious student of the Bible, you really should study Greek and enough Hebrew to get around a bit. A good Bible software program does alleviate the need for a lot of the memorization of the past.
    I hope you get a lot of good responses to those courses you recommended.

    • I dug into John 21 in my dissertation, and I concluded that if Jesus does intend us to get something out of his alternation of words for love, it’s not clear to us now what that is. I’m for the solution of most Bible translations: use “love” for both ἀγαπάω and φιλέω in that passage. But I’m agnostic: I’m open to further light on the topic. I’ll point out that there are other places where the semantic domain of English words doesn’t quite line up with those of the Greek, causing some difficulties for translators. Spanish’s justicia can cover our “righteousness” and our “justice”—just like the δικ- word group in Greek. But our translators have to choose. These little trade-offs are required all over the place. Most are minor. The few that aren’t quite as minor can be handled by the use of multiple Bible translations.

      Thanks for commenting.

      • I’ve preached and taught on that passage in John 21 several times. I can tell you how I see it.
        Jesus first asks Peter: do you love me more than these? Peter, am I first in your life?
        Peter: I really like you, Jesus. You mean a lot to me.
        Jesus: Peter, do you LOVE me? Have you made the rational decision to see me for who I am and commit your life to me based on who I am rather than on your feelings which are subject to change? Because if you see Me for who I am, you could not help but put Me first in your life.
        Peter: I like you, Jesus. A lot! Really, really I do.
        Jesus: DO you like me? For if you did, you couldn’t help then but love me and commit your whole life to me.

        As for your last thought, I would think using multiple translations would only confuse people, because they wouldn’t know how to judge between them.
        You seem to be less enthusiastic about encouraging people to study Greek.

        Thanks for writing.

        • And my dissertation-length response can be summarized by pointing you to Carson’s Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. It’s brief and stupendous.

          • is there a passage in that book that you have in mind or the whole book in general or just the part where he discusses the two words but doesn’t directly address those verses?

            thank you

          • Basically, the whole model in which ἀγάπη denotes a “rational” or a “volitional” love independent of emotion is something he questions on a linguistic and on a theological level. His section on “Some Different Ways the Bible Speaks of the Love of God” in chapter 1 and his “How Not to Proceed” in chapter 2 are the main things that made me think of his book.

            If I misread your very brief summary of your viewpoint, forgive me!

          • There’s no link to respond directly to your last comment. I will look again at Carson.

            But I find it really hard to believe that Jesus and Peter saw the two words as synonymous in their conversation

          • I actually incline that way, too, against Carson (which feels weird to me!). But just because there is a difference between the two verbs doesn’t mean we know for sure what that difference is.

          • I haven’t studied the words in years, because I thought that had all been figured out a very long time ago. I saw some writers who pushed for their interchangeability, but I find it hard to believe after all these years, scholars are no closer to reaching a conclusion.

          • I don’t think that’s quite it… “We don’t know” is also a conclusion. And in this case, I think it’s mainly that we don’t know about John 21. As for the verbs themselves, I think we *do* know. It’s what scholars many years ago said that has been overturned, namely that ἀγάπη always denominates a specific kind of love, a non-emotional love.

          • This site is not giving me a reply link to your last comment.
            I never thought of emotion as being the difference between the two words. Love will always produce a degree of emotion. The question is what prompts the love. I understand philia as being prompted by emotion, like when people have a natural chemistry, they hit it off, love at first sight, people feel comfortable with each other.. Agape I see as a love prompted by my seeing the intrinsic value of this other person. They may not be attractive, even likable, you may not even get along, but you see the person behind the eyes, you see an object worthy of your respect, and love. The Greeks were very precise in their language. I can’t imagine they would just blur the two concepts together like they don’t matter or like there’s no difference.

          • Κοινή (Koine) is no more specific than English. How could it be? It was spoken by everyone from slaves to foreigners, people who couldn’t maintain all the fine distinctions of Classical style anymore than we can get college-educated people to use “begging the question” “correctly.” Greek Is Not Math. =)

            Here’s what I’d encourage you to do: use Logos Bible Software to look at every instance of the ἀγάπη word group in the LXX and in the NT and tell me if “love prompted by my seeing the intrinsic value of this other person” works as a definition. Start in 2 Sam 13. =) Usage determines meaning, so if that’s what ἀγάπη means it will be reflected in the usage. If not, perhaps we’re freighting the word with too much specific theological meaning. I’m not questioning whether love ought to be prompted by someone else’s intrinsic value (that’s a question for another day); I’m only questioning whether ἀγάπη necessarily denominates such a love.

            I’ve enjoyed our discussion!

          • Have you seen the size of Liddell and Scott’s complete lexicon of Greek? No, maybe not everyone had the same vocabulary size, but you have to be impressed by the number of words in classical Greek. As for the LXX, that is a translation from Hebrew which basically has the one word for love.
            Someday I may do the study you suggest, but right now I have quite a few projects I am working on that I want to finish as soon as possible. Maybe by July

  7. Michael Chesley says:

    I’ve been studying at a Byzantine Catholic Church by a gal that has a PHD from Cornell U in Classical studies. Smart girl. Have learned a lot. I still have not arrived to the point of bearing “fruit” yet however. Still mixing up the nominative and the dative cases!! Its is good to know but takes a lot of study to really get it down. I will continue to do it though, It is worth the effort. Deacon Mike Chesley ( Roman Catholic Rite)

  8. Deacon Rick Bauer says:

    the thing is, it’s not Jesus and Peter’s words that are being precisely recorded by John (and they probably were not in Greek, right?). It’s (St.) John’s vocabulary use in the Johannine corpus, and his recalling (as the Holy Spirit gave utterance) decades after the fact (as however you define it). Can the words for love be parsed too finely here? If there is a pre-literate oral history (don’t go there, Rick!), would someone telling this story aloud simply use synonyms? Can Peter be hurt simply because there were three interrogatories to match Peter’s three denials? I think this “are you even my friend?” thing was popular in the 70’s-90’s, but there are some new voices in Johannine literature what are saying, “not so fast.”

    • You’re right. Don’t go there, Rick. The text is what we have. The rest is speculation. And I will fight for an early date for the gospels. All of them. But not here.
      No, I don’t think the words are parsed too finely. Greek is a precise language, and the variance of usage here cannot be that Jesus got tired of using the same word three times, though Peter didn’t

  9. Dr Ward – just wanted you to know I finished your book Authorized and it was a delight to read. I appreciate your respect for the KJV and those that prefer it while explaining the benefits of the modern versions.
    I’ve always thought studying a foreign language gives you an immense respect for those who do the work of translating and the choices they have to make. I think it’s also easier to pick up humor and sarcasm in the original language.
    One error I commonly see of new Greek students is trying to make a theological mountain out of a common verb such as “to hear”. Really – it means “to hear”.
    Thank you so much for your blogs and books. Maybe one on translating idioms next time?

    • A very kind comment—thank you! You nailed it: I respect the KJV and those who prefer it but am jealous for my brothers and sisters in Christ to get the benefit from all modern translations.

      I love that: “Really—it means ‘to hear'”! That’s so perfect.

  10. Mark,

    I too want to thank you for your blog posts–not just this one (although it too is excellent). You have a refreshingly balanced perspective between the man-in-the-pew and the academy which is rare nowadays.

    Might I add another reason for studying the original languages? To more easily spot where their use is being abused by those who know just enough to get themselves and others into trouble.

    I suppose that is part of eliminating “bad interpretive possibilities,” but I’m thinking specifically here of bad teaching which couches itself in unwarranted authority through errant appeal to the original languages.

    • That is exactly right. I did this myself two days ago. Somebody preached a message on the word “Selah.“ Since I’ve studied Hebrew, and since I’ve dug into this word in particular several times, I knew that—how do I say this delicately?—he had no authority for what he was saying. He assigned a specific meaning to the word and used it as a rhetorical device throughout the message. But we simply don’t know what that word means.

  11. Thank you, it is so freeing to know that one is not better then the other. I can move forward with what I know to do.