Learning the Biblical Languages: Worth the Effort?

Brian D. Russell

John Wesley preached approximately 40,000 sermons and traveled 250,000 miles during his ministry. As an itinerant evangelist and Bible teacher, Wesley embodied his own dictum: “You have nothing to do but save souls.” Wesley, however, was also well trained in divinity at Oxford University and studied the Bible in its original languages. His standard sermons are peppered with quotations from the Greek NT. Wesley’s own rudimentary Greek and Hebrew grammars are collected in Works. Wesley the preacher was also Wesley the trained exegete who used the best interpretive tools available to him at the time and expected those under him to commit themselves to serious study as well. What about us?

Given that many seminaries require little or no exposure to the biblical languages, it is worth pondering the questions: Is it still worth the effort to gain competence in the biblical languages? Are there tangible benefits for the pastor or Bible teacher in the local church?

The answer is a resounding, Yes! Direct study of the Bible in its original languages serves as a gateway to a deeper understanding of the Scriptures.

  1. It Promotes Careful Reading

    Too often Bible study arises out of shallow or hasty reading. Exegesis becomes eisegesis as we assume the text’s meaning. An intangible benefit of gaining a working knowledge of Greek and Hebrew and employing it in the preparation of sermons and Bible studies is that one’s actual reading of the biblical text slows down. Favorite texts open themselves up to new discoveries, and unfamiliar passages can be approached with confidence. Such close reading promotes the type of penetrating analysis that stands at the heart of profound theological reflection. Such reflection forms the roots of biblical preaching.

  2. It Serves as a Hedge against Misinterpretation

    Budding exegetes are confronted with a dizzying array of divergent interpretations and methods. How is an interpreter to navigate the hermeneutical maze about us? Studying the text in its original language allows the student to ask and answer three critical questions necessary for a textually grounded interpretation: (a) Do I have the correct text? (b) Is my understanding of the meaning of the passage grammatically possible? (c) Are the meanings that I have assigned to various words linguistically possible?

    The first question focuses on textual criticism. This field is impenetrable apart from knowledge of the languages. Many passages particularly in the OT remain in doubt regarding the “original” reading. Even in undisputed texts, exegetes can sometimes gain insight into the meaning of a passage by studying a text’s variant readings for clues about how earlier scribes understood (or misunderstood) the grammar.

    Jesus’ “Great Commission” in Matt 28:18-20 is a good illustration of the second question. I have heard multitudes of sermons in which the word “Go” is proclaimed as the central truth made by Jesus to his hearers. This is understandable because in English “go” is the first of four verbs, “go,” “make disciples,” “baptize,” and “teach” of which all appear to be parallel. A simple check of the verbs in Greek reveals a different emphasis. “Make disciples” is the main verb. “Go,” “baptize,” and “teach” are all participles that serve a subordinate role. Jesus lifts up “disciple making” as the principal mission of his followers. Not coincidently, this lines up with the emphasis of the rest of Matthew’s Gospel. This does not mean that all of the sermons on “Go” are wrong, but it does suggest that such a reading elevates a subordinate point above the main one offered in the text.

    For an example of the third question, let us examine the second half of the Shema in Deut 6:5, which reads in English translation, “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Typical interpretations read these common English terms through a grid more in tune with Greek psychology mixed with modern romantic sentiment than with Deuteronomy’s Ancient Near Eastern context. Word study of the Hebrew (and cognate) usage suggests that “love” is in fact a covenant term exhorting committed obedience. Rather than suggesting three parallel spheres or attributes of loving God, “heart,” “soul,” and “strength” form a concentric structure that emphasizes to a superlative degree the whole-person commitment involved in “loving the LORD.”

  3. It Explains Contradictory Translations

    The second half of the 20th century gave rise to a multitude of competing English translations of the Bible. This trend looks to continue on unabated. On the one hand, the study of multiple translations can aid in interpretation as a careful comparison of a variety of versions will bring to light differences that can be studied more carefully; on the other hand, how does the pastor understand, let alone explain, the sometimes acute differences between translations? For example, which of the following is the most accurate translation of Gen 1:1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (KJV, NIV, et al). “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth” (NRSV, Tanak, et al).

    Not every tension between translations is as theologically significant as Genesis one, but each points to the seams of a passage where exegetical work is needed for understanding.
    Such problems are not always solved through appeals to grammar alone, but without some competence in the biblical languages, one is hard pressed to evaluate the arguments offered in support of each.

  4. It Allows for a More Unified Reading of Context.

    The discipline of preparing sermons directly out of the original text allows the exegete to find connecting points within the wider context of a passage that are not readily discernible in the vernacular. Such connections are often illuminating. For example, in Ps 1, the righteous individual is one who “meditates on the Torah of the LORD” (1:2). Psalm 2 opens with the line, “Why do the peoples plot in vain?” Suggestively, the identical Hebrew root underlies the English words “meditate” and “plot.” For the attentive reader, this is only the first of a series of links that invite the interpreter to read Pss 1-2 together as a unit. In Phil 3:14, Paul testifies, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” This verse describes the urgency and zeal with which Paul follows Christ. Interestingly, in Paul’s autobiographical statement of his earlier life (3:4-6), the same Greek word, translated “press on” in v 14, occurs in 3:6 “as for zeal, persecuting the church.” In the context of Phil 3, this semantic link (hidden in English translation) illustrates the radical transformation that occurred in Paul’s life through his encounter with Jesus Christ. “Knowing Christ” (3:8) turned Paul from being a persecutor of the church to one who “pursues” Christ.

  5. It Enables One to Access the Best and Most up-to-Date Resources.

    I try to ingrain in my students a commitment to excellence in biblical interpretation. Part of such an undertaking involves making use of the finest secondary resources available. Most of the premier commentaries on the market presuppose competence in the biblical languages. A pledge to providing my flock with the fruits of the finest exegetical minds necessitates a working knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. The converse of this model is the tendency for many church leaders to fall into the all-too-common trap of relying not merely on second-tier materials, but rather on popular presentations which themselves typically are based on out-dated resources. Gaining competence in the biblical languages opens up the full range of resources for use.

  6. It Models a Missiological Principle

    Karl Barth once spoke of the “strange new world within the Bible.” Of the Scriptures, Barth wrote, “It is not the right human thoughts about God which form the content of the Bible, but the right divine thoughts about men” (The Word of God and the Word of Man [Peter Smith, 1958] 43). Abiding with us always is the idolatrous temptation to make God in our own image. Modern translations have certainly made the Scriptures accessible and readable. But they also, to varying degrees, have blurred the need for careful study because many translations diminish the cultural and historical distance between Iron age Israel and the first century A.D. Mediterranean world on one hand, and their own 21st century milieu on the other. Studying the text in the original language forces us to immerse ourselves in the cultural world of the Bible. In fact, I would suggest that such reading, rather than being pedantic and elitist, prepares us best to proclaim the gospel to the whole world precisely because it teaches us to receive the Scriptures cross-culturally. If we are unwilling to come to the text on its own terms, how will we ever be able to connect the life-giving Word of God with others?

    As church leaders we often lament the loss of biblical authority in our time and the concomitant biblical illiteracy among the laity. Is our situation much different from Europe on the eve of the Protestant Reformation? The cry of the reformers was ad fonts (“back to the sources”). In practice for Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and later Wesley, this meant a return to a vigorous study of the Scriptures in the original languages. Their biblical preaching and teaching sparked revival and fueled the Reformation. Perhaps our generation will be marked by a new wave of church leaders who refuse to offer mere scraps picked up second hand to our flocks, but rather provide in our teaching and preaching a real meal prepared from scratch for those who are hungry and longing for a fresh word from God.

Posted Mar 01, 2004