Why Learn The Biblical Languages?

I am not sure what it was exactly, but as soon as I learned that the New Testament was written in Greek, I knew I must learn Greek and I didn’t waste any time. I began teaching myself as much Greek as I could and shortly after that, I bought my first Greek New Testament. I fell in love with the language. The way it looked, the way it sounded, and just simply the idea of reading what Paul, Peter, and John had actually written was the most exciting. The same happened when I began my first HebrewGreekJohn1 class in Seminary. I found the intricacy of the language to be beautiful and intriguing.

In my excitement, I began trying to persuade people to learn the languages, and to my surprise faced a great deal of opposition. When people began asking me if the languages actually mattered, my head started spinning. “Do the languages matter? Of course, they matter!” I would remark in typical condescending fashion. After spending many late nights and long hours studying Greek and Hebrew, I would quickly jump to the offensive when asked these types of questions. It is even more upsetting to see seminaries now throwing away the languages because there is no immediate, or maybe a visible, impact. It was said to be an unnecessary hurdle for the students because they wouldn’t use the languages; they’re not practical enough. It is almost as though the Biblical languages are dying, again!

When I would listen to these types of arguments against using the languages, typically I would try to pull some example from the text that showed what one could do if they were to study them. I would refer to some historical point that you couldn’t see with just the English, or maybe a linguistic nuance that only becomes apparent when you know Greek and Hebrew. Better yet, I would quote some scholar about the absolute necessity of the languages who might persuade people to devote their attention to Greek and Hebrew text, typically Luther with his fiery passion.

Of course, you can use many texts to argue that the significance of the languages would influence how you understand any given passage. Although we can turn to textual reasons, linguistic reasons, or historical reasons, I believe there is one reason in particular that should persuade anyone to know their languages. That reason being that it makes us a much better reader of the text. It forces us to take our time reading because it is a foreign language, in a distant time period. In the end, as we have learned the languages, we must learn to love the text. Diligent attention to the text should do nothing but humble us, and when we humbly approach the text to glean from it, we learn to love the Scriptures and ultimately God. What better reason to do something than to develop a love for the Lord?

I once heard it said that the only people who think the languages aren’t important are people who do not know the languages. That is true in my experience. It seems that people either begrudgingly work through the languages, or assume that learning these things is merely an intellectual exercise that puffs you up. But I have seen more often than not, that people are puffed up by how much intellectualism they avoid. It’s arrogance in pragmatism. Even more, there is nothing intrinsically prideful about learning these things; it’s the individual that’s the problem. So it sounds to me like we are arguing against the wrong thing.

Learning the languages ought to be done because we love the text of scripture and have acknowledged God’s divine wisdom in handing down the full disclosure of his revelation in the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. A pastor from my home church once told me a story about a professor he had in seminary. He was telling me about this professor’s love for Greek, and that he was a wonderful, godly man who taught the language to the affection of our Lord. This professor once said, “If your Greek doesn’t bring you to your knees, then you don’t know Greek.” That couldn’t be any more true.

Does it take time? Yes. Does it take a lot of time? Yes. Will you get frustrated because you have spent more time trying to translate one clause than you would have liked? Yes. Is it going to make it into every sermon? No. Will it help you counsel the congregant who can’t tell their family they struggle with an eating disorder? No. Will you pay your bills better because you love the languages? No. But that’s not the point. If everything you learned made it’s way into all of life’s situations than life is way too simple. We learn and study with diligence to go to the text more informed and better equipped so we can come away with a more affectionate, bold, robust, and profound love for God. Just as theology ought to end in doxology, so should the deep well of language study.