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.

Recommended Resources: StepBible.com

I love books! If you know anything about me you know this to be true. The idea of libraries going completely digital is equal to the unpardonable sin in my mind because I can’t fathom studying the scriptures without a desk full of books. Although I have a deep affinity for physical books, there is a diTyndaleHouseEquippinggital resource library gold mine. This resource is StepBible.com; a Bible software developed through Tyndale House. Dr. David Instone-Brewer has put together an amazing resource with many advantages.

First off, it is totally free! For a poor student, this is great! The program has a great deal of resources, commentaries, translations and texts. This is a huge benefit of a program that is comparable to a logos or accordance, but where logos can cost you thousands of dollars on resources, StepBible hands it over right in the public domain.

Second, it emphasizes the great importance of the original languages. In fact, most of the tools that are used to develop the unique functions of StepBible.com are built around the original languages. The program does not necessitate a knowledge of the biblical languages, but it certainly helps anyone seeking to deepen their understanding. With a program that is intrinsically oriented to the original languages, it begins your study off at the ground level. This basic principle of hermeneutics recognizes that you should never start at the commentary/exegetical level before diving into the original text language.

Third, not only does it start you off at the original languages, it builds additional information on the text. By just hovering your cursor over the text or a word, you are presented with a wealth of data: the semantic range of the word, the way it is parsed, how many times the word is used and so forth. What may have taken hours to find before is readily accessible with this program.

Fourth, the base is the biblical text, but they have indexed words based on their lexical morpheme. This means word searches are not based on the English word used or searching for the word in a particular verb form, but you can search its lexical form and you will find all of its occurrences in what ever range you have set.

The only downside to this program is it does not have the overwhelming amount of resources a program like Logos does. If you are looking for a deep exegetical or theological exposition of a passage, this may let you down. But for a resource that is not only free but so strongly linked to the original languages, it is hard to complain about the lack of commentaries. If that is your only concern, I would highly recommend starting with StepBible.com and then move to your closest theological library and get in contact with some physical books. I would highly recommend using this resource for any study or devotion you might be doing. You never know what you might unlock.

Recommended Resources are posts devoted to videos, blogs, articles, and sermons that have helped me think through some more difficult topics. This segment of the blog is to develop fodder for thoughtfulness in deeper content issues.

Recommended Resources: Miles Van Pelt’s Advice to Students

I am of the persuasion that the Biblical languages and education are imperative to continue to grow in the knowledge of the Lord. Dr. Miles Van Pelt has some helpful insight into how to keep up with the biblical languages once you have learned them. The study of Biblical languages is not a membership card to pure exegesis. They are a tool and give great insight into the world the Biblical authors were living in. We should cherish God’s word in the original languages, as well as our translations. Allow Dr. Van Pelt to encourage your desire for a deep and diligent understanding of God’s word.

Recommended Resources are posts devoted to videos, blogs, articles, and sermons that have helped me think through some more difficult topics. This segment of the blog is to develop fodder for thoughtfulness in deeper content issues.

Is the Bible Historically Reliable? Part I: The Importance of the Original Text

Today in some Christian circles the new intellectual trend is to not just to deny the incarnation or particular stories of scripture like the liberals of the early 20th century wanted to do; now we just throw it all out, because according to the professional, “the scriptures are unreliable.” Is that a valid way of thinking? Can we, in particular, trust the New Testament? Scholars like Dr. Bart Ehrman want to say no, “that is an absolutely ridiculous conclusion based on the evidence that we have.” With respect to the scholar that Dr. Ehrman is, I will strongly disagree with him, that the scriptures are not only reliable but they are historically validated. In other words they are externally and internally valid.

One of the most common critiques of the scriptures is there are variants in the text. These variants can be anything like spelling errors, different word order, or added words. This can seem troubling to most Christians. “If there are variants in the text how can I believe that the scriptures are inerrant?” That is a great question. Dr. Daniel Wallace of Dallas
Theological Seminary counts that we have approximately 300,000 variants between each text, some estimates 400,000. That is a large number and slightly scary, if we take it at face value. The encouraging thing is this, that ¾ of those variants are what is called a removable nu (ν). The letter nu (ν) is transliterated to the English N, so these variants would be the difference between “a airplane” or “an airplane.” This is an overwhelmingly large percentage that creates virtually no difference at all between the vast collection of manuscripts. This is clearly not an inerrancy issue like Dr. Ehrman claims it is, we are not arguing for the inspiration of the documents, but the scriptures, the authoritative words of God.

Now, there are about 100,000 variables left to look at. Approximately 24% of that number are grammatical issues that hold no bearing theologically. Less than 1% of all variables in the Greek New Testament manuscripts are what is called a “Viable difference.” These are differences that would possibly change the reading of a text. There are two primary examples of these “viable differences”. One of the most common viable differences is that scholars speculate 1 Corinthians is actually a conglomeration of 3 or 5 separate letters. Another common example is that the number of the beast in revelation is not 666, but 616. This comes from a reading of the earlier manuscripts we have. Much like these two examples, there are no instances where a viable difference would change the theology of any passage in scripture.

The reader at this point may ask, what is the point of giving out so many numbers and statistics about the original manuscripts. It also may seem slightly boring. If we are just crunching numbers than this can be boring; but what the numbers tell us is not boring at all. They tell us out of the almost 5,600 manuscripts we have of the New Testament in the original Greek, there are not enough viable differences to call into question the internal validity of the text. The differences we have in all our manuscripts are virtually meaningless, theologically speaking. We can be certain therefore that the scriptures we have now are the very words of the authorial words of God, as dictated by the human author. That is also without taking into account the 20,000 latin manuscripts and other various translations such as Coptic, Syriac, Arabic, Gothic, Hebrew and Aramaic.

Again, what that means is, we can trust the Bible for what it says. The words of the Scriptures are the words of God. Scholars and laymen alike undoubtedly believe the words of Homer, in his Iliad and The Odyssey, even though the earliest manuscripts we have are from 200 CE, which dates that manuscript about 900 years after it was written. That is the closest one to the original copy, out of all 10 manuscripts we hold. Even worse is the manuscript tradition of William Shakespear, nobody reads Hamlet and questions the integrity of the play, despite the fact that we do far more guess work with Shakespear’s rylands-p52plays then we do the New Testament. The earliest New Testament manuscript is P52, which contains a portion of the Gospel of John and is dated 117-138. This puts P52 almost 100 years out from the autograph. That is extraordinary considering the attestation of these events through manuscript tradition and church father’s quotations and allusions.

If we use these common examples and compare them, we soon realize that the Bible is not only historically reliable, but the most reliable account of the Jesus event. No other ancient book or text can make a similar claim, with quantity or quality of text like the New Testament.  Textually speaking that is a problem that scholars have to deal with honestly, if they want to take the New Testament to task.

That is a tremendous claim to historical validity for New Testament Scholars and believers. There is an overwhelming amount of the New Testament manuscripts. Therefore we can most certainly be confident we have the words that were written by Paul, John, Matthew, Peter, Luke and Mark. Men who God used to give us his holy word. In the next post we will talk about the task of Textual criticism and see how we come up with these numbers and the research that goes into it.