What is the payoff for studying biblical languages?
There are many benefits for those who study Greek and Hebrew:3
1. You can study the actual words that the authors wrote. An old saying goes, “Studying a translation of the Bible is like kissing your date through a screen door.” The basic act is the same, but the sensation is entirely different. If you believe in the inspiration of Scripture, then you value the words.
2. You have insight into options that cannot be conveyed in a translation. Our modern English translations are very good; so good, in fact, that even in translation we can be sure that we are reading in essence the words of God. However, no translation is able to convey fully the subtleties of the original language.
Sometimes English grammar is more precise (or rigid) than the original. For example, in the English present tense, speakers must always decide whether to express a simple present (“he writes”) or a progressive present (“he is writing”). The Greek present tense conveys both of these ideas with the same expression and the meaning is determined by the context. In cases like this, studying the original allows more possible understandings than the English-only reader might realize.
At other times the grammar of the original language is more precise than English grammar. For example, in English, pronouns only have number (and this is confusing with the pronoun “you” serving for both singular and plural). However, in Hebrew, pronouns have not only number, but also in the second and third persons they have gender (masculine or feminine). So in Song of Songs 1:2-4a, the pronoun “you” is masculine and singular, and the reader can understand that the speaker is a woman talking about a man. However in verse 4b, the pronoun “you” is feminine and singular. Therefore, there is now a new speaker talking to a woman. In cases like this, studying the original can eliminate possible misunderstandings that the English allows.
3. You can gain a better grasp of Scripture and theology. The more clearly and strongly you want to state and maintain a biblical doctrine, the more you need to have a grasp of the biblical languages. “No person is likely to grasp the intended meaning of the Bible, on its deepest level, unless that person learns to read and, in some sense, think in Hebrew and Greek.”4
4. You can understand English translations better. For example, you will be able to understand why 1 Thessalonians 1:3 in the NASB95 reads “your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope,” but in the NIV it reads, “your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope.”<
5. You can better understand poetry as the author intended. Poetry and all figures of speech rely heavily upon the structure, sounds and meanings of the original language that rarely can be conveyed in translation.
6. You can better understand the literary devices the author used. These cannot be accurately interpreted from a translation without footnotes pointing out and explaining the device. In Jeremiah 1:11, the Lord gives Jeremiah a vision and asks what he sees. Jeremiah says he sees an almond branch. As a result of these words, the Lord says “I am watching to see that my word is fulfilled” (NIV). The English reader is left mystified as to what the connection is. The one who knows Hebrew sees that the word for “almond,” shaqed, sounds like the word for “watching,” shoqed. The Lord is making a word play.
7. You can better understand the modes of thought of the cultures of the Bible. Studying Greek helps you understand the world in which the New Testament was written. Of course Hebrew helps you understand the Old Testament world. But also, study of Hebrew helps you understand those same cultural modes of thought that are found in the NT.
8. Your study of the Bible is more independent – it is yours! “It is as perilous to live on borrowed opinions as to live on borrowed money: the practice must end in intellectual or even in moral bankruptcy.”5 Some of your questions may not be answered in the materials you use. Furthermore, researchers may have motives that do not allow them to follow the same pathway that you may wish to investigate.
9. You can use more and better understand resources that make reference to Greek and Hebrew: lexicons, word studies, theological works, grammars, concordances, journal articles, commentaries, etc.
10. You are better able to evaluate the study of others. If you do not learn Hebrew and Greek, you will be more dependent upon the thoughts and ideas of someone else. Absolutely nobody is a totally independent interpreter of Scripture (including those who claim to be!). Knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, though, can make you more independent.
11. You can preach better expository sermons. Expository sermons are those that seek to “expose” the meaning of a passage to the audience and lead them to make accurate application of God’s word to their lives. One requirement of preparing expository messages is the exegesis of the passage, that is, leading out the meaning from the text rather than reading meaning into the text. Knowledge of the biblical languages is vital for exegesis. As John MacArthur says in his book on expository preaching,6
… if the explanation of what the author meant is missing, so is the heart of Bible exposition. … The unique contribution of Bible exposition is its substantial enhancement of the listeners’ comprehension of Scripture’s intent. Such a service is the ideal way to cooperate with the Holy Spirit …. This is the best avenue for the building up of the saints. … The responsibility on the shoulders of one who preaches this kind of message is heavy. … He must be a trained exegete with a working knowledge of the biblical languages and a systematic method of using them to analyze the text.
12. Your sermons can come to life with meaning and interest. Some people have the opinion that the preacher who knows Greek and Hebrew will produce “a mighty dull sermon.” The actual fact of the matter is that a preacher who does not know biblical languages can also produce “a mighty dull sermon.” Study of the biblical languages itself does not produce dry, boring sermons. Instead it makes the content of the message more accurate. Further, the insights gained from closer study can in fact make sermons more interesting, provided that a preacher learns in preaching classes how to present the fruit of his study in a way that is interesting and nurturing to an audience. Students who do not study biblical languages “have settled for a comparatively dull, dreary mediocrity.” 7
13. You will find that you better understand language in general. One side-benefit of the study of the original languages is that it enhances communication skills. Students of biblical languages end up learning their English better. This helps them both to speak and to write better.
14. You will be better prepared for further studies in graduate school. The best seminaries require Greek and Hebrew for their higher degrees. Knowledge of Greek is foundational for all New Testament studies, of course, but also prepares a student to begin work in the Septuagint. Hebrew is the best entrance into the study of Jewish literature (for understanding the background of the world of Jesus) and also Semitic languages (important for historical study as well as insights into Hebrew itself).
15. At MACU you cannot get an F on your transcript for first semester Greek and first semester Hebrew; they are “fail safe.” This policy, unique to these two courses, is intended to encourage more students to take the languages. It means that if you are failing the course at the beginning of final week, you may drop it with no penalty to your GPA.
16. For fun there are T-shirts available to students and alumni who have completed at least one semester of Greek and Hebrew. The front of the shirt has the first and last letters of the Hebrew and Greek alphabets and the choice from two designs for the back of the shirt is available. Orders are placed every spring. For more information, you may contact Dr. Fields at firstname.lastname@example.org.