Why Learn Greek
As I’ve said before on the blog, I’m going to be teaching a Greek class this Fall here in the Dallas area. And I’m still open for applications. Of course, the question of "why" has popped up. That’s reasonable. Here is why I really think Greek is a very useful thing to know when studying the NT, and some thoughts on what we ought not to be using it for. And I present this in the manner of Paul. Sorry, this is going to be very long...
What shall we say then, that those who don’t know Greek cannot understand their New Testament? Certainly not! For there are many things in the New Testament that we don’t need to know Greek to deal with. That being said, there are some issues where a knowledge of Greek is very useful, even on a practical level. Say a Jehovah’s Witness person comes to your door and wants to talk about John 1:1 and how everyone else has translated the text wrongly. Being able to say “I know it shouldn’t be translated that way because of ‘x’” is a much better argument than “so and so told me it shouldn’t be translated that way”. Very useful in debate.
What then? Is the only reason to have a good argument with heretics? Certainly not! Sometimes it is useful in determining the meanings of passages, for many interpretations hinge on rightly understanding the syntax. It is not just a tool for defending your favorite doctrines, whether they are true or not. It is a generally useful interpretive tool. The previous is mentioned because it is a very obvious case for the benefit of Greek knowledge in conversation.
What shall we say then? Shall we learn Greek so we can solve all of our interpretational problems and know all things? May it never be! The understanding of Greek is but one tool in the interpretive arsenal. Knowing Greek but having no knowledge of the historical backdrop of the first century will still leave you high and dry when it comes to some matters of interpretation. It ONE of many useful tools of interpretation. It is not the key to all knowledge. And besides, on the level of Greek studies there are lots of unresolved issues.
So let us learn a little Greek, just enough to use some new tools. Certainly not! Don’t you know that lots of people learn just enough Greek to be able to talk over their own heads? In doing so they deceive themselves and others into thinking some thing when in fact it is as faulty as their lack of discipline to learn. Learn it not as a bag of tricks to use in an argument. Most don’t know enough Greek to know such a person is an idiot rather than a learned person. This is unfair, untrue, and dishonoring to God. Learn it not just for the ability to say "I know Greek". Learn it, and learn it well. Only when you know it well can you use it with proficiency and accuracy.
So then, if someone does not know Greek well, he will always be unable to understand the Scriptures. No! But his knowledge will be much more limited than those who do know it. It is the same with not understanding the life of a shepherd and understanding Jesus’ parables. Or how could we claim that we understand Paul’s arguments in Galatians if we don’t understand the historical backdrop of the thinking of Judaism at the time? How can we hope to understand Revelation if we do not understand the historical circumstances and theological backdrop behind the symbols. Salvation can come to those who do not have full knowledge, and indeed that is the case for everyone. But understanding the New Testament will always be more difficult for those who do not study the languages, the writings that are contemporaneous to those who lived at the time, and the backdrop of the Old Testament.
Okay, so that may be annoying to you. So here’s some simple prose.
Does this greatly benefit the devotional life? Not in the way you might think. You’re not going to get through a first year Greek class and be oo-ing and ahh-ing over every word you read because you get so much more nuance or something. I’ve heard people say that, and I think they’re just being wierd or are reading in a bunch more than they should. Greek is not a magical tool to find multiple levels of nuance in every word you read. Devotionally it is valuable, though, because it is an aid in interpretation. And that is definitely valuable devotionally.
It is also useful in light of the insufficient nature of translation. Sometimes there really is more nuance in the Greek than there is in most English translations simply because making readable English means not emphasizing certain aspects of the original and perhaps overemphasizing others. This is the nature of the work. I’ve read attempts to translate the "full Greek meaning" and they turn out to be absolutely pitiful translations that are only of dubious value when it comes to interpretation. Some study Bibles try to make up for this by using notes, like the NET Bible, but this still has its limits.
I really, truly, completely, utterly, detest attempts to learn Greek just to defend certain points of view, like the Trinity (which I believe in), Calvinism (also believe that), Arminianism (obviously don’t believe that), Dispensationalism (really annoyed by that), etc. Don’t learn Greek for that. Learn Greek to understand the NT better. Sure, there will be times where it will be useful in a discussion about the nature of God. Sure it will be useful sometimes in understanding passages about predestination. But please, PLEASE, don’t learn Greek as something for your bag of tricks when talking to people you don’t agree with.
I’ll end on two personal notes. I spend a lot of time in the New Testament. Because of that, I personally could not fathom trying to interpret some of this stuff without knowing Greek. Sure, there’s lots of passages where the typical English translations are just fine, but there are a number of issues where they are simply not sufficient. So give me some Greek!
And, finally, I just really get some satisfaction over being able to read some great literature in its original language. I know that won’t appeal to many, but I like it quite a bit.
So why do I value knowledge of Greek? Because it helps me understand the New Testament better. And I’ll take all the help I can get.