Should You Learn Greek or Hebrew?

Should you learn Greek or Hebrew, the languages in which the Scriptures were originally written? (Yes, Aramaic is in there too, but not much, and everything I say about Hebrew would apply to Aramaic as well as they are related) I bet this is a question that many a Christian ask. As someone who has learned biblical Greek and some Hebrew and Aramaic, indeed as someone who teaches the former, I am going to give you my perspective. The answer is not straightforward (even though part of me wants to tell you all to learn them), and there are a number of questions you have to ask yourself. And no, I am not going to try to word these questions in such a way that a definite "yes" seems like the only appropriate answer. My intention here is to give you practical advice on considering learning a biblical language.

How Much Longer Do You Plan On Living?

First, how much longer do you plan on living? No, I am not kidding about that question; it is actually quite relevant. Let’s say you are eighty years old, have a number of health issues, and people in your family don’t generally live to their nineties. Is it worth your time to learn one of the biblical languages? If you have nothing to do, then go for it. However, learning a foreign language takes a lot of work, and if you are that old you may die before it becomes very useful. So is it worth your time?

However, what if you are twenty? Hopefully you will live at least another fifty years. Sure it may take some time to learn one (or both) of the biblical languages, but you also have a long life ahead of you, and fifty or so years of enhance Bible study is a good thing.

It is about ROI, or return on investment. If you learn the language young you can use it for a very long time, and you will get much more out of the effort you spent. This is why it isn’t a bad idea to have your child learn a biblical language early on. Not only are children able to pick up languages more quickly than adults (at least this is generally true), but they have an entire life to use the skills.

Do You Want To Use The Better Tools?

Do you want to be able to use the best study tools available? I would hope that your answer would be "yes", but that does not necessarily mean you need to spend the time. If the answer is yes, then you should consider learning a biblical language. In my experience a number of the best tools are ones that require the use of the original language. For me personally, this is a big motivating factor.

This is not to say that someone has to know the original languages to have a clue about Scripture. This is obviously not the case. There are many good translations. But there are lots of great tools out there for those who do.

Have You Learned A Second Language Before?

If the answer is no, then the next couple paragraphs will be less helpful to you. But don’t be a slacker; read them anyway.

If the answer is yes, then I have two points. First, learning your first foreign language is usually harder than learning your second. Once you have done it once, you know best how your brain absorbs other languages and you have study patterns and practices that are tried and true.

Second, if you have learned another foreign language, you know how hard or easy it is for you to study languages. For some it is quite easy. For others it is difficult. If you are in the difficult camp, then you may want to consider spending your time on something else. If you have a long life to live then the toil might be worth it, however. If you are in the easy camp, then go for it. You have nothing to lose.

But now I must caveat my first point. In reality, this is not always true. The difficulties in learning a language can come on a number of fronts. Languages are likely to be more difficult for you if any of the following are true of them:

  1. The language is from a different language family than yours or is distantly related. For example, though I spent some time in high school learning French, the first foreign language I seriously studies was Greek. I got pretty good at it, but it took a great deal of work. The script is similar to our English alphabet and the sounds were pretty similar as well, so that made helped. And there are a lot of cognates, which is helpful as well. Of course the syntax and morphology was all different, which made it quite hard. From a family tree standpoint, Greek and English come from the same ancestor (Proto-Indo-European...the hypothetical parent language for many languages found in India and Europe), but the relationship is quite distant. Then I learned some Hebrew. Radically different script. Very different syntax. Practically no cognates. That one was much harder for me than Greek. There is no direct linguistic relationship between English and Hebrew. Then I spent some time in German. Same alphabet. Lots of cognates. I have spent comparatively little time in German but can make sense of just about anything if I have a good dictionary. As it turns out, German comes from the same branch from which English comes. So on the difficulty scale German is easiest for me, then Greek, then Hebrew. A lot of it has to do with linguistic relationships.
  2. Are you going from a non-tonal (like English) to a tonal language (like Chinese)? If so, from what I hear, you are in for a world of hurt. This is apparently a very difficult transition to make. The good news is, both Greek and Hebrew are non-tonal, so if you are a native English speaker (and my guess is that if you read this blog you are), this is not a problem for you. If your native language is tonal, I have no idea if it is hard for you to move to a non-tonal language.
  3. (As mentioned in the first in the list) are you going to learn a language with a very different script or system of sounds? This can make it much harder to learn the language. In the case of Greek you have a language with a similar script, so the transition is not difficult. It just takes a little work. Hebrew is more difficult, but not too much of a task. I have been trying to get back into Khmer lately, and I am finding their script very difficult. Just getting used to that is going to take a while. My brother (a native English speaker) is fluent in Arabic. I remember him bemoaning the difficulties of learning how to write Arabic. I’m pretty sure he would back me up on this one.

Can You Carve Out A Significant Portion Of Time, Work Hard, and Stay Focused?

Do you have a significant portion of time to spend working on a foreign language? Can you measure that time in at least 30 minutes a day? If so, then you have enough time to learn a foreign language. If you have more than 30 minutes a day, you can learn one faster and better. Of course, if you only spend 30 minutes a day it will take you quite a while before you can use the language with much facility. But you do have to be able to spend time consistently studying a language for it to stick. If you cannot, you would probably be better off not trying.

Let me make this very clear, though it should be obvious to everyone. Learning a foreign language well is a time-consuming process. There is no getting around that. There is no fast-track to learning a language in two weeks. There is no surgery for language gain. There are no pills you can take that will make it quick and painless. I think it is worth it, but you need to be ready for the amount it work it will take.

Do You See Value In More Direct Exposure To Scripture?

Apparently there is an old rabbinic adage that states something like the following: "Studying the Bible without Hebrew is like kissing one’s bride through the veil." This is reported in the book Calvin and the Biblical Languages, page 60. I say "apparently" because I don’t see a rabbi using the word "Bible". But then again this is translation. And then again, it doesn’t matter, because it is a good point.

I think Muslims often have a better perspective on this. A few years ago a few friends and I spent some time in dialog with a group of Muslims. I think that all of the American white middle-class English-speaking Muslim types in the group were studying Arabic. Since my brother says learning Arabic is very difficult, I was quite impressed by this. This probably has something to do with their belief that the Qur’an cannot be "really" translated.

In a very real sense this is actually true. No translation can completely convey the meaning of another language. But then again the meaning of a text cannot be guaranteed to be transferred 100% to another brain anyway, even if one is reading in the original language. There is no such thing as perfect communication. So yeah, an English translation cannot perfectly represent the Scriptures. But it can get really close, which is something they apparently don’t get.

Anyway, a lot of what is going on there has to do with their culture. They take every work of the Qur’an very seriously. Because they do they create an atmosphere that pushes non-natives to learn Arabic so they can read their text more purely. They want that direct exposure.

I really identify with this. I wish more people did. Does this strike you as attractive? If so, you should consider learning a Greek and/or Hebrew.

Do You Want To Be Able To See Through The Translational Interpretive Grid Better?

Fact: translations are commentaries. You may not realize it, but when you read the translation of something, you are reading someone’s interpretation of it. All translation requires making interpretive judgment calls because there is no such thing as a language which perfectly explicitly conveys information. I have heard before that Jesus came during a time when the universal language (Greek) was one that was perfectly precise so the gospel could be communicated accurately. As anyone (sane) who knows Greek can tell you, that is just foolish. The language of the New Testament, Koine Greek, is a result of the dumbing down that occurs in a language when it is foisted on non-natives by a conquering entity. Of course you couldn’t even say such lofty things about classical Greek, a "purer" language.

Now time for a disclaimer. I am going to make this small just to be like the annoying print ads that shrink things so you won’t read them. Of course, this may not be small if you are using a feed reader. Anyway, here is the disclaimer: even if you learn Greek and Hebrew, you are not completely getting rid of the interpretive grid. Why? Because our understanding of these languages is really an interpretation too. However, I can say with confidence that you have a much better chance of seeing through the translations and seeing what is very interpretationy in their rendition of the text.

If it is valuable for you to see through some of the layers of interpretation, then you should consider learning Greek and/or Hebrew.

Do You Have Access to a Class?

Learning a language is always more pleasant if you have someone with which to share your pain and joy (and hopefully you would experience both in the process). Having a class makes it a lot easier to learn as well, because you have a teacher who can answer questions for you and fellow students who can talk you through rough spots you may be having. The encouragement you can get through a classroom setting is great to have.

Also, if there is a auditory element to the learning experience, that will be helpful as well. Most courses in biblical Greek and Hebrew don’t include much of an auditory element, but hearing anyone say anything in the language is better than just hearing yourself.

If you have access to a class, then you should consider taking the language. This is not a sufficient reason to learn a biblical language, but if you have other reasons to do so, then it will be a significant help.

What Is Your Place in the Church?

  1. You are a Sunday-school teacher - If you are a Sunday-school teacher, and will be for life, then you should consider learning a biblical language. Remember, this won’t pay dividends because it will take a few years to learn the language well. But, if you’re in it for life then it may be worth it.
  2. You have no teaching responsibilities - If you have no teaching responsibilities, then there is no reason except for personal study, to learn one of the biblical languages. I use the biblical languages all of the time (Greek a lot more than Hebrew), even when I’m not preparing for a lesson, so I think it can be worth it anyway. But some may not.
  3. You are a pastor - This one is a no-brainer to me. Unless you are really old and are about to die, you need to learn the biblical languages. I cannot fathom living a life that is centered around teaching and applying a group of texts to peoples lives and not having a clue about how to read said texts in their original languages. Whether you like it or not, you are the spiritual and intellectual guide to the Scriptures for most of (and possibly all of) your congregation. You are the most influential commentary most of them will ever hear, yet you won’t take the time to learn one of the most basic study tools? This one factor cancels out all other considerations except the first listed above in my book. It does not matter if it will be hard for you. It does not matter if you have a class around. Take the time and effort, even if it takes a decade.

So, Should You?

Whether or not you learn a biblical language is up to you. Above is a list of practical questions you need to ask yourself. There are probably more questions to be asked that you will have to ask yourself, because we all come from different places. But I hope these spurred your thinking.

Comments

Chuck Grantham (4/19/2008 12:52 PM)

Too long.;-)

If you want to study scripture at all seriously, then the more of the original languages you know, the better off you are. Because not only are translations someone else’s view of things, but so are commentaries. If you want to be able to follow a commentator’s argument properly, and especially if you want to disagree with a commentator, you need original languages. Otherwise the first time the commentator writes En arche en ho logos, to say nothing of Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, you are pretty much left to sit there and say, "That’s impressive. I’m convinced."

With even a little Greek, there are not only better tools, there are more tools. That means you can subject your reference works to more scrutiny, which is not a bad thing, because even commentary writers:

1)Come from different theological perspective than you, and thus can interpet the same text differently;

2)Sometimes get things wrong. All of them. Even John Gill, J.B. Lightfoot, and {insert your favorite here}.

As for choice of languages, I think Greek is a no-brainer for most Christians. You’ll likely use the New Testament more, you can use the Greek Old Testament for word studies, and if Greek with it’s English-like alphabet defeats you, I doubt you need try Hebrew.

Eric (4/19/2008 13:25 PM)

Well said.

Bob MacDonald (4/19/2008 3:22 PM)

I agree with all your questions and more. I disagree that the Christian should concentrate on the Greek first. It is not complete to read the NT from solely a Greek point of view (or Latin). One must see the continuity with the first covenant. I think also that learning these archaic languages that no one speaks any more tells us quickly that interpretation is not salvation. BTW - I am 62 and I started Hebrew essentially from zero two years ago. My complete structural rendition of the psalms in Hebrew and English is on the referenced blog supported by 150+ diagrams - still under revision and extension see this page bmd.gx.ca/psalms/173.htm. (this editor does not accept links). I have also translated and diagrammed bits and pieces of Isaiah, the Song, Genesis and others - and I can almost read unpointed Hebrew in all those scholarly books I needed to get from the library. So old people can start and have results for themselves in a few years. (My son-in-law who works in over 20 languages said 15 minutes a day - but your 1/2 hour is closer to true. Discipline is a must - get a class at the local synagogue.)

Robert (4/19/2008 3:31 PM)

I am in full agreement that every Christian should make an effort to learn the biblical languages. At least learn enough to be able to evaluate commentators and preachers who say "the original says..." and then show their ignorance.

On retiring from secular employment last year I felt I couldn’t make better use of my time than learning these languages better. Since I had classes in Greek (many years ago) my only need is to review and start reading (in progress, now). Hebrew continues to be a challenge, but thanks to Concordia Seminary (via ITunes University) one can watch classroom instruction (for both languages).

With all the resources available on the web there is really no excuse for staying ignorant and having to rely on others to give you what the Bible "really" says.

I know the folk with younger, sharper minds should be able to acquire some knowledge of the languages much quicker than us older guys.

Eric (4/19/2008 6:43 PM)

Bob: Tried going to your site and it didn’t load. Is http://drmacdonald.gx.ca/ the correct url? And I guess you are proof that you’re never too old to start, but 62 isn’t that old :). As for starting with Greek or Hebrew, I think I have to lean with Chuck on this one. If you only have time to do one, and the bulk of your time will be spent on the NT, then I think that is the way to go. But, if you’re going to spend a lot of time in both (and all of us should be, shouldn’t we), then learning both would be immensely useful.

Eric (4/19/2008 6:46 PM)

Robert: Yes, it is important to be able to test what you hear. Greek can be used to take an argument out of the range of someone’s ability to counter (which if used maliciously is quite wrong), so having it is a good tool. And we should all be very reticent to draw interpretational conclusions based on our Greek study while in the early stages. And since most are in an early stage, I think it’s good advice for most. As for continued practice, what are you reading to improve?

Joshua (4/19/2008 8:03 PM)

Hello everyone,

I personally think that Greek is the way to go for Christians, even with an interest in the Old Testament... it is my understanding that the Masoretic text in Hebrew as we have it now was finalized after Christianity became a unique faith. Therefore it reflects the growth of the Rabbinical tradition.

The Septuagint in Greek is one of the older examples of the Old Testament, and certainly was the version used by many Christians in that era.

Learning Greek first opens up the whole of the Bible to you in a form that was accepted amongst some of the earliest Christians.

As for learning Aramaic, that would open up the realm of the Peshitta and the various Targum. Combined with the Masoretic text, these sources could provide insight into the culture of the Hebrews of that time period.

Eric (4/19/2008 9:35 PM)

Actually, in regard to what we have in the Masoretic texts, I’m fairly confident that isn’t true. I have not myself compared the language in them to that in the Dead Sea Scrolls, but from what I hear, they are not that different. Now, it is true that the Septuagint was probably the OT for most of the early church. For that reason alone it is very important, though it is important otherwise. As for the Peshitta, that was Syriac. Syriac is a descendant of Aramaic, so if you know one learning the other would be easier. Of course Hebrew and Aramaic are related as well. I took a one semester course in Aramaic and the kinship was obvious beyond the script. But you are right, learning all of these languages are important. But where to find the time...

Brian (4/19/2008 11:29 PM)

Good post Eric. Thanks for it. I am linking it on my blog. I am a pastor and agree with you that more pastors need to learn the biblical languages. Not doing so is like a doctor not knowing latin or an engineer not knowing math or a software engineer not knowing a key computer language. It is just so important.

Eric (4/19/2008 11:43 PM)

Thanks for the link, Brian! And thanks for dropping by.

Bob MacDonald (4/20/2008 2:39 AM)

sorry - mistyped the url in the blog link - the address should be right this time

Skip (4/20/2008 6:32 AM)

Eric, I have studied Greek for the past four years on my own, though I have Mounce’s lecture cds which helped a lot. Spending more time on NT Greek is more beneficial for me than Hebrew. However, even a marginal knowledge of Hebrew can be very helpful. I plan to take two semesters worth of Hebrew on-line through RTS just so I have some background.

Joshua (4/21/2008 8:24 AM)

Hello Eric,

Thanks for your response. I figured I’d look into the whole Dead Sea Scroll thing some more, since I don’t know much about the literary traditions they represent.

From what I found out, it seems like there are fragments that match up with the LXX, with Samaritan Literary Traditions, and with the Masoretic Literary Tradition, with the Masoretic being the largest represented tradition; something like 65% of the scrolls that actually deal with biblical material.

There are also various variants that don’t match the previously listed literary traditions.

Haha it was a fun day of reading, thanks for giving me something to look into ;)

Eric (4/21/2008 8:38 AM)

My pleasure. I love to give assignments! And thanks for reporting back.

Robert (4/21/2008 8:48 AM)

Eric: In answer to your question, I am trying to get on a schedule of reading long portions from the NT, LXX or Gk fathers without pausing to analyze anything in detail. This is mainly for vocabulary building. On reaching the age of 62, I thought I needed spend time getting conversant in both Gk and Heb so I will be able to talk to the many Biblical saints I am getting closer to meeting :).

Eric (4/21/2008 8:56 AM)

Good plan, Robert!

Ushar (8/15/2008 7:50 AM)

Rarely do we come across resources on the internet that provide the correct information, i in my search of distant education on religious scriptures ran across this one provided at schools galore. Its a great resource and is beneficial in many manners. Its hard to find online schools through which knowledge is imparted in a correct manner, i have tried on my own but to no avail. From this i came across online schools on theology and ancient arts and languages which gave me much needed info in order to learn old scriptures.

David (10/26/2008 3:30 PM)

I sure would like to know about Hebrew and Greek. Is there any easy way to learn what the real meaning of the words are? I just don’t really trust all of the different translations.

Ab (11/4/2009 6:11 AM)

Good advice. I can say that I pretty much learned Hebrew by now, at least in terms of having command of its grammar and being able to read the masoretic text. Just started learning Greek, and let me say this: for me, as an English/Russian speaker, compared with Hebrew Greek is so much easier. It took me 2 solid years of one hour a day Hebrew studies (with some breaks here and there), to get to the point of being able to actually enjoy the original text. With Greek I’m thinking more like a year and a half, at least that’s what I’m hoping for. Reading the Bible in its original languages is a great thrill.