Do You Know Greek Or Hebrew?

Doug, over at his blog on Metacatholic, just made a comment about my recent post on pragmatic concerns of learning Greek or Hebrew. I’m going to respond to that in a moment, but a few thoughts/questions first.

"Know" Is Ambiguous. Don’t You Know That? I Know.

One of the verbs for "knowing" something in Greek is γινώσκω. Sometimes it means a mere acquaintance with something, as in Mark 5:43: "And he very strongly ordered to them that no one was to know this, and he told (them) to give her (food) to eat." On the other end of the spectrum, the word can convey such a depth of knowledge that it was comfortably used as a euphemism for sex, as in Matt 1:25: "And he did not know (have sex with) her until (the time) where she had a son." The word is ambiguous, and you must know (no pun intended) context to decide.

The English word for "know" is also quite ambiguous. I can say "I know English." I can also say "I know Greek". I can also say "I know German." What do I mean? Well, in the first case I mean that I am fluent in English. Seriously, I am. Sure, I make a grammatical mistakes and do speling erors. But I am fluent. I also know Greek. Am I fluent? No. Am I proficient? Well, yeah, at reading some Greek. If you were to stick some Greek Homer in front of me you would find out quickly that I am not very proficient at reading that ("Umm...what’s that? Ummm...uh huh...hmmm...look, καί! I know that word!" Okay, it’s not that bad). On the other hand, I’m reading the Protoevangelium of James right now, and that is simple for me. I could read the thing through in no time if I didn’t have to look up vocabulary. I "know" Greek, but not how I know English. I also know German, but not nearly to the extent that I know English or Greek. I have listened to some audio training, took a class in reading German, and have done some study. How well do I know it? Not very well. Can I translate stuff? Sure, give me a dictionary and I can usually make sense of things just fine? But do I know it? Frankly, I don’t know it well enough to use the word "know" with German comfortably.

Do You Know Greek? Do You Know Hebrew?

So you’ve studied some ancient Greek. Do you know Greek? How comfortable are you with using it? Can you speak it? Probably not. Can you listen to it and understand it with no (confession...first time through I spelled this as "know" because I keep using that word so much...) problems? Probably not. Can you read it without to much trouble? I’m sure some of you can, but for most of us it will depend on what we’re reading. Most people know Greek or Hebrew only "know" the language. That’s certainly the way I am with Hebrew. I can make sense of some of it, and with a dictionary and my grammar I can translate a little bit of text, even without BibleWorks. I imagine that’s where just about everybody is after their seminary classes. To get beyond that would take a lot of time reading and studying. I know that about Hebrew because that’s the way it works with learning any language (except Pig Latin, of course).

I have to admit something and get to the point. I don’t know German. I never say I do. I can do what I said above, but I don’t "know" German. Just like I don’t "know" Hebrew. Being able to use a language does not mean you "know" it, which means "know" is really a horrible word to use when talking about languages. So unless you’re really good at a language, please don’t say you know it unless you’re ready to caveat. I do that with Greek. "I know Greek." Better, "I can read Jewish/Christian Greek like the New Testament and the Septuagint pretty well." I’m trying to branch out into other literature at the moment, because I would like to say "I know Hellenistic Greek well." How long will that take me? Hopefully not long. It will depend on how much time I can spend reading new texts.


An old proverb goes as follows: "If it’s true, it ain’t braggin’." I think Jerome said it. Can anyone find the original Latin? Anyway, if you have skills in a language, you should use those skills to their utmost and use them all of the time. You’ll get even better. And when you do that you can be a lot more of a force for good with people than otherwise.

However, we all need to be humble when it comes to what we think we know about the original languages. We should think of ourself rightly, accurately. We shouldn’t teach with bravado from a text, disagree with the translations and say "but they’re wrong because the original says x" and whatnot, unless we are really good at the language. It’s kind of hard to measure that, but I’ll give you a hint. If you’ve only studied the language for a couple of years, you’re not. If you took classes in it and have been studying it off and on for a decade or so, you are probably not really good at it. When will you get there? Well, it takes a lot of time and effort. For some it takes more than others. What you need to be is very humble about it until you’ve spent a long time in the language.

I have heard it said a number of times about new young Calvinists that they should be locked up in a closet for a couple of years until they calm down (of course, some misguided folks would say that about all Calvinists). I believe that about students of Greek. It’s not that they can’t use it during that time. They should, because that’s the only way they are going to get proficient. And it’s not that they should never mention it in public. It’s just that they should be humble about what they know and very cautious when disagreeing with a translation or interpreter just based on their knowledge of Greek.

You Are A Bad Replacement For A Bible Translation Committee

Chances are, you are a bad replacement for a Bible translation committee. I have only been privy to the inner workings of the translation of one (the NET Bible). Let me tell you, they don’t get slouches to translate those texts. They don’t pick second-year students. And if they’re smart, they’ll not only pick people who know the language well, but also have a great deal of experience studying (and often) teaching the text.

You see, being a good translator of a text only starts with being good at the language in which the text was written. The best translator would also be aware of the secondary literature and its bearing on the text (especially with certain types of text, but I won’t go into the why and the what here). It would also be good for him to be familiar with the textual history of the book as well. As you some of you may not know, issues of textual criticism do come up in Bible translation, at least when you have responsible translators. So there’s a lot of work that goes into doing one.

Do you have to be an expert to disagree with a translation? No, of course not. But if you are not, you should be quite humble about it when you do.

So What Is The Point?

Ah, it’s all doom and gloom! There’s no point in learning the languages because it is so hard! I don’t think so, and here’s just a few thoughts on why (more probably in a later post). First, let’s clear some misconceptions. First, most of you shouldn’t be learning the original languages so you can produce a new translation. Sure, we need more translators (there is always room to improve), but you will usually not be able to do better than the typical Bible translations. This is true of me and I have no problem admitting that. You should also not be thinking that you’re doing all this study just to get a few nuances out that the translators couldn’t put in. Frankly, it’s not worth that much work just to get a few more nuances.

What is it about? It’s about better understanding, and that takes many different forms. This understanding may be to help you get a better grasp of the mood of the writer by being able to feel his emotions directly through the text (and note, getting to that level with a language takes a long time...I’m usually not there even with Greek). It may be to let you use a lexicon that will help you interpret the passage more accurately. It may be to use a wider varieties of commentaries to help you think outside of your own (probably small and narrowly developed) interpretational grid. It may be to help you explain to your congregation why one translation is different than another translation. It may be to give you the ability to have a basic understanding of textual criticism so you can explain why some people say a large chunk of verses should be taken out of the Gospel of John. Sometimes you might get a nuance you wouldn’t get otherwise. Sometimes you might be able to come up with a clearer translation for your congregation for a verse; after all, you should know them better than anyone and they may not get it immediately. There are a plethora of reasons, and they all add up to the fact that learning Greek and Hebrew may be worth your time.


So back to Doug. Doug, I agree with you. What you said is absolutely true. Well, okay, not completely. I could never write a post more substantial than Jim. He’s awesome! :). But other than that, Doug’s two points are right. I hope I have reinforced those ideas sufficiently above.

But, I must say again, the response should not be that it is never worth your time. And judging by the other things he posts on his blog, I think Doug will be in complete agreement.

So, I don’t envy you the headache you will have when you awake. But, in the meantime, rest well ... and dream of large women. Sorry, lapsed into Princess-Bride-speak (though it may be relevant as some readers undoubtedly fell asleep and others will probably have a headache). So, in conclusion, learn Greek and Hebrew because doing so will very quickly bring you benefit. Use it. Love it. But don’t be overly confident in it until you’ve spent the years it takes to become proficient.


Brian 2008-04-19 11:12:53

Excellent post Eric. We don’t learn the languages for translation purposes, we learn then to turn up our Bible study skills a notch or two in terms of attempting to better understand the biblical text.

Somewhere out there on the net, is a story F.F. Bruce tells about some students in a Bible class of some sort where the professor writes some Greek on the board and explains it and the students interrupt saying "we know Greek." The professor, a famed Greek scholar, (whom I cannot remember at the moment) replied, "I don’t." We should be careful about saying what we know (or don’t know). FWIW, most of us barely "know" English.

Nathan Stitt 2008-04-19 11:16:32

That was good to hear (read?). After a month I am starting to get teased by my relatives about learning Greek and I can foresee things coming up in the future about me ‘knowing’ Greek. All I can really do is figure out the pronunciation and look up words in a lexicon at this point. Even if I never learned Greek I still have my preferences on English translation. I have some pretty strong likes/dislikes in literary features and layout.

Eric 2008-04-19 11:46:42

Brian: Great story! Nathan: Yeah, I hate it when they say "Hey Eric, say something in Greek." Before I learned Greek I had my preferences for literary features. Since then they’ve changed :). It’s funny how things change...

Barry Hofstetter 2008-04-20 06:40:10

Excellent comments. As Pope says in his "Essay on Criticism"

A little learning is a dangerous thing,
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring.

A related issue (which I talk about at my blogsite), is the tendency to teach and use Greek/Hebrew as the secret decoder ring to defend particular theological investments. "What the aorist tense here really means..." What we should be doing is teaching and acquiring true linguistic competence, and that, as you observe in another post, takes a lot of work

TC 2008-04-20 03:18:28

I like this post. Learning Hebrew happens to be my challenge right now. I’m on and off on it. It’s no yada for me.

Judy Redman 2008-04-21 05:00:34

I actually learn languages at least as much because I enjoy learning about the way that other people construct oral communication. Which probably means I’m somewhat strange, I suppose. For me, even when I am reading in translation, knowing how it might have been constructed in the original language helps me to understand what is being said, because how different languages express comments gives an insight into how they might think about the concepts. For example, the Hebrew RUACH means wind, breath and spirit, which means that they probably understood the notion of God’s spirit rather differently to the way we understand it.

Incidentally, around where I come from, people speak of "having" a language. The person handing out sheets at a recent seminar was asking "Do you have Greek?" because the handouts were in Greek and therefore of no use to anyone with no familiarity with the language.

Eric 2008-04-21 08:36:46

Thanks for your comments Judy. I haven’t heard anyone use "having" in this context. Interesting...

Brett 2008-04-22 08:40:47

For those out on B-Greek, you can see the great gulf fixed between Dr. Carl Conrad (he KNOWS Greek) and the rest of us. Many Greek professors are on B-Greek and I don’t know of one that remotely approaches Dr. Conrad’s level. I think because most Greek professors are Greek New Testament Scholars, whereas Dr. Conrad is a Classical/Hellenistic Greek LANGUAGE scholar. If I had the time to start over, I’d start off with Classical Greek, slowly move toward Hellenistic Greek, then Koine Greek, and finally Biblical Greek. Do they teach Classical Greek at DTS, Eric?

Eric 2008-04-23 05:31:49

They do not teach Classical at DTS. And that is a good point about their goal there. For most of them the NT is their area of research, not the language of the NT. As for the plan, I think it is a good one, though I’m not sure what distinction you’re making between Hellenistic and Koine Greek.

Brett 2008-04-23 09:38:53


To me, Hellenistic Greek is the broader term of which koine would be a sub-category:

Hellenistic Greek:

1. Formal, literary Greek (within this category, Atticism was revived; it would be the literary, professional form, often requiring advance education to follow)

2. Informal, non-literary Greek (a lower level vulgar form; no education require to read a koine document)

Koine Greek could be used and understood by the illiterate. Some Hellenistic Greek would require advanced training beyond speaking Koine Greek.

If someone knew Hellenistic Greek, he/she could breeze through the New Testament. If someone only knew Koine Greek, there would be many literary works of the first century that he/she would be lost in.

What do you teach at DTS? I would obviously defer to your understand in this area since I have only read very little Greek outside of the GNT. I read Athenaze to get a feel for Classical Greek and tried to read some Apostolic Fathers’ works.

Eric 2008-04-23 09:50:14

Actually, I don’t teach at DTS (though I filled in a few times for a few of them when they were out or sick back in the day). I used to be a student, but no more. At DTS they strictly teach Biblical Greek and use Mounce for their first year textbook. I’ve read from a number of sources outside of NT Greek but I would not call myself an authority on such material as I haven’t read nearly enough. But I’m working on that :). As for the distinction, I don’t really buy it. Yes there is a distinction between literary and not, for sure. But calling literary "Hellenistic" and non-literary "Koine" will only be confusing, in my opinion.

Brett 2008-04-23 10:14:42


I have absolutely no idea why I thought you were a professor at DTS. But I am very curious as to why I thought that. I had dinner with Dan a few months ago and I probably misunderstood something he said, but that’s just a stretch. Sorry for that assumption, where ever it came from.

My understanding of the distinction between Hellenistic Greek and Koine Greek does not come from original sources being read, since I have not read any non-biblical Hellenistic documents that I’m aware of, especially the literary works of that time. I’ve read this from a few sources but just have no way of validating it. The reason it made sense to me was based on the Koine being a vulgar language.

The following quote off Wikipedia seems fairly common in terms of what I’ve read:

Koine (Κοινή), Greek for "common", is a term which had been previously applied by ancient scholars to several forms of Greek speech. A school of scholars such as Apollonius Dyscolus and Aelius Herodianus maintained the term Koine to refer to the Proto-Greek language, while others would use it to refer to any vernacular form of Greek speech which differed from the literary language. When Koine gradually became a language of literature, some people distinguished it in two forms: Hellenic (Greek) as the literary post-classical form, and Koine (common) as the spoken popular form.

To me, Koine has the denotation of a language COMMON to ALL. I think today of a work by William F. Buckley, Jr as not COMMON to all but often written to the cultural elite whose vocabulary exceeds the person on the street. A doctoral dissertation on Quantum Mechanics would also fall into a category of an English literary work that the average person on the street would struggle with. It would use English words, but words few have every run across before. These "higher" level literary works correspond the Hellenistic Greek in my way of thinking. I would not call these high level works Koine, by definition. Of course we would say that these high level works were written in English, so I guess that counts against my argument. But English, by definition, doesn’t imply vulgar or common as Koine does. I guess that’s why I’ve always bought into the distinction: the name ‘Koine’ just seemed to be descriptive of some phenomenon.

Could you help me understand why this distinction would be "confusing"? Who came up with the name "koine" and what was he/she thinking with this designation? Hope this isn’t to picky. Obviously it’s not a big issue; maybe it’s just a semantic issue after all is said and done.

Eric 2008-04-23 10:24:26

I think it would be confusing because I think the lit already confuses the two. Some may not, but I don’t remember most making any distinction. I’ve read of movements in the Hellenistic era that "went literary", but I don’t remember that distinction of terms ever being made. But perhaps I’m wrong.

Eric 2008-04-23 11:10:39

Oh, and I’m not sure where the term "Koine" came from. I bet it’s an old designation...

Jerry 2010-04-20 11:28:05

After reading all the comments above no has mentioned that Alexander the Great created the language during his campaigns to conquer the world. Alexander learned Attic Greek from a tutor in Macadonia at the request of his father Philip who was ruler at the time. When he began his campaigns across the middle east he collide with the semetic language groups which read from right to left and even one which reads continues from the upper left to the right on the first line then drop down a line and continue back to the left side and so on till the pages is complete. Alexander kwowing that the Attic greek of his childhood was far to complex to use on the battle field and conquering the enemy and forcing them to learn the Attic form of Greek. What he did was build a complete new language that contained the letters of the Attic Greek but he used the Semetic form to build the word from right to left but the sentence string is read left to right. When one tries to use the rules of Attic or other forms of Greek then the rules fall apart because their are rules for nearly every word and some words change meaning because of the word before or after and so on with little regard for the meaning of the words. The language is a redunate language which is easily learned by those he conquered. The Koine Greek is based on "the". There are 18 which are stand alone "the" and about 30 others which are what I call the embedded "the". Four form of the "the" has only one modifiers. I will give an example of how to decode a couple of words. In the classical meaning the Greek word being Romanized is, haima having a meaning of blood but in the Koine Greek of the desert it is composed of two word . Hai Ma which is "the one with blood" normally proceeded by the "the" in the accustive "ton" but it requires the "one" to be included. Just one more and I will close. The word is "onomati" read from right to left to form the meaning it is "the one with a name". The "ti" is an embeded "the" which is not used in classical Greek translation. I have completed four books of Paul and most of the balance in this form of Semetic meaning Greek words with Greek Letters and using the meaning for each subset of the Greek word. If any one is interested I have included my email address

Jerry Collins

Eric 2010-05-22 12:17:37

Hi Jerry. I’m not sure you notice, but the post is a bit old...anyway, you are correct that Alexander had a tutor, the famous philosopher Aristotle.

However, I think your description of the differences between Koine and Attic Greek, and how it came about, is almost entirely wrong. Yes, Koine is a result of the mixing of Attic Greek with other languages (including Semitic languages) but I don’t think your description of Alexander purposefully creating the language and that it is based on "the" or much of what you say is accurate. Based on my experiences in Bible, broader Koine and a little classical, what you are saying is generally inaccurate.