Why Learn Greek and Hebrew?
The Pastoral Value of the Biblical Languages
ABSTRACT: In a day when some evangelical seminaries no longer require the original languages, and with all the pressures of pastoral ministry, students and pastors may wonder whether they should bother learning (and keeping up) Greek and Hebrew. For good reasons, however, many of the most influential, spiritually powerful Christian leaders have prized the biblical languages. They knew that the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, rather than translations, formed the inerrant word of God. They knew that faithful and fresh teaching relied on firsthand knowledge of the original text. And they knew that the biblical languages, though difficult to learn, can save much time and effort in the end.
As a recent semester was about to begin, an article appeared in my social media feed. The president of a major evangelical seminary had written on, “Is It a Waste of Time for Seminary Students (and Pastors) to Learn the Biblical Languages?”1 It is not his response but the fact that he had to ask this question in the first place that irks me.
Do we ever see seminary presidents write on, “Is It a Waste of Time for Seminary Students to Learn Systematic Theology?” or “Is It a Waste of Time for Seminary Students to Learn Preaching?” What about the biblical languages seems to require a public apology for their inclusion in a seminary’s curriculum?
Regardless of what brought us here, the truth is that many people do question the value of the biblical languages for ministerial training, and I contend that the biblical languages are absolutely necessary. In what follows, I will offer three reasons the original languages are essential for ministerial training, followed by a consideration of three challenges in our day.2
So then, why are the biblical languages essential?
1. Because We Value the Word of God
I do not hesitate to affirm an English Bible as the inerrant word of God. In colloquial usage, no further clarification is needed. We must admit, however, that English Bible translations differ. In 1 John 1:1, the NET Bible translators have rendered the final five Greek words (peri tou logou tēs zōēs) with a parenthetical remark in English: “(concerning the word of life).” In the same translation, “word” is not capitalized, indicating the apostle John is referring to the gospel message as “the word of life.” On the other hand, the translators of the New Living Translation make a new sentence of the five Greek words (peri tou logou tēs zōēs) and capitalize “Word,” resulting in, “He is the Word of life.”
So, does 1 John 1:1 refer to Jesus as the incarnate Logos, or does it refer to the gospel message received by the congregation? One could argue that John intends some level of ambiguity in his original expression, encapsulating the meanings in both the NET Bible and the New Living Translation, but the English translations do not include such ambiguity. They land on distinct and different interpretations. We are forced to admit that at least one translation is wrong or deficient.
In the end, we do not affirm that the particular English words of an English Bible are breathed out by the Holy Spirit. We do make that affirmation, however, of the underlying Greek and Hebrew. Article 10 of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy is correct to affirm the inerrancy and complete truthfulness of the actual Greek and Hebrew words that the apostles and prophets wrote.
The famous New Testament scholar A.T. Robertson (1863–1934) was no doubt provocative when he said,
The real New Testament is the Greek New Testament. The English is simply a translation of the New Testament, not the actual New Testament. It is good that the New Testament has been translated into so many languages. The fact that it was written in the koine, the universal language of the time, rather than in one of the earlier Greek dialects, makes it easier to render into modern tongues. But there is much that cannot be translated. It is not possible to reproduce the delicate turns of thought, the nuances of language, in translation. The freshness of the strawberry cannot be preserved in any extract.3
Modern English Bibles go through periodic revisions. The wording in them is changed. Is this not an implicit acknowledgment that, though the translations are accurate, changes must be made so that they read more accurately?
God inspired the underlying Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic words of Scripture, and if the Scripture is the ultimate authority for our lives and ministries, when disagreements happen, we must ultimately appeal to those Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic grammatical constructions. In his first convocation address at Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929, J. Gresham Machen declared,
If you are to tell what the Bible does say, you must be able to read the Bible for yourself. And you cannot read the Bible for yourself unless you know the languages in which it was written. . . . In his mysterious wisdom [God] gave [his Word] to us in Hebrew and Greek. Hence if we want to know the Scriptures, to the study of Greek and Hebrew we must go.4
Because we value the breathed-out, inerrant word of God as the final authority for our Christian beliefs and practices, ministerial students must be students of the original languages.
2. Because We Value Faithful and Fresh Teaching
Through my teaching role in the online platform The Daily Dose of Greek, I receive emails from people of many different Christian backgrounds. Some time ago, I received a note from a Methodist minister who lamented that many of his fellow Methodist pastors not only were not preparing sermons from the Greek New Testament but were preaching other people’s sermons as their own (apparently not doing any sermon preparation at all!). This Methodist pastor told me that what keeps his teaching fresh, original, and engaging is the work of preparing weekly messages from the Greek New Testament and Hebrew Old Testament.
In Jeremiah 23:29, God says, “Is not my word like fire . . . and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (NIV). You cannot enter the blinding forge of God’s word and fail to emerge with a fresh, timely, and faithful message.
When people come to your house to eat, do you reheat yesterday’s leftovers to serve them? Or worse, do you go to the neighbor’s house and ask them for their leftovers? Perhaps you sprinkle a bit of cheese on top first to freshen them up? John Piper warns us, “Secondhand food will not sustain and deepen our people’s faith and holiness. . . . What is more important and more deeply practical for the pastoral office than advancing in Greek and Hebrew exegesis by which we mine God’s treasures?”5
In his book Clash of Visions, Robert Yarborough explores the actual handwritten notes of Martin Luther on the text of Romans.6 In doing so, it becomes clear that Luther did not get his ideas on righteousness by listening to a podcast or looking up the word in Gregg Allison’s Historical Theology. His understanding of God’s gift of righteousness in Christ to wicked sinners exploded out of Romans and the Psalms as he studied the biblical texts in the original languages. Luther speaks of this experience himself:
Although the Faith and the Gospel may be proclaimed by preachers without the knowledge of languages, the preaching will be feeble and ineffective. But where the languages are studied, the proclamation will be fresh and powerful, the Scriptures will be searched, and the Faith will be constantly rediscovered through ever new words and deeds.7
3. Because We Have Limited Time
This third point may initially seem counterintuitive. If we have limited time, shouldn’t we just use an English translation and homiletical helps?
Consider a parable: If you must chop a stack of kindling, is it a waste of time to pause and first sharpen your axe? A.T. Robertson observed, “If theological education will increase your power for Christ, is it not your duty to gain that added power? . . . Never say you are losing time by going to school. You are saving time, buying it up for the future and storing it away. Time used in storing power is not lost.”8
As I work through biblical texts in classes, I’m always struck by how many excellent questions students ask that are not addressed by commentaries. Even very good commentators neglect pivotal questions. I tell students, “Do you not realize that the people who write these commentaries are flawed and shortsighted persons like you? Perhaps the commentator did not notice the insight that you are raising, or maybe he had a similar question to what you are asking, but not knowing the answer, he avoided the matter completely in his writing. Only by engaging the inspired text of Scripture for yourself do you consistently have access to the most central questions and the data that answers those questions.” Hence, Scott Hafemann once noted, “One hour in the text [of the original languages] is worth more than ten hours in the secondary literature.”9
Without a doubt, commentaries can be very helpful in wrestling through the meaning and implications of a biblical text. And with limited time, pastors want to be able to use and understand the best commentaries on the passages they are preaching. Nevertheless, the best commentaries often track closely to the Hebrew and Greek text, and without a working knowledge of the biblical languages, the minister is shut out from the most helpful tools.
My grandmother used to tell the grandchildren that when my father was a young boy learning to read, if he didn’t know a word or could not pronounce it, he would just say “steamboat” and keep reading. I pulled off my shelf a very helpful technical commentary on Romans by John Harvey. I wondered what it would be like to try to read it without a knowledge of Greek grammar. Perhaps it would be like replacing every Greek or grammatical term with the word “steamboat.” Consider an excerpt from his comment on Romans 3:21:
The steamboat steamboat could be steamboat, but it is more likely steamboat, modifying steamboat steamboat. The present tense is steamboat; steamboat + steamboat indicates the steamboat of the simple steamboat. The steamboat with steamboat is steamboat; the steamboat with steamboat is steamboat. “Law and Prophets” occurs nowhere else in Paul. See Longenecker for Jewish background on the phrase. “Prophets” is a steamboat for their writings.10
A minister untrained in Greek and Hebrew is at a significant disadvantage for reading and understanding the best resources. Philip Melanchthon once said that without the biblical languages, we will be “silent persons” as theologians.11 We might add that without the biblical languages, we are deaf and blind theologians too, unable to benefit from the insights of the church’s best scholars and teachers.
One semester, after overseeing a final exam in Greek Syntax and Exegesis, I ran into a female student from the class. She said to me (I paraphrase), “You know, Dr. Plummer, I’ll never be a Greek scholar, but after two semesters of Greek, I think I can detect both sound and unsound argumentation in the commentaries.” To which I say, “Well done, good and faithful student.”
Time is limited. A working knowledge of Greek and Hebrew saves time by connecting the minister directly with the text and directly with the best resources.
We now turn to consider three specific challenges we face in the teaching of biblical languages to the next generation of Christian ministers.
Challenge 1: Bad Models
Unfortunately, many students, pastors, and professors have been turned off to the value of Greek and Hebrew by sitting under the preaching and teaching of those who have used the languages poorly. A colleague of mine, Tim Beougher, related to me this saying of Charles Spurgeon: “Our Lord was crucified under a sign written in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and since then, many congregations have been crucified weekly by their pastors under those same languages.”
Sadly, we could all recount examples of suffering under misguided grammatical reflections — etymological fallacies, illegitimate totality transfers, and so on. We do not have the time to explore such exegetical fallacies in detail,12 but one can understand why many people question the value of the biblical languages if they have not seen them used rightly.
I regularly appeal to my students that explicit references to Greek and Hebrew should be quite rare in their sermons. As a general rule, Greek is like underwear: it should provide support but not be visible.
For example, in 1 John 1:5, we read, ho theos phōs estin kai skotia en autō ouk estin oudemia. “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” Now, even a superficial reading of the Greek quickly notes a double negative — with both the words ouk and oudemia employed. We might translate the sentence woodenly, “God is light and none darkness is not him.” It would be a misstep, in my opinion, for the pastor to offer grammatical commentary on double negatives in Koine Greek or to even mention the words ouk and oudemia. Better to let the strength of this assertion infect the preacher’s passion, so that he says something like, “God is light — completely holy — there is not the tiniest particle of darkness or sin in him at all!”
As a preacher, what a wonderful feeling to stand on the solid ground of the text’s actual assertions and structure. Otherwise, you might end up like the pastor whose notes were discovered, and alongside the margin of the manuscript at one place were scribbled the words, “Weak point. Yell loud here.”
Challenge 2: Distractions and Laziness
We may think distractions and laziness are modern problems, but nearly one hundred years ago, A.T. Robertson wrote, “The chief reason why preachers do not get and do not keep up a fair and needful knowledge of the Greek New Testament is nothing less than carelessness, and even laziness in many cases.”13
How many hours per week does the average seminary student or professor or pastor spend on social media, Netflix, sports, or the news? Perhaps we say that we wish we had more time to study, more time to use or revive our knowledge of the biblical languages, but what we actually do shows what we want to do.14
We are weak creatures who find ourselves easily addicted to technology and entertainment. If we are not going to fall into a new dark age of ignorance and passivity, we need Spirit-empowered habits and discipline. Ben Merkle and I have tried to provide practical solutions to these problems in our book Greek for Life: Strategies for Learning, Retaining, and Reviving New Testament Greek (Baker, 2017). And there’s a companion volume for Hebrew: Hebrew for Life (Baker, 2020), with Adam Howell as the lead author.
Challenge 3: The Widespread Erosion of Language Skills
It is difficult to prioritize biblical-language instruction when professors and pastors whom students admire have not learned Greek and Hebrew or have not retained their skills.
If I may speak bluntly, I am sure that among the readership of this essay there are multiple people who regret either not learning the biblical languages or letting their skills seriously atrophy. Perhaps, if you close your eyes for a moment, you can imagine yourself staring out over a valley of dry linguistic bones, and you hear a voice say, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
I’m happy to tell you that they can. I’ve seen so many people successfully revive their knowledge of Greek. It has never been easier. We live in an unparalleled moment of world history — it has never been easier to learn, revive, or progress in your ability to read the Scriptures in the original languages!15
Let me tell you the story of one of my former colleagues, Dr. Bill Cutrer. Bill graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary and had a solid foundation in Greek but had allowed his skills to erode over time. It was around the year 2010, back in the day when Southern Seminary mailed out DVDs to online students. Bill checked out two sets for himself and worked through two Masters-level courses. Then he sat in an on-campus course, the Greek exegesis of the epistle of James.
Bill passed away suddenly on a bike ride in 2013. I like to imagine him instantly transported into the presence of God, and I know there was no hesitation as he joined with the heavenly chorus saying, hagios hagios hagios kyrios ho theos ho pantokratōr ho ēn kai ho ōn kai ho erchomenos: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (Revelation 4:8).
‘At the Classroom Door’
In the early 1900s, one of the most respected Greek grammarians in the world was James Hope Moulton (1863–1917). Moulton’s devotion to the text of Scripture and the God who inspired that Scripture drove him to missionary service in India. After some time of missionary work, as he was journeying home to his native Great Britain in April 1917 (in the midst of WWI), his ship was torpedoed by a German submarine. Moulton survived for several days on a lifeboat but finally passed away and was buried at sea.
I want to share with you a poem Moulton wrote in Bangalore, India, on February 21, 1917, just a few weeks before he died. Titled, “At the Classroom Door,” it’s a prayer in poetic form.
Lord, at Thy word opens yon door, inviting
Teacher and taught to feast this hour with Thee;
Opens a Book where God in human writing
Thinks His deep thoughts, and dead tongues live for me.
Too dread the task, too great the duty calling,
Too heavy far the weight is laid on me!
Oh, if mine own thought should on Thy words falling
Mar the great message, and men hear not Thee!
Give me Thy voice to speak, Thine ear to listen,
Give me Thy mind to grasp Thy mystery;
So shall my heart throb, and my glad eyes glisten,
Rapt with the wonders Thou dost show to me.16
Michael Kruger, “Is It a Waste of Time for Seminary Students (and Pastors) to Learn the Biblical Languages?” Canon Fodder, August 20, 2018, https://www.michaeljkruger.com/is-it-a-waste-of-time-for-seminary-students-and-pastors-to-learn-the-biblical-languages-4/. ↩
Because I specialize in New Testament studies, I will focus on Greek in this essay. An earlier version of this essay first appeared as my 2021 faculty address at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. ↩
A.T. Robertson, The Minister and His Greek New Testament (1923; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977), 17. ↩
“Westminster Theological Seminary: Its Purpose and Plan,” in J. Gresham Machen: Selected Shorter Writings, ed. D.G. Hart (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004), 188–89. ↩
John Piper, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry, updated and expanded ed. (Nashville: B&H, 2013), 100. ↩
Robert W. Yarborough, Clash of Visions: Populism and Elitism in New Testament Theology, Reformed, Exegetical, and Doctrinal Studies (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2019), 48–49. ↩
Martin Luther, “To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools” (1524), in Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, Helmut T. Lehmann, and Christopher Boyd, vol. 45, The Christian in Society II, ed. Walther I. Brandt, trans. Albert T.W. Steinhaeuser and Walther I. Brandt (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1962), 365. ↩
A.T. Robertson, “Preaching and Scholarship,” inaugural faculty address of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, October 3, 1890, as cited by S. Craig Sanders, “A.T. Robertson and His ‘Monumental Achievement,’” Baptist Press, September 22, 2014, http://dev.bpnews.net/43400/at-robertson-and-his-monumental-achievement. ↩
Scott Hafemann, as part of “The SBJT Forum: Profiles in Expository Preaching,” SBJT 3, no. 2 (1999): 88. ↩
John D. Harvey, Romans, EGGNT (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2017), 91. ↩
From Melanchthon’s inaugural address on “The Reform of the Education of Youth” (1518), cited in Hans J. Hillerbrand, ed., The Reformation: A Narrative History Related by Contemporary Observers and Participants, new ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987), 59–60. ↩
See, e.g., D.A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996). ↩
Robertson, The Minister and His Greek New Testament, 16. ↩
We don’t have time to explore this topic more fully, but James K.A. Smith speaks poignantly to it in his book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2016). ↩
You can start today by spending even just five minutes at beginninggreek.com and dailydoseofgreek.com. ↩
Poem printed on unnumbered front page of the first separately published fascicle of James Hope Moulton, A Grammar of New Testament Greek: Accidence and Word-Formation, vol. 2, part 1, General Introduction: Sounds and Writing, ed. Wilbert Francis Howard (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1919). The poem, written in Bangalore, India, is dated February 21, 1917. ↩