I have always enjoyed languages, especially English, because my father did for me what I hope to do for my son: he insisted that I express myself and he created a welcoming environment for that expression. I took Latin in eighth grade, and my eyes were opened not only to a bit of Latin but, more importantly, to the real nature of my own language.
I later took about six years of Spanish in high school and college, I am officially “proficient” in German (after 40 hours of grammar cramming and the judicious use of an online dictionary!), and, of course, I’ve taken a good bit of Greek and two years of Hebrew.
By my count, I’ve taken 9 semesters of Greek, including three semesters of intro, three of book classes, one of textual criticism, and two of grammar and linguistics.
But a shift has been going on in my thinking over the years, especially because of those last two classes. I learned through them that the value of Greek is not in original word meanings hidden to the lay public. That’s a farce, and a dangerous one. It’s not really in syntactical treasures which will wow your congregation, either. It’s not in besting available English translations. The value of knowing NT Greek is found in, well… It’s in…
I have found myself in just the position of Moisés Silva, and it’s partly his fault. He tells the story in one of his chapters in Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation of how he was asked to address a group of prospective seminary students on why to study Greek. Out of the abundance of his linguistically sensitive heart, his mouth spoke, so he began with some warnings and continued with some negatives. As time ran out, he squeezed in a few positives. He found out later that one prospect chose not to attend his school because of his talk. He was never asked to speak on that topic again!
The negatives of knowing Greek are better than the negatives of not knowing it, but they’re still present. That’s probably because linguistics needs to be made a part of the study process, or at least it needs to be a requirement for the undergraduate liberal arts training which should already be undergirding a future pastor’s seminary studies.
But I’ll allow Silva to bring us back to the title of this post: What are the positive reasons for a future pastor to study Greek and Hebrew?
A measure of proficiency in the biblical languages provides the framework that promotes responsibility in the handling of the text. Continued exposure to the original text expands our horizon and furnishes us with a fresh and more authentic perspective than that which we bring from our modern, English-speaking situation.
In my own preaching during the past twenty-five years, explicit references to Greek and Hebrew have become less and less frequent. But that hardly means I have paid less attention to the languages or that they have become less significant in my work of interpretation. Quite the contrary. It’s just that coming up with those rich exegetical nuggets is not necessarily where the real, substantial payoff lies.
Silva also points out that Greek grammar may not be the secret key to good theology, but it can certainly rule out the possibility of bad theology in a given case. Jehovah’s Witnesses can impress someone with the fact that “God” in John 1:1 has no definite article, but a rudimentary knowledge of predication and definiteness in Greek will soon show their view to be in error.
Silva also notes that pastors who do not know Greek will not be able to interact with commentary literature or evaluate different English translations. If a member of the church asks him why two translations differ, he’d have to shrug his shoulders.
Silva also points out that if seminaries don’t require Greek and Hebrew, students won’t take them. It’s the equivalent of removing algebra and history from the required list of high school courses. And if students in seminaries don’t take Greek, teachers of their other courses will have to lower the complexity of their lectures. They won’t be able to make subtler linguistic points to their classes. And students won’t be able to speak as intelligently among themselves. And someone who might have been a great scholar of Greek will never get the chance because we won’t be introduced to the topic—do gospel Christians want to cede all Greek and Hebrew scholarship to unbelievers?
Finally, Silva says, there are intangible benefits to studying Greek and Hebrew. In high school, you take algebra whether you will be using sine and cosine in ten years or not. It improves you. It makes you culturally literate. It lays down some brain pathways you will use in ten years. The biblical languages do the same.
I’m sure Silva and I have missed some good reasons for studying Greek, but let me say that all the reasons for it become better reasons if you also take advantage of the advances in linguistics which scholars like Silva have made available. So I’ll end with a few book recommendations on the topic (click to buy):
If you don’t read anything else on this list, read this book. And re-read it a few years later. It’s that good.
This is the second place to start. Silva is less difficult than Barr but goes more in-depth than Carson chooses to in his more introductory text.
This is a classic; Barr was a teacher of Silva’s. Difficult if you haven’t mastered some linguistic concepts already.
Poythress has a simple style that, like John in the NT, belies his intellectual and theological depth. In that he follows his mentor and friend, John Frame.
Haven’t gotten much into this, but I’ve read the opening and I’ve seen it recommended.
I’ve sampled this, and I found it quite helpful.
This isn’t a work of linguistics, per se, but it is very stimulating on hermeneutics in general.