Have you ever dreamed in another language? Many say this marks a true grasp of understanding. This is true even in nonspoken languages: Did you know you can dream in sign language? I learned that when I worked at a university where students can earn a degree in American Sign Language/English interpretation. The students I got to know inspired me to practice baby sign language with my first son before he could speak. After mastering the basics at mealtimes, we went on to learn signs for all our daily routines, emotions, and interactions. He was so proficient that visitors at our local library mistakenly believed he was hearing impaired. It was such a joy to be able to communicate and be understood. It opened a door.
We often want to see communication in black-and-white terms, but the more we experience miscommunication, the more we’re reminded that communication is difficult. Move to a new town, get married, work with toddlers, or train a dog and you’ll soon be reminded of just how complex the nuances of language, listening, and communication techniques can be. This makes communication hard enough when we all speak the same language, and difficulties are compounded when trying to talk to someone who speaks a different language. Learning that different language, however, opens up new doors of understanding and makes communication simpler. It is through this lens that I would like to offer five benefits of the study of biblical languages.
An Exercise in Humility
The reasons not to study biblical languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) are often quite practical: finances, time, priorities, and competing responsibilities. One of my seminary professors began each course of study with a sincere call to count the cost, asking, “Is this the right time for you and for your family?” It is important to distinguish between difficult and unwise. Not only does it provide a level of accountability, but it also provides a measure of fortitude when the tasks become heavy. Many pastors and Bible teachers are required to study biblical languages. As a layperson, I am thankful for that. Don’t we want to see this love for the Word in those whose teaching we sit under?
My own study of Hebrew was truly humbling. In some subjects, we might wonder if we are learning anything or if we are only becoming aware of how much we don’t know. Studying Hebrew challenged my assumptions. It helped me see new things when I read the Old Testament. It gave me a clearer picture of God’s covenant language. It broadened my understanding of how God has communicated with His people in time and space. To really master a language outside your native tongue, you must learn to “think” in that language. If we aspire to “think God’s thoughts after Him,” studying biblical languages is one way to mature in our understanding of what and how God thinks. Language is not only a system of symbols to be memorized but a systematic way of thinking and communicating ideas. How much more beautiful is the English translation of Psalm 33 in that philosophical light: “Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him! For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm” (Ps. 33:8–9).
Context and Recognition of Error
Does this biblical passage give us a human model to follow or is there something greater being personified? Did the author forget some details or is another point of view on display? Is this instruction still relevant or is this a cultural practice? These and many other good questions are better answered in the light of their original context, which includes the original languages. We can better understand teaching by better understanding the tools. The Reformer Huldrych Zwingli appealed for biblical languages in youth education by saying, “Those who are ignorant of Hebrew forms of speech have great difficulty in attempting to draw out the true sense of Scripture.”1 Even small efforts to deepen our understanding the original text honor God.
It is often a difficult principle to apply, as modern students are heavily influenced by reader-response theory, which tends to ignore the intent of the author in favor of the effect of the text on the reader. We often do not even realize we’ve skipped over the original content or laid our limited personal experience over the setting of a text. While there are many great Bible study tools and commentaries out there, personal study of the biblical languages can provide unique and necessary insight to understand the original authors, their context, and how the original audience heard Scripture. When we study biblical languages, we learn not only about terms and conjugations, but also about different types of literature and literary devices, and most importantly, their significance in the communication of the truth at hand. This study can grant us greater skills in discernment when we are reading commentaries, preparing to teach, and applying principles of interpretation. While it is an arduous task to study the biblical languages, the rewards are eternal.
Borrowed from Renaissance humanism, ad fontes is a well-known refrain from the Reformation in which the Reformers pushed for biblical studies to move back to the original sources, the “fountainhead” of knowledge and revelation. In turn, this drove the Reformers to provide the Bible in the language of the commoner so that every Christian could read, understand, and study the Bible themselves. In his well-known fight to translate the Bible into English, William Tyndale defended his work to the pope, saying, “If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy who drives a plough to know more of the Scriptures than you do.” The foundational principle was that the Lord uses His Word to make Himself known, and the perspicuity, or clarity, of Scripture makes it a resource for every believer no matter their social or educational status.
We now live in a time when we have so much access to English translations of the Bible that we often do not know where to start in picking a good one for study. Choosing a faithful translation is an important task, but due to the wide accessibility of good English versions of the Bible, we often overlook the importance of knowing the biblical languages. Martin Luther cautioned: “We will not long preserve the gospel without the languages. The languages are the sheath in which this sword of the Spirit [Eph. 6:17] is contained.”2
If we want to reach people with the gospel, we need to learn how to communicate biblical truth faithfully across cultures. The study of biblical languages not only helps us recognize translation and doctrinal error but also enables us to communicate biblical principles more accurately and thereby bring this living and active Word to God’s people around the world because “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).
A reason to study biblical languages that should not be overlooked is that this study is now more accessible than ever. Through Christian publishing and remote and online education there are more options for learning the languages than ever before. These resources are available for a variety of stages and ages of learning, and numerous free resources even make it possible to start learning today. Further, the widespread availability of resources for learning the biblical languages means that it is easier than ever to fit this study into your schedule and your budget.
For many, a scheduled program or class provides evaluated feedback and forums for questions and corrections, making learning not only more achievable but also a more encouraging experience because of a community of fellow students. You may be surprised to find that many seminary and Bible college classes are filled with retired auditors, stay-at-home moms, and people in business fields, not just those who are pursuing full-time ministry. For others, assignments and grades are so daunting that the prospect of enrolling in a set program or class may discourage them from even trying. Happily, there are many workshops, books, flashcards, websites, and newsletters available outside traditional graded classes and programs that can help you begin with smaller study sets like the Hebrew names for God, a basic overview of biblical literature genres, the Hebrew and Greek alphabets, “key” words, and much more. For the Christian, any study of biblical languages can be a simple step to open the door to an awareness of new mercies and the possibility of practicing a childlike faith that keeps learning. It’s not too late to start, and it’s no longer too far to travel.
Finally, we should study biblical languages because “the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isa. 40:8). It’s strange when we make biblical interpretation only about “me”: my culture, my language, my time in history, my concerns when the Bible came to us in a different culture and language. This was part of God’s plan to create a people for Himself, from “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9, emphasis added).
The Bible was not written in our culture, nor in our native tongue, which means that knowing the biblical languages will help us know it more accurately. Nevertheless, Scripture was written for us. Throughout history, men and women have given their lives to make sure this Book made it to us and in our own language. There is a message that is bigger than a single culture or time, and it is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). We can honor those who came before us and the Scriptures as well by, insofar as we are able, seeking to know it in its original languages so that we can better know and communicate its truth to others.
- Ulrich Zwingli, “On the Education of Youth,” in Zwingli and Bullinger, The Library of Christian Classics: Icthus Edition, ed. G.W. Bromiley (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1953), 108–109.
- Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 45: The Christian in Society II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 45 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 360–361.