Learning a Bible language takes effort, but the rewards are exhilarating. We speak to people who say it was worth the work
It requires dedication to learn any language, let alone one that dropped out of regular use hundreds of years ago – which is probably why so few Christians today know much Old Testament Hebrew or New Testament Greek.
In a time when we have great Bible translations readily available, very few of us even consider the idea of wrestling with ancient languages.
Shortly after the death of William Tyndale, in the 16th century, English-language Bibles became commonplace. They were created from a doctrinal conviction that translated Scripture lacks none of the power of the early manuscripts. Across the world the Bible has been produced in many languages by careful translators who are dedicated to bringing out the complexity, truth and beauty of Scripture. This work is a precious gift to the world, and particularly the Church, and it's important to be clear that language skills are in no way synonymous with faithful Christianity. But does that mean there is nothing to be gained from familiarising ourselves with Greek and Hebrew?
Learning a Bible language gives us more confidence that we’ve correctly understood a passage and are putting the emphasis in the right place. It also allows us to see how words and themes form links between texts. Experiencing the sounds, as well as the meanings, of a passage opens our minds to the poetry on the page.
The good news is that we don’t have to become fluent to enjoy many of the benefits of language learning. Getting a grip on the basics can help us become more aware of the workings of grammar, syntax, rhetorical features and the ways words carry the weight of their meaning. It can also demystify some of the work of translation and interpretation.
The overwhelming message from people who have done the work is that, if you’re up for a challenge, there are riches to be uncovered. We asked language students from all walks of life who've given it a try to give us their thoughts on whether it was worth the effort. Maybe they'll inspire you to take the plunge.
Meredith is a stay-at-home mum. Her previous roles have ranged from working with immigrant communities in Europe to researching postgraduate ministry in the UK
How did you get started learning a Bible language?
I began learning Greek from someone in my church. There was a small group of us from the congregation who had all separately expressed interest in learning a biblical language to our pastor, and he managed to persuade one of our church members, who was a lecturer at a university, to create the class. There were 12 of us and we met one night a week in the church building. Essentially we went through a first-year undergraduate Greek course.
It felt incredible to look back and see what I had managed to understand and wrestle through over the course of the year
Did you think it was possible?
My husband took several years of biblical Greek at university, but I think I had assumed that because I didn’t want to study Bible languages as part of a wider higher education course, it was something I'd never have the opportunity to do. Our church course was really casual, so it felt more like a hobby. I felt like I was doing something that was life-enriching, rather than taking on the rigour and burden of formal education. It was a great comfort when I was knee-deep parsing words to remember “I’m not doing this for a grade! This is for fun!”
What did you get out of it?
An appreciation for the Scriptures and the voices of biblical authors. I also gained a desire to understand them in a more technical way. We focused on the book of John, but I also appreciated hearing about the tone of the different writers and the variances of syntax and grammatical construction they utilised to convey meanings. At the end of the year, I could translate the Lord’s Prayer and John 1-4. It felt incredible to look back and see what I had managed to understand and wrestle through over the course of the year.
If you could give someone else one tip for learning Greek what would it be?
Do your work every day. Our instructor advised us to practise daily and I waited until really late to heed his advice. I studied modern languages at university so thought I could take a similar approach, but Greek is a wholly different beast. If possible work alongside someone else. Even when you come to different conclusions, the ability to talk about how you came to your answer is crucial. Don’t translate while looking at your English version. If you want to really know the language you have to battle through how the words work together. You might be able to figure out what it means from the English, but you won't be learning how the words are working themselves out.
Dr Martin Salter
Martin works as Associate Pastor at Grace Community Church, Bedford. He recently completed a PhD in missiology, based in part at Tyndale House
How does knowing Bible languages influence the way you preach?
I prepare most of my messages by first doing a flow diagram in the original language (Hebrew for the Old Testament, Greek for the New Testament). Then I start to highlight repeated words, and mark transitions, allusions, emphases etc. The real benefit is that this slows me down and forces me to notice things I hadn't previously seen in the text. Once I've done that I read the English versions and reflect on the decisions taken by the translators. Only then will I go to the commentaries. I find these much more helpful once I've spent time with the original. My handling of the text is much improved by doing the hard yards myself.
As a wise man once said, "If it's perfection or nothing it'll always be nothing." Something is always better than nothing, and over time, if you keep going doing a little regularly and often, you'll be surprised at how competent you can become
Why would an ordinary Christian who's not an academic bother learning a Bible language?
I want to use secondary resources such as commentaries, dictionaries and books, as dialogue partners, not as infallible authorities. The danger with simply relying on academics to do all the heavy lifting is either you uncritically accept everything they say, or, more likely, you come across differing opinions and have a hard time trying to work out who you find most persuasive. I think there's also a personal enrichment and pleasure that comes from the time and effort required to study the Scriptures in depth. There's almost always something that ministers to me personally in my preparation that never makes it to the pulpit.
If you could give somebody one tip for learning a Bible language, what would it be?
Little and often! When it comes to learning a language, 20 minutes a day, every day, helps enormously in getting the basics and vocabulary under your belt. I would also say, don't be afraid to use software (I use Bibleworks) to speed the process up a little. We're all busy, and some of us are more naturally gifted than others at languages. If a few shortcuts help you keep going when you're learning a Bible language then use them.
And don't give up. As a wise man once said, "If it's perfection or nothing it'll always be nothing." Something is always better than nothing, and over time, if you keep going doing a little regularly and often, you'll be surprised at how competent you can become.
Dr David Wong
David is an adjunct lecturer at Biblical Graduate School of Theology in Singapore
How did you start learning a Bible language?
Bible languages were a mandatory course when I attended seminary. I was fortunate to spend three years studying New Testament Greek, starting with Elementary Greek and ending with Greek Exegesis.
What have the benefits been?
Reading the New Testament in Greek has always brought me closer to the author and the original text with the benefit of nuances often missing in a translation. This has helped me stay true to the biblical text in my preaching and teaching.
Get into the language, savour the clarity and beauty
What have you found difficult?
Disciplining myself to read the Greek text first before the English translation!
If you could give someone else one tip for learning a Bible language or keeping a language up what would it be?
Get into the language, savour the clarity and beauty, read it regularly till it becomes a habit.
Howard has a background in university ministry and is currently writing a book about the evangelistic message of the first Christians
Why bother learning a Bible language?
The best reason to learn a Bible language is because it's so exhilarating. Do we believe the Bible is the place where God speaks? Then why wouldn't we want to hear his voice more clearly? Understanding the original languages brings a new dimension to our Bible reading – and therefore, so much encouragement in a believer's relationship with God. What Christian wouldn't covet that?
Think of it as a lifelong project, and do a little every day
What is great about learning Hebrew?
By all means learn Greek first – it's easier, and it brings Jesus more immediately into sharper focus. But when you've discovered how helpful that is, you might notice that three-quarters of the Bible is written in Hebrew, and you'll surely want to explore all that exciting territory as well.
Any tips for learning?
Think of it as a lifelong project, and do a little every day. Little and often, rather than binge learning, is always the way to go with languages. However, keep in mind that the greatest benefits come after you've been reading regularly for a few years — it really is worth persevering and then reading daily.
Any widely used Greek or Hebrew grammar would be a good place to begin. Grammars with answer keys and exercises to practice translating from English into your target language are the most useful for self-study.
We recommend: Basics of Biblical Greek, William D Mounce, 4th Edn (2019) and Introduction to Biblical Hebrew, Thomas O Lambdin (1973)
Bill Mounce, author of Basics of Biblical Greek, has a website of resources for learners of New Testament Greek.