Why take the time to study Biblical languages?

Acts 8:34 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ εὐνοῦχος τῷ Φιλίππῳ εἶπεν· Δέομαί σου, περὶ τίνος ὁ προφήτης λέγει τοῦτο; περὶ ἑαυτοῦ ἢ περὶ ἑτέρου τινός;

Introduction:

When I began this blogsite over a year ago, my intent was to provide resources and write posts that would bridge the fascinating world of the Biblical languages, Bible interpretation and theology to the person who is curious or desiring to grow in those areas. The above opening text lies at the heart of this blogsite, and why as a pastor, blogger and preacher of the word I think it is important to study the Biblical languages, Bible interpretation and theology. Biblical languages are not pursued, nor never should be studied to be showy or to give off the impression that one knows more than anyone else. Oftentimes when studying the Hebrew/Aramaic Old Testament or Greek New Testament, there are as many if not more questions than when studying the English text. So why expend the effort and time to learning the languages and working them into what can be a very busy and active life of ministry? Today’s post will aim to answer that question from a pastoral point of view.

The above text is an excerpt from a conversation recorded in Acts 8 between a missionary/Deacon Phillip and an officer of the Ethiopian Court (i.e the Ethiopian Eunuch). The text above literally reads: “The Eunuch answered Phillip and said: Please tell me, of whom is the prophet meaning here in regard to this? Is he referring to himself or to another?”

Now why introduce today’s post with the above verse from the Greek New Testament of Acts 8:34? Because it reminds us of the type of language the Ethiopian Eunuch would had been wrestling with as he was viewing the text of Isaiah in the same Greek language (called by scholars “The Koine or common Greek). The text of Isaiah 53 from whence the Eunuch was reading was the Greek version of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint (signified often by the symbol LXX). The Eunuch, being from Egypt, would had been very familiar with this translation of the Hebrew scriptures. As he was traveling back from his time spent in the temple in Jerusalem, he undoubtedly heard things that made him reflect on this text. He wanted to know what was going on when Isaiah wrote what he wrote.

Such questions are at the heart of interpreting the scripture. Men like Phillip needed to be ready to give answers. Phillip had been ordained to serve in the church at Jerusalem as a Deacon. His ministry quickly grew and as a preacher of the Word, he needed to be familiar with the scriptures. As Phillip broke down this text, he connected the contents to Jesus Christ. This is the goal of exegesis, whose meaning literally means “to lead out”. Pastors and teachers of the word are to “lead out” or “exegete” the meaning of the word for their listeners. Where then should the preacher or teacher take their people? Where the text and its meaning ultimately point – Jesus Christ.

This blogger believes that if all possible, preachers and teachers ought to be exposed to the original languages of the Bible (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek) through word studies or even moreso, study of the languages themselves. Again I ask the question posed at the beginning: why expend the effort? Who has time? Questions such as these can be answered by texts such as Acts 8. In the 20 years this blogger has been studying God’s word in the original languages, the following seven reasons represent from personal experience why pastors and teachers ought to commit themselves to studying the Bible in the original languages.

1. Studying the original languages forces the preacher to focus on the words more closely. Just seeing the languages themselves in print is a beautiful thing. God has revealed His word in different languages and has ordained they be translated in hundreds of languages to reach the people groups of the world with the life changing Gospel of Jesus Christ.

2. Studying the original languages causes the interpreter to be one step closer to the intention of the original authors (both the human authors and the Divine Author, the Holy Spirit).

3. Studying the original languages causes the preacher and teacher to better appreciate the English translations we have today.  This may surprise some readers. However when studying the Hebrew or Greek, this blogger still consults other English versions and translations, being that they represent the work of hundreds of scholars with greater proficiency in those areas than this author.

4. Studying the original languages enable the preacher and teacher to wrestle more intently with the text. This is the chief role of the preacher and teacher of the Word – to know the text. Martin Luther, the 16th century reformer, was recorded saying that reading the Bible in the original languages is like kissing one’s bride after pulling back the veil. The more we know the text, the more we know the Christ of the text.

5. Studying the original languages humbles the preacher and teacher to realize that the text is the master, and they are the student. This blogger is ever studying the original languages daily, since there is either stuff that is forgotten or new insights to learn. Surprising perhaps to some, regular study of the Biblical languages reminds the student of just how more they need to learn!

6. Studying the original languages brings glory to God and is part of the commands we see in scripture to study scripture more closely, such as 2 Timothy 2:15 and as we see illustrated here in Acts 8.

7. Studying the original languages can be used as an act of worship to God. How so? Since English is this blogger’s native tongue, whenever a Hebrew or Greek text is placed before me, I have to focus on each word, each grammatical and syntactical relationship. Slowing down in an otherwise fast-pace world is healthy. Worshipping God through His word requires the ability to meditate or chew on what you have just read. Such a discipline as the original languages can reinforce this necessary spiritual discipline and result in worship of God. After all, God is worthy of all we can give Him!

The above reasons explain why this blogger thinks the discipline of the Biblical languages is important in the study and preaching of God’s word. Does the lack of knowledge in such areas render the preacher or teacher any less spiritual or less effective in their ministries or life? Not at all! Again, it must be stressed that if one has the opportunity, they should pursue such studies. However whether one studies the languages or doesn’t, the source of power in all ministry derives from the Holy Spirit. God uses all men, from all different walks of life, with differing levels of grace to achieve His purposes. This blogger believes that with whatever circumstances the Christian finds themselves, they ought to maximize every square inch and moment to the glory of God. If God has included the opportunity to study the languages, by all means do so!

To God be the glory! (τω θεω εστιν η δοξα!)

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About pastormahlon

By the grace of God I was converted to saving faith in Jesus Christ at the age of 10 and called into the Gospel ministry by age 17. Through the Lord's grace I completed a Bachelors in Bible at Lancaster Bible College in 1996 and have been married to my beautiful wife since that same year. We have been blessed with four children, ranging from 7-18 years of age. In 2002 the Lord enabled me to complete a Master of Arts in Christian Thought at Biblical Theological Seminary, Hatfield PA. For nearly 25 years I have been preaching and teaching God's Word and have been studying the original languages since 1994. In 2016 God called my family and me to move to begin a pastorate at a wonderful Southern Baptist Congregation here in Northern New York.
This entry was posted in Biblical Interpretation, Exegesis, Greek New Testament study, Hebrew Text/Translation. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Why take the time to study Biblical languages?

  1. shimosi says:

    Wondering why you render (even ‘literally’) περὶ τίνος ὁ προφήτης λέγει τοῦτο as “what the prophet is meaning here?” Makes more sense to me that the Ethiopian official is asking, “About whom is the prophet saying this, about himself or about someone else?”

  2. pastormahlon says:

    Dear Shimosi: Good eye! I reviewed my translation of “περὶ τίνος ὁ προφήτης λέγει τοῦτο;” = “what the prophet is meaning here?” The mistake I made was rendering τινος as a neuter genitive singular, rather than as what it should be, a masculine genitive singular. I’ll be honest, I don’t know why I did that. It was a simple error on my part that should had been caught before I posted. I also reworded the translation to better render the neuter singular pronoun τοῦτο. Cross checking other English translations aids greatly in double checking any fresh translation made from the Biblical languages. I made the correction in the main body of the post. This is part of the exegetical process! Thanks for visiting and reading. I welcome any corrections and appreciate you taking the time to note this one. Blessings Mahlon Smith

  3. One of the things I love most about reading the Bible in the original languages (one that you didn’t mention) is that it really seems to put me in an ancient mindset for identifying with the passage, its characters, and its setting. It just seems that many cultural/social insights are gleaned for me while reading it in the languages. And many times, I’ve discovered, a greater heart of compassion… such as when we read that the demoniac was in the caves and he was “κράζων καὶ κατακόπτων ἑαυτὸν λίθοις” and the woman from Tyre who cries out, “Κύριε, βοήθει μοι.” Both, in my mind while reading it, was enough to break one’s heart. But I cannot express the exact reason why that happened in Greek and not English. It’s just interesting.

    • pastormahlon says:

      Hi reasonableph8th. I’m glad you brought out this point. I probably could had listed more reasons, however the post would had turned into a small novel! Anyhow I think the reason that happens in Greek (or in the other Biblical languages Hebrew/Aramaic) is because we are forced to slow down and mediate on the scriptures in our non-native language. Also too, we are brought one-degree closer to the authorial intentions of the text, which contributes to the overall effects of which you speak.

      For example, the phrase you mention: “κράζων καὶ κατακόπτων ἑαυτὸν λίθοις” has two present active participles which help us to see in sharp relief the continual, repetative activity of the demoniac. Its not that Greek is better than English or more accurate (i’ve heard some people say that over the years). Rather we are brought to notice such things in Greek since it is a more inflectional language where we see the endings than we would in English.

      Your second example again demonstrates how our ever-growing familiarity with Greek causes us to notice things moreso with it than English. “Κύριε, βοήθει μοι” is a grammatically powerful phrase. Κύριε is a vocative singular, which in and of itself is very demonstrative. When you couple that with the present active imperative second singular form βοήθει, which normally would not require an expressed subject, you see the force of the request even more pronounced. But then we see the dative masculine singular μοι, which is an emotive dative and expressing overtly the object of the verb, namely the speaker.

      I agree with you that pondering over the grammar and syntax in this manner enables us to slow down enough to get the impact of what God is saying in the text. If anything, I think your point brings out why studying the original languages is certainly desirable. 🙂

  4. KL says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Pastor Mahlon. I echo some of these sentiments elsewhere (http://oldschoolscript.com/2013/03/09/one-of-the-reasons-i-love-the-biblical-languages/)—especially the “slows you down” factor, and how healthy that can be.

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