Is It Really Necessary to Learn the Original Languages?
At times, I occasionally run across someone who says something to this accord: “You don’t really need to know Greek and Hebrew in order to teach and preach God’s Word. A pastor or teacher is not going to do an exhaustive exegesis of the passage in a thirty-or-so minute sermon or Bible lesson. Besides, the commentaries will tell you everything you need to know.”
Such a statement is disheartening. While interaction with the biblical languages may be difficult and even strenuous at times, it is very rewarding and brings insight and clarity that is otherwise lost without them. A general idea of the thought and flow of a text can be obtained without the knowing language. However, the details needed to push beyond this are only found by interacting with the biblical text itself. Unfortunately it seems that this mindset is not prevalent among many. The question is then, how necessary is it to learn the biblical languages?
The Languages: Tools for the Trade
The languages, first of all, provide one with the right tools to properly make exegetical decisions about the text. With knowledge of the languages one begins to understand that English translations do not always clearly communicate the thoughts of the biblical authors as well as the original languages. English translations have two primary goals: 1) Translate the text in a way that clearly communicates and is most faithful to the author’s original intentions; and 2) Allow that translation to be readable for a wide readership.
Consequently, the grammatical features of the original language are not always present in the translation. Knowing whether a verb is active or passive or if a participle is functioning adjectivally or adverbially is important in doing proper exegesis. Syntactical functions are also a part of this. Understanding why words or phrases are arranged in a particular way often affect translation and exegesis. Knowing why a verb or noun was placed at the beginning of the sentence or why a relative pronoun is in front of a certain clause could have implications upon the interpretation of a given text.
For instance, 1 John 3:9 says, “Whoever has been born of God does not sin (NKJV).” The wrong idea could be drawn from this text. Someone might interpret this to mean that people never commit sin once they are saved lest they cease to be Christian. However, is that really what the biblical author had in mind? The phrase actually intends to teach that Christians do not practice a continual life of sin. Other translations, such as the ESV, have the continual aspect present in the translation: “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning” .
The exegete understands the interpretive decisions that a translation committee has made to express the author’s thought through his knowledge of the languages. When this is understood, every translation becomes a commentary in disguise. Translations then are used to inform exegesis. They become just another tool placed in one’s tool belt alongside the commentators.
The Languages: An Aid to Interpretation
Secondly, grasping the biblical languages helps when making interpretive decisions and lessens dependency upon commentaries. Often, commentaries are sought after too quickly. As a result, the commentator’s thoughts and ideas begin to affect our exegesis before we have made our own decisions about the text. This happens when we do not have the ability to interact with them. Martin Luther expresses these same sentiments:
There is a vast difference therefore between a simple preacher of the faith and a person who expounds Scripture, or, as St. Paul puts it, a prophet. A simple preacher (it is true) has so many clear passages and texts available through translations that he can know and teach Christ, lead a holy life, and preach to others. But when it comes to interpreting Scripture, and working with it on your own, and disputing with those who cite incorrectly, he is unequal to the task; that cannot be done without languages .
One is more tempted to rely too heavily upon the commentaries for understanding instead of using them to hold a conversation. This is mainly because the tools necessary to do so are not available to those who lack knowledge of the languages. Greek and Hebrew allow one to interpret the Bible and remain independent from the thoughts of scholars.
Once the meaning of the text has been established, only then should the commentators be utilized. Commentaries are now used properly and not abused. They can help point out exegetical insights that may have not been considered. They may discuss various issues of literary structure and historical background, which effect interpretation, but are not accessible to the average person. They may even help correct a traditional understanding of a passage that misread the text. Still, they should not be sought after until the text has been wrestled with. This takes determination and discipline. Commentaries are aids, not substitutes. They should not do the work for us.
For the pastor, this practice sets a bad precedent among people in his congregation. It espouses the mindset that the “professionals” must be sought after to understand Scripture. When he hands over his responsibilities to the colleges and seminaries, he hands over the interpretation of Scripture to those who are a step removed from the people in the pew. John Piper states this clearly:
When we fail to stress the use of Greek and Hebrew as valuable in the pastoral office, we create an eldership of professional academicians. We surrender to the seminaries and universities essential dimensions of our responsibility as elders and overseers of the churches….Did God really intend that the people who interpret the Bible most carefully be one step removed from the weekly ministry of the Word in the church ?
Lack of confidence and inability to interpret Scripture will inevitably pass down to laymen in the congregation. Eventually, congregants will begin to see through the façade. A congregation that lacks confidence in their pastor is bound to fall. When they see the pastor’s lack of confidence in discerning the Scriptures, they will lose confidence in their own ability to discern the Bible. This can either push them to leave the church, in search of another pastor who is confident, or they will lose confidence in their own interpretive abilities and think that the Gospel is too difficult for the average person to grasp.
The Languages: A Scope for Accuracy
Finally, knowledge of the languages gives the precision of a sniper. Without it Piper says, “Weakness in Greek and Hebrew also gives rise to exegetical imprecision and carelessness. And exegetical imprecision is the mother of liberal theology” . This lack of precision gives way to being content with only having a general flavor of the text. Without precision vigor, excitement, and variety are lost when preaching and teaching God’s Holy Word.
The biblical languages are difficult to master and discipline is needed to maintain them. Nonetheless, they offer invaluable insight into the text that would otherwise be lost. With prayer, hard work, and determination, the languages become the greatest asset to one’s ministry. Scripture is the greatest treasure given by God known to man. The biblical languages are the keys to unlock that chest.
 This does not mean that one should go buy the ESV because it gets it right. Rather, I am suggesting that no translation, regardless of its accuracy, can always present the meaning of a text as well as the original language.
 Martin Luther, “To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools,” inLuther’s Works, ed. W Brandt and H. Lehman (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1962) 357-366.
 John Piper, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry, (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publisher, 2002), 81-88.
Further Resources for Greek and Hebrew:
Bill Mounce, Greek for the Rest of Us.
Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics.
Gordon D. Fee, New Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors.
Ronald J. Williams, William’s Hebrew Syntax. 3rd Edition. Revised and Expanded by John C. Beckman.
Douglas K. Stuart, Old Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors.