How and Why Pastors Should Study the Biblical Languages

by Zach Vickery

In today’s age, countless translations of the Scriptures exist. Some translators attempt to convey the most literal meaning of the original text while others try to contextualize Scripture in ways that help the English-speaking, modern reader understand what the text is saying. Some translations are mostly word-for-word while others are thought-for-thought. Though each method serves its purpose, nothing plumbs Scripture’s depths like the original Hebrew and Greek.

Unfortunately, many pastors who went to a Bible college or seminary learned Hebrew and Greek just long enough to get a diploma and now struggle even to remember the alphabet. Many see the languages as irrelevant to the context in which they serve. In my opinion, however, as long as the Bible is being taught, its original form is not only relevant but also essential.

Martin Luther directed some of his writing to language study and pastoral ministry. He said, “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.”[1] This describes where many pastors are today, not seeing a problem with appealing to translations. Luther continued, though, saying, “But when it comes to interpreting Scripture, and working with it on your own, and disputing with those who cite it incorrectly, he is unequal to the task; that cannot be done without languages.”[2]

Biblical languages play a vital role in Biblical interpretation, and at least some degree of interpretation emerges in every translation of Scripture. Instead of completely relying on the translation work of others, the pastor should be able to work through a Scriptural passage in its original language and determine its most accurate translation.

Why Study the Biblical Languages?

Dennis Magary describes the limited nature of translation, explaining that a translation, for all the help it offers, is still “at least one step removed from the original.” He labels translations as “a commentary reflecting critical and interpretive decisions by a host of scholars.”[3] Pastors limit themselves to these “commentaries” when they neglect the Biblical languages. Having a working knowledge of these languages enables the pastor to move beyond the interpretation involved in translation. It enables him not only to read from critical commentaries on the Bible, but also to critically analyze them in determining the most accurate meaning of the text.

According to N. T. Wright, “Trying to study the Bible without knowing the original languages is like trying to play Beethoven on a mouth organ. It’s just not going to be huge. You may be able to get something of a tune, but it won’t actually be what the guy had in mind.”[4] Wright provides an excellent analogy for studying the Bible without knowing the original languages. Translations are beneficial, but they’re simply not the best way to study the Bible.

When pastors are preparing to present the message of Scripture to a congregation, they should be willing to do it in the best way they possibly can. When a pastor takes the time to mull through the original text of Scripture and deeply consider its meaning, he shows great concern that the truth of God’s Word is taught in his church.

How to Study the Biblical Languages

While some pastors would love to include Biblical languages in their weekly study, they simply don’t know where to start or how to refresh the knowledge they once had of Hebrew and Greek. Thankfully, in the modern age, countless resources are available to those who wish to strengthen their use of the languages.[5]

Books and Lexicons

The first place to start studying the Biblical languages is with elementary grammar books.[6] Several books exist that are easy to work through and that begin with the very basics of the language. You could approach an elementary grammar book without the slightest idea of what the alphabet looks like, and, with some time, you could have a grasp of the basics of the language.

After gaining a basic understanding of the language, you can move to syntax books that go beyond the elementary grammar and introduce how the language functions.[7] Having the capability to reference a syntax book could make significant contributions to the development of your theology as you work through a text.

Lexicons are another indispensable source for those who wish to study Biblical languages. A lexicon operates in the same way as a dictionary with words listed in alphabetical order. Simply learning the alphabet, which one can learn from any elementary grammar book, allows you to utilize lexicons.

Online Sources

Biblical language study has never been more accessible than now because of the Internet. A growing number of online sources are available that can help pastors learn the languages just as if they were in the classroom.

The first online source that the pastor should be aware of is Daily Dose of Greek and Daily Dose of Hebrew. This website was created as a resource to keep busy pastors accountable to reading Hebrew and Greek.[8] Every day, Robert Plummer translates a single verse from the Greek New Testament in a two-minute screencast that is sent directly to your email inbox when you subscribe. If you have no prior knowledge of Greek before visiting this website, there is a “Learn Greek” tab that is linked to Plummer’s video lectures that go chapter-by-chapter through an elementary Greek textbook. These same exact features also exist on the Daily Dose of Hebrew website.

Another online source that is similar to Daily Dose is Exegetical Tools.[9] This website, founded by Todd Scacewater, features a weekly paradigm that helps pastors and students review one paradigm a week to regain, retain, and improve their Greek knowledge. Exegetical Tools also provides frequent webinars featuring instructors who lecture on particular topics pertaining to Greek. Sometimes these webinars concern specific features of the Greek language; other times they consider the Greek from particular Bible books. While a pastor may not have the time to travel to a seminary to take a course, surely they can block out an hour of their day every few weeks for a Greek webinar.

In addition to these websites, several Bible software programs can aid the pastor’s study of the Biblical languages such as Logos, BibleWorks, Accordance, Step Bible, and E-Sword. These programs contain numerous language tools like lexicons and interlinear Bibles. When studying a text, the simple click of a mouse can take a pastor directly to a Hebrew or Greek word entry in a lexicon. While Bible software programs can often be expensive, E-Sword and Step Bible are completely free; although they’re limited, they include language tools with which the pastor can deepen his study and bring a new richness to his sermons.

A Call to Include Biblical Languages in Pastoral Study

Heinrich Bitzer once said, “The more a theologian detaches himself from the basic Hebrew and Greek text of Holy Scripture, the more he detaches himself from the source of real theology! And real theology is the foundation of a fruitful and blessed ministry.”[10] Very interestingly, Bitzer assumes that the theologian studies the Hebrew and Greek texts for the purpose of ministry. He equates the pastor with a theologian and assumes that the pastor studies at this level. Many pastors today view the roles of a theologian and of a pastor as two separate callings, failing to see that the pastor is also called to study.

Pastors should understand the seriousness of preaching God’s Word. They must know that they’re not simply motivational speakers but vessels through which God has chosen to communicate His Word to His people. David Alan Black implores, “The Word of God must be handled accurately–or not handled at all.”[11] This is why prioritizing proper exegesis is so important in preaching.

The job of the pastor, then, is to communicate accurately these words of truth to the congregation. This will enable them to become more like Christ. In order to exegete passages of Scripture properly in preaching, language study proves to be exceptionally beneficial.

In addition to teaching the word accurately, the pastor would fall short of his duties if he didn’t also make the Word accessible to his hearers. While the pastor should study the depths of Scripture, giving attention to every detail to develop a proper exegesis, he should also make that information accessible and relevant without changing Scripture’s original meaning and purpose.

Walter Kaiser warns “The text drops lifeless in front of the listener when pastors fail to make their preaching accessible to the congregation.[12] He goes on to caution against overemphasizing either the academic viewpoint or the practical viewpoint. Instead, an appropriate balance is best for the context of preaching—a method that causes the listeners to be engaged with their minds, hearts, and hands.

As pastors, we must work to preach the Word in a way that communicates profound theological truths alongside practical application for the common man. Without the study of Biblical languages, we are limited in our ability to do this.

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About the Author: Zach Vickery lives in Ashland City, TN, with his wife, Emily and dog, Leroy. He is the associate pastor of Friendship Free Will Baptist and works for the graduate program at Welch College as an office manager and research assistant. He recently submitted his final thesis on verbal forms in Septuagint Amos, and will graduate with his M.A. in Theology and Ministry from Welch College in May. When not working or studying, Zach likes to enjoy nature while hunting, fishing, or disc golfing.

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[1] Martin Luther, “To the Councilmen: That they Establish and Maintain Christian Schools (1524),” in Luther’s Works, trans. Albert Steinhaeuser, rev. Walther Brandt (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1962), 45:350-71; quoted in Eric Lund, Documents from the History of Lutheranism, 1517-1750 (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2002), 153.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Dennis R. Magary, “Keeping Your Hebrew Healthy,” in Preaching the Old Testament, ed. Scott M. Gibson (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 30.

[4] N. T. Wright, “How to Study the Bible,” Logos Bible Software, February 3, 2011; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7hVVNYIPK_Q; accessed April 23, 2017; Internet.

[5] Though these tools enable you to get closer to the original text of Scripture, different books contain a variety of approaches to the syntax and lexicography of these languages. Thus, there is still at least some degree of interpretation involved in the sources I’ve listed. Even so, working with the original languages at least puts you one step closer to the author’s intended meaning.

[6] Elementary Greek books include: David Alan Black, Learn to Read New Testament Greek (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009); and William D. Mounce, Basics of Biblical Greek (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009). Elementary Hebrew books include: Jo Ann Hackett, A Basic Introduction to Biblical Hebrew (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2010); Allan P. Ross, Introducing Biblical Hebrew (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001); and Jason DeRouchie, A Modern Grammar for Biblical Hebrew (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009).

[7] A quality syntax book for the beginning/intermediate language student is Dan Wallace, The Basics of New Testament Syntax (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000) for Greek, and Ronald J. Williams, Williams’ Hebrew Syntax, 3rd ed. (WHS), rev. and exp. John C. Beckman (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2007) for Hebrew.

[8] Robert Plummer, “Daily Dose of Greek,” Daily Dose of Greek, https://dailydoseofgreek.com/; accessed April 22, 2017; Internet.

[9] Todd Scacewater, “Exegetical Tools,” Exegetical Tools, http://exegeticaltools.com/; accessed April 22, 2017; Internet.

[10] Heinrich Bitzer, ed., Light on the Path: Daily Scripture Readings in Hebrew and Greek (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982), 10; quoted in Andreas J. Köstenberger, Benjamin L. Merkle, and Robert L. Plummer, Going Deeper with New Testament Greek: An Intermediate Study of the Grammar and Syntax of the New Testament (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 501.

[11] David Alan Black, Using New Testament Greek in Ministry: A Practical Guide for Students and Pastors (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 9.

[12] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching and Teaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981), 19.

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2 Comments

  1. Great article Zach I have been eager to read it. I signed up for the Daily Dose of Greek and plan on taking a serious attempt at the languages after I finish the MA program. Thanks for the motivation

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