Archive for June, 2014

The case for biblical languages

I was talking about slow reading a few weeks ago. I recalled reading this statement by Ellen Davis, professor at Duke. She contributed an article in the book “The Art of Reading Scripture” in which she writes, “perhaps the best reason is the most obvious: reading in the original language slow us down.” When we slow down, we read more carefully. We notice the conjunctions, the articles and the prepositions. We notice every letter and every vowel. Perhaps convinced by her statement I opted to learn both languages in order to reap the benefit of reading the scripture slowly.

A few years back when I began thinking about attending seminary. I overheard a professor advising a mature student not to take biblical languages. It is not that he thinks studying the languages is not important. He was merely advising from a pragmatic perspective. Studying languages is not for everyone, particularly when you are older, this obstacle can be insurmountable.

I am in a program that does not require me to take any biblical language but I am doing both. I am doing it because I think acquiring at least a workable knowledge of the biblical languages is vital to anyone working with the scripture. Now that I have completed two semesters of Greek and one semester of Hebrew I am trying to assess my decision.

The truth is acquiring a biblical language is not easy. As a matter of fact acquiring any language is not easy. With age, definitely our memory capacity diminishes. After two months I can see my Greek is already slipping a bit. So the advice is indeed sound and wise. So is it worth putting in two hundred hours (this is the time I estimated needed to be invested for two semesters of language) worth of time in languages versus using the time to learn other subjects such as theology or preaching or pastoral ministry?

My answer is probably in the minority because I think it is worth it even for mature students. After what I considered minimal language work, I am already reaping the benefit of slow reading as I mentioned. I can testify that it is not something you can do with a translation.

I am also recognizing a benefit that I did not anticipated. I am beginning to see what the text is not saying as much as what it is saying. Take a very simple example, in Genesis begin by saying God created the heavens and the earth. Some may talk about heavens referring to many heavens. However, even with my elementary Hebrew I know the word heaven only occurs in a plural (more accurately a dual) form so it makes no sense talking about multiple heavens. This is just the way the language works and translations may not tell the full story and can be mistakenly taken to mean something the original text does not say. Knowing what the text does not say goes a long way in knowing what the text does say.

Every language has its own way of articulating a concept whether it is abstract or concrete. Knowing the biblical language is not only about what the message is but also how the message is articulated. It is a bit vague but all I can say is you do “feel” the meaning more when you reference the original languages.

Some will argue that with the amount of secondary works available, you do not really need to know the languages. I would say, precisely because of the amount of material available that you do need the languages to separate the weed from the grass. What you are acquiring is the capacity to critically read secondary works, this is not possible without the original languages.

The language expert can probably list more reasons but so far I confirmed my belief that the biblical languages is essential to anyone who is dealing with the scripture. I am even venturing to suggest that this group includes (again many will disagree) small group leaders, children Sunday school teachers and worship leaders. I have an odd suggestion, perhaps instead of teaching kids “reduced” biblical stories which will be deconstructed later, we should teach them the biblical languages. It is kind of like in the old days when all the kids in prep school learnt Latin.

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