Must A Preacher Know Greek And Hebrew?

July 1, 2016

David R. Brumbelow | Pastor
Northside Baptist Church, Highlands, TX

*This article was taken from David’s blog site, Gulf Coast Pastor, and is used by permission.

Should a pastor, or any believer for that matter, study and be fluent in Greek and Hebrew, to really be able to study, understand, and teach the Bible? 
Our Bible, God’s inspired, inerrant Word, originally was mostly written in Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament).  An English translation of the Bible is translated from Hebrew and Greek into our English language. Obviously the translators need to be Bible scholars fluent in the original biblical languages as well as English.

Clearly a knowledge of Greek and Hebrew would be a plus to anyone studying and teaching the Bible. It can open up new areas of fuller understanding. If you have the time and ability, by all means learn the biblical languages.

There are some areas where you will only be effective and respected if you have at least a basic knowledge of these languages. On the other hand, if you don’t know the languages, if it is a crucial point, you can rely on and quote those who do know Greek.

English translations are produced by some of the top scholars in Hebrew, Greek, and English. Therefore, when we study a good English translation, we are enjoying the fruit of their scholarly labor. We get much of the benefits of the original languages through their research and translation. Can they get it wrong? Yes. That is a good reason to sometimes consult a second or third English translation. We are privileged with the luxury of having multiple good English translations: KJV, NKJV (my favorite), NASB, HCSB, and others.

Just because you know Greek doesn’t mean you automatically have the corner on proper Bible interpretation. Even once you know exactly what a Bible verse says in Greek, there can still be more than one view. And, a Greek scholar can still be flat out wrong on a biblical issue. So, don’t be bullied by someone just because they know more Greek than you. Also, you can often find a Greek scholar that disagrees with the Greek scholar trying to bully you.

If you are fluent in biblical languages, don’t use it to excess in your preaching and teaching. Frankly, some preachers seem to want to show off their knowledge of Greek.  Unless it is a point that really makes a difference, most laymen are not too interested in how well you know Greek. Some get weary of hearing the Greek word of every word in a verse.

There is an old story of a pastor search committee who included two requirements for their next pastor. That he not know Greek and that he had never been to the Holy Land. A previous pastor had done both and talked of them excessively.

Greek and Hebrew word studies at times are interesting and instructive. But sometimes they can skew the truth. We do not necessarily consider the ancient root meaning of a particular word, every time we use that word. Maybe the biblical writers did not either.  For example, the origin of the English word “enthusiastic” comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “possessed by a god.” But when a preacher says we should be enthusiastic about a church program, I doubt he is saying we should be possessed by a pagan god. Rather, he is just using the common understanding of the word. He simply means we should “be excited” about the church program.

Often when you find out what a Bible verse says in Greek, you find it is the same thing as what your Bible translation said in English all along. And, that is the very purpose of a translation.  I’ve sometimes asked, do you know what John 3:16 says in Greek?” They usually get excited they are about to discover some new truth. I then answer, it says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Yes, that’s the jist of it in Greek!

You can do a competent study of Greek and Hebrew, even if you do not know the languages. Great Bible study books abound such as, Vines Word Studies, Young’s and Strong’s Concordances, A. T. Roberson’s Word Pictures of the New Testament, Bible Dictionaries and Encyclopedias, Bible Commentaries, topical Bible study books.

Even a cursory knowledge of the biblical languages, though, can help you understand the differences in languages in general. Even a cursory knowledge of any second language can give you a better understanding of the original biblical languages, translation, transliteration.

Some preachers who know Greek are condescending toward those who don‘t know Greek. Yet, some of those same preachers who know Greek, do not know Hebrew, or only have a slight knowledge of it. Well, with that attitude, that preacher should never preach from the Old Testament until he is fluent in Hebrew.

A Greek scholar should never look down on a believer that does not know the biblical languages. Often, that humble believer may know more about a biblical passage than the scholar knows. And, the Greek scholar should show a healthy degree of humility. Perhaps we will all need a remedial course in Basic Bible when we reach Heaven’s shore.  I’ve always admired a Bible scholar who does not act like a scholar, and who can explain Bible truths so we all can understand.

Those who do not know the biblical languages should respect those who do. Theirs is a monumental accomplishment. Often they can reveal biblical truths of which others are unaware. Sometimes either side can keep us from doctrinal error.

I’ve sometimes wondered if a part of the spiritual gift of tongues is the ability some have to quickly and easily learn another human tongue or language. This would, of course, include Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek. The Apostle Paul would have known these languages and probably others and is likely to what he was referring (1 Corinthians 14:18) when he said “I speak with tongues (languages) more than you all.”

Some seem to just not have an aptitude for learning another language, yet they excel in other areas. Some will disagree, but you can be a very capable preacher and teacher of the Word of God without knowing much about Greek or Hebrew. It would not be difficult to name a long list of outstanding preachers, pastors, evangelists, missionaries who do not know Greek or Hebrew.

We would all be diminished if we had no Greek and Hebrew scholars. We would all be diminished if we got rid of all those ministers who are not fluent in the biblical languages.

Wherever you fit in the spectrum of biblical languages, may we all read, study, and hide God’s Word in our hearts. May we believe Holy Scripture, then put it into practice in our everyday lives.

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Edward Chapman

A couple of things.
1. Every denomination has Greek Scholars. In other words, Greek Scholars are a dime a dozen. So, all the knowledge that they may have in Greek, we still have numerous denominations that differ as to what the Greek is really saying. They can’t agree amongst themselves.

2. The country of China, for example, has Christians, mostly underground, hiding it from the government. If they can come to Jesus without any Greek Scholar teaching them anything, what do we need Greek Scholars for in the first place? For the most part, Missionaries are not fluent in the Greek/Hebrew stuff.

My church has missionaries in some interesting places around the world. And they come back from time to time and tell us great stuff about how people are coming to Jesus, in their own language.

What’s interesting is that God speaks all languages. I’ve heard some top theologians lately stating that in order for us to understand what was being said, that we must know the historical, and cultural content, as well as why certain Greek words were used.

But if people are coming to Jesus without all that education, then the illiterate (non-theologians) don’t need to know all that “straining at a nat, swallowing a camel” stuff.

All they need is the simple story that is told to all people, because when you really get down to it, being a Christian is easy. Greek Scholar theologians have us walking on egg shells sometimes. We don’t need all this Greek Education. Greek scholars do. But, again, they are a dime a dozen, and they still can’t agree. Hence, denominations.

    Robert Vaughn

    Edward: “Every denomination has Greek Scholars…we still have numerous denominations that differ as to what the Greek is really saying.”

    I think the Baptists and Campbellites (Church of Christ) and Acts 2:38 are a good example of this. There are real Greek scholars among both groups and, just like those of use who read Acts 2:38 in English, they can’t agree on what it means.

    (BTW, my mother was a Chapman.)

Jim Poulos

Albert Einstein once said, “Keep things as simple as possible but no simpler.”

No one wants things to be over-complicated but when things are over-simplified the true nature of that thing may be forfieted.

Scripture teaches that God has gifted people for the edification of the Church, for the true nature of the Church to be seen. I’m sure languages play a role in that giftedness.

There’s only one way to make a line straight but there is an infinite number of ways to make it crooked. It is real work for the Church to keep things straight. The Church needs gifted people to help keep things straight and those who know how to profit from their giftedness

I think what your saying Pastor Brumbelow

rhutchin

That a person knows Greek or Hebrew can be helpful in understanding why people differ in their understand of a particular verse. After that, it is sound exegesis that must resolve issues of language.

Two examples illustrate how people can understand the Greek text differently. In Acts 13:48, the issue is whether the verb, tasso, is to be taken as the passive or middle voice. In 2 Peter 3:9, the issue is whether “all” is an indefinite pronoun with the antecedent expressed in the previous text or without an antecedent expressed in the previous text (and thus to be read generically). How one understands that which each verse says may be dictated by one’s theology and amounts to eisegesis. This is not necessarily bad as it explains how people can differ in their understanding of the text. To resolve the differences and come to a proper understanding of the text requires sound exegesis.

So, it can be helpful that a pastor or ordinary pew sitter knows Greek or Hebrew but sometimes this is not as important as the ability to do a sound analysis, or exegesis, of the text in question.

    Ed Chapman

    Straining at a nat, swallowing a camel. Just read the dog gone thing, without analyzing things too much. God makes it simple, man makes it difficult.

Robert Vaughn

Random comments:

If you can’t find it in a good English translation, it’s probably not in the Greek; don’t build a theory on it. (And if Spanish, French, German, etc. is your native language, place that in the place of “English” in the previous sentence.)

Possibly 90% of us who even studied Greek or Hebrew in seminary probably don’t really know these languages well enough to get the little “nuances” and “nuggets”. We may confuse ourselves as often as we help ourselves. We know enough to get into trouble, but often not enough to get out of it! (One thing I learned in the little Greek I learned — I don’t know enough to bloviate about it, but I know enough to tell when others are!)

I figure most preachers who spend all their time explaining the Greek or Hebrew are “dime-store” translators or “dime-store” scholars. Those who know it best seem keep it mostly in the background.

Those who crucified Jesus knew Greek, Hebrew and Latin.

Johnathan Pritchett

First, translations, new discoveries, textual families and variants, etc. they are in flux. We need language scholars. I am certainly thankful for them.

If a person doesn’t know the languages at least at the basic level, that person will always be at the mercy of those scholars while only understanding a third of the conversation about the differences. That these scholars can and do differ is why some workable knowledge (by no means expert level, so don’t misunderstand) is helpful.

Learning other languages seems to be a big frightening ordeal to Americans. It is not a big deal to much of the rest of the world where bi- or tri-lingual is the norm. What’s our problem? Some basics in Greek and Hebrew are no harder to learn than other languages are for others, like those who make a functional English a second language. It takes effort, sure, but it isn’t mount insurmountable for the average person. If the guy who buses tables at the yummy Mexican restaurants we eat at can learn multiple languages, so can pastors.

These days, there is little excuse for pastors, even bi-vocational ones, not to work at least work through Mounce and Kelley, and learn how to maximize the resources on languages available for people to use while working. People who preach and teach from the Bible ought to be able to read it, not just an interpretation of it (all translations are interpretations).

There is little reason to avoid spending a little money and a couple of years to get some basics down. It doesn’t have to be a stressful process. It can be fun! No harm in learning something new. In two to three years you will be two or three years older regardless. Why not have some basics down by then?

Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary offers excellent language certificate programs at extremely reasonable prices to assist pastors to be well on their way with biblical languages without fear, pressure, or heavy costs.

Jim Poulos

Here’s a little Greek lesson:

We get our word ‘Math’ from the greek word, ??????? -> Math(etes).

It is very facinating that this word is applied to the 12 men who followed Jesus for 3 years.

What an overlap and dicohtomy at the same time of worldviews. At one end you have the word coming from the Greek thinking world and at the other end you have the word used with the One who would represent ‘the Israel of God.’

That overlap and that dicohtomy is a source of so much of the arguements made about the truth of God’s work. To argue scripture from a Greek framework is to miss interpret what it says. To argue scripture from a Jewish framework is to disconnect it from modern understanding steeped in that Greek framework.

Dave Marrandette

The following are a few thoughts I wrote down a short time ago concerning this subject but never published. I realize that a lot of folks won’t agree, but I’m willing to put them up and absorb the reaction.

Why you really don’t need to learn Greek but you should.

One of the pressing questions for all those who “religiously” study the Bible is what about the original languages? A plethora of questions arise from this starting point: Do I really need to know the original languages? If so, how much? If I learn the Hebrew and Greek, why do we need scholars? Whoops this last question gets to the point. There will always be someone who believes himself to be a better scholar than you (and is not afraid to impart that knowledge to you). Take the case of Con Campbell (you can start to pick up the details of the squabble at this website).

There is no shortage of Greek language experts (an understatement). And as the internet stretches its muscle there is no shortage of communicative highways. Here’s what I mean. There’s a gentleman who teaches Greek; he’s an expert on the subject. On his website he has this statement from another expert, “When you hear the words “in the original text it says” or “in the original text this means,” it’s time to be wary. Those words often provide the introduction to misleading information.” I looked the word often up in the dictionary; it means “many times.” So, if you’re a pastor who has attended Bible college and/or seminary and have the privilege of preaching and teaching God’s Word week in and week out, anytime you dip into your Greek knowledge and then use the phrase “in the original text it says,” you are many times about to pass on incorrect information.

(Quite frankly, I would like to have this gentleman’s phone number so that at two o’clock in the morning when I’m putting the finishing touches on a message I can give him a call to double-check the meaning of a Greek word that is essential to the third application point of my message.) If all this sounds a bit cynical (sinical), then you’re right. But at times the irritation level gets up into the red on the frustration meter.

The answer in the end is, “Yes, you really do need to learn the original languages (but with a caveat). You need to learn the original languages well enough to be able to handle the overabundance of language aids to your advantage.

Perhaps it’s a bit like your relationship with your computer. You don’t need to know how to program the thing in order to enjoy its benefits. It’s beneficial to possess some knowledge of its functionality but you don’t have to know how all the software and hardware integrates in order to enjoy it. It’s really no different than the original languages of the Bible. You really do need to know enough to grab those reference works to make them function properly but you don’t need to know the details of the origin of a word in order to make use of the language.

Christian

I don’t believe the Bible was written for the elite to understand it, but to the common man, so anyone can understand its message.

    rhutchin

    Given that the Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek (and other languages), I think you are advocating that people learn the original languages in order to read and understand it. The problem is that most people don’t have the time to become fluent in foreign languages and depend on translations from the original languages and those translations can present problems. You could take the attitude of some who say that the Bible means what they say it means and it’s as simple as that.

Ed Chapman

Amen to that!!!!!!

JIm Poulos

Compared to hard work it takes for Christians to work together for The sake of the Gospel and Kingdom of God learning Greek is easy.

Sophroni

there is something weird about us Christians that I found rarely among hindus or moslems. They venerate their language as holy and divine, and always stuck in awe when ever sanskrit or arabic is chanted. but modern christians are so weird, not only they seldom know why their bible is the way it is, not alone any greek or hebrew. many become atheist when confronted that this version of the bible differ with the other. yet seldom are preachers in their high podium really retained anything of greek/hebrew of his old seminary days. yet when some lay person wanna learn by himself latin/greek/hebrew, ppl would say, ‘are you going to be a preacher? get a life?!’ then my response would be, ‘I want to commune with my God better, and to know the scripture is one of the way’

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