I remember daydreaming at my desk in the moments before my first seminary Greek class began. Finally—the New Testament will be clear. All those tricky passages I’ve never understood will make sense, and exegesis will be a piece of cake! That misguided dream died five minutes later when my professor offered this humbling bit of wisdom: learning Greek doesn’t resolve theological and textual difficulties in the New Testament; in fact, it uncovers more difficulties that are smoothed over by the translation process. It was as if he was saying, “If you think the New Testament is challenging now, just you wait till you’re studying it in Greek!”
Ten years later, I’m saying the same thing to my students. Reading and studying the Bible in its original languages is messy, and it doesn’t always lead to straightforward exegesis. It doesn’t “fix” or “solve” the text for us.
It does something far better.
Original-language study calls us deeper into the text. It calls us to pay better attention and wrestle more closely with it. It calls us to consider the text in its historical, literary, and theological contexts. Original-language study draws us into the Book that God has given for the guidance and formation of his people—the place where, through the Holy Spirit, we meet our risen Savior.
This leads to an important question: who should learn it? I mean, who wouldn’t want to take one step closer to the content of those documents God has given us?
It’s time to stop considering Greek and Hebrew study an obligatory step on one’s way to becoming a pastor, and to start considering it a useful tool for any Christian who enjoys more academic avenues of biblical study. Original-language study is a great tool for listening closely to the truth of Scripture, not a prerequisite for faithful vocational ministry. Put simply, you don’t need to be a pastor to make good use of Greek and Hebrew, and you don’t need Greek and Hebrew to be a good pastor.
Who’s Learning Greek and Hebrew? Who’s Actually Using It?
As you might assume, most of the biblical Greek and Hebrew study happens in seminaries, among students preparing to lead local congregations. There are indeed many pastors who use their Greek and Hebrew every week. Yet you don’t need to know the biblical languages to faithfully preach the gospel. You don’t even need to know the biblical languages to be a great theological thinker! Many pastors understandably set original-language study aside to prioritize the immediate practical concerns of ministering to God’s people. That’s not a bad thing.
Original-language study is a great tool for listening closely to the truth of Scripture, not a prerequisite for faithful vocational ministry.
Conversely, I know many who never attended seminary and have no aspirations of full-time vocational ministry, yet who use Greek every day in their personal Bible study. Why did they learn? Because they wanted to! Maybe they loved language learning in general, maybe they wanted to be able to engage academic theological literature, or maybe they simply hoped to see New Testament texts in a new light.
Why push back against the “Greek and Hebrew are for pastors and theologians” paradigm? Because the benefits and blessings of language study transcend the categories of vocational ministry. Is knowledge of Greek and Hebrew necessary for profound understanding of Scripture? No. Is it a valuable tool for anyone who loves Scripture and wants to engage the text more closely? Absolutely, whether or not you’re a pastor.
Four Reasons to Study Biblical Languages
Why spend the time and energy to learn Greek and Hebrew? Here are four good reasons.
1. It forces you to slow down.
You don’t have to spend much time in church before certain well-known portions of Scripture become familiar. If you were raised in a Christian home, then the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’s encounter with Nicodemus, and many of Paul’s exhortations may perhaps be too familiar. I’ve discovered that working through such passages in Greek or Hebrew forces me to slow down and pay better attention to the text.
2. It opens up a world of new resources.
Many of the best biblical-study resources—including lexicons, theological dictionaries, and exegetical commentaries—assume some knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. There are simply more tools available to a person who knows the biblical languages.
3. It allows you to listen in on what is happening in the academy.
Why are scholars arguing about Paul and justification? Should we read the Shema as “the LORD is one” or “the LORD alone”? Knowing the biblical languages doesn’t resolve these complex issues, but it allows you to better understand them and make your own informed decisions.
4. It teaches you to approach Scripture with humility and openness.
Original-language study has taught me to treat exegesis less like solving a puzzle and more like listening to a voice. God’s Word continually evades our grasp. We can never fully “figure it out” the way we would a math equation or a riddle. As we engage the text in Greek and Hebrew, we will face our own limitations again and again. This ought to drive us to our knees in prayer, the only proper posture for Christian exegesis.
Why should these blessings belong only to those in full-time vocational ministry? I’ve seen church communities benefit greatly from members who have studied Greek and Hebrew. Is the Lord leading you toward biblical-language study? It may be worth prayerfully considering.