The Best Part about Knowing the Biblical Languages

Andy Naselli —  March 7, 2012 — 5 Comments

Scott J. Hafemann, “Is it genuinely important to use the biblical languages in preaching, especially since there are many excellent commentaries and pastors will never attain the expertise of scholars?Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 3:2 (1999): 86–89 (formatting added):

One hour with the text is worth ten in secondary literature. . . .

But I have saved the best for last. Knowing the biblical languages enables us to do something very few commentaries ever do: trace the flow of the argument of the text.

  • Commentaries save us time by providing the historical, linguistic, cultural, canonical, and literary insights that we simply do not have time to mine for ourselves week in and week out. For $35.00 we can benefit from ten years of a scholar’s life!
  • But in the end, what we preach is the point and argument of the biblical text, as informed by this backdrop, but not replaced by it.
  • Commentaries and translations do not excel in tracing the flow of an argument and mapping out the melodic line and theological heartbeat of a text.
  • By definition, most commentaries are atomistic,
  • while a translation often must obscure the density and complexity or ambiguity of the original for the sake of its target language.

So when all is said and done, we do not learn Greek

  • in order to do word studies,
  • but in order to see
  • where the conjunctions are and are not,
  • where participles must be decoded,
  • where clauses begin and end,
  • where verb tenses really make a difference and where they do not,
  • and, in the end, what the main point of a text actually is.

I have never met anyone who, having learned Greek well, said it was a waste of time or unproductive.

The next time someone tells you that the languages are unimportant, ask them if they made this judgment after having learned them.

Related:

  1. Scott J. Hafemann, 2 Corinthians  (NIV Application Commentary; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 171–73.
  2. Thomas R. Schreiner, “Tracing the Argument,” in Interpreting the Pauline Epistles  (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 97–124.

5 responses to The Best Part about Knowing the Biblical Languages

  1. Those are great, great thoughts. Convicting.

    Andy, you should do a series on how to keep up with your Greek and Hebrew post-seminary. That would be helpful.

    • My friend Con Campbell has already done it!

      Campbell, Constantine R. Keep Your Greek: Strategies for Busy People. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.

      The titles of his ten chapters summarize his tips:
      1. Read Every Day
      2. Burn Your Interlinear
      3. Use Software Tools Wisely
      4. Make Vocabulary Your Friend
      5. Practice Your Parsing
      6. Read Fast
      7. Read Slow
      8. Use Your Senses
      9. Get Your Greek Back
      10. Putting It All Together

  2. BTW, the next issue of Themelios (coming in early April) includes a good article by Jason DeRouchie entitled “The Profit of Employing the Biblical Languages: Scriptural and Historical Reflections.”

  3. John T. “Jack” Jeffery March 7, 2012 at 2:03 pm

    “The freshness of the strawberry cannot be preserved in any extract.”
    – A. T. Robertson, The Minister and His Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977), pg. 17.

  4. I’m guessing that at most 1% of Greek readers experience increased clarity when they close their English Bible and open their Greek NT. We ninety and nine experience a decrease in clarity and information. The danger is when we feel we’ve experienced an increase (thus “Exegetical Fallacies”). Is it worth our time to get more of the 99% to where the 1% are? Or would that time be better spent in our English Bibles?

    We ninety and nine are eternally indebted to the 1%. All pastors should have as a goal to know enough of the orignal languages to be able to profit from the insights of the 1%. But we must be honest with the pastors who know less Greek than a four year old knows English, and that’s most of us.

    A careful study of a formal English translation will yield nearly all of the benefits Scott listed above. If this were not so, Christianity would be in a real pickle. Through painstaking translation and God’s grace, “the freshness of the strawberry” is preserved for the reader of a mother-tongue Bible.

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