The study of Ancient languages can be a divisive topic of conversation. After all, the Scriptures have been translated into most of the ‘vulgar’ languages and new projects are well under way to provide God’s Word in native tongues globally. No one speaks ancient Greek any more (and Hebrew is hard to find outside of some orthodox schools); practically everyone you will meet would use a translation of the Scriptures as their source of doctrine—so why bother with the original language (especially if it is difficult to learn)?
When considered objectively, there are only three reasons NOT to study the ancient languages:
1. I will not be preaching, so I won’t need to diagram the sentences, explain the grammar or cultural context, and I can use a lexicon to define individual vocabulary words as needed.
2. I do not have the time (or ability) to spend becoming fluent in a second (or third) language; it will only confuse my brain more so than it already is!
3. There are plenty of good translations available, so I can evangelize without knowing all the nuances of the original text and still call God’s children to Himself.
The arguments FOR studying the ancient languages are more compelling. Consider Martin Luther’s perspective:
“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. 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.
Therefore, although faith and the gospel may indeed be proclaimed by simple preachers without a knowledge of languages, such preaching is flat and tame; people finally become weary and bored with it, and it falls to the ground. But where the preacher is versed in the languages, there is a freshness and vigor in his preaching, Scripture is treated in its entirety, and faith finds itself constantly renewed by a continual variety of words and illustrations.
We will not long preserve the gospel without the languages. The languages are the sheath in which this sword of the Spirit is contained; they are the casket in which this jewel is enshrined; they are the vessel in which this wine is held; they are the larder in which this food is stored; and, as the gospel itself points out, they are the baskets in which are kept these loaves and fishes and fragments.
Hence, it is inevitable that unless the languages remain, the gospel must finally perish.”
[To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools]
Read that last sentence again—Luther ties the preservation of the Gospel itself to the study and understanding of the original language!
On a more pragmatic level, the arguments for studying the original texts are almost as compelling:
1. Biblical exegesis starts with grammar. A proper interpretation of grammar and sentence structure or phrasing will prevent misinterpretation of the text and specific meaning behind the passage.
2. Hermeneutics is dependent on understanding the original verbiage. Closely related to (and dependent upon) exegesis is the understanding of the ‘big idea’ contained within (or expounded by) the passage.
3. The study of linguistics will build discernment and understanding of another culture. Studying the syntax, vocabulary, idiom and language structure of Greek and Hebrew tongues reveals clues about their cultures. This, in turn, will assist in bringing present-day relevance to ancient cultural ideas.
4. The reason above will also prevent espousal of corrupt doctrine. Bad interpretations have led many astray—either to an impotent gospel or completely heretical tenets. It isn’t just the cult leaders who twist interpretations of Scripture to meet their own meaning—there are many mainstream churches where the preaching is improper (due to poor interpretation skills).
5. The study of the language and its subsequent textual meanings will provide a deeper insight into the mind of God. Who would rather hear a summary of a love letter or poem as opposed to the actual words of the author? While there is a place for summary and commentary, nothing compares to the author’s own words—no commentator or editor can completely capture all the elements present in the original text (try to summarize or describe a poem—you simply will not do it justice!).
Yes, the study of the ancient languages isn’t easy and yes, there are alternatives to spending the time and effort which may or may not meet your needs. But the bottom line is that a greater enrichment is available in the study, presentation and living in accordance with the Scriptures when you understand the original language.