Bible & Theology

Why Learn Greek and Hebrew?

Question: Why do we have to learn Greek and Hebrew? —Ministerial student

You’ve asked an ancient question. Before we look at the answers, let’s review what happened when ministerial students didn’t learn Greek and Hebrew. From 400 to 1400 AD, very few ministers learned Greek who didn’t grow up speaking it. Virtually nobody learned Hebrew. Why should they?

Latin was the language of the “Christian” world. There were lots of different Latin translations. They’re good enough, aren’t they? Besides, there were lots of good Latin commentaries by Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, Cassiodorus, Venerable Bede, etc. And there were plenty of good theological works written in or translated into Latin: Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil, Origin, Clement of Alexandria, Augustine, and the list went on and on.

All the heavy lifting is already done, right? Who needs to study Greek and Hebrew? That’s the question ministers asked Augustine in the 400s AD. Unfortunately, they didn’t listen to his answer.

As a result, when the commentaries disagreed, ministers had no basis for independently analyzing the original text to see which interpretation best fit the evidence.

  • When their Latin translations disagreed about what the original text meant, they had no basis for determining which translation was right.
  • When bishops and popes taught error based on Latin translations, how could they be corrected?
  • When Latin translations, which had to be copied by hand, were miscopied and corrupted, on what basis could they be corrected?
  • When Augustine’s understanding of justification was corrupted into gaining God’s favor by works, how could this heresy be exposed?

Don’t get me wrong. All the woes of the church in the Middle Ages did not result from ignorance of Greek and Hebrew. But ignorance of Greek and Hebrew was at the root of many. On the other hand, consider what happened when men began to study Greek again. Erasmus edited the first widely disseminated Greek New Testament in 1516. With it he offered a new Latin translation and a commentary on the Greek text. His comments exposed to public view the flagrant and egregious errors of the church of his day.

Ignorance of Greek and Hebrew was at the root of many of the woes of the Middle Ages.

For example, Erasmus comments on the requirement that elders be the “husband of one wife” in 1 Tim. 3:2:

Other qualifications are laid down by St. Paul as required for a bishop’s office, a long list of them. But not one at present is held essential [by the church], except this one of abstinence from marriage. Homicide, parricide, incest, piracy, sodomy, sacrilege, these can be overlooked, but marriage is fatal. There are priests now in vast numbers, enormous herds of them, seculars and regulars, and it is notorious that very few of them are chaste. The great proportion fall into lust and incest, and open profligacy.

As historian J. A. Froude notes, “The clergy’s skins were tender from long impunity. They shrieked from pulpit and platform.”

How did the church stray so far from Scripture? It first started down the pathway of error when it neglected the languages of Scripture. The longer the neglect, the deeper the darkness. Eventually, the light of the gospel was extinguished in many parts of Europe. This isn’t just my opinion. It was the opinion of all the Reformers, including Martin Luther, whose knowledge of Greek and Hebrew helped him emerge and lead others from that darkness.

Martin Luther’s knowledge of Greek and Hebrew helped him emerge and lead others from that darkness.

Luther writes,

For as soon as the [knowledge of Greek and Hebrew] declined to the vanishing point, after the apostolic age, the gospel and faith and Christianity itself declined more and more until under the pope they disappeared entirely. After the decline of the languages, Christianity witnessed little that was worth anything; instead, a great many dreadful abominations arose because of ignorance of the languages.

On the other hand, now that the languages have been revived, they are bringing with them so bright a light and accomplishing such great things that the whole world stands amazed and has to acknowledge that we have the gospel just as pure and undefiled as the apostles had it, that it has been wholly restored to its original purity, far beyond what it was in the days of St. Jerome and St. Augustine.

Ministers ought to know the languages!

Ministers ought to know the languages! More in my next article.


Originally published in the Ministry Library of God’s Bible School & College.