God’s Word is, no doubt, the most influential book that has ever been written—and it was written in Hebrew and Greek—not English.
Even the concept itself is striking. The God who created the universe wants to communicate with us, and used the written word to do it.
It should not come as a shock that much time, money, and effort is given to the process of discovering the accurate reading and understanding of biblical texts.
Of course, those resources are not limited to the discovery of God’s Word, but the availability of it as well. That is, translating and disseminating God’s Word across the nations of the world.
In the Western World, the predominant language is English.
There is a rich history of English tradition when it comes to translations of the Bible. Without a doubt, the King James Bible is the most well-known, longest-standing, and widely disseminated.
Hailing from the time of Shakespeare—a time when many would argue that the English language was at its peak of beauty—even its critics label it a literary masterpiece.
As of today, there are around ~450 different English translations of the Bible.
With the availability of God’s Word in unprecedented abundance, a question is raised in the minds of many Christians today—is it important to study the original languages of the Bible?
Let’s explore that question, by starting with another one.
Where is God’s Word?
One of the big questions Christian theologians have wrestled with involves the nature and location of God’s Word.
This concerns the doctrines of inspiration (what the Bible is) and preservation (where the Bible is).
These ideas are related, of course. A Bible that is written but inaccessible to God’s people is not productive for God’s purposes. Thus, we might start with the assumption that if God spoke, we generally have access to what he spoke.
Some see a problem here, though, because with the exception of very few, scholars are in agreement that the locus of God’s Word is the original autographs.
This means that the intended meaning of the text is found only by understanding the intent of the original author of a given portion of Scripture—all of his cultural nuances, his assumptions, and his writing technique must be considered. And that, generally speaking, copies of the work are granted no such status.
If only the original autographs of God’s Word can be considered inspired and, therefore, inerrant and infallible, where does that leave our English translations?1
When the preacher instructs us to open the Bible at worship services throughout the week, what are we really reading?
The Use and Misuse of English Translations
The field of textual criticism is, well, messy.
That is not to say we cannot learn much from these scholars, nor is it to say that we’ve no hope of understanding the Bible!
It simply means that we cannot pretend as though a perfect, complete, English Bible fell from the sky with instructions on how to infallibly read it.
There is much to consider when you factor what is involved to move a text from the mind of God, through an inspired biblical author, through the pen of translators (both amateur and professional), and into your hands.
Not the least of these considerations is how the message might be transmitted. A flawed view of this process might lead one to believe that God inspired translations as well as the originals.
Why is this flawed? A couple reasons, minimally:
If we agree to the doctrine of a closed canon, there’s no reason to think God would inspire a new version of the text. Some who take this view think that God would do this, citing Paul’s various translations of the Old Testament as proof-positive. The problem is that Paul is regarded by other authors of Scripture to be a divinely appointed author himself; not merely a translator to new audiences. Thus, the analogy does not hold.
Given the over-abundance of manuscript evidence we have for the Bible, a doctrine of preservation that makes use of this evidence seems preferable to one that can only be affirmed by faith. One might say they have faith that God doubly inspired the Bible (that is, inspired a translation as well as the originals). But there’s really no evidence that can be used to prove this.
The way God’s Word was persevered is quite incredible!
We have over 5,000 extant copies in the original languages, and
Thus, to corrupt the text over time would take a conspiracy so miraculous that it would serve as proof for God’s existence!
Differences do exist in many of these manuscript copies, no doubt.
In fact, one could make scary-sounding claims like this one:
There are more variations among our manuscripts than words in the New Testament. (Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus)
I mean, this sounds pretty scary! That is, until you realize that the vast majority—like, 99%+—of such differences amount to little more than the scribal transposition of a letter or the slight movement of a punctuation mark.
Ryan Leasure provides an
In sum, 99.75% of all textual variants don’t effect our reading of the text. These variants include spelling errors, word order changes, synonyms, and nonsense readings. This means, when you read your New Testament today, you can be confident that the text has been preserved for your reading and not radically altered as some skeptics say. Of the remaining variants, none of them effect any core doctrine of the Christian faith.
The point is this one: Because of the sheer amount of data we have to work with, we can know with extreme precision what was originally written down in texts we don’t even have.
From this data, then, we can draw some conclusions. While we don’t have access to the originals, this abundance of manuscript evidence seems to represent what was written in the originals with breathtaking accuracy.
Quite obviously, we can count on our English translation of the Bible to present us with an accurate account of what was originally written—whether or not one agrees with the content that is presented.
However, we cannot conclude that our particular translation is inspired. Such translations make no claim to be inspired of God; they are rather a testament to the mountain of manuscript evidence and extraordinary scholarship that has gone into understanding the text of the Bible.
The Usefulness of the Hebrew and Greek Texts
So, why study the Hebrew and Greek, then?
After all, we can certainly affirm the inspiration of the original autographs without need to study them—especially if our translations are based on manuscript copies that seem to reflect the originals with near-100% accuracy.
Here’s what we have so far:
Originals — inspired
Early copies — preserved
Translations — neither
So even though we can understand the text well by reading translations of the Bible, we could understand even better by equipping ourselves with the tools to read the text in its original languages.
There’s one example I return to often because it makes the point so well: The “firmament” mentioned Genesis 1.
Many translations render it this way; others choose the word expanse. The Hebrew word is raqia. Now, to be sure, there is debate amongst very smart people as to what this word connotes.
However, most agree that the word seems to mean expanse and carries the idea of a beaten out, extended surface.
For a scientifically imprecise (to say the least) culture like that of the ancient Israelites, such a word seems plenty adequate to describe what is in the heavens above.
The word firmament (Latin: firmamemtum), however, carries baggage; namely, the word “firm.” It suggests something solid and supportive.
Without taking the care to look into the meaning of the Hebrew word, one might walk away with the idea that the Bible is describing a literal, solid dome above the earth. For a while, many creationists believed this is exactly what the Bible taught, and sought scientific support for this!
Many Hebrew scholars even today believe the Bible is referring to this, but find a solution in dismissing the Israelite cosmology as errant.
It seems to me neither option is necessary. The Hebrew word does not seem to imply a hard surface, so why take that route at all?
This is just one such example. By studying the Hebrew and Greek texts, one can come to a fuller and richer understanding of what has been written to the believer.
To wrap up, let me give one important caveat.
Although it would be exciting and certainly warranted in some cases, I do not think it is necessary to learn Hebrew and Greek with the intent of reading and speaking them fluently.
In fact, I’m not even sure that would be a good idea for most people.
Rather, what I have in view is availing oneself of study tools that allow for a deeper dive into these words and phrases, the meanings behind them, and how they were used across the biblical revelation and in their culture.
Familiarize yourself with the basics of each language. For example, just learning that biblical Hebrew was written right to left and that Koine Greek words have genders can be helpful when it comes to discerning nuances in word choice.
Finally, I have to say that I am not where I want to be on this. I have ambitions to learn much more than I do about the original languages! So even if you’ve never read a word of Hebrew or Greek, you’re not alone.
There’s no better time to start than today.
- To be clear, there are many evangelical Christians who do not hold the infallibility and/or inerrancy of the Bible. I personally do. The obvious point is that the Bible absolutely cannot be inerrant and infallible if not divinely inspired.