Do an Abundance of English Translations make the need for knowledge of the biblical languages unnecessary?

One of my pleasures as a faculty member at BCSA is working with my friend, Chris Fresch (of Greek Verb Fame). Chris and I frequently discuss the biblical languages. Most of the time our discussion are on matters of exegesis that the biblical languages highlight. And at times we lament that many pastors and students believe (or are being told) that knowledge of the biblical languages is unnecessary for faithful pastoral ministry and therefore do not pursue to learn them.

I don’t think that a working knowledge of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek are absolutely necessary for faithful ministry, or that it is the only skill needed for Christian ministry. To believe that would be naive of the heavy burden of pastoral ministry. But I’m concerned by the number of pastors and students who determine them unnecessary and seek to find ways to avoid them in theological college. 

One excuse for not valuing the languages in ministry is because we possess an abundance of English translations of the Scriptures. But is it true that an abundance of English translations mean that the need for learning the languages are obsolete? Dennis Johnson from Westminster California argues that the abundance of English translations actually makes the mastery of the biblical languages more necessary. He writes:

“The abundance of English translations of the Bible available to our churches may appear to make knowledge of the original languages less necessary. Actually, they make it more essential. I have participated in home Bible studies in which we had around the circle the Living Bible, the New American Standard Bible, the King James Version, the New International Version, the Revised Standard Versions, and others. At many points, naturally we had different wording; and at certain points our versions came up with significant variations in meaning! What do we do? Vote? Happily, we had somebody there who could look at the original, suggest why the versions diverged, and tell the rest why one translation was more accurate than the other. God’s people need the confidence that their own shepherds can guide them through the labyrinth of modern translations.”1

I think we all can relate to Johnson’s experience. The abundance of translations with different text-critical decisions and different translational goals can create quite the confusion for a group. The answer isn’t to look toward another translation, but the need for someone the capacity to explain why translations diverged and explain why one translation was better over another. This sort of knowledge and explanation is more than the ability to look up parsing information and glosses in a software program like Accordance or Logos. It requires someone who has laboured over the Scriptures in order to gain a deep knowledge of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

Let us continue to do the hard work because we love and treasure the Scriptures in order to serve God’s church. 

  1. Johnson, Dennis “The Perils of Pastors without the Biblical Languages” in Presbyterian Journal, September 1986 

Some Advice for Seminarians

After spending the first two years of teaching at Cal Baptist preparing lectures, getting to know my school and administration, immersing myself and my family in our local church, and trying to do my best to not mess it all up, I now have a bit of time each week to work on some things I’d laid aside. Namely, I now have a bit more time to read, write, and work in the original languages.

The last of these is the easiest for a busy seminarian or graduate to drop from their regular schedule. This is true for the graduate no matter if they’ve moved on to pastoring, teaching, church planting, the mission field, or some parachurch ministry. Starting a new work, or having more time to devote at a current ministry after graduation, always makes for a busier schedule. For me, at least, the easiest thing to drop out of that schedule was the languages. Likewise, in seminary, with many students working part or full time along with having a family while taking 4-5 classes, it is very easy to stop working with Greek and Hebrew (not to mention German, French, and Latin).

I remember my first semester at SEBTS vividly; I had always looked forward to attending seminary so I could learn Greek and Hebrew (yes, we all know I’m a nerd). Dr. Black took us through Greek I and II with a potent blend of a complete mastery of the language and an engaging teaching style. When we finished Greek II in the J-term, he challenged us to join the 5 minute Greek club. The club, as he told us, has no dues and no meetings. We just all agreed to read Greek for 5 minutes a day. At first this was something I knew I could do – I was taking Greek III that summer, and so I had to keep up with it.

But then, as I entered my second year of seminary, I took Hebrew I and II during the latter part of the summer and Hebrew III that fall, and so turned my attention away from Greek. At that time I was also preparing for the PhD entrance exam, and we were expecting our first daughter in January. I started part time at the seminary that October and was full time within a year. I was working in the Field Ministry Office trying to help Dr. Wade start a new program that partnered with churches for theological education, and so the excitement of entrepreneurial work took up my time as well. On top of that I was an adjunct for an online program, a part time staff member at our church, and a teaching assistant. And then I started the PhD program, took one Greek seminar, and that was that. I wasn’t a member of the 5 minute Greek club anymore, and I gave up my membership in the Hebrew version after we got to weak verbs.

None of the above is an excuse. I mention it only to say what all of my language professors told me, but what I never let sink in – it is very easy to let the languages go, and often they go with a whimper. Busy-ness kills continued language proficiency. I’m working on building mine back up, and at times it’s easier than at others. But if I had listened to Dr. Black, if I had kept my membership in the 5 minute Greek club, it wouldn’t be an issue at all.

So my advice is simple – don’t let the languages go. They are vital to understanding God’s Word to us, and that means that pastors and professors alike ought to know them and know them well. It’s better to keep on knowing them than to have known them once and left them.