Do Biblical Languages Still Matter?

BY Wesley Biblical Seminary
April 10, 2017

 

by Dr. Rick Boyd

 

It’s all Greek to me! Biblical Greek as Accessible Greek

Back in the nineteenth-century, the common belief regarding the original language of the New Testament (NT) held that the Greek found in the NT was a unique type of language, a ‘Holy Ghost Greek’ dissimilar from any other writings . However, in 1895 a book was published that announced linguistic parallels between the New Testament texts and common everyday documents such as personal letters and other non-literary writings. The result of this finding pointed out that the New Testament was written in common everyday Greek. It was not written only for select scholars who were only able to translate through the Holy Ghost, but for the simple Christian of the day, anyone who knew Greek. The New Testament was written in common Greek to be read and understood by everyone, but to access the treasures contained in the original languages, the minister must learn the languages.

Unlocking the Treasures in the Text

The use of a particular word in the original language, often overlooked in the English translation but essential for a deeper understanding of the text, emphasizes the importance of original language study if and when available. A. T. Robertson, noted twentieth century Greek Scholar, commented about the Greek New Testament: “There is no sphere of knowledge where one is repaid more quickly for all the toil expended.” Robertson then comments about the preacher, “…when he has read [the various translations], there will remain a large and rich untranslatable element that the preacher ought to know…the preacher cannot be excused from an accurate apprehension of the New Testament. This is the book that he undertakes to expound. It is his specialty, and this he must know whatever else he does or does not know.” The same holds true for the Hebrew OT. The biblical languages are a key to unlock countless hidden exegetical treasures, given an investment of time and effort.

Treasures in Matthew: A Case Study

To see this in action, we will discuss a brief example. One of the distinctive and significant features of the Gospel of Matthew is the coupling of Old Testament (OT) quotations with the reference to the fulfillment of the Scriptures (e.g. 1:22-23; 2:15, 17-18; 4:14-16; 8:17; etc.). Matthew pres
ents the coming of Jesus, the Christ-event, as the fulfillment of the OT and specifically the realization of the words of the prophets. This theme of the fulfillment of prophecy is prominent in Matthew. Jesus’ life is portrayed as fulfilling God’s will by fulfilling the Scriptures.

The Gospel turns at 16:21 following Peter’s paradigmatic confession that Jesus is “the Messiah (Christ), the Son of the living God” (16:16 – note the term ‘Christ’ is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew ‘Messiah’, which is more in keeping with the Jewish sense of Matthew). After Peter declares Jesus’ identity and Jesus declares Peter as blessed (16:17) and promises to build His victorious church (16:18-19) Matthew writes, “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem…” (ESV). The term translated ‘he must go’ in the ESV, NASB, KJV, RSV, NRSV, and NIV (NLT reads ‘he had to go’) is the Greek verb δει̂ which means ‘it is necessary’. However, the verb does not give explicit indication regarding who or what makes it necessary. Why is it necessary? It is necessary according to whom or what?

The verb δει̂ is found eight times in Matthew. Twice it occurs in parables pointing to something necessary to do in accordance with the will and nature of the one in authority (18:33; 25:27), once it is used in reference to Peter’s verbal commitment to die with Jesus ‘if necessary’ (26:35), and five times it appears to refer to necessity according to some implied directive or will (16:21; 17:10; 23:23; 24:6; 26:54). Something or someone makes it necessary to complete a particular action. These may point to a necessity for the fulfillment of Scripture, but all eight occurrences might also correspond to necessity according to God’s will. The fulfillment of Scripture would also correlate with God’s will in a larger sense such that the use of the Greek verb δει̂ implies necessity according to God’s will. This is made clear in the final occurrence (26:54). The fulfillment of Scripture is the necessity, but it corresponds to God’s will, especially the cross of Christ.

Biblical Languages and YOU!

That discovery of common written communication in the style of the NT has provided encouragement for all who desire to learn and know the original language of the Bible, both New (Greek) and Old Testaments (Hebrew), and Wesley Biblical Seminary offers a way to accomplish this. WBS offers courses in both Greek and Hebrew. The courses are taught via a live conferencing platform, Zoom, which allows students from wherever the technology reaches to meet together once a week and study the languages together in cohorts.

Don’t underestimate the time and energy learning biblical languages requires, but don’t underestimate your ability, either. Lay leaders, teachers, and pastors have all found the investment required in study to pay rich dividends in personal study and in sharing the Truth with those around them. Between the knowledge and skills of the professor, camaraderie of the classroom, and plethora of available study aids, nearly anyone can begin to unlock the treasures of the text.

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