‘Why should I study Hebrew?’

I’m often asked by people going to theological college or seminary, “Why should I study Hebrew?’ Less often, they ask, “Why should I study Greek?”

They’re good questions. Vital questions.

To answer, I want you to imagine this scenario.

You’ve just arrived at university, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. You’re there to study French literature. In fact, it’s been your dream for a few years now to study French literature. You love French culture. You’ve travelled to Paris and fallen in love with the place. You adore French cuisine. Now you want to sink your teeth into the masterpieces that French authors have produced. So you’ve enrolled in the course, bought all the books, and checked your timetable. You’re ready to begin.

And so the day finally arrives. You find the classroom. You walk in, find a seat, and try to get comfortable. But you find yourself shuffling in your seat with nervous anticipation.

Then the Professor walks in.

Your excitement piques even more. At last, you’re actually fulfilling that long-held desire to immerse yourself in French literature.

Bonjour!’ says the Professor.

Bonjour!’ you respond, perhaps a little too enthusiastically.

The Professor proceeds to hand out a schedule for the semester. As you scan down the list, you see that each class is a feast of French classics: Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Jules Verne, Gaston Leroux, Paul Verlaine… C’est formidable!

The wide smile on your face grows even wider. This is going to be such a treat!

Once all the schedules have been handed out, the Professor gathers everyone’s attention. He clears his throat, and begins to address you all.

“Everybody,” he says, “I want you to know that I actually don’t know any French. I do know bonjour, of course, and how to say escargot properly,” he chuckles, “as well as a handful of other words I’ve picked up here and there. But I don’t actually know the language. Nevertheless, we’re going to have a great time together studying French literature.”

The smile that had beamed across your face now flees.

“This is the ‘Professor?'” you ask yourself. “How is he going to teach us French literature if he doesn’t even know French? He’s not an expert! How are we supposed to trust him if he can’t even read the French for himself? Is this what I signed up for?”

are-you-serious-wtf-meme-baby-face

The moral of the story?

If you’re going to be teaching people from a pulpit, interpreting the word of God for them, unpacking its meaning, its significance, and ensuring its positive impact on them, then do the responsible thing and learn the word of God in its original languages. Congregations will be looking to you as their expert who is not just willing but also able to read rightly and teach tightly the Scriptures. Do not sell them short!

For some reason seminary students often don’t need convincing about the value of learning Greek for New Testament study, and yet they do need substantial persuasion to learn Hebrew for the benefit of Old Testament study, not to mention Aramaic for the small portions of it in the Old Testament. 

A friend of mine who pastors a congregation told me of a young man in his church who was heading off to study at a theological college. This young man approached my friend for advice on making a choice: should he study Greek when he got to college, or should he study Hebrew? My friend’s response was legendary: “Well,” he said, “when you finish college and get up into your pulpit, do you want to be wearing only your shirt, or only your pants?”

It is incumbent on those who would be teachers to give their best efforts to the task, so as to honour the God whose Scriptures they are handling, as well as the congregations they are serving. Yes, we have the Bible translated into English and other languages, but there is always some loss in translation. If there weren’t, we might not ever need to hear another sermon again: we could just read our English translations all by ourselves, and never have to meet up regularly. But God has appointed some to be teachers in his Church as a means of blessing his Church with the full measure of the knowledge of the Son of God. This is why not all people are encouraged to be teachers, but also why we go on meeting together with teachers to lead us.

No one who reads from a translation of the Bible is somehow less faithful for doing so than someone who reads from the original languages. The suggestion is preposterous! I want to say, “Thank God for our Bible translators!” But the fact that we need translators tells us just how important it is to have people who do know the original languages. Without them, people are missing out.

I’ve heard some ministers who took Hebrew at seminary say they no longer use it, see no ongoing value for it in their ministry, or in hindsight think that learning Hebrew was too much effort for too little return—that it was time they could have spent better studying other things. But that makes me wonder whether they’re continuing to give the Scriptures their all. The Scriptures are the basis of all theological endeavour. Not everyone has the opportunity to learn Hebrew or Greek, but knowing them allows the teacher to weigh up the decisions made by others about the meaning of Scripture—be they other Bible translators, theologians, other ministers, the leaders of their Bible study groups, the TV documentary host, or the person on the street. And this is an ongoing task that is never finished. While the Scriptures don’t change, the situations we find ourselves in do. And so we need to continue understanding and interpreting the Scriptures for these new situations. One of the mottos of the Reformation captures this need nicely: semper reformanda (‘always reforming’). If a teacher is not actively examining and weighing up the Scriptures against ever changing situations, relying instead on what others say or translate, then they have fallen into a false sense of security. They have actually begun to congeal in a tradition. Teachers should be capable of continual, close examination of the Scriptures. Knowing ‘Shalom’, ‘Hallelujah!’, and the meaning of ‘Yom Kippur’ doesn’t cut it.

“I can still have a fruitful ministry without the original languages,” you might say. True. But which doctor would you go to: the one who has a full waiting room, a soothing voice, and gives you a jellybean at the end of the consultation, or the one who has all the paraphernalia to diagnose you and write you a correct prescription?

For the sake of your future congregations and the God whose Scriptures you will authoritatively interpret for them, give the original languages your best shot and don’t give them up once you’ve graduated. That’s when you’ll use them the most! Knowing the original languages won’t guarantee you’ll be a better speaker, but it will mean you know the Scriptures better. By all means, polish up your speaking skills, but for God’s sake make sure you know what you’re talking about. Know it well! God demands much of his teachers, so you should demand much of yourself, too.

So if you’re heading to theological college and have the opportunity to study Hebrew and Greek, please have a very good reason for not doing so. “It’s not for everybody,” or “It’s not really necessary,” just aren’t really good enough for would-be teachers. Both God and his flock, whom you will shepherd, deserve your best efforts.

Related: Why Learn Biblical Hebrew?

What language did Jesus speak?

Today witnessed a very minor verbal exchange between Pope Francis and Israeli PM, Benjamin Netanyahu, over the language Jesus spoke. Reuters reports the incident on the final day of the Pope’s visit to the Middle East:

During his comments about a strong connection between Judaism and Christianity and tolerance towards Christians in Israel, Netanyahu told the [sic!] Francis: “Jesus was here, in this land. He spoke Hebrew.

“Aramaic,” the pontiff interjected.

“He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew,” Netanyahu shot back.

The difference of opinion reignites a historic debate about the language Jesus spoke two millennia ago.

“Jesus was a native Aramaic speaker,” Israeli linguistics professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann told Reuters. “But he would have also known Hebrew because there were extant religious writings in Hebrew.”

Zuckermann added that during Jesus’ time, Hebrew was spoken by the lower classes – “the kind of people he ministered to.”

Pope Francis (R) meets Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) at the Notre Dame Centre in Jerusalem May 26, 2014 (Photo courtesy of Reuters / Alex Kolomoisky).

Jesus was evidently a native Aramaic speaker. The quotation in Mark 5.41 has Jesus address Jairus’ daughter with the words Talitha koum—an Aramaic phrase meaning, ‘Kid, get up!’ He would also have been very familiar with Hebrew, the language of most of the Jewish Scriptures. His references to the Scriptures on numerous occasions within the Gospels suggests this.

However, Jesus would also have been conversant with Greek. Galilee had one of the highest concentrations of Greek speakers in the Roman Empire outside of the Greek heartland of the Aegean. In fact, within short walking distance of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth was the city of Sepphoris—a large Greek polis in the heart of Galilee. There is every chance that Jesus not only visited the city multiple times, but he may well have worked there in his profession as a carpenter. It was, after all, one of the largest economic centres in Galilee, and it was in the immediate vicinity of Nazareth.

The Apostle Peter?

Jesus’ disciples were also probably familiar with Greek. The hometown of apostles Simon Peter, Andrew, and Philip, was the town of Bethsaida at the northernmost point of the Sea of Galilee. In c. 2 BC it was granted status as a Greek polis and renamed Julias. Thus these three disciples, two of whom (Andrew and Philip) bore Greek names, grew up in a Greek-speaking environment. It also helps explain how Peter attained the name ‘Peter’. His original name was Simon, a good Hebrew/Aramaic name. Jesus, however, gave him the nickname ‘Kephas’, which is Aramaic for ‘Rocky’ <cue theme music to Rocky>. Paul refers to him as Kephas (or Cephas in modern English versions) in his correspondence with the Galatians and Corinthians. However, elsewhere, his name is easily translated into the Greek equivalent for ‘rock’, Peter (Greek: Petros).

There is a possibility that some of Jesus’ ministry was conducted in Greek. For example, there is good reason to suggest that Nicodemus’ misunderstanding of Jesus’ words in John 3.3 is dependent on an ambiguity in Greek, but not in Aramaic or Hebrew. Jesus tells Nicodemus, ‘Unless someone is born over, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.’ The relevant term used in the Gospel here is ἄνωθεν (anōthen) Nicodemus hears this as ‘born again’, while it seems from the rest of the discussion that Jesus meant ‘born from above’. The rendering ‘born over’ captures something of this ambiguity in English.

Jesus also seems to have conversations with Greek speakers throughout the Gospels. He chats with a Greek woman from Syro-Phoencia (Mark 7.24–30), a Roman centurion (Mark 8.5–13), and the Roman Prefect, Pontius Pilate. On each occasion he might have made use of an interpreter. However, it is more likely that Jesus was able to conduct the conversation personally without an interpreter.

There is even the possibility that the famous ‘camel through the eye of a needle’ saying (Mark 10.25) is a misunderstanding of a saying in Greek. The word for ‘camel’ in Greek is κάμηλος (kamēlos), but the word for thick ‘rope’ (the type used to moor a ship to port) is κάμiλος (kamilos). There is virtually no difference in pronunciation between the two. Did Jesus perhaps say, ‘It is easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God’? If he originally made the statement in Greek, he may well have. If, however, he made the statement in Aramaic, there would be no such ambiguity. I guess we’ll never know.

But all this is to say that Jesus was almost definitely a comfortable speaker of Greek, in addition to his native Aramaic, and the Hebrew of the Jewish Scriptures.