Tuesday, October 19, 2010

More on Greek and Hebrew: Pastors, why don't you use them?

Well yesterday's post generated some passionate comments about the need for seminary students to learn Greek and Hebrew. Jim West and Scott Bailey each chimed in on why students should learn original languages. Jonathon Robinson added his own thoughts and Matthew Montonini wonders what others are doing to keep up .

For the record, I am not suggesting we change the requirement. But I am thinking out loud about the topic. I do wonder why so many who learn the languages don't stick with them and use them. I am not sure we can boil it down to something as simple as calling them "lazy" as Jim West suggests.

With that in mind, I thought I would continue this trajectory by giving an opportunity for some to explain why they don't use Greek and Hebrew in preparation for teaching and preaching.

If you learned Greek and/or Hebrew either in undergrad or seminary and do not use it why?

  • Are you too busy?

  • Did you forgot everything you were taught?

  • Is language a topic in which you are not skilled?

  • Perhaps no one ever convinced you of the need?

  • It could be you had a really lousy teacher who never took the time to help you learn the languages.

My goal here is not to call anyone out, but to hear from those who have been taught the languages and why they never followed through. I am really curious to hear from those who are engaged in some type of ministry that is not primarily in the academy.


  1. It really depends on the goal. If the goal of a person is to study the history of christianity, then they should go to a good name school, and get a degree in history. Part of their history training may require them to get involved with ancient languages, but it often times is not necessary. If their goal is to become a christian priest, then they really don’t need to know anything about languages.

    I study early christianity, especially for first 200 years, if that the kind of thing that others are interested in, I welcome contact from others. I am working on a database of early christianity, and am happy to share it with others.

    Cheers! RichGriese@gmail.com

  2. Dr. Byron,

    In all fairness...perhaps NONE of the reasons above are the reasons why. I can speak for no one but myself, however, the ONLY time that my hubby or I use Greek is in sermon preparation and Bible Study insights. I was awful in Hebrew and didn't retain much, but I loved Greek and still do...my hubby is quite the opposite. For the two of us the reason that there is no "follow through" as you suggest is simply for lack of time. With the daily needs and care-taking of the Lord's people, it leaves little time for personal study, let alone study of the antiquities. Therefore I would disagree with Jim West that we are "lazy," rather we are more inclined to take care of the Lord's people by meeting whatever need arises on that particular day. With both my husband and I in ministry, serving together at the same church, we find it hard to find time for ourselves even...let alone for Greek or Hebrew.

    Many blessings to you Dr. Byron and thank you for such a thought generating post.

  3. John--

    I can only speak for myself here. I have found it challenge to maintain my Hebrew due to the fact that I spend most of my time in the GNT, and when I do read or study the OT it is mostly the LXX.

    This is not something I am particularly proud of, since I enjoyed Hebrew just as well as I did Greek. Nevertheless, your posts here have been helpful from a convicting standpoint. It has been something I have been aware of for some time and now is the time to do something about it.

  4. I do not use Greek and Hebrew in my study on even a weekly basis for two reasons that I can identify.

    The first is time. I know that study is critical, but at some point, the lady dying in the hospital, the people wanting prayer, the work of visioning and casting, meetings, connections, exercise, and the commitment I have to balance with family life. At this time it is too much extra work to slog through the languages on a regular basis.

    The second is, while I earned good grades in both languages in seminary, I finished my course work in neither language with a good working knowledge that would allow me to open the manuscript and read with some confidence in understanding most of what I read.

    I would have benefited from more rigorous accountability in the classes to get to a little higher level. There could have been a much higher emphasis on vocabulary, which really drives confidence in learning a language. I had 3 quarters of Greek, and that may have been enough, but we weren't pushed. The expectations in Hebrew were higher. The third quarter was not required. I took it and had to drop due to family concerns (it was the only non-required class I had). That is my biggest regret, not that I put family first, but that I wasn't able to complete the Hebrew, because our professor was moving us to the point where we could have a good working knowledge.

    Therefore one suggestion I have is to increase the rigor of the language classes.

    I have one more observation. Languages are generally (or at least they used to be) at the beginning of the seminary process. When they are finished, there is a pretty big sigh, "I'm glad that's over" with no real expectation that we will use this knowledge in the rest of our classes. I took the 4 year plan for the M.Div. and by the time I was finished, I had already lost enough of the languages to make it very difficult to continue on my own.

    I wonder if it would help with ongoing habits and expectations for a students life of learning if there were a concerted effort by faculty to include more Greek and Hebrew, not just the lectures, but as a requirement of the students in assignments (with alternatives given to those who have not taken the languages).

  5. I agree that time and priority play a major role. Working full-time and going to seminary take up a lot of time. Oh, and my wife would like to see me once in awhile.
    However, I do use Dr. Baker's book mentioned in a previous reply. Having had the opportunity to be in a small group with Dr. Baker discussing the Hebrew and Dr. Byron the Greek showed how that devotional can help to keep the languages alive and kicking.

  6. I can relate to many of the comments shared already about temporal limitations and the challenges of balancing the various demands of ministry and family life. Sometimes it can be enriching to use the original languages for devotional purposes (personally, I have enjoyed using inter-linear translations). I have also found it helpful when teaching Sunday school to take the original language text with me and a lexicon or dictionary in the event that someone is interested in word usage or the original language term used. In relation to sermon prep, I have found myself using Greek and Hebrew at times to explore important words used in a passage, but I do not work from the original language texts directly. More time is not spent in the original languages because I feel a greater urgency to focus on exploring the theological reception of the passage over time (patristic sources were already mentioned, but other classic and contemporary commentaries in various Christian traditions are good too). Also I feel a strong need to to explore the concepts from the biblical passage in a contemporary, application friendly language. Greek and Hebrew can illuminate this for sure, but considering time constraints sometimes I have appreciated using Eugene Peterson's work or other similar resources. I think it is excellent that you are searching for ways to help us reflect on this issue. Thank you!

  7. I essentially use Greek and Hebrew
    as a cross-check. I generally read
    the text in a number of English
    translations and then if either,
    based on my reading or being
    alerted to problems from
    commentaries, I will read
    the text from the original,
    consider the arguments of
    others and make my decision
    as to the meaning of the
    particular text or passage.