Why Do the Biblical Languages Matter?February 12, 2020
Every year at Vose Seminary, students have the opportunity to take a unit in either ancient Hebrew or Koine (i.e. “common”) Greek, the languages of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament respectively. Moreover, students may enrol in the Hebrew or Greek versions of one of our advanced exegesis classes and dive into a particular biblical book in its original language; they even get to translate a handful of chapters! But is it really worth it to spend all the time memorizing the vocabulary and learning the grammatical rules of an ancient language? Why not just rely on the numerous translations of the Bible on the market today?
I want to make the case for studying the biblical languages based on the second-person pronoun “you.” It is difficult for English speakers to know when the word “you” is addressed to a single person or to multiple people apart from knowing the context. For instance, I might be speaking to a friend and ask, “How are you doing?” Or I might tell my whole class that “you need to turn to the following page in the textbook.” Perhaps it might clarify matters if I used the contraction “y’all” in the latter instance. The biblical languages, however, are not ambiguous about this.
We can look at the famous passage in Jeremiah 29:11.
Many readers may be familiar with how it is translated in the New International Version, which reads as follows: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” This verse is frequently treated as God’s personal promise to me as an individual, implying that it is God’s will that I will be rich and famous. Yet a “health and wealth” theology is an extremely problematic position: every one of us will have successes and failures when we try to reach our goals, but the Bible is more concerned with our characters as we go through the good times and the bad times. However, if you read the verse in Hebrew, you will clearly see that the “you” is plural. Jeremiah was addressing the Jewish exiles, who were forced to live in Babylon after the Babylonians burned down the temple in Jerusalem in 587 BCE and deported them from their homeland in Judah. It was during one of the most difficult times in the history of the people of Judah, when all hope seemed lost, that the prophet reassured God’s people that God would be faithful to the covenant people in the midst of their tragic circumstances and had a plan to restore them.
The second example will focus on 1 Corinthians 3:16.
The words “you are the temple” are often taken as a comment on how each one of us has to care for our bodies by having plenty of rest, avoiding too much junk food, and not getting tattoos. Whatever we might think about such advice, this is not what Paul intended. Again, the “you” is plural and, in the larger literary context, Paul was rebuking the followers of Christ in Corinth for forming different factions that sided with a particular leader like Peter, Paul, or Apollos. Their factionalism threatened the harmony of the entire Christian community. It was at this point that Paul reminds his audience that they are the temple of God in which the Holy Spirit dwells. Just as the one temple in Jerusalem was a visible reminder that the God of Israel was present among the chosen people in the Hebrew Bible, the Holy Spirit is powerfully present in the single, worldwide church of God. Although the church is comprised of people from diverse ethnic, cultural, social, economic, and denominational backgrounds, we are all equal and should be united as members of the body of Christ.
When you learn the biblical languages, you might discover hidden treasures in the Scriptures that you never saw before. I hope that you will take the opportunity to enrol in Biblical Hebrew or in the classes on Jeremiah and the Corinthian Epistles in the 2020 semester.
- Michael J. Kok, Ph.D.