Should Christians Learn Hebrew or Greek When Studying The Bible?

by Dr. Michael L. Williams · Print Print · Email Email

When it comes to studying the Bible many people take different approaches. For many, finding an easy to read version is the answer. For others, they want a more literal version. Yet still for some, they want to dig deep into the original languages. This leads most believers at some point to ask the question: “Should Christians learn Hebrew or Greek when studying the Bible?”

What is the goal of Bible study?

The first thing to consider when trying to answer this question is what is the goal of Bible study? The Bible tells us there are three things as follows:

Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15)

The first goal is to show ourselves “approved unto God.” This means we should study to show that we meet God’s approval. How do we meet His approval? The answer is can be seen as follows:

Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: (Acts 2:22)

Jesus was approved by God. God the Father demonstrated His approval by doing amazing things through Him. It makes sense then, that to be approved of God, we need to be like Jesus. How was Jesus approved of God? By faith. Faith that everything that God the Father promised was true. Faith that God the Father would raise Him up from the dead and that Jesus would raise us from the dead (John 6:37-40). Because of His faith, Jesus always did the will of His Father as the Father had taught Him (John 8:28-29).

We too are approved unto God by faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). When we are approved of God, He demonstrates His approval by doing great things through us by His Holy Spirit. To be taught by the Father, we have to study His Word (2 Timothy 3:14-17), which changes us from the inside to become more like Him, willing to do God’s will, which demonstrates His approval (Psalms 119:11, 2 Corinthians 3:17-18).

The second goal is to become “a workman that needeth not be ashamed.” Being ashamed Biblically means to be defeated or disappointed. Bible study prepares and equips us to do good works without hesitation or hindrance (2 Timothy 3:14-17).

The third and final goal is to gain the ability to rightly divide the word of truth. This means that we are able to break down what we read into simple truths and applications given numerous Bible study factors. These factors include things such as the people involved, the context, audience, the time period in history, as well as other factors.

When these factors are considered, then we are able to compare Scripture with Scripture, line with line, and precept with precept to get a good understanding of what is being taught (Isaiah 28:9-10). However, there is one more thing that is important to know before we can answer the question if it is necessary to learn Hebrew or Greek when studying.

How accurate is the translation?

A simple visit to a Christian book store Bible section will show that there are numerous Bible translations. With all the different versions it is quite simple to see that when we compare the text, depending on the versions being compared, they can read totally different. So how do we know which versions are closest to the original texts?

This is when textural reliability must be considered. In other words, is the version we use translated as accurately as possible from the original Hebrew and Greek? To know this, we have to know something about the Hebrew and Greek used for the translation. Unbeknownst to most Christians there are different Hebrew and Greek manuscripts that are used by modern translations.

These manuscripts fall into two main sources: the originals, which were collected and preserved in Antioch, Syria (Acts 15) and corrupted copies, which were collected and maintained in Alexandria, Egypt centuries later. We know which the originals were because nearly all of the Apostolic Fathers of the first through third centuries quoted from the Antioch manuscripts.

Using tools such as a Strong’s Concordance (KJV) with a Hebrew and Greek dictionary or a King James Old English Word Definition Guide is helpful in Bible study.

Using tools such as a Strong’s Concordance (KJV) with a Hebrew and Greek dictionary or a King James Old English Word Definition Guide is helpful in Bible study.

The Alexandrian manuscripts are used by many translations today. However, it is easy to find errors in the corrupted texts by a simple examination of the translated text. An example can be found in Mark 1:2, which reads as follows in a translation, which uses an Alexandrian text.

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way” (Mark 1:2, NIV)

Although this is a well-known verse, the problem is that it misquotes who said it. Isaiah did not say this, Malachi did in Malachi 3:1. There are numerous other examples to look at (compare Isaiah 9:3 using a KJV and an NIV for example), but for now, we need to know that if there is going to be any examination of Hebrew and Greek, it is important to know what Hebrew or Greek is being examined.

For the sake of answering our main question, presuming we have the resources, should Christians learn Hebrew and Greek when studying the Bible? The answer varies depending on who you talk to. For a King James purest, the answer would be that everything that we need to understand a passage can be found in the King James English. However, as good as the translation may be of the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, English is not as robust of a language as Greek or Hebrew.

An example can be found in John 21:15-17 when Jesus asked Peter three times if Peter loved Him. However, looking at the words for love in Greek shows us that Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him in different ways. The first two times Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him He used the Greek work “agape,” which is an unconditional love. Peter did not directly answer that he loved Jesus, instead he replied, “you know I love you.”

After not admitting directly His love, Jesus then asked the same question using the Greek word “phileo,” which is a brotherly love. Only then did Peter say he loved Jesus. Without knowing those words in Greek, there is no way of knowing directly why He was asked the same question three time. A similar example can be seen when looking at the word “glory” in 2 Corinthians 3:18. Only by looking at the words in Greek can a clear understanding be gained.

Conclusion

So, with these things in mind, does this mean we must learn Hebrew and Greek when studying the Bible? The simple answer is no. Using tools such as a Strong’s Concordance (KJV) with a Hebrew and Greek dictionary or a King James Old English Word Definition Guide will help us to identify words in verses that may give us pause for understanding. On the other hand, scholars of Greek, and more so Hebrew, tell us that sometimes there are nuances in the language such as puns, word plays, etc. that can only be fully appreciated in the original languages. However, a good translation is what is most important.

More reading about Bible study methods: 5 Creative Ways to Study the Bible

Resource – Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, King James Version

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

DocReits August 1, 2014 at 7:19 pm

Hi Dr. Williams,

I appreciate your article on Bible Study and thank you for it,

Something I have found confusing , when you were speaking about “original manuscripts”, is that the word “Manuscript” means “a copy”. No ancient literature has survived(that I know of) in its original form. The Bible, especially the NT, has the closest(in time) and the most copies(“manuscripts”) from the original writings of any ancient literature “copies” that have survived. I thought others might want clarification on that point….that “original manuscripts”, means “the earliest copies” of the original writings of the Apostles. (Those original writings being lost or destroyed).

Further, and more important and germane to your article, is the confusion, IMO, of the word “approval”. We see this same English word “approval” in:

1) 2Tim2:15: “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed…”

and

2) Acts2:22: “…Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you…”

You ironically demonstrate, through the error of the English translators, the very point you are making of dividing the Word correctly, by using two very different Greek words and stating by implication, that they are the same.

In #1 above, “approved” in the Greek is dokimos from dokeo meaning “to please, or seem good”. We are “pleasing” God or it “seems good” to Him that we are studying His Word. We are seen pleasing, “As Workmen”, but not “approved” in the English sense of “accepted”.

In #2) we have the Greek word translated “approved” as apodelknumi meaning to “demonstrate or prove”, a totally different meaning than dokeo. You write that, “God the Father demonstrated His approval by doing amazing things through Him”. No, it does not say that. You use “demonstrate” and “approval” both in that same sentence. The Scripture uses one Greek word which means “demonstrate”, it does not say anything about “demonstrating approval” or “pleasing”. The word apodelknumi means “prove” and that is all. Now lets put it together:

“Jesus of Nazareth, a man demonstrating(or proving) God among you, by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by Him in the midst of you…”(Acts 2:22)

That was Peter’s point, that here was Emmanuel, Jesus, “proving” –God among you–

Unfortunately the English translators missed a very important revelation here, IMO, which Peter’s contemporaries totally understood, that Peter was telling them that this was God Whom they had crucified. They were devastated as the Scripture relates: “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?””(Acts 2:37)

Finally, and thank you for your kind indulgence, the danger with thinking we are approved by studying the Word, or “doing” anything else for that matter is a slippery slope to a work’s based salvation. You slipped in, faith in Christ in your article, which was good, but it was after you stated we were approved by studying the Word. So which way are we approved to the new Christian or those seeking? You see how that can become a head scratching maze to many who visit this site?

All of this proves your main point. I think it is important that every Christian has a Strong’s Concordance and learn from your pastor or other Christian friends how to use it. For those not familiar it simply shows you every English word in the King James Bible and then directs you to what it means for the OT Hebrew or the NT Greek. It is scary when you first see the book, but it is easy after awhile.

I agree also that it is not necessary to learn Greek or Hebrew, but hopefully these few remarks demonstrate that English does not always convey the original writer’s full intent.

Blessings,

DocReits

Reply

Dr Michael Williams August 2, 2014 at 2:49 pm

Greetings DocReits:
Thank you for your response. You are right. It is very difficult to convey this meaning of approval by God without some thinking we do works for God’s approval. As Hebrews 11:1 tells us that faith is also the evidence of things not seen. So, works should be the evidence of the Holy Spirit in us. So, being “approved by God” simply means He has declared us righteous and it is the reason He saved us. Bible study is an important means where by we learn to be more like Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Becoming more like Christ demonstrates that we have already been approved by God. It is the evidence of God’s approval. I appreciate your break down of manuscripts and approval. I wanted to go deeper, but given the limitations of the medium I think many might have thought the article too long. The important thing I wanted to convey is that making sure the translation is based on good originals/copies is an important factor. Blessings, Dr. Mike

Reply

Jack Wellman August 2, 2014 at 4:28 pm

Very well done sir. I have been blessed by having a great Bible that in the margins has notations on certain key words that give the Greek, Hebrew, and in some cases the Aramaic that help immensely. I truly love to rely on the Word and the particular places that have the original words in the Greek or the Hebrew help to clarify certain passages. Thankfully, the main things are the plain things (e.g. John 3:16 & Rom 10:9-13) so the truth is that we can always learn enough to know that we have need to repent, confess our sins, and place our trust in Christ and that is the most important things of all. Welcome to the site sir and I deem it a privilege to have you join us in this endeavor to proclaim the truth of the Word of God.

Reply

Robert August 5, 2014 at 11:41 am

Brother Jack,
May I ask what that Bible is that contains Greek and/or Hebrew definitions in its margins? It seems that would indeed be a helpful study aid. Thank you, brother.
Yours in Christ,
Robert

Reply

Jack Wellman August 5, 2014 at 12:06 pm

Thanks Robert. This is a Cambridge King James Version Bible, Wide Margin Edition published by the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press but don’t know it its still in circulation or not. I can not even find a publication date but suspect it is a 1950’s or older. It is so worn out but it has all of my own notes and cross references. It is not a Study Bible, which are helpful, but for some reason Cambridge University (England) put much of the margins with notations for certain words in Greek and Hebrew. I love it.

Reply

Asa Skinner August 5, 2014 at 9:08 pm

I also find the King James Version very helpful. I’ve used a number of versions and to my knowledge the KJV is the most accurate and closest to the Hebrew/Greek. I also use Bibleworks which is also very helpful for study, using scripture’s native (and inspired) languages in order to study the truth behind certain (and often misconstrued) concepts that have come about as a result of poor translation.

Reply

Yisrael January 10, 2015 at 11:22 am

As an Israeli who speaks Hebrew, I have experienced great joy in reading the original Hebrew Scriptures that God passed on to Moses and the prophets. I so wish that every Christian could experience this privilege.

Reply

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