What’s the use of learning the languages that the Bible was originally written in: Hebrew and Greek (and about 5 chapters in Aramaic)? You could say that we really don’t need to, for these reasons:

1. With the amount of manuscripts that have been discovered – about 25,000, whole and in part, in the various languages of the ancient world – we now have a highly accurate knowledge of what the original manuscripts said.

2. There is an enormous amount of study and interpretation available, the result of the efforts of tens of thousands of people, past and present, whose work has resulted in commentaries and Bible translations. I’ll try not to gallop too much on this hobby horse – I’ve written about it previously – but the amount of different English translations is obscene, when so many people around the world don’t have even one Gospel in their native language; and forget about the targetting of Bibles to specific demographics. I foresee the day when some publishing house (don’t get me started on them!) will vomit forth a Born-Again Sports Virgin Devotional Bible – for Extreme Backpacking Teens – with the Revised New International Version in one column and the King James in another, and the words of Christ in purple: He is the King after all.

Now I’ll lead that hobby horse back to its stable and ostle it. (This is why when I have to make any kind of speech, I write it down word for word, otherwise I’ll go off on a tangent and forget what the original topic was. Thankfully I’m writing so I can look back at where I was).

The problem with this second argument is, who has the time to compare several translations and commentaries? If you’re leading a Bible study you can look through a couple; but for personal devotional reading or study? I think not. (I’m not a Cartesian so I’m still here.) Even then you might not pick up the choice little nuances running through a book.

A friend of mine, who reads Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and is currently working on German, has a simple yet striking comparison: reading in the original languages instead of English is like seeing in colour instead of black and white. While the text can often be a simple translation – “He sat down and taught them” – it can also point out connections with other passages and highlight themes that the English misses as well as giving a taste of how the language worked; this can show how differently, richly, and/or simply the language could express the writer’s thoughts.

For instance, I’ve been sporadically trying to improve my Hebrew and have been going through
Genesis. Well, not going through exactly: if it were going at a snail’s pace I would have finished the book months ago. Still, in chapter two verse fifteen our English translations say that God put the man into the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. Hebrew has several words for “put”. In this case, the word is “vayyannicheyhu” (the “ch” is pronounced roughly, like you’re quietly clearing your throat) meaning “He [i.e. God] put him”. The root consonants (the basic word) are the same as those for “rest”. The word can simply be translated “put”, but it carries the nuance – a major theme through the Bible – of rest: entering God’s rest, resting from labour, and so on. Though the man was to work the Garden and take care of it, God he was doing so in a state of rest; that is, completion, free from trouble, fulfilment, uninhibited relationship with God, or what have you.

This has enormous implications for how we view life in relationship with God, particularly the putative divide between sacred and secular, especially for those who believe that “rest” means “no work”.

And that’s only the beginning.

coyright Troy Grisgonelle 2008.