When it comes to reading the Bible, time after time we forget very important things about it. We normally read it because it is a very word of God and is profitable for instruction, correction, guidance, comfort, and guidance in our lives if we want to live in accordance to the will of God. We have also become so familiar with our Bible that we tend to forget is that the Bible was not written in English. Thus we treat it as if it was written to and for English-speaking audiences. By doing this, we unconsciously rob ourselves the depth and richness of God’s living Word. In this blog I hope to briefly demonstrate why it is very important to incorporate the original languages of the text as we study our Bibles.
One of the problems of reading the Bible in a translation instead of in its original languages is that something’s are lost in translation. Hence there are so many different translations of the Bible in English. This is because the original Hebrew and Greek languages are very rich and have an extreme depth in their meanings. Most of the words can be translated in different ways and have such deep meanings. Therefore Biblical translators have to find one word, which will most accurately convey the original meaning of the text and context.
This is why you will find that one translation of the Bible will use one word in a certain verse while another translation will use a different word. Different words can be used to convey the meaning of the original word; a lot is lost in translation. For example, in English we have one word to convey love. We use adjectives before it to signify what kind of love it is (romantic love, brotherly love, etc.), but there is only one word for love in English. However, in the Greek, there are different words that mean different kinds of love. For instance, an affectionate, brotherly love is φιλέω “phileo” while a self-giving love is ἀγάπη “agape”.
To the original audience, meaning would be very clear. However, in today’s translations the Greek word for brotherly love and the Greek word for self-giving love are both simply translated “love”. In John 21:15-17, Jesus asks the apostle Peter whether or not he loves Him. Peter replies that he does love Him. Jesus asks Peter a second time and Peter replies that he does love Him. Jesus asks a third time and Peter, saddened, assures Jesus that he loves Him. When we read it in the original languages we find that there is far more than the English translation has translated. Jesus asks Peter the first two times whether or not he loves Him, the word Jesus uses is “agape”, the self-giving love. When Peter responds the first two times, however, he uses the word “phileo”, the affectionate, brotherly love. When Jesus asked Peter for the third and final time, Jesus brings himself down to Peter’s level and uses the word “phileo”. Peter then responds that he does “phileo” Jesus. The English translation of this passage does not convey as in the original language. A casual reader of this passage would have no clue what was going on here.
The Bible is mainly in written three languages Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Hebrew of the Old Testament is a Semitic language (after the name of Shem, Noah’s oldest son). Both Hebrew and Aramaic are a part of the north-western group of these tongues and were employed mainly in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. It is believed that Hebrew came from the Canaanite language.
The Old Testament refers to its language in two ways. It is called the “language of Canaan” (Isaiah 19:18) and the “Jews’ language” (cf. 2 Kings 18:26, 28; Nehehmiah 13:24; Isaiah 36:11). It is not referred to as “Hebrew” until around 130 B.C. In the New Testament, it is called “Hebrew” in John 5:2; 19:13; Acts 21:40.
Aramaic is a close cognate language (actually a group of Semitic dialects) of Hebrew. The oldest extra-biblical example may be the Melqart Stele (ninth century B.C.) that mentions the warfare between Ben-hadad of Syria and Israel. Though Hebrew remained the “sacred” tongue of the Jews, they, like others in the Middle East, began using vernacular Aramaic for everyday conversation and writing sometime after the sixth century B.C. In the first century A.D., Aramaic, in one dialect or another, was the common daily tongue of the Palestinian Jews, though it is probable that many Jews also spoke Hebrew and Greek.
In the New Testament a number of Aramaic expressions are transliterated into Greek (e.g., Talitha qumi [“Maiden, arise!”; Mark 5:41] and Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani, [“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”; Mark 15:34]). In the New Testament epistles, there are several Aramaic words such as Abba (Galatians 4:6) and Maranatha (1 Corinthians 16:22).
Some minor portions of the Old Testament were penned in Aramaic (Ezra 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26; Jeremiah 10:11; Daniel 2:46-7:28; and two words in Genesis 31:47). Liberal scholars have contended that the Aramaic of the Bible is of late date; hence, those works of the Old Testament containing this dialect (mainly Daniel and Ezra) were thus composed much later than the periods traditionally assigned to them.
The Greek language has passed through several major periods of change. The New Testament was composed during that era known as the Koine age. This was a period of universal or common Greek. The Greek language was freely spoken throughout the antique world in that span from about 330 B.C. to 330 A.D. Koine was the normal street language in Rome, Alexandria, Athens, and Jerusalem. When the Romans finally conquered the Greeks, it was Greek influence that flowed throughout the empire. Augustus, the emperor of Rome, inscribed his seal in Greek. Paul, writing to the saints in Rome, the capital city of the empire, sent his message in Greek, not Latin!
I hope that these demonstrations of the application of the original languages to Bible study will influence you to invest in a concordance and to incorporate consistent and constant word study into your devotional life and general Bible study. You will not regret the choice to dig deeper into the richness of meaning contained within the Bible’s original Greek and Hebrew.
It is important to learn the original languages of the Bible. It is not necessary for Christians to learn the Biblical languages. Learning Biblical Greek and Hebrew doesn’t magically make you better at reading the Bible or being a Christian. But there is much to be gained from knowledge of ancient Greek and Hebrew. Although it does not make you a better reader but you know what your reading. It also gives you freedom of how or what to read.
Yes, Greek and Hebrew are difficult to master, and learning new languages isn’t for everybody but even a general familiarity with the languages is tremendously rewarding for Bible readers. It is a must that individuals in every generation know and appropriate the biblical languages, Hebrew and Greek, in order to maintain the purity of the gospel.
Our modern English translations are excellent. Most of the major English translations available today are superb renderings of the original Greek and Hebrew. However, in any translation, not everything that was communicated in the original language can be precisely conveyed in another language. Some nuances do not transfer well from one language to another. As a result, a translation rarely is a perfect rendering of the original.
An example of this is the “aspect” of Greek verbs. English verbs have tenses—past, present, and future. Greek verbs have these same tenses, but they also have what is known as “aspect.” Present-tense Greek verbs mean more than the action is occurring presently. A Greek verb can also carry the meaning that the action is occurring continually or repeatedly. This is lost in English unless the aspect word “continually” or “repeatedly” is added to the translation along with the verb. A specific example of this is Ephesians 5:18, “…be filled with the Spirit.” In the original Greek, this verse is telling us to continually be filled with the Spirit. It is not a one-time event—it is a lifelong process. This “aspect” is lost in the English translation.
With all that said, the Bible also makes it clear that the Spirit is the author of the Bible and that He will help us to understand the His Word (2 Timothy 3:16-17; John 14:26). God’s intended message for us is accurately communicated in English. You can have confidence that God can reveal the meaning of His Word to you without your knowing Greek and Hebrew.
The translations normally depend upon the genius and knowledge of the translator in the selection of the proper words and phrases to render meaning as close as possible to the text of the original language. It is well known that a new translation is more or less a new interpretation. This is obvious when the Bible is translated in the same language, but in different expressions and words. For instance, in the English language there are many translations and renderings with different words and phrases, which imply that one translation differs from the other. The many translations in the same language are justified in that new renderings are different from the previous ones. The fact that there are many translations in the same language indicates that the first translation is not understood after many centuries. For instance, the first translation into the English language from the original New Testament Greek and Old Testament Hebrew by John Wycliffe in the fifteenth century is incomprehensible to the reader today in English.
Unique characteristics such as idioms and colloquialisms make it impossible for an accurate translation of the meaning of the original language. Therefore, the translations should be used for the spiritual guidance of the believers, but not for the formulation of dogmatic teaching of the Church. This is why it cannot be said that the translations are “the inspired word of God.” Only the original language is “the inspired word of God.” It should be repeated, however, that the translations of the Bible are necessary for the spreading of the Revealed Truths of God among the people in all languages. This is the great commandment of God and the mission of His Church, for Jesus Christ Himself commissioned the Apostles to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”, Matthew 28:19, 20. This is to be in many languages of the nations, especially to nations, which have never heard the Christian Message.
Using the biblical languages exalts Jesus by affirming God’s wisdom in giving us his Word in a book. This gives you confidence in the word of God. Because now you can read and understand it better, giving you greater certainty that you have grasped the meaning of God’s Book. Have you been somewhere and someone is talking about the Bible and you did not understand anything or very little? Knowing these languages helps us to navigate through the Bible with confidence. It also assist’s you in developing Christian maturity that validates our witness in the world. As believers the Bible encourages us to grow physically, mentally and spiritually. Knowing ancient languages gives us to exercise our mental faculties spiritually. Using the biblical languages enables a fresh and bold expression and defence of the truth in preaching and teaching (teaching God’s Word). Reading, writing, and speaking Hebrew puts you in touch with the living past, with the inspired words of Moses, David, and the Prophets.