Learning Biblical Languages

One of the great joys of my life is reading and studying the scriptures in their original languages. Sometimes I worry that people will get the idea I think this is cool or important simply because I have the capacity to do it, whereas the opposite is the case: I first concluded it was important to read the scriptures in the languages of their composition, and then went to the (considerable) trouble to learn those languages.

Before my mission, I had at best some sort of vague awareness that the scriptures hadn’t actually been composed in the English I was reading in my KJV, but I’m not at all confident I could have actually identified the original languages they had been written in. My interest in those languages didn’t begin to flower until my mission.

Early in my mission I attended a “Know Your Religion” fireside given by C. Wilfred Griggs. When he read from the NT, he read from the Greek text, translating on the fly. (I later would realize that the maroon volume he was using was the UBS Greek edition.) I thought that was tremendously cool and interesting.

I also got sick of reading some passage and having an investigator tell me that wasn’t the import of the passagge in the “original Greek.” Having to discuss the Bible with a lot of Christians, who were very concerned about translation issues and the import of the original languages, caused me to gain a similar interest. I concluded that if I were going to spend the rest of my life studying the scriptures, that it would be worth it to spend a few years on the front end actually learning the languages first to facilitate such study.

My companion told me about Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, and at first I didn’t even believe him that such a book existed. Our old missionary bibles had a “concordance” in the back, which was just a sort of index; I could scarcely fathom that there was a book that listed (virtually) every word in the Bible with a string of context! I bought a copy of this magical book, and soon found the Hebrew and Greek dictionaries in the back, keyed to each word with numbers so that one could use them without actually knowing the language itself (these days people tend to use these tools on their computers; for me it was a big, heavy book I schlepped around on transfers). I also bought a Berlitz Hebrew self-reader. Even though it was Modern Hebrew, it was a start.

I taught myself the alphabets (I already pretty much knew the Greek alphabet from my boyhood interest in astronomy), and then as I read the scriptures I began to look up and learn interesting theological vocabulary; words like episkopos (bishop), presbuteros (elder) diakonos (deacon), ekklesia (assembly, church), and so forth.

Later at BYU I had the opportunity to actually take classes in these languages and learn them in a more formal way. I took Biblical Hebrew from the late Keith Meservey, who had studied under Albright at Johns Hopkins and was terrific, and I actually studied classical Greek, which turned out to be a wonderful base for being able to read the simpler Koine Greek of the New Testament.

Professionally I am an attorney, and I have no need for biblical languages in my work. But I wouldn’t trade the experience or the knowledge I’ve gained from beating my head against those languages for anything. Knowing them really makes the scriptures spring to life and makes them so very fun and interesting to me; that knowledge is a gift that I treasure. If anyone is thinking about whether to make the effort, it is something I would highly recommend.

Comments

  1. “I have no need for biblical languages in my work”

    That’s what you’re missing Kev!

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    I readily admit that trying to understand, say, the arbitrage regulations at Treasury Regulations Section 1.148 is at least as challenging–it’s just a lot less fun!

  3. I am so envious. I try and compensate by reading from things like the Fox and Alter translations and the various more popular translations, but to read them in the original would be a dream. I mean wasn’t the creation of the universe accomplished with the Hebrew letters?

  4. C. Wilford Griggs was my NT teacher at the BYU. Awesome, difficult class. He made a similar impression on me, except I haven’t followed up on it as well as you apparently have. Someday, perhaps…

  5. Kevin,

    I began studying biblical languages on my mission as well. I served in an area with a prominent conservative Christian population, and so learning Greek seemed like a useful undertaking at the time. Moreover, I just always felt like I was missing something by not having recourse to the original languages and texts. I think the first book that introduced me to biblical languages was also Strong’s Concordance. I later acquired a New Testament Greek grammar (I believe it was David Alan Black’s “Learn to Read New Testament Greek”) and Liddell and Scott’s Intermediate Greek Lexicon, and I used any spare time I had for learning relevant vocabulary and studying Greek grammar. I later came home and decided that I wanted to pursue my studies more seriously, and so I began taking college courses in biblical languages and literature, as well as courses in other languages and literatures relevant to biblical studies.

    I might also add that there are tools now available which make acquiring the language skills necessary to read the original texts much easier, such as the UBS Greek NT Reader’s Edition and Zondervan’s Hebrew Reader. Both are very valuable for the beginning and intermediate student.

    Anyway, thanks for this post. I too recommend studying these languages. Although they are difficult at first, they are immensely useful, and even fun later on, as you said.

    Best wishes,

    TYD

  6. At one time I approached John Welch and shared with him my desire to be a researcher. He understood that to mean a scriptural researcher, so he started quizzing me with several questions:

    How old was I?
    What other languages did I know?
    What experience did I have in doing scriptural research?
    etc.

    Then he proceeded to inform me that he knew biblical Greek when he was in High School and by the time he was in college he knew Latin, Hebrew, etc.

    He concluded by basically telling me to go into another field because it was too late for me to gain the tools necessary for serious scriptural research.

    I find your own experience much more encouraging.

  7. StillConfused says:

    Thanks for this post. I too am an attorney (tax concentration at that). I am going to be starting my hebrew class at the Jewish Community Center in a few weeks and am excited about that.

  8. When I got back from my mission I was in limbo as to my major, so I took some classes for fun, like Biblical Hebrew. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t get very far in reading ability. I’ve forgotten most of it, but I at least know that there are some Hebrew words in the Book of Abraham.

    I also had Wilford Griggs for NT. Great class.

  9. #6, I wouldn’t worry over it too much. The fancy-pants researchers have PhDs and spend decades on languages. Doesn’t mean you can’t learn wonderful things by studying as an adult.
    JSJ loved this stuff too–you’re a great disciple, Kevin.
    I still pull out my Greek NT sometimes, and I have that enormous Kittel Theological Dictionary that I’ll pull off the shelf if I’m giving a talk that relies on something in the NT Greek.

    The Hebrew stuff I think will just have to wait.

  10. As for #6, he sold you a line of bull. Most of my colleagues in the fields of ancient studies and/or biblical studies didn’t learn their source languages until graduate school. Some of them may have known some Latin before that, but for the vast majority of us, languages like the various types of Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, Aramaic, Coptic, etc., came sometime between BA and PhD.

  11. Strong’s Concordance with Hebrew and Greek Lexicon is free online and fully searchable at http://www.eliyah.com/lexicon.html The link also includes the ability to search various other lexicons and dictionaries etc. I use it almost daily and find it a fabulous way to cross reference and study the scriptures.

  12. smb is right. I just wrapped up my reading of the Journals 1 of the JSP, and it struck me again how giddy Joseph Smith was to be studying Hebrew everyday. There is the one entry where he exults in his studies and commits to be a master of languages. Great stuff, with which smb has done some great work, I might add.

  13. I agree with smb and J on JSJ & languages. I almost want to learn Hebrew solely because Smith was so stoked about it.

  14. The actual “original language” of the scriptures is that which is “spoken” by the Holy Ghost to the hearts and minds of prophets. If we really want to understand the things of God then we can apply ourselves to learning the language of the Spirit as well as learn the original languages the scriptures were recorded in.

  15. NoCoolName_Tom says:

    I sometimes wish I’d gone into a different major and school just so I could have the opportunity to take a course on a biblical language. However, as a CompSci major at UVU there’s not really any sort of instruction available to me. For those of you who’ve learned these languages I know that an instructor is without equal but do you think a person could teach themselves these languages either through books and recordings or some other way? How can one go about joining the club without being a BYU student? (sorry to threadjack)

  16. Kevin: thanks for the write-up, but can you give us some idea of a time frame for reading in Hebrew/Greek? And what are one’s options for learning these languages if no longer in school? StillConfused mentions local Jewish Center for Hebrew, but what about Greek.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    Yeah, my impression from reading his journals is that the time leading up to the dedication of the Kirtland Temple while Joseph was studying Hebrew was just about the happiest time in his entire life.

    No. 14 NCNT, sure, you can teach yourself. When I taught these languages for Institute, for Hebrew we used Page Kelly, Introduction to Biblical Hebrew, and for Greek we used William Mounce, Basics of Biblical Greek. I think both books are well constructed for self-learning. But if you’re going to teach yourself, I would recommend also getting an interactive computer program, Hebrew Tutor or Greek Tutor, as the case may be. The computer programs in many ways simulate an actual class, and provide invaluable drills that you won’t really get just by working through a printed book.

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    As for time frame, you can learn the basic grammar and some of the basic vocabulary in about a year (for instance, at BYU Biblical Hebrew was two four-credit hour classes that took two semesters); after that the key thing to do is do as much reading as you can to improve your skills. (For Greek, going on to something like Daniel Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics would be a good idea, too.) Of course, you can learn these things more quickly or more slowly; it depends on how committed you are and how much time and effort you devote to your lessons.

  19. I had Wilfred Griggs for “New Testament Greek”, an experimental class at BYU (this was back in the 70s) teaching NT Greek to novices (w/out a year of classical Greek first). It was a great class, and one of my few regrets about my undergrad studies was that I didn’t take his follow-up 2nd semester NT Greek class. Still, he gave me enough so that I can work with an interlinear Greek NT and a NT Greek lexicon and mine interesting bits and pieces. All that came in very handy when I taught NT in Gospel Doctrine last year. I’ve picked up a number of NT Greek texts and study aids (e.g., Mounce) over the years, but have never put in the daily (or, at least, weekly) study necessary to gain any real proficiency.

    And while we’re on the subject: does anyone know of a good (clear, slow, pleasant) recording of the entire Greek NT? I know that Marilyn Phemister did a set, but (with all due respect) her voice and accent are painful to listen to. I also found a complete set of recordings at GreekLatinAudio.com, but they were so fast and the accent so thick that I couldn’t really follow the text while listening to it. I know there are some audio selections from the Greek NT from, say, Mounce, but I’d like the entire thing on my iPod.

    About a year ago, I actually wrote Kent Brown (from whom I had several NT classes while at BYU), suggesting that he do it — Kent has a wonderful, wonderful voice — but he gently pointed out that his plate was pretty full. ..bruce..

  20. I had Wilfred Griggs at BYU, too . . . but for a Book of Mormon class.

    He taught straight from the Reformed Egyptian. [wink]

  21. Julie M. Smith says:

    For those intimidated at the thought of learning Greek, may I suggest the program by Open Texture:

    http://www.opentexture.com/products/greek/default.aspx

    . . . which was designed for homeschooled elementary-aged students and is extremely gentle? My 10yo is in the middle of the second book. This is something anyone 8+ could do on her/his own (there is even an audio CD) without ever feeling overwhelmed or confused.

  22. Harris Lenowitz, University of Utah, and I’m still a heretic.

  23. So Kevin,

    For those of us who will never take the time to learn the ancient languages, do you have a favored translation?

  24. Thanks, Julie M. Smith! This is just the sort of recommendation I was looking for.

  25. kev: thanks for answer. its encouraging.

    jms: thanks for greek recom’n. anything like that 4 hebrew? not to dis you nt types but i am most interested in ot. :)

    (sorry for sloppy typing—convalescing)

  26. Julie M. Smith says:

    BrianJ, I don’t know of one. I suspect that there probably are some aimed at Jewish children.

  27. StillConfused says:

    When I decided to learn Hebrew, the first book I got was Hebrew For Dummies. I know that sounds hysterical, but it is a good basic book with an accompanying CD. I then moved on to some other books as well.

  28. Kevin Barney says:

    Many thanks to Nitsav for his tips for teaching yourself Hebrew. Good stuff.

    SteveP, I’m partial to the NET and NRSV.

  29. Kevin, as a fellow attorney, I am surprised you have never thought to throw some Greek or Aramaic into your arguments at court. The judge would probably think it was Latin.
    Closest I’ve come is representing a German client who was charged with passport fraud and speaking with him in German during court hearings so no-one else knew what we were talking about.

    Sam K.

  30. Kevin Barney says:

    Sam K., that reminds me of when Nibley and his RA, Gordon Thomasson, would go to do research at the LDS archives. At that time Archives personnel had to approve your notes before you could walk out with them. So they came up with a system, which as I recall was keeping their notes in Spanish written in Greek letters. No one ever confiscated their notes!

  31. Aaron Brown says:

    Kevin, I’m curious if you’ve ever gotten an icy reception from any churchmembers who’ve learned of your familiarity with Biblical languages. Is there any McConkie-ish “It’s silly to know Biblical languages since we have prophets and apostles who can tell us what we need to know” sentiment out there, that you’ve observed?

    AB

  32. Kevin Barney says:

    Aaron, I’m sure there’s a fair amount of that reaction to me privately, but no one has ever brazenly expressed it openly to my face. I think people would be too intimidated to do so. From what I understand, BRM was down on biblical lanuages precisely because he didn’t know them and was intimidated by people who controlled them. My experience has been that most people genuinely enjoy scriptural insights that derive from working with the languages.

  33. So they came up with a system, which as I recall was keeping their notes in Spanish written in Greek letters.

    Heh. I remember reading about this and used it myself on one occasion a few years ago. I was attending (as an expert witness in an IT-related lawsuit) the deposition of the opposing expert witness. I knew the other side could demand a copy of any notes I made during the deposition, so I did the same thing — not at great length, but just enough to remind me of some key points. I don’t remember if the other side requested my notes or not, but I’m sure they had a hard time figuring them out. :-) ..bruce..

  34. Griggs’ NT course was one of the few religion courses at BYU that I actually enjoyed. He’s one of the only true academics in that department. And, it’s probably worth noting, that he had a late start on learning ancient languages, and through pure tenacity jumped straight into a 3rd year Greek course without any prior knowledge of the language. He now (IIRC) reads 6 ancient langauges and 4 modern ones (which is nothing compared with Nibley, but still very impressive, especially for a late starter).
    In defense of Jack Welch, my experience with him was far different. I worked for him as an undergrad. I had similar questions as Mark (#6), and likewise, didn’t have much language training. Unlike Mark, however, I never heard a discouraging word from Jack about starting late at learning ancient languages. He was always very supportive, answered my questions, and spent hours of time that I’m sure he didn’t really have to discuss my graduate school plans, langauges, the NT, BOM, etc. Ultimately, I chose to study American history (in part because of the few langauge requirements), but it wasn’t because of lack of encouragement.

  35. AB, as much as i enjoy language study, even i am turned off by its use sometimes. it can be a real discussion-ender: if Jane says that ‘x’ means ‘y’ in the original greek then everyone else in the classroom, not knowing any greek, has to just take her word for it; theres no give and take to be had.

  36. BrianJ makes an incredibly important point, IMO. And I would add that some of us are too ignorant to know when the seemingly informed folk really only know just enough to be dangerous. I think, Kevin, that that is what BRM was mostly concerned about–that some would take advantage of others’ ignorance.

    That said, the best Sunday school class I ever attended was one taught by Bill Hamblin. He brought in his own Hebrew Translations of the O.T. and was given permission to take his time moving through the material. We spent months on the Creation. It was marvelous.

  37. Kevin Barney says:

    Yeah, that can be a problem. Someone who actually knows the language at issue can easily tell when a teacher doesn’t really understand what he’s talkin about and is full of it, but how is the class supposed to know? An appeal to the “original Greek” should not be an appeal to authority; one should be willing to take the time to actually explain the issue and the various possibilities in a way that a class can follow.

    I won’t mention his name, but on my mission I used to listen to tapes of a popular LDS lecturer. Even as a missionary I could tell he didn’t really know Hebrew, because he pronounced the Hebrew word for spirit/breath/wind as “ruash.” That word would normally be transliterated into English as ruach, but the ch is a hard h, not the sound made in chimichanga, and anyone who actually knew Hebrew would know that. So it was clear to me he was just working off of a transliteration of the word into English characters.

  38. Kevin–this is an interesting post. Languages are not my thing. Though I learned one of the most difficult there is for an English speaking person while on my mission.

    One of these times you might let your readers know the top ten insights you’ve gained about the scriptures from your study of Greek and Hebrew.

    I’ve wondered about the parables. Are there added insights to be gained from them using Greek and Hebrew?

    Thanks for your post.

  39. I can admit that nothing drives me crazier than people who have done one or two years of an ancient language, which is barely enough in all honesty, who then claim authority of interpretation because of it. 9 times out of 10 they have no idea what they are talking about.

    While I agree that work in languages is essential for certain kinds of research, there is a certain degree of mythmaking in the claim that there are amazing “insights” to be found only in the original languages.

  40. Kevin Barney says:

    TT, see the post “Is NT Greek Magic?” I linked to in no. 37.

  41. Learn Sumerian. That way you can read the iron plates I just dug up from the Malvern Hills.

  42. Trailor Trash, in the original Grecamaic, your comment means that you are an infidel.

  43. Kevin Barney says:

    Jared, I don’t have a top ten list. You can get some idea of what I consider insights from the original languages by perusing my Footnotes to the New Testament for Latter-day Saints, here.

    Here’s an example of an insight from a reading in the original language that gets obscured in the KJV.

  44. TT is right. One or two or even four years of Greek is hardly enough to qualify as authoritative, especially when those years are self taught years. You simply can’t compare learning NT Greek from a primer with taking multiple years of the hard stuff while mixing in some Greek composition courses for good measure.

    As for the magical Greek phenomenon, just last year a highly intelligent law student was teaching SS in my ward and he busted out some Greekiology that was outright BS. The whole thing was bizarre: he was being totally dishonest with his assertion that he “looked this verse up in the Greek” (he doesn’t read Greek), the mostly grad-student audience didn’t challenge him on it but lapped it up wholesale, and his appeal to “the Greek” didn’t really bolster the particular point which he was trying to make. Weird.

  45. @44: the appearance of Greek, mingled with scripture, eh?

  46. Wow, I’m amazed at how many of us went through Griggs’ New Testament class. I loved that he required everyone to read the assigned reading in both the KJV and another translation. Mainly for the reasons TT points out, I have never gotten excited about learning Hebrew or Greek. I know I’m never going to devote enough time to really master one of those languages, so I am content to read commentaries and multiple translations (along with Kevin Barney’s Notes on the New Testament).

  47. Sharon in Tennessee says:

    Quick question to all persons above and interested parties reading:
    (1)I personally would find it interesting to have a finite overview / discussion on translations / interpretations that have “come to light” with the guidence of the Holy Ghost…
    Example: Brief overview of dictionary meanings of words in passaged in Revelation….when every possible definition and description is explored…
    do always show a context of deeper spiritual meaning….and ALWAYS, within the whole (compound) give a pretty true celestial nature of the original word. (In addition to other languages..meaning specifically the “insight revelatory addition) to same?
    (2) The dictionary I use (own 3 copies) is remarkably clear and distinctive in it’s applicable references to “higher” and “quantitative” meanings…whether the Mathematical one, astronomical one, & so forth.
    It is The Reader’s Digest Great Encyclopedic Dictionary with inclusions from Funk & Wagnalls & Standard College Dictionary.
    …..So…..are there any suggestions about a really SUPERIOR one that would reflect advancements upon my thusfar findings?

  48. Jacob J: While I have no hope of ever “mastering” OT Hebrew, I still plan to become an amateur. Here’s why:

    1) To be better able to distinguish good commentary from b.s. A few years ago, anyone in church on Sunday could make whatever lexical argument they wanted and I wouldn’t have had any idea whether they were on to something or just stirring Koolaid. Now I know some of the rudimentary tools and I can at least spot the obvious imposters.

    2) What little I have learned of Hebrew has shown that the OT is written in beautiful language. I think some novice-level Hebrew would be fun if only for aesthetic enjoyment of the scriptures.

  49. StillConfused says:

    There is a beginning Hebrew class at the Salt Lake Jewish Community Center that starts on January 20.

  50. Kevin Barney says:

    That’s shaping up as a great series, Nitsav. Great advice.

  51. BrianJ, knowing enough to spot the BS could be a good idea, hadn’t thought of that.

  52. Part III of teaching yourself Hebrew.

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