The Christian scholar today is expected to know Greek and Hebrew. Commentators quibble on the language as a matter of course, and even the consumer-level cheerleaders will refer to nuances of the language to make a point. It is not imagined that you could have a serious scholarly interest in the Bible and not know at least one of its original languages.
At face value, this makes as much sense as a student of ancient Rome knowing Latin—perfect sense. As a historical artifact, the Bible must be studied from its original context. The archealogical and anthropological studies blurbed into modern “study” bibles reflect a useful and respectable academic discipline of trying to establish the sense of the text in combination with the sensibilities of the time.
The problem with this approach, for the Christian, is that it binds the Bible to the time of its “origination,” its temporal record. While there are plenty of Bible scholars who insist that God is eternal and unchanging, and that the Bible is true, and so on, nearly all of them participate in this mode of study which implies that the Bible is antique, culturally limited, and at least potentially obsolete.
We say in our doctrine that the Bible is the word of God; that Christ is the incarnate Word of God, and that Christ still lives; and that God’s people are taught by his Holy Spirit. If the Wisdom of God is Christ and in Christ, who lives, and if that wisdom is imparted to us through the Holy Spirit, who dwells within us, then it cannot be necessary for us to know Hebrew, Aramaic, Chaldean, and Greek to correctly understand God’s word.
And yet we certainly act as if we must understand those languages to understand the Bible. We not only make those languages the foundation of “serious” study of the scriptures, we must even mention them in all of our English discussions. It is inconcievable that someone might credibly discuss the heart of the Biblical text without using an archaic language—it is impossible! We must have that exotic Hebrew script in our discourse, or else we are petty novices.
Where is the faith in that? Where is Christ in that? How many of his apostles knew any more than the common languages of their time and place? We know that Paul was well-studied and familiar with the ancient Hebrew, but Paul was one of the Pharisees—Jesus’ eponymous opponents. Scholarly knowledge of the scriptures is more characteristic of Jesus’ foes than friends within the gospel. Did Levi the tax collector know Hebrew? Did the centurion who trusted Christ’s healing power over such a great distance know even the contemporary Aramaic?
The faith that understands who Jesus is has no linguistic limit. The Wise Men from the East worshipped Christ, but so did the shepherds, and the prostitute whose sins Christ forgave. The Magi will have no greater place in Christ’s kingdom than the woman who wept over his feet.
The spirit that drives us on to the depth and clarity of the original language is the spirit John preached against when he said, “But the annointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same annointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him” (1 John 2:27). “Where is the scribe?” Paul asked, meaning the language specialist of his time. All the scriptural expertise available had completely failed to bring knowledge of the living God to their hearts and minds—and now we are lesser, shallow Christians if we do not study the languages?
It is not that the study of the original languages is necessarily a bad thing. Paul found use for his knowledge. But we presume that we will understand the Bible better if we understand the original languages. The Bible is neither the source nor subject of Christian understanding; our subject is Christ, and our source is the Holy Spirit. The Bible is at best the textbook, and those teachers who taught only from the textbooks are the worst teachers we have ever had.
Today’s scholarship is more aware than ever before of mankind’s biased histories, sloppy manuscript copies, clever manuscript forgeries, political religions, and cultural misinterpretations. We know what stuff man is made of better than ever before. But our material knowledge of man and his environment obscures the spiritual knowledge of God and the appreciation of his work that goes on under the guise of human efforts. We study man and know his evil infection, but we are using the same contaminated instruments to remedy the disease; we get spiritually sicker the more we intellectually operate.
God can give you a greater understanding of the Bible through knowledge of the original languages, but he does not have to. Meanwhile, it is very likely that you will feel wiser and more convinced of your own right intereptation because you have studied the language. It is inescapable. How could you study the language and feel that you don’t understand the text any better than you did? You would get tired of studying the language and quit, if it didn’t seem to bring any reward.
But take a look around you! Look how they debate what the Consitution means, and what Karl Marx means, and what Feminism and Post-Modernism mean. Our own language in our own time is subject to fierce and bitter debate. Ninety-eight percent of an idea can be agreed upon by all parties, but the different understanding of that last two percent results in two crucially different outlooks. Anyone who is confident he understands the Bible because of his scholastic expertise is miserably ignorant of modern language, to say nothing of the ancient.
All of our confidence in understanding the Bible ought to be based on the teaching of the Holy Spirit, with or without the academic knowledge of ancient tongues. By themselves languages are worth nothing, but today they serve as dangerous enticements toward special status, like the circumcision which Paul decried—himself a circumcised polyglot. There is a wisdom that makes fools of men. Beware the Original Tongue.