This is a common question I receive from people when I tell them I’m an M.Div student. Most argue that they can simply go to a Bible Dictionary or read a commentary to figure out what a word means in the original language. If you are an M.Div student or planning on enrolling in an M.Div program yet are struggling with the Biblical languages or wondering why you need to take them, please allow me to take a moment to explain a few enlightening things I’ve learned as well as offer some tips on how to survive the languages.
Understanding the original language is key for doing proper exegesis
As you may know, a critical component of seminary is Exegesis or what I like to call, “The art of interpreting the text.” A key piece behind doing proper exegesis is of course studying the history behind the passage, which includes understanding the culture. What I have found is that understanding the original Biblical languages (Hebrew and Greek) helps give a first person perspective into the culture of the time. For example, Hebrew is a very dynamic and colorful language. There are several word plays that appear in Hebrew that are typically not seen in the English Old Testament. Jonah is a prime example of this. So knowing the language informs your understanding of the emotions behind the text, which helps you understand the message the author was really trying to convey. Another awesome example is the Genesis 12 and the use of volition in the text…something not generally heard in the English translation.
Understanding the language is better than using Logos or a Biblical Dictionary
As I mentioned, a common argument I hear for not needing to learn the original language is the availability of Dictionaries and software. Perhaps this is a personal gripe of mine but logic seems to follow that the existence of software such as Logos or the availability of Biblical Dictionaries blatantly demonstrates that languages are important to learn. What I mean to say is that someone had to learn the languages in order for those resources to exist and personally, though those resources exist and help make research easier, I want to be able to verify what they are saying as well as avoid taking for granted the work of others. One major point most professors stress in seminary is to not rely on Biblical Software or Dictionaries alone but rather use them to verify the research you have done yourself.
This may come as a surprise to some but being able to translate the Biblical text as they were originally written (or at least with 95% accuracy to what was the original text) and speaking the text in their original language is personally transformative. I personally found reciting Deuteronomy 6:4-9 in Hebrew to be one of the more formative aspects of seminary. This aspect of learning the language is likely different for everybody but I can testify to the transformative effects of learning the languages.
Knowing Hebrew and Greek may not always present practical applications in counseling sessions or even in sermons but personal insight into the language informs your understanding of how the text applies. Knowing more about Scripture can only help you apply it to life not inhibit you.
As you go through your journey of learning biblical languages, here are 5 survival tips
Stay on top of vocab!!!
I suggest creating flashcards and reviewing new vocab each week as well as vocab from prior weeks. Failing to stay on top off vocab will be extremely detrimental to your ability to enjoy the language and consequently learn it. The more frustrated you are at translating (because you forgot the vocab) the less likely you will want to learn the language.
Before the term starts, learn the alphabet or alephbet (Hebrew). They won’t really test you a whole lot on how the languages were developed so spend more time on learning how the language works.
Here is an insight…the most difficult part of the languages is being able to parse verbs (for Hebrew and Greek) and nouns (for Greek only). So if you can read ahead in your text book before each class (if its not already required), you will be better off to absorb the information the professor presents.
Form a study group and test each other. Languages, especially Hebrew, are an oral language and you are more apt to retain the information if you practice it a loud.
My last tip is prayer. This may seem like a cliché but I cannot stress enough the importance of inviting the Holy Spirit into your time of studying the languages. With the help of the Holy Spirit, you will prayerfully receive insights into the language that were not known before. As you gain insight the enjoyment of the languages increases ten-fold and with it the ability to retain the information.
By Joseph Siacunco. Joseph is a Masters of Divinity Student at Denver Seminary located in Littleton, CO. He currently works at Mission Hills Church in the Finance Department and is a Certified Public Accountant. He has worked in Accounting since 2004 but also serves at his church in other ways including teaching and preaching.