Do You Need to Learn Hebrew and Greek?

MOST of the Bible was originally written in just two languages, Hebrew and Greek. * The writers who used those languages did so under the guidance of God’s holy spirit. (2 Samuel 23:2) Therefore, the message they recorded can be described as “inspired of God.”​—2 Timothy 3:16, 17.

However, the majority of people who read the Bible today do not understand Hebrew or Greek. Rather, they need to use a translation of the Bible in their own language. You probably need to do the same. Since these translations do not claim to be inspired, you may have wondered, ‘Can I fully understand the message of the Bible while using a translation, or should I try to learn Hebrew and Greek?’

Factors to Keep in Mind

Before answering that question, you need to keep several factors in mind. First, just having a knowledge of ancient Hebrew or Greek does not in itself miraculously make someone more inclined to understand the message of the Bible. Speaking to the Jewish people of his day, Jesus said: “You are searching the Scriptures, because you think that by means of them you will have everlasting life; and these are the very ones that bear witness about me. And yet you do not want to come to me that you may have life.” (John 5:39, 40) What was their problem? Was it a lack of understanding of Hebrew? No, they knew the language well. However, Jesus went on to say: “I well know that you do not have the love of God in you.”​—John 5:42.

Similarly, the apostle Paul told Greek-speaking Christians in the ancient city of Corinth: “Both the Jews ask for signs and the Greeks look for wisdom; but we preach Christ impaled, to the Jews a cause for stumbling but to the nations foolishness.” (1 Corinthians 1:22, 23) Obviously, then, just speaking either Hebrew or Greek was not in itself the key to accepting the message found in God’s Word.

A second factor is that although some people today speak modern Hebrew or Greek, these languages are significantly different  from the Hebrew and Greek that were used to write the Bible. Most Greek-speaking people today find it a challenge to understand Biblical Greek correctly. This is because new words have been added to the language, replacing older terms, and many words that have survived have different meanings. For example, the word rendered “beautiful” at Acts 7:20 and Hebrews 11:23 means “funny” in modern Greek. Additionally, there have been extensive changes in the grammar and syntax of the language.

Even if you were to learn modern Hebrew or modern Greek, it would not necessarily mean that you would understand the Bible more accurately in its original languages. You would still need to rely on dictionaries and grammar books to show you how these languages were used when the books of the Bible were first put into written form.

A third factor is that learning a new language can be a very difficult task. Although it may at first be relatively easy to learn a few phrases in another language, it may take years of constant effort before you will be able to understand the subtle nuances of that language. In the meantime, the old adage may prove true, A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. How so?

What Is the Meaning of the Word?

Have you ever been asked by someone learning your language about the meaning of a particular word? If so, you know that it is not always easy to give an answer. Why not? Because a word may have several meanings. You may have found yourself asking the person for an example of the word in a sentence. Without that context, it may be difficult for you to determine which meaning of the word may apply. For example, you may be asked the meaning of the English word “iron.” This one word can have different meanings in different contexts. It could mean a type of metal, an instrument for pressing clothes, or a golf club. In another setting, it could refer to shackles or even to a dietary supplement. When describing an action, it may mean to press or smooth clothes with a heated appliance. When used in the expression “iron out,” it takes on a completely different meaning, that is, to resolve a problem. Which one is the correct meaning?

A dictionary may provide you with all the possible meanings of a word. Some dictionaries even list these meanings in order of common usage. But it is the context in which the word is used that will help you determine the specific meaning. To illustrate: Suppose you had a little medical knowledge and wanted to find the cause of certain symptoms you were experiencing. You could consult a medical dictionary. It might tell you that in 90 percent of cases, your symptoms mean one thing, but in 10 percent of cases, they indicate something completely different. You would need much more knowledge before you could arrive at the correct diagnosis. Similarly, the fact that a word has a certain meaning in 90 percent of cases does not help you if you are reading an important text where a secondary meaning of the word is used. You need to know more about the context before you can understand the word.

When it comes to studying words found in the Bible, you also need to know the context in which the word appears. For example, the original words that are usually translated “spirit” can have various meanings, depending on the context in which they are used. At times, they can be accurately translated “wind.” (Exodus 10:13; John 3:8) In other contexts they refer to the  life force found within all living creatures, both humans and animals. (Genesis 7:22; Psalm 104:29; James 2:26) Invisible heavenly creatures are also described as spirits. (1 Kings 22:21, 22; Matthew 8:16) God’s active force is called his holy spirit. (Genesis 1:2; Matthew 12:28) The same word is used to designate the force that causes a person to display a certain attitude, disposition, or emotion, as well as the dominant mental inclination manifested by a group of people.​—Joshua 2:11; Galatians 6:18.

Although a Hebrew or Greek dictionary may list these various meanings, it is the context that will help you to determine which meaning is the appropriate one. * This is true whether you are reading the Bible in the original languages or using a translation in your language.

Is It Wrong to Use a Translation?

Some have made great efforts to learn Biblical Hebrew or Biblical Greek or both. Even though they are aware of the limitations of their understanding, they take pleasure in being able to read the Bible in its original languages and feel that all the effort was worthwhile. However, if you are not able to do that, should you feel discouraged and give up in your search for Bible truth? No, not at all! There are several reasons for this conclusion.

First, it is appropriate to use a translation of the Bible. In fact, the writers of the Christian Greek Scriptures, or so-called New Testament, often made use of a Greek translation when quoting from the Hebrew Scriptures. * (Psalm 40:6; Hebrews  10:5, 6) Although they spoke Hebrew and could have quoted from the original Hebrew Scriptures, they obviously were comfortable with using a translation of those verses that was more widely available to those to whom they were writing.​—Genesis 12:3; Galatians 3:8.

Second, even if a person can understand Bible languages, he can read the words of Jesus only in translation. This is because the Gospel writers wrote down in Greek what Jesus originally said in a form of the Hebrew language. * Any who feel that the ability to read the words of Jehovah’s faithful ancient servants in their original languages confers some kind of special wisdom should consider what that implies. The fact that Jehovah inspired the preserving of the words of his greatest Servant only in translation​—in a language widely understood at the time—​indicates that the language we read the Bible in is not important. What matters is that we read its inspired message in a form that we can understand and respond to.

Third, the “good news” contained in the Bible was to be made available for humble people of “every nation and tribe and tongue and people.” (Revelation 14:6; Luke 10:21; 1 Corinthians 1:27-29) In harmony with this, the overwhelming majority of people today can learn God’s purpose from a copy of the Bible in their own language without having to learn another language. In many languages a number of different translations are available, leaving the reader with a choice. *

So how can you make sure that you understand the truth found in the Bible? Jehovah’s Witnesses have found that a topical study of the Bible, taking into consideration the context, is a useful way to understand the message found in God’s Word. For example, they take a particular topic, such as “Marriage,” and look up the verses that refer to that topic. In that way, they allow one part of the Bible to explain what another part means. Why not take advantage of the free home Bible study course that Jehovah’s Witnesses offer to all? No matter what language you speak, God desires that “all sorts of men should be saved and come to an accurate knowledge of truth.”​—1 Timothy 2:4; Revelation 7:9.

[Footnotes]

^ par. 2 Some sections of the Bible were written in Aramaic, a language closely related to Biblical Hebrew. Examples of this are found at Ezra 4:8 to 6:18 and 7:12-26, Jeremiah 10:11, and Daniel 2:4b to 7:28.

^ par. 14 It should be noted that some dictionaries and lexicons of Bible words merely list how the word has been translated in a particular version of the Bible, such as the King James Version, rather than independently defining the meaning of the word.

^ par. 17 By the time of Jesus Christ and his apostles, all the books of the Hebrew Scriptures could be read in Greek. This translation came to be called the Septuagint and was used extensively by Greek-speaking Jews. Most of the hundreds of direct quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures that are found in the Christian Greek Scriptures are based on the Septuagint.

^ par. 18 It is believed that the Gospel of Matthew was originally written by the apostle Matthew in Hebrew. However, even if that is the case, what has been preserved until today is a Greek translation of the original, possibly made by Matthew himself.

^ par. 19 For a discussion of the different styles of translation and how to select an accurate translation, see the article “How Can You Choose a Good Bible Translation?” in the May 1, 2008, issue of this magazine.

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The Septuagint

Greek-speaking Jews in the time of Jesus and his apostles made extensive use of the Greek Septuagint. This is a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. Not only is the Septuagint noteworthy because it was the first known attempt to translate the Holy Scriptures into another language but it is also impressive because of the size of the translation project. A group of translators started work on the Septuagint in the third century B.C.E., and the work was completed by others over a hundred years later.

The early Christians were quick to make effective use of the Septuagint to prove that Jesus was the Christ, the promised Messiah. So effective were they that the Septuagint began to be viewed by some as a “Christian” translation. This led to its losing popularity among the Jews and resulted in several new translations being produced in Greek. One of those translations was produced by a Jewish proselyte named Aquila in the second century C.E. When describing this translation, one Bible scholar refers to a “quite unexpected feature.” Represented by ancient Hebrew characters, the divine name, Jehovah, appears throughout Aquila’s Greek translation.

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It is important that we read the Bible’s inspired message in a form we can understand and respond to