Learning Hebrew Is Only for Professional Scholars, Right?
For most people, learning the biblical languages is like becoming a priest—something they would never imagine doing, but they know that some people feel called that way. In other words, most people think that learning Greek and Hebrew is NOT for the common man. Over the years people have even begun to think that pastors don’t really need to study the biblical languages.
The question I want to ask is: how did we get to this point in history where we think the biblical languages are only something for the spiritual elites and scholars? Three main reasons: 1) intimidating methodology, 2) insufficient technology, 3) expense. Let’s break these down one by one:
- Since the middle ages most people have taught Hebrew with what is called the “grammar method.” This method treats the language more like a code you’ve got to learn to crack, rather than something you use and enjoy. With this method you’re swiftly introduced to complicated paradigms that you have to learn through rote memorization. In a lot of ways it feels like doing math. In other words, it’s not at all like the way you learned to speak your mother tongue as a child. For most people it’s just too intimidating, so they leave it to the “professionals.”
- By insufficient technology I mean that for centuries there has been no way for one person to teach millions of people (like you can on YouTube today). You could print a book that teaches people, but because of the intimidation factor, most people wouldn’t buy your book, and if they did, they wouldn’t end up using it. Languages are learned best with a teacher who shows you how to use the language, so that you hear it a lot, see the context it’s being used in, and get a feel for how it works. You just can’t do that with a textbook. On top of that problem, books appeal to literary cultures, not oral cultures. And 70% of the world’s cultures are oral. That means that the vast majority of Christians in the world don’t come from a culture that’s used to learning things from books. Jesus lived in an oral culture, which is why he spent so much time talking to people instead of handing out books.
- Only in the last 150 years have books become affordable to normal people who live in literate cultures like the West. But in most of the rest of the world books tend to be unaffordable for the average person. If they do save up for a book, they’ll buy something that’s not intimidating (exactly, not a Hebrew grammar). And what’s worse: Hebrew textbooks tend to be way more expensive than other books, and they’re almost never translated into other languages outside of the West. Why? Because books don’t sell well in oral cultures! So most of the Church gets left with no option to learn Hebrew because they’re too poor, don’t know English, and didn’t grow up in a literate culture. I don’t know about you, but that situation seems a bit unfair.
Embracing the Future
So at Aleph with Beth we’re working hard to use the new technology God has given us to teach Hebrew to the world in a way that works for them. Since our videos are audio-visual, fun, and immersive, they resonate with people from oral cultures. The intimidation factor is gone. And since they’re free, and always will be, there’s no cost obstacle. Finally, since they’re monolingual videos, anyone in any people group can learn, without having to know English.
Actually, Learning Languages Is Normal
We now live in a world where learning languages is normal. There are hundreds of millions of active users just on Duolingo, one of the most popular language learning apps. Most people in the world have to use two or more languages to function in their daily life, and they’re used to learning new languages. Learning a new language is like learning lots of other skills which people do all the time. Even Jesus and Paul knew more than one language.
Playing an instrument is a difficult skill to master, just like a language, but millions of normal people still learn all over the world. So if people are spending so much time learning instruments and other languages, why can’t they learn Greek and Hebrew? It’s totally possible if we help each other and make quality teaching available for free!
We Don't Live in the Middle Ages Anymore
Timesaving technology allows more people than ever to learn new things. Education was a luxury for people in the middle ages, but now it’s possible for more people than ever. Trillions of hours of free time will be spent on something each year. Why not make it learning the languages of the Bible?
We all know that we are supposed to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18). So why can’t part of the goal of growing in that knowledge be to learn the languages of the Bible, in order to better study it and see more of Jesus?
Some BIG Reasons
We live in a world that is increasingly hostile to the Bible. False teaching is a greater threat than ever because of the Internet. Those who don’t have access to the original languages end up being vulnerable to false teaching and to those who challenge the trustworthiness of the Bible.
What if you saw a video online of a man preaching this: “I’ve looked at the original Hebrew and it says that our salvation is based on the amount we give!” Should you believe him? He’s probably preaching with convincing authority, wearing a fancy suit, and standing in a massive church with thousands of people saying, “Amen!” How can we explain to others why he’s wrong? We simply can’t, because we don’t know Hebrew. So we’re not able to confront him about the lie he’s preaching, and we’re not able to speak with any authority to warn our brother or sister.
Here’s the thing: the more people learn the biblical languages, the less false teachers will be able to deceive them. Jesus said, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matt. 7:15). And Paul warned: “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29). What do you do when you see wolves about to devour sheep? You use a weapon. The knowledge of Greek and Hebrew is one of the most powerful weapons for defending people against fierce wolves. But what if there’s only one person in your whole church who has that weapon? What if he’s not around when the wolves come? The more people who are armed in the Body of Christ, the less chance the wolves will have to ravage our brothers and sisters. If we know that “the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8) we must arm ourselves with the Truth. And when we make the effort to learn the biblical languages we are able to mine the treasures of God’s truth with certainty.
A New Normal
Let’s think about something else. Christians spend a lot of time reading and listening to other people’s opinions about God. They go to conferences, buy lots of books, and spend hours arguing with others about what translation to use. If they instead spent all of that time and energy learning the biblical languages, they would have the tools to be more discerning and humble, and know how to feed themselves better spiritually, rather than being helpless without others to feed them.
We all know the saying that it’s better to teach someone to fish than to give them a fish. What if Christians spent their time helping others learn the biblical languages for free, rather than simply telling them about all the great insights that they got from knowing the biblical languages? Our churches would grow so much deeper, people would be able to hold their leaders accountable to sound doctrine, parents would be able to teach their children better, and fewer people would “wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:4). Let’s start a movement to make this the new normal. With God all things are possible!
A guy named Bitzer once said, “The more a theologian detaches himself from the basic Hebrew and Greek text of Holy Scripture, the more he detaches himself from the source of real theology! And real theology is the foundation of a fruitful and blessed ministry.” We all need real theology, and we are all called to our own fruitful ministry as part of the body of Christ. Let’s help each other get the tools we need to do that well!
So let’s commit to doing something radical: let’s stop criticizing translations of the Bible, let’s stop criticizing people who don’t know much theology or agree with our theology, let’s stop criticizing other denominations, and use all that energy and time to learn the languages of Scripture. And let’s do it with humility, and “outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom 12:10).
Cheer Others On
I want to say something to those of you who will never learn Greek or Hebrew for one reason or another. Encourage those who are learning! Cheer them on! Don’t make fun of them or tell them it doesn’t matter! When they bring a Hebrew Bible to church don’t make a joke about it! Our hearts are so tempted to discourage those who have different gifts or who have been given opportunities we wish we had. Resist that temptation, and instead remind those who are learning how important it is!
And this extends to the global Church. Let’s do everything possible to encourage our brothers and sisters around the world to learn and grow! Even if we have to give sacrificially to make it possible for them, let’s make sure they have the same opportunities that we have.
There’s this quote from Martin Luther that has haunted me for years:
It is a sin and shame not to know our own book or to understand the speech and words of our God; it is a still greater sin and loss that we do not study languages, especially in these days when God is offering and giving us men and books and every facility and inducement to this study, and desires his Bible to be an open book. Oh, how happy the dear [church] fathers would have been if they had our opportunity to study the languages and come thus prepared to the Holy Scriptures! What great toil and effort it cost them to gather up a few crumbs, while we with half the labor — yes, almost without any labor at all — can acquire the whole loaf! Oh, how their effort puts our indolence to shame.
May God rescue us from indolence, and inspire us to raise the bar for our joy and His glory.