Most of the Bible was first written in just two languages, Hebrew and Greek. The authors who used those languages did so under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. (2 Samuel 23:2) Therefore, the message reported can be described as “inspiration from God.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
When studying the Bible, many people take different approaches. For many, finding an easy-to-read version is the key; For others, they prefer a more literal version. And for some, they want to dig deep into the original languages. At some point, this causes most believers to ask the question, “Should Christians learn Hebrew when they study the Bible?
WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF BIBLE STUDY?
The first thing we should consider when trying to answer the question is: What is Bible study?
The Bible tells us three things about studying it:
2 Timothy 2:15 says, ” Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”
The first purpose is to show ourselves “approved to God.” This means that we should study to show that we meet the approval of God.
How are we going to meet His approval? The answer can be seen as follows:
Acts 2:22 says, “Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know.”
God approved Jesus. God, the Father, has demonstrated His approval by doing great things through Him. So, to be approved by God, we need to be like Jesus. How was Jesus approved of God? It was by faith. Having faith that everything God the Father promised was true. Having faith that God the Father would raise Him from the dead, and that Jesus would raise us from the dead (John 6:37-40). Because of His faith, Jesus always did the will of His Father, just as the Father had taught Him (John 8:28-29).
We are also approved by faith to God (Ephesians 2:8-9).
When we have God’s approval, He shows His approval by doing great things through us by His Holy Spirit. To be taught by the Father, we must study His Word (2 Timothy 3:14-17), which changes us from within to become more like Him, willing to do God’s will, which demonstrates His approval (Psalms 119:11).
The second purpose is to become “a workman who doesn’t need to be ashamed.” To be ashamed Biblically means to be disappointed or defeated.
Bible study prepares and equips us to do good work without hesitation or hindrance (2 Timothy 3:14-17).
The third and final goal is to gain the ability to divide the Word of Truth correctly. This means that, given the numerous Bible study factors, we can break down what we read into simple truths and applications. These factors include things like the people involved, the context, the audience, the time in history, and other factors.
When these factors are considered, we can compare Scripture with Scripture, line with line, and precept with precept, in order to gain a good understanding of what is taught (Isaiah 28:9-10).
However, there is something important we must know before we can answer the question as to whether it is necessary to learn the Hebrew language while studying.
HOW ACCURATE IS THE TRANSLATION?
A simple visit to the Christian Book Store section of the Bible shows that there are numerous translations of the Bible.
With all the different versions, it’s pretty easy to see that when we compare the text, they can read completely differently depending on the versions being compared. So how are we going to know which versions are closest to the original texts?
This is when there is a need to consider textural reliability. In other words, is the version translated from the original Hebrew as accurately as possible? To know this, there’s something we need to know about the Hebrew used for translation. Unknown to most Christians, there are different Hebrew manuscripts used in modern translations.
Such manuscripts fall into two main sources: the originals which were collected and preserved in Antioch, Syria (Acts 15), and the tattered copies which were collected and retained in Alexandria, Egypt, centuries later. We know which the originals were because almost all Apostolic Fathers, from the first to the third centuries, were quoted in Antioch’s manuscripts.
Many translations are used today in the Alexandrian manuscripts. However, it is easy to find errors in corrupted texts through a simple examination of the translated text. An example can be found in Mark 1:2, which reads as follows in a translation that uses the Alexandrian text.
“As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way” (Mark 1:2, NIV)
Although this is a well-known verse, the problem is that it misquotes the person who said it. Isaiah did not say this, but Malachi did it in Malachi 3:1. There are several other examples to look at (compare, for example, Isaiah 9:3 using the KJV and the NIV). Still, we need to know that if there is going to be an examination of Hebrew, it is important to know what Hebrew is being examined.
To answer our main question, assuming we have the resources, should Christians learn Hebrew when they study the Bible? The answer depends on who you are talking to. For King James, the answer would be that everything we need to understand can be found in King James Version of the Bible. However, as good as Hebrew manuscripts’ translation may be, the English language is not as robust as Hebrew.
An example can be found in John 21:15-17 when Jesus asked Peter three times whether he loved him. However, looking at the words of love in Hebrew shows us that Jesus asked Peter if he loved him in different ways. The first two times, Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. He used the Hebrew “agape” work, which is unconditional love. Peter did not answer directly that he loved Jesus, but instead said, “You know I love you.”
After not directly admitting His love, Jesus asked the same question, using the Greek word “phileo,” which is brotherly love. Only then did Peter say that he loved Jesus. Without knowing those words in Hebrew, there is no way to know directly why the same question was asked three times. A similar example can be seen when you look at the word “glory” in 2 Corinthians 3:18. Only by looking at the Hebrew words can a clear understanding be gained.
“Learn Hebrew, and you are going to be healed!” This is what Eliezer Ben-Yehuda said at the end of the 19th century.
Whatever his motive, one of his objectives has certainly been achieved – the restoration of Hebrew as the common language of the Jews living in Israel. Today, an increasing number of Jews and non-Jews are being encouraged to learn Hebrew. If you are one of these people, you will need encouragement to start and continue your studies.
HERE ARE SOME “REASONS WHY” YOU SHOULD LEARN HEBREW.
1. Hebrew is the main language of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Rav Shaul (Paul) wrote, “All Scripture is G-d breathed, and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training” (2 Tim. 3:16). At that time, there was no known Scripture other than what is now commonly known as the Tanach (Torah, Prophets, and Writings), which is almost entirely written in Hebrew and a small portion in Aramaic.
2. The Lord Jesus knew Hebrew
Jesus also spoke and read Hebrew (Acts 26:14). The foundation of the New Testament is Hebrew: in fact, all the original writers of the New Testament were Jews who spoke and read Hebrew. Knowing Hebrew will give you new insight into the context of the writings of the New Testament.
3. Synagogue’s Language
At the time of Jesus Christ, the Torah was frequently read in the synagogues (Acts 15:21). Throughout the 2,000-year period of the Diaspora, the study and contemplation of Hebrew have helped to unite the Jewish people with a common form of expression and worship. For thousands of years, Jews have been praying the same blessing, singing the same scriptures, and writing the same books. Studying Hebrew will allow you to understand the Jewish origins of Christianity and make you a compassionate witness to the Chosen People of God.
4. Hebrew particularly helps us to understand the good news.
Several early witnesses claim that Yeshua’s life was originally written in Hebrew. Among them is the Bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor, Papias (approximately 130 A.D.), who says, “Matthew put down the words of the Lord in the Hebrew language, and others translated them as best they could.” Since the mid-nineteenth century, it has become popular to believe that Hebrew was not the primary language of Yeshua and his contemporaries. As a result, Dr. Robert Lindsey, a senior member of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research and author of Jesus, Rabbi & Lord, writes, “Passages in the Gospels have become unclear and are easily misunderstood, or have lost their meaning because their interpretation has become separate from the understanding of their Hebrew linguistic and cultural roots.”
5. Hebrew enables us to understand the use of the Hebrew Scriptures in B’rit Chadasha (New Testament) and to make proper use of the Scriptures ourselves.
Have you ever been confused that New Testament writers sometimes go beyond the obvious contextual meaning of the Tanach passages they quote? If we were to correctly use the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15), wouldn’t we do well to recover, for ourselves, the ancient methods of interpretation used by these authors with such creativity?
6. Hebrew provides first-hand access to ancient Jewish literature.
The teachers and sages of Israel have preserved important information on the historical, political, cultural, and linguistic context in which Yeshua and Rav Shaul have taught. We complement the Scriptures and often fill essential gaps in our understanding, but much of this literature remains inaccessible in English.
7. Hebrew deepens the understanding of Christian spiritual origins and culture.
Sharing a common language helps to strengthen a sense of relationship. Those who research the ancient literature of Israel and engage in the Jewish people’s communal life develop an enriched and ever deeper understanding of their common roots in the God of Israel. This can only reinforce the Church against the growing tide of anti-Semitism and the dangers of isolation from the Jewish people.
8. Hebrew allows us to engage and make full use of the Hebrew service of the synagogue.
Synagogue attendance continued to be habitual for Yeshua, Rav Shaul, and leaders of the early Messianic Jews in the land of Israel until the exile of the Jews in 135 BC. Elsewhere, both Gentile Christians and Jewish members continued to engage in synagogue services until the fourth century BC.
9. Hebrew gives an insight into the world view of those who speak it.
Dr. Clifford Denton is the editor-in-chief of Tishrei, a quarterly newspaper that explores Christian faith through its Jewish roots. He writes, “Immersion in a language produces much more than conversation. Language decides a person’s inner mindset. The person who thinks in Hebrew is a different person than the person who thinks in English, all other aspects being similar. Therefore, the Hebrew language offers more than just a clear interpretation of words. It’s within the very root structure of what the Jew is to be.”
10. Hebrew is the lingua franc of modern Israel.
Anyone who lives or visits Israel will do better if he or she speaks the people’s language. Just a little is helpful because people tend to be warmer and more responsive when trying to communicate with them in their language. Modern Hebrew and Bible Hebrew are very close. One is an excellent foundation for understanding the other.
11. It is relatively easy to learn Hebrew.
David Bivin, the co-author of the Hebrew Language Course and the book Learning the Difficult Words of Jesus, writes, “Hebrew is to a large extent a phonetic language with a relatively small vocabulary. It is generally based on a simple three-letter root system that provides useful memory support for the formation of different verbs and nouns; nothing like the complexity of many modern European languages.
12. There’s something unique about reading the scriptures in their original language.
But you’re only going to find out if you learn how! Students begin immediately to reap the benefits of learning Hebrew. However, language learning is a cyclical process. At times one is delighted by the advances one has made. At others, one seems to be going nowhere. In any case, it is important to press forward constantly, even if gradually, to make more progress. “Wealth gotten by vanity shall be diminished: but he that gathereth by labor shall increase.” Mishlei (Proverbs) 13:11.
With these things in mind, does this mean that we must learn Hebrew when we study the Bible? No, the simple answer is no. Using resources such as Strong’s Concordance (KJV) with the Hebrew dictionaries or the King James Old English Word Definition Guide can help us identify terms in verses that may give us time to understand. On the other hand, scholars of Hebrew, and more so of Greek, tell us that sometimes there are nuances in the language, such as puns, word plays, etc., that can only be fully appreciated in the original languages. However, the most important thing is a good translation.
Some have made great efforts to learn the Hebrew Bible or the Greek Bible or both. Even though they are aware of the limitations of their understanding, they are pleased to read the Bible in their original languages and feel that every effort was worthwhile. But if you can’t do that, should you feel discouraged and give up in your search for the Bible’s truth? No! There are many reasons for this conclusion.
First, it is appropriate to use the translation of the Bible. The writers of the Christian Greek Scriptures, or the so-called New Testament, often used the Greek translation to quote from the Hebrew Scriptures. Although they spoke Hebrew and could have quoted from the original Hebrew Scriptures, they were comfortable using a translation of those verses, which was more widely available to those to whom they were writing.
Second, the good news contained in the Bible was to be made available to the humble people of every nation, tribe, tongue, and people. In keeping with this, the overwhelming majority of people today will learn God’s purpose from a copy of the Bible in their language without having to learn another language. Several different translations are available in many languages, leaving the reader with a decision.
No matter what language you speak, God wants “all kinds of people to be saved and come to a correct knowledge of the truth.”