The value of studying languages for historical and theological research

Permit me to share a little bit of my personal story with you. When I was an undergraduate student many years ago I studied Classics at a major public university in the Midwest—Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Coptic. I loved the experience, especially reading Classical Greek poetry, in addition to history and philosophy by writers like Sappho, Homer, Plato, Xenophon, Sophocles, Herodotus, Thucydides, Cicero, Virgil, Tacitus, and so many more. I had the opportunity to learn other languages, like German, Sanskrit, and Lakota Sioux. One semester I was studying five languages at the same time and German bit the dust. I picked it up again later when I had more time. We all have our limits.

Sanskrit is an ancient language on which so many other Indo-European languages have their basis, and in which there are countless extant writings of the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Lakota Sioux is a language indigenous to the Great Plains region where I grew up. I had the opportunity, but I chose not to study Sanskrit and Lakota. I have very few regrets, but this is one of them. I did, however, pick up two more languages in grad school related to my academic interests, Aramaic and Syriac. I still have the desire to study languages. I am currently developing my use of French. Arabic, Ethiopic, Modern Hebrew, and Russian are on my list.

By now I hope you get my point. Studying languages is a way of learning another culture. It is very much an education in itself. And it opens doors for expanding friendships and relationships beyond the small world I inhabit. I like it when my perception of the world grows beyond just where I live.

This is also true of being a preacher and teacher of the Bible. You can certainly be an effective preacher and an effective teacher for the church without knowledge of Hebrew and Greek. There are many excellent translations available. So why reinvent the wheel, right? But I’m not just talking about translation. I’m talking about developing your exegetical skills, deepening and broadening your ability to interpret biblical texts by engaging the linguistic culture of the Bible.

So much of the Bible, when it is translated, involves the translator making a choice that doesn’t really come through in the translation, a nuance here and a fine grammatical point there, that can send the interpretive imagination in a number of different directions and, more often than not, in directions you never expected. This is the kind of thing that can deeply enrich and give more authority to your preaching and teaching. Think about it.

As a student at Ecumenical Theological Seminary you can contact the registrar to enroll for full credit and learn Greek and Hebrew for a grade or, to lighten the pressure, take it pass/fail or as an audit. If you are not enrolled in a program at ETS, you too can learn the biblical languages. Contact the registrar for details.

James Waddell, S.T.M., Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Biblical Studies

Director of the Masters Programs

Ecumenical Theological Seminary

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