Should Seminary Students Learn Hebrew and Greek? Absolutely

John Byron asks the question- which I think an odd one (but one that makes the rounds every few years): should seminary students learn Hebrew and Greek?

I want to chip in some observations on, not John’s response- you can read that for yourself and make your own evaluations- but on the nature of the question itself.  The question, it seems to me, is a symptom of a sickness.  No one would ever, ever tell first year medical students ‘you don’t need to learn basic biology’ nor would anyone tell a first year physics student ‘you don’t need to learn calculus’ and then follow up those statements with ‘there are already plenty of good textbooks out there and all you really need to do is consult them’.

The question shows a lack of appreciation for the absolute and utter necessity of Pastors – of all people- charged with proclamation of the Word of God- to be familiar at first hand with the text they are proclaiming.  The ‘busy pastor’ excuse is a load of hogwash.  Pastors aren’t too busy – they are – for the most part – too lazy.  I have known and do know a lot of Seminary students and Pastors and believe me, they have leisure time aplenty to play golf, ride their motorcycles, play video games, and generally waste time.  No, the time excuse is just a smokescreen for the sort of indigence that’s too common these days.

Pastors who attempt to interpret scripture without knowledge of the biblical languages are parrots, simply mouthing words they may or may not understand.  Seminaries, and seminary professors, are duty bound to reinforce the necessity of linguistic ability at every opportunity.  To fail to do so is to give pastors and students permission to both be lazy and to be unacquainted with the very text for which they bear interpretive responsibility.

Or as the Rabbis put it- reading Scripture in translation is like kissing your beloved through a sheet.  It may work at one level, but it’s never satisfying.

UPDATE:  Don’t, for any reason, miss Scott’s take.

16 thoughts on “Should Seminary Students Learn Hebrew and Greek? Absolutely

  1. John Byron 18 Oct 2010 at 8:47 am

    Jim,

    I am not sure you are being clear about how you feel. 🙂

    I agree on many levels that it is important for pastors to know the original languages. I am not sure your description of what they do in their free time is all that fair. Most of the people who graduate from Ashland will end up with congregations of 100 or less. Not a few will end up with multiple point charges (I have a student now who is over 3 congregations). I am not sure the problem is (only?) that the pastor is lazy. Perhaps the problem is also rooted in the way the pastor is expected to by a superman by her congregation? He or she is expected to do more and more with little support and if it is not done they are seen as doing a less than acceptable job.

    Working with the languages ought to be a main focus of most if not all sermon/teaching preparation. But what are we in the pew doing to help the pastor to make time to do that?

    John

    Like

  2. […] John Byron asks whether seminary students should learn Greek and Hebrew, and Jim West explains why he thinks the question itself is an odd one. […]

    Like

  3. Jason S 18 Oct 2010 at 1:49 pm

    Jim,
    I agree that Biblical languages are important. I feel the lack of them. That being said, the statement “Pastors who attempt to interpret scripture without knowledge of the biblical languages are parrots, simply mouthing words they may or may not understand,” is a strong statement.
    There are some of us who have not had the privilege that others have had. I never had the chance at seminary. I come from an anti-intellectual tradition where I am a curiosity to some and a problem to others, because I think for myself. I am almost 40 years of age and am presently working to teach myself Greek. I apply myself in as many ways as I know. There are times that I MUST go to commentaries for help. Even then, I do not parrot. I may error in my exegesis at times, but I preach what I learn, even if it’s only from the English text.
    Such an overstatement as you have made does little to help your cause.

    Like

    • Jim 18 Oct 2010 at 2:18 pm

      i sympathize with your position. i really do. but i still think pastors ought to have first hand familiarity with the text they are proclaiming. i wouldnt go to a doctor who didnt know where my liver was, and i wouldnt listen to a pastor who didn’t know what the bible said.

      Like

  4. Jason S 18 Oct 2010 at 3:08 pm

    Then you don’t sympathize with many pioneer preachers who helped spread Christianity across the US, either. Some of those may very well have been your forefathers in the ministry.
    It’s a bit of an imbalanced position.
    One can hold up the usefulness of Biblical languages without extreme statements such as you make.
    There’s also a categorical fallacy between a doctor and your liver and a pastor and the Greek text. We are pretty confident in our English translations and their ability to convey the underlying text to us. If we were not, we would not translate and we would not use the English translations.
    I agree with you stress on the need for knowledge of the original languages. I cannot agree with the imbalance and extreme statements that you make.
    Honestly, they’re somewhat offensive. It shows disrespect for people who labor over their English Bibles doing the best they can with what they have.

    Like

    • Jim 18 Oct 2010 at 3:11 pm

      they are intentionally direct because more harm has been done by ignorant preachers than imaginable. want some examples? terry jones. fred phelps. furthermore, the quest for an educated clergy began in america in earnest before the country was formed. harvard was originally a college for preachers. seminaries for most of their existence have stressed the utter necessity of linguistic ability. it is only recently that languages have been dropped. so you have it exactly backwards historically. it is only now that learned clergy are de-valued.

      Like

  5. Jason S 18 Oct 2010 at 3:17 pm

    Jim,
    1. I don’t devalue a learned clergy.
    2. There were a number of Methodists and Baptists who did not have what you and I have today. They went, however, and preached, and did much good.
    3. The issue is still an issue of extremes. You cannot judge me by Fred Phelps. That is another categorical fallacy.

    Like

    • Jim 18 Oct 2010 at 3:24 pm

      im not judging you at all. but the phelps and jones analogy still works in the case of those clerics who devalue language acquisition. ignorant clerics are real trouble and their interpretation of the bible is usually grossly inadequate.

      Like

  6. Jason S 18 Oct 2010 at 3:20 pm

    Part of the problem with this discussion is the problem of perspective.
    I am one without the benefit of formal training. I am working to remedy that by doing much study at home. I know my ministry and I know my heart.
    You’re looking more from the academic standpoint, I’m sure.
    The two combined should lead to balance.

    Like

  7. Jason S 18 Oct 2010 at 3:30 pm

    That is what I’m driving at; there are those who value it, or are sadly unaware of it (as I was for some years of my ministry), who strive to be faithful. To lump all together in the category of lazy is simply not right.
    There are exceptions.
    Never the less, thanks for clarifying at the last. We’re closer on the issue than I thought.

    Like

    • Jim 18 Oct 2010 at 3:37 pm

      probably so. my beef is with those who think languages unimportant. not with those who see their value and are striving to acquire the requisite skills. yet i still maintain that its dangerous to lack them.

      Like

  8. EricW 18 Oct 2010 at 4:08 pm

    Should SEMINARY STUDENTS learn Greek and Hebrew?

    Absolutely. If they’re in a school that is designed to equip men (and hopefully women, too) to preach and teach from the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, then they should learn to read those same Jewish (Biblical Hebrew & Aramaic) and Christian (Koinê Greek) Scriptures.

    Otherwise, they’re not learning and being taught the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, but translations of the same.

    Like

  9. Rick Wadholm Jr. 19 Oct 2010 at 12:02 am

    Not only do I personally believe that seminarians going into the pastorate need to learn the Biblical languages, but I believe they need to learn them well. They should not simply be given an intro to these languages, but some considerable level of exegesis within these languages so that they learn how to actually use them in a real context. I would prefer they take 2-3 years of each of the languages (as I have done…even though this was NOT a part of my particular M.Div. programme and I had to actually take MORE credits than my programme alloted).

    Like

  10. learn hebrew 19 Oct 2010 at 3:07 pm

    I dont know you have been clear to your points or not but i can surely say that learning languages whether Greek or Hebrew may help you in one or the other way.

    Like

  11. Jim 19 Jan 2013 at 8:57 am

    Jim, i am a lay person and i really don’t understand. If you feel that only those who know Greek and Hebrew understand what the Bible says, and in particular, yourself, why don’t you translate it for the rest of us ignorant people.

    Like

    • Jim 19 Jan 2013 at 12:06 pm

      Or you could learn hebrew and greek as youre obviously very interested

      Like

Comments are closed.