Many Christians often forget that modern day English is a relatively new human creation. Biblical texts in their “original” forms were written in either Hebrew or Greek. In fact, if we want to get really technical, many translations of the bible were based off a Greek translation of ancient Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament!
So sometimes, students of the bible get themselves in a bit of a pickle. Some people worry if their English biblical translation is genuine or accurate. Some argue that there are only certain “valid” translations like the King James Version and that others are inaccurate. Others argue that in order to truly understand the bible, one needs to master old languages.
Our Advent series for this year is on several “ancient” biblical words as we find them in scripture, with their English counterparts. Yesterday’s word was yakhal, or as we know it today as English speakers, hope. Here are some general thoughts on biblical languages for you to keep in mind…
Hebrew and Greek studies can be incredibly insightful
The meanings of words change over time. A common example I like to use is the word love. We love many things nowadays, and this word is basically synonymous with “really liking” something. We love the weather. We love when our sports team wins. We love tacos. So when we read a verse from scripture about God being love or how we must love others, sometimes we have an insufficient understanding of the big idea.
Therefore, word studies can be very helpful when studying scripture. With our “love” example, there are numerous Greek words for love, and each has a unique meaning. So when we talk about old “original” words for love, its something much deeper that popular usages today! The same is also true for what we saw yesterday for hope. Biblical hope is not optimism, but rather waiting on the Lord.
The bible itself is not something to be worshipped
This might sound quite controversial to hear at first. But as a Christian, the only object of our worship must be God. The bible is a powerful tool that testifies as to who God is! It points to our redeemer and source of life.
Think about that for a moment. During your prayer time, do you bow before the bible and speak your prayer requests to it? If you are in a moment of crisis, do you hopefully think of that physical leather-bound book? I hope my point is clear that we ought to be worshipping God alone, and not get too hung up on the biblical translation debate. Bible reading is incredibly important, but it should never be the only thing we focus on in faith.
There are plenty of faiths out there that may be rooted in a particular holy text or specific language. For instance, the Koran is a revelation specific to the Arabic language and English translations lack the original sacred character. Christianity is different in that it is all about a relationship with Christ, and it doesn’t matter what language scripture gets translated into!
The Holy Spirit must guide us as we interpret scripture
Too many people read the bible and fail to remember the love of God. We read verses and focus on the ones which support our personal agenda. Even worse, we sometimes use the bible as a weapon to shame or defeat others.
When you read the bible, are you treating it like any ordinary book? Hopefully we know that God’s Spirit should be moving in our hearts as we read it. The bible shouldn’t just be about absorbing information for personal benefit. Allow the Holy Spirit to change you as you read the words! That is a wonderful truth that transcends human language and translation.
In conclusion, word studies of old languages can help in your reading of scripture. I hope our Advent series will shed new light on the meaning of Christmas as we look at words like hope, love, and peace.
In the same breath, however, don’t miss the forest for the Greek/Hebrew “trees!” There are many more important aspects of reading the bible, including deepening our relationship with God and allowing the Holy Spirit to guide us. You don’t need a seminary degree to understand scripture. You don’t have to be fluent in Hebrew or Greek. If you’re an English speaker, a mainstream English translation and an open heart ought to do the trick.