On YouTube, it is possible to watch the transition of television from black and white to color. Broadcast stations hailed the change, which took a decade or more, as transformational; for obvious reasons, television set manufacturers agreed. While modern eyes adapted to high-definition screens might struggle to see how transformational color TV was, most television technologies today are merely incremental improvements on the original color TV.
Color improved the viewing experience by adding information to the story. Before color — and even before audio — cinemagoers loved the silent, black-and-white antics of Charlie Chaplin. They understood the story and appreciated it. But color and sound added a whole new set of tools and techniques enabling directors and actors to pull viewers into the story. Charlie Chaplin’s silent and colorless movies delighted audiences; the sound and technicolor of The Wizard of Oz entranced them.
Seminary students discover a similar eye- and ear-opening experience in the study of the original languages of Scripture — Greek and Hebrew. Indeed, they have read and understood the “black-and-white” English translation of Scripture; they know God’s love for them in Christ and His suffering and death on the cross for their eternal salvation — no Greek and Hebrew required. But Greek and Hebrew add brilliant color and digital surround sound to the study of God’s Word. The learning of Greek and Hebrew is, in part, why the LCMS sends pastors for at least four years of residential study.
Knowledge of Greek and Hebrew adds color to the study of Scripture in a few different ways, one of which is bound up with the way language works. One of the most important strategies for adjusting to life in a foreign country is to learn the language. Among expats, those who do not learn the local language often struggle to adapt to the new settings.
Language does more than provide an opportunity to communicate. It also provides a window into the minds and culture of a people, showing what they prioritize and why. Studies have also shown that when someone learns a new language, it changes his brain structure and patterns of thought. He begins to think like a native of the new culture.
Consider Mandarin Chinese. This language, the most widely spoken language on earth, has numerous unique words for family relations. The word for an older son is unique from the word for the youngest son. The language uses a term for paternal grandfather that is unique from that for maternal grandfather, and so on, all the way down to aunts and uncles. Even your father’s younger brother’s wife gets her own special term.
This knowledge of the Chinese language demonstrates the importance of family for the Chinese culture. A Chinese person’s place in the family determines many of his choices and opportunities in life. And he is reminded of this every time he interacts with this family — which he often does. He is not simply a son, but the eldest son, and therefore has, for example, the responsibility to care for the family idols upon his father’s death.
The study of Greek and Hebrew conveys some of the thought patterns and culture of Scripture to the pastor who has dedicated years of his life to studying and understanding this language. He looks at a text not simply as an English speaker, but as one formed by the languages of God’s Word.
“Every translation is an interpretation” is another helpful maxim to keep in mind when studying the Bible. No translation is word for word. Some Greek words require multiple English words to convey the meaning, and Greek grammar conveys more information about the relationship between words than the words in isolation denote.
An example will help. In 1 Corinthians 11:17, most translations say, “But in the following instructions I do not commend you.” However, the phrase “in the following” is not present in the Greek. Translators look at the verse in context and translate it as though St. Paul is primarily speaking about the instructions following verse 17. They must interpret the passage, and their interpretations are formed by their background and theological training. Pastors study Greek and Hebrew to help God’s people read translations more carefully.
This interpretative reality extends even to punctuation. In Ephesians, St. Paul writes that God “gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints[,] for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11–12). Most translations do not include the comma after “saints,” thus implying that the saints are responsible for “the work of ministry.” The traditional Lutheran interpretation of this passage, however, includes the comma because St. Paul is explaining the work of pastors and teachers in a serial list of their tasks. Pastors “equip the saints,” and they also do “the work of ministry,” and they “[build] up the body of Christ” through the gifts given by Christ. The comma is a powerful tool.
The pastor uses his knowledge of Greek and Hebrew to help the congregation work through the interpretational biases inherent in every translation of Scripture. These biases most times do not obscure the clear teaching of Scripture, though the language of certain Bible paraphrases — such as The Message — might obfuscate God’s Word. The best way to see the added depth in Scripture is through the rigorous study of God’s Word in Greek and Hebrew.
Pastors have certainly at times abused their knowledge of Greek and Hebrew in Bible study and from the pulpit. Even the author of this article has at times used the cringeworthy phrase “the Greek really says …” followed by a comment intended to convey the depth of his own study rather than build up the Body of Christ. Such failures, however, do not neglect the greater value to Christ’s church when she sends men to learn the language of Scripture so that, as pastors, they might bring back to her congregations a Gospel not only in black and white, but in vibrant technicolor.
This article originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of The Lutheran Witness.