Reason #264

Reason 264 to learn Hebrew, Greek and other ancient languages as part of our efforts to study the Bible: learning the language helps us to understand the culture. I am extremely glad that I have learned Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic. I’m also glad that I’ve had the opportunity to formally study Ugaritic, Akkadian, Middle Egyptian and various NWS (NorthWest Semitic) dialects. But, much like Duane, I don’t think that the primary benefit is simply to be able to compare cognate words.

In addressing why a “serious student” of the Hebrew Bible or New Testament might want to learn some of the other languages I listed above, Duane writes:

Contrary to what is sometimes thought, the reason for knowing those other ancient languages is not primarily etymology or other narrow linguistic concerns. It is to understand as much as we can about the cultural context in which Biblical players worked, wrote and read…The first thing required of the serious Biblical studies student is knowledge of the literature, both the literature of the Bible itself but also of that mass of literature in many ancient languages but predominately in Hebrew, Aramaic, Hellenistic Greek, Akkadian, Ugaritic, Phoenician (plus Moabite and Ammonite), Egyptian, Classical Greek and Hittite that make up the literary and cultural context of Biblical literature.

I don’t expect pastors to learn Akkadian, Ugaritic, Egyptian, or Hittite. I don’t think it is asking too much, however, that pastors (including youth pastors, or even interested lay people) have a solid knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, and preferably Aramaic. Learning these languages allows the reader not only to read the texts without an intermediary (i.e., a translation–after all, traduttore, traditore) but also to better understand the culture and background of the texts. In other words, learning the language that a text was originally written in also opens wide vistas for the reader to understand the background and culture of that text.

Culture and language are inseparably linked, as this Wall Street Journal article hints. There is an irony in their use of an image of the tower of Babel in this article, especially for our purposes. Regardless of one’s theology, we must acknowledge that the Hebrew Bible is a product of time and space and that, by it’s very nature as a document written in a particular language, it represents a particular culture. That culture, and all it entails, is much better understood when you know the language.

Reason #58

Anyone who has followed me for very long knows that I would love to see more youth pastors who put more effort into studying the Bible. Specifically, I’d like to see more youth pastors who use the Hebrew and Greek they (might have) learned in seminary. To that end, I present reason number fifty-eight that youth pastors ought to learn and do everything they can to retain an intermediate knowledge of the biblical languages.

I recently attended a Christian event where a speaker gave a gospel presentation. This talk was standard evangelical fare, though I was pleased that the speaker placed a high emphasis on people living out faith. Nevertheless, the Scripture text that the speaker used was–of course–John 3.16. There is a bitter irony in the fact that this verse, one of the most well-known in the New Testament, is also one of the most commonly misrepresented.

The speaker placed particular emphasis on the word “so,” going as far as having the audience hold out the word for thirty seconds (“Soooooooooo…”). The speaker then explained that this verse shows how much God loves us. He loves us to such an extent that he sent his son. The problem is that the verse doesn’t say that. The Greek of the first phrase reads:

Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον
NIV: For God so loved the world
ESV: For God so loved the world
KJV: For God so loved the world
MSG: This is how much God loved the world

Looking at the English it’s easy to see how our speaker made his blunder. We tend to use the English word “so” in exactly the manner the speaker suggested it was used in John 3.16. But the Bible wasn’t written in English. The Greek word, οὕτως doesn’t mean “to great extent,” but rather “in this manner, thusly.” On the one hand, most translators deserve some of the blame, because they retain a wording that obfuscates what the verse is actually saying. This is especially true of Eugene Peterson, who really makes matters worse here. At the same time, if the speaker had bothered to consult a commentary before giving his gospel presentation he probably wouldn’t have blundered.

Does it matter how we understand “so,” in this verse? Absolutely. The crux of the verse isn’t about how much God loves the world, but in what manner he chose to express that love: by sending his son. Among modern English translations the NET Bible does the best job.

For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. John 3.16

In addition, the οὕτως in verse sixteen pretty obviously recalls the wording of verse fourteen. The Son of Man must be lifted up in the manner that the bronze serpent was. A couple verses later God loved the world in this manner: he gave his son (who happens to be the one who will be lifted up in a manner like the bronze serpent).

I could spend more time talking about how knowing Greek or Hebrew helps one to see a variety of connections within or between texts that is impossible in English, but that’s not precisely my point at present. My point is that as youth ministers, we ought to expect better of ourselves than to commit blunders that a first year Greek student should be able to avoid.

Reason #58 for youth pastors to learn Hebrew and Greek: avoiding blunders that detract from what Scripture says.


So, Marko thinks we need some painful disruption in youth ministry. As it happens, I agree. The problem is that I don’t particularly like pain. Nevertheless, I thought I’d take a whack at offering some suggestions based on the questions Mark asks. Although it’s probably the height of hubris for me to enter this discussion, someone can always feel free to smack me back down to earth. To that end, here are three broad areas I think need to change and–if they did change–would cause massive disruption to the status quo in youth ministry.

1. Youth Pastors, learn Hebrew and Greek
I realize I am an oddball. I’m a youth minister who has an MA in Biblical Languages. That’s weird. I get that. But, because I know Hebrew and Greek, I know the Bible far better than most of my peers. I know the cultures of the Bible and the ancient near east far better. I’m able to answer questions about the Bible with more acumen. Right now, a standard undergrad youth ministry program requires a bunch of classes in youth ministry (these are important), a few classes in psychology and/or counseling (also important), your core gen ed classes (still important!), and perhaps a couple Bible survey courses. Learning how to do ministry is important, but learning Hebrew and Greek is far more important. In fact, learning any dead language is a huge help in teaching yourself to think critically. If youth ministry programs started requiring Hebrew and Greek, or if churches started expecting their youth pastors to know Hebrew and Greek, I think we’d see a huge disruption in the way things are. The other advantage to this is that, when one has learned Hebrew and Greek it is fairly natural to have a more theologically and philosophically nuanced approach to youth ministry. Very naturally youth ministry ends up being about more than games or some vague idea of influence and becomes a theologically grounded enterprise that is of vital important. Oh yeah, and you actually know what our holy book says, as opposed to having some vague idea of the chronology of what happens without ever having truly studied it.

2. Less accommodation, more Jesus
This could take many forms. Sometimes we accommodate the least common denominator in terms of maturity in our ministries. We play games and spend 90% of our time on recreation because we are convinced that it’s a sin to bore a kid. But in so doing we really don’t offer students anything different from what they could get anywhere else. Accommodation also takes place in our own lives. It becomes very easy to try to live the American dream. We want raises. We want a nicer house. We get involved in the Church’s version of the rat race in which many of our parishners are involved. In so doing we somehow lose the way of life that Jesus has called us to, a way of life that puts others before ourselves. This happens in the lives of youth workers first, and when that happens then it obviously happens in the youth ministry where we’re involved. We need to learn to accommodate our culture less (and here I don’t mean getting rid of secular music, not watching TV, or whatever, I mean learning to set aside the trappings of our culture such as the need to succeed, consumerism, nationalism, placing the US flag higher than the Christian flag–metaphorically, I could care less about literal flags), and instead allow the Holy Spirit to transform us and those in our churches, not only in our youth ministries, into members of the Kingdom of God. Of course, this will make many people nervous and could be a painful process.

3. Less influence, more being
It started when I read Contemplative Youth Ministry (by Mark Yaconelli) and I’ve become even more convinced because of reading Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry (by Andrew Root), but I don’t think youth ministry needs to be about influencing students. We need to just toss that out of our vocabulary and our ministry methodology. Instead we should talk and plan to be with students. On the surface this might not look much different. We still go hang out, we still enjoy concerts with one another, etc. But instead of doing it to earn street cred with students, we do it because we want to be with them. Because by being with them we embody Jesus to them and, what’s more, they embody Jesus to us. This makes youth ministry messier. It means we have to be more open and vulnerable. At the same time it may mean that we have to learn how to be closed and set boundaries so that we really are in relationship with students and not merely a commodity that they consume whenever they want. Being with students is far more messy than the alternative, simply seeking to influence them to live better lives, or be more like Jesus, or whatever. But being with students is a far more Jesus-like way of doing things.

I’m very interested to see where this discussion goes on Mark’s blog and around the youth ministry blogosphere. This is a conversation that we need to have, and I think we’ve avoided having it for far too long. Moreover, this is a discussion that our churches need us to have if youth ministry really is the R&D branch of the church.

German Bible Society

The German Bible Society has created online versions of their ancient language resources. I, for one, am excited about this. These resources, although searchable, really aren’t going to be a replacement for dedicated programs like Accordance, Logos or Bibleworks. However, the fonts are very nice and display brilliantly (something that is normally lacking in complex-text language Bibles on the internet). If I just need to look something up quickly and I’m not near my own computer, I imagine this might be a helpful resource.

The End of Another Semester

This is my obligatory end of semester post. I realize every student blogger out there is posting something similar, and it pains me to be part of the herd (flock?) of lemmings in this case, but I like reflecting on a semester after it has concluded.

In this case, the semester isn’t quite over yet. I have two finals next week (Aramaic and Greek) and a take-home final (Theology of the Pentatuech) that I need to sit down and actually complete at some point. Either way, classes are over and that’s good enough for me.

Greek II – I have completed my first year of Greek–for the second time. I can’t express how happy I am that I decided to not attempt to test out of Greek I and II. Retaking the first year of Greek was certainly what I needed. I feel like I actually have a good chance of retaining the information this time. I’m looking forward to Intermediate Greek this summer. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve enjoyed the experience and as a result I’ll have a much easier time reviewing and keeping up with my Greek.

Aramaic – The first half of the semester was not my idea of fun. It actually wasn’t my idea of learning a language either (learning paradigms != learning a language). However, the second half of the semester, in which we simply translated Biblical Aramaic and even got into a different pointing system and some unpointed Imperial Aramaic was much, much better. In fact, I really enjoyed the second portion of the course, and I learned a ton. It is somewhat odd; I’m the least anxious for this final. I think this is primarily because the final involves parsing and translation. I know I can do this. There are no paradigms to reproduce, which means all I need to do is show that I know the language as well as any first year Aramaic student could be expected to know it.

Spiritual Formation for Ministry – I took this class as a Semlink, and I’m glad I did. I still have several months to finish it, but I’m hoping to complete it by June (earlier, if I can manage it). This is a course that could be extremely helpful and useful, but has proven to be neither. The lectures have been mediocre, and the readings are the same. I’m glad I took it as a Semlink.

Theology of the Pentateuch – This was the most disappointing course this semester. Actually, it is currently running neck and neck with my Systematic Theology courses from undergrad as the most unhelpful course I have ever taken. I don’t want to have this post descend into negativity at the end, so I will content myself with saying that it would have made a decent Biblical theology course. As a Theology of the Pentateuch course it was unfruitful at best. The problems generally revolve around using categories from systematic theology (instead of simply working through the text) and in having as our corpus the entirety of the Christian Bible (yes, including the NT) instead of restricting our searching to the Pentateuch (or even the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament).

So, two classes where I learned a ton, one that was mediocre, and one that was a complete disappointment. I suppose it could have been worse. All in all though, this semester has not been the worst I’ve ever had, and Greek and Aramaic thoroughly redeem it. So, onward to next Wednesday and my Greek and Aramaic finals.

Greek Book Recommendations?

As I mentioned in a recent post I am taking Intermediate Greek in a summer module. The module starts in the middle of May. As with all classes there are a variety of required texts (see below). However, the syllabus from previous years has the ominous warning, “Students are expected to consult works beyond the required textbooks in the completion of assignments.” I’ve no reason to believe that this expectation will change this year. As I result, I’m putting out a call for recommendations on books beyond the required texts for the course that I might want to have on hand. Some I may buy, but I really want to get an idea of what I should be looking for in the reference section of the library.

Required Texts:
NA27 or UBS4
Lexical Aids for Students of New Testament Greek by Metzger
Idioms of the Greek New Testament by Porter
A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament
by Zerwick and Grosvener
Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics by Wallace

Those are the required texts. They aren’t too horribly priced, but BDAG made me gasp the first time I saw the (for me) very high figure. Still, I’ll need that book in more than just this class, so it’s worth it. Beyond these, any recommendations regarding other works on Greek syntax, grammar, morphology, or what have you?

The end of another semester

This semester is quickly coming to a close. It’s always amazing to me, as I sit at the end of a semester, that another three(ish) months have rushed by. I will be honest, this semester was much easier than last semester. I still have a Semlink course to finish up, but that is pretty much some reading, finishing the lecture mp3s, and then writing two short papers. For my actual resident courses I’m finished aside from finals and a few articles that I still need to read for Theology of the Pentateuch. Some of my reflections from this semester follow:

Greek II – I’m amazed at how fun Greek has been this year. Greek I was excellent, and Greek II was equally so. I’m feeling very confident in my knowledge of the language. I realize I’m only at a very basic level, but I think I have the basics down well. I’m actually really looking forward to taking Intermediate Greek in a summer module.

Theology of the Pentateuch – This class has been beyond disappointing. The reading has been next to worthless. The class sessions themselves have been more about systematic theology and proof texting (and not even limiting the proof-texts to the Pentateuch!) then about anything else. I don’t want to descend into complaining. I’ll simply say that the class is not what I had hoped for or expected. I’m still trying to figure out how what I’ve received fits with the course name or description.

Aramaic – Many will remember that this class had me panicking at the beginning of the semester. Not so anymore. I have very much enjoyed the second half of the semester. The primary reason for this is that I haven’t had to worry about memorizing paradigms during the second half of the semester. Dr. Stuart has required that we translate all every word of Aramaic in the Bible, and now we’re working on a targum of Genesis 1 (with Babylonian pointings!) and an unpointed text from Elephantine. I’m actually enjoying the course immensely now. Not as much as Hebrew, or even as much as Greek, but quite a bit nonetheless.

As for the future, I’m still working out what next semester is going to look like, but I do know that I’m taking Intermediate Greek this summer, as I mentioned above. I’ll actually have another post with a few questions related to that sometime this weekend.