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.