Seven Tips for Learning the Biblical Languages.

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Perhaps you are thinking about learning Biblical Greek or Hebrew? Perhaps you are already a student of the languages? Perhaps you have hit a rough patch and are maybe feeling a little bit discouraged? Learning to read Biblical Greek can be enjoyable, but we also need to be realistic and realise that the journey is not always easy. I believe these tips will be a benefit for you. These are the tips I wish someone had given me at the start of my journey.

1. Recognise the Commitment Required

Learning to read Scripture in the original languages doesn’t have to be tedious and boring, it can be made fun and enjoyable. No matter what study technique you choose, this process does require a significant time commitment. A successful student will often dedicated 10-20 minutes of daily study time towards this goal. You will probably start with daily study of flashcards to learn new words, and daily practice reading sentences to internalise these new words. Over time this will transition towards 10-20 minutes per day of reading Scripture every day. The complete transition to comfortably reading scripture with some support from study aids can require a several years of consistent study. Students who don’t commit to daily practice can still succeed but the journey is slower, and more susceptible to stalling.

2. Learn with Other People.

Studying Biblical Greek or Hebrew at a seminary together with peers is a great way to learn. The benefits of having a teacher to ask questions—if they are available, and fellow students to study and practice with are invaluable. However not all of us are destined to become Pastors or Theologians. You don’t have to enrol into a pastoral training course or a Theological degree to learn the languages. You can study alone, but you don’t have to do it alone. Use online communities to find other people just like you, set up a time to study together, and keep each other accountable. Try using the question and answer videos here as a template to create your own question and answer sessions. You are much more likely to be successful if you can find a group of one or more people to study with.

3. Pronunciation and Methodology

In the US, the r is typically pronounced quite strongly, in Australia, the r is often pronounced lightly or not at all. Koine Greek is pronounced slightly different in each county. It’s also important to understand that the pronunciation of the Greek language and also features of the Hebrew language have evolved over time. For example, today you will encounter a few different Biblical Greek pronunciation schemes:

  • Erasmian Pronunciation is often used in seminaries, it is a pronunciation similar to that used classical (pre New Testament) Ancient Greek.
  • Some choose to adopt a historical or reconstructed pronunciation. This pronunciation system is a result of study into ancient pronunciation, and is considered to be a reasonable approximation of the pronunciation that would have been used at the time of Jesus.
  • Some adopt the Modern Greek pronunciation, this has some valuable advantages but also some notable disadvantages as well.

Because Koine Greek is rarely spoken in seminaries at any great speed, and because students in seminaries don’t typically practice speaking to each other in Koine Greek. In the beginning, it is important to not be overly concerned about pronunciation. Don’t let this question get in the way of your study. In the short term, just choose a pronunciation that you like and stick with it. In the longer term, as your skills develop, any initial concern about pronunciation will drop away. Americans and Australians who understand English well typically don’t have too much problem understanding each other.

4. Spiritual and Emotional Resilience

Often we begin our Biblical Language studies full of excitement and passion. But there will be times where some students begin to feel a little overwhelmed, to feel like there is too much to learn, that it is “too hard for me”, or “too complicated”. I want to encourage you that learning the Biblical Languages is a goal that everyone can achieve. Learning a language is not so much like learning to make a paper airplane. It’s much more like weightlifting. If you practice consistently each day, you will eventually achieve your goal. Some days you may feel like you don’t want to get up and go to the gym, perhaps its just a little too cold outside, and other days, you will wake up early, and rush out the door with excitement. The important thing to remember is, don’t beat yourself up if you get off track. Just just pick yourself off and refocus on your goal. Above all, remain prayerful throughout the entire process. Don’t allow the enemy to discourage you. If you ever feel like “this is too hard,” consider that it might not be the Holy Spirit giving you these thoughts.

5. Systems are More Important than Goals

Goals such as “I want to get fit”, “I want to loose weight”, “I want to learn a language” are great. But goals by themselves don’t get you anywhere. It is only when these goals are translated into systems, into practical steps, that you will achieve that goal. Practical system for getting fit would be to realise you need to go to the gym three times per week, or go for a run each morning. You must consider what systems to put in your life to achieve your biblical language goals. Early on, a top student will often implement a 15-30 minute study session, this can be as simple as reviewing your flashcards and reading your homework sentences out loud each day while you eat breakfast. Attaching your study to your daily routine makes it easy to stick to. Students who opt to study 3-4 hours once per week can less successful as your memory of the vocabulary and practice sentences fades during the week. Weekly 3 hour sessions are also much more mentally taxing. Eventually you will progress to reading scripture in biblical Greek or Hebrew every day. Perhaps you will start with 1 verse per day, eventually that will grow to 5 verses, to 10, to 20. Again the key is daily practice rather than weekly or intermittent study.

6. Remember You are Learning a Language.

Learning a language involved speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Although most people are unlikely to ever speak koine Greek or Biblical Hebrew with your friends or family. In my personal experience, the student who reads their vocabulary out load, and who reads their practice sentences out loud, as if it was a real language has an easier time absorbing words. Make it your goal to read those sentences as Paul or Jesus would have. When you read John 1:1, try to read it out loud just as it would have been read in church. Reading out loud is difficult at the start, because it forces you too mentally translating from Greek to English, and instead forces your brain to treat Greek as a native language.

7. Growing Closer to God

Learning Biblical Greek and Hebrew will help you better understand and communicate scripture to others. It will make you a better pastor, and will help you better engage in exegetical debates regarding the meaning of a passage, that you may better defend the faith. It might even sometimes act as a signal to others that you are truly dedicated to understanding scripture better. But this should not be your ultimate goal. Your ultimate goal is to grow to know God better, to understand his heart, and to allow the Spirit to better speak to you, without the need of a third party translator, interpreter or commentator.

There have definitely been times where reading Scripture in the original languages has answered troubling exegetical that questions. It has answered some questions about the text that I have had for just about as long as I can remember. When I read a text in the original language, when I memorise scripture in the original language, it forces me to slow down and it helps me see a passage with fresh eyes. Together, this aids my ability to meditate on and dwell longer on the message contained within that passage. Finally, reading scripture in the original languages strengthens my faith. As the dependence upon others to understand the Scripture decreases, my faith increases.

If you choose to begin this journey and persist. You will discover the deep joy in being able to sit down and directly read the actual words of Jesus and the apostles. In my experience it is well worth the effort.