This post will spell out, in greater detail than my original post, why some Christians should learn Greek. Typically, believers who want to check a translation go to a Bible program or online. Although this can be helpful, I’ll try to give some reasons why this isn’t always sufficient, and therefore why taking the time to learn Greek, and by extension Hebrew, is worth the trouble.
On a basic level the nice thing about knowing Greek is you know what the words mean. Of course, someone who doesn’t know Greek can go to their Bible software or online to look up what words mean. There is a problem with this however. There are only two true New Testament Greek dictionaries (lexicons in scholarly language) which you can’t get online and which aren’t included in standard Bible programs. The dictionaries are “A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition” and “Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (2 Volume Set)”. The first is $150 and the second is $240. I used to use Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon. It gives definitions for Greek words but as it was written prior to the discovery of Koine Greek, the type of Greek the NT was written in, I would question its usefulness. Words change meaning over time so you can’t use dictionaries from classical Greek, being hundreds of years prior to the New Testament period.
Giving an example might help. Imagine you are uncomfortable with husbands having authority over their wifes, and so are bothered by the traditional understanding of 1 Cor 11:3 “the husband is the head of his wife.” To investigate you go to your classical Greek dictionary and see that kephale can mean source as well as head. You are excited because that is what you were hoping to find. The trouble is that the “source of a river” usage was several hundreds of years prior to the NT and never used that way in NT times. So you see having the right dictionary makes a difference.
Once you know what the words mean there is the issue of determining how they are used. This is tricky because there are so many options. I’ll use the genitive noun case as an example. This case is usually behind the translation of the English word “of”. To get at how the genitive noun is used you have to go through your options and decide which seems most likely. Below are some of the options:
Descriptive – attributes quality to head noun
Attributed – head noun gives quality to genitive
Relational – indicates family relationship
Possessive – indicates head noun is owned by genitive
Appositional – explains something about the head noun
Subordination – head noun is over genitive
Partitive – genitive is whole over which head noun is part
Comparison – makes comparison with head noun
Separation – away from, out of, from
Source – deriving from
Means – by means of
Time – time during which something happens
Subjective – genitive is subject of a noun of action
Objective – genitive is object of a noun of action
Direct object – object of verb of perception or sensation
Each noun case has options. Each verb has options. There are even options for the definite article (the word “the” in English). Even if you have a good Bible program you are not going to know what these options are. Translations make decisions about which option to go with for each use. Sometimes they disagree. How are you going to know which is correct? And even if you did know the options most people don’t remember enough English grammar from elementary school to know what to do with them.
As I said in my initial learn Greek post, understanding what the Bible really says is crucial. Learning Greek gives us a much better understanding of what the actually Bible says instead of hoping the translators got it right.
PS. As none of my current readers are probably going to learn Greek I’ll mention one book that might be helpful. Bill Mounce has written a book called Greek for the Rest of Us: Using Greek Tools without Mastering Biblical Greek that explains the Greek noun and verbal systems and explains how to do word studies. Unfortunately my seminary doesn’t have a copy so I can’t vouch for its usefulness. But he’s the most popular author on learning Greek so it should be helpful.