by Todd Scacewater
The best way for Christians to retain and improve their biblical languages is to read them daily. There is no better opportunity for this than during daily devotional reading of the Bible. But there are some pitfalls to avoid.
No doubt, there is a danger of making your devotional time too focused on the mechanics of a language you can only read with some difficulty. There is the additional danger of making your devotional time about your academic progress. Perhaps worst of all is the danger that your devotionals will just be boring.
But just because there is a danger in trying something different does not mean we should avoid it. Why did you learn the biblical languages in the first place? To better understand God’s Word. What is the point of your devotional reading? To connect with God by understanding his Word. Therefore, reading devotionally in the original languages should actually enable you to better achieve your goal of connecting with God. The better you understand what God is saying to you, the better you connect and “commune” with him (as John Owen would say).
But don’t just take my word for it. B. B. Warfield’s essay The Religious Life of Theological Students explains the importance of bringing faithful understanding of Scripture to your devotional practices. N. T. Wright considers his daily time in the original languages both study and prayer. D. A. Carson has also urged people not to keep their academic skills distinct from their devotional practices, lest they come to read the Bible in two different and disjointed ways.
So how might you start integrating Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic into your devotional reading?
- Read in the original languages proportionately to how well you know them. Most people are busy with ministry, jobs, family, and school and don’t have two hours a day to wade through multiple chapters of Hebrew. Take a percentage of your devotional time, perhaps 50 percent, to read your daily passages in the original language. You may get through, say, six verses of Hebrew in fifteen minutes. Then spend the next fifteen minutes reading in English. If you have a New Testament reading that day as well, read three verses of Hebrew and three in Greek, and the rest in English.
- Don’t worry about technical minutiae. In class you are forced to parse, sentence flow or diagram, and translate with precision. But your devotional reading is not class, nor do you want it to be. The end goal of your devotional time is connecting with God, so you want to focus on the meaning of the text as well as you can and not get bogged down with each individual parsing. I suggest using a parallel Bible, with the original language on one page and an English version on an adjacent page. That will allow you both to check your translation to ensure its accuracy and to get help when you’re completely stuck on unknown vocabulary or difficult grammar. Over time, you will gain competency in vocabulary and become more acquainted with Greek’s grammar and syntax. You can work on your parsing and paradigms for five minutes during another part of the day.
- Pray through your passage. You don’t want your devotional time to turn into Greek class. So try praying through your passage one verse at a time. Once you translate it and discern the meaning (perhaps also checking it in your parallel English translation), spend a few minutes praying over it. Obviously some verses are more prayer-inspiring than others, but if all Scripture is truly profitable for teaching, correcting, and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16), then it’s all worth praying through as well.
- Memorize Scripture in the original languages. Don’t stop memorizing in English, but pick out a verse here and there to memorize in Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic. This will help you retain the language and understand it better since you will be able to produce sentences in those languages instead of just read them. But it will also fuel your desire for the languages by internalizing them. Citing these Scriptures in the original languages during private prayer might enrich that time, although I definitely wouldn’t suggest doing so in public prayers!
- Read the biblical languages outside of your devotional time. If you want to be able to integrate Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic into your devotional time, you must know them well enough to roughly translate a few verses within a short amount of time. Otherwise, you will get too bogged down, distracted, and discouraged. Improving your biblical languages so you can easily integrate them into your devotional practices and your ministry is the main reason we at Exegetical Tools developed our Greek Reading Videos. In these videos we walk you through translating 3-5 verses at a time in 20 minute videos. We do focus on the minutiae of the languages, such as morphology/parsing, grammar, syntax, and vocabulary so you won’t have to during your devotional time. Check out the first few videos of any of our series to see how effectively they will help you learn, retain, and improve your biblical languages.
At first it may be difficult, perhaps even discouraging, to try to read the original languages in your devotional time. But if you study just a little bit outside of your devotional time, and if you consistently integrate the languages into your daily Bible reading, you will steadily improve and become more comfortable connecting with God in a foreign language. Don’t forget to combat the academic minutiae by soaking the time in prayer. And remember the goal of this time is not primarily to improve your languages, but first and foremost to connect with God by hearing from his word in the languages in which he originally spoke to us.
Todd Scacewater is a Teaching Fellow in Greek and New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, where he is writing his dissertation on Paul’s use of the Old Testament. He regularly blogs at Exegetical Tools, where he is developing Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic resources and videos to help students and pastors consistently practice and improve their biblical languages. Todd has contributed several peer-reviewed articles, book reviews, and encyclopedia entries in the area of Old Testament, New Testament, early Judaism, and church history. He is married to Dezi and they spend most of their time doting over their new son, Noah. After graduation, he hopes to pastor or teach or both, either in the States or abroad. You can find him on Facebook or Twitter.
The views expressed by guest writers are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of B&H Academic, Lifeway Christian Resources, or any employee thereof.