Bible: Must one know the original languages to study it?
The short answer to that question is no. But is education a hindrance to one’s study of the Bible? Of course not! It takes an education to even read the Bible in English, or any other language. Education is a neutral factor. What’s important is what one does with his education. One can be highly educated to build banks. Another person can be highly educated in how to rob them. In either case, education itself is not the problem. In the case of any Bible, if the translators had not been educated in the languages, how could they have ever performed their work? And considering how words and their meaning can change in even less than one generation, let alone hundreds of years, wouldn’t it be wise for those who are interpreting and explaining the Scriptures to be as educated in the languages of the Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic as the Bible translators were? Again, education itself is not a problem. In fact, education can be a tremendous help.
Several other questions on this need to be addressed. For instance, is it possible that the translators of a Bible made some mistakes? We are told that the Bible in its original languages is to be fully trusted. We are clearly told it has no mistakes.
18 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. [Emphasis added]
Was He speaking of a translation here? Of course not! Are there any jots and tittles in any English Bible? Jots and tittles have to do with letters and pen strokes in Hebrew writing. A jot is the tenth letter in the Hebrew alphabet and the smallest. It was written above the line and looks to us like an apostrophe. Therefore, isn’t this a comment about the reliability of the original Hebrew text of the Bible and not any subsequent translation of the Bible? It surely is! For instance, isn’t the original text what the translators of the King James Version of the Bible were looking at when they did their translation? Certainly! Is there ANY translation that can be completely trusted? If there is, where do I find anything in Scripture that verifies that? In other words, on what authority do we know that? Answer: There is none! Talk is cheap! Anyone can make claims and declarations about anything, but there needs to be some way of verifying the truthfulness of what is being declared. Every translation is problematic. And I’ve never known anyone who could prove otherwise. Having said all that, the King James Version of the Bible is still my favorite. That may change some day, but for now it is. I still use it more than any other for several reasons. Most important of all I still believe it to be the most accurate translation. But if you want absolute accuracy, you must go to the original text in its original language. That is the only one that anyone can confidently and rightly say is totally accurate.
89 For ever, O Lord, thy word is settled in heaven. [Emphasis added]
I Peter 1:24-25
24 For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away:
25 But the word of the Lord endureth for ever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you. [Emphasis added]
There are some believers today who claim that same accuracy applies to the King James Version. However, they have no proof of that whatsoever. While I love and appreciate the King James Version of the Bible, it is still just that, a version, a translation, no more and no less. If you want more information on this, go to my article on our website entitled, Bible: What are we to think of the King James Version (KJV)?
It is fully agreed that people can distort the teachings of Scripture with any translation. It is also true that people can distort the teachings of Scripture with or without making any reference to the original languages. I assure you that all this happens every day. There’s no reason to doubt that such can be just another tool for their work in doing that. But are we to assume that anyone who uses the original text and languages of Scripture is doing so for the purpose of justifying their own incorrect beliefs? Aren’t there people today, and in any generation, who use the original languages of Scripture to come to an accurate understanding of what is being stated? Of course!
It is true that certain English translations were made from inferior Bible manuscripts. Some of those manuscripts may be older but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are better. In fact, many are not! There is also a Greek Bible of the Old Testament made for Greek speaking Jews in Egypt in the 3rd and 2nd centuries called the Septuagint [meaning seventy]. It is named this because there were 70 translators involved in its production. But please note that it also is a translation from the original Hebrew text. Here, again, there are no jots and tiddles in the Greek, reminding us that only the original Hebrew text is guaranteed of God to be without error. However, the same principle can and should be applied to the Greek text of “The New Testament.” The point is that God has preserved the text of the Bible for us. Even if you never use anything but the King James Version of the Bible, you’ll be able to do very well with that. Other translations can be helpful, but for now, the KJV is still your best option from which to operate in doing your Bible studies. The KJV, along with many others, is based on what is called the Textus Receptus [the received text]. Therefore, these are all taken from the best manuscripts.
In every generation, people are to beware of Bible teachers who will make mistakes intentionally or unintentionally in their teaching. That’s why we’re all responsible for doing all we can to verify what’s being taught. We’re to function like those in the ancient Berean church.
11 These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so. [Emphasis added]
But we must always bear in mind that there will be those who will distort and misapply the teachings of Scripture. Jesus provided warning about this regarding a particular sect of religious people during His earthly ministry.
1 Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples,
2 Saying The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat:
3 All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. [Emphasis added]
In this case it was definitely more about application. These people refused to make the right applications with the correct Scripture. You’ll find such people in every generation.
As per verse two given above, archeologists tell us a stone seat was placed in front of every synagogue. This is where an authoritative scribe would sit and explain the Mosaic Law to the people. However, we’re told that these men were blind guides. They were no help in providing spiritual guidance to the people. Matthew 23 is a whole chapter on this. Do we have such people today? Of course, we do! There are thousands of them. You’ll find many of them in large churches with a huge following. How do you recognize these people? Answer: You’ll have to do your own research, but they’re not that hard to spot. If they can’t even get the simple gospel message of the means to salvation right [I Corinthians 15:1-4 and II Corinthians 5:18-21], why would you think they’d get other things right?
One of my all-time favorite verses is the one that follows. Even though it is given in a particular context that doesn’t relate directly to us, the general principle it represents applies in every generation.
13 And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart. [Emphasis added]
The truth for us today and for every generation is found in the Scriptures. Yes, the right division of Scripture is always demanded, but the principles we need to know are all right there.
It is always important to realize that the majority position on the Scriptures is typically wrong. God’s people always represent a small minority.
13 Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:
14 Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.
15 Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening [extremely hungry] wolves. [Emphasis added]
36 But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd.
37 Then saith he unto his disciples, The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few; [Emphasis added]
Please notice some of the apostle Paul’s last words that relate to this.
II Timothy 1:15
15 This thou knowest, that all they which are in Asia be turned away from me; of whom are Phygellus and Hermogenes. [Emphasis added]
Paul once had many converts in that region, but here he tells us that all of them eventually fell away from the truths they’d learned. God’s people are always a minority. Such has always been the case, and nothing is different on that today.
The text of the New Testament was written originally in what is called Koine Greek. Koine means common. This is telling us that this Greek was the street language, the one spoken by the common people. Yet it is probably the most exact, most precise language known to mankind. How wonderful it is that God used this language to help us learn precisely what He wanted us to know. Note this next comment our Lord made about this.
21 In that hour Jesus rejoiced in spirit, and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes: even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight. [Emphasis added]
The “wise and prudent” here are those the world views this way, not God. It is the Lord who will illuminate the mind of anyone who is genuinely seeking the truth in the 66 books of the Bible.
I Corinthians 2:12-13
12 Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God.
13 Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. [Emphasis added]
Yes, by comparing scripture with scripture the truth God would have us know can be determined.
Our Lord’s disciples were not well-educated men, but they were the very one’s God used, just as he often does today. And again, this is not to put down education. Education can be very helpful. But education alone never advanced anyone spiritually. The Bible itself is not just for the educated, but everyone.
13 Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant men, they marvelled; and they took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus. [Emphasis added]
Again, I’m in no way promoting ignorance. There’s nothing virtuous about it. I’m just saying that education alone doesn’t mean anything. It all comes back to the teaching of the Scriptures and what people choose to do with it. Our objective should always be to gain a correct understanding of the Bible with a view toward making the correct and appropriate applications. We should all be familiar with this next passage of Scripture and believe every word of it. In achieving this, knowledge of the original languages of Scripture should always be seen as a help, just as it was to the translators of the King James Version of the Bible and every other translation. Since it was a great help to them, it can be to us too.
II Timothy 3:16-17
16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
17 That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works. [Emphasis added]