Need to Study Greek to Understand the N.T.?

Ancient Greek Letters carved in stone tablet



There are many tools, methods, and approaches available to people who want to understand the Bible.  Most Bible students make it a standard practice to study key words and phrases to aid in understanding. Some have also ventured into study of the original languages. Many Christians then ask the question: “Do I need to study Greek to understand the New Testament?”

What languages were spoken and used in writing the Bible?

Understanding of Greek and Hebrew can be useful to arrive at a more informed understanding of the meanings of words used in the Bible, and the culture of those times. Jewish Scripture was written in Hebrew. But the Jewish people did not use Hebrew extensively, least of all the common people. This is because after their exile, the Jews used this language mostly in religious contexts. Hebrew also required extensive study to master it. The trade language of the common people of Judea and the surrounding areas in New Testament times was Aramaic. This was a Semitic language related to, but distinct from Hebrew.

It was natural that the New Testament be written in Greek, since many peoples of the known world spoke this language. At the time of Jesus, it contained many words and concepts that were descriptive, philosophical, and intellectual. This helped communicate the gospel—the good news of salvation—to the pagan world.

But Judea and the surrounding areas were largely agrarian and not as sophisticated as the Greek culture. Jesus and his disciples spoke in a local dialect of Aramaic. So, the “original” words of Jesus’ teachings were in Aramaic, not Hebrew or Greek.

To produce the New Testament texts, Jesus’ original Aramaic words were translated into Greek. The Apostles or witnesses to the events performed these translations, probably with the help of Greek speaking assistants. Our Bibles were then translated from Greek into English, a two-step process.  Scholars who know both the original and present-day languages perform this important second step.

How accurate are most Bible translations?

Most translations of the Bible are accurate in that they faithfully translate the original words into the reader’s language. There are many translations, and choosing a good translation is important. But this is not because most translations contain numerous gross errors. It is because languages change, and some translations are easier to understand to the modern reader. The translators performing this work are imminently qualified to determine the original meaning intended by the authors.

Scholars continue to debate the meanings of a few words and passages. But by far the great majority of the Bible has been accurately translated.  A good account of how the English Bible came about is found in Benson Bobrick’s Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution it Inspired.

Second-guessing Bible translation

Over the last century, many theologians and Bible teachers have delved into the study of Greek words to interpret Scripture and develop their theology. Lately, analysis of the meaning of Greek words has become a means to challenge previously understood doctrines. It has also been used to reinterpret passages or even arrive at alternative translations. In some cases, this is warranted.

But for untrained readers, assuming that the translated meaning is inaccurate or faulty amounts to second-guessing the translator. Just as many words in English have multiple meanings, some Greek words also have multiple meanings. This has allowed some unqualified people in their study of Greek to claim to have arrived at alternative meanings of a biblical passage. But “shopping around” for a meaning of a Greek word that fits one’s established belief on a particular passage is not honest. It is not “correctly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).

The pitfalls of Greek research by novices

Much insight into the cultural and historical setting of New Testament times can be gained from an understanding of the Greek language. But saying that the exact meaning of the words of our Lord and the apostles lies in the precise meanings of the Greek words in the original manuscripts is an overstatement.

Root word fallacy

A common mistake that many preachers and even commentators make is the root word fallacy. This is the assumption that the “true” meaning of a Greek word is found in the original historical meaning of the root of the word. In English this would be like saying that the word pineapple means the combination of pine and apple. Although the true meaning can be found in the historical root, it is frequently not. The meaning of a word is always found in the context of how it is used.

So, the root meanings of the Greek words do not necessarily give the intended meaning of the New Testament author. This is also because they may not fully define the words in a Christian sense. Biblical scholar F.F. Bruce wrote:

It is the use of a word and not its derivation that determines its meaning. (F.F. Bruce The Hard Sayings of Jesus, IVP, 1983, p184)

For these reasons, it is usually fruitless for an untrained person to study a Greek or Hebrew word to attempt to find an alternate meaning. In 3 ways not to use greek in bible study, Justin Dillehay outlines the pitfalls of the study of Greek by people who don’t know Greek.

For most Christians, time would be much better spent in studying the biblical texts in their context. The goal should be to find the author’s intended meaning, and then apply it to our lives. To attain mastery of the original languages requires considerable time and dedication. Unless we are Hebrew or Greek scholars, or unless qualified scholars prove an alternate reading is warranted, we should be content to accept the translations of the original texts as accurate and reliable.


Cultural influences in the Greek language

Every language is influenced greatly by the dominant culture, and the ancient Greek language was no exception. We must not make the mistake of pulling the ancient pagan Greek culture into the meaning of Scripture to clarify or understand the Christian faith. An overemphasis on Greek can lead to error, especially if a New Testament Greek word or concept is heavily influenced by Greek culture or philosophy.

It is a common misunderstanding that the precise meanings of the Greek words hold the key to an understanding of the Christian faith. We should instead strive to understand the meanings of words in the context in which they are used in Scripture. Theologian and author A.W. Tozer wrote:

For our souls’ sake we must learn to understand the Scriptures. We must escape the slavery of words and give loyal adherence to meanings instead. Words should express ideas, not originate them.  (The Knowledge of the Holy, The Love of God)

The Christian meaning of love 

The gospel of Jesus was spread into a pagan world and culture and introduced concepts that were completely foreign to it. A good example is the word “love.”

The Greeks had four words for love: eros, storge, phileo, and agape. The first century Christians settled on using agape for God’s love and Christian love. However, the original Greek meaning of agape, although it stressed the great value of the object being loved, had a somewhat cold and intellectual connotation.  It certainly did not encompass the full meaning of God’s love in the New Testament.

The Holy Spirit by means of the Church imposed a deeper spiritual meaning on the Greek word that originally had no Christian roots or connotations.  Agape came to be used in the New Testament to mean God’s unconditional love for us, and the believer’s love for God and for others.

How do we know what the Christian meaning of the word love is? Not from the precise meaning of the original Greek word, but by observing how it is defined and used in Scripture:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…” (John 3:16)

“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” (1John 3:16)

“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.” (1 John 4:9)

“This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome.” (I John 5:3)

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking…” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5)

The Christian meaning of hell

Another example is the English word “hell.” Hell is translated in the New Testament from three separate Greek words, Hades, Tartarus, and Gehenna.

Greek mythology and culture permeate the Greek words Hades and Tartarus. According to Greek mythology Hades was a place of punishment for bad people, depraved criminals, and wicked gods. Those who ended up there experienced one of many extreme and fanciful punishments which went on continually forever.

Fortunately, this concept of hell is not Biblical. But it was nonetheless adopted by Augustine and much later by the Roman Catholics and even some protestant churches. Actually, the early Christian church used the word Hades to mean “the place of the dead.” This was a temporary place for the unrepentant awaiting judgment, not their final punishment.

In his teaching, Jesus described the final punishment of the wicked using the word Gehenna. The image of Gehenna is derived from the Valley of Hinnom near Jerusalem. This is where the invading Babylonians killed and disposed of the rebellious people of the city in 589 B.C. God’s punishment for these people was an irreversible death, not the Greek view of continual torture in Hades.

How do we know the Christian meanings of the important New Testament words?

The root meanings of the Greek words used in the New Testament did not express the depth and richness of the words as used in the early Christian church. In fact, this is true for all of the important Christian words, including: love, grace, salvation, life, and eternal.

Of greatest importance in understanding the New Testament is not what the Greeks believed, but what God said and what he meant when he said it. The full meanings of the most important Christian words are found in how they are used and defined by Jesus and the Apostles. Their teachings, as recorded in Scripture, provide us the Christian definitions of these words.

This is one reason why theologians say, “context is king.” To find the intended meaning of a passage, its context prevails over all other interpretation methods and principles.

So, this is my answer to the question: Do we need to learn Greek?

If you want to go deeper into the academic component of Bible study, I will say go ahead. It will probably give you a more informed understanding, as long as you don’t exceed your limited level of expertise.

But no, you do not have to know Greek in order to understand the New Testament. God’s Word has been accurately translated to English and most other commonly used languages.  You can have confidence that God through his Holy Spirit can reveal its meaning to you without knowing Greek or Hebrew. My book Interpreting and Applying the Bible: a Non-Scholar’s Guide presents basic principles and tools for understanding Scripture that every Bible student should know.

I hope this was helpful.


1 thought on “Need to Study Greek to Understand the N.T.?”

  1. Is Greek spoken by more than 90% of Christians? I doubt it. Try witnessing to other races using Greek. If they could not understand plain English would you even think that the Greek language would give them a better idea than what the King James plainly tells us? Did God allow this confusion to transpire for the ego of those who would want to be praised by men but not by God? Think about it. Why did God choose to translate the Bible into English? Why not Greek? For every 100 English-speaking people worldwide, there could be 2 or 3 Greek-speaking people. How did people get trapped in this deception? Now people who only know English will be punished due to the absurdity of this approach. Imagine witnessing to Japanese, Filipinos, Indonesians, Cebuano, Boholano, Davaono, etc. It looks to me like deception by those whose ego is bigger than their talent and who in my opinion should realize the error that they have unleashed on the Christian community.

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