The Importance of Biblical Hebrew

by Rev. Dr. Andrew H. Bartelt,
Professor of Exegetical Theology (Old Testament),
Concordia Seminary, St. Louis

A commitment to “sola scriptura” must also recognize that the actual words that “men of God spoke [and wrote] as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” were not originally preserved in the English language.  Nor were they first uttered in German!  They were written down in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, and we need to be able to work with the “verba” that were “verbally inspired.”  (And CPH is the only denominational publishing house that has committed itself to fundamental teaching grammars of all three biblical languages.)

It happens in a Bible class: differences in English translations raise issues of basic translation and nuance (and even of the determination of the text itself). Our pastors are equipped to understand and explain such questions.

It happens in the pastor’s study: many commentaries assume at least a working knowledge or familiarity with the languages, which are some of the “tools of the trade” of theological and pastoral study.

In happens in providing guidance to college students home from their “world religions” or “biblical studies” course, where the biblical text has been denigrated as full of errors, and a pastor has to know how to deal with arguments often poorly made on the basis of a shallow understanding of exegetical issues.

Yes, our pastors are able to mine the depths of insight from the actual words and idioms which were used by Moses and the prophets, to appreciate the literary art of the biblical texts, and to open a window into the biblical thought world.  All of this will inform and enliven their preaching and teaching and will facilitate the proclamation of God’s Word to any day and in any language.  Luther’s words are worth repeating,

Let us ever bear this in mind: We shall have a hard time preserving the Gospel without the languages. The languages are the sheath in which this sword of the Spirit is contained. They are the case in which we carry this jewel. . . . Although faith and the Gospel may be preached by ordinary ministers without the languages, still such preaching is sluggish and weak, and the people finally become weary and fall away. But a knowledge of the language renders it lively and strong, and faith finds itself constantly renewed through rich and varied instruction (LW, Am. ed., vol. 45, pp. 359ff. passim).

In today’s world of computer-generated helps, more and more students of the Scriptures are gaining access to this world of biblical languages, and our pastors need to be able to guide the study of God’s Word that engages these tools in a helpful way.

Finally, the study of ancient texts has contemporary application not only in reading the words of Scripture from within their own historical culture and worldview but also in understanding the issues of “cross-cultural” translation and interpretation in our day as well. The importance of transferring meaning and understanding from a “source” to a “receptor,” from an ancient text to a modern hearer, is key also for meaningful communication from pastor to people, from one “Lutheran culture” to another, and from one generation to the next.

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