John Wesley on Biblical Languages

Do I understand Greek and Hebrew? Otherwise, how can I undertake, as every Minister does, not only to explain books which are written therein but to defend them against all opponents? Am I not at the mercy of everyone who does understand, or even pretends to understand, the original? For which way can I confute his pretense? Do I understand the language of the Old Testament? critically? at all? Can I read into English one of David’s Psalms, or even the first chapter of Genesis? Do I understand the language of the New Testament? Am I a critical master of it? Have I enough of it even to read into English the first chapter of St. Luke? If not, how many years did I spend at school? How many at the University? And what was I doing all those years? Ought not shame to cover my face?”

John Wesley, “An Address to the Clergy,” in Works X:491. (HT: The Biblical World)

I would add that I was very glad that I already had my basic biblical languages at the undergraduate level, because that meant I was able to spend my time in graduate school doing exegesis and advanced language study. I felt that learning the basics of Greek or Hebrew from those professors would have meant wasting some of the precious time I had to learn from them.


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  1. While I heartily agree with Wesley here, I would add:

    * ditto for textual criticism and pretty much every issue
    * the Hebrew is irrelevant for NT studies, since the pre-Catholic Christians used just the Greek, while the original and historic “The Bible” is in Latin;
    * the “original languages” don’t “put to rest” many issues, but actually just creates a new battlefield for arguments

    1. Which is why I’m a bit ambivalent about the statement. We can’t all be experts in everything, though I think it would be a good idea for a pastor to have at least a basic knowledge of all these issue.

      I would disagree on Hebrew being irrelevant to NT studies. Yes, early Christians used the Greek OT, but understanding the Greek OT, in my opinion, also involves understanding Hebrew–for a modern person.. I often read them side by side, and I think having some idea of the Hebrew vorlage helps one get a handle on the peculiarities of LXX Greek, and how it would have been understood.

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