Why learn Greek and Hebrew? A friendly rejoinder

Recently an acquaintance of mine blogged this post, What is the Benefit of Greek & Hebrew?, in which he says, “[r]eading in Greek and Hebrew slows me down and helps me rummage around in the text and reflect.” And goes on to reflect on this.

I think this is half-right and half-wrong, and both halves are interesting to think about. Firstly, half-right: learning to read in a foreign language does slow you down, and if your interest is the Scriptures, this is a great thing! I too have had that experience and benefit of being forced to slow down, to explore, to make connections, to dwell on the text. These are all good and positive outcomes of the process of learning a foreign language.

But I don’t think that’s the why, the ἵνα τί so to speak. Because it contains a contradictory seed of its own destruction within itself. Presumably we want to “get better” at reading in Greek and Hebrew. And as we get better, as we read more fluently, we can read faster. And so imagine you achieve the dream, you read Greek or Hebrew fluently, or near-natively, or even just “as fast as English”. Suddenly you have progressed to a point where that benefit is gone, and if that benefit of forced-slowed reading was your reason, you’ve outwitted yourself!

To put the same point in a couple of other guises – is it not possible to learn to read slow and rummage around the text in English? What about the Greek Fathers, for whom the New Testament was not a foreign language at all – what benefit to them of reading in the original?

This is the half-wrong, in that I think it confuses a benefit with a purpose (to be fair, Brian doesn’t call it a purpose, he just calls it the main benefit). I think the purpose is to rummage around in the text without a veil. Anyone who has learnt any second language knows the inherent difficulties of translation, difficulties that will never go away. To access the original languages is to deal with the texts as they are, at the source. this is the why. Slow reading is a skill in itself, you can learn it, practice it, in English if you like. In another foreign language, if it please you. But it’s not the why, it’s a by-product of the long and slow road towards language proficiency.

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