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It’s Greek (and Hebrew) to Me: The Missionary and Biblical Languages, Part 1

There was a time when I was a member of the tribe whose eyes would glaze over and who would glance at their watches every time a pastor would say from the pulpit “now the Greek here is interesting…” Just keep it relevant, keep it contemporary, and keep it in English – these were what I expected from sermons.

My evolution from this to “Language Nerd” has been a process which has accelerated over the last few years. I’ll hit some of the highlights.

When I was still a teenager my father – who was often the for-mentioned pastor – took it upon himself to teach us Greek. We didn’t get far, but I did end up knowing more Greek than most of the other kids my age. Admittedly, that didn’t help me much in the dating scene, but it came in helpful later, as we shall see.

Beginning in 1994 I spent two years here in Brazil. This had two side-effects relevant to biblical languages: I learned Portuguese, which showed me that I could indeed learn another language, and at the seminary where I lived I took my first formal Greek lessons, where those lessons my Dad gave me back in High School came in handy.

After two years in Brazil came four years of Bible College, in which I took the normal Greek classes (but no Hebrew), and did relatively well. After that, I got busy getting married, joining our mission agency, and returning to Brazil as a full-time missionary. There were occasional fits and spurts where I would dust off my copy of Machen and try to pick up where I left off, but these quickly got crowded out in the business of life and ministry.

In 2019, as I saw my fiftieth year quickly approaching, I began to analyze my life and activities based on the gifts that God in His mercy has given me. One of those gifts, I realized, was that of learning languages. At the time I was doing some reading in the history of Anglo Saxon England, and thought it would be cool to learn the language of Alfred the Great. However, after a little more evaluation, I decided that if I was going to spend the time and effort to learn languages, I should start with the ones that would be the most helpful to me in my current ministry. So once again I dusted off Machen and began working through the lessons.

Then the pandemic happened, and suddenly I found myself with more time than usual. I doubled down on my studies, and was able to finish Machen and move on to other resources (more about those later) by the end of 2020.

So then I tackled Hebrew. With the Old Testament language I was starting from zero. I posted a request for resources to a pastors’ forum on Facebook, and got some valuable feedback, and have been working on it steadily since the beginning of 2021.

How to make it work.

First of all, I want to say up front that I am not fluent in NT Greek, and my OT Hebrew is even more rudimentary. I can read Greek fairly smoothly, having to look up the occasional vocabulary word. Hebrew is rougher, but as I follow along during the Bible reading of a service I can pick out more and more words.

All this to say that I am not coming at this as “one who has attained”, but as one who is very much in the middle of the process. Below are some tips on how I have been able to carry on this learning process while maintaining the full schedule that is part and parcel of missionary life.

Do it first.

My routine on “normal” days looks something like this:

Exercise
Devotions
Languages

The “Languages” category is divided into Hebrew first, then Greek (“to the Jew first…). Actually, this is because Hebrew needs a lot more work. At this point my Greek studies involve mostly translations of Bible passages.

Do it every day.

If you go a day or two with no language work, you will have to do a lot of review once you pick it up again. It is also important that you not set a language aside once you have achieved a plateau. Use it or lose it.

Listen and speak.

Don’t be content with just reading. Actually say the words. In the case of Hebrew and Greek getting the pronunciation exactly right is not so big of a deal, because 1) nobody really knows what the actual pronunciation was, and 2) it’s not like you’re going to be going up and ordering a hamburger in Old Testament Hebrew. However, hearing and saying words helps to fix them in your mind. So shut yourself in your room where nobody is listening, and speak away.

Of course, for the foreign missionary, resources are always a challenge. Fortunately, in the age in which we live, this is becoming less of a problem. Below are the resources I have found most helpful for each language.

Hebrew Resources

If you, like me, are starting at ground zero with Hebrew, the absolute best thing you can do is check out the Aleph with Beth YouTube channel. Their short videos are very intuitive (they don’t speak a word of any other language, just Hebrew), and of impressive quality. I just watched the 80th video in the series, and am amazed at how much I have learned. Here’s my strategy: I began listening to one new video a day. The next day, I watch that video again, and then go on to a new one. A short time ago I went back to the very beginning and started watching one older one per day, before moving on to yesterday’s video, then today’s. If that wasn’t clear, here’s the sequence:

One old video.
Yesterday’s video.
Today’s new video.

Aleph with Beth also has an Instagram account.

It is easy to find praise songs in Hebrew on YouTube. I play these while I am driving in order to keep Hebrew in my head. I am finding myself able to pick out more and more words.

It is important to have a good copy of the text as you are studying the original language. I had a Hebrew Bible, but the letters were tiny and it was of no help to me in learning. I recently acquired The Hebrew Old Testament, Reader’s Edition, and I love it. The letters are larger, and it includes the definition (in footnotes) of any word that appears less than 100 times in the Old Testament.

Greek Resources

Of course my go-to text for Greek was New Testament Greek for Beginners by J. Gresham Machen. It was the text my Dad used, and the one used in the college courses I took, both in Brazil and the US. It is old, but I found it’s style very conducive to self study.

After finishing Machen, I have started going through Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek. There is some overlap, but it is reinforcing what I learned in Machen, and also teaching me new vocabulary.

If you are starting from zero, the same people who produce Aleph with Beth have started a YouTube channel for New Testament Greek, Alpha with Angela. It uses the same intuitive method, and while it is newer than the Hebrew counterpart, they add videos almost every week. Even with my background in Greek I have been watching these videos, and gaining much in terms of vocabulary and pronunciation.

For my Greek text I use the Greek New Testament, Reader’s Edition, which is in the same format as the Hebrew text mentioned above.

Edit: When I originally hit “publish” I forgot to mention one of the resources I use almost every day – Rob Plummer’s outstanding Daily Dose of Greek YouTube channel. He takes individual verses and translates the Greek, providing explanations of grammar and vocabulary.

My hope is that someone reading this will find the encouragement and resources necessary to begin a successful journey in the Biblical languages. Next week we will focus on how familiarizing myself with the original languages has impacted our ministry here in Brazil.

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