The Value Of Looking Up The Hebrew And Greek Words

By Rick Duggin 

After a frustrating and unprofitable study with Watch- tower representatives, a young Christian mourned that if only she had known the Greek, she could have refuted their assertions, and possibly could have converted them. Since she did not know Greek and did not have time to learn it, she did the next best thing — she called in a “hired gun” to lead the next discussion. The ability to read Greek, in her opinion, was a intimidating weapon with which she could silence every objection of her opponents.

There are several misconceptions in this thinking. (1) It implies that if we do not know Greek and Hebrew, we cannot know the Bible as we should. (2) It tends to exalt the person who is acquainted with biblical languages, and to discredit all who lack this knowledge. (3) It gives a wrong message to those whom we are trying to teach. Our next door neighbor may already believe that the Bible is hard to understand. If we strengthen this impression by implying that he must learn the original languages to understand God’s truth, we may discourage him from further study.

Some Dangers To Avoid

1. The average person who knows nothing of the original languages can understand the Bible. Roman Catholics wrongly claim that the “Church” is the official interpreter of Scripture. We must not turn language scholars into our official interpreters. Most Christians do not know Greek or Hebrew, but their study of the English translations can equip them to know God’s will (Eph. 3:3, 4; 5:17). The most celebrated Greek and Hebrew scholars of our day do not understand God’s plan of salvation, the work of the church, or how to worship him in spirit and in truth. 

2. Christians who have no knowledge of Greek or He- brew can teach Bible classes effectively. Denominations often require their preachers to spend a few years studying the original languages in seminaries, but this knowledge does not necessarily improve their ability to teach, and it certainly does not enable them to teach the truth. Some of the best Bible teachers that I have ever heard knew little or nothing about Greek and Hebrew. 

3. Though he does not know the original languages, the studious child of God can refute false doctrines. Curtis Porter knew only enough about the Greek alphabet to use a lexicon, but I know of no one who had more skill in refuting unscriptural arguments than he had. C.R. Nichol, on the other hand, was a good student of Greek, and he had many debates, but he did not parade this knowledge to impress his listeners. In one debate he allowed an opponent to draw him off into a discussion of Greek in every speech except the first and last ones, and he was disappointed with every speech except these two. Since his audience had not studied Greek, they could not know whether brother Nichol or his opponent was right. Whenever we base an argument solely on the original languages, most people in the audience must take our word for it. 

4. There is no substitute for studying the context of a passage. It is not wrong to quote Greek and Hebrew words while teaching a Bible class — the biblical writ- ers themselves quoted foreign languages (see Mark 5:41;

15:34, and many others). The issue is how valuable this information will be to you or to your class. Suppose you are studying to teach a class on 1 Kings 12, and you want to know more about the “young men” who gave advice to Rehoboam. When you locate this word in a lexicon, you may be frustrated to learn that the word yeled means “child, young man, son, boy, fruit.” You have merely exchanged an English word for a Hebrew word that means the same thing. In this instance, a study of the context would have proved more profitable to you and the class than the ability to recall the Hebrew word.

 5. The study of biblical languages must not become an end in itself. An old Scottish proverb says, “Greek, Hebrew, and Latin all have their proper place. But it is not at the head of the cross, where Pilate put them, but at the foot of the cross, in humble service to Christ.” We must guard against any attempt to display our knowledge. Preaching and teaching must not become an ego-trip that focuses attention on the speaker. Whether the language is Greek, Hebrew, Latin, or English, before we pronounce an impressive array of words, we should first decide whether our purpose is to please God or to impress men. 

6. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. The average man can learn how to perform an appendectomy in about ten minutes. If something goes wrong, however, he will need at least four more years of complex study to handle the emergency. Most people would not allow even the most talented medical student to operate on them. A little knowledge is too risky. 

In a few moments, the average man can learn the Greek and Hebrew alphabets, and this knowledge gives him access to lexicons. This can be dangerous. We have often heard someone quote Thayer to prove a point, only to find that he was quoting Thayer’s comments instead of his definitions. When a lexicographer assigns a particular definition to a word, that is one thing; when he says that it means a certain thing in a particular passage, be careful. At this point he has stopped giving definitions and has started making comments.

The 1952-1974 editions of the Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich lexicon include this definition of psallo — “. . . our lit., in accordance w. O.T. usage, sing (to the accompaniment of a harp). . .” (899). This is commentary, pure and simple. Bauer’s original German edition translated psallo as sing. Arndt and Gingrich added the phrase, “to the accompaniment of a harp.” This biased addition caused such a protest that Danker, to his credit, omitted the phrase in the 1979 edition of Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich-Danker.

Though students of Classical Greek highly value the lexicon by Liddell-Scott-Jones-McKenzie-Barber, they nevertheless view it as a form of commentary. Why? Be- cause the meaning of a word depends on its context, and the only way for classical students to be sure of its definitions is to spend years reading the original texts of Plato, Aristotle, Thycydides, and many others. Few students have the time and determination to reach this level of scholarship, but the fact that they put so much effort into reading multitudes of original texts, and not in merely quoting from lexicons, should tell us something. In one way, the good Bible student has an advantage over classical scholars. We have a relatively small amount of material to understand — the Old and New Testaments — and we can read the material again and again in reliable translations, thus seeing for ourselves how God uses words in their context. This does not imply that lexicons are generally unreliable, but it does admonish us to exercise great care when using them.

Is There No Value In Looking Up Hebrew and Greek Words?

If our preceding remarks have persuaded you that word studies and lexicons can be dangerous, you may be planning to include your word study books in your next yard sale. Before you do, let’s consider the other side of the issue. My purpose in the first part of this article is not to discourage the use of lexicons altogether, but rather to warn against some common abuses of them. While we would not allow a medical student to operate on us, our society does encourage average, non-medical people to learn first-aid. Why do we do this? Because it is better to know a little than to know nothing at all. The same principle is true of lexicons. There are times when the use of biblical lexicons can be very rewarding.

1. A word study can help to explain a passage to a Bible class. When Daniel explained the handwriting on the wall (Dan. 5) to King Belshazzar, why did he use upharsin in verse 25 and peres in verse 28? The “u-” of the first word means “and.” The “-p” becomes “-ph” when following the conjunction “and.” The “-in” is simply the plural form of the word. Thus the consonants are the same in both words — prs. While this is not absolutely essential to understanding the narrative, it may answer a few questions.

2. There are times when lexicons can help to refute false doctrines. Visitors from the Watchtower Society often portray themselves as skilled students of biblical languages, and they often seek refuge from difficult questions by mis- representing both the definitions and the grammatical rules of Greek and Hebrew works. This refuge often backfires. For example, they teach that death is annihilation, and often base their position on the word apollumi, which is translated “destroy” in such passages as Matthew10:28. They claim that apollumi teaches annihilation. They also teach that the earth will endure forever. But in Hebrews 1:11 the word apollumi refers to the heavens and earth. It requires a great deal of talent to stretch the definition of a word so far that it can include something that is annihilated in one verse and something that endures forever in another verse.

3. It can shed light on passages. When I first learned that the “simplicity” that is in Christ (2 Cor. 11:3) does not refer to the fact that the gospel is written in simple language, but to that which is single or sincere, in contrast to duplicity, I was forced to rethink an expression that I had heard and used for several years. (The gospel is written in simple language, but this is not the word or the place to prove it.)

It is enlightening to study the King James Version’s “Easter” in Acts 12:4. The word pascha occurs about thirty times in the New Testament, and in every case it is translated “passover,” except in Acts 12:4. All other versions that I have checked, including the New King James, consistently translate it “passover” in every passage.

Once I sat in a Bible class once where some were wondering if the “governor” of the feast (John 2:8, 9) was different than the “ruler” of the feast (John.2:9, KJV). A good concordance shows that the original uses the same word each time. The New King James Version uniformly translates it “master” of the feast.

Another passage that may seem confusing is Galatians

1. Paul refers to “another” gospel (v. 6) which is “not an- other” (v. 7). The original uses two different words. Heteros of verse 6 refers to a gospel of a different kind than Paul preached, while allos of verse 7 refers to a gospel of the same kind. False teachers wanted to substitute another (different) gospel for the one that Paul preached.

How Do I Find Words In A Lexicon?

There are several ways to look up words in lexicons, but we will limit our discussion to the two easiest.

1. Use Strong’s Concordance. First, find the word that you want to research. Second, locate the number that Strong’s assigns the word. If the number is in italics, the word will be found in the Greek dictionary in the back of Strong’s; otherwise it is Hebrew and will be found in the Hebrew dictionary. Third, find Strong’s number in one of the lexicons that is keyed to this concordance. For example, the word love in 1 Corinthians 16:22 is numbered 5368. Thayer’s lexicon is now coded to Strong’s numbering system, enabling someone who possesses no knowledge of Greek to find words just by matching the numbers in the two volumes.

This procedure is especially helpful in the study of He- brew words. The word love in Psalm 119:97 in Strong’s Concordance is number 157. Using this number, we can turn to the Index of the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, or to The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew-English Lexicon, both of which are keyed to Strong’s, and easily obtain definitions that were once restricted almost entirely to those who knew Hebrew.

The King James Version of Deuteronomy 22:19 uses the obscure word “amerce.” While you could check the New King James Version to learn that it translates this word by “fine,” as in a financial punishment, this would not tell you if the Hebrew word behind the translation occurs only here, or if it can be found in other passages as well. Noting that Strong’s assigns number 6064 to this word, you turn to Brown-Driver-Briggs, see that it discusses the Hebrew word anash on pages 778-779, and learn that it occurs in about seven other places in the Old Testament, though it is not translated by the word “amerce.” In this way, the lexicon serves as an abridged concordance.

2. Use Young’s Concordance. Many people find that Young’s Concordance is easier to use than Strong’s. This book classifies the biblical words of the King James Version in groups, each of which is based on the original Hebrew and Greek words. For example, the word “love” in John 21:15-17 can be found under two entries in Young’s — Number 5 which gives the references for the verb agapao, and Number 7 which gives those for the verb phileo.

After looking up “amerce” in Young’s, and seeing that it comes from the Hebrew word anash, you may turn to the index-lexicon to the Old Testament in the back of the book, find ANASH (in upper-case English letters), and learn that the second form of the word is translated in the King James Version in the following ways — amerce, 1; condemn, 2; punish, 1; be punished, 1, etc. This is a very helpful tool that will pay rich dividends to the serious student of God’s holy Word.