Why struggle with the ancient languages?

‘Why do we need to keep on struggling with the ancient languages?’ This is a question asked by all theological students during their times of studies. For Hebrew and Greek are not easy to master; they are not something you can get to know by allotting just a few minutes of practice each day. To know and appreciate these languages fully will take a minimum of three hours of practice a day, at least in the beginning. Along with this, there are also other modules that need to be practiced, learned, and mastered. So naturally, every theologian will ask this question at some point. By looking to the past it is possible to find an answer to this question.

In 2017, Protestant churches across the world are celebrating the 500 year anniversary of the Reformation. This began most notably when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Church doors in Wittenberg. One of the lasting contributions of the Reformation was when Luther translated the Bible into a German dialect his countrymen could understand. Luther and his translation of the Bible were preceded by an important English Yorkshireman by the name of John Wycliffe (c. 1329-1384). Wycliffe began but never finished a translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible into English with the intent that his fellow countrymen be able to read and understand it for themselves. This endeavor he motivated by referring to Moses who heard God impart the Torah in his own language, and to the disciples of Jesus who were taught in a language that they understood.

What is striking about both Wycliffe and Luther is that they wanted not only to translate the Bible into the common language of the laypeople, but also to make sure that their translation would be understood by the laity. This is why both of their translations are not just word-for-word translations, but rather contextual translations in the sense that they took the context of their readers into consideration when they translated the Bible.

This brings us back to the starting question: ‘Why do we need need to keep on struggling with the ancient languages?’ Because just like Luther and Wycliffe wanted to preach the word of God in the contextual language of their people, we today also need to be able to ‘translate’ and preach the word of God within our own modern contexts.

This becomes even clearer when considering the diverse contexts of the students at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Tshwane. Some of the students come from small communities with their own unique communal languages. Most of these communities do not have Bible translations in their own languages. In aiding these students in learning the ancient languages, and in their struggle through learning, they are being empowered to translate and preach the Word of God and the teachings of the Church in their own language.

This is why any preacher, student, and theologian who struggles with the ancient languages in preparing for an exam, lecture, bible study, or exam is contributing to a tradition started more than 500 years ago. This is what makes the long hours and endless work worth it in learning and continually using the of ancient languages.

Rev. Robert van Niekerk

Greek lector at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Tshwane

Minister in the Dutch Reformed Church of Africa (Nederduitsch Hervormde Kerk van Afrika)