Biblical Archaeology Review 13:6, November/December 1987

Learning Biblical Languages

By William Sanford La Sor

You say you would like to learn Hebrew or Greek to help your study of the Bible, but you just can’t memorize thousands of words? Take heart! The necessary vocabulary is smaller than you might imagine.

A student who knows the 1,000 most frequently used words in Greek and the 1,500 most frequently used words in Hebrew, along with the basic elements of grammar, will be able to read at sight almost any page in the Bible. The total vocabulary of the Greek New Testament is about 5,400 words, of which 1,934 occur only once in the entire New Testament. Only 533 (10%) occur 25 times or more, and 1,134 (21%) occur ten times or more. Why learn the words you will rarely see? A few of these will be theologically significant, and you should learn them as you come across them. For example, Hilasterion, which translates as “a means of propitiation,” occurs only twice—once in Romans, once in Hebrews. When you do come across it, you may want to explore its implications, because it is a key term in theories of the Atonement.

The Hebrew Bible is not dissimilar in this respect. Out of a total vocabulary of about 8,600 words, 1,500 (17%) occur 15 times or more, and about 1,100 (13%) occur at least 25 times. It’s possible to learn the Old Testament in Hebrew or the New Testament in Greek in less than two years of classroom study for each language! (Some universities and schools give two years of language instruction in one concentrated summer course of 30 semester hours.) Even by self study—given due diligence—you can expect noticeable rewards in a reasonable length of time.

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