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I have heard that students of Christian Theology study Latin for a better understanding the religion. I haven't heard about them learning Greek. Is it the same case for both Catholics and Protestants? Does it have something to do with the fact that the only country that still uses Latin is the Vatican?

When reading the Bible on my own, I met more words originated from ancient Greek than from Latin. Is it my bias, because a lot of words from Latin have been absorbed into English?

Did Greek weigh more heavily on Bible study than Latin historically, while it is the opposite today?

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    People learn Latin to study medieval theologians. People learn Greek to study the New Testament itself. Learning Latin may still be common in Catholic seminaries, but it is not at all common in Protestant Bible colleges. (Protestants still read medieval theologians, but generally via translations.)
    – curiousdannii
    Oct 18, 2023 at 5:57
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    @curiousdannii While that may be true now, historically it is not, as prior to the Reformation few Bibles existed. As a complete book most Bibles were in Latin only.
    – Ken Graham
    Oct 18, 2023 at 20:25
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    @KenGraham Yes of course! I was only speaking about now.
    – curiousdannii
    Oct 18, 2023 at 21:13

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As curiousdannii commented, “People learn Latin to study medieval theologians. People learn Greek to study the New Testament itself.” Although studying Greek may no longer be as important today, any minister who wishes to be taken seriously would need at least a basic understanding of Greek.

Prior to the Reformation, the Bible was only available in either Latin or ancient Greek, languages known only to the educated elite. In order to publish the Bible in other languages (e.g. German and English) so that ordinary people could read it, theologians were Greek and Latin scholars. Here is a brief overview of events leading up to the publication of the Bible in English:

Desiderius Erasmus (1466—1536) was a Dutch theologian and the scholar behind what is now known as the Textus Receptus. In a day when the only Bible available was the Latin Vulgate, Erasmus sought to produce a textually accurate Greek New Testament. To that end, he compiled several handwritten Greek manuscripts and oversaw their printing in 1516. His second edition (1519) of the Greek text was used by Martin Luther in his German translation of the Bible. The third edition (1522) was used by William Tyndale for the first English New Testament. It was also the basis for the 1550 Robert Stephanus edition used by the translators of the Geneva Bible (1599) and the King James (Authorized) Version of the Bible (1611)

After Erasmus’ death, another edition of his New Testament was published in 1633. The publisher’s preface said, “Textum ergo habes, nun cab omnibus receptum” (“The [reader] now has the text that is received by all”). From that publisher’s notation has come the term “Received Text” or “Textus Receptus.” Erasmus’ work was the dominant Greek text of the New Testament for the next 250 years.

John Wycliffe (c.1329–1384) was an Oxford professor and theologian who completed the first English translation of the New Testament in 1380. The first edition of the Wycliffe Bible was a word-for-word translation of the Latin Vulgate (the accepted Bible of the Catholic Church) into Middle English (the language of Chaucer).

William Tyndale (1494-1536) studied Classical and Koine Greek texts. He was a 16th-century Protestant reformer and scholar who was influenced by the work of Erasmus and Martin Luther. Tyndale’s Bible is credited with being the first English translation to come directly from Hebrew and Greek texts and the first English biblical translation that was mass-produced as a result of new advances in the art of printing.

Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) went to the University of Heidelberg, where he studied philosophy, rhetoric, and astronomy/astrology, and became known as a scholar of Greek. He is credited with being the first systematic theologian of the Protestant Reformation.

The King James translation, published in 1611, was done by 47 scholars, all of whom were members of the Church of England. In common with most other translations of the period, the New Testament was translated from the Textus Receptus (Received Text) series of the Greek texts.

Modern theologians still need to understand Hebrew and Greek if their views are to be taken seriously. Protestant Theological Schools still teach Greek and Hebrew and many ordained ministers have some understanding of the language. The Baptist minister who taught during the first five years of my Christian life said he found Hebrew more difficult to grasp than Greek.

A quick Internet search shows that many Protestant Theological Seminaries offer courses in Hebrew and Greek. For example, the Edinburgh Theological Seminary Bachelor of Theology curriculum:

Students who achieve the requisite standard in Elementary Hebrew are strongly urged to proceed to Old Testament Language, Exegesis and Theology; and students who achieve the requisite standard in Elementary Greek are strongly urged to proceed to New Testament Language, Exegesis and Theology; but both departments offer alternative non-language courses (Old Testament Studies and New Testament Studies respectively). Students who take these non-language courses will be required to undertake additional work in English-based exegesis.

Whilst a working knowledge of Koine Greek is helpful, theology students can refer to the copious works of others who have come before them. So can ordinary people like you and me!

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Did Greek weigh more heavily on Bible study than Latin historically, while it is the opposite today?

The short answer is no, at least from the creation of the Vulgate in 382 by St. Jerome until the Protestant Reformation in 1517!

I could be be noted before going on that the Greek Orthodox always maintained Greek with no Latin. The Churches of the Near East and Far East kept their tradition of other languages for Scriptures such as Aramaic and Syriac!

Latin prevailed to be the language of studying and reading Sacred Scriptures albeit whether in Koine Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic or some other known vernacular translation. There are several reasons for this.

From the time of Christ until sometime in the third or fourth century Greek was the language of commerce and thus known by many. However, in the third or fourth centuries, Latin became the dominant language in the West. Thus Greek influences started to wane in in Latin speaking countries.

Up until the Reformation, Bibles we’re not something that the average family had access to.

Furthermore, it was rare to find a Bible in the language of the people. There were a number of German translations in existence by the time of Luther, and one French version published already in 1473. But it was still the case that the Latin Bible was by far and away the principal Bible available. The well-educated social elite could read Latin, but your average faithful in England or France or Germany or Italy or Spain knew only snippets of Latin from the Mass.

Things changed in the 15th century!

On of the greatest influences in making both Latin and Greek translations of the Bible more possible just before the Protestant Reformation was the invention of the printing-press.

Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, in 1440, which started a printing revolution.

After the invention of the printing press, prior to Luther's Bible being published in German, there had been over 20 versions of the whole Bible translated into the various German dialects (High and Low) by Catholics. Thus reading the Bible in other languages including Koine Greek was well on it’s way.

Martin Luther, William Tyndale, Philip Melanchthon and those of higher learning had access to the scriptures in Greek, at schools of higher learning.

Before the printing press, bible were done by hand and were extremely pricey. The printing press made it easier to make more copies of the bible at a greater speed and a somewhat less pricey sale’s tag.

Why didn't people in the Middle Ages read the Bible?

Bible wasn't available - no printing presses

The Bible was on scrolls and parchments during the early centuries of Christianity. No one had a "Bible". In the Middle Ages, each Bible was written by hand. Most people were, at best, only functionally literate. That is partially why they used stained glass windows and art to tell the Bible story. The printing press was not invented until 1436 by Johann Gutenberg. Note: The Gutenberg Bible, like every Bible before it, contained the Deuterocanonical books - or "apocrapha" in Evangelical circles.

So prior to 1436, the idea of everybody having a Bible was out of the question, even if they could read. It's hard to imagine a world without photocopiers, printing presses, email and websites.

The printing press

After the invention of the printing press, prior to Luther's Bible being published in German, there had been over 20 versions of the whole Bible translated into the various German dialects (High and Low) by Catholics. Similarly, there were several vernacular versions of the Bible published in other languages both before and after the Reformation. The Church did condemn certain vernacular translations because of what it felt were bad translations and anti-Catholic notes (vernacular means native to a region or country).

The Catholic Douay-Rheims version of the whole Bible in English was translated from the Latin Vulgate. It was completed in 1610, one year before the King James Version was published. The New Testament had been published in 1582 and was one of the sources used by the KJV translators.

The Latin Vulgate was always available to anyone who wanted to read it without restriction. Some Evangelicals have said that it would only have been usable by people who read Latin. But in the 16th Century there were no public schools and literacy was not that common, especially among the peasants. Those people who could read had been well educated and could read Latin. We got an email that said:

The Church still had its readings and services in the dead language of Latin ...The Church fought to keep the Bible in Latin even though it could not be understood by most people of the time.

Latin was far from a dead language. It was the language of theology and science (the language of all educated peoples throughout Europe and beyond) well into the 17th and 18th Centuries. For example, when Isaac Newton published his works on physics, he published them in Latin so that all of Europe could read them. The same was true of all other scientific and scholarly advances.

The reason that the Protestant reformers used vernacular languages was because (a) most educated people did not take the reformers seriously and (b) they used the masses to get power for their movement. The pamphlets published by Luther and Calvin were filled with all manner of crude and dirty language (lots of references to "shtting," "pssing," and "farting"), and this was done to capture the imagination of the common man and to create popular uprising against the social establishment.

The Bible could very much be understood by people with the intelligence and ability to understand its theological content -- most of whom spoke Latin. Most common people of the time, however, could understand neither the language nor the content ...and most common people are still clueless about the content of the Bible today ...which is why Protestants provide "ministers" to interpret it for them.

The Jewish Bible was in Hebrew until the 19th Century. The Greek versions of the Jewish Bible made in ancient times were used by Christians so the Jews avoided them. Any Jew who wanted the read the Bible was expected to make the effort to learn Hebrew. - Did the Catholic Church forbid Bible reading?

One of the greatest gifts brought about by the printing-press and the Protestant Reformation was the ability to make the Sacred Scriptures available in it’s original languages (Koine Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic) and we’ll as various vernacular languages.

Nowadays, scholars have easily accessibility to Scriptures in their sacred languages that they were written in.

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I'll give you an answer to the second part from a modern Protestant point of view. Modern Protestant seminaries teach elementary Biblical Greek as a matter of course, usually as a compulsory subject. Some students will take advanced Greek. Biblical Hebrew is usually also taught secondarily at some level

Latin rarely appears on the curriculum, and if it does it is definitely optional and tertiary.

A hundred years ago Latin would have been taught or expected, because a hundred years ago Latin would have been part of any upper- or middle-class education system, whether or not the student was interested in Bible study.

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Ken Graham's answer is limited in its view to the Latin West. Greek has been used continuously as the language of Scripture, liturgy and theological discourse in the Greek-speaking world, which dwindled from half of the Roman Empire (plus the educated classes in the rest), to the Roman Empire with its capital at Constantinople after direct control of the West was lost to Latinized Germanic tribes, to a city-state and lands oppressed by Muslims by the time the Empire finally really fell in 1453. The Greek originals of Scripture, liturgical texts and the writings of the Fathers are still studied even in places where the Liturgy and modern writings on theology are in the vernacular (as is the normative custom in the Orthodox Church) or some antiquarian approximation to a vernacular language other than Greek (e.g. Church Slavonic).

Considering only the period after St. Jerome completed the Vulgate, you should note:

  • Although Latin translations were prepared as a courtesy to those in the Patiarchate of Rome illiterate in Greek, the Acta of the last five Ecumencial Councils (Ephesus, Chalcedon, Second Constantinople, Third Constantinople, Second Nicaea) were in Greek. These are hardly inconsequential to the interpretation of Scripture, since they established most of generally agreed upon Christian dogmas. (The divinity of the Son and the Spirit having been established at the first two, First Nicaea and First Constantinople.)

  • Many notable commentators on the Bible wrote in Greek, well after the Vulgate translation was available in the West, and were influential in both East and West. Simply because I happen to be reading his Two Hundred Chapters on Theology, I would mention St. Maximos the Confessor, whose works, in Greek, have even (wrongly I think) been adduced as a support to the insertion of the filioque into the Creed.

  • I would also point out the Greek as the language of Scripture, in the Orthodox East, applies not only to the New Testament, which was written in Greek, but to the Old Testament. The Septuagint (LXX) is the normative Old Testament among Orthodox Christians. (As it was for the writers of the New Testament -- except for a few places where Matthew relies on the Hebrew, all quotations from the Old Testament in the New quote the LXX.) There is no actual Hebrew ur-text to be had: the oldest manuscripts of the Masorete are hundreds of years more recent than the oldest manuscripts of the LXX, and the Masorete was selected from among many variant Hebrew texts by rabbis looking for the version least supportive of a Christian reading. (cf. the Dead Sea Scrolls, which more often support the LXX when it and the Masorete disagree, and sometimes differ from both.)

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    – agarza
    Oct 22, 2023 at 2:31
  • The body of the OP's question is clearly dealing with the West, so my post clearly is within the parameters of his question.
    – Ken Graham
    Oct 23, 2023 at 14:19
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A friend of mine is studying to become a minister in the largest dutch protestant church. He must learn Greek and Hebrew, so he can read the Bible. Latin is only optional, and most students do not study it.

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