Tuesday, November 11, 2014


When I teach or preach from the New Testament, I usually read and translate directly from my Greek text.  I don't do this to show off or to impress people; most who hear me don't even realize I'm doing so, other than those who ask the occasional question as to what translation I use.  (I usually tell them I use the BLT.  If that doesn't satisfy I explain that BLT stands for Bill's Literal Translation).  Of course some actually notice and make the comment mentioned above.

I have been reading and studying my Greek Testament regularly for nearly 40 years.  One requirement for my Master's Degree in New Testament, besides grammatical and exegetical studies was to read through the entire Greek New Testament at least once (though most of it was read more than that).  I was hooked and since then I have read it through at least once a year.  I actually feel more at home in it than in my English New Testament.  I have also read and continue to read in my Hebrew Old Testament (with difficulty) as well as in the Septuagint.  I have never formally taught Greek other than a one hour credit class at the College of Biblical Studies - Houston, entitled:  "The Greek New Testament for English Readers."  I have occasionally tutored or mentored a few persons in the study as well.

So when a friend posted an article on facebook entitled "3 Ways Not To Use Greek in Bible Study" it got my attention.

Though the author of the article concedes that "there is nothing wrong with wanting to know some things about the language that God gave us for the New Testament," he warns us that "there are also dangers involved."  While after my first reading I found myself in essential agreement with the article and even hit "like" on the post, I felt a bit uncomfortable and felt that even though the author asserts that he is "not trying to discourage anyone from studying Greek," he was doing just that.  I also felt that it could become an excuse for those who are teachers and preachers, for neglecting the original languages.

I agree with most of what the article states.  I feel along with this writer that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing and I agree with his three points - to a point.  I'd like to add my thoughts to the points made there which I see as actually two.

Point 1:  "Usage Trumps Etymology:  Avoiding the Root Fallacy" and Point 3:  "Context is King:  Avoiding the Overload Fallacy" seem to be saying much the same thing. "... a word's meaning is not determined by its etymology, but by its usage."  "Most words don't have a 'literal meaning' at all - rather, they have a range of possible meanings (the technical term is 'semantic range.'"  "Context usually narrows the possible meanings to one (an exception would be ... puns)."
Point 2:  "Scholars are Necessary:  Avoiding the Cult of the Amateur" seems clear except that it is used simply to reinforce Points 1 and 3.

The article appears to assume that word study is a major aspect in doing Greek exegesis.  Actually the sort of studies described requires little knowledge of the original languages, just some skill in the use of a concordance, which is available to the English reader.

One does not have to be skilled in the original languages to be a gifted Bible teacher.  I myself studied and taught the Bible with a reasonable amount of proficiency for many years before my formal education.  Many of those from whom I learned had no proficiency in the languages; some didn't even have that good a command of our native English!

But I contend that a familiarity with the language in which our Bible was originally written is an asset which the use of helps can only partially provide.  I write this at the desk in my study with volumes of helps - concordances, lexicons and commentaries on the shelves behind me.

As far as the use of words, I agree that usage trumps etymology and that context is king.  But knowledge of the "original" or "root" meanings of words brings a color to the book that simple context definitions cannot.  As in any language, words have many meanings, even in the same context.  Much of language is metaphorical and the careful reader or listener understands that words do have more than one meaning and that though a word may have a single specific meaning in a particular context, it often carries with it its other meanings.  Puns, double entendres, sarcasm and subtle nuances are much more common than a literalistic reader might suppose.

Some examples:
·       Jesus is in the garden of Gethsemane with His disciples on the night before His betrayal.  He is burdened down and leaves them to go off alone to pray.  He tells them:  meinate hode kai gregoreite (Mark 14:34).  Most translations, even modern ones translate this something like "stay here and watch," which is probably what was meant.  But gregoreo has the "original" meaning of "stay awake."  To translate it simply as "watch" would be accurate, but the reader would miss the irony of the fact that they fell asleep.
·       Paul exhorts his readers many times, peripateite (Ephesians 4:1, 17; 5:1, 15, etc.).  Some modern versions (though not all) translate this word simply as "live," referring to Christian behavior or conduct.  But the "root" meaning of pateo is "walk" and the prefix peri has the meaning of "around."  The Christian is not exhorted to passively "live" but to have an active life - a life in motion.

And while word meanings do change over time, some retain their meanings over centuries, even millennia.  When Paul tells his readers that the Holy Spirit is our arrabon (2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5; Ephesians 1:13, 14), he is using a word that already in his day was 2,000 years old; it was actually an ancient Hebrew (or possibly Aramaic) word.  Its first biblical usage is in the Hebrew Old Testament, Genesis 38:17, 18, 20 in the spicy story of Tamar and Judah.  Judah contracts for sex with his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar who has disguised herself as a prostitute.  He promises her "a kid from the flock" for her favors (the going rate?) and gives her his seal, cord and staff as an arrabon.  The word in Paul is translated variously as "earnest," "pledge," "down payment," but I suspect that his astute readers may have recalled the earlier context.  (The word is still found today in modern Greek and is used of an engagement ring.)

And then there are synonyms.  No two words have precisely the same meaning.  While synonyms have an overlap in meaning and in many contexts seem to be used simply for variety, there are many instances where their differences in meaning are quite clear.
·       The words allos and heteros can simply be translated interchangeably in many contexts as "other" or "another."  In 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, Paul uses allos six times and heteros twice with no clear difference.  Most English translations translate both words consistently as "another."  But in his letter to the Galatians, while he uses both words in one context, their subtle differences in meaning are clear.  "I am amazed that so quickly you have moved away from the One who called you in the grace of Christ to another (heteros) gospel - which is not another (allos) ..."  Most modern translations translate heteros here as "a different ..." (Galatians 1:6, 7) bringing out the difference in meaning.
·       The author of the article states, "Turns out that agape and philos (I believe that he meant to say philia) aren't really different kinds of love after all ..."  Apparently this is something that he learned from "scholars" in his "first couple of weeks of class."  However, while the words are synonyms and in many instances may simply be translated as "love," a careful study of all the New Testament usages will demonstrate that there are clear differences.  See:  I LOVE YOU LORD and WHAT IS LOVE?

And of course, language studies are much more than studies of word meanings.  Grammar is an important part.  Greek verb tenses differ from our English tenses.  For instance, while in English we have a simple past tense, Greek has two,  the aorist and the imperfect, which give much more color to the action.  To oversimplify (always dangerous) the aorist presents a snapshot:  "he ran," while the imperfect presents a motion picture:  "he was running."  English often has to use "helper words" to get the same color.

One example:  in John 11:35 we read edakrusen ho lesous.  Normally this is translated "Jesus wept."  But the verb dakruo here is not the normal word for weeping but is related to the word dakruon, "tear."  It is also in the aorist tense.  This, the shortest verse in the Bible, is thus packed with meaning.  It could be translated "Jesus burst into tears!"  The Greek reader could catch this.  Also see:  GRAMMAR AND THE GREAT COMMISSION.

I agree with Point 2  on the value of scholarship.  However, scholars quite often disagree with one another.  If we simply compare Bible translations we will frequently find conflicts.  We all - scholars or lay persons or those in between - fail to distinguish degrees of certainty and can be dogmatic where we have little or no right to be.  This is where some knowledge of the original languages can be of great help - not to arrive at new interpretations but to check on existing ones.  In regard to the experts, we should "trust but verify!"

So, while I would encourage the English reader that we have some excellent translations and excellent commentaries that can be trusted, I would also encourage the student - especially if you teach - to dig a little deeper using a good concordance and lexicon.  Get the feel for the Bible. Remember it's a lifetime process.

And do watch out.  A little learning can be a dangerous thing!

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