You can't quite translate that into English.

If only you could read it in the original Greek....


Of COURSE you can understand it in English! And if you read a translation done by a skilled believer (or committee of believers), you can get the nuances as well.

There are two issues here. The first is a view of language itself. From time to time, you will read some linguist or other who tells you that it is not possible to explain all the nuances of the 46 different words that Innuit use for the English word "snow". Of course, he then goes on to explain them all to you anyway, seemingly oblivious to the inconsistency between what he is saying and doing.

It is part of the intellect that God has given us that this principle is true: anything said in one language can eventually be said in any other language.

This is how God created us.

Now, it is likely to be the case that in addition to translators, we will also need teachers to help us to sort out the cultural context behind what is being said. For instance, if the Bible is talking about sheep, and in a given country there ARE no sheep, it will take a bit of doing to explain just what sort of animals these are.

But is this so different from what we urban North Americans are doing already? How many of us have any first hand experience in herding sheep? And to be honest, most of us have never even SEEN a living sheep. Yet we have a pretty good idea about what is being said in Psalm 23, and are able to receive the comfort of God as we reflect on it.

The second issue has to do with our view of the Word of God. Some feel that this is only a truly true Word in the original languages...that it degrades in translation.

This view was not held by any of the writers of New Testament books. Without exception, when they quote the Old Testament, they use the Greek translation of the OT known as the Septuagint (a.k.a. the LXX), with every apparent expectation that they were quoting the very Word of God himself. Indeed in this, they were echoing the general perspective of the Jewish community of the day.

"Pre-Christian Jews, Philo and Josephus considered the Septuagint on equal standing with the Hebrew text. Manuscripts of the Septuagint have been found among the Qumran Scrolls in the Dead Sea, and were thought to have been in use among Jews at the time."

Wikipedia, retrieved 09 Jan 2014

In fact, Christians made such effective use of the LXX in showing Jesus to be the fulfilment of OT prophecy that the Jews undertook the creation of a new Greek version of the OT, as a replacement for the LXX. They wanted a new version - after the break between synagogue and church became total - that didn't point quite so obviously at Jesus.

Further, people who allege that the Bible is the authentic Word of God only in the original languages seem to have forgotten that the Gospels were written FROM DAY ONE "in translation." They were written in Greek. Jesus spoke Aramaic.

We have only a couple of fragments of Jesus' actual words "in the original Aramaic".

For instance, recall where he said to Jairus' daughter, "Talitha cumi," which means, "Little girl, I say to you, arise."

Another instance would be when Jesus was hanging on the cross and said "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

The Holy Spirit obviously felt that he could communicate what Jesus said just fine through translation....and he has done so for centuries. Martin Luther was so convinced that he was hearing the true Word of God when he read the Bible in German that he allegedly thought that God's first, primary language was German.

I think it is presumptuous of us to take a view of Scripture, namely that "the Word of God is only truly true in the original languages", that none of the NT writers nor even God share. If you decide to go down this road anyway, then Clint Eastwood's question in the first Dirty Harry movie may be a relevant one for you to answer: "Do you feel...lucky? Well, do you?"


So why read Greek anyway?

There are several reasons. One is that time spent in the Word of God, in ANY language, is time well spent.

But beyond this, reading familiar passages in Greek may help rescue them from "the obscurity of familiarity." That is, reading in Greek forces us to slow down and think about passages - even individual words - that we might just skim over if we are reading in English.

If you are anything like me, you have used a variety of approaches in your daily Bible reading over the past years (or decades). And any single approach, if you stay with it long enough, gets a bit stale.

Into whatever kind of devotional mix you have had, reading the New Testament in Greek can be a way to refresh your encounter with Scripture... and ultimately, with God himself.

If you are new to Greek, seeking to translate an entire chapter in a single sitting is obviously out of the question...but drilling down into a single verse is very do-able. And memorizing that single verse in Greek is not out of the question.

This said, according to Sherri Goethe, IVCF staff at the University of Alberta, there are some two really good reasons for reading Greek that go beyond the deepening of our own spirituality.

The first is to counteract boneheaded interpretations. One of the teachers at Urbana 2015 was speaking on the topic of “Is the Bible Gay-Affirming”. You can hear this at: did this, because people who want to read the Bible as gay-affirming are misinterpreting the words that are there. He used his language background to tell us about 1 Cor 6 and why it actually does mean what the traditional interpretation says it means, by referencing how the words were used in the LXX.

The second reason that reading Greek is helpful is there are times when it would be genuinely useful in our teaching. So for instance, one might say of Luke 7, “in the Greek this phrase is confusing. It could read ‘her many sins have been forgiven – as her great love has shown’. Or ‘her many sins have been forgiven – for she has loved much’. Based on the context, which one do you think is most likely what Jesus was getting at?” Actually, even here one can use this as a way of affirming our English translations. We could say that the way we know the Greek is itself confusing is that good translations don’t all handle it the same way.

Some few of us, at least, need to be able to recognize when the Bible is being misused...and Greek can help in this. Back in the early 1970s, there was a time when I heard, in the space of a single two month period, three sermons, each from a different preacher, on John 21 ("Simon, do you love me?"). What I heard in these sermons were three radically different accounts on how Jesus had mixed and matched two different words for love, "agapao" and "phileo", in his questions to Peter.

At least two (and possibly all three) of the preachers did not read Greek themselves, and were repeating things they had read by authors who THEMSELVES did not read Greek either. And of course, since the three preachers could not agree on what Jesus said, they came up with rather different interpretations of what he meant.

I realized at least two, or possibly all three, preachers were shovelling BS as fast as they could. While all three had good hearts, at least two of them were dangerous teachers. I decided it was time for me to add Classical Greek to my degree program at the University of Alberta. In so doing, I was positioning myself - and the people of God around me - to be protected from periodic irresponsible biblical teaching.


But what about all those nuances in Greek that I keep hearing about?

The NT writers did indeed write with a full awareness of the nuances of Greek. But as indicated above, even if the nuances are not DIRECTLY translatable, they can EVENTUALLY be communicated in another language.

If you are studying Greek, you are aware that a huge amount of information is included in word suffixes and prefixes. You may wonder if ancient Greeks had genius-level IQs, to remember all of the grammar.

But ancient Greeks were no different from us in their IQs. They had lots of nuances in individual words, to be sure...but this meant that they needed fewer words overall to communicate. We English speakers, in contrast, do not pour as much meaning into individual words as did the Greeks, but we use MORE words to get across what we want to communicate...and the sequencing of these words is critical.

Greek is an inflected language. Word order is irrelevant. If a word is in the nominative case, it IS the subject of the sentence, regardless of where it occurs in the sentence.

In English, on the other hand, word order is critical. "Bob led Debbie to God" means something radically different from "God led Bob to Debbie."

It is not that English is more complicated than Greek...or Greek more complicated than English. It is simply that Greek and English are different.

The smaller vocabulary of Greek is a huge asset when it comes to learning the language. When you get to the place where you have memorized the 158 most common words in first century Greek, you will have a handle on 72.0% of the Greek NT.

If you want to get to an equivalent level in English - that is, to be able to understand 72% of the vocabulary you encounter in common written English - you will need to memorize 1,000 words...over six times as many English words as you need to memorize in Greek.

Every student of a foreign language - any language - needs to do memorization to get at the nuances of the language.

In Greek, you need fewer words to do this, but a mind-boggling array of suffixes/prefixes.

In English, you need more words overall, but the words themselves are less complicated, with few suffixes and no prefixes.

Greek and English are both capable of communicating subtle nuances - and in fact, to communicate the SAME subtle nuances - but the languages have different strategies they use to manage these meanings.

What is our role in the Body of Christ?

Our role as Greek students is first and foremost to help our fellow believers develop confidence in their Phillips, ESV, GNB, NLT, and NIV Bibles...that what they are reading is the genuine, undiluted, clear Word of God.

In this connection, we may never need to TELL people that we have studied Greek. We go ahead and let our reading in Greek enrich our personal study of the Scriptures, but then figure out a way to teach from them where all the nuances may be derived from the English Bible...and indeed, this will invariably be possible.

Our role as teachers is never to leave people in awe of our erudition ("Wow...I could never understand the Bible like Bob does"), but to always be pointing them to things they can discover for themselves in Scripture. We want them to remember the content of Romans 12, for instance, years after they have forgotten our names.

We who read Greek must NEVER, EVER say the words, "If only you could read this in the original Greek...." Biblical languages are like underwear - good for support, but not meant to be shown off.

Our job is not to make people think they are missing out on the Word of God if all they read is English. Rather, our job is to reassure them, and help them to develop a realistic confidence in their ability to read and understand the living Word of God.

Anything that we find ambiguous in the NIV is in fact going to be ambiguous in the original Greek or Hebrew as well. In fact, it is the role of the translator to not only communicate the clear ideas of Scripture, but also to communicate its ambiguities. If God himself has left an issue open-ended, then it is not up to us to artificially sort it out ourselves.

The version of the full Bible I most recently read through from cover to cover was Eugene Peterson's The Message. My conclusion from that experience was that I will never read from that version again, so long as I live. Peterson is all about resolving ambiguity...even when the Holy Spirit inspired something that I know, from my own reading of the source documents, was rather open-ended.

Consequently, there are no "difficult passages" in Peterson's Bible. He ties every verse and chapter up very neatly.

The ESV, GNB, NLT, NIV, and J.B. Phillips translations all have different approaches to the original texts, but each in its own way is a top-notch, quality translation.

It is not that The Message has "a different philosophy of translation"; it is a bad translation.

Reading The Message is like having another person chew each bite of food for you before you put it in your own mouth. Sure you can survive on it, but some of the taste and nutritional value is simply gone by the time it gets to you.

If NavPress, the publisher of The Message, had billed it NOT as a "translation" but rather as a collection of devotional mediations that were the result of Peterson's daily quiet time, it would be good....much more nourishing than Our Daily Bread. But as an actual translation, it is a crash-and-burn, catastrophic failure.

Our second role is to ensure that our fellow believers grapple with the difficulties in the passage at hand...and not just dismiss the difficulties by saying "Ah, well.... It was probably more clear in the original. Maybe this was just translated badly."

If one uses this "Ah, well..." phrase as an escape hatch to keep from thinking seriously about, for instance:

   - Matt. 7:6, a verse we never underline, and usually prefer not to read, or

There is a proverb that if you want to see what the Bible really says, look at those parts you have never underlined.

   - Matt. 21:19, where Jesus appears to throw a temper tantrum, or

   - Col. 3:18, a command so out of step with 21st century North American culture that even the men in the group find it offensive

...then he is going to miss out on some of what God has in his Word.

In the spirit of Matthew 6:1, we may go years at a time without ever telling anyone else that we read Greek. The only times when we bring it up may be instances where people are trying to evade the clear words of the Bible by using the "translation escape hatch" described above.

In this situation, you might say, "Well I do read Greek, and trust me when I say that this is translated accurately. We are just going to have to figure out what to do with this passage...the same as Paul's original readers had to."

Finally, as already indicated above, our third role is to help protect our fellow believers from BS, whether it is being shovelled by a Mormon missionary or a preacher standing in our own church's pulpit.

"Do I understand Greek and Hebrew? Otherwise, how can I undertake, as every Minister does, not only to explain books which are written therein but to defend them against all opponents? Am I not at the mercy of everyone who does understand, or even pretends to understand, the original?" (John Wesley)