Lost in Translation
By Ben Stevens
July 5, 2012
Ben Stevens (M.Div., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is the author of Why God Created the World: A Jonathan Edwards Adaptation (Navpress, 2014). He lives in Berlin, Germany. Keep up with him ... Read More
Somewhere in New York City right now, a 22-year-old Muslim is working on his Arabic. Just down the street, a young Jew is working on his Hebrew. But for whatever reason, the Christian who lives on the same block would never think to try to read the New Testament in its original Greek. In fact, most Christians (maybe even some reading this article?) have probably never even seen the book that guides their lives in its native language. Given what Christians think about the Bible, and the fact that so many of us read it daily, I have always found that very discouraging.
The Bible is extremely translatable—even Jesus’ words in Aramaic were translated to Greek. And New Testament Greek, in particular, is fairly approachable. I would love to challenge you to consider learning a bit of it. Learning the Bible’s original languages is a task that can be fraught with dumb motives and naïve expectations, as well as unnecessary fear and anxiety, so let's review why—and why not—to try learning Greek. I'll conclude by by mentioning a few good resources for this study.
I suggest you ...
Do learn Greek for the sake of grasping the historical divide.
For whatever reason, Christians never think to try to read the New Testament in its original Greek.
Don’t learn it to quote the original words to people.
The word “trick” can mean one of five different things depending on the context. The same phenomenon is true for any word in any language, including Greek, so the business of trying to explain to people what a passage of Scripture means simply by quoting a Greek or Hebrew word is not only annoying but also usually inadequate. Reading the original language can help you grasp the meaning better, but you’d need to quote full sentences to be really helpful, and no one cares to hear you quote full Greek sentences. All that to say: If quoting Greek to others is your sole motivation, spare us and yourself.
Do learn it to bring more focus to your reading.
Most of us don’t know the Bible nearly as well as we think we do, but when we read it, our eyes gloss over familiar passages and jump ahead. Reading the Bible in an unfamiliar language, however—whether ancient Greek or Spanish or German—makes us focus much more intensely on exactly what it says. That is reason enough to consider learning Greek.
Don’t learn it so you can “catch something everyone else has missed.”
I shouldn’t have to say this, but tens of thousands of translators and tens of thousands of commentators and tens of thousands of pastors—to say nothing of the billions of laypeople—who have been carefully reading the Bible for thousands of years have made fairly careful notes on their discoveries. Don’t start learning Greek to try to do what they somehow couldn’t.
Knowing Greek is pastorally helpful when talking with friends who are losing faith in Scripture.
Do learn it to offer a “reason for the hope” you have.
More often than not, the people you hear quoting Greek on the Discovery Channel carry some ill will toward full, robust Christian orthodoxy. You may not need to start your own apologetics podcast about it, but knowing Greek is pastorally helpful when talking with friends who are losing faith in Scripture.
Don’t feel like you have to learn it just because your pastor did.
In contrast to the strong tone I used in my introduction, it really should be emphasized that learning Greek is not something we have to do in order to have a full Christian experience, to plumb the depths of Christian theology or to build up the Kingdom of God as Christ intended. So take it easy on yourself if your schedule simply doesn’t allow you to study this like your pastor’s schedule allows him to study it.
Do learn it for the real excitement of reading the original words.
Reading the Bible in its original language and imagining the way people twenty centuries ago read those very same words is a rush. If your circumstances allow it, I think you will find it an invigorating project.
Don’t learn it because you expect it to be easy.
Greek textbooks often try to encourage new students by showing them just how simple it is to understand a passage like the preface to John 1. This is great pedagogy, but don’t be deceived into thinking that everyone in the New Testament (even John himself) will always write with such a stripped-down style. Brilliant people who had huge vocabularies threw their weight into the New Testament, and learning New Testament Greek well will be as hard as learning any other language.
Reading the Bible in its original language is a rush.
If I have succeeded in interesting you in this practice, there are several great places you can go for help. First, you may want to grab Nestle Aland’s 27th edition Greek New Testament. Every Bible translation you own—and every debate you’ve ever heard about Bible manuscripts—is based on this text. You can own one too!
Bill Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek is a popular introduction to the language. I find it very easy to read. Warren Trenchard’s wonderful “frequency dictionary” (based on words used the most) is also a lifesaver. John Dyer has put together a terrific online Greek app if you’re just looking to brush up, and Zondervan’s Reader’s New Testament has the Greek text with the most frequent words defined below.
Either way, learning Greek is an exciting thing to do, and I think God smiles on our efforts to understand His Word as well as possible. Try to find some friends with whom to tackle this project, and have fun.
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