Friday, October 27, 2006

Greek: why bother?

Evangelicals have a fetish for New Testament Greek, and the more I think about it, the less sense that it makes.

Usually, the rational goes something like this: certain ideas just don't come across in the English translation, and so in order to really understand what's being said in the New Testament, one needs to learn the language in which it was written. An English translation misses some of the nuanced meaning of the original Greek. (It's also related to the idea of Innerrancy, which suggests that there are secret codes to be cracked in the jots and the tittles of the original text).

I understand that languages don't translate perfectly, and I'm all for scholarly translation that fleshes out meaning. But I'm just doubtful that my local pastor, who did three semesters of Greek at seminary, can obtain a better translation than that which is already available to me in any regular English language Bible.

The reason for this is because my Evangelical pastor would have to understand NT Greek better than the team of Phd translators who gave me my version of the Bible; and this just can't be the case.

For an example from another context, I took NINE (count 'em) semesters of Spanish in college, and I lived in Spain. I can speak Spanish fairly well. But if I tried to translate the poems of Pablo Neruda for you, it's going to sound bad. It'll sound like the poetry of a 12-year-old, at best.

So this is why I don't understand why people learn Greek in order to interpret the Bible.

I mean, I'm as happy as the next guy that there are "four words for 'love' " in the Bible; but you didn't need to slave over the aorist tense to tell me that; C.S. Lewis covered it pretty good in his book, 'The Four Loves.'

As a side-note, the felt need to learn Greek also plays into a perspective of radical subjectivism and/or cultural relativism because it suggests that a cultural artifact (language) is inscrutable to the outsider. This suggests that truths are not universal, because if they were, they would be translatable to any culture (and therefore language). Personally I am a great believer in transcendent truth, natural law, essentialism, and all things that suggest that the existence of God and God's requirements are written on everyone's heart. Therefore, universal truths will be translatable from any language to any language. The idea that one needs to learn Greek to understand the NT is based on the sense that there are ideas, concepts, etc that are in the Greek that you can't understand in the English. I doubt it.

But, I know there are at least a couple of Greekophiles out there who might be able to dispute this point...

14 comments:

Ρωμανος ~ Romanós said...

I encourage every Christian who CAN learn a language to learn evangelical Greek, and to make DAILY reading of the Greek New Testament a priority. I encourage them to learn to pronounce it the GREEK way, not the hypothetical archaic way that the seminaries and colleges teach it, which keeps it in the tomb as a dead language (like Latin). I encourage them to read the words OUT LOUD, and especially to read the Gospel, the Letters and the Revelation written by John the Apostle, because these books are EASY to read and to understand, and the Greek word nuances strengthen evangelical Truth. I encourage them to MEMORISE the verses that stand out to them in GREEK. I encourage them to use the Greek as a backup when witnessing, teaching and preaching the Word. And I am encouraged by MY reading of the Greek New Testament OUT LOUD (and even in public) because I am hearing and even understanding EXACTLY what the Apostles and Evangelists thought, spoke and wrote down for us, the heirs of the Promises. I am also encouraged because the community formed by this continuing heritage, the Greek Orthodox, has, in spite of all historical circumstances and worldly opposition, maintained a pure evangelical faith amidst the whirlpool of heresy and Western theological speculation. And this faith has molded the Greek speaking peoples and their culture into possibly the only living example of the ancient Christian ethos, and I feel radically blessed to be part of that experience in this era near the close of the Age.

Jeff said...

A translation automatically includes the biases of the translator, no matter how powerful the text. One need only to look at the differences between the JPS and NIV translations of the Bible (y'all's "Old Testament"). Especially look at Genesis 47:21 and some bits of Isaiah 53. The former is really interesting: it is translated as either Joseph implementing a program of land reform and urbanization (JPS) or enslaving the Egyptians (NIV). I'll go out on a limb and wager that the original Hebrew reads more like the former.

My point is that you get a more direct, unfiltered sense of the text if you read it in its original language. (Of course, Jesus' words are translated even in the Greek, given that he spoke them in Aramaic and never wrote them down. But better a first-generation translation than a second.)

Furthermore, a lot of Hebrew words' meanings have been lost over the years and can only really be understood in context. I doubt that the Greek is the same way (since it wasn't dead for a thousand years or so), but it could be that there are some Greek words that just don't translate well into English.

Ρωμανος ~ Romanós said...

Good points, Jeff.

Regarding the Greek, one other thing I might add, is that playing with the original Greek (word play, I mean), something the Greeks do all the time because we are di-glossic (use both evangelical and modern Greek at the same time, even in the same sentence), playing with the Greek words by retranslating the components back into English often gives interesting insights. This is because modern Greek as well as other modern languages which have incorporated Greek components, have amplified the meanings of the originals, but in ways that make for interesting "thought outside the box" encounters with concepts we have long taken for granted.

In a stale, end-state version of "churchianity", the recovery of authentic, living experience with the Divine Nature by re-entering the Apostolic mind, is worth the effort of re-learning Greek. The same is, I think, the case with Judaism, at least for some people.

jose said...

The greatest benefit I've gained from taking Greek is that it makes me slow down when I read the text. It's like I discover the text all over again. And there have been a few cases here and there where reading the Greek text cleared up some ambiguity. A few.

My plan for using my dangerous half-knowledge is not to explain that "this is in the imperfect tense which means it was his practice to do this continually" but rather to find a translation with the shade of meaning I want to bring out.

Learning to read koine Greek is akin to being on TV. It gives one a sense of authority/respect that may or may not be warranted.

-Dave said...

I like Jose's points. I want to add one more of my own. I think to say that a pastor explaining the meaning of a greek word/phrase/tense means he would have to have superior knowledge to the translators is false.

Translators generally have multiple aims, including the preservation of meaning, rhythm, and brevity. For a pastor to be able to spend more time explaining shades of meaning can have its place, even if only because he has a forum to fully explain what the translator can only point towards - much as CS Lewis can do in a separate book.

I think it also acts as a "signal" to the congregation: Pastor X knows Greek and Hebrew, therefore Pastor X must be well-educated and a therefore trustworthy source. Whether this is a reliable signal or not is another matter entirely.

Ρωμανος ~ Romanós said...

Somehow, although José and Dave make some good points (and, of course, in another vein, so did Jeff), and even beginning from Kenny's original post… There's just something that I am experiencing with Greek that seems not to be part of your experience or maybe your world view. You write of authority, being warranted or not, of the effect one's Greek learning has on one's hearers (if one is a pastor or preacher), and about knowing exactly the grammatical aspects by name and what they represent, etc.

For me, none of these things even come up for discussion. I think my original comment says about everything I can say. It may also be that you guys are just educated way over my head. For me the Word of God is a place to live, where what's going on is happening right now, for me to participate in. There is no yesterday with the Word of God. The more we can enter into that place, the more we can learn the language of the Word (I am not now speaking of learning Greek, specifically, but rather, of learning to make the scripture's vocabulary of meaning OUR language), the more time and effort we spend in the Word, the more alive and present the Lord is with us. He says that in His own words in John, which I've quoted many times in my blog. If you make My Word your home, you will indeed be My disciples… and We will come to you, and make our home with you.

The Greek I am learning to become more and more at home with just brings that new kind of life that I am living in the Word more a reality. Although I know the meaning of verbs, I never think of the grammatical terms. I guess part of my enthusiasm and even my method comes from using Dobson's excellent book on New Testamant Greek. He leaves the grammatical niceties in the background, concentrating instead on the living language that evangelical Greek is.

I suppose it helps, too, that I worship at a church where the Koiné Greek is still the worship language, and so I have the benefit of many hundreds of hours(probably thousands actually) of hearing and speaking the language in context. And that gives language its ultimate meaning, that we spoke it and heard it at such and such a time and place. Living in the church and living in the Word have converted my heart into a vessel where God's eternal reality lives. I don't expect anyone to understand this, but I hope someone will.

Kenny said...

Everyone seems to disagree with me, which probably means I’m wrong. But let me test your responses. My basic point is this, whatever it is you think you can get from the Greek, I can also get from the English. To prove this, I set for this challenge: tell me something you learned from Greek that I can’t get from the English. I’ll tell you ahead of time, this is a self-defeating challenge because if you can explain it to me, then you’ll have to do so in English, therefore proving the Greek was unnecessary. Of course, someone has to translate the Greek, but my point is that they’ve already done so, presumably with great skill. I don’t see the point in so many people reinventing the ΡΌΔΑ (wheel). Often, the illumination added by Greek will go something like this: “this word in the Greek is ‘agape’ and it means...” To me, this adds the same level of illumination as my saying, ‘Webster’s Dictionary defines ‘love’ as…’ There may be insights and shades of meaning concealed within the Greek, but I’m also betting that the ‘team of Phd translators’ who gave me my Bible were aware of them and conveyed a good sense of that to me in my English Bible. And if I’m really afraid that I missed anything, I can easily cross reference multiple Bibles, and beyond that I can break out a commentary. But I’m really unworried that there are a bunch of unexplored nooks and crannies of the Bible’s original language.

1. Romanos suggests that learning Greek helps you get into the mindset of the Apostle. To me, this seems like saying going to Jerusalem will help you get into the mind of Christ. Except the Jerusalem of today will be very different than the Jerusalem of Jesus, and you’ll bring all sorts of your own cultural baggage to Jerusalem, therefore seeing it differently than Jesus saw it. To me, it’s the same with the Greek. Further, I don’t think what Jesus wanted us to understand was a particular language (and as Jeff point out, Jesus spoke Aramaic), but rather a set of ideas that translate into all times, places, and languages.

2. Jeff makes an interesting suggestion about the biases of the translator, but I just believe too much the competitive nature of the market place of ideas to think that there isn’t a good translation of the Bible out there, significantly free of bias.

jose said...

I forgot to mention to things I gain from learning some Greek. 1) It's magic and 2) it helps you get chicks.

And it wasn't so much I disagreed with you as I agreeing creatively by saying it shouldn't be given a higher place that it should. So learn some Greek, simpleton. It won't kill you.

Or you could just cross-reference various translations and that will do you just as good. Just as good, I say.

Jeff said...

Even so, the common translations still have a good deal of significant differences. (The order of the books, for one. Seriously, y'all, Ruth after Judges?) These translations don't "compete" with one another in the traditional sense of the word - NIV is translated by Protestants for Protestants, and JPS is translated by Jews for Jews. You'd never pick up a JPS "Old Testament" and I'd probably never buy an NIV.

And we can't really assess the quality of a translation until we know the original. We're trusting whatever the translator throws at us. Heck, someone could translate the entire book of Habakkuk as a story about someone suffocating an overgrown salmon and I wouldn't know the difference.

I suppose the best argument for learning the language is that it's best not to have someone else stand between you and the Word of God, no matter how trustworthy a conduit that person might seem.

(Of course by that logic, the Bible itself would have to be taken as a "translation" since it was written down by some human... but that's an argument for another time and place.)

J-Chizzle said...

okay, so I've never once responded to your blogs but I figure now's a good time to start.

I really don't have the time right now to read everyone's responses, so forgive any repetition.

Greek is useful because we need to know what was actually said in the NT. It's actually not always clear (within some parameters). (If it helps, my greek teacher says so, it's not just me :) ). Okay, examples from what I'm learning.
First, a small one, 1 John 3:5:
You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.
Now, because of the grammar, it can either read " you know that he appeared to take away sins" or "... to take away our sins." I think this is the issue with limited atonement, this idea of were just the elect's sins atoned for or was it a more universal sense?

Now, here's a more controversial problem: 1 John 3:9. Here's three translations of the key part:
No one born of God commits sin... he cannot sin. (RSV)
No one who is born of God will continue to sin... he cannot go on sinning. (NIV)
No one who is born of God practices sin... he cannot sin. (NASB)

So which team of PhDs is right? The difference here is obvious: will the true Christian reach perfection in this life? This is a huge deal. Now, one might be tempted to say, "what's the big deal, just translate it correctly so that we can get our doctrine straight." But it all comes down to what the verb (present infinitive) means and connotes.

Long story short, the dude who wrote my greek book believes the grammar doesn't support a perfectionist view and that we are still in fact true Christians. I'm inclined to follow along with this more pleasing option. So, I hope these two examples of a second semester greek student are helpful in illustrating the usefulness of Greek.

Phil said...

Kenny,
Wow! I never thought about it before. Thanks for making me think!

-Dave said...

"tell me something you learned from Greek that I can’t get from the English. I’ll tell you ahead of time, this is a self-defeating challenge because if you can explain it to me, then you’ll have to do so in English, therefore proving the Greek was unnecessary"

You missed my point, I think. I assert that translators have multiple constraints, including the space in which they translate a given Greek phrase. In short, by knowing Greek one can fully illuminate darker shades of meaning that are otherwise obscured by these constraints.

For translators to incorporate "The Four Loves" in the text of First Corinthians 13 makes the passage much more editorial than the original text. It uses English, but sacrifices textual faithfulness for a fully nuanced reading.

How much audio quality do you lose when compressing a lossless audio format to MP3? For an average person, hardly any. But for an audiophile, able to pick up the subtlest change, the loss is more apparent. But if we had no audiophiles to guide our average ears in the subtleties of Beethoven or Bach, we would miss out, even if we did not know it.

Kenny said...

Dave asserts that "by knowing Greek one can fully illuminate darker shades of meaning that are otherwise obscured by these constraints."

My point is that this can be done just as well in English through commentaries, dictionaries, secondary sources, amplified Bibles, etc.

And I'm not saying that nobody should learn Greek. I'm saying it's already been done. And the darker shades have already been illuminated - in English. The constraints have been addressed and explained, again, in English. Given this, I doubt the person with a basic seminary education in Greek (much less the amateur) can give me much more than is already available in my mother tongue.

Ρωμανος ~ Romanós said...

Duh… in case anyone will notice one more comment, and this from the village idiot.

Why learn Greek with the object of reading the NT in its original language?

You know, it never occurred to me that you guys were thinking of learning or not learning it so as to translate it better than the PhD's (who knows what their credentials really are?) or maybe to just have more points to debate…

All this time I was thinking the subject was learning Greek so you DON'T HAVE TO TRANSLATE it! When I read the NT in Greek (out loud, of course, it makes the tongue and other vocal organs get a real workout, not like some sissy languages I also speak), when I read the NT in Greek I am NOT translating it, but understanding it in Greek. Funny! Why didn't I think to mention this before.

It kind of gives me a charge, or a jolt, or a flutter in the heart, or something, to speak the same Words the writers wrote.

(Forgive me. Forgive me. I am just a moron. But Greek "puts charge all in my dial.")

Po-po-po!
(It's after midnight and, no, I haven't been drinking! Kali nikta, adelphoi mou!)

Hey! Don't you know that saying that Greek is a "why bother" thing to a Greek is sort of like telling him he has an ugly wife?

And one more thing, it was worth it to me to learn classical Chinese, so I could get a better sense of the poetry in, for instance, the Dao De Jing (Book of Tao). The same is true of Arabic and the Qur'an. It was worth it to me to learn Arabic to get a feel for why the Qur'an is hypnotic when recited aloud in the original language, and why it falls as flat as a pancake when translated into English. Again, forgive me, brothers, and pray for…

Romanos the moron

P.S. I'm not going to use accented letters anymore because some email browsers don't support them properly.