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Drawing near: The Value of Greek and Hebrew in Christian Ministry (part 2)

I reckon I said enough in part 1 about the importance of Greek and Hebrew to stir up a few objections. So let me address a couple of the major ones and then offer one positive example.

1.       Isn’t there a danger here that we take the word of God out of the hands of the people?

History might seem to agree. After all, wasn’t the Reformation in part a battle to put the word of God into the hands of the people, and so to translate from Latin into local languages? That is true, but the Reformers were just as vocal about the need to preserve a knowledge of the original languages, especially amongst Christian ministers. Martin Luther said that “in proportion then as we value the gospel, let us zealously hold to the languages.”

Luther’s colleague Philipp Melanchthon said the same: “Since the Bible was written in part in Hebrew and in part in Greek… we must learn these languages, unless we want to be ‘silent persons’ as theologians… Only if we have clearly understood the language will we clearly understand the content.”

2.       But we have so many resources now, we don’t need the languages ourselves.

Often the case for biblical languages is made with a long list of historical quotes insisting on their value, like the ones above, and there’s merit in that. But it can be tempting to say that things are different now. We have resources galore and so we can rely on them.

Interestingly, Luther goes the other way: For him, we are all the more compelled to study the languages “when God is offering and giving us men and books and every facility and inducement to this study, and desires his Bible to be an open book.”

Of course there are good commentaries written by reliable guides, and those are wonderful gifts. But what to do when commentaries disagree, as they do about a great many things? The result is often uncertainty about the meaning, or we just go with the commentator we trust. There’s a rightness to that but also a danger that we get caught in a small echo chamber of people we agree with (or is it that they agree with me?). How much better still to grow into a confident ability to go the original texts. In the end, that’s where the greatest confidence and the greatest pleasure is always to be found. Not reading what someone thinks about what someone once wrote about Shakespeare. Not hearing someone describe how wonderful his metaphors are, but reading them for yourself and then telling others, filled with the thrill and confidence of a first-hand encounter.

Perhaps an example might help.

Let’s say you’re reading Matt 15: 28 in the ESV. A Canaanite woman implores Jesus to rescue her daughter from a demon and at the end of their encounter Jesus exclaims “O woman, great is your faith.” And let’s say that, when you read that, you remember Jesus beginning a number of speeches with “O” and do a word search, wondering if there’s a pattern. You discover there are 10 places like that in the ESV. But then you think it’s probably worth double checking the NIV to see if it gives the same list. It doesn’t. In fact he NIV has no speeches beginning with “O”. You try a few commentaries, and find that no-one mentions it. It looks like a dead end.

Now let’s say you have the Greek open. In Matt 15:28 there is a little word equivalent to O – in Greek ὦ.

You dig around and realise there is only one more use of that word in Matthew’s Gospel (the ESV has added the rest of the “O”s). It’s in Matt 17:17 where another exorcism is needed but unbelief amongst the Jews prompts Jesus to exclaim:  “O faithless and twisted generation.” The two exclamations even sound similar. Jesus’ says “O woman” (ὦ γύναι) and “O generation” (ὦ γενεὰ) at the start of each speech and the Greek words for woman and generation echo each other.

So to the Canaanite woman Jesus says “O woman, great is your faith” and she, a Canaanite woman, stands in contrast to the entire generation of faithless Israelites, Jesus’ disciples included. The use of that little Greek word underlines the shocking contrast, highlighting that neither race nor gender counts for anything. What matters is faith.

Now from the English, you could still have traced Jesus’ mounting critique of the disciples for their “little faith” (6:30, 8:26, 14:31, 16:8), but knowing (just one!) Greek word helps you see the climax where one woman is commended, and a whole generation are exposed in these parallel exclamations. A little Greek goes a long way!

Translations, then, are a wonderful gift to us. But we do need to reflect on why we have been content to stop short of reaching for the original texts, especially as ministers of the gospel. One Jewish poet compares reading the Old Testament in translation to kissing your mother through a handkerchief. In these times of coronavirus that might sound prudent, but the point is the lack of immediate contact. Perhaps then we should feel about translations the way we all feel about Zoom right now. Deeply grateful for what they allow, but always with a sense that there is still a distance to overcome. And perhaps it’s time then to ask whether we could or should draw nearer still?

This article first appeared in Evangelicals Now in July 2020.


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