Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Why bother learning Biblical languages (Greek and Hebrew)

I've been asked this question a lot lately. Here's my response:

I find reading the Bible in Greek and Hebrew a really good way to meditate on God's word. On my day off yesterday I was reading Jonah in Hebrew. There are a lot of word plays in the Hebrew that are not obvious in the English. One of these is the verb yare' which means to fear. I spend some time pondering on the meaning of this word, and ending up learning a lot about fearing God.
I also sometimes find it helpful to look up memory verses in the original languages. For example, earlier this year I was memorizing verses on God's compassion. When I looked at the Hebrew I discovered the word rahum means compassion and sounds like the Hebrew word for womb, and speaks of a close bond that a parent has with a child. This was a wonderful truth to meditate on.

Two weeks ago I was preparing a sermon on John 14:12-14, I was reading the text in English and read, John 14:12 "Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father."
- I mistakenly thought this meant that "they" as in "the church" will do greater things, and proceeded to prepare a sermon about how in the course of history the church will have done more than Jesus. After awhile I thought, "I better read this in Greek," when I did I realised that it said something to the effect of, "the person who believes will do greater works" - this showed me that my interpretation had been wrong. Jesus was actually saying individual believers would do greater works than he. Using Greek helped me rule out an interpretation that I had previously thought plausible. Now, I know some might say, "Well my translation makes that verse clear," but my experience of preaching from different translations over the years is that none of them are perfect, and each one will be ambiguous on some verses. Some people may also think, "Well we don't need Greek, lets just compare different translations." I think comparing translations is a very useful exercise but how do you then know which translation has it right? Some people say, "You don't need Greek, just use commentaries." Now, I use commentaries, but
a) I've read mistakes in commentaries before, especially mistakes in the Greek (abusing the aorist tense is one very common mistake),
b) I don't like to let other people chew my food for me,
c) When commentaries disagree with each other, how do you decide which one's right?,
d) I'm a busy pastor, I have limited time, I would rather spend my time meditating over the original words that God breathed out than reading commentaries. Don't get me wrong, I'm not against commentaries, and I do use them often, but when its the 11th hour, I'd sooner go to the Greek than a commentary.
My conclusion is that Greek is a very useful tool for sermon prep.

I frequently use Greek and Hebrew for word studies. Even with Bible software its hard to do word studies in English, this is because a particular Greek word is not always translated with the same English word. I know that its possible to use software to do Greek word studies without actually knowing Greek, but its also very easy to make mistakes that way, for example, someone might find all the times a word is used as a verb, but accidentally miss the times its used as a participle, and hence ignore a lot of the data.

I'm often using Greek when talking to Muslims and JW's. Here's some paraphrased examples of conversations I have (all said with a smile and a friendly manner):

Muslim- "that's tranlated wrongly",
me, "hmm, lets look at it... proskuneo, exactly how would you translate it?",
"Well I don't know Greek,"
me, "So how can you say its been translated wrong?"

Another time, a Muslim says to me, "Your Bible's been corrupted,"
 "Hmm, well Textual Criticism is a hobby of mine, I've got photos of papyrus manuscripts at home, you can come round and have a look and I can show you manuscripts from before Mohammed's time, and show you manuscripts from Mohammed's time, and show you our Bible today, and you can see there's been no corruption - what we read today is the same thing Mohammed would have heard."

A J.W comes round my house, tells me that Jesus wasn't crucified on a cross. I said really, he said "yes, its in the Greek." "Cool, lets have a look I said." We sat down and I gave him a Greek New Testament, he said thanks and opened it up, then he said, "I can't read this," I said, "Oh I thought you wanted to show me something in the Greek." I then proceeded to show him where the Bible uses the word stauros (cross), .... he later said, "well your using the Greek to make your point, but I don't think you should have to look at the grek to make your point, I said, well to be fair mate, you came in my house quoting Greek trying to make a point from Greek."

As we talked more, he told me that my verses that spoke of Jesus' divinity were corrupted. I then showed him verses in the JW Greek Diglott where the Greek was the same.

He then argued that we mis-translate the Greek in 1John 1, he quoted me a particular Greek scholar to make his point. I said to him, "Cool, I've got his Grammar book, lets look it up.... oh look, you've quoted him out of context, he's not saying what you're saying at all."

Knowing the original languages has been very useful in dispelling some of the myths that other religions say about the Bible.

This is something I will write more about later. My dream is to see more council estate people equipped to do their own theologizing. For this to happen, some of us (not all)  from Estates will need to know Biblical languages.

I thank God for the Greek and Hebrew that I do know. It has really helped me understand God's word better, and to represent him better, and to teach others better. I also pray that God would help me to get better at these languages so that I might know and obey him better.