Do You Know Greek Or Hebrew?
Doug, over at his blog on Metacatholic, just made a comment about my recent post on pragmatic concerns of learning Greek or Hebrew. I’m going to respond to that in a moment, but a few thoughts/questions first.
"Know" Is Ambiguous. Don’t You Know That? I Know.
One of the verbs for "knowing" something in Greek is γινώσκω. Sometimes it means a mere acquaintance with something, as in Mark 5:43: "And he very strongly ordered to them that no one was to know this, and he told (them) to give her (food) to eat." On the other end of the spectrum, the word can convey such a depth of knowledge that it was comfortably used as a euphemism for sex, as in Matt 1:25: "And he did not know (have sex with) her until (the time) where she had a son." The word is ambiguous, and you must know (no pun intended) context to decide.
The English word for "know" is also quite ambiguous. I can say "I know English." I can also say "I know Greek". I can also say "I know German." What do I mean? Well, in the first case I mean that I am fluent in English. Seriously, I am. Sure, I make a grammatical mistakes and do speling erors. But I am fluent. I also know Greek. Am I fluent? No. Am I proficient? Well, yeah, at reading some Greek. If you were to stick some Greek Homer in front of me you would find out quickly that I am not very proficient at reading that ("Umm...what’s that? Ummm...uh huh...hmmm...look, καί! I know that word!" Okay, it’s not that bad). On the other hand, I’m reading the Protoevangelium of James right now, and that is simple for me. I could read the thing through in no time if I didn’t have to look up vocabulary. I "know" Greek, but not how I know English. I also know German, but not nearly to the extent that I know English or Greek. I have listened to some audio training, took a class in reading German, and have done some study. How well do I know it? Not very well. Can I translate stuff? Sure, give me a dictionary and I can usually make sense of things just fine? But do I know it? Frankly, I don’t know it well enough to use the word "know" with German comfortably.
Do You Know Greek? Do You Know Hebrew?
So you’ve studied some ancient Greek. Do you know Greek? How comfortable are you with using it? Can you speak it? Probably not. Can you listen to it and understand it with no (confession...first time through I spelled this as "know" because I keep using that word so much...) problems? Probably not. Can you read it without to much trouble? I’m sure some of you can, but for most of us it will depend on what we’re reading. Most people know Greek or Hebrew only "know" the language. That’s certainly the way I am with Hebrew. I can make sense of some of it, and with a dictionary and my grammar I can translate a little bit of text, even without BibleWorks. I imagine that’s where just about everybody is after their seminary classes. To get beyond that would take a lot of time reading and studying. I know that about Hebrew because that’s the way it works with learning any language (except Pig Latin, of course).
I have to admit something and get to the point. I don’t know German. I never say I do. I can do what I said above, but I don’t "know" German. Just like I don’t "know" Hebrew. Being able to use a language does not mean you "know" it, which means "know" is really a horrible word to use when talking about languages. So unless you’re really good at a language, please don’t say you know it unless you’re ready to caveat. I do that with Greek. "I know Greek." Better, "I can read Jewish/Christian Greek like the New Testament and the Septuagint pretty well." I’m trying to branch out into other literature at the moment, because I would like to say "I know Hellenistic Greek well." How long will that take me? Hopefully not long. It will depend on how much time I can spend reading new texts.
An old proverb goes as follows: "If it’s true, it ain’t braggin’." I think Jerome said it. Can anyone find the original Latin? Anyway, if you have skills in a language, you should use those skills to their utmost and use them all of the time. You’ll get even better. And when you do that you can be a lot more of a force for good with people than otherwise.
However, we all need to be humble when it comes to what we think we know about the original languages. We should think of ourself rightly, accurately. We shouldn’t teach with bravado from a text, disagree with the translations and say "but they’re wrong because the original says x" and whatnot, unless we are really good at the language. It’s kind of hard to measure that, but I’ll give you a hint. If you’ve only studied the language for a couple of years, you’re not. If you took classes in it and have been studying it off and on for a decade or so, you are probably not really good at it. When will you get there? Well, it takes a lot of time and effort. For some it takes more than others. What you need to be is very humble about it until you’ve spent a long time in the language.
I have heard it said a number of times about new young Calvinists that they should be locked up in a closet for a couple of years until they calm down (of course, some misguided folks would say that about all Calvinists). I believe that about students of Greek. It’s not that they can’t use it during that time. They should, because that’s the only way they are going to get proficient. And it’s not that they should never mention it in public. It’s just that they should be humble about what they know and very cautious when disagreeing with a translation or interpreter just based on their knowledge of Greek.
You Are A Bad Replacement For A Bible Translation Committee
Chances are, you are a bad replacement for a Bible translation committee. I have only been privy to the inner workings of the translation of one (the NET Bible). Let me tell you, they don’t get slouches to translate those texts. They don’t pick second-year students. And if they’re smart, they’ll not only pick people who know the language well, but also have a great deal of experience studying (and often) teaching the text.
You see, being a good translator of a text only starts with being good at the language in which the text was written. The best translator would also be aware of the secondary literature and its bearing on the text (especially with certain types of text, but I won’t go into the why and the what here). It would also be good for him to be familiar with the textual history of the book as well. As you some of you may not know, issues of textual criticism do come up in Bible translation, at least when you have responsible translators. So there’s a lot of work that goes into doing one.
Do you have to be an expert to disagree with a translation? No, of course not. But if you are not, you should be quite humble about it when you do.
So What Is The Point?
Ah, it’s all doom and gloom! There’s no point in learning the languages because it is so hard! I don’t think so, and here’s just a few thoughts on why (more probably in a later post). First, let’s clear some misconceptions. First, most of you shouldn’t be learning the original languages so you can produce a new translation. Sure, we need more translators (there is always room to improve), but you will usually not be able to do better than the typical Bible translations. This is true of me and I have no problem admitting that. You should also not be thinking that you’re doing all this study just to get a few nuances out that the translators couldn’t put in. Frankly, it’s not worth that much work just to get a few more nuances.
What is it about? It’s about better understanding, and that takes many different forms. This understanding may be to help you get a better grasp of the mood of the writer by being able to feel his emotions directly through the text (and note, getting to that level with a language takes a long time...I’m usually not there even with Greek). It may be to let you use a lexicon that will help you interpret the passage more accurately. It may be to use a wider varieties of commentaries to help you think outside of your own (probably small and narrowly developed) interpretational grid. It may be to help you explain to your congregation why one translation is different than another translation. It may be to give you the ability to have a basic understanding of textual criticism so you can explain why some people say a large chunk of verses should be taken out of the Gospel of John. Sometimes you might get a nuance you wouldn’t get otherwise. Sometimes you might be able to come up with a clearer translation for your congregation for a verse; after all, you should know them better than anyone and they may not get it immediately. There are a plethora of reasons, and they all add up to the fact that learning Greek and Hebrew may be worth your time.
So back to Doug. Doug, I agree with you. What you said is absolutely true. Well, okay, not completely. I could never write a post more substantial than Jim. He’s awesome! :). But other than that, Doug’s two points are right. I hope I have reinforced those ideas sufficiently above.
But, I must say again, the response should not be that it is never worth your time. And judging by the other things he posts on his blog, I think Doug will be in complete agreement.
I don’t envy you the headache you will have when you awake. But, in the meantime, rest well ... and dream of large women. Sorry, lapsed into Princess-Bride-speak (though it may be relevant as some readers undoubtedly fell asleep and others will probably have a headache). So, in conclusion, learn Greek and Hebrew because doing so will very quickly bring you benefit. Use it. Love it. But don’t be overly confident in it until you’ve spent the years it takes to become proficient.