Why Learn Greek with All The Available Translations?

The other day I was asked the best way to get started with Greek. I asked him what his goal was and he said that he was still mulling. I’ll get to answering that first question but before I do that I want to give him (and anyone else) some things to mull about. Learning Greek to the point where it’s really useful is a very time-consuming task. If you’re going to go through a course of study, especially a difficult one, you often need more than just curiosity to finish it. For me, the time investment is totally worth it. If you're asking yourself if you should embark in this learning adventure and if so, how much time you want to invest, then hopefully these posts will be of benefit to you.

Note, most of what I’ll discuss would apply generally to learning old and/or dead languages (and Greek is an old but not a dead language), so in most cases you can replace Greek in this discussion with Coptic, Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Latin, Akkadian, etc. Certain tools and most of the examples won’t be relevant outside of Greek but much is broadly applicable.

I blogged about some related thoughts a while back but figured I would take a fresh crack it since since that was about seven years ago. This time I’ll also add examples to help make the benefits more clear. Because I focus on biblical interpretation and early Christian studies (when I’m not programming), most of my examples will be from that arena.

I was originally going to do this as one post but it was stretching on seemingly forever, so I’m going to break it up and give this to you in installments. In this post we’ll focus on translations and inevitably interpretation. In future posts we’ll focus more on interpreting ancient texts, tools, and textual criticism. We’ll end with a discussion on how you can get started with Greek once you’ve decided that it’s worthwhile and as best I can, finish up with some thoughts on what you’ll be able to do given different amounts of effort you put into this.


We’ll start this series with what is probably the most obvious subject, translations. For ancient works there are either no translations, out-of-date translations, bad translations, several translations or way too many translations to use practically (the New Testament would be one of the few books to which this latter description applies). If the thing you want to read has no translation, the translations are out-of-date, or are bad, then the benefit of knowing the original language should be obvious so I won’t argue the point. But what if there are several, or even many, available translations? Why shouldn’t I just put my effort into interpreting the text instead of translating, since someone’s already done the translating for me?

Let’s start this discussion with some relevant translation myth-busting. I’ve either thought these at some point because of my own naivete or have heard these things stated by others. If you believe them, they’ll really get in the way of you being able to thinking straight.

Translation versus Interpretation

Assumption: some translations are more interpretive than others, so if I stick to the literal translations then I can do my own interpretation without someone else’s interpretation biasing me. False. All translation is interpretation. Anyone who says otherwise if either ignorant or trying to sell you something (of course if you make the assumption that you can approach a text without your biases affecting you, then you also don’t understand how biased we all really are, but that’s a separate discussion). All languages are ambiguous. And on top of that, all writers are not perfectly clear about all things. So translation (any communicative act, really) involves interpretation. And if you want to fully understand their translation/interpretation, you have to know the original language.

A related myth is another one I’ve heard from people related to the “fullness of time” terminology in the Bible (Gal 4:4, Eph 1:10, perhaps elsewhere). When people see this they tend to try to anchor it in external historical circumstances (understandable). Some people have identified Greek as one of those “fullness of time” things because Greek is supposedly very unambiguous, which makes it a better (best?) tool for communicating the news of Jesus. Various languages have more or less features for encoding meaning and so you could claim that Greek can potentially be more or less precise than other languages. But any claim that Greek is generally unambiguous is patently false. There is ambiguity and it leads to all sorts of interpretational issues.

How about a few examples. The first one we’ll start with is in 1 John 2:5, which has the phrase “love of God” in it, rendered from ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ. So what does it mean? It it referring to our love of God? It is God’s love for us? Maybe you think you know from context or something. But even if you think you have a firm answer for this, at the language level, given what we know now about Greek, this is very ambiguous. So interpretation is necessary because the language itself doesn’t disambiguate the meaning.

So what is this problem? In syntactical terms, the difference is whether or not we have an objective or subjective genitive here. Generally speaking, if the noun (in this example, “love”) is a verbal noun (i.e., the noun describes something that has a verbal notion to it) and if it is followed by a genitive case noun (in this example, what we render as “of God”), you will have the situation where you have to interpret (from context or something else) what the relationship between the head noun (“love”) and the genitive noun (“of God”) is. Other examples of verbal nouns are faith, hope, or revelation. Hopefully you can see the verbal idea in them. Examples of non-verbal nouns are tick, dog, capybara, and moth (let the reader understand). When you find something like this and you have to decide what is going on, is this translation or is it interpretation? A little of both.

Let’s take another example. Recently I’ve been reading through N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God with some friends. One of his big issues (and it’s been an issue for a number of years) is the translation of a rather ambiguous Greek construction, πίστις Χριστοῦ. This phrase occurs several times in Paul’s writings and is usually translated “faith in Christ”. If you’ve read Paul, you’ll know he uses that phrase in some important places. Wright (and others) contend that this is an incorrect translation, that it should be rendered “faithfulness of Christ” and not “faith in Christ”. This is the same interpretational issue as before. “Faith” is a verbal noun and you have to decide if Χριστοῦ is objective (and you get “faith in Christ”) or subjective (“and you get faithfulness of Christ”). The idiom is somewhat ambiguous to us (though the readers may not have thought so), so we have to look at other instances of this distinction, or perhaps do some word study and see if πίστις is usually followed by an objective or subjective genitive, or try to argue from context, etc. But once again we’re clearly back to interpretation.

In theory, you could try to opt for an approach that avoided interpretation. Maybe instead of “faith in Christ” or “faithfulness of Christ” in the text, you just put in πίστις Χριστοῦ instead, or maybe a transliteration of “pistis Christou”, but both would be terribly confusing to most people. So an interpretation is often the right way. In some cases, the target language allows for ambiguity and sometimes leaving it open is the best way to go. “Love of God” above is as ambiguous in English as it is in Greek so in that case it’s an easy choice. I wonder if that’s the motivation behind KJV’s rendering of the very difficult first half of Isaiah 53:8 (yes, Hebrew and not Greek, but still…), “He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation?”. Different translations go different ways (this is a hard one) but I am at a total loss as to what that last phrase in the KJV could even mean. Maybe they were at a loss and left it ambiguous. Or maybe I don’t understand their English.

Of course there are many other instances of ambiguity outside the whole subjective/objective genitive issue. In Phil 2:5–6, what does it mean for Christ to be “equal with God” and what does it mean that he “emptied himself”? And how is this related to his “taking on the form of a servant”? Was it “by” taking the form of a servant? Or was the taking on of the form just contemporaneous with the emptying? This are questions that are hard to answer because Greek (like every language) has elements of ambiguity in it. In these verses, there is ambiguity in both syntax and in the meaning of the terms.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, here’s another example. There is a phrase in Ephesians 4:9 using a genitive case noun that is generally translated as partitive (KJV and NASB, “the lower parts of the earth”) or in apposition (ESV, “the lower regions, the earth” or NIV, “the lower, earthly regions”). Syntactically speaking, the Greek here is fairly ambiguous but the interpretations are quite distinct in meaning.

What About Using a Bunch of Translations?

Okay. So Greek can be ambiguous.

Assumption: if you use enough translations, you’ll be able to get all the shades of meaning and/or possible interpretations, so there’s no value in learning the original language. False. First, sometimes the variations between English translations will be stylistic and don’t come out of the source text, so you will get false interpretive differences if they are your only source of data. Second, there’s going to be all sorts of places where the various nuances of the source language won’t actually turn up in an English translation, no matter how many you use. Third, even if you compile all this data, it is questionable that you’ll understand the issue well enough to know why they made their decisions and so you won’t really be able to do justice to the issues at hand anyway. Though using many translations is better than using one, after gathering the data the reasons behind the translations are still often going to be unclear.

I also want to note that translations, at least of the Bible, tend to be conservative, by which I mean that they will usually be biased towards established translations, ideas and base texts (this will be further explained when we get to textual criticism in a later post). This will be especially true where departing from typical translations might cause a kerfuffle. For some examples from textual criticism, the majority of textual critics behind modern translations don’t think John 7:53–8:11 was originally part of the gospel of John, or that Mark 16:9–20 was originally part of the Gospel of Mark, yet they’re still there. They’ll often have footnotes or something similar to indicate that the earliest manuscripts don’t include the texts or some similar note. But what they won’t often do is remove the text entirely or separate the spurious text entirely from what they consider to be more likely original. This is probably a bigger concern for translations pushed by larger publishing houses as Bibles are a big seller and the translation can be costly. If you take these (and some other) texts out, you will upset some and may lose some sales. I don’t want to paint too negative of a picture as I don’t think all Bible translators and publishers are just out to make a buck. But we’d be naive is we think this can’t play into decisions. The people behind translations are human, after all.

This will be true of purely translational issues as well. Let’s say that you have someone who is convinced that Wright and others are correct about their rendering of πίστις Χριστοῦ as “faithfulness of Christ”. If the person is including a translation in his commentary or is publishing a translation by itself (like Wright did), then they are likely to translate it as they wish (though noteably the NET Bible translates it this way). But most popular translations are done by committee or at the very least by multiple people and these translations are controlled by editors and publishers. I can’t imagine that it would be easy for someone to change this in the next edition of the ESV (just used as an example as I don’t know any particulars about the internals of how the ESV group works). For many this translation would be worrisome and it would certainly affect reception and therefore sales. Maybe they wouldn’t care. But these kind of things affect us, even if subconsciously.

It’s also going to be natural for people to be biased by previous translations, especially if the work they are translating is of a text they’ve read a lot. This is going to especially be a problem with the Bible, because people who learn the original languages are usually those who have read the book in English for many years. The scholars who generally stand behind these translations will therefore be biased subconsciously by what they know already. So later translations will absolutely be affected by earlier ones. No translation is really a blank slate.

In regard to shades of meaning, another problem you have when going from one language to another is capturing all the nuances in one language which was suited for said nuances and bringing over these nuances into another language which isn’t. I can’t think of anything more difficult than taking Greek’s verb system and trying to render that in English. If you try to do this exhaustively, you’ll end up with a very unpleasant reading experience at best. At worst, because the Greek verb system has a lot of debatable nuances to it, you’ll end up with even more mistakes in your translation. The best way to understand this is to learn Greek. And unfortunately, the best way is to understand the Greek verb system is to understand Greek extremely well (and solve some ongoing academic debates while you are at it).

Insufficient Target Language

Assumption: Well, maybe all that is true but at least when we bring this into English, we can clear all this ambiguity up. False. Given how much we misunderstand each other, it should be patently obvious that this is a bad assumption. So instead of addressing this directly, I want to go one step further and show how in practice English is apparently not a perfect language to translate things into. Maybe we don’t have the syntax to make something clear or typical idiom forbids that we be clear for readability’s sake, but regardless sometimes the target language isn’t ideal for a high degree of fidelity. I’m not sure how often this happens but sometimes it really is a big deal in New Testament interpretation.

I’ll give you a couple examples. First, what’s the difference in the New Testament between believing, faith, and faithfulness? Perhaps “believing” is something that you do and mostly has to do with mental assent. I suppose then that maybe “faith” is a noun, referring to that belief you have when you believe? And of course “faithfulness” is quite different from these because that’s more than mental assent to something and implies fidelity and longer-term obedience. Unfortunately that whole line of thinking is very wrong. In English, “believe” and “faith”/“faithfulness” are from different roots but in Greek they’re all variations on the same root, on which πιστεύω (verb), πίστις (noun), πιστός (adjective) and other related words are built. As a language, English allows for an easy distinction between “belief”/“believing” and “faith”/“faithfulness”/“having faith” but Greek does not.

How about another example. What about being “just” or “justified” on the one hand and “righteous”, “made righteous”, or “righteousness” in Paul? What's the big difference between “just” and “righteous”? Answer: no difference. They are all from the same root in Greek, on which δικαιόω (verb), δίκαιος (adjective), and δικαιοσύνη (noun) as well as other words are built. English may make you think that there are distinctions here when there aren’t any but if you’re reading the Greek text, the connections are obvious.

Making Connections

Which leads me to my next point, that translations can obscure the relationships between texts where you might otherwise see them if you’re reading in the original language. Let’s exemplify this using our previous word group, the δικ* word group for “just”/“righteous”. If you read through Paul’s letter to the Romans, you’re going to see those words everywhere. But there’s a good chance you won’t see that word in Romans 6:7. The ESV text reads as follows: “For one who has died has been set free from sin.“ The “has been set free” bit is δεδικαίωται, which is a perfect tense form for δικαιόω, the verb that is often translated “justify”. I’m not saying that this is a bad translation. But what I am saying is that in the middle of a book that is all about δικ* words, you should probably connect the notion in Romans 6:7 with the whole rest of the discussion. In Greek this connection is fairly obvious but in English it’s hidden. We’ll have at least one more example of this when we talk about the importance of the Septuagint in a later post. Update 10/27/2015: I just found another example like it. If you're reading the ESV, you might miss that Paul is using the δικ* word group in his sermon in Acts 13:38-39 as they translated it "freed". End update.

Another place that this is quite relevant is in studying the synoptic gospels. If you don’t know, the synoptic gospels are Matthew, Mark and Luke and are grouped as synoptics because of the obvious overlaps, both in subject matter and in an abundance of actual wording. Unless a translation makes a serious point of avoiding doing so, they can easily obscure overlaps between these gospels. In this case, I’m going to go with an example that is insignificant but proves the point. The KJV renders the first part of Matthew 23:37 like this: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee,”. Compare the beginning of Luke 13:34: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee;”. The differences between the two are emphasized. The ESV renders the first part of both verses as follows: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” Okay, so it’s not really an important difference (the meaning doesn’t differ) but what’s the deal with this?

Well, you have a few choices. First, the wording in Matthew in the original text could be different from Luke in the original text because we have different authors, and so we have a difference in translation. Second, maybe there is question about what constitutes the original text and the editor choose for a variant reading and so we get a difference. Third, the ESV translators rendered two different Greek texts in the exact same way, either through carelessness or because they mean the same thing and it made sense for them to do so. Fourth, maybe the KJV translators didn’t cross-reference the texts and we just have two separate translations based on the text same Greek text and they just happen to differ. In this case, the latter choice is the correct one. The Greek text is exactly the same so the translation is such that it looks like there is a difference when there isn’t actually one there.

This is a simple example and as far as it goes, it’s not a big deal. But sometimes you will need to see correspondence and won’t because the translation you are using obscured the similarities in the text.

Learn How They Make the Sausage

So we’ve done some myth-busting and made some other notes. Hopefully it will encourage you to think seriously about learning Greek so you can understand more of what goes into understanding an old Greek text. Some take-aways as I see them.

First, translation is interpretation. If you learn enough Greek to read a document yourself, you have a better chance of getting past the translator’s interpretive choices and biases so all you have to do is deal with your own. That’s difficult enough as it is.

Second, Greek is sometimes ambiguous and it is useful to know when that is actually the case. If you study it enough, you can get beyond the translations which are sometimes ambiguous and figure out if it’s their mistake or ambiguity inherent in the text.

Third, since Greek (like all languages) is ambiguous, understanding the options can definitely aid you in your interpretive task. If you think a text must mean something because the translation you use says so, you may be cutting off any chance that you’ll understand a text correctly because you’re starting with bad assumptions.

Fourth, translations aren’t sufficient to give you all the interpretational options available because they have their own historical, interpretational, monetary, and political baggage. Maybe you could depend on commentaries to fill in the gaps here but many of the best commentaries assume knowledge of the source language (we’ll cover this in a later post). So if you want to know what’s possible, you simply have to learn Greek.

Fifth, let’s say you want to learn Greek to read the New Testament. Chances are, you’ve already read the New Testament quite extensively. Re-reading the text in Greek can help you see the text again with less of the assumptions that you had before. And I say less on purpose, because it’s not possible to go all tabula rasa on a text. But it does make you see things differently, and that is extremely valuable.

Sixth, translations aren’t sufficient to express the shades of meaning in certain Greek idioms. If you want to understand this better, you’ll have to understand Greek.

Seventh, there isn’t a one-to-one correspondence between any two languages, so it’s impossible to bring everything over into English and still make a translation that reads well. And there are importance places where this can lead to serious misinterpretation. Sometimes this is quite easily solved by understanding Greek.

Eighth, if you don’t read the text in the original language you will miss connections between texts. I mentioned above one example in Romans and one in the synoptics. This will come up again when we discuss the value of the Septuagint. English translations will sometimes obscure the relationships between ideas and texts that they are rather obvious when reading the text in its original language.

Ninth, without knowledge of Greek it is almost impossible to really critique a translation. You may not like its style (“KJV is too old”, “NIV isn’t literal enough”, etc.) but that’s not what I’m talking about. If you don’t know Greek, you have much less capability of saying that the translation of passage X in translation Y is erroneous because of reason Z. Of course being able to do this well requires a LOT of study and hopefully a good grasp of the scholarly literature. It’s possible but only if you take the time to learn the language.


I hope someone actually read to the end of this and found it useful. Next we’ll talk about interpretation yet again but with some twists. Stay tuned!

Update 10/27/2015 5:15 AM: Added another example and changed just a little bit of wording.

comments powered by Disqus