Greek to Me

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Back in college, I played for a choir and orchestra my senior year. We must have had a song that repeated the word “hallelujah,” because I remember the conductor taking time to explain how “hallelujah,” in the original Hebrew, meant unrestrained praise, and how we needed to think about the kinds of things that restrain us from praising God.

Imagine my disappointment years later when I discovered that the Hebrew verb, Halal (הָלַל), means “to praise,” and Jah (or yah) is short for “Yahweh.” No emotional adjectives leading to meaningful song segues. No adjectives at all. Just a simple and straightforward declaration of praise.

When I was younger, I was a little intimidated by the original languages. Whenever a pastor would pull out the Greek or Hebrew to make a point, a part of me wondered if my English translation was not enough. What was I missing in translation?   

You probably know this classic example: The Greeks used a variety of words for love. When Greeks read John 21, they read about Jesus asking if Peter loves him like a brother (phileo) or with a divine love (agape). An English reader just reads “Do you love me?” over and over, missing all the nuance, maybe even missing the point.

What else can be lost in translation?

I was pretty miffed when I discovered that “Jesus” was just a Greek way of saying “Yeshua,” which is pretty important, considering there was another Joshua in the Bible and maaaaaybe the connection is worth thinking about.

I was also miffed when I discovered that “man after my own heart” was an Ancient Near Eastern expression that basically meant “a man that I choose.” The same phrase was found in other ancient documents where kings would elect a person to a position of authority. The phrase doesn’t mean that David shared the heart of God, it meant that David was the man that God wanted to be king of Israel. Not Saul.

Back in 1998 I was privileged to get free Greek lessons at a Bible school. I jumped at the chance, eager to finally see all the little nuances that I was missing in my English translation. Sadly, we didn’t have enough classes for me to read the text for myself. However, I did have one major takeaway. I learned that the New American Standard was a translation that was as close to the original languages as a translation could get. From that point on, the NASB was the only translation I trusted.

What about the Message, you ask? What about the Message, I answer, slapping the ridiculous so-called translation from your trembling hands with unrestrained laughter (or just “laughter” in the original Hebrew).

In seminary, I finished my Greek training, and was able to tack on Hebrew as well. Every morning, as I sit with a Greek or Hebrew text, I feel nothing but gratitude to my teachers, eager to see what the Biblical authors actually put on the page. In the past six years, I think I’ve spent enough time with the languages to be able to get into a time machine and give my younger self some advice.

It is not essential:  

If the message of the Bible could be lost in translation, we’d all be in trouble. Sure, the original languages can add some insights and details, but nothing essential. Our English translations get the job done.

The more I work with languages, keeping my faithful NASB close by, the more I find myself shying away from more literal translations. The truth is, moving words from one language to another may not actually capture the clear meaning of that language.

A Hebrew phrase like, “she found favor in the eyes of Jacob” sounds good and Biblical, but it is not actually the way we would phrase it in English. We might say, “Jacob found her attractive,” or “Jacob was happy with her.” When I work my way from one language to the other, I find myself rephrasing almost everything, even moving verses around, trying to capture what the author is actually saying in the larger context.

This may sound like I’m adding or subtracting from Scripture, but I’m just doing what your pastor is trying to do—translate an ancient message into a modern context without changing it.

I don’t like to use the NASB in class, and I would definitely avoid the King James. It’s not that my students can’t understand the old or awkward texts. It’s that our language continues to evolve, and we should do our best to keep up with it, trying to keep things as clear and accurate as possible.

Trained scholars are doing a lot of good work in keeping our translations current. As I work through the ancient languages each morning, trying to choose the right words to communicate what I see, I continue to grow a lot more sympathetic to modern translations.

Still, I’m not sold on the Message. Sorry Eugene Peterson fans. It’s just not my style.

It is worth the work:

It is impossible to skim the surface of a text while translating. The effort of thinking about every word, making conscious grammatical choices, forces me to connect with the material in a deep, penetrating way, much like memorization. Nothing gets by. Not at that speed.

I can honestly say that the books I have translated into English are making more sense now than they did before. It’s not because the meaning was obscured before. It’s because the process has slowed me down, allowing me to see what’s actually there.

It affects a person’s mind:

In the movie, Arrival, Amy Adams’s character is changed when she begins to absorb and understand the alien’s written language. In a similar way, reading Hebrew and Greek has transported me back in time, allowing me to catch a glimpse of the thoughts and feelings of ancient people, making their world and culture seem a little more real.

There is something about word choices that shines a spotlight on a person’s perspective. In English, word order is everything. To scramble the word order is to change the meaning or create gibberish.

In Hebrew and Greek, however, things like subjects, objects, verbs, adjectives and prepositions can be moved around. Imagine if we labeled words by color and not order, allowing us to move the words around: subject direct object verb indirect object (adjectives would share color with their objects)

English is all about word order: I received a present from my beautiful wife.

But in Hebrew or Greek, we could rearrange the words for emphasis or effect:

beautiful from my  wife I received a present

a present I received from my wife beautiful 

My Greek teacher said that most pastors learn just enough Greek and Hebrew to be dangerous. Most don’t spend enough time with the languages to learn how the words work together, recognizing the impact of things like context, style and nuance. Too many pastors just pull out a word, look it up, and use that meaning to support their point.

My Greek teacher also said that working with languages is sort of like getting one final squeeze from a lemon after it’s already been juiced. You give it that one final squeeze, getting those last few drops. That’s what the languages have to offer—just a little more insight, a little extra clarity.

But doing the translating. That, for me, is where I find the most benefit as I try to share fellowship with men like Moses, David, John and Paul, and sense the Holy Spirit in the space between.

7 thoughts on “Greek to Me

  1. Really interesting! I wish I had the benefit of this way of studying the scriptures. And I’m both surprised and not to hear you say that you’re not so in favor of the literal translations. I’ve been leaning that way lately too, hoping that I can trust the translators to capture essence rather than exact wording – when I read to my kids I use the New Living so that they can possibly follow it. I know from line by line comparison with other translations that these guys didn’t shy away from a bit of elaboration, but honestly it’s the translation I’ve favored simply because it’s simple to grasp. I’m comforted to hear that you don’t find the English translations to have marred the meanings.

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    • I think it helps to look at the NASB to see what’s actually there, then browse through other translations to see what the editors did to clarify. Sometimes it seems that some things are lost, but if you look around enough, you’ll see what was there and understand why things were changed or moved around. All editors are working for clarity and with respect of the Scriptures, not to change anything or obscure it.

      I really like the New Living for group settings or younger people. And the translation seems reliable. I know one of the guys who worked on Isaiah! 🙂 And despite the simplicity of the language, he’s a respected PhD professor who advises people working on their doctorates at Asbury seminary. He also worked on the NIV.

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  2. Dude! You just made me look to see where I can take classical Greek classes. I’ve often wondered what is “lost” and have gone through some of the greek word by word trying to translate myself, however it’s much too slow.

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    • Awesome! But don’t take classical Greek. The Bible was written in Koine (common) Greek, so it would have some different rules and different words, sort of like the difference between the Spanish spoken in Spain vs. South America. Sometimes it’s also called Biblical Greek.

      If you have the time, DO IT! I was rolling with the book of John in less than a year. The Zondervan Reader’s Bible helps with any unfamiliar words, making it pretty easy to dive in with about a year’s training.

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      • Ah, thanks for the advice. I have done some word by word translation of passages in the past. It was interesting, but too slow… 🙂

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  3. Good news: I heard the NASB is coming out with an English version! Not a fan at all of the NASB. I stick with NRSV, NIV (2012 or more recent), ESV, sometimes the NLT. But, you’re right; we have to appreciate the good work of professional translators. When I’m asked, “What’s a good translation?” I answer, “They’re all good (except the NASB).” Because, when you’ve worked at it, you realize what a miracle we hold in our hands – the revelation of God in human language.

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  4. Jesus teaches in parables, because we are seeing but not seeing and hearing but not hearing. This does suggest that there is more to the process than translation. Idioms are like little parables and may offer clues to the larger parable. The Greeks had different words for seeing which implied various levels from casual observation to intense searching with full knowledge of what was being seen and what was being sought. What do we see, and how much more is there to see?

    Last year, we lost Leonard Cohen who wrote “Hallelujah”. The song is covered by many artists including Shrek, so there are many interpretations.

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