For the Love of Greek
The Spanish audience burst to life! I was in the jewel of Honduras, the island of Roatan. For this violent and impoverished nation, Roatan seems like the equivalent of America. The rampant crime and poverty of Roatan pales in comparison to that of its mainland nation. About 35% of Roatan’s residents speak English at home like Americans, and American cruise ships frequent the island’s harbors with wealthy tourists ready to spend money and enjoy the local beaches.
I had been asked to teach on Roatan for several days before a large crowd of both English speaking and Spanish speaking churches. Due to my scant knowledge of Spanish, a translator named Marshall was on hand. Poor Marshall not only had to translate my English, but he had to flip furiously back and forth in his Spanish Bible to read the passages I continually quoted in English. On the first day of the conference, I had just finished quoting a crucial verse in English when Marshall’s exhausted fingers seemed to fail for a moment. As providence had it, this happened to be one of a few verses I had memorized in Spanish. I gave Marshall a break by saying the verse aloud in Spanish–completely unplanned. At that moment, the Spanish-speaking parts of the audience seemed to awaken from a slumber.
I will never forget the change that happened in their faces. For the rest of the week, the whole audience was tuned in, including those whose eyes had been glazed over before I crossed over into Spanish. I was now one of them. They had heard me with their own ears and wondered when I might use their language again. Listening through a translator just does not compare to hearing and understanding the speaker for ourselves.
TONGUE OF THE APOSTLES
For the love of all things Greek, I dream of the day when Christians everywhere might teach, read, and speak in the language of the apostles. I can testify that reading Paul, Peter, and John in their own tongue far outstrips any English translation on earth. Where my English Bible says “the,” one might ask whether Luke wrote “the” or “the” or even “the.” There are 24 grammatically distinct forms of the word “the” in Greek, spelled 18 different ways. If we cannot literally translate “the” in one word from Greek to English, imagine how much meaning is lost in every verse of English translations. When a preacher or teacher sounds tedious by breaking down a Greek definition, he has every reason to do so. The gulf which divides the English reader from the apostle’s writing is wide and deep.
One of the greatest joys of reading Scripture in Greek is the emphases created by word order. For the most part, the apostles could arrange words and phrases however they liked without changing the grammatical meaning. For example, it matters in English whether we write, “The dog bit the man,” or “the man bit the dog;” but the meaning would be clear in Greek, regardless of word order. Therefore Greek writers can emphasize words and phrases simply by putting them at the beginning of sentences. The first word in many Greek sentences reads as if an English writer had underlined the word, put it in bold font, or typed it in all caps. The first word jumps out at the reader, and the least important thought or word of each Greek sentence usually lands at the end of the sentence. Take the opening phrase of Ephesians 2:10 for example:
“His for we are workmanship . . .”
Paul could have started the sentence with almost any word, but he cries out “HIS,” by putting that word first. Next, he says, “we are;” so before anything else in this sentence, Paul emphasized that we exist to belong to God–to be “His!” His what? The next word: “workmanship.” When one compares this rendering with the verse before it, the contrast through word-order is powerful (to this Greek geek, it is at least).
UNITY OF BELIEVERS
The chief strengths of Protestantism might be: love of the Scriptures, translation of the Scriptures, and encouragement of personal study in the Scriptures. In these areas, she far excels the other branches of Christianity (in my opinion). Yet when the Protestant preacher teaches or the believers gather in Bible studies, a wide variety of Scripture translations are usually sprinkled around the room with different words and often very different meanings. How great it would be if every Christian studied Greek, and therefore one basic text was in every hand. Even when different Greek texts are compared, the differences are rare and usually without significance. I know from experience because I study Scripture with a fellow Greek enthusiast once a week. He uses the eclectic Nestle-Aland text, and I use perhaps the exact opposite: the Patriarchal Text of 1904. Yet rarely do we encounter a differing word from one another, much less a significantly different meaning.
Across the world, almost all Muslims speak Arabic at home because they believe the Qur’an can only be truly understood in Arabic. As a result, everywhere a Muslim travels, he need only find another Muslim, and the language barrier is gone. Regardless of the local language, they can communicate in Arabic. Imagine if Christians did the same: when we went on mission trips or traveled for leisure, we could easily speak with local believers.
UNITY OF SCRIPTURE
The usual response I hear to this idea is the complaint that Christians would have to also learn Hebrew and Aramaic in order to likewise understand the Old Testament. If that were the case, then it would take three languages instead of one to unite Christians. Yet the oldest version of the Old Testament which is still available today is not the Hebrew, but the Jewish “Septuagint” translation in Greek, arguably 1,000 years older than the Masoretic Hebrew. As I presented in a previous article, many early Christians believed the Septuagint was divinely inspired to reveal mysteries which had long been hidden by God in the Hebrew and then revealed in Greek near the time of the Messiah’s birth as a “preparation for the gospel.”1
When English New Testament quotations of the Old Testament disagree with the Old Testament text in same Bible, it is because Protestant Old Testaments are primarily translated from the newer Masoretic Hebrew while the apostles were quoting the Greek Septuagint. Apostolic quotations usually match the Septuagint word-for-word. I have tried diligently to find a single verse in the New Testament which favors the Masoretic Hebrew over the Septuagint. I have found none, and I encourage anyone to show me such an example. I am very willing to be corrected.
Not only did the apostles quote from the Septuagint version, but the passages that they quote sometimes do not even exist in the Masoretic. I look forward to offering in a future article, examples of apostolic quotes from books like Wisdom of Solomon which the Masoretes rejected. Just recently, I translated Romans chapter three where Paul quotes the Old Testament from verse ten to eighteen, using the formula “As it is written . . .” He quoted the Septuagint of Psalm 13:1-3 (which is numbered as 14:1-3 in the Masoretic) and several other passages. In Romans 3:18, Paul quoted the final phrase of the Septuagint Psalm 13:3 word-for-word: “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” The phrase does not occur in the Masoretic equivalent of 14:3. In fact, that phrase does not occur anywhere in the Masoretic Hebrew.
BYPASSING THE BIAS
Perhaps the greatest strength of the Greek New Testament is its lack of theological bias. Every New Testament translation in English bears the bias of its translators. We cannot escape our biases in translation because English is simply not equivalent to Greek. An obvious example is the Greek word δικαιος which underlies many crucial passages of the New Testament. Depending on the theology of the translator, the verb form of δικαιοω in Romans 3:20 is translated as “declared righteous” (NIV), “made right” (NLT), or “justified” (ESV). Yet the same verb which most translations render “justify” in 3:20, they typically render as “set free,” just a few paragraphs later in Romans 6:7. If I told you which one of these four translations was correct, I should also admit that my theology colored my verdict. It would be far better for Christians everywhere to read the Scriptures as they were divinely inspired rather than through the filters of theologically biased translators.
We can do this. We can drop the biases. We can read the Scriptures in a purer form. We can unite Christianity in one common tongue. We can read the Septuagint Scriptures which our New Testaments quote. Best of all, we can identify with the Apostles by listening to them in their own language. We can do all of these things if we will take up the learning and teaching of Koine Greek.View Sources
- Eusebius of Caesarea, “Preparation of the Gospel,” book VIII, chapter 1