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It’s all Greek to me…and that’s the way I like it!

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Posted by Tom Woolford, 30 May 2016

Is learning and keeping up the biblical languages worth it? A dozen or so Anglican ministers give their reflections.

Residential training at theological college is under increasing pressure owing to its being much more expensive than non-residential forms of training. But one area of training that even detractors of theological colleges concede is generally better provided through studying full-time at a residential college than through other modes is biblical languages. The considerable demand that language learning places upon time and energy (especially in the early stages of learning), the necessity of specialist (expensive) resources, and the need for expert tutors makes a theological college especially suited to provide language training. But what difference does having Greek or Hebrew make in ministry? For those considering how and where to train, those due to start at theological college, and those who have a sabbatical coming up – are languages worth the considerable time investment?  I asked some friends in ministry in the Church of England and have produced this (lightly edited) summary of their responses.

Encourages greater care in preparation
“I study the passage in the original language in order to slow me down, particularly since it’s so easy to get overfamiliar with English translations.”

“Having been a Christian for several decades now, I find it fatally easy to think I already know what any given Bible passage means. The temptation is to rush quickly into writing a sermon on what I think the passage means (which will generally turn out to reflect my own framework, hobbyhorses and so on) rather than get deep into the passage to hear what God is actually saying. We all need ways to make sure we are really engaging afresh with the text. There are ways of doing this open to all regardless of language expertise, but for those with access to the biblical languages, reading the passage in the original is the best way to slow down and think: ‘What does this really mean?’”

“I’m not skilled enough to pick up on all of the nuances of the original, but I do find that translating a passage helps to work it ‘under my skin.’ Perhaps it’s a different part of the brain at work, or perhaps it’s the slow and focused reading. Either way, it slows me down, and causes me to be much more thoughtful about the words on the page.”

Using translations responsibly
“I get to see where the translators have interpolated in order to make it clearer to us in English. There are occasions when the translators have assumed a certain exegesis that it is appropriate to check.”

“Studying in the Biblical languages alerts me to places where translators have made significant interpretative decisions – so I can weigh up their decision. Hopefully this means I avoid building an exegetical point on a foundation that is insecure.”

“I think what the languages do is they enable you to do all the good exegetical stuff that ministry training courses teach you, but on the actual text that matters. Comparing lots of English versions is a valid and helpful exercise for preachers as they prepare, but going to the original is even better.”

Engaging with commentaries
“For me the most useful thing about knowing some New Testament Greek is being able to follow along with the technical commentaries. This week I’ve been preparing a couple of talks on 2 Corinthians, and I’ve really benefitted from been able to follow along with the discussion and come to more informed decisions.”

“I think that knowing enough Greek to follow the commentaries allows us to own their conclusions more than otherwise – and sometimes to arbitrate between opposing commentaries. A good example is whether or not Paul actually calls Jesus God in Romans 9:5 (‘…from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen’ – NIV; ‘…of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ. God who is over all be blessed for ever. Amen’ – RSV). Scholars differ on this, and knowing a little bit of Greek can help you engage with different scholars and decide which you think is right.”

Discerning emphasis and structure
“For studying the New Testament, looking at the Greek can be helpful to differentiate between the main verb and the participles in order to work out the main idea – for instance in Matthew 28:19-20 (‘Go therefore and make disciples, baptising them…teaching them…’).”

“What difference does using Greek and Hebrew make? Much. I get to feel the inspired author’s emphases and see the structure of the original.”

“By studying the Greek syntax I can see what the writer intended to emphasize. This gives me a richer understanding of what was written than an English translation can, which in turn can contribute to a richer sermon.”

“When I’m disciplined I’ll scan the Greek or Hebrew for repeated words. It really sharpens my exegetical skills.”

“Biblical languages give me lots more confidence in determining structure (for instance, noting the lead verbs), themes (looking out for repeated words), emphases (notable changes in word order) and allusions (use of Old Testament terminology). As a result, I feel more secure in the decisions about what to preach.”

“Engaging with the original languages allows much greater awareness of the grammatical and logical flow of sentences and units, particularly through repeated vocabulary that can (and often should!) be obscured in English.”

Appreciating artistry
“I can see how the author used repeated words and sounds – something that doesn’t often come across in translation.”

“Without Greek I couldn’t grasp different authors’ distinctive styles. With Greek, I can better appreciate the ungrammatical, Semitised Greek of Revelation which underlines the book’s crazy content; the rhetorical majesty of 1 Peter which emphasises the book’s literary artistry and power, and the simple profundity of John’s Greek which underscores the simple profundity of his Gospel.”

“Although a lot of people say that Greek adds more than Hebrew, I am not sure that I agree. Hebrew is much more different to English than Greek; so there may even be more profit in reading the Old Testament in its original language rather than in translation. The way a passage is put together in Hebrew – how emphasis is brought forth, how word-play functions, how narrative flows, how poetry works – is so much harder to express well in English that reading in Hebrew adds so much to our understanding of its beauty and nuance.”

Nuancing understanding
“Knowing Greek allows you see the word plays and the deeper meanings behind occasionally rather blunt English equivalents.”

“When you can communicate with someone – anyone, dead or alive – in their own language, some of the barriers of communication start to break down. You’re thinking what they think, in the words they think it, rather than thinking a roughly equivalent rendering of what they think. Original languages allow you to think and feel with the original writer every step of the way.”

“The Bible is just easier to understand in the original than in translation. Try meditating on a couple of verses from Galatians, say, in English and in Greek. Paul’s argument is so much clearer in the Greek – not because there is necessarily anything wrong in an English version, but simply because the argument is in Greek and so flows more organically in that language.”

With thanks to Chris Kilgour, Adam Young, Dan Hughes, Greg Bannister, Phil Sacre, Ben Thompson, Jonathan Clark, Michael Dormandy, Nick Algeo, Timothy Edwards, John Percival, Will Warren, Matt Hornby and Mark Broadway.

Tom Woolford is a Diocese of Blackburn Ordinand studying at Oak Hill College. He has been slogging away at Hebrew and Greek for three years so far.

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