Monday, February 1, 2010

The Benefits of Knowing Greek

By Dr. Sid Dyer
Associate Professor, Greek & New Testament
Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary
A minister is called by God to preach His Word. Yet, few preachers do this as fully they should. God's Word was written in Hebrew and Greek, and translations are the Word of God only to the extent that they agree with the original text.1 Because translations are the work of fallible men, a minister who does not know the original languages is incapable of determining to what extent a passage he preaches from agrees with the original text. There is no such thing as a 100 percent accurate version of the Bible. A.T. Robertson points out that
...there is much that cannot be translated. It is not possible to reproduce the delicate turns of thought, the nuances of language, in translation. The freshness of the strawberry cannot be preserved in any extract.2

Thus, in order to be a reliable interpreter of the Scriptures, a minister must know the original languages. This does not mean that a minister who does not know the original languages is disqualified from preaching. It means that one who does know them is much more qualified and therefore truer to his call.

A preacher should seek to learn the precise meaning of the words as they are used in a particular biblical text. For example, Paul commands us in Galatians 6:2, according to some English translations, to "bear one another's burdens."3 But in verse 5, in these translations, he writes, "For every man shall bear his own burden." In these English translations, this seems like a contradiction. But different Greek words are both translated "burden." The word in verse 2 refers to an excessive load and the one in verse 5 refers to a normal load. Paul's teaching is that each man is to bear a normal load, but if the circumstances of his life become overwhelming, we are to help him.

Many preachers limit themselves to the study of words only. But, understanding grammatical constructions provides important insight to the interpretation of a passage. For example, the Greeks had two ways of expressing a prohibition. In one construction, an action already being practiced is forbidden. In the other, an action not yet being practiced is forbidden. In Romans 6:12, Paul uses the first construction. Thus, the precise meaning is: "Stop letting sin reign in your mortal body." It is also important to understand the subordination of clauses. Acts 20:32 reads:
And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of His grace which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified.

The first "which" has two possible antecedents in the English, either “word” or “grace.” Since the closest possible antecedent is “grace,” that seems to be the likely choice. However, the case agreement in the Greek between “which” and “word” rather than between “which” and “grace,” shows that it is the “word,” rather than “grace,” that edifies and gives an inheritance.

The Greeks had various ways of expressing emphasis which are difficult to translate into English. When the author deviates from normal word order, he is expressing emphasis. This is particularly true of words that are placed at the beginning of a clause. For example, in Galatians 2:20 the emphasis is on Christ, because the Greek reads "with Christ I am crucified."

Ministers need to strive for proficiency in Greek. James L. Boyer, a Greek professor, states:
...the best preparation for proper Biblical exegesis, particularly in matters of semantics, the meaning of words, including both lexical and grammatical study, is the widest possible experience with and constant practice in the use of the original languages. One dare not look up a word in the analytical lexicon, discover it is a verb in the aorist tense, turn to the aorist section of Dana and Mantey, then say, "The original Greek says so and so."5

What Boyer is saying is that a bare knowledge of the original languages is inadequate. The focus of so many seminaries is practical theology, and training in the languages is reduced to being able to use helps. But, one cannot be sure that the language helps he uses are always accurate. Even, sorry to say, a scholar of the caliber of A. T. Robertson is not always correct. For example, he mistook the active infinitive of "sympathize" in Hebrews 4:15 as passive.6

Kenneth Wuest teaches that "falling away" in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 refers to the rapture.7 This is the same word from which "apostasy" is derived. The Greeks used this word for such negative concepts as defection, revolt, and forsaking a god.8 In Deuteronomy 24:1, the Septuagint uses this word for divorce. It is also used for divorce in Matthew 19:7 and Mark 10:4. Surely a term loaded with such negative connotations would not be used to refer to the Church's ascension to Christ at His coming.

Fritz Rienecker's A Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament contains too many errors be regarded as reliable.9 It is difficult to determine if the errors are the result of poor scholarship, translation, or editing. Despite its numerous mistakes, it does have an abundance of useful material, but anyone using this work should exercise caution.

John Brown of Haddington, born in 1722, was the greatest preacher and theologian of Scotland in his day. At the age of 16, he stepped into a book store and asked for a Greek New Testament. Some professors had also entered the store, and one of them told John that if he could read it, he would pay for it. John took the New Testament, and to the astonishment of all in the store, he read a passage. He walked out of the store with his gift. Young John Brown had taught himself Greek by comparing a borrowed copy of the Greek New Testament to English and Latin translations. He created his own Greek lexicon and his own Greek grammar by comparing Latin word endings with Greek word endings. He later learned Hebrew. Young John Brown’s zeal for the Word of God was manifested by his desire to learn the original languages. Every minister today should have a similar zeal.
1 There is also some Aramaic in the Old Testament.
2 The Minister and His Greek New Testament, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1977), 17.
3 All Scripture quotations are from the King James Version.
5 "Semantics in Biblical Interpretation," Grace Journal 3 (1962): 33.
6 Word Pictures in the New Testament, (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press,1932), V, 365.
7 The New Testament: An Expanded Translation, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1961), 486.
8 Henry G. Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, 9th ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940), p. 219.
9 ed. Cleon L. Rogers (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976).