On “Knowing” Greek

Some good and important reminders from my friend at Baker Books:

DO YOU “KNOW” GREEK? SOME WISDOM FROM F.F. BRUCE

We have an abundance of resources to help a layperson “understanding” Greek. But, the old adage of “knowing just enough to be dangerous” is more true here than anywhere. All too often I get customers who want something to help them understand what “the Greek really means.” When pressed I offer them a Greek lexicon to which they inevitably say, “I can’t understand that. It’s in Greek.” I then offer them something like Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. I once had a lady look up a word and after reading the definition said, “Well, this is just what my Bible says.” I said, “I guess your translation is right. You’d be surprised just how often it is.”

I was browsing through an old Baker publication by F.F. Bruce entitled In Retrospect: Remembrance of Things Past. After I read the paragraph below I was sure I saw the heavens open and an angelic chorus broke out in great praise saying “spread this wisdom far and wide.”

“I have met students who claimed to ‘know Greek’ on the basis of their acquaintance with the Greek New Testament; even if that latter acquaintance were exhaustive, it would no more amount to a knowledge of Greek than an acquaintance with the English New Testament could amount to a knowledge of English. There is a story told of A.S. Peake writing a Greek word on the blackboard of his Manchester classroom, and one of his students saying, ‘You needn’t write it down, Doctor; we know Greek.’ To which he replied, ‘I wish I did.’ To know a language, even an ancient language, involves having such a feeling for its usage that one can tell, almost as by instinct, whether a construction is permissible or not, or whether a translation is possible or not. Translation is not simply a matter of looking up a word in a dictionary and selecting the equivalent which one would like to find in a particular passage. It is this manifest mastery of Greek usage which makes William Kelly’s New Testament commentaries, especially those on Paul’s epistles, so valuable. ‘And you know what is restraining him now,’ says the RSV of 2 Thessalonians 2:6, following some earlier interpreters. This construing of ‘now’ with ‘what is restraining’ Kelly describes as a solecism, pointing out that the ‘now’ is ‘simply resumptive’. Kelly is right. But how did he discover that the construction of the adverb with ‘what is restraining’ is a solecism? No grammar-book or dictionary would tell him that; it was his wide and accurate acquaintance with Greek usage that made it plain to him, an acquaintance which is the fruit of long and patient study.” (Bold emphasis mine. 293)

See also Gary Shogren’s excellent series of posts entitled “But the Greek REALLY says…”: Why Hebrew and Greek are not needed in the pulpit, Part 1“But the Greek REALLY says…”: Why Hebrew and Greek are not needed in the pulpit, Part 2, and “But the Greek REALLY says…” Why Greek and Hebrew are not needed in the pulpit, Part 3.

18 thoughts on “On “Knowing” Greek”

  1. Good thoughts. I especially appreciated the paragraph by F.F. Bruce. However, I thought Gary Shogren’s treatment to be shallow and diminishing the fruitfulness of understanding some Greek. As well I actually disagree with some of his treatment of the Greek.

    It’s a complicated issue that depends a great deal on the user. For some a little goes a long way. For others even a lot doesn’t do much.

  2. Thanks for sharing this from Baker Books. I’ve never enjoyed or gotten much out of “word studies.” Every so often a word study might give me a new understanding of a verse or issue, but mostly not. Yes, trust the translations – most are pretty good. In fact, instead of a word study, I’ll just look at the same verse in several good translations and it gives me a good idea of the point being made by the slightly different word choices. Anyways. I have a master of arts degree from a seminary but did not have to take Greek/Hebrew. Sometimes, I think i should take Greek, but it is so much more than just knowing Greek as the post points out. Yes, I’m content without Greek! : )

  3. Blessings brother!

    Actually, I would say my point was that people who are teaching God’s Word should know more Greek than they do, and that they need not, should not, bandy the original languages from the pulpit.

    I say this as a person who has written commentaries on the Greek text, and taught Greek and exegesis for decades.

    I cannot remember the last time I heard a Greek or Hebrew word from the pulpit that actually helped our understanding, or even one that was used correctly.

    If you object to some of my handling of one term or another, I’d be happy to dialogue with you.

    Many blessings!

  4. Thank you, Laura, for your comments. I, too, am confident our translations are responsible to the original texts, and one need not know the Greek to get the heart and mind of God.

  5. Thanks for chiming in here, Gary. I would agree that using Greek is very helpful in one’s analysis of the text but need not be used from the pulpit. Doing so can reduce reliance upon a good translation which, as the post points out, ends up saying precisely what the Greek intends. Moreover, leaning on those who “know” Greek puts too much weight on others and can shortcut God’s Spirit speaking to individuals. One of the most helpful books I read to this end while in seminary was David Black’s Using New Testament Greek in Ministry.

    Also, I’ve added a link to Part 3 of your series.

  6. Gary Shogren,
    On the 22nd I had a reply that got lost somehow and am just now squeezing in a few minutes. I’ve actually a few things to ponder on regarding this but last week didn’t have much time.

    I appreciate that there is concern for the average believer to trust in our Bibles, however, IMO they need to trust in the original languages and realize that our translations do have imperfections. The average reader owns only one Bible. In order to get the gist and help with context of a sentence most believers do not compare to other translations. I try to encourage them to do just that, because otherwise they are left with the immature thinking that they can pull on any verse, stand it alone and make accurate sense of it.

    As for hearing Greek and Hebrew from the pulpit, I find that on occasion it is important to let people know that there are words that could be translated better in certain Bibles. Some of the culprites in the NT are: rule more often means lead, brothers more often means brothers and sisters, the word ‘man’ is most often used when referring to anyone instead of any man, and so forth. The immature Christian should be aware of these things so that they can see the importance of context. Some translations are better than others in these things. But no translation is perfect.

    As for hamartia, I have found that understanding the element of ‘missing’ to be a profound revelation. Err doesn’t grasp the incredible difference between human reasoning and God’s holiness. When we understand that sin regards missing God’s holiness, then it adds another element to the importance of our not sinning. Do we want to draw closer to God, then one aspect is to seek to be holy in our doings and not just wander in the relative area but try to hit the mark and do things as God would have us.

  7. Good thoughts here tiro3. You’re correct that most believers have only one translation. However, comparing other translations is usually only one click away (via online bibles). So, it’s still a better practice to do so wherever possible. Most importantly, all translations do have their issues and not one is best. After all, as I understand inspiration applies only to the original languages in which Holy Writ was given. However, the ippsissima vox Dei (voice of God) does ring through responsible translations.

  8. Hi tiro3 and thanks!

    Starting with what IS useful to mention from the pulpit, I most definitely agree that gender-accuracy is an important issue. I’ve blogged on the NIV 2011’s use of pronouns and find it generally far superior to the ESV.

    I have to strongly disagree on hamartia, which you probably also saw in my blog. The data simply are not there to suggest that hamartia in a moral or religious sense EVER had any connection in people’s minds with missing a target with a spear or arrow. There is no indication that someone reading the LXX or the GNT would have heard “miss the target with a weapon” when he or she heard that word, nor does any Greek speaking believer in antiquity mention it’s other usage when preaching on sin.

    And remember, Jews and Christians used the word to speak of Gentile misbehavior, in contexts where they give no quarter to paganis “trying hard to hit God’s target” but missing over and over, darn it!

    Blessings, Gary

  9. Thanks Gary. We’ll have to agree to disagree on hamartia. As you probably noticed, I didn’t say it means “missing the mark” even though there are some places that say that. I settle for the element of “missing” as being crucial, but tend to believe that the range of meaning goes further than merely erring.

    There are more things than simply gender accuracy that it would seem important to note in the various (possibly over 100 translations of Greek and Hebrew into English) Bibles we have. Just this morning I was reminded of yet another way one translation seemed to imply to some people that the ‘rule’ God gave humans was domination over the animals, a domination that was negative and used at humanities whim. While that is more true of sinful humanity, it is not what God authored. There are no perfect translations, but there is a perfect God who sent us a perfect Word. Understanding it is very important for believers. And I believe that some understanding of Greek and Hebrew is important for those called to preach and teach His Word. And whether that means becoming a Bible language scholar or not is individual. Some do well with nothing, some do better with something. Heck, there are even supposed Greek scholars who get things miserably wrong.

    Thank you for the dialogue. Aloha Nui Loa!

  10. as an after thought, I quite agree with this statement:
    “Starting with what IS useful to mention from the pulpit, I most definitely agree that gender-accuracy is an important issue. I’ve blogged on the NIV 2011′s use of pronouns and find it generally far superior to the ESV.”

  11. “However, the ippsissima vox Dei (voice of God) does ring through responsible translations.”

    I think so too. The problem as I see it is irresponsible handling of translations by believers who have not been taught how to read the Bible in context. When teachers and preachers demonstrate responsible handling of God’s Word by reading and teaching in context of not only the immediate context but the whole picture of God’s Word the hearers are more likely to do the same.

    Thanks for the dialogue. Aloha Nui Loa!

  12. Absolutely agree. I love the Greek, but find that a close reading of the English Bible (or better Bibles) is what we need to have the best understanding of God’s Word.

  13. I’m all in favor of preachers have both Hebrew and Greek, with the proviso that they have enough to be really of use. The cliche goes that “A little Greek is a dangerous thing,” and I couldn’t agree more. Almost every preacher I hear cite the Greek or Hebrew have maybe, at a maximum, what I would expect my students to have at the end of two years of study. But usually they have less, or forgot what they learned, imho.

  14. Indeed, Gary. That too has been what I’ve observed. If one is going to pull the language card, they better have their Greek ducks in a row. Otherwise, there’s too much opportunity for error and misunderstanding.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *