I am about to finish my third semester of Greek. One was taken at Reformed Theological Seminary, and two were taken at SBTS. Particularly at SBTS, my professor made it a point to help us understand the nature of translation. In his doing so, I learned at least two things that really surprised me about English translations, and even Greek texts.
I could see how these surprising things could lead someone to be really confused, or even bothered about God’s Word. Those of you that haven’t had Greek might have never considered some of these things, and that’s OK. In a way, it’s easier to just accept certain English translations as good and others as not as good and just leave it at that. But having a decent grasp on the nature of acquiring Greek texts and translating them could help you have more confidence in using English translations well.
So, here are the two biggest things I learned in Greek that really surprised me:
- The only texts that were entirely without error were the original autographs. All Scripture was breathed out by God, so that the authors wrote the exact words God intended for them to write. This text was without error in everything it claimed, both spiritually, historically, and scientifically. I fully believe that. In order to preserve this incredible Word of God, copies were made by hand. The unfortunate thing is that errors were sure to be made when this happened. I’m an editor. I know that no matter how many times you read something, check it, check it, and check it, there will always be mistakes.
After copies of copies of copies of the original autographs had been made, scholars began to compare manuscripts and noticed differences between them. These are called “textual variants.” The study of this is called “textual criticism.”
So the goal of a textual critic (those that have a conservative view of inspiration) is to determine as best as possible, which textual variants are most likely reflective of the original autographs. There are many factors involved in determining which variant is most likely. (For more info on that, check out David Alan Black’s book New Testament Textual Criticism.)
Don’t let the fact that there are textual variants in Greek manuscripts discourage you by making you think the Bible isn’t reliable. A strong majority of textual variants are miniscule and have no bearing on an interpretation of a passage. Others that have more weight on interpretation can be helped by bringing in theology of other passages that deal with that same issue. Considering the fact that the New Testament is almost 2000 years old, it really is incredible how much evidence we have to support Greek texts. We have thousands of manuscripts for the NT text, and have every reason to be confident that what we read in our English Bibles is God’s Word to us.
- Translation is treason. Dr. Pennington probably said this 20 times in my lectures. It is simple to translate proper nouns from Greek to English. But other words aren’t so simple. You can’t put the Greek language in a machine and make it pump out the English equivalent of those words and poof, there you have the Bible in English. It just doesn’t work that way. Words have connotations, implications, and nuances to them that are fluid depending on how the culture uses those words. And when you translate from one language to another, it is impossible to completely capture the nuances and connotations of those words. You have to make an interpretive decision about what the words mean. Here’s an example:
First John 2 is a passage most of us know. In the King James Version, 1 John 2:16 reads like this: “16For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.”
The word in Greek that the KJV translated as “lust” is ἐπιθυμία. When we went over this in my exegesis class, our professor asked us how we should translate this word. The question is, does ἐπιθυμία have a sexual connotation to it? If it does, then “lust” might be the best word to use to translate it. “Lust” didn’t always have a sexual connotation with it in English, but today, it does. We can rest assured that ἐπιθυμία does have some type of connotation with it. How can you know what the word really means? If it doesn’t have a sexual connotation, we should probably translate it as “desire” or maybe “longing.” How can you know? Context.
Because of the way languages work, it is almost impossible to capture every connotation and nuance to every Greek word when you translate it. This is what my professor means when he says translation is treason. You have to make an interpretive decision about what you are going to say a Greek word means in English. And when you say what a word is saying, you are at the same time making a statement about what the word is not saying. For most Greek words, there is more than one possible way to translate the word. This is why context is so important and why context determines the meaning of words. Because you can’t know how an author intended to use a word until you look at the context for how he used it.
This shouldn’t cause fear or doubt in our English Bibles. It should simply free us and teach us how it is we should study our Bibles. Not by individual words, but by sections. It’s only by sections of Scripture that you can really know what individual words mean. Not the other way around.