Why the Study of the Bible’s Original Languages is so Important

 

The source of biblical theology comes from the biblical languages. So imperative is the study of the Bible’s original languages, that I will make this declaration: as soon as a Christian university or seminary gives up the necessary study of Hebrew and Greek, its theology will move from its foundations. The reason? If there is no original word from which our words come, then biblical theology can easily become a man-made theology. As I’ve argued in other Truth in Two episodes, languages, definitions, interpretation, and care for words are essential. Find these and other links at the end of this Truth in Two.

The Protestant reformer, Martin Luther knew the importance of language. In a letter to a friend he wrote,

“I am convinced that without knowledge of literature pure theology cannot at all endure. I see that there has never been a great revelation of the Word of God unless He has first prepared the way by the rise and prosperity of languages.”

And in one of Luther’s most famous statements about Christian education, he said,

“Let us thank God for this precious treasure, and guard it well. For though the Gospel has come through the Holy Spirit alone, we cannot deny that it has come by means of the languages, by which the gospel was spread and by which it must be preserved. As we prize the gospel, let us guard the languages. And let us be sure of this: we shall not long preserve the gospel without the languages. The languages are the sheath in which this sword of the Spirit is contained.”                                                                                                                     

So, we should thank God for scholars who study the original languages, words essential to the foundation of The Church. When Scripture says, “It is written,” remember: the original languages are the well from which we draw the living water of God’s Word. For the Comenius Institute, this is Dr. Mark Eckel, Executive Director of the Center for Biblical Integration at Liberty University, personally seeking truth wherever it’s found. [First published at MarkEckel.com]

AFTERWORD

References for Luther’s comments come from, first, Martin Luther, in a letter to Eoanus Hessus, quoted by Leland Ryken in Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986), p. 258, ftnt. 71; second, from Martin Luther, “To the Councilmen of All the Cities in Germany, That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools,” quoted from Armin Panning, “Language Requirements for a Gospel Ministry,” Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly, vol 80, no. 2 (Spring, 1983), pp. 116-17.

References to our Truth in Two include, “Book Burning,” “Language,” “Control,” “Definitions,” “Interpretation,” “Words,” “Words-2,” and “Caring for Words.”

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  1. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Very much so. Translations can only go so far.

    On a side note, I watched a presentation the other day where one scholar was also talking about the literary atmosphere in which the Gospels were presented. He was comparing passages in the Homeric epics to passages in the Gospels, especially Mark and Luke. It was obvious the authors had known the literature and were drawing parallels. Thus, knowing the language and the literary traditions brings out more richness than the language alone, and certainly more than a translation without context.

    Likewise, George Lamsa, a native Aramaic speaker from the Middle East, also explained the culture that he came from and that was closely related to that of Jesus. It brings a lot of light to the subject.

    • #1
  2. E. Kent Golding Moderator
    E. Kent Golding
    @EKentGolding

    All the points about knowing the original languages,   and of understanding the literature and culture of both the Hebrews of the time and of the peoples and cultures that surrounded them are very valid.    However,  I am still grateful for the translation of the Bible into all the languages of the world.    Selfishly,  I am most grateful for the translation into English.

    • #2
  3. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue
    @HartmannvonAue

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Very much so. Translations can only go so far.

    On a side note, I watched a presentation the other day where one scholar was also talking about the literary atmosphere in which the Gospels were presented. He was comparing passages in the Homeric epics to passages in the Gospels, especially Mark and Luke. It was obvious the authors had known the literature and were drawing parallels. Thus, knowing the language and the literary traditions brings out more richness than the language alone, and certainly more than a translation without context.

    Likewise, George Lamsa, a native Aramaic speaker from the Middle East, also explained the culture that he came from and that was closely related to that of Jesus. It brings a lot of light to the subject.

    Yup. Listening to or reading Messianic and Orthodox Jewish scholars commenting on the NT is also very enlightening. The “living water” discourse especially benefits from an understanding of the Hebrew language and Second Temple Judaism.

    As for translation: I don’t buy the “untranslatability” argument for any word or concept. There are words or phrases that are difficult to translate and require some circumlocation, sure. I do that all the time and have made quite a good living at it for most of the past 16 years.  But utterly untranslatable? Nah. I don’t buy it. The Welsh “hiraeth”, some claim, is not adequately rendered by “homesickness”. Fair enough, but it can be adequately rendered in English with “longing for home” or “longing for that which is lost”. Dw yn gallus siarad Cymraeg, in case you were wondering. In any case, the idea that somehow that emotion cannot be conveyed in words in English, Dutch, German, Spanish, Norwegian, etc. is simply not true.

    • #3
  4. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Hartmann von Aue (View Comment):
    As for translation: I don’t buy the “untranslatability” argument for any word or concept.

    There are some words in Chinese philosophy that don’t translate very straightforwardly. A footnote or two will still clear up most of it.

    And I’m not sure someone untrained and careless but reading the original would know what wu-wei means any better than a careful foreigner who relies on translation.

    The sentence at the end of Analects Book 6 is subtle and probably has dozens or hundreds of different plausible translations in English. But there’s no way of translating it as “Kill your parents,” and every translation will probably at least hint that this is the Golden Rule here.

    • #4
  5. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue
    @HartmannvonAue

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Hartmann von Aue (View Comment):
    As for translation: I don’t buy the “untranslatability” argument for any word or concept.

    There are some words in Chinese philosophy that don’t translate very straightforwardly. A footnote or two will still clear up most of it.

    And I’m not sure someone untrained and careless but reading the original would know what wu-wei means any better than a careful foreigner who relies on translation.

    The sentence at the end of Analects Book 6 is subtle and probably has dozens or hundreds of different plausible translations in English. But there’s no way of translating it as “Kill your parents,” and every translation will probably at least hint that this is the Golden Rule here.

    Oddly, I think I know what you’re talking about. If it’s what I think it is, the translation I saw was “That which you would not want another to do to you, do not to the other.” – Does that read right?

    • #5
  6. Mark Eckel Coolidge
    Mark Eckel
    @MarkEckel

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Very much so. Translations can only go so far.

    On a side note, I watched a presentation the other day where one scholar was also talking about the literary atmosphere in which the Gospels were presented. He was comparing passages in the Homeric epics to passages in the Gospels, especially Mark and Luke. It was obvious the authors had known the literature and were drawing parallels. Thus, knowing the language and the literary traditions brings out more richness than the language alone, and certainly more than a translation without context.

    Likewise, George Lamsa, a native Aramaic speaker from the Middle East, also explained the culture that he came from and that was closely related to that of Jesus. It brings a lot of light to the subject.

    There is so much to consider in your good word here! One of the travesties of my time in public university is how little people cared to do any research showing how the gospel accounts showed obvious literary connections within the literary scope of the day. Here is one good example.

    • #6
  7. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Yes! Understanding the language and its culture is huge. 

    Westerners understand the use of language differently than it is used in the past and in the east. 

    • #7
  8. Mark Eckel Coolidge
    Mark Eckel
    @MarkEckel

    E. Kent Golding (View Comment):

    All the points about knowing the original languages, and of understanding the literature and culture of both the Hebrews of the time and of the peoples and cultures that surrounded them are very valid. However, I am still grateful for the translation of the Bible into all the languages of the world. Selfishly, I am most grateful for the translation into English.

    Amen and amen. One of the greatest language works is to get God’s Word into the dialect of every people.

    • #8
  9. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue
    @HartmannvonAue

    Side note: The Japanese word rendered phonetically in English by some as “eekamimi”, meaning, “squid ears” has been getting a lot of use in our house since we got kittens. It’s the act of a cat almost totally flattening its ears at the side of its head when irritated or alarmed, but not angry.

    • #9
  10. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue
    @HartmannvonAue

    Mark Eckel (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Very much so. Translations can only go so far.

    On a side note, I watched a presentation the other day where one scholar was also talking about the literary atmosphere in which the Gospels were presented. He was comparing passages in the Homeric epics to passages in the Gospels, especially Mark and Luke. It was obvious the authors had known the literature and were drawing parallels. Thus, knowing the language and the literary traditions brings out more richness than the language alone, and certainly more than a translation without context.

    Likewise, George Lamsa, a native Aramaic speaker from the Middle East, also explained the culture that he came from and that was closely related to that of Jesus. It brings a lot of light to the subject.

    There is so much to consider in your good word here! One of the travesties of my time in public university is how little people cared to do any research showing how the gospel accounts showed obvious literary connections within the literary scope of the day. Here is one good example.

    Did you read any of the comparative studies of language in the Gospels and the works Epictetus? The one I am thinking of dealt with the question of influence and concluded there was none in either direction, just shared use of common metaphors and formulations from Greek moral philosophy.

    • #10
  11. Mark Eckel Coolidge
    Mark Eckel
    @MarkEckel

    Hartmann von Aue (View Comment):

    Mark Eckel (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Very much so. Translations can only go so far.

    On a side note, I watched a presentation the other day where one scholar was also talking about the literary atmosphere in which the Gospels were presented. He was comparing passages in the Homeric epics to passages in the Gospels, especially Mark and Luke. It was obvious the authors had known the literature and were drawing parallels. Thus, knowing the language and the literary traditions brings out more richness than the language alone, and certainly more than a translation without context.

    Likewise, George Lamsa, a native Aramaic speaker from the Middle East, also explained the culture that he came from and that was closely related to that of Jesus. It brings a lot of light to the subject.

    There is so much to consider in your good word here! One of the travesties of my time in public university is how little people cared to do any research showing how the gospel accounts showed obvious literary connections within the literary scope of the day. Here is one good example.

    Did you read any of the comparative studies of language in the Gospels and the works Epictetus? The one I am thinking of dealt with the question of influence and concluded there was none in either direction, just shared use of common metaphors and formulations from Greek moral philosophy.

    It seems there is disagreement among those who would know better than I. One argues that Epictetus is a teacher like Jesus, they both tell stories; that’s as far as any connection goes. Others say, as you did, there are some similarities. Whatever else can be said, surely one could say that “influence” is easily seen from cultural conditions; that people organized and presented their work for an audience based on the time and place and people and culture of the day. My point would be that God communicates with human constructs for human benefit.

    • #11
  12. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Hartmann von Aue (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Hartmann von Aue (View Comment):
    As for translation: I don’t buy the “untranslatability” argument for any word or concept.

    There are some words in Chinese philosophy that don’t translate very straightforwardly. A footnote or two will still clear up most of it.

    And I’m not sure someone untrained and careless but reading the original would know what wu-wei means any better than a careful foreigner who relies on translation.

    The sentence at the end of Analects Book 6 is subtle and probably has dozens or hundreds of different plausible translations in English. But there’s no way of translating it as “Kill your parents,” and every translation will probably at least hint that this is the Golden Rule here.

    Oddly, I think I know what you’re talking about. If it’s what I think it is, the translation I saw was “That which you would not want another to do to you, do not to the other.” – Does that read right?

    No.

    But, for 2 or 3 or 4 other passages in Analects, yes.

    • #12
  13. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue
    @HartmannvonAue

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Hartmann von Aue (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Hartmann von Aue (View Comment):
    As for translation: I don’t buy the “untranslatability” argument for any word or concept.

    There are some words in Chinese philosophy that don’t translate very straightforwardly. A footnote or two will still clear up most of it.

    And I’m not sure someone untrained and careless but reading the original would know what wu-wei means any better than a careful foreigner who relies on translation.

    The sentence at the end of Analects Book 6 is subtle and probably has dozens or hundreds of different plausible translations in English. But there’s no way of translating it as “Kill your parents,” and every translation will probably at least hint that this is the Golden Rule here.

    Oddly, I think I know what you’re talking about. If it’s what I think it is, the translation I saw was “That which you would not want another to do to you, do not to the other.” – Does that read right?

    No.

    But, for 2 or 3 or 4 other passages in Analects, yes.

    Thanks.

    • #13
  14. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Mark Eckel (View Comment):
    It seems there is disagreement among those who would know better than I.

    “Scholars disagree,” has to be one of the most frequent phrases in any language. 😄

    • #14
  15. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Hartmann von Aue (View Comment):
    As for translation: I don’t buy the “untranslatability” argument for any word or concept.

    I wasn’t saying it can’t be done. My translations have usually been of poetry. (Which much of the Bible is, too, of course.) Poetry tends to be much denser than prose and more difficult to translate because of it. Of course, one is generally less close to a one-to-one word correspondence with poetry than even with prose. (And note, I do not expect that with prose very often, either.)

    But it can be difficult when one has to not only translate the words, but also the culture something is set in. As Augie said, a footnote can usually clear that up, but for longer works, it can take a lot of footnotes.

    • #15
  16. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue
    @HartmannvonAue

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Hartmann von Aue (View Comment):
    As for translation: I don’t buy the “untranslatability” argument for any word or concept.

    I wasn’t saying it can’t be done. My translations have usually been of poetry. (Which much of the Bible is, too, of course.) Poetry tends to be much denser than prose and more difficult to translate because of it. Of course, one is generally less close to a one-to-one word correspondence with poetry than even with prose. (And note, I do not expect that with prose very often, either.)

    But it can be difficult when one has to not only translate the words, but also the culture something is set in. As Augie said, a footnote can usually clear that up, but for longer works, it can take a lot of footnotes.

    Agreed. It can be difficult. Sorry for the imprecision in my original response. I was not attributing the “it can’t be done” or “translation is always treachery” idea that is common among some people who think they have a high view of translation and the power of language to you personally. Poetry is harder to translate, by far.

    • #16
  17. Nohaaj Coolidge
    Nohaaj
    @Nohaaj

    Mark Eckel (View Comment):

    E. Kent Golding (View Comment):

    All the points about knowing the original languages, and of understanding the literature and culture of both the Hebrews of the time and of the peoples and cultures that surrounded them are very valid. However, I am still grateful for the translation of the Bible into all the languages of the world. Selfishly, I am most grateful for the translation into English.

    Amen and amen. One of the greatest language works is to get God’s Word into the dialect of every people.

    My now deceased aunt was a Felician nun, who was fluent in over 10 languages. She was assigned many years in the Vatican translating and proofreading the Bible and other Papal decrees and documents into those languages. 

    • #17
  18. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    As readers of my Torah posts know, I always try to understand words and phrases by how they are used in the text itself. Direct translations cannot be fully accurate and informative, but with analysis (and enough words), anything can be understood in English.

    • #18
  19. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    iWe (View Comment):
    but with analysis (and enough words), anything can be understood in English.

    And most of those words came from other languages that the English people ransacked of vocabulary.

    • #19
  20. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Arahant (View Comment):

    iWe (View Comment):
    but with analysis (and enough words), anything can be understood in English.

    And most of those words came from other languages that the English people ransacked of vocabulary.

    Which is why English is so awesome. Diversity is our Strength! ™

    • #20
  21. Bill Berg Coolidge
    Bill Berg
    @Bill Berg

    My favorite example of easy to understand and important translation issues is my understanding that, “Thou shalt not kill” is better translated from the Hebrew to English as “Thou shalt not MURDER”. 

    Big difference, one word. How many have believed that the Bible prohibits the death penalty, believers can’t serve in the military, etc. 

    YES, translation is critical! 

    • #21
  22. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Bill Berg (View Comment):

    My favorite example of easy to understand and important translation issues is my understanding that, “Thou shalt not kill” is better translated from the Hebrew to English as “Thou shalt not MURDER”.

    Big difference, one word. How many have believed that the Bible prohibits the death penalty, believers can’t serve in the military, etc.

    YES, translation is critical!

    But, but, but. . .The King James Version was written by the hand of God Hisself in God’s heavenly English. How could it be wrong?

    • #22
  23. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks
    @jameslileks

    I absolutely do not know enough about the subject to speak with anything other than curiosity. That said, I recall an interview with Anthony Burgess about the subject, and he made an offhand remark about the word for “Rope” and “Camel” being similar in one of the languages into which the Bible had been translated. Hence it ends up in English as it being easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle instead of a rope, which makes much more sense. I googled once and got lost in a thorny discussion about whether it really referred to a tiny gate in the walls of an ancient city that was known as the Eye of the Needle.

    • #23
  24. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks
    @jameslileks

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Bill Berg (View Comment):

    My favorite example of easy to understand and important translation issues is my understanding that, “Thou shalt not kill” is better translated from the Hebrew to English as “Thou shalt not MURDER”.

    Big difference, one word. How many have believed that the Bible prohibits the death penalty, believers can’t serve in the military, etc.

    YES, translation is critical!

    But, but, but. . .The King James Version was written by the hand of God Hisself in God’s heavenly English.

    No, it was written by Shakespeare Kit Marlowe.

    Well, maybe only the 46th psalm.

    • #24
  25. Bill Berg Coolidge
    Bill Berg
    @Bill Berg

    James Lileks (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Bill Berg (View Comment):

    My favorite example of easy to understand and important translation issues is my understanding that, “Thou shalt not kill” is better translated from the Hebrew to English as “Thou shalt not MURDER”.

    Big difference, one word. How many have believed that the Bible prohibits the death penalty, believers can’t serve in the military, etc.

    YES, translation is critical!

    But, but, but. . .The King James Version was written by the hand of God Hisself in God’s heavenly English.

    No, it was written by Shakespeare Kit Marlowe.

    Well, maybe only the 46th psalm.

    My understanding is that the KJV had around 50 translators involved with a lot of cross checking with previous translations as well as using original Hebrew and Greek. 

    The beauty of the KJV is on par with its accuracy. Like Shakespeare, it is one of the most important works in the history of the English-speaking people. 

    Some time spent with Bach’s B Minor Mass, or other of his works might cause one to consider the possibility of Divine Inspiration. 

    • #25
  26. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Bill Berg (View Comment):
    The beauty of the KJV is on par with its accuracy. Like Shakespeare, it is one of the most important works in the history of the English-speaking people.

    I think the KJV of the Torah is very beautiful, indeed.

    • #26
  27. Teeger Coolidge
    Teeger
    @Teeger

    I would like to add that while the study of original languages and contexts matter very much, the Christian layman should be confident that, with a good translation, that they are receiving the Word of God inspired by the Spirit of God who indwells them. 

    • #27
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