Well, finishing this little mini-series took a lot longer than expected. Needless to say that getting engaged, work, school and life are enough to keep me away from writing!
I’ve previously written two entries about the study of Biblical languages, part 1 and part 2. In the first entry I talked about why it is important for ministry leaders, particularly pastors, to have a working knowledge of the original text. In the second entry, I focused mainly on some small but common examples of how to defend the text against common attacks. In this last entry of this series, I am going to discuss a few examples of how the original text can greatly enhance teaching from a given text.
It is rarely the case that a reading of the original language will significantly alter the message of the translation. That should be of great comfort to many, as it shows that our English translations (and others) are mostly accurate concerning the original text. What we do often find, however, is that the message can be significantly enhanced by really understanding the language of the author.
Below I have listed a few examples that I will do my best to explain. I would like to again remind the reader that I am in no way claiming to be an expert on this subject, as I am barely scratching the surface myself. I do however love to share what I am learning with others, and I hope in some way these little examples are enriching to you.
Example #1: Understanding the Original Word
This little diddy was something I discovered in my studies of 1 Timothy a couple of weeks ago. As I was translating and studying 1 Timothy 2:1-6, I was curious at the following line: For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time (1 Ti 2:5–6, ESV). My attention was drawn to the word ransom, ἀντίλυτρον in the Greek. Recognizing this as a compound word, I looked up λυτρον in the lexicon to find that λυτρον by itself meant “ransom”. So why the need to compound ἀντί ? Turning to my handy Daniel Wallace grammar to see what he had to say about this, indeed our little preposition ἀντί provides great emphasis to this passage. As it turns out, ἀντί carries the meaning of “exchange”, “substitution” or “in place of”.
Now the passage in the English already says “ransom for all”, so the idea of Christ paying our penalty is already at work here. However, taking into consideration the full word ἀντίλυτρον, we can now really see a substitutionary ransom is what Paul really had in mind here. Paul really wants to get the message across to his audience that Christ’s death was in place of sinners. How sweet this truth is!
Example #2: The Present Progressive
The book of 1 John is awesome because you need very little vocabulary to translate it. It is so repetitive that by the end of the book you feel like an absolute pro who could translate any book in the New Testament. If only this was the case…
1 John 3:9 presents us with an interesting little passage. It reads: No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God ( 1 Jn 3:9, ESV). Now from what we know about the entirety of the New Testament, there can be no way this passage means that if you sin once you aren’t a Christian anymore. That isn’t how grace works. But don’t we sometimes think that? Maybe when we’re feeling low, having a week where we’ve really fallen into sin, we start thinking those thoughts don’t we? There are some preachers out there (albeit false ones) who want to lord over you by preaching a perfectionist message, maybe they’re right?
This is where our understanding of the present progressive tense comes into play. The present progressive tense is one that means it is an action that is occurring now and is continuing on into the future. When we read the verbs “makes a practice of” and “sinning”, what we’d find in the Greek language is this is in the present progressive tense. So what we’re talking about here is someone who sins now and continues habitually to practice that sin without remorse. While this is again understandable from our English translations, it is entirely possible for people to get caught up on verses like this.
**As I write example #3, I realize it is worth briefly mentioning Hebrews 2:17, …to make propitiation for the sins of the people (Heb 2:17b, ESV). It is interesting to note that the verb “to make propitiation”, ἱλάσκεσθαι, is also in the present progressive tense. What we can gather from this is that this passage is not referring to a single act of atonement on the cross, but a continual subsequent activity by which Christ continually applies the propitiatory power of His sacrifice (Vos, Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, 145). Since this could be an entirely separate post to examine this, for brevity’s sake I will end this note here.
Example #3: The Perfect Tense
The perfect tense is a verb tense in the Greek language that is really hard to communicate in the English. The reason for this is the lengthy implications the perfect tense has. The perfect tense can simply be defined by an action that was completed in the past and has results or impact in the present time. An example of this idea would be like saying “I have freed him from jail”, with the present result being that he is still freed. Since it is hard to realize when such a tense is being read in our English translations, we often breeze right through the words without stopping and asking “Well what is the result that action had on present reality?”
The perfect tense is littered throughout the Greek text, and it often can greatly enhance ones message when properly understood. A great example of this can be seen in Hebrews 2:18, For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted (Heb 2:18, ESV). The verb for “has suffered” is in the perfect tense, which tells us that Christ’s sufferings are something that happened in the past, but have a result in present reality. The sufferings and temptation that Christ has behind him, and still carries with him as a past experience, enables him to relate and know exactly to what weight and force we are struggling in our temptations.
This message brings such joy and comfort to my soul. The God of the Bible is such a drastically different God than any other man-made god throughout history – he understands what we are going through and sympathizes with us in our weaknesses. I know when I am feeling tempted and shamed in my sinful state that Christ hears me and sympathizes with me, knowing what I am going through.
Example #4: Word Order
Those silly Greeks didn’t quite understand proper word order yet (proper by my American English standards!), so ancient Greek writings can largely put the words in any order the author so chooses. One of the benefits of this is that the author can place certain words before others if he really wanted to provide an emphasis on a word or concept.
Philippians 2:13 has a really great example of this. The beginning of this verse reads, for it is God who works in you (Phil 2:13a, ESV). The Greek for this reads θεὸς γάρ ἐστιν ὁ ἐνεργῶν ἐν ὑμῖν, woodenly translated for God is the one working in you. What is interesting about this sentence fragment is the word order – under normal circumstances we would expect ὁ ἐνεργῶν (the one working) to have been the first two words in the construct, as it is the subject of this clause. However, what we find is that Paul chose to put θεὸς (God) first. This is important for us because it tells us that Paul really wanted to emphasize GOD as the one who works in us. That is the concept Paul wants us to take away, that it is not us who works for him but it is GOD who works in us. This is also especially important if we consider the previous verse, which has often led people to think Paul was teaching a works-based salvation. This is not the case, instead Paul is speaking of an obedience to God already working in us.
Well, that concludes this short series on the importance of language studies. I hope these few examples were enriching to you in some way, and if you are not familiar with languages, you can begin to see how small things here and there can really begin to enhance the message of a passage when the original text is really studied.
Of course there are examples where varying translations can occur from the Greek that might have significant differences in the meaning of the passage (Philippians 2:13, substantive infinitives anyone?). However, I do not think examining such passages would be particularly fruitful at this time, but I may write about them in the future.
If you are familiar with languages, or have had some training in the past but have now neglected to keep up with your understanding of the languages, I hope this series was an encouragement and challenge for you to get your grammars and books back out. For people new to the idea of studying languages, I hope this series has given you an appreciation for the depth that can be found in language study.
When I began this series weeks ago, I set out to answer the question “Why study the original languages if we have modern translations?” Hopefully this served its purpose!