No Greek or Hebrew? A Tip

A very significant proportion of preachers around the world have had no training in the original languages.  After hearing yet another example in the last weeks, I’d like to give a tip regarding “this word literally means…” Generally speaking, unless you have thoroughly researched it.  Don’t use it.

The latest example I heard from the leader of a Bible study.  The verse seemed to be clear enough in content, but then we were given an exciting insight into the Hebrew text, “in the original language this word literally means . . .”  Interesting, perhaps even exciting, but actually, wrong.  It struck me as being slightly bizarre at the time, but not having my Hebrew text in front of me, and not wanting to “lord it over” in some way, I just made a note to check it later.  There’s no way it could be understood that way, unless the source of the alternative understanding had a particular theological agenda (which I’m fairly sure I can guess).

Sometimes “this literally means” might be helpful. It’s rare, but now and then this kind of background linguistic knowledge can add a nuance or some colour to our understanding of a passage.  One example is where a dynamic equivalent translation is “hiding” the repetitious use of a term (eg.”flesh” in Romans 6-8).  It is helpful to know there is a theme being repeated, and that the term used has particular connotations lost in some dynamic translations.

Often “this literally means” is not helpful. Remember that a decent translation (of which we have many in English) is the work of scholars trying to convey the meaning of the original text.  That means they tried to choose words that would express the thought and meaning of the original.  An “insight” that moves us in a new direction is not helpful if that insight is not accurate.  Without a decent amount of training in the original languages it can be hard to tell if someone knows what they are writing or speaking about.  Typically it is worth checking the “insight” against more than one academic commentary, or asking someone with genuine skill in the language (i.e. not just a course or two).

Sometimes “this literally means” is borderline heresy. Here’s the real danger, not just that our dabbling in “original language” comments lead our listeners slightly off track (although that is bad enough), but that we actually verge on heresy.

We are so blessed with good translations in our language.  If you have not had opportunity to seriously study Greek and Hebrew for a couple of years or more, it’s best to not pull out the “this literally means” type of comments.  Just as you may get it wrong, so do others, and some of them get their insights published!

4 thoughts on “No Greek or Hebrew? A Tip

  1. Thanks, Peter.

    I couldn’t agree more. It’s also important to remember that a ‘literal’ translation isn’t necessarily any better than an accurate, appropriate translation. ‘Literal’ translations can often completely obscure what is actually being said!

    Assuming ‘literal’ is better, is like explaining to someone that ‘understand’ literally means to ‘stand under’ someone or something.

    It doesn’t.

  2. I agree with this sentiment thoroughly, as I have friends who have gone this way into controversial doctrines. The ‘literal meaning’ was their springboard.
    A preacher/teacher would do well to invest his/her money in biblical translations for comparison of texts, rather than in original language tools. I am not against the use of Strong’s at all with that statement. The Hebrew/Greek Dictionary, however, has been used (misused?) by a multitude, most of whom are not skilled with the English language, let alone ‘original’ languages.
    No, we would be better teachers if we could explain more simply what the Scripture says by making application to our modern life. This is most important for those of us who still use the King James Version, which has many archaic terms in our own tongue.
    Let us become first and foremost masters of communication. Let us understand where our particular flock is in their comprehension and their ability to understand words. Let us help them to understand the words that they have before them, rather than try to change the words they already have difficulty with.

  3. G’day there,

    I’ve got to say that I’m really encouraged by your blog and your passion for promoting a high view of preaching. I’ll definitely be reading further posts…

    As one trained in both greek and hebrew, I have struggled with issue in the past. It’s not just that I am in no way equal to the guys on the translation committees which publish our english versions, but using words like ‘literally’ or ‘the greek/hebrew word here’ can non-verbally communicate to those to whom we minister that they are unable to enjoy the depths of God’s word without a working knowledge of the original languages.

    However, at times, while the translation captures the sense, it also obscures something else (e.g. 1 Sam 16:1 – the LORD sees a king for himself; most EVV go for chosen). Have you found any ways in bringing out this richness without undermining people’s confidence in their own reading of Scripture?

    Keep up the good work 🙂

  4. Having sat under Dr. Dale Wheeler at Multnomah Bible College, I really appreciate this. I truly value the time I spent under him, and, almost every day, he pounded this into us. He told the story of a first year Greek student who preached that a child wasn’t a person until it was grown because the Greek word (teknon) was neuter gendered.

    I, too, am thoroughly irked by many modern teachers who take liberty with how they think we need to interpret words in the Greek they hardly understand themselves (mostly due to cultural, historical and literary context), like ekklesia and agape.

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