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!