How Important Are Biblical Languages in Bible Translation?
The other day I came across this article at the Gospel Coalition, in which Kevin McFadden argues that pastors would greatly benefit from the study of Greek and Hebrew as opposed to just learning the tools that Bible software provides. I appreciated his thoughts, as I am also of the persuasion that the deeper we grow in our knowledge of the biblical languages, the better we can know God’s word and accomplish the ministries God has given to us, whether we are pastors, translators, or laypeople.
One notion that McFadden counters in his article is the suggestion that the Bible study tools available today, especially those that come through software like Logos and Accordance, significantly reduce the need for people to know the language at a deeper level. If we have easy access to word glosses and parsings, and numerous exegetical tools at our fingertips, why do we have to go through all the effort to internalize the language? McFadden offers some good responses to this question, but I’d like to offer two of my own, based on my experience as a translation consultant.
1. Some insights into the text are not easily found in a secondary source, if at all. There are times when I encounter a difficult exegetical issue for which I cannot find an answer in any resource. I keep dozens of resources on my computer, but it still happens. Often, this will be an issue that doesn’t have relevance for English translations, but is very important when translating into another. In situations like these, I am very thankful when my own knowledge of Greek helps me to confidently resolve the issue.
2. Having a deeper internal knowledge of Greek enables me to use it more efficiently and frequently than even software allows. When I am in a consultant checking session, I often encounter an exegetical issue for which I did not study ahead. In such situations, I don’t always have the time to study the interlinear or commentaries to see what is going on. If I can’t resolve the situation with the tools in my own mind in that moment, I am likely to forgo using my external resources until later. Being able to read the Greek text more fluently enables me to use it in situations where I would not otherwise have the time to consult my resources. Software may put loads of information at our fingertips, but if we store it within our own brains, we will find ourselves using it even more.
My Greek Growth Plan
I will soon be leaving Nigeria for a six month furlough in the US, and I plan to have some time during this absence for some personal study. I’ve decided to use some of this time to refresh and further develop my Greek skills. I have already been doing most of these things in some way, but I hope that in the coming months I will be able to spend some more concentrated time on the following activities:
1. Read Greek. For much of my time in Nigeria, I have met with some colleagues on a weekly basis to read Greek together. This is the first time I’ve done this kind of thing in a group since my seminary days ten years ago, and it has been great. While I am away, I don’t anticipate having people to meet with, so I will need to do something independently. I have my eye on a couple of Greek readers, and I plan to choose one and work through it. Most likely I will choose the first of these two:
Hellenistic and Biblical Greek: A Graduated Reader (B.H. McLean)
A Patristic Greek Reader (Rodney A. Whitacre)
2. Listen to Greek. I recently taught myself how to read Greek using the modern pronunciation, which seems to be rapidly winning people over from the Erasmian model. I found it to be an easy transition, and I can see the benefit of knowing both systems. To aid this process and to further internalize the Greek language, I picked up this Koine Greek audio New Testament. It is the Nestle-Aland 26th edition, read in modern pronunciation by Dr. Spiros Zodhiates. At $20, it’s a great deal. I’ve been listening to passages before I read and translate them for myself. His reading is easy to follow, but at times it can be a little too slow, breaking up natural phrasing. Still, it’s an excellent resource, adding a valuable auditory element to the learning process.
3. Read about Greek. My Greek skills deteriorated quite a bit in the years after I left seminary. More recently, I’ve been able to bring it back closer to where I was before, but I also have to recognize that in the 10+ years since I studied Greek in the classroom, much has changed and developed in Greek studies. A very recent book that helped fill me in on some of those developments was Constantine Campbell’s Advances in the Study of Greek, but there are a few more that I think would benefit me. Before the end of the year, I plan to read at least the first of these two books listed below. It is a new Grammar, touted by some as “The new Wallace.” I expect this book to be not only a great review, but also a way to stay current on trending topics like Greek aspect, the middle voice, and discourse.
Going Deeper with New Testament Greek: An Intermediate Study of the Grammar and Syntax of the New Testament (Kostenberger, Merkle, Plummer)
4. Review vocab. A few months ago, I pulled out an old Anki database that includes every word in the NT. Back in college, I had memorized every word that occurs 10 times or more in the NT, but in subsequent years I lost much of it. After a few weeks of daily drilling, I worked my way back down to words that occur 13 times or more, but I’ve found it hard to keep this up for long stretches. I’ve also found that there are disadvantages to just learning glosses. Exposure to a word in context is a better way to really learn it. Nevertheless, I think there is still some benefit to drilling vocab, so I hope to spend at least some time on this in the coming months.
5. Teach Greek to my kids. As a former phonetics instructor, I’ve discovered that a really great way to learn something is to teach it. For some time, I’ve had this wild idea that I would teach my kids Greek. I even bought this resource and went through a couple of lessons with them, but scheduling it on a regular basis was always difficult. This fall when the kids resume homeschooling, I will have a more flexible schedule. I am hopeful that we can make it happen this time.
6. Engage with like-minded people. I’ve often found it difficult to find other people interested in developing their Greek skills, especially those who are farther along and can help me to grow. I’ve already mentioned that I have a group of colleagues here who I read with on a regular basis, but in the US I probably won’t. But even if you don’t have others nearby, fear not! A couple years ago, someone added me to a Facebook page called “Nerdy Language Majors.” It turned out to be a lively community of nearly 2,000 students and scholars of biblical languages, and I have enjoyed the discussions and book recommendations that regularly show up on my Facebook feed. Several of the books linked in this post came from there. If I have a specific question, this group is eager to help me out by explaining or pointing me to another resource. I’m sure there are other online groups or forums that accomplish the same thing. If you’re not already part of one, it’s a great way to stay connected and informed.
These are some of the ways I hope to grow in my Greek skills and keep them from going stale. If you’re doing something similar or altogether different, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.