6 Ways to Grow Your Greek Skills

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)

Linguistic Analysis of the Greek New Testament: Studies in Tools, Methods, and Practice (Stanley E. Porter)

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.

Bruce Winter on the Presence of Rhetoric (Or Not) in Corinthian Correspondence

Translating Truth: The Case for Essentially Literal Bible Translation is a collection of papers originally presented to the Evangelical Theological Society in 2004. Each of the five authors was part of the Translation Oversight Committee for the English Standard Version (ESV). This is the final post of a 5-part series, evaluating Bruce Winter’s paper, “Revelation Versus Rhetoric: Paul and the First-century Corinthian Fad.”

Introduction

This series of posts is ending on a somewhat anticlimactic note, because the final paper in this book doesn’t contain much explicit discussion on translation. Most of the paper revolves around a discussion of Paul’s use of rhetoric (or lack thereof) in 1 Corinthians, and it is not until the final paragraph that a brief application to translation is presented. Nevertheless, I will attempt to engage with the material presented in this article as it relates to translation, specifically the case for essentially literal translation. It would not have been included in this volume if the authors/editors had not thought that it somehow advanced their thesis.

Summary of the Article

Winter argues in this paper that in his Corinthian correspondence, Paul rejected the use of rhetoric, a popular “fad” during that time, and instead used an informal, non-epistolary writing style. Such an approach was also reflected and defended by Seneca the Younger in letters to his close friend, Lucilius. Winter provides four arguments in favor of this view:

1) The relationship between Paul and the Corinthians. Winter demonstrates that Paul viewed his relationship with the Corinthians as very intimate. Paul calls them “brothers,” a term that was not only uncommon to use outside of biological family relationships, but was also considered improper. By using this term, Paul showed that he considered the Corinthians as family. The argument here is that if Seneca the Younger’s relationship with a friend prompted him to reject rhetoric in his personal letter writing, then it is likely that Paul would have also done so with the Corinthians.

2) Paul’s self-disclosure about his own approach to communication with the Corinthians.  Winter points out that in 1 Cor. 2:1-5, Paul explicitly rejects the use of rhetoric in his proclamation of the gospel, recounting how he came in “weakness, and fear and much trembling” (2:3) so that their “faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (2:5).

3) Paul’s thoughts on revelation and the mind of Christ. Paul contrasts the wisdom of men and the wisdom of God in 1 Cor. 2:6-16, pointing out that only a person with the Spirit can have the mind of Christ. Because he is speaking revelation from God, his wisdom will not conform to the wisdom of the world.

4) Paul and the “grand style.” Winter presents some evidence that Paul intentionally abandoned the use of rhetoric in his letters, based on some scholarly comparisons of Paul’s letters with ancient rhetorical handbooks. The accusations that Paul’s letters were seen as “weighty” in 2 Cor. 10:10 also suggests that Paul’s opponents saw his style as “inappropriate to the sophisticated culture of letter writing in his day.”

Critique

Winter provides only a brief application to translation following his arguments: if Paul’s letter-writing style was plain, our translations should read the same way. Assuming that Winter’s thesis is correct and Paul’s letters truly represent a plain, informal, personal style of writing, (I do think there is merit to his arguments), I agree that a translation should attempt to retain that kind of style. In my assessment, style is something that is often overlooked and underapplied in Bible translation. That said, this paper’s inclusion in Translating Truth implies that essentially literal translations do a better job retaining this kind of plain style than dynamic equivalence translations. On this point I would like to hear from Winter how he sees this to be true. As I see it, the attempt to preserve plain, informal speech is at odds with the essentially literal approach. In trying to preserve exegetical ambiguities, word-for-word correspondence, and what the text says (as opposed to what the text means), an essentially literal translation will inevitably require more work to understand, as essentially literal proponents readily admit. The result is a translation that doesn’t sound plain, personal, and informal. It appears opaque, distant, and formal. The ESV translation of 1 Corinthians does not read like an informal letter to a close friend. The NLT, on the other hand, reads much more plainly.

Essentially literal translation philosophy has its strengths, but retaining the plain and informal style of Paul’s original letters is not one of them. Therefore, Winter’s arguments in this paper do nothing to advance the case for essentially literal translation. If anything, they strengthen the case for its alternatives.

Χριστός in Matthew 1

Matthew’s gospel begins, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (ESV).  Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ appears in this particular form 105 times in the New Testament.  Most translations exclusively translate this as ‘Jesus Christ’ or an equivalent transliteration, as it normally functions as the name of Jesus.  This construction presents no problem when looking at it in isolation.  However, a look at Matthew’s broader theological purposes reveals that a simple transliteration may not be the best practice here.

Some Background on Χριστός

Χριστός is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word māšîah used in the LXX.  It means ‘anointed person.’  In the OT, anointing signified the Lord’s “initiative, election, and commission” for a particular task.  Most often it would be kings who were anointed, but there were also anointed priests and prophets.  We see an many anointed kings in the Psalms.  Interestingly, none of these passages refer to a future king who will restore or redeem Israel.  What seems to have happened is that because the ideal expressed in the Royal Psalms was left unfulfilled, these passages were later interpreted to refer to the future Davidic ruler predicted by the prophets.  Though the prophets never used the term māšîah in their predictions, it eventually became a title for this expected Davidic ruler.

While māšîah/Χριστός became a title, it was not widely used before the time of Jesus.  In fact, expectations of a coming redeemer/deliverer/king within Judaism were by no means uniform.  There was variety in the type of person or being who was expected, what their role or rule would look like, how long it would last, and what this person was called.  māšîah was just one title that was used.  It was the first Christians who emphasized Jesus as the Messiah.

A Name or a Title?

As Jesus became increasingly known as the Messiah, Χριστός became attached to Jesus’ name in the forms Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ or Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ, whereas before, it usually occurred alone as a title, most often with the definite article.

There is disagreement about whether Χριστοῦ is a name or a title when it occurs with Ἰησοῦ.  Some argue that it should be treated as a name in these places, because many of the early Gentile converts probably would have understood Χριστός as no more than a name, especially considering its similarity in form and pronunciation to the common Greek name Χρηστός.  Others argue that even as a name, it still carried the meaning of “Anointed One.”  According to Tim Farrell, even Gentiles would have understood its basic derivation and at least been aware of some kind of titular usage, even if they didn’t fully understand the concept.  He also rightly argues that names in NT times carried much more meaning than our names today.  His conclusion is that Χριστός should always be translated as a title.  A meaningless transliteration is not enough.

Farrell’s assessment leaves me wondering how far he would take this conclusion.  Would he advocate translating other names with obvious meanings?  Would he suggest translating Πέτρος as ‘the Rock’?  Always translating the meaning of names could get out of hand, drawing attention to meaning that wasn’t in focus in a particular passage.  We have to consider if the meaning of the name is in focus in a particular instance.  For example, in Matt.1:21, the angel speaking to Mary draws attention to the meaning of the very common name Ἰησοῦ.  Most of the time, however, the meaning of that name is not in focus.  Farrell argues that the meaning of Χριστός is in focus more often than we might think, but not always.

In summary, the line between Χριστός as a title and as a name is a blurry one.  It may have carried more meaning to some than to others, and the meaning of the name may have been in focus to varying degrees when it was used.  Therefore, many translators opt to translate the meaning of Χριστός when the title is in focus, and to transliterate when it is mainly being used to refer to someone.  I think this is a decent approach, although I am left partly dissatisfied, because there is an underlying unity that is lost.

Translating Χριστός as a title

I’ve seen three basic options to translating Χριστός as a title:

1) Add a definite marker to a transliteration of Χριστός.  This won’t communicate the meaning, but it may at least indicate that this is a title, not just a name.

2) Transliterate “Messiah” if that will communicate better.  This is really only better than the first option if people already have familiarity with the term “Messiah” from exposure to Christianity or other Bible translations.

3) Translate the meaning of Χριστός using vernacular terms. I have seen few translators attempt this in my context, as options 1 or 2 seem to work well for them.

Translating Χριστός in Matthew 1:1

Returning to Mathew 1:1, let’s assume that we are taking the dual approach of translating Χριστός distinctly as a name in some places, and as a title in others.  The presence of Χριστοῦ alongside Ἰησοῦ with no definite article might suggest that this is simply a name.  However, if we remove ourselves from our tunnel vision for a moment and look at Matthew 1 as a whole, we see that the aim of this genealogy is to show that Jesus is the son of David, son of Abraham, the expected Messiah.  In v. 17, we even see the definite article used with Χριστός.  Clearly, Matthew is drawing attention to the titular meaning of Χριστός.  R.T. France says in his commentary on Matthew, “The colorless translation ‘Jesus Christ’ here and in v. 18 in many English versions does not do justice to the excitement in Matthew’s introduction of Jesus under the powerfully evocative title ‘Messiah,’ the long-awaited deliverer of God’s people, in whom their history has now come to its climax.”  The NLT shows an awareness of these issues, translating  Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ as “Jesus the Messiah” not only in this verse, but also in Matt. 1:18 and Mk. 1:1.  In my assessment, this kind of more meaningful  translation is a better option in such verses.  Transliterating Χριστός as a name simply misses the primary thrust of Matthew’s argument.

Sources

‘Χριστός’ in BDAG.

De Jonge, Marinus.  ‘Messiah.’ Anchor Bible Dictionary.

Farrell, Tim. “Christos – ‘Mr. Christ or the Anointed One of God.’ Notes on Translation 12:4 (1998).

France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2007. The New International Commentary on the New Testament.

“You Said It” – Assent or Ambiguity?

“You said it.” Jesus gives this peculiar answer to a number of yes/no questions in the gospels. Most of them occur in response to questions about his identity, although one is a response to Judas asking if he will be the one to betray him. Jesus’ answer to Pilate occurs in all four gospels. His answer in Matt. 26:64 contrasts with the parallel Mk. 14:62, where Jesus answers with a clear affirmative, “I am.” There are some variations in the wording. Sometimes the verb is aorist, other times it is present. Two of them restate part of the question asked. Nevertheless, the basic pattern is consistent.

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Assent or Ambiguity?

Is this type of answer to be taken as a clear affirmation, an ambiguous, dodging the question kind of answer, or something else? Some would argue that this was a common Rabbinic or Jewish formula indicating clear assent. The focus on you would have the sense of either affirming the person’s words as correct, or possibly drawing attention to the fact that it was that person who forced the answer. Others argue that in some cases this is a “qualified” affirmation. For example, Jesus is telling Pilate that he is a king, but not the kind of king that Pilate is thinking of. A third option is that the lack of an explicit yes indicates ambiguity. In all of these verses this would amount to a veiled affirmation. Nowhere is this a possible denial. The real answer is clearly yes, but Jesus appears reluctant to give an explicitly positive answer.

One clue as to the intended meaning comes from the way people responded to this kind of answer in the text. In Matthew 26:25, Jesus’ response to Judas appears to be ambiguous – a veiled affirmation. Judas would have understood, but the other disciples show no evidence of comprehension. In Lk. 22:71 and Matt 26:65, the elders, chief priests and scribes clearly take Jesus’ words as an affirmation that he is indeed the Son of God. Luke’s account reads, “What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips.” However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Jesus’ answer itself was clear. These people had already shown that they were looking for a way to trap him in his words so they could accuse him of a crime. For them, an ambiguous or veiled answer would be just as useful as a clear one. In Lk. 23:3 it is not clear how Pilate understands Jesus’ response, but either way he does not see it as enough to convict Jesus of a crime worthy of death.  The parallel John 8:37 contains a similar answer, which in its own context comes across as more clearly affirmative, with Jesus’ mention of “my kingdom” in v.36.

The evidence within the text is very limited, but of the possible interpretive options a veiled or guarded affirmation seems most likely. Many commentators argue for the “qualified affirmative,” although I don’t see much direct evidence for it in the text. True, Jesus was not the kind of king Pilate had in mind. He made this clear in John 18:36. But is this what Jesus was calling attention to in his response, or did he simply want to avoid giving a direct answer? I am sure that a review of extra-biblical texts would provide more information to go on, and would also allow me to assess the credibility of the theory that this kind of answer is a Rabbinic or Jewish formula for clear assent.

Translating a Veiled Affirmative

Most English translations agree with my tentative conclusion, avoiding a clear yes answer in their renderings. NIV84 is one exception. For example, Matt 27:11 is rendered, “Yes, it is as you say.” However, the 2011 edition has changed it to the ambiguous “You have said so.” However, in other languages, a literal you said it answer may or may not work. Even in English, I think it would most often convey clear affirmation. For all we know, speakers of other languages could take a you said it response as a no answer, along the lines of you said it, not me. I wouldn’t say that. Translators must consider how they would naturally respond affirmatively in a “veiled” way to a yes/no question, if this is the interpretation they are following. In English, I think of the rather formal sounding, “I can neither confirm nor deny…” that you might hear when someone wants to conceal the truth about something. I rather like the Message’s “If you say so.” Both of these options might be too noncommittal, though I suppose they could be construed as a yes answer by some. In any case, this is a good example of why translators need to give priority to considering what people will infer from a statement over the translation of individual words or propositions.