Nate Wilson, July 16, 2022
The Bible was originally written in Hebrew (OT), Aramaic (Daniel, Esther), and Greek (NT).
What was originally written was inerrant, but no originals have survived to the present day.
Faithful copies dating back hundreds to thousands of years have survived to the present day and have been protected by God from error, despite slight variations.
Masoretic Hebrew Old Testament (oldest known manuscript=900’s AD, with corraboration from fragmentary Cairo Geneza=800’s AD), Dead Sea Scrolls (50-300 BC).
Greek New Testament: Thousands of manuscripts exist dating back to about 200 AD. (Oldest full manuscript dates to around 400 AD)
God meant for His word to be translated.
Ezra gave understandable readings of the Hebrew Bible to Aramaic-speaking Jews who had grown up in Babylon (Neh. 8:8) This is the basis of the Targums, which weren’t published fully in written form until the 1800’s.
Jesus gave the Great Commission to make disciples of every ethnic group, teaching them “everything” (Matt. 28).
The Holy Spirit translated the Gospel into the languages of all the nearby language groups at Pentecost (Acts 2).
The Apostles travelled and planted churches among different language groups, and Paul exhorted Christians in his epistles to communicate in church services so as to be understood. (Acts 14:11, 1 Cor. 14:11)
Monumental translation works have become standards of reference for believers world-wide for hundreds of years.
Greek Septuagint of the Hebrew Old Testament (from 300BC, oldest ms 400AD)
Latin Vulgate translation of the whole Bible (400 AD, older Latin translations exist)
Syriac translation of the Bible (c. 3rd Century AD)
King James English Bible (1611, popular ed. 1769 AD)
We have the choice to read the Bible in its original language or in our heart language.
I teach Biblical Hebrew and Biblical Greek, and it only takes 36 hours of class time (double that to include homework) to get you to the point of being able to understand the Greek New Testament or Hebrew Old Testament. Why not go for it?
Give me an 8 Gig thumb drive, and I’ll load it with my whole Hebrew class that I’m completing this summer on video, and you can study it at your own pace! (Or enroll in an online seminary class.)
On the other hand, English speakers have many good English translations available, so it is quite workable to teach the Bible in English without using Biblical languages.
Different English translations offer different strengths and different perspectives. There is no one translation into English which is perfect. (This is of course my highly subjective opinion!)
KJV – extremely accurate, word-for-word, Rabbinical orientation in OT, pro-monarchy, anti-reformation bias, excellent grammar and style, well-known and respected, NKJV updates obsolete vocabulary and misunderstood words.
NASB – extremely accurate, word-for-word to the point of woodenness, different everywhere possible from the KJV, therefore good source of synonyms and alternate interpretations. Excellent scholarship and editing. Not sure about 2021 edition.
NIV – Focused on ease of understanding and good contemporary English, not word-for-word but idea-by-idea. Excellently edited. Gives more weight to oldest-known manuscripts instead of to the 10th century AD Hebrew and Greek manuscripts used by the KJV. Recent edition may be going overboard with gender-neutralizing (although some gender-neuteralizing is fair, e.g. Hebrew “sons of Israel” was not meant to exclude female descendents, so “children of Israel” is legitimate).
ESV – The result of a group of reformed theologians who got rights to edit the RSV (which was originally developed by liberal scholars to “update” the KJV). Tends to copy the KJV, NASB, and, most-often, the NIV, but not as well edited. Sometimes word-for-word, sometimes paraphrastic.
Other honorable mentions:
Geneva Bible and ASV (Seldom different from KJV),
NET Bible (not much different from ESV/NIV),
Living Bible (and New Living Translation – good paraphrases, but I wouldn’t teach only from them),
Brenton’s English translation of the Septuagint and Douay-Reims’ translation of the Vulgate (Worth comparing, due to their historical significance, but I wouldn’t teach only from them, since some things get lost in translation after going from Hebrew to Latin/Greek and then to English.)
There is more than one correct way to translate a sentence from one language to another.
A simple illustration would be a greeting in Spanish: “Como esta?”
We could translate that literally “How are you?” but it would mean the same thing in English if we translated it with different verbs, such as “How’s it going?” or “How are you doing?” and a more paraphrastic or slang term might also mean the same thing, such as, “What’s up?”
There would certainly be wrong and inaccurate ways of rendering it, such as, “What color are you?” or “Have you had a bath?” that wouldn’t be what “Como esta?” means,
but, in honest translation efforts, there is a range (albeit a limited range) of possible words and phrases which could be used to accurately convey the meaning in a different language.
It is OK for there to be different English translations of the Bible. We should embrace the fact that there are different English translations of the Bible and use them for our benefit to give ourselves a more robust understanding of the passage we are studying.
Seeing different translations helps us understand what a passage does (and does not) mean better. For instance,
in the wording of different English translations could show you
that there is a variant. In other words, different ancient
handwritten copies of the Bible occasionally read slightly
differently. This is the case in 2 Samuel 15:7, where there is
some question as to when Absalom started his coup. (I’m
preaching on 2 Samuel 15 tomorrow, so I’ll draw a lot of my
examples from there.)
◦ The Latin Vulgate and the Syriac Bible from around 400 AD read that it was at the end of the fourth year that Absalom launched his coup, presumably four years after Absalom returned to Jerusalem from exile in Geshur. This is the reading of the NIV, ESV, NET Bible, and NLT.
◦ On the other hand, the traditional Hebrew manuscripts from around 900 AD and the Septuagint Greek (the oldest manuscript of which dates to around 400 AD), say it happened at the end of the 40th year, presumably of David’s reign or, as I hypothesize, Absalom’s 40th birthday. The Geneva Bible, King James, Revised Standard, and NAS Bibles follow that.
◦ Most variants aren’t as different as this one, but when you hit one, unless you are an expert on the Ancient Near East and on critical manuscript studies, just be honest and say you don’t know, and show how either one could make sense. In this case, either the number 4 or the number 40 can be interpreted as pointing to the same general time in David’s reign, so neither number proves an error in the Bible.
More often, differences between English versions can show you that a phrase in the original language is difficult to translate and could be interpreted more than one way. An example of that is from the middle of 2 Samuel 15, where a form of the Hebrew word bereglayv occurs three times, literally meaning, “with his feet,” but it takes some interpreting to figure out how you’re going to bring that over into English. Almost all English Bibles translate it paraphrastically as “after him/following him” or “with him/accompanying him.” The NET Bible, however, translates it “on foot,” which is the way the ancient Latin and Greek translations rendered it, and the way many English commentaries have interpreted it. Did David’s household escape with him? Yes. Were they on foot? Yes. (In the next chapter, Ziba’s offer of donkeys for David’s household members to ride on wouldn’t make sense if David’s household were not with him and if they were not on foot, so this isn’t a problem.) In this case reading more than one translation allows you to pick up the wider range of meaning that can be drawn from one Hebrew phrase.
My #1 recommendation for teaching from English Bibles is to study a few different English translations rather than only using one.
When you are teaching, chances are, there’s a range of different Bible translations out there in your audience, and if you aren’t using the words that are in their Bible, and if you are not aware that their Bible has a different interpretation, that is going to lead to confusion, but if you are able to go into your teaching knowing the different synonyms that different versions are employing and knowing the different interpretations given to ambiguous phrases from the original Greek or Hebrew, you can head off the confusion.
For similar reasons, it’s good to look at more than one commentary when studying a passage.
Commentaries are very helpful in explaining things that are hard to understand.
But frequently commentaries contain opinions that may or may not be the final word on a subject, so reading more than one commentary can help balance your perspective.
For instance, I love Keil & Delitzsch’s classic commentary on the Old Testament, but Keil & Delitzsch never say, “The meaning is obscure here, and it could mean this or that.” Instead they say things like, “The meaning can only be this, and so-and-so’s opinion to the contrary is based on pure ignorance.” So, although I highly respect their scholarship, I still take them with a grain of salt.
By the way, many commentators make their own translations, but commentator’s translations have not had the accountability of multiple translators working together that is standard for English Bibles, so I wouldn’t teach exclusively from a commentary translation.
We have a lot of reference tools in English which can give us information about the underlying Greek and Hebrew text of the Bible, so let’s use them!
Lexicons are like dictionaries. They list the root spelling of every word in the OT or NT and give us definitions.
When I say “root,” I mean the equivalent of the way our English dictionaries only list the singular form of nouns and the infinitive form of verbs, so if you want to know the meaning for “eat,” “eats,” “eating,” “ate,” or “having been eaten,” they would all be under the one heading of “eat.” Greek and Hebrew lexicons are like that too.
The gold standard lexicon for Hebrew was written by Brown, Driver, and Briggs in 1907, although William Holliday came up with a solid one in 1971.
For Greek lexicons, Thayer’s 1885 one is classic, and Arndt & Gingrich’s from 1957 is another well-accepted standard. Louw & Nida came out with a good one, I think in the 1980’s. Older classics are Danker, or Liddel & Scott.
If somebody comes up with something squirrely theologically and cites some other lexicon, I’d cross-check with those more standard lexicons.
Strong’s Concordance in 1890 went a step further and gave us a number for each Greek and Hebrew root word in the Bible, so you can look up other uses of the same Greek or Hebrew word.
This is useful because sometimes those words get translated different ways into English, so the fact that you see the same English word doesn’t necessarily mean that the same Hebrew word is behind it (For instance, in 2 Sam. 15:4, Absalom says he wishes he were “made judge,” then in v.8, he says that he “made a vow,” and, in English, the word “made” is the same, but in Hebrew it’s two different verbs, one that means “to install” and one that means “to promise”),
and conversely, the fact that you see two different words in your English translation doesn’t necessarily mean that the same Hebrew word is not behind both of them (For instance, the Hebrew word mishpat appears in 2 Sam. 15:4 and again in v.6, but most English Bibles translate it “cause” in v.4 and then “judgment” in v.6.).
So, doing a search using the Strong’s number can sort out the instances where the same Greek or Hebrew root word is used. With computerized Bibles so prevalent, it’s possible to search by the Strong’s number to see the range of how a particular Greek or Hebrew root word is used throughout Scripture.
I find this particularly helpful in looking for allusions where a Bible character is quoting a phrase from an earlier book of the Bible.
For instance, when God tells Jonah to speak to Ninevah, the Hebrew word for “call out” is qara. When I searched for similar instances of going up to a city and “calling out,” in a Strong’s number search, I found this passage from Deut 20:10 "When you approach a city to fight against it, you shall call upon it terms of peace.”) This led to my understanding that Jonah’s mission was not merely to announce Ninevah’s destruction, but also to explain the terms of peace with God.
Finding allusions like that to other passages of scripture can help us understand the meaning better.
A related tool that can help with word studies is the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament and the Theological Wordbook of the New Testament. TWOT and TWNT are like an encyclopedia where you can look up a root word by its spelling or by its Strong’s number and read an article on how that root word is used throughout the Bible.
But let me offer a couple of words of caution about word studies:
When you are looking at a Strong’s number, there could be a dozen different forms of that word. Spell the Hebrew root word lamad one way and it means “teach,” and spell it another way and it means “learn,” but there’s only one Strong’s number for both.
Furthermore, there can be a dozen different meanings of a single word in Greek or Hebrew. For instance, the Louw & Nida Lexicon identifies over 20 different things that the Greek word εν could mean (in a location, in a state of being, in union with, with attendant circumstances, by the instrumentality of, with a certain manner, with regard to, by means of, because, so that, when, during, etc.) And in addition to that, it lists over 20 figures of speech in Greek in which this word may have yet another meaning, (for instance, it’s in the phrase for “pregnant”) but there is only one Strong’s number for all 40 of those possible meanings,
so, while Strong’s numbers can provide wider perspective on the use of a word, it can’t tell you which meaning is appropriate in which context.
And that leads me to my second caution about word studies. The fact that you looked up one word in a Greek sentence and found that it can mean both “in a certain location” or “by means of a certain agent” does not mean that you can arbitrarily pick and choose which meaning you want out of the list of meanings in the lexicon. That word is in a certain context, and to understand it well takes a knowledge of what is going on in every word in that sentence and how those words interact with one another syntactically, and lexicons are not designed to give you that level of information.
So be careful about inventing novel meanings with your high-powered dictionary-looking-up skills. Usually, if a teacher comes up with something brand-new that nobody has discovered before in the Greek or Hebrew Bible, they are “out in left field;” Christians have been publishing commentaries on the Bible for thousands of years, and there is very little new under the sun.
In addition to commentaries, there is another category of word-study reference books, and those are the ones that go phrase-by-phrase through the New Testament, commenting on grammar and translation technique. My favorites in that category are:
Marvin Vincent’s Word Studies of the New Testament, 1886 (which specializes in commentary on Classical Greek and its interaction with the Greek New Testament),
A.T. Robertson’s Word Pictures In The New Testament, 1933 (which specializes in the grammar structure of the text of the Greek New Testament), and
Robert Hanna’s Grammatical Aid to the Greek New Testament, 1980 (which is a compilation of comments from classic grammar books on the text of the Greek N.T.)
As a general rule, don’t act like you know more than you actually know about Greek & Hebrew.
If you haven’t studied proper pronunciation of these foreign languages, then it may be best not to even try to pronounce Greek and Hebrew words.
Frat brothers and sisters don’t pronounce Greek letters the way actual Greek speakers do.
To help yourself discern whether you are just wanting to show off about the underlying Biblical languages or whether you actually need to teach a point from the Biblical languages, ask yourself why you want to say that Greek or Hebrew word and whether it will actually benefit anyone.
Scripture encourages us to speak intelligible words rather than words in a strange tongue (1 Cor. 14:19).
Don’t use Biblical languages to obscure meaning. If you started trying to swim in the Greek and got confused and, as a result, you leave a congregation with the idea that the Bible verse you are teaching is really too complicated for them to understand or apply, you are not ministering to them. Likewise, if you use Biblical languages to disconnect them from their Bible and lead them to trust you instead of their Bible, you are not ministering to them.
The Bible was written according to the ordinary rules of language. You are not going to be enlightened with a whole new level of mystical meanings if you can read it in Hebrew or Greek. Generally, the additional information from the Biblical languages does things like help you see where the emphasis lies or what possible interpretations to rule out.
For instance, I once wondered about the Christmas story, exactly who all was lying in the manger, because the Bible I read growing up says that the shepherds “found Mary and Joseph and the Babe lying in a manger.” So, were Mary and Joseph in the manger too?
Now, sometimes our English versions are ambiguous because the original language phrase itself is ambiguous (such as the phrase “the love of God” – Is it God’s love for us, or is it our love for God? The Greek language doesn’t really distinguish between an objective and a subjective genetive, so we bring that ambiguity over into English by translating it, “the love of God” and leave it for you to work out),
but, in this case, studying the Christmas passage in Greek resolves the ambiguity because the Greek language has more information in its participles than English does, and the Greek participle for “lying in a manger” tells us that “lying” has a singular neuter subject, which matches the singular neuter Greek word for “baby,” and so an understanding of Greek rules out Mary and Joseph being in the manger.
Or you could just cross-reference with the NASB, which says, “Mary and Joseph and the baby as He lay in the manger” or the NIV, which says, “Mary and Joseph, and the baby who was lying in the manger.” (The KJV’s gerund “lying” and the NASB’s temporal phrase “as he lay” and the NIV’s substantive phrase “who was lying” are all legitimate ways that a Greek participle can be translated into English.)
ILLUMINATION: Before I close, I want to encourage you that you have an even more powerful resource than one of those $3,000 Logos Bible Software packages. This resource is with you all the time, and His name is the Holy Spirit!
The Spirit participated in the inspiration of every Biblical author in the original languages,
and that same Spirit (who knows exactly what every one of those words means) is with you today,
and He wants to empower you to teach His word. It is part of His job to illuminate your mind when you read the Bible so that you understand what it means, so you can teach others.
So, no matter how many English Versions you read, no matter how many commentaries you read, no matter how many word studies you do, start your Bible teaching preparation with prayer for God to help you understand His word, and He will not leave your prayer unanswered!