Jan 23, 2009 David Lang

Contra Strongnosticism, Part 2

Last Friday, I talked about the error I call "Strongnosticism": that is, the tendency to use tools such as Strong's numbers to look for "secret knowledge" in the original Hebrew and Greek. It is indeed a heady thing to be able to peek into the original languages of the Bible and pick up on details which may seem to have gotten "lost in translation." And while there is certainly nothing wrong with exploring the original Greek and Hebrew, we need to be sure that we know what to do with that knowledge. Otherwise, we can easily misinterpret the Bible and distort the very meaning we are trying to "unlock."

By the way, this tendency to mishandle the original languages of the Bible is not limited to those who use Strong's numbers to do the occasional word study. Have you been in a Bible study or Sunday School class with a seminary student who has one semester of Greek under his belt? Or listened to a preacher who loves to talk about Greek etymologies and tenses? I've heard it said that the amount of Greek a preacher uses in a sermon is inversely proportional to the amount of Greek he actually knows, and in general, I've found this to be true. That's because the person who is truly proficient in the languages can generally make his point without sharing the grammatical details with the congregation. I once heard Bruce Waltke preach a sermon from Proverbs, in which he deftly opened up the meaning of several obscure passages, yet he did so without giving us a Hebrew vocabulary lesson. On the other hand, I once had a student preacher rush up to me minutes before the service to ask me how to pronounce the three Greek words he wanted to use to impress the congregation!

Okay, so we know that we don't want to misuse the Greek and Hebrew of the Bible, but how do we go about studying it responsibly? In this and future installments of this series, I'll talk about how to do just that using the Strong's number capabilities of Accordance.

Identifying the Greek/Hebrew Words: The simplest and most obvious way to use Strong's numbers is to identify the Greek or Hebrew word which an English word translates. For example, let's say I'm looking at Matthew 1:23 and I want to see the Greek word which is translated as "virgin." If I'm using one of the four English Bibles with Key Numbers (ESVS, NAS95S, NIV-G/K, or KJVS), I can just drag my cursor over the word "virgin" to see that it is translating the Greek word parthenos. If I drag over "conceive" in the same verse of the ESVS, I find that it translates no less than three Greek words: en, gaster, and echo.

Looking Up the Greek/Hebrew Words: At this point, I know what the Greek words being translated are, but apart from the way they have been translated, I have no idea yet what they mean. To find out more about the meanings of these words, the next logical thing for me to do is to look them up in a dictionary. The simplest way to do that is to triple-click on the English word in my Key-numbered Bible.

When I triple-click the word "conceive" in Matthew 1:23, I can see that gaster means "belly," en means "in," and echo means "to have or hold." So in the Greek it is literally that the virgin will "hold in the belly," which is an interesting Greek idiom for being pregnant.

Now, I'm not sure we're "scuba diving" yet (see Robb's comment on my previous post in this series), but we have discovered that the ESV's translation is more idiomatic than literal here. A quick check of other translations will show that most tend to use the expression "be with child," a euphemism for pregnancy which is not used nearly as much today as it used to be. "Be with child" is more literal than "conceive," but it is still using an English idiom to translate a Greek idiom, rather than woodenly translating each Greek word.

Note how digging into the Greek here has taught us a little about the translation philosophy used by various translations, but it really hasn't unlocked any deeper layer of meaning than we could get from the English translation. I suppose a preacher might say that this literally means "to hold in the belly," and then he might wax eloquent about the Christian doctrine of the incarnation; but he could just as easily make those same points from the text in translation.

Now, is it wrong for a preacher to talk about the literal meaning of "to hold in the belly"? Not necessarily. As a rhetorical device, this might be a great way to paint a picture of the very finite confines of the virgin's womb, thereby giving the congregation a deeper appreciation for the mystery of the incarnation. There's nothing wrong with using the Greek or Hebrew to illustrate or flesh out something the congregation has heard in translation a million times. We just need to be careful that we don't unwittingly communicate that they can't really know what the text says if they're just working with the English.

Consulting More In Depth Lexicons: If I go back to Matthew 1:23 and triple-click the word "virgin," I get a basic dictionary entry for the Greek word parthenos. This tells me that parthenos means "a maiden; by implication, an unmarried daughter: — virgin." That's helpful, but what if I want to dig deeper into the meaning of this word? The next logical way to do that would be to consult a more in depth Greek lexicon, such as BDAG or NIDNTT. To do that, I will select the word "virgin" in the ESVS, then hold the option key down while selecting the lexicon I want from the Greek Tools pop-up menu of the Resource palette. Holding the option key down tells Accordance to search the lexicon not for the English word I've selected ("virgin") but for the Greek word behind that English word (parthenos). For example, if I option-select BDAG, I'll get BDAG's entry for parthenos. Accordance will even highlight BDAG's reference to the verse I was in (Matthew 1:23).

���BDAG on Parthenos.jpg (xl, l, m, s)

BDAG gives me a lot more information about this word, including how it is used in extrabiblical Greek literature, the Hebrew word it translates in Isaiah 7:14, etc. Essentially what I learn here is that a parthenos was a young woman of marriagable age, with particular emphasis on her virginity.

���NIDNTT on Parthenos.jpg (xl, l, m, s)

If I look this word up in NIDNTT, I get a detailed article covering its usage in classical Greek, Septuagint Greek, and, of course, the New Testament. As my former Hebrew professor hammered into our brains, "meaning is use." In other words, the way a word is used in context determines its meaning far more than its etymology or some other factor. For that reason, I would probably recommend NIDNTT and NIDOTTE as the best Greek lexicons for those with little training in Greek and Hebrew, because these lexicons focus on a word's usage throughout history. These lexicons also tend to explain things in layman's terms, where lexicons like BDAG tend to be heavily abbreviated in order to give scholars and students as much technical information as possible.

This post is getting long, so I'll stop here and pick up where I left off in an upcoming post. For now, I'll leave you with a few summary points:

1. Start by identifying the Greek or Hebrew words behind your English translation, then look them up in a good lexicon.

2. BDAG and HALOT are the lexicons to go to for in depth technical information. NIDNTT and NIDOTTE are better at covering a word's usage in terms the non-specialist can easily understand.

3. Consulting the Greek and Hebrew will not typically "unlock" some layer of meaning which has been "lost in translation." What it can do is help you see familiar passages from a fresh perspective.

4. It's not wrong to talk about the original text behind a passage in a sermon or lesson, but it's important to consider whether it will convey meaningful insights without communicating the subtle message that English translations are somehow inadequate.

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Archived Comments


January 24, 2009 8:11 PM
I would guess that 90% of the time when I have heard preachers proclaim, "The Greek [or Hebrew] really says...," they are wrong. And unlike the student preacher asking you for a pronunciation, many of them don't even bother with that. (Of course, pronunciation can be another question - reconstructed Koine à la Randall Buth, various forms of the artificial Erasmian, modern Greek, Sephardic or Ashkenazic pronunciation for Hebrew, etc.) A while ago, I was reading a preacher's sermon on the internet. He wrote, "The airist means...." It was obvious that he was referring to "aorist" and had never studied Greek.

Mark Nigro

February 25, 2009 4:06 PM

Thank you, David, for this excellent post! I am a pastor and seminary student and receive your exhortation happily! I do occasionally refer to the original languages but not often, and when I do it is typically to point out that there are a few possible ways to understand a particular word behind the English (or in my case, the Italian) and hence the various ways it is translated. That is followed by the my view and reason for it. But hearing your point number 4 makes me realize that some may be left feeling like they can't get to the 'real' meaning without a knowledge of the original. And that is the last thing I would ever want to communicate. Going forward I will be much more careful to make such references. Thanks again for helping us in our task of studying by making such excellent software, and for the valuable input of your posts.