Respecting the Original Language

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The Bible was not written in English. As obvious as this may seem, it’s very easy to overlook what the original language says. This practice is hazardous to sound doctrine.

Why not just trust the translation?

This article should not be understood as a critique of the King James Version, or of any other English version. No English version can perfectly capture the meaning of Hebrew and Greek, unless there are explanatory paragraphs about the original language baked into the translation. Such a translation would be unreadable. The issue I raise here is not with the quality of translation, but with the nature of translation.

There are a lot of concepts in English which don’t translate well into other languages and vice versa. For instance, German has more complex grammar and fewer root words than English. Take the German sentence “den Mann beißt der Hund.” A word-for-word translation, without changing the word order, would be “The man bites the dog.” However, the German reader will know that the dog actually bit the man because of the way the word “the” is conjugated (is it der, die, das, dem, or den?). We can’t express that in English, because we only have one word for “the.” On the flip side, the words great, grand, tall, big, and large have only one German equivalent: “groβ.” So, the best translator in the world, even if he is fluent in English and German, will have to sacrifice meaning when he translates any of these words into German. German has words we don’t have as well. The phrase “Der Mann frisst Pizza” would translate as “The man eats pizza.” But there are two words for “eat” in German. One describes a person eating, and one describes an animal eating. The one used here describes an animal eating, which is a way to insult someone in German. In English, the best “thought-for-thought” translation might be “The man eats pizza like an animal” or perhaps “the man animalistically eats pizza” or “the man eats pizza like a pig.” Multiple translations are equally accurate in describing the intent of the German sentence and the most “literal” translation (“the man eats pizza”) would miss the whole point of the sentence. I am not an ancient languages scholar, but if this is all true for German, in the same language family as English, how much more is it true of ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic?

The good news is that it is relatively easy to use the original language in your study of the Bible, even without being a scholar. In the age of the internet, Bible study websites like BlueLetterBible.org will allow you to see a passage in “interlinear” mode. This breaks down the original language side by side next to the translation. That allows you to click on an original word and see what it means, what its roots are, where else it is used in scripture, and how it is translated in those other contexts. Just seeing where else the word is used is very helpful in understanding the meaning and doesn’t require you to trust a commentator’s word on the “real meaning” of a word. If you don’t like studying with the internet, there are books that do the same thing. The whole concept of doing word searches for English words to derive patterns in scripture is unwise, when you have the ability to search for where the original word is used in other verses. This list of verses you find will be similar, but not identical.

The other easy way to learn more about what a verse says is to “gasp” read a different translation. Even if you’re a die-hard fan of the body of manuscripts that the KJV comes from, you can still read the Tyndale, the Geneva, the KJV 1611 (which is different from the version you read, revised in 1769), the New King James Version, and Young’s Literal Translation (1862). And for ~99% of the Bible, there is no variation between the manuscripts used for the KJV and the older and larger body of manuscripts used by modern translations like the English Standard Version and the New American Standard Bible (both of which are translated in a slightly more word-for-word fashion than the KJV).

You may agree that these resources sound like a useful study tool, but what is the risk if we, and our teachers and preachers ignore the nuance of the original language? As noted, it is hazardous to your doctrine in the following ways.

1) Over reliance on English makes us lose meaning from the original language.

The original language often conceals deeper meanings than are evident in English – especially when you only read one English translation.

You may be familiar with the fact that there are three Greek words for love. One represents romantic love, one brotherly love, and one unconditional love. Given how prevalent the word love is in Scripture, this nuance can inform the meaning of a verse.

You are less likely to know that there are three words for “hell” in the New Testament. Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus. Their meanings do not seem to be interchangeable. It seems that Hades refers to the place that dead go before the final judgement. This would include both “Abraham’s bosom” and “Tartarus.” Tartarus is referred to as a place of punishment prior to Gehenna, which would make it where the rich man was in agony in Jesus’ story. Gehenna seems to refer to the place of final judgement after the end of time, sometimes also referred to as the “lake of fire.” There are many well written articles and commentaries expounding on where the different words are used and why, but you miss all of that depth of discussion if you don’t even know which word Jesus is using. For instance, Jesus’ famous proclamation that “the gates of hell will not prevail” against his church, used the word “hades.” This suggests that Jesus is saying that the realm of the dead will not be able to contain him and his saints. This simple insight makes the proclamation much clearer. Jesus is foretelling the resurrection of himself and his saints – he’s talking about breaking the captive saints out of the gates of Hades, which is something the Bible records he did between his death and resurrection.

God’s name takes at least 16 forms in the Old Testament. The most significant of these are Elohim, Adonai, and Yahweh. Sometimes the translators use adjectives to cue us in to which name is being used and what its usage implies. However, many times they don’t, and we’re stuck with 16 names being reduced to one English syllable – “God.” How much richness and insight do we lose if we never bother to see which name of God is being used? It’s like taking a low resolution picture and then studying the grainy pixels, when we could study a high definition picture of who God is by going back to the original language.

In the first chapter of Hosea, God tells the prophet to name his children Loruhama and Loammi. In the KJV, it records this, but doesn’t mention what the names mean. Other versions show that the names mean “No Mercy” and “Not My People,” which is highly significant to the passage. The original language would make that clear. Do you know what the word Christ means? Messiah? Hosanna? Maranatha? Like the names of Hosea’s children, most of these words are just transliterated from the original language. That is not a problem, but all of these words have very specific meanings that inform how we understand the verses they are used in. It is a problem if we just read them without understanding.

None of this is to say that my take on the original language is authoritative. I am not a scholar. However, the original language itself is authoritative, and we would do well to seek deeper meaning from it and to not merely consult an English dictionary. An English only word study wouldn’t reveal any of the truths of Scripture I have referenced above. Furthermore, all of the examples I listed have to do with word choice, but there are often things that can be learned from grammar as well within the context of a verse.

2) Over reliance on one English translation causes us to add meaning not intended by the author. 

Based on the premise that God’s word doesn’t change. There cannot be meaning that “appears” in English that wasn’t found in the original language.

Here’s a great example. The phrase “peculiar people” appears four times in scripture – in both the Old Testament and New. If you merely look up the word in an English dictionary, peculiar can mean unusual, distinctive, strange, or special. So, either this means we’re God’s special people, or it means we’re God’s odd people. Whenever a meaning of a key word is unclear, that’s a great time to go to the original language. But wait – the Greek and Hebrew dictionaries both support neither of these meanings. They suggest the word is referring to personal property or possession.

When we look to see the Hebrew word used in other places, we find this clue. In 1 Chronicles 29:3, David says of his preparations to build the temple: “Moreover, because I have set my affection to the house of my God, I have of mine own proper good, of gold and silver, which I have given to the house of my God, …” This phrase “mine own proper good,” referring to David’s possession of the gold and silver he was giving to the temple, is the same Hebrew word translated “peculiar” people. So, have we found a bad translation? No. Actually in 17th Century English, “peculiar” meant, “belonging exclusively to one person.” It was a good word choice at the time, but the meaning has evolved in English to mean something substantially different than it once did. Modern translations render this phrase “His own possession,” “people who belong to him alone,” or “a people that are his very own.” If all we read was one English translation, we would get a totally different meaning than is intended. We would talk about how these verses refer to us standing out from other people, when these verses actually refer to God’s possession of us.

When I was young, I was taught that the Holy Ghost was the third person of the Trinity, but that all references to the “Spirit” referred to something else – perhaps the working of the Trinity as a whole. The problem with this belief is immediately obvious in the original language. The exact same Greek word, “pneuma,” is translated “Spirit” 137 times and “Ghost” 89 times in the KJV. The word pneuma literally means “a current of air,” and from it we get the modern word “pneumatic,” meaning “air-powered.” There is no grammatical reason why the KJV translators translated it “spirit” sometimes and “ghost” other times. A great example of this is Luke 4:1 “And Jesus being full of the Holy Ghost returned from Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness” In this case, the translators refer to the third person of the trinity twice in the same sentence. The Greek word is the same both times “pneuma.” Once they wrote “Ghost” and once they wrote “Spirit.” Their reason for this seems to be stylistic. Whenever the word “Holy” is used as a modifier, they translated the word “Ghost,” ostensibly because they liked the sound of that word pairing in 17th Century English. So, it was foolish for me to develop a theology based on the stylistic preference of the KJV translators which would have caused me to think Luke 4:1 was referring to two different persons or objects.

Another example is the use of the word “abomination.” I have heard entire theologies about how sins of abomination are of a fundamentally different nature than other sins. The only problem with this is, there is no single Hebrew word reliably translated abomination. There are two separate Hebrew root words translated “abomination” in the KJV and sometimes also translated “abhor” or “detest.” If the word “abomination” is supposed to be our cue for a special kind of moral law, then we would expect one consistent root word in Hebrew and English – not two root words with three main translations. See the article on how we apply the Old Testament law for more explanation of Old Testament abominations that are explicitly or implicitly permitted in the New Testament.

There are also some laughable examples of misunderstanding old English that surface when we ignore the original language. I always heard that the suffix “eth” meant that an action was continuous. “He that walketh by faith” meant something different than “He that walks by faith.” The only problem with this belief is that in KJV-era English, “eth” is the correct conjugation of all present tense verbs modifying a third person plural subject. For example: I walk, you walk, he/she/it walketh. In 17th Century English, you cannot say “I walketh, you walketh, or he walk.” This is easily verified by searching the KJV. You won’t find a single instance of “he walks” or of “I walketh.” In modern English, we still conjugate the third person singular, but we do it with an “s” instead of an “eth.” I walk, you walk, he walks. And so, “eth” means literally nothing other than that KJV translators knew the grammar of their day. A simple check of the Greek or Hebrew language would also have kept us from making this error.

3) Over reliance on one English translation causes us to be divisive about things that don’t matter. 

A great example of this is the word “Hell” vs. the word “Hades.” As I have already discussed, there are multiple versions of the word in Greek, and many modern translations literally transcribe the Greek word “hades” as the English word “Hades.” They mostly still use “Hell” to describe “Gehenna” and “Tartarus.” I grew up believing that the word Hades was some kind of near heresy that was introduced maliciously to downplay the significance of eternal judgement. As already addressed, that is a very accurate translation and is not worth being divisive about.

Similarly, the controversy about the use of the phrase Holy Ghost vs. Holy Spirit is equally pointless. The KJV translators used both words. Spirit comes from the Latin word for breath or wind, which makes it an excellent translation of pneuma, which means “a current of air.” Ghost comes from a the Germanic word “gaistaz,” which means “breath or spirit.” That also makes it a fine translation for pneuma (at least as it was used in 1611). It expresses the same idea as spirit, but does so by drawing from the Germanic language family instead of the Latin one. You can see this reflected in different modern languages. The Spanish phrase for Holy “Pneuma” is “Espíritu Santo,” a cognate of spirit which comes from the Latin roots of Spanish. The German phrase is “Heilige Geist,” a cognate of ghost which comes from Germanic roots. I was taught that referring to the Holy Ghost as the Holy Spirit was a form of heresy. Even though the KJV refers to the third person of the trinity as the “Spirit” 137 times… The fact is that in modern usage, the word ghost has the connotation of the spirit of someone who is dead, which can obscure the meaning of the “Holy Ghost” to those not raised in the church. Say “Holy Ghost” if you prefer, but don’t make the issue a divisive one, the original language provides no grounds for such division.

How do we know when to consult the original language?

It’s true that it is not feasible to read every passage of scripture with an interlinear comparison open. It’s also true that most of us aren’t scholars and so we shouldn’t kid ourselves about our ability to understand the original meaning better than the translators. However, there are a few scenarios in which it makes a lot of sense to go to the original language.

  • When one verse seems to have a message different from other parts of scripture.
  • When the meaning of a verse isn’t clear, or you could take it multiple ways.
  • When a word repeats itself many times and is important to a passage.
  • When you want to do a topical study of a word in Scripture (search for the Greek word, not the English one).
  • When you come to a passage that you’ve read many times and you want to learn things from it that you haven’t before.

While those are good guideline for when lay people should consult the original language, our preachers and teachers should be consulting it every time or at least almost every time they pick a text to teach on. In the defense of the KJV, much homage is paid to the scholastic aptitude of the original translators. While I don’t dispute their prowess, this homage raises an important question. Which of the most well-known Holiness preachers have even a sliver of the familiarity with the original languages that the KJV translators had? The answer is almost none. On the contrary, I have sat under the teaching of many preachers outside of Holiness who are familiar with Greek and Hebrew, and they bring meaning to me that wasn’t obvious from the English text. While I have an obligation to search myself before I take someone’s word for what the Bible says, preachers also have an obligation to bring their sheep something which they weren’t going to gather immediately in their own personal Bible study. It is easier for me to verify a nugget of truth than to find it, and who should be mining the truth of Scripture for us if not our Bible teachers and preachers?

-Nathan Mayo

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References:
Different words for Hell: https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/406-use-of-hell-in-the-new-testament-the
The Names of God: https://www.blueletterbible.org/study/misc/name_god.cfm
Etymology of Peculiar: https://www.etymonline.com/word/peculiar
Outline of Biblical Translation of Pneuma: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G4151&t=KJV
Etymology of Spirit: https://www.etymonline.com/word/spirit Etymology of Ghost: https://www.etymonline.com/word/ghost