Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The Case Against Greek

The Bible was written in Greek. I can't read Greek. Does this make me unable to adequately teach the Bible? Some biblical scholars would say yes. Some would say no. I know this because I've asked multiple biblical scholars this questions and have received these opposing answers.

In this post, I'm going to make a quick case for the 'no' answer. I don't believe it is mandatory for a good bible teacher to be able to read the bible in its original language. But before I argue that, I want to make a few concessions to the 'yes' answer. First, I believe it is better to know Greek than to not know Greek. Second, I think it is potentially dangerous to teach the Bible without concern for the fact that it was written in Greek. Third, I have to admit that part of my argument may be biased by my reluctance to study Greek. But all that being said...

I don't think my lack of knowledge in the area of biblical Greek prevents me from being a good bible teacher (in fact, I don't think it prevents me from being a better bible teacher than many teachers who do know Greek). And here are my reasons why. First, there are a lot of excellent scholarly translations. The argument by scholars that you MUST know Greek goes against the idea that many of these same scholars are involved in the translation process. Didn't they do a good job? Second, there are a lot of excellent resources for studying Greek words without knowing the Greek language. Certainly in the ancient world, before these study tools emerged, it was more important to know the Greek language. But is that still the case? With all the resources available, any pastor who cares has access to the pertinent information. Third, I think those who would answer 'yes' (you MUST know Greek) have to admit that they may be biased by the fact that they already know Greek and that puts them in a position of elitism if Greek is a must. Willful ignorance is not charming, but neither is strong sense of superiority. Fourth, and this is perhaps the point I consider most important, I have heard various scholars who are experts in biblical Greek say very different things about the same Greek words! It seems to be the case that you can even maneuver the Greek to fit what you want to say too!

I'm more interested in learning 50 or so key Greek words and understanding what they mean and how they were used in the ancient world. And this concludes a post that the vast majority of you will have found very boring!


sheila said...

OK, this is for Katie, does he always talk in circles, lol.

Back to the writer:
Is it being able to read Greek the point, or to be able to understand it?
As you mentioned, there are so many resources for us to use to be able to understand what a particular scripture is saying or meaning. I know I find it interesting when someone points out the Greek meaning of a particular phrase or word.
Would you say you would be inadequate to teach the Bible if you gave no regard to the Greek language, do you think it is mandatory for a good bible teacher to have the resources and willingness to look into the Greek language? So there you have it, 'the case for Greek', I think.
Have a good day Pastor Matt. In God's love, sheila

matthew said...

I think it would be a mistake in judgment for a pastor to not care at all about the fact that the Bible was written in a different language.

Most verses are quite easy to understand. But I think when we get stuck on a verse's meaning, it is helpful to use some resources to help us figure it out.

biblestudytools.net is an online concordance that allows you to look up the hebrew and greek words.

My goal would be to learn about 50 key words and to know how they were used in the ancient world (Words like: church, grace, love, justification, sanctification, salvation, etc).

Thanks for the feedback Sheila. I wish all my feedback was here on the blog, but it seems like lots of people are leaving their comments on facebook now.

C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

A friend I had many years ago who has no passed from this life made some of the same arguments and did a little research on what pastors do with the languages after they get out of seminary. He was the son of a Baptist Pastor. He presented his argument on application to Western Seminary (Portland OR) and they sent him packing [this was 1974]. He presented the same argument at Denver Seminary and was admitted and finished his M.Div w/o Greek or Hebrew. He also manged to persuade Vernon Grounds (Pres. Denver Sem,) to meet with him and several other students twice a week, a sort mentoring. I took a less confrontational approach and signed up for an MA in dogmatic theology where no languages were required.

A decade later I took up linguistics first and then Greek and Hebrew. After twenty some years of Greek I agree with you. There isn't much reason to learn the languages if you want to teach bible in an informal setting like a church. It may actually hinder you.

I don't encourage anyone to take up the languages. Nothing less than decades of hard work (for no pay) will get you to a level of competence. Your confidence in preaching may actually be eroded by the exposure to serious linguistic study.

matthew said...

thanks very much for that very helpful comment :)