The Limitations of Biblical Translation and the Need to Learn Greek by Kevin P. Carey38 min read
In times still in living memory, recognition of the value of classical studies was general enough that a paper such as this one would have been unnecessary. The sources of our civilization were evident, Latin and Greek widely taught, writers grounded in the classics appreciated. Though by the middle of the last century, few Americans any longer knew much of the classical languages, we still valued them.
This paper is not a general defence of the classics, but something much simpler: advocacy of learning Greek for the purpose of reading the New Testament (and the Old, for that matter). Such learning was once a natural adjunct of the classics. Now it requires, on its own and for its own sake, the soundest buttressing one can bring to it. For we have not, needless to say, kept up our knowledge of the linguistic root of the Christian faith, and it is endangered. But is it not St. John Chrysostom who somewhere proclaims by how far the sacred writers of the New Testament have surpassed the Greeks of old?1 Therefore can we overcome our sense of loss by the discovery of what not even the sublime Plato or Pythagoras was given to behold, but maybe dimly. To us it is given in full light by the choir of writers of the New Testament.
We begin with the recollection that the New Testament was written in the Greek language, a fact which one might pause to appreciate. We must understand likewise what translation is and what it is not. Examples will be called for. In making the case for reading the New Testament in Greek, we will have to offer a program for learning Greek.
The argument is simple. The Holy Spirit in His wisdom had the Bible, first the septuagint version of the Old Testament, then the New written in the Greek language of the day. Though having its uses, translation is by nature inadequate to convey the richness of Sacred Scripture.
1 St. John is not rebutted but even supported by St. Basil’s advice that the ancient greats can be read with profit by the discriminating Christian seeker of virtue.
Therefore if one would know scripture for all that it is, he must learn the Greek of the Bible.
Let us launch out from the middle of the argument. The Arabs, whose knowledge of languages qualifies them to speak, say that what is truly expressive cannot be translated; they are thinking of the Koran, among other things. The list of contents of a bottle of catsup can be translated, a poem cannot be. A map, an instructional manual for a washing machine, an academic paper, stories for children, a good novel: one sees the gradation, the growing difficulties, the losses incurred by reading a translation. But what is “lost in the translation” we accept like the tax on a sale or casualties in battle. Sometimes, to be sure, such losses are simply unavoidable. Let us draw a line, however, at Scripture, though we ought to have drawn it earlier in the list. If we want to read, say, Pushkin or Dostoyevsky or Achmatova, read them seriously, should we not learn Russian? The point is clearer the other way: what would you think of a foreigner who claimed to be an accomplished student of Shakespeare, but did not know any English? What if he offered this defence (translated from his own tongue): Oh, I love Shakespeare and know him well, but English is just too hard, especially that old stuff, besides which I simply haven’t the time?
But we believe that the New Testament is the most important book, or collection of books, that ever was or could be, and that it is Sacred Scripture because it is inspired by God the Holy Spirit. And we know in what tongues He caused it to be set down in writing. The Gospel tells us that God chose the time and place of birth and the precise lineage of the Savior, so too the men and thus the language in which it was all told. It has been said oft and eloquently that Greek is the wisest of languages, rich, subtle, complete in its thought, precise, powerful and beautiful in expression. In any case, there can be no accident in the Holy Spirit’s having chosen this language to reveal divine truths to the world, or doubt that He did so in the most perfect manner possible to human language. We must remind ourselves that, although many great writers have written in their various languages, some almost immortally well, we speak of only one Book being divinely inspired, and that, in final form, in the Greek language. If this point has been belabored, it is
because the lazy prejudice in favor of translation, of centuries’ duration, has all but swept the field.
An objector will jump in with the reminder that the Church has sanctioned translation from the early Christian centuries. There is St. Jerome’s Vulgate in Latin , the Peshitta in Aramaic, then numberless others: yes, and for reasons pastoral beyond questioning. There came saints who knew only their own language and thus depended upon translation: St. Anthony and much of monastic Egypt, St. Isaac the Syrian and much of the monastic East, and not only monastic of course; Sts. Olga and Vladimir and their sea of Slavic children down to the new martyrs and confessors of our own time. They all witness unanswerably to the good translation can bring.
But let me hazard to point up latter-day abuses. The very proliferation of translations in hundreds of languages and in a given language – how many English New Testaments have we?- provokes doubts about fidelity. Read two English ones and note differences. Which is better? which right? Without Greek, how can one know? Who can deny doctrinal bias, literary or even social-class fashion, a modernizing tendency? Most seriously, the hard and long drive to make and use translations, to use them exclusively, even by preachers, has had as one result, unintentional or otherwise, to degrade the study of the New Testament itself, which is in Greek, and even to diminish awareness that reading the actual text is of value. Translation can have the odd effect of cutting one off from the original.
Here allow a comment. It seems to me we have come to accept a distance between ourselves and reality, a distance so great, so fundamental in nature, as nearly to obliterate our sense of reality, and this in many spheres. The electronic revolution has widened the split, has helped indeed to create it. For most of us, the stars barely exist. We don’t (and can’t) grow a tomato or walnut to eat. Water comes through a pipe we cannot but depend upon. There is no real money. We accept an electronic image as “virtual” reality though it has nothing of reality, with respect to what is imaged, in it at all. The face is not the face, the voice not the voice, but only electronic – we might as well say magical – representations of the real face and voice which are themselves not seen or heard. Not only the how is a mystery, the who
and why often are too. Counterfeits can be slipped in, with purposes and uses we cannot accept.
Is the uncritical acceptance of translation not an instance of this loss of contact with reality, given that the original text is the real one? If one is even unaware of the shift, how far afield may he not be carried?2 But such distancing is actually taught us. On the back cover of a translation, a noted classicist beams, “[X]’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey is the most eloquent, persuasive, and imaginative I have seen. It reads as if the poem had originally been written in English”(emphasis mine). In a course in “English Prose Style” in my college, the professor liked to read snatches from the King James Bible as fine exemplars of his subject. The KJB is indeed a work of high art in its own right. But the more we are taken by the English beauty and power, by the “as if” of a translation (the literary “virtual reality”), the further we drift from the original text, which becomes unneeded, practically forgotten.
We may suppose that in earlier times, when feet were planted in the soil and hands put on the work, that translation opened worlds otherwise closed. In our condition it rather closes worlds we think are open but in fact are kept ever at a remove.
What then is translation? Anyone who knows or has made progress in a second tongue realizes that language does more than convey meaning. The mind somehow shifts position, facial muscles and hands take on a new life, the words, the feel of the phrases, the “how to put it” create their distinct atmosphere. And when he returns to the first tongue, he senses that he leaves a lot behind and has to think and say it all again in quite a different way. Two similes will serve.3 Translation is like a symphony played on piano, that is, not by the whole orchestra, but only in the themes as can be conveyed by a pianist. Or, it is like a wooden model of the human body in many parts, to be used for
2 During the war, German bombers were guided to their targets in England by parallel electronic beams. Unbeknownst to the Germans, the British learned to bend these beams a little bit, then a little more, till before long the Germans were dropping their bombs a mile from the target. (The source of this tale I do not recall; it is likely somewhere in Churchill’s instructive six-volumed memoir of the war.)
3These are proposed in Professor Zielinski, Our Debt to Antiquity, trans. from the Russian by H.A. Strong and Hugh Stewart, London: George Routledge and Sons, 1909, pp. 85-7. This work comes warmly recommended by the Cambridge translators, whose judgment the passage of a long, sad century has only strengthened.
anatomological studies. We indeed hear the music and see the parts – up to a point. What would the conservatory and the medical school say? But do we settle for these? If we settle for the moment, are we willing, having an idea of what the whole reality must be, to dispense with the reality, when Sacred Scripture is the thing at stake?
Translation, especially of the Bible, is an attempt to render in a foreign tongue a selection- be it the “most important parts”- from the meaning of a text. It is a version, an interpretation, for it necessarily involves a judgment of what to try to convey, and of what to abandon of the meaning, implication, allusion, intra-relatedness of text, all the “between the lines” as being admittedly impossible to carry across. (Thus the use of devices, however respectable and “necessary”, so that the result seems “as if” written in the second language.) And the further the readership is from the original in language, time, culture, mentality and so on, the heavier the task, the more has to be left on the far side of the divide.
The danger of a translation is that it be taken as an adequate substitute for the original. How easy to fall into it! Hear a little story about Arabic. An evening reading course in Jerusalem. The teacher hands out copies of a poem by a well-known contemporary Syrian poet. The students look it over: classical Arabic form and meter, but not so bad: seems a ho hum love poem. “Everyone finished?” Yes, it wasn’t difficult. “Take out your lexicons and look up the first word.” A mild protest, for that word is well familiar. “Look it up.” It turns out to have perhaps eight meanings, unsuspected, rather distinct from one another. “Now look up the second word.” Same story. She gives the run-down of another word, then has us search out half a dozen others scattered around the poem. -Hmm. “See the picture?” Rather puzzling. Even the Italians in the class, who so often force the straightness off her face, are at a loss for a saving witticism. So she re- casts what we thought was the love poem, using meanings up and down the lists of those we’d found, giving it an uneasy air of political criticism if not subversion. “See what Arabic can do?” It was a great lesson. Beyond the Arabic, we glimpsed translation less as an art than as an impossibility. But this poet has no doubt been put into English, or French, and the poem presented as a love poem, fanned perhaps into
amorous brilliancy, but no more. What could a translator do with such craftsmanship- if he happened to see it? But what if the teacher had had us first read the English version, so that we “knew”it, before facing the Arabic? that is the position of those who “know” their favorite version of the New Testament. Again, what if one were to read this “love poem” only in English and never get to the Arabic at all? –
-But the New Testament, you will retort, confronts us with no such cunning tricks! True, not cunning ones. Glance at John 12:35, at the unnoticed verb King James has as a commonplace “come upon,” that is, lest night fall. You would not suspect it is the same verb which is rendered as “comprehended” in 1:5, where the context is similar. If you were to take out your lexicon and look it up, you would find its primary meaning is “seize upon, lay hold of” – and farther down – “to hold in, keep down or under, check, put an end to, settle, conclude” – then further – “to catch, discover, detect… to happen to one” (Liddell and Scott). -Hmm. See the picture? But the Greek doesn’t see it either; it is all one verb to him: translation is our problem, or rather, it is a quandary we leave to the translator to resolve for us. And when he has (seemingly) done it, we are unfitted to grasp the depths presented by these two scenes. But we are running too far ahead.
The story just related illustrates a ubiquitous reality so obvious that readers of translations often miss it: that a language has its genius, its covert ways, its face – which a second language cannot grasp within the range of its separate genius and possibilities.
Yet this is not at all to forsake the exercise of translation We must repeat that biblical translation can be of value. In addition to what has been noted of its high services in Church history, it has uses today. First, much can be translated to general satisfaction, so that one can get a good orientation to the original.4 This is especially so of statements of historical fact and of what is in the nature of a story. Second, it can guide the student of the original text who feels himself at
4 Professor Zielinski, op. sit., p. 86, says that some classical literature can be translated but some cannot be. (He would agree with the Arabs, as reported in general on p. 1 of this paper.) Surely the same is true of the New Testament.
sea.5 Third, scriptural translation (unless erroneous) can assist those who know considerable Greek in penetrating the sense more deeply, for it tells us what other serious students thought the Greek meant. The more so if several versions are consulted, the more so still if one can use several languages. The word here is to consult, but not to trust uncritically. Later, when the student has advanced, the Greek itself exposes the inadequacy of the translation, so that, fresh off a brilliant run of St. Paul, say, he will be so astounded that the English will be of no interest. The sunrise being there before you, you don’t want a painting.
Now for some illustrations from Scripture of points proposed. These few readily come to hand, but hundreds could be found by comparing the Greek with any translation. Translation is an interpretation. In John 10:24, the Jews ask the Lord, literally, “until when do you raise our soul?” The King James Version (KJ) says this means “make us to doubt”. But it could also mean “raise expectations,” “cause to wonder,” or even “toy with us,” depending on their mind- or other things, considering that the word rendered “soul” has several senses. The point is not how the question is to be understood in English, it is that any translation is, first, an interpretation of something different and variable; that, second, it closes off to the reader the full range of Greek possibilities (he doesn’t know they exist!); and, third, not least, if one focuses in this example upon the questionable word “doubt” (how could the Lord cause to doubt?), it could lead in turn to dubious interpretation, an attempt to learn truth based upon uncertain presuppositions supposed to be certain. These questions will recur.
5 Another illustration from the Arabic. After a special course in poetry four high school students had requested of me one summer in Jerusalem, the girls presented me with a handsome edition of the Koran, three of them being Muslim, with the Arabic on facing pages with superb English rendered by a Pakistani scholar in London in 1948. Some months later, one of the four approached me in the hallway at school asking to borrow my Koran. The gift having slipped my memory, my face betrayed bewilderment: coming to a Christian for a Koran…she must have ten Korans at home…”You know, your English one.” I was yet more confused as she was as fine a student of Arabic as she was of English. “But why?” She was almost in tears: “Because I want to know what it says!”
Move to John 11:41 at Lazarus’ tomb. KJ uses two unrelated verbs, whereas the Greek uses the same verb for both Lazarus’ stone and Jesus’ eyes – the same verb used, incidentally, for the Jewish “soul” in 10:24, and the same again the Lord employs for the lame man’s bed at the Sheep’s Pool (John 5:8). Reading the Greek, one can begin to see and wonder at the interconnections. Reading a translation, these all seem separate and unrelated. But perhaps they or some of them are unrelated, as the verb is common enough. Then again, we know that poets say nothing at random, nor is anything in Scripture there by chance. At least one can, in Greek, raise the question and bring to bear evidence at first hand, instead of being glided over it all in ignorance.
Sometimes what is obscured in translation need not have been, as in John 6: 52-8, a passage which jolted King James. In these verses, the King uses “eat” seven times. The Greek uses for the first two the common verb for “eat” but in the next three usages, where KJ continues to say “eat,” the Greek turns to a verb meaning “to gnaw, chew, eat raw” (Liddell and Scott), this for the Lord’s flesh. A different tone at least! One feels the Jews’ and and disciples’ queasiness. Then in v. 58, regarding manna, the Greek says “eat,” but when the bread in question becomes again the Lord’s flesh the Greek reverts to the more graphic verb. This dramatic word-play has theological significance – it dashes metaphor to the ground, heightens reality and separates ordinary eating, even the Old Testament symbol of manna, altogether from participation in the Lord’s Body and Blood, though the forms be similar – and might have been reproduced in translation. Was it His Royal Highness’ sense of propriety? Protestant doubt perhaps? But it is not the most faithful translation.
We will pass over John 8:55, where the English “know” serves for two Greek verbs having distinct senses, and John 21:15-17, where, famously, the same situation pertains respecting the English “love” for two somewhat different Greek verbs. Again, does not the serious reader prefer grappling with subtle distinctions to having them hidden from him?
The original text can make an important statement, not directly, but merely by the choice of words used, a statement which therefore can easily be “lost in translation”. A good example is the comparison drawn
in John 9:6-9, where Jesus is healing the man born blind. KJ says He “anointed” the man; The Greek verb contains the root of “Christ”. He sends him to wash, a figure of baptism in the pool KJ calls “Sent”; the Greek participle is like the word “Apostle”. When he is given sight and the onlookers are wondering, KJ has him say, “I am he,” but though he means that, St. John writes not that exactly, but rather “I am”. That is the Greek rendering of the Tetragrammaton, the four Hebrew letters written to stand in for God, Whose Name was not to be spoken. In John 8:58, just before our passage, Jesus uses the eternal “I am” for Himself, as if to prepare us to see the significance of the formerly blind man’s “I am”. In sum, in John 9: 6,7,9 are three clear verbal expressions comparing the newly seeing man to Christ, or four, counting the allusion to baptism. How wholly Christ clothes Himself in us! – or rather, once he saw, so wholly does the man born blind take on Christ. But this is just how He was shown forth – as God, emerging from the waters. In the man’s “I am,” then, is revealed our deification. This comparison of Jesus and the man, doctrinally important, can perhaps be dug out of the English – or maybe missed. In Greek, it is made clear and manifest by the simple choice of words employed, without need for fussy explanation.
But translation can also make correct doctrine downright obscure. For example, in Hebrews 6:4-6, St. Paul teaches, according to King James, that repentance under the conditions given is impossible. But it never is impossible while we live. The trouble is in the appreciation of time in the Greek infinitive and participles in v. 6. A fall having occurred, to “renew” (present time) themselves “seeing that they crucify…and put Him to an open shame” (both present) is impossible at the same time (the present time) as the sinning. That is, sin and repentance cannot go on simultaneously. The translator evidently took the participle expressed by “if they shall fall away” (but there is in the Greek no “if” and no future!) as describing an ongoing condition, that is, their continuing in sin. But that participle is in fact in a tense (absent from English) which often denotes action which occurred but is not ongoing, that is has stopped: unlike the other participles and the infinitive in v. 6, this one is not in the present tense. It could be, therefore, that someone may not now be crucifying the Son of God afresh, and so on,
but have ceased to do so.6 The passage thus does not preclude the possibility that, having risen from a fall, one might “renew [oneself] unto repentance”. As the KJ translators knew their Greek, one wonders whether some errant doctrinal tendency has not crept in. (Please note that the analysis set forth in this paragraph does propose to explicate all that St. Paul is teaching in the passage, but only to dispel the notion evident in the translation that he holds repentance ever impossible.)
A noble teaching is also obscured by the translation of James 1:9,10. KJ has it as a neat parallel: “in that he is exalted …in that he is made low,” a rendering which can be read in an absolutely correct sense but, in actuality, is not. The trouble here is that the “is exalted” and the “is made low” stand for nouns acting in different ways. The first denotes simply a constant state: height, elevation. The humble man, it says, is by virtue of his humility (already) in a high state. The noun represented by “is made low,” on the other hand, is built from a verb meaning to lower or to humble and so speaks rather of a change of state, a lowering, humbling. The KJ translation, in its firm parallelism, sets up in the reader’s mind the expectation that both statements speak of a change of state, the participle “exalted” being ambiguous on this score. We expect the little guy or the underdog (v. 9) to rise and therefore rejoice. But St. James is teaching rather that humility is best, whether already possessed (v.9), or fallen into, so to speak (v. 10).
Sometimes what is “lost in translation” is on the poetic plane, which is also a didactic plane. Listen to the central part of 1Peter 2:2: “e’pathen hupe’r humo’n humee’n hupolimpa’non
hupogrammo’n,” (ἔπαθεν ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν, ὑμῖν ὑπολιμπάνων ὑπογραμμὸν) a remarkable assemblage of similar sounds hard on one another, and for a purpose. It is of this sort: St. Peter’s assiduous conflation of assonance and consonance assures concentration upon assaying to
6 The tense we are discussing, called “aorist,” “has nuances all its own, many of them difficult or well-nigh impossible to reproduce in English… We merely do the best we can in English to translate in one way or another the total result of word…, context and tense. Certainly one cannot say that the English translations have been successful with the Greek aorist,” A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament.., p. 847, a book to be introduced later in this paper. These remarks convey the imprecision inherent in translation, and tell us that if one troubles to grasp the ideas of this tense, he will often see things translators cannot reproduce, for it is very common.
continue in His footsteps- just the teaching being laid down. Translation, anyone?
Because everything in Holy Scripture has its meaning and nothing is there by chance, whim, or by the way, what for any reason is not translated, not to speak of distortions and errors, cost the reader opportunity to hear what the Spirit says. A small example (for these are usually felt to be small losses) : at the scene of the crucifixion, John 19: 24,25, the last sentences of v. 24 and the sentence following in v. 25 have in them two small “particles,” little words, one in the first sentence, the other in the second. These two words signal a relationship, something like “on the one hands…on the other hand…”. What that relationship actually is in these verses requires to be determined. The point is that the relationship is clearly signalled. KJ not only ignores the two words, but breaks the paragraph between the two sentences, leaving the reader no chance at all to see what the full text says, let alone to wonder about its meaning. Granted, this seems a small detail. But the Holy Spirit put it there.
To bring these illustrations to an unhappy ending, sometimes a translation is simply mistaken. 2 Timothy 2: 26 KJ renders as “..by him at his will,” both “him” and “his” referring to the devil. But in Greek the two words are different pronouns whose sole force here is to mark a contrast between the devil’s devilry and God’s triumph. The verse means literally, “and that they may recover their sobriety from the snare of the devil, having been restored to life from under him (the devil) to the will of that one (God)”. This error with pronouns distorts the conclusion of St. Paul’s admonition. But the use of these same pronouns for contrast a little further on in 2 Timothy 3 :9 KJ gets right. In Revelation 10:11, KJ writes “And he said unto me,” whereas the verb is actually in the third person plural, referring apparently both to the voice in v. 8 and to the angel. It is also in the present tense, recourse to the past tense in “as if” English forfeiting the dramatic immediacy of the scene.
Such citations go not to criticize any one translation, but to show the limitations of translation in itself.7 The general result is always the same: If one judges wrongly about what the translation means in itself, and if it is not perfectly faithful to the original – as very often is bound to be the case – he will misinterpret the interpretation, thereby going doubly far astray. The problem must recur constantly if one cannot have recourse to the Greek. The Greek has its own daunting difficulties. But English is very unlike Greek in the Indo-European scale of things. Reading Scripture via the separate complications of English, then, adds hazard to what was already mystery.
There remains the setting out of a practical program to learn Greek. For those unable to study under a qualified teacher, the following ideas, fruits of recommendation and experience, are offered. There is no disguising the difficulty of the endeavor or the persistence demanded. But the goal of reading the divinely inspired words of the sacred writers, and the words of the God-Man Himself, Who often spoke in Greek, shines brightly and is supremely desirable.
In learning the Greek of the New Testament, DO NOT start with the New Testament! Without enough older Greek in your background, you will be reading your remembered English into the text and thus, as with translation, not noticing much of what the Greek says. For this tongue is subtle, intricate and, again, quite, quite different from English. It needs to be read for what it is and for all that it is without the interference of another language. This requires the building of a foundation.
Start with Homer. Let “the first and greatest of poets” teach you Greek. It happens that Homer formed much of the thought-world in which both Christians and their opponents operated in the early
7 In legal agreements requiring that the text be in more than one language, a clause is inserted to the effect that, in case of disagreement over text, the version in one specified language will rule. This clause anticipates faults not in legal draftsmanship but in the very nature of translation. If this is so within the precisions of civil law, how much more is it so in the expansive and poetic realms of divine revelation?
centuries.8 Recommended to me9 – probably the wisest textbook on any subject I have ever used – is Homeric Greek, Clyde Pharr, University of Oklahoma Press,1959. Among Dr. Pharr’s fascinations are the parallels he demonstrates between Homer (c.9th cent. B.C.) and the Old Testament, suggesting that Homer knew or at least worked in the same cultural milieu as the Bible!10 Pharr writes, “It is generally recognized that for best results in the study of the New Testament, students should read a considerable amount of other Greek first. In the whole circle of Greek literature, the two authors most important for the study of the New Testament are Homer and Plato…Experience has shown that after a year of Homer, students can and do pass with little difficulty into the New Testament” (p. XXIX). Homer is not easy, but one can work through Pharr’s book and come close enough to mastering it in a year of daily application, even without a teacher. (A good teacher is of course invaluable, if only for occasional consultation.)
In the second year, find an older New Testament grammar. The newer ones I have seen are so facile, so set to rush the student forward, that one can come to feel he knows more Greek than he does and so miss the real language. Given me in Jerusalem11 was Beginning Greek, John M. Rife, The Reiff Press, Amelia, Ohio, 1964. Rife is simpler than Pharr, whom you will now highly appreciate, well organized, with very useful exercises, working in as possible phrases of St. Mark, whose Gospel Rife judges the simplest for the student. Rife, like Pharr, is a very good teacher. My recommendation is two careful readings of Rife – that is, work through it, then go back to the beginning and repeat it all. Then you will be ready for the full St. Mark. (Rife’s General
8 This is according to Dr. Pharr of the University of Texas, pp. XXVIII-XXIX, to be introduced very shortly.
9 By Dr. L. Gehring, M.D., of Owego, New York, beloved physician and friend, who gave me a copy, which I treasure.
10 How this might have come about is not surmised. Pharr’s suggestion in any case runs directly counter to the settled conclusion of H.D.F. Kitto, no slight authority, who writes in The Greeks, Edinburgh, 1959, p. 8: “Here were two races [Greeks and Hebrews], each very conscious of being different from its neighbours, living not very far apart, yet for the most part in complete ignorance of each other and influencing each other not at all until the period following Alexander’s conquests…” It is hard, however, to resist Pharr’s presentation of similar texts.
11 By the ever-memorable Archdeacon Seraphim (MacFadyen) of Jerusalem.
Vocabulary suffices for St. Mark.) Read His Gospel twice also. This is the second year.
Now you are prepared to sail out onto the great and infinite sea of the New Testament. You will need two sails, indispensable: 1. Greek- English Lexicon, Liddell and Scott, abridged edition (more than full enough), Oxford 1891(oft reprinted): THE classic lexicon. In their introductory “Advertisement” the authors write, “[A]nd especial care has been taken to explain all words contained in the New Testament” – Oxford, October, 1871; 2. A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research; A.T. Robertson, Broadman Press, Nashville, Tenn., 1934: a magnas opus, a most useful “grown-up” grammar. The explanations are fundamental, the descriptions exhaustive. By now you will be able to appreciate the light such work throws before one’s quest to understand the text. And you will enjoy the conversation Robertson keeps up with a number of scholars, mostly German and English, dating from the 1840’s to his own day (first edition, 1914), that is, when the public educated to discuss the Greek New Testament was sizeable.12 Robertson was a Baptist minister and
scholar in Louisville, Kentucky, so he with Pharr of Texas and Rife of Ohio offer us a glimpse of the heights attained in mid-USA in the knowledge and teaching of Greek – not irrecoverably long ago.
With these two “sails,” keeping old hands Pharr and Rife on board, read the New Testament in this order after Mark: Matthew, John (all, including the Apocalypse), Luke (both), Paul beginning with Galatians then straight through to Hebrews, then back to Romans and Corinthians, then James, Peter, etc. In each case read the book carefully twice. This order is based upon approximate level of difficulty of the language, though exceptions are inevitable, the second half of Acts, for example, being full of sticklers. And perhaps Hebrews should come after Corinthians. You should expect to wear out lexicon and grammars alike. Thus the work of a further three years or so if done diligently. A good teacher could save the student some heavy rowing, but if one must do it largely alone the benefits are not small.
12 This vast volume, doubtless like many other products of older scholarship, bears poignant witness to the recent existence of a European-American culture altogether better than ours, and to a toll the wars exacted which does not show up in any casualty figures.
Be assured that, once somewhat capable in the language, you will find in the New Testament a new kingdom, full of hitherto unknown and unsuspected riches. Joy will begin, and as you keep working once and again through the books it will grow. You know you are standing on bedrock. Seeing Greek, you are glad, amid all the dissolution and untruth around us, that it is there. Greek puts everything in its right place and settles the soul.
Such sentiments are true, and all the truer, their mention all the more necessary, now. For we suffer attack, as has long been obvious, upon the ecclesial and moral bases of the Christian faith, and even upon the Constitutional right to religious freedom in the USA. But, more to the point of this paper, the linguistic foundation is also being undermined. In Greece itself, one heard long ago, the modernizing, popularizing trend was so strong that demands were raised to “translate” the New Testament into the common language! That is, modern “education” has produced Greeks who cannot read the best of Greek literature. In the West, the “managed decline” of the classical languages is an old story – remember the enlightening book Who Killed Homer?13 This is not some vague, unaccountable sociological trend: powerful enemies have proclaimed an ominous agenda. In public remarks of the late 1990’s, no less a figure than Dr. H. Kissinger said, “The Greek people are anarchic and difficult to tame. For this reason we must strike deep into their cultural roots: Perhaps then we can force them to conform. I mean, of course, to strike at their language, their religion, their cultural and historical reserves, so that we can neutralize their ability to develop, to distinguish themselves, or to prevail; thereby removing them as an obstacle to our strategically vital plans in the Balkans, the
13 Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom, Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath (University of California Press,1998)
Mediterranean, and the Middle East”.14 Such people know where the Christian cultural and doctrinal foundation is.
14As reported in the popular Greek magazine, Oikonomikos Tachydromos on 14 Aug. l997, Henry Kissinger, while addressing a group of Washington, D.C. businessmen in Sept.1974. This quotation was kindly supplied by Bishop Philaretos. I remembered a fragment of it, but now longer had the text before me. This quotation was among a large quantity of intellectual property – books, periodicals, papers – stolen from me upon our moving from the U.S. to Crimea in 2012. Similarly, when we shipped personal property from Jerusalem to Odessa in 2003, I lost nearly all of a valued Middle Eastern library, including the Pakistani Koran mentioned earlier in footnote 5 of this paper. My conclusion that on both occasions the property was stolen is based upon the following considerations: both times only my books (etc.) in English, French, and Arabic went missing, whereas my wife’s Russian-language materials all arrived; in two cases, boxes were rifled, some things being taken, others left, and in one case (in a box shipped via Israel) some silly items were substituted for missing books. How else to read such occurrences than as signals that the thieves were official and wanted me to know they were active? (Several earlier experiences in Jerusalem, one being the signalled eves-dropping of a telephone call while I had diplomatic status there, had primed me to beware of such things. One game was this: a generous man in the U.S. sent me a check for $500 for relief of Palestinian refugees. His envelope arrived, sealed, containing his letter and a check. Not his check, but one drawn on a Jewish bank in Jerusalem for 500 shekels. His check was cashed. At the exchange-rate then current, the theft amounted to 60% of the donation.) This note is not a sad though irrelevant reminiscence, but adds point to the question to be raised shortly before footnote 15.
Thus the study of the Greek New Testament has become an anti- Revolutionary act! – and who can say it will not be made nearly impossible?15
15 We Americans do well to remind ourselves that such losses have often been suffered. A few recent ones:
-The Soviet experience is a fresh memory. See, for example, the memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam for first-hand descriptions of Soviet treatment of literature. But one need not remember or research anything. A visitor to any bookstore here, today, will note, amid the apparently large selection of titles, all the sorts of things that are not to be found. In fact, permissible fields and topics are few, at least in Crimea.
– I witnessed myself the purging of the library of a once-Orthodox monastery in West Virginia upon their sovietization in 2007. Purged were books about the new martyrs and confessors of Russia, once standard reading, and two about Masonry, I remember precisely. Also one by Fr. Andrew Phillips about English Orthodoxy entitled Orthodox Christianity and the English Tradition. Perhaps others: one recalls old Jordanville publications which had become incriminating to the new order.
– Suppression in the U.S.A, of opposition to Darwinist theory is discussed by Wolfgang Smith,
Professor of Mathematics at Oregon State University, Cosmos and Transcendence: Breaking Through the Barrier of Scientistic Belief. Peru; Illinois: Sherwood Sugden & Company Publishers, 1984, p.162 note 67. He quotes a “noted historian of science” : “Only too often the works of such authors have been deliberately neglected or suppressed. A case in point is the book by D. Dewar called The Transformist Illusion, Murfreesboro: Dehoff Publications, 1957, which has assembled a vast amount of paleontological and biological evidence against evolution. The author who was an evolutionist in his youth wrote many monographs which exist in the libraries of comparative biology everywhere. But his last book, The Transformist Illusion, had to be published in Murfreesboro, Tennessee (!) and is not easy to find even in libraries that have all his earlier works.” But this, Dr. Smith’s own late work, an unwelcome essay about the prevalence of “scientistic belief” as opposed to “scientific knowledge,” found its outlet only in Peru, Illinois.
– An Austrian Jesuit, Fr. Joseph Mirgler, S.J., wrote a book entitled (in English translation) The Dilemma of Western Christianity; it must have been published toward the end of the 1950’s. The future Fr. Seraphim (MacFadyen), whom I knew much later in Jerusalem, was at that time manger of a book store near Catholic University in Washington, D.C. He told me the exact title and author of the book, and said he personally had sold many copies of it. Then the book was made to disappear.. He and I both tried to find some trace of it. I was told by a bookseller in the U.S. that no such book appears ever to have been published. (Based upon long-ago conversations with Fr. Seraphim, it could be that in an article of the same period, Archimandrite Seraphim (Zaitsev) of Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, New York, “The Spiritual State of the Contemporary World,” Orthodox Life, Jordanville, Jul.- Aug. 1960, pp. 10-13, summarizes the pith of Mirgler’s book. Though not mentioning the book, he uses the phrases “stamp of duality,” “ruinous duplicity,” and “cunning duality,” and seems to be drawing his heat from somewhere. The “dilemma” of Mirgler’s title may be this: While the upper reaches of Roman Catholicism had opposed Orthodoxy for many centuries, the whole Roman Catholic Church had never identified itself with anti-Orthodoxy- until, after the so-called Russian Revolution and the simultaneous Fatima phenomenon, the Roman Catholics had decided to persecute Orthodoxy to its extinction. But it was realized then, in the late 1950’s, as Rome was preparing for Vatican II which was to rally all Christendom to the Pope, that to move toward Christ was to move toward Orthodoxy, or, to exclude the Orthodox was to deny Christ. Thus the dilemma. A Jesuit might well have known of such an anguished internal conversation, the publication of which required the most severe suppression.)
But the point is not the fate of one book, it is the phenomenon not to be doubted of powerful bodies obliterating all trace of once-public discourse not to their liking. Could they prevent your obtaining a copy of the Greek New Testament? But could they make it disappear? Given the state of Greek knowledge in the United States, and the progressive closed-ness of intellectual life, who would notice a gradual reduction in the supply of some unknown, unwanted book, its being reduced and reduced? It is not likely Kissinger was joking.
These remarks can be at once fixed upon the subject and concluded, with the observation that owing to one sole circumstance the New Testament is both endangered, considering this Revolution in progress against God and man, and in considerable part disqualified from translation – that one circumstance being its divine provenance.
As to translation, the last word must be spoken by Divine Writ itself. In the Prologue of the Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach, Ecclesiasticus, we read:
For the same things uttered in Hebrew and translated
into another tongue, have not the same force in them:
and not only these things, but the law itself, and the
prophets, and the rest of the books, have no small difference, when they are spoken in their own
Kevin P. Carey Balaklava, Crimea
Great Lent, Fourth Week 2021
The student of the Greek New Testament sooner or later comes across three questions that will ever color his efforts. The three can be arranged in the form of problem, solution, and ways to keep on track.
A. Textual Variations
The problem is that the New Testament reaches us in hundreds of manuscripts presenting hundreds of variations in the Greek text.
The Muslims believe that their Koran was revealed in precisely one form, so that every single word, letter and vowel-marker in the Arabic text today is exactly as it was revealed.
Our situation is far otherwise, and one might well be scandalized to discover just how fluid and uncertain the textual history is. One way forward is represented by a fine volume called The Greek New Testament (Fourth Revised Edition), Aland, Aland et al., eds., Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibel-gesellscheft, 2012 (hereafter GNT). This is at base a German-Protestant work of considerable scholarship having the virtue of identifying in clear notes a large number of variant readings – nearly 1500 of them, and these are only the ones judged important. It also gives an idea of how the text actually used was arrived at and notes differences in punctuation, often of course key to the sense of a passage. Fine maps are offered as well. This volume is one reasonable way to cope with a manuscript history that might otherwise overwhelm the student.
Most of the variations are of small significance. One manuscript will have, for example, Christ Jesus, another Jesus Christ, a third Christ the Lord. Or, one will say, It happened that…; another, And it happened that…Sometimes small phrases are used now here in the text, now there, or the word order varies. These differences sometimes introduce subtleties which can be of interest, but very often one is hard put to see much significance in them. If the idea of textual variations in revealed Scripture was unsettling, the experience of reading through the actuality page after page tends to calm the mind.
Still, one edition of the Greek New Testament can hardly be expected to settle all the long discussion. Occasionally textual variations are contended and significant. One single example must suffice to illustrate this important problem. It occurs respecting the character of the shepherds’ visit to Bethlehem after the angel appeared to them to announce the birth of Christ. The text is Luke 2:15-20, especially verse 17 where is the verb at issue, which KJ translates, “they made known
abroad”. That is, the shepherds came to the cave, had a look around and according to this reading, began preaching at once. Support of this flow of events seems to be found in no less a source than the Commentary of the Blessed Theophylact. (The Explanation by Blessed Theophylact of the Holy Gospel According to St. Luke, Fr. Christopher Stade, trans., House Springs, Missouri”: Chrysostom Press, 2004, p.31.) This edition uses the KJ text here. The saint writes immediately after the text that the shepherds symbolize hierarchs, who ought to teach their people, and so on.
Another reading, not noted in GNT, apparently because it seemed unimportant, prefixes a preposition (adverb) to the verb in question, re- orienting its meaning to, “they inquired accurately”(Liddell and Scott). That is, the shepherds came, true to their stated intention (v.15), as seekers, and left satisfied by all they had heard and seen (v. 20). If v. 18 speaks of their hearers, it is because in the course of their inquiries the shepherds would have explained themselves, but as part of seeking, not of preaching.
So this variation in text presents two distinct ideas of the character of the shepherds’ fateful visit. Fateful, not only for themselves and for us their readers, but for their role as initiators of episcopal evangelizing, as St. Theophylact tells us. The one idea emphasizes the responsibility to teach, the other the prerequisite of careful inquiry. These turn out to be more than a simple difference of emphasis, as will be shown shortly.
B. Ecclesial Authority
Probably all students of the New Testament face the question of locus of authority. How did the New Testament arise? Who flixes the canon of books included, determines the text, interprets it, sees to translation when advisable?
The editors of the GNT, introduced above, have an “ecumenical” view of Christian authority which looks less to an ecclesial body – in fact, not at all – than to agreement among scholars. Their goal is a unified text, that is, one that meets general acceptance, while allowing for degrees of agreement and for unfinished scholarship. As stated above, this is a reasonable stance as far as it goes and much is to be learned from it. Weaknesses apparent in it include, 1. changeableness – the “fourth
revised edition” of the GNT looks forward to still others – and, therefore, a constant relativity, as it were, which can lead to frank skepticism; 2.The peculiar modern bias that believes that only now is the wisdom available to sort out all that the ancients and medievals bungled and left in a heap; 3. The sneaking assumption, however inconsistent, that such scholarship will eventually suffice to settle all important questions.
Another approach to problems with a revealed Scripture is to shelter under revealed authority, that of the Church. Actually matters are the other way around: The New Testament arose from the Body of the Church, its writers being sent by and responsible to the Church. In the early decades after Pentecost there was of course no common written text, and what we know as the New Testament took centuries to reach its final form, one given it, again, by the Church. Thus scripture can be read authoritatively only within the Church, with the grace mediated through he God-appointed shepherds, the bishops and the Spirit- bearing Fathers, such as the Blessed Theophylact mentioned earlier. Ecclesial authority, then, conforms to the nature of questions arising from Revelation. (Some might rejoin that the two authorities mentioned, modern scholarship and the Church, leave us with much the same question: whom to believe? The answer involves the locus of grace; grace is needed to open Sacred Scripture to us.)
Needless to say, recourse to this God-built shelter absolves no student of the responsibility to acquire and employ the requisite learning. It only assures that, when he does, his efforts will find their destination in the Truth. The better his preparation, the surer his fidelity to the Body of Christ, the higher his attainment.
These remarks may be referred to the warning of Saint Peter, that “no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation” (2 Peter1:20, KJ), though “they that are unlettered and unstable wrest [the epistles of Saint Paul], as they do the other scriptures, unto their own
destruction” (2 Peter 3:16, KJ).
Now the textual problem exampled above, regarding Luke 2:17, has
this outcome: the reading translated by King James is that of the GNT, that the shepherds became preachers at once upon their inspections at Bethlehem. The reading that may be translated, “they inquired accurately,” and thus that they both came to and departed Bethlehem
as seekers, not yet preachers, is that of an Orthodox lectionary of 1851 (reprinted in Athens in 1985). This latter reading is supported by a liturgical text for the Sunday of Holy Fathers (of the First Ecumenical Council of 325 A.D., who wrote the Symbol of Faith, the Nicene Creed): “having brought together all knowledge of things of the spirit and made careful inquiry by the divine Spirit’s grace, lo, like Godly scribes the august Fathers wrote the celestial Symbol…” (Pentecostarion Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, 1990, pp. 372-3). It is also supported in fact by Bl. Theophylact, who writes further in his same commentary on these verses from Luke 2: “It is the work of reason- endowed shepherds to seek Christ, the heavenly Bread, and when they have seen Him, they ought to proclaim Him to others, just as these shepherds saw the Babe and then spoke of Him to others” (emphases mine).
How does the Church then read this passage and understand episcopal responsibility in preaching? She teaches the necessity of “careful inquiry” to the point of having “seen Him,” before undertaking this ministry. Thus bishops are selected from among the monks and ascetics who, having been schooled thus in the life of Christ, only then, when consecrated with the grace of the fulness of the priesthood, can lift the burden of preaching with authority. It is their graceful teaching that shelters our hopeful yet uncertain strivings.
C. Keeping on Track
Having opened the problem of variant readings of the Greek text, and having proposed the most fitting approach to it under aegis of the Church, it remains to indicate the way to make one’s scriptural studies fruitful, and to exclude wanderings in false alleys.
Enough has been said or implied to the end that the study of the New Testament can hardly be undertaken without a commitment to very considerable effort over a period of years. Yet it is right here that a danger comes up. As the student’s learning advances and he feels his powers grow, and when he dares, on occasion, to have his own opinion of a grammatical point vis-a-vis Dr. Robertson (see reference in the body of this paper), then he may well commence to regard himself a bit of an authority.
Something of an opposite danger occurs in his coming across an odd textual variant or commentary – be it from whatever source – that is of interest, but is a little sui generis. It just might carry him away. Too, he may lean toward trusting some authority, be it ecclesial or otherwise, who is in fact, upon wiser investigation, not wholly worthy of trust.
These several potential difficulties are as is evident the same: they put the student under false authority.
There can be no substitute for the most thorough learning of the Greek language, even if one can never consider himself a master of a subject so vast and subtle. He must, however, try, and persist in trying, while knowing not only the inaccessibility of mastery, but too, that if he were to master it, that would not be enough to enable him to read the New Testament with authority. Indeed, in going through learned grammars and various impressive scholarly apparati, one senses there a degree of self-contained contentment and so of limitation, a gulf between all that knowledge and – Revelation.
We have passed from considerations of language to those of Scripture in itself. The way of true guidance can be put briefly in a few examples. First, the New Testament itself interprets Scripture, both the Old Testament and the New. A little careful reading confirms this.
Then, holy Fathers guide us. Blessed Theophylact is basic and sure. Saint John Chrysostom’s many, many sermons cover in detail most of the New Testament and parts of the Old. He is the greatest preacher of the Church and teaches of and from Scripture. The Philokalia, that great treasury of patristic texts on spiritual life, is constantly quoting Scripture, but with depths of meaning that constantly surprise us whose view is so small. If one keeps to the teaching of such Fathers, among the many others, his understanding will not go astray, even if it not rise to their sublimity.
In short, the difference between scholarship (our necessary studies of language and the Greek text) and grace is unbridgeable, but for grace itself given us. Before sitting down to study let us pray for the grace to understand what God offers us errant ones as means to climb towards Him.
A late note to the main body of this paper, on the nature of translation. After regretting his dependence upon translations of Russian literature, the author of an important study writes:
“Translations are more or less flagrant modes of betrayal. But it is from them that we glean what we may, and indeed what we must, of works composed in languages not our own. In prose, at least, the mastery will often survive the treason. A criticism which is rooted in this plight and which addresses itself to it will be of restricted value, but it may be of value nevertheless” (George Steiner, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, Yale University Press, 1996, p. 44). Sad, but if this were in reference to the New Testament it would be woeful.
Balaklava, Crimea Pentecost June 2021