Everybody’s an Expert
As I sometimes scroll through my various social media accounts, I feel like I’m on a tour through a virtual Greek and Hebrew expo. On one post, a user dissected a passage of Scripture, confidently drawing on the original Greek and/or Hebrew, often even using the Greek and Hebrew script! Another refers to this or that Greek or Hebrew dictionary informing readers of the way a certain word should actually be translated. Some even venture into verb tenses and syntax, explaining how these support their particular theology while disproving another’s. Some, in the Greek New Testament, refer to Strong’s Lexicon, others use Thayer’s, but the big boys use Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich, even calling it “BDAG.” Why? Normally, it is just one more power-play to let others know not to question them.
True Accuracy from the Pulpit
As well, I have seen another thing under the sun. I don’t know how many sermons I have heard from pastors who wax eloquent in the original Greek and Hebrew. Normally, they will draw parishioners’ attention to this or that English word, letting their people know how it should actually be translated. Their augmented translation will normally fit very nicely into the particular theological argument they happen to be making. From the perspective of those sitting in the pew, they have the most knowledgeable pastor around. He can even correct the fifty-plus-person committee of Greek or Hebrew scholars who know and translate the languages for a living!
The Problem is that People Believe Them
To an outsider, this often paints a picture of someone they can’t question as they have no background to challenge the proficiency of the claims being made. Many didn’t even know the Bible was originally written in another language. How are they to compete with this level of biblical scholarship? As a result, the people who are waxing eloquently believe they are able to do such things as they lose perspective on how little they really know.
The Emporer Has No Clothes
This is very concerning to me. I’ve had enough formal training in these languages to see what neither the audience nor the one presenting can see: the emperor, more often than not, has no clothes. These people don’t know what they are talking about. They know just enough Greek or Hebrew to fool themselves and those to whom they are writing or speaking. They know just enough to be dangerous.
How Often this Happens
Let’s be honest. In ninety-five percent of cases, Bible and theology enthusiasts who quote from the original languages likely possess only a surface-level grasp of the languages they cite. The ubiquity of this problem isn’t just misleading – it’s profoundly dangerous. It creates a veneer of expertise that can lead to significant distortions in understanding Scripture and theology.
The First Time I Heard Someone Use the Original Language
Allow me one further personal illustration. I remember the first time I encountered someone who spoke about the Greek and Hebrew of the Bible. Until then, I naively believed the Bible was originally written in Latin! (and I acted smart for knowing this!). When this individual began explaining words in Greek and Hebrew, even writing them out, I was in awe. His knowledge seemed absolute and beyond anyone’s ability to challenge. In retrospect, I realize my admiration was based on my own lack of knowledge. Any level of expertise he had appeared complete to me, as I had no frame of reference.
It is Easy to Impress Most People
This experience underscores a critical point: it is alarmingly easy to impress others with a surface-level understanding of these ancient languages. The real danger, however, lies not just in unintentionally misleading others, but in deceiving oneself. Believing in one’s own inflated proficiency can lead to misguided interpretations and decisions, particularly in critical theological contexts like interpreting a text others believe is the most accurate and important writing in all of history. A text upon which Christians base their lives.
My Thesis: Anyone But an Expert is Dangerous
Moving beyond personal anecdotes, let’s consider the broader implications. I believe that possessing beginner to intermediate proficiency in Greek or Hebrew, while valuable, can also be dangerous. Individuals at this level of linguistic understanding should refrain from speaking with authority in these languages. This intermediate stage represents a risky middle ground – it provides enough knowledge to foster confidence but often lacks the depth to guarantee accuracy. Interpretations made with this level of understanding can be significantly flawed, lacking the nuanced expertise required for accurate biblical exegesis.
This intermediate proficiency can lead to a phenomenon I term ‘linguistic overreach.’ It’s the tendency to apply one’s limited knowledge too broadly, leading to oversimplifications or misinterpretations of the original text. These errors, though perhaps unintentional, can have far-reaching implications, especially when disseminated within a community or used as the basis for teaching. It’s a subtle form of misinformation that can distort understanding and skew theological perspectives.
Benefits of Learning the Original Language at Any Level
I am not saying that there are no advantages to having a beginning to intermediate level of proficiency in the original languages. Even at this foundational level, the benefits are substantial and multifaceted. In the Greek New Testament, for example, here are some advantages you can learn:
- Appreciation of Syntax: A basic understanding of Greek syntax, which differs significantly from English, allows for a more nuanced grasp of how sentence structure can influence meaning in the New Testament.
- Rich Vocabulary: Greek has a wealth of words with distinct meanings that often get condensed into a single English word during translation. Recognizing these differences can uncover deeper layers of the biblical text.
- Stylistic Variations: Beginner’s Greek exposes one to the stylistic choices made by biblical authors. Different words may be chosen for artistic or rhetorical reasons, enhancing the narrative’s richness.
- Humility in Interpretation: Starting Greek studies, even at a basic level, instills a sense of humility and caution, essential for responsible theological study and interpretation.
The Insuing Exegetical Fallacies
Due to the miscalculation of one’s own Greek or Hebrew proficiency, we have some common exegetical (interpretive) problems that are often found. Here are two of the most common types I observe in Greek:
Word Root Fallacies:
Word root fallacies involve assuming a word’s meaning is directly tied to its roots. This is commonly found when people refer to the Greek word for “church.” Ekklesia, when broken into its word roots in Greek, looks like this: ek+kaleo. Ek means “from” or “out of” while kaleo means “to call.” So what does the Greek word for “church” mean? Well, it seems like the church is made up of those who are “called out from” the world. Have you ever heard this said? While well-meaning and maybe, in a broader sense, correct (the church is called to be different than the world), ekklesia in Greek simply means “assembly” or “gathering.” Think of the word “butterfly” in English. It has nothing to do with “butter” or “fly.”
Tense fallacies involve misinterpreting Greek verbs by imposing English time concepts, ignoring the emphasis on aspect in Greek. In English, we break verbs into past, present, and future tense. In Greek, things are more nuanced. Greek uses aspect rather than tense. This has to do with how, from the perspective of the speaker, the action of the verb is taking place, not always when it is taking place. If you have ever heard someone say the use of the aorist in Greek means that the action is past tense, you may have seen this fallacy in action. Aorist tense does not always mean past action. It is more concerned with communicating the type of action or leaving the action type undefined.
Some other common fallacies include semantic anachronism – applying a late or modern meaning to a word in its historical context, and semantic obsolescence – assigning an obsolete meaning to a word. Then there is my favorite: illegitimate totality transfer. This is the misapplication of a word’s full range of meaning (in every instance. It’s like if the word can mean something, it does mean it.
As usual, I have gone far too long with this post. Let me conclude by saying three things.
Know What You Don’t Know and Remain Humble
First, am I saying that no one should learn Greek unless they plan on becoming a scholar? Allow me a bit of leeway here as I say μὴ γένοιτο (mē genoito). May it never be! How can we who have been exposed to the word of God not dig deeper into it? There is every benefit to learning these languages to any level of proficiency so long as we keep our heads in the right place. This is God’s word we are dealing with. Mishaps are not to be taken lightly. As long as we remain humble, knowing how long it takes to get to a point where we can speak with any degree of authority on the translation. We need to know what we don’t know and remain humble, even if we know enough to fool other people into thinking otherwise.
My Personal Journey Through the Languages
Secondly, let me share my own self-assessment in this area. As an undergraduate, I completed two semesters of Greek. I then majored in New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary for my graduate studies, studying under esteemed professors such as Dan Wallace, Darrel Bock, and Hall Harris. During my four-year ThM program, I took a Greek or advanced Greek course every semester – a total of eight semesters. Additionally, I completed two extra courses in rapid Greek reading. I excelled in all these classes. Despite this, even after 20 years of consistently maintaining my Greek knowledge post-graduation, I consider my understanding to be at an intermediate level at best. Consequently, I resist the urge to speak about Greek with undue authority. As for Hebrew, I haven’t maintained it to the same extent.
If Greek Speakers Can Tell Greek is Your Second Language, You Can’t Correct Others
Consider this analogy: As a native English speaker, you can easily spot someone for whom English is a second language. Their unique errors, influenced by their mother tongue, are apparent. While these individuals communicate effectively enough for basic understanding, their lack of nuance in English is evident. To non-English speakers, they might seem proficient, but as a native, you know their limitations. This is especially relevant in teaching contexts – we prefer educators to be deeply knowledgeable, not just passably proficient.
The same principle applies to teaching the Word of God using original languages like Greek or Hebrew. Many people, after learning basic vocabulary and grammar and consulting a few dictionaries, may feel they’ve mastered the language. But true expertise requires a lifelong devotion to learning and understanding these languages. The risk is clear: superficial knowledge can lead to confidently incorrect interpretations, which is particularly hazardous in a theological context.
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