Insights from Reading Greek & Hebrew


I went to seminary mostly so I could read the Bible in the original Greek and Hebrew. The Hebrew lay fallow for a long time -- I probably forgot more than I remembered -- but I've been reading through the Bible now, using an interlinear text. I eventually found that I didn't need to look at every word, so I covered up the English, and peeked only when I didn't know. Poetry uses a lot more varied vocabulary than history, so reading in the Psalms and Isaiah I'm looking all the time, but Genesis and Chronicles and parts of Jeremiah I only need to peek once or twice per verse, sometimes going two or three verses without peeking at all.

I'd spent a lot of time in the Greek text working on BibleTrans, so after a while I started carrying the Greek NT to church instead of a whole Bible (and now also the interlinear Hebrew OT). Hebrews and James are rough going, but Paul's letters and the gospels read pretty easily without looking in the dictionary (in the back) very often.

These are some of the insights that I got from this exercise.
 

The List Is Short

The most astonishing thing I learned is how short this list is. The English translations -- even the King James (if you know Elizabethan grammar, and what all the words meant 400 years ago) are remarkably accurate. Some things never translate well, such as puns and double meanings -- there are many puns in Genesis names -- but the translators got the important stuff remarkably good.
 

Different Styles

Different people say things differently. We learn the voice and vocabulary of the people we know. Morse code operators learned to recognize each other's "fist" from the way they transmitted. The different authors of Scripture had different vocabularies and different ways of saying things. The book of Hebrews is so different from the letters signed by Paul, there is no way he could have written it. Similarly, every few chapters in Genesis the style of writing and the vocabulary changes. It was not written by Moses (and the rest of the Bible never said he did), nor by a single scribe or group of scribes at the time of Ezra (as the atheists insist), but most likely by eyewitnesses, different people over the centuries. Moses probably only collected it with his own works. The difference between the front and back of Isaiah is small compared to the differences between different parts of Genesis, so I do not see much evidence for Isaiah being done by two different people (as again the atheists insist). All these differences mostly get lost in translation, because only one translator (or a single coherent team) sets the same style for the whole translation.
 

Hebrew is Old

There is also a language migration over the whole Old Testament that we do not see in the New Testament. Language changes over the years, and ancient Hebrew was no exception. There are a lot of idioms that crept into the later language, metaphors that lost their original etymology and retained only the metaphorical sense. There is no way anybody can figure out these senses by just knowing the lexical definitions of words, you must be familiar with the culture at that time.

We have the same thing in English. I was recently reading a novel and came across the spoken line "[cussword] are you?" I was stumped, but after a minute of thinking about it, I realized this was short for "Who the [cussword] are you?" which is emphatic for "Who are you?" I know the English language reasonably well, but it was not obvious to me what had happened. How much more in a language that's been dead for more than 2500 years? The prophet Ezekiel, probably one of the last Jews to write in his native Hebrew (prophets after the exile still wrote in Hebrew, but the language of the people was already Aramaic by then), has numerous lines where God says (literally) "if I [do it]" (not always the same activity), but the English translation is consistently "I will never [do it]," like as if the written Hebrew text is short for "if I never [do it], it will be too soon!" (a line I have heard in English), or perhaps in more idiomatic Hebrew, "a curse on me if I [do it]," like Jezebel's oath in 1Kings 19:2, several hundred years earlier.

The Jews who preserved the Scriptures for us must have carried those obscure meanings around with them, and they probably got captured in the early translations (like into the Greek Septuagint). Two and three thousand years later, we are deeply indebted to those early translations for helping us understand these figurative senses.

That's much less of a problem for New Testament Greek, because it was written during a span of less than a century, by people who learned Greek as a second language and therefore mostly didn't use obscure metaphors frequented by people who were born into the language. Similarly, the atheists who claim a late composition date for most of the Old Testament are wrong: Ezra and the other scribes who returned from Babylon spoke Aramaic as their native language, not Hebrew, so (like the NT authors) they were much less likely to use obscure Hebrew metaphors, like you see in the earlier books. The language of the Old Testament is consistent with its composition by eyewitnesses, and not with late redaction.
 

Spelling Errors

There are an astonishing number of variant spellings -- especially in Hebrew. We moderns are taught in school the "correct" spelling for the words we use, but I don't think there was such a thing back then. English is one of the few languages that does not have a unique pronunciation for every letter of the (possibly expanded) alphabet, so we don't appreciate that. People back then wrote what they heard, and different dialects (or different people's accents) resulted in different spellings. There are a few spelling and grammar errors in the New Testament too, mostly in Revelation. I would guess that the Apostle wrote it himself without the benefit of a professional scribe, so he made more mistakes. Those are not errors of fact, because a misspelled word does not invalidate the truth of the sentence it is in, it only exposes the writer's level of education. A street kid might say in English "I ain't never seen nuttin," and be telling the absolute truth (that he did not observe the event or object in question), never mind that his grammar is less educated than yours or mine.
 

Gender

In most languages (but not English) gender is attached to the form of the word (formal), not necessarily to the object to which it refers (ontological). People who learned English as their first language think in English, so they think of gender ontologically, and they pounce on modern efforts to translate the Bible more naturally (and therefore more accurately) in terms of gender issues, which would be incorrect and misinformed. Hebrew generally uses female pronouns to refer to objects with female nouns (like "soul") even when the underlying person is a male, and the other way around when the noun is masculine. It is incorrect to try to preserve that pronoun gender into English in those cases, and no Bible translation does it consistently, not even the favored translations of the gender bigots. The same is true (but less often) in Greek. If you don't spend a lot of time in the original languages, you can't know these things. For a more detailed discussion, see my blog post "Translating Gender" from three years ago.
 

Chiasm

One of the pastors of the church where I was at the time was a scholar, and one of his favorite explanations was of the so-called "chiastic" sentence structure, named from the Greek letter chi, which looks like an "X" with the two stokes crossing over. It refers to sentences of the form "A B, B' A'" where the first item goes with the last, and the middle parts go together. It's not just Greek, there are chiasms all over the Hebrew also. I guess people thought like that back then. These mostly don't get translated into English, because English word order is constrained by who is subject and what is the direct object. Both Greek and Hebrew identify those parts of speech by other means than word order. This pastor told us that the focus of attention in the Greek chiasm is on the center, the cross-over, which might give it some special theological significance that would thus be lost in translation. I don't know if that is true in Hebrew also, but it's an interesting question.

Hebrew poetry like Psalms, often every verse is chiastic, with the object before the subject in the first part of the doublet that is characteristic of all Hebrew poetry, then the subject first in the second part, as here in Ps.8:1

How majestic is your name in all the earth! [normal English order: Your name is majestic]
You have set your glory above the heavens.
What I'm seeing now that I'm reading John in Greek is that he composes much of the sayings of Jesus in the same way, with the object before the subject in the beginning of each sentence, whereas the Greek in other parts of the New Testament is often more English-like, with the subject first. This gives a profound insight into the composition of the Fourth Gospel, that it cannot be a late composition by some second- or third-generation church leader in some far-off country like Ephesus. The word order is characteristic of Biblical Hebrew, which would not be affected by people who never knew Hebrew. Consider for example the verse familiar to most evangelicals, John 3:16 in the original word order:
Thus loved God the world, [verb, subject, object] (inverted)
that the son the unique gave [object, verb with subject] (inverted)
so that every believer in him would not perish [subject, verb] (uninverted)
but have life eternal. [implied subject, verb] (uninverted)
Thus, it follows the Hebrew poetic style, inverted, then uninverted. I'm seeing a lot of this in John. Luke is not a Jewish name, and I did not see that kind of Hebraicism there. If John had been composed by a Gentile church member and not the (Jewish) Apostle, it would look more like Luke.
 

Truth

There is a popular philosophical notion in our time that "there are no absolutes" with its corollary that "truth is relative," which usually means that "true" is whatever you choose to believe. The Tinkerbell story as told in various Disney flicks makes this point very strongly: fairies only exist so long as people believe in them. The intended implication is that Santa Claus and God suffer the same ignominious end, and that smart people (meaning the atheists) will cease to believe in fairy tales, and then these foolish notions will cease to exist.

Despite the moral agenda which apparently drives such argumentation, everybody I have ever met or heard of or can imagine actually believes in a different kind of "true" which they might prefer not to articulate (by reason of said moral agenda), but they very much practice when they are involved in financial transactions (two $5 bills never add up to a $20) or actions of harm involving fault. In those cases, their notion of "true" is better defined as "conformance to reality." Thus "5+5=10" is true but not "5+5=20". If Bill's fist connected with Sam's nose with a certain velocity and force behind it, then "Bill hit Sam" is true, because that's what really happened, and presumably that gives Sam the moral right to hit back. It doesn't matter if Bill believes otherwise, what matters is what really happened. Other people might be called in to confirm the respective opinions, but that makes sense only if there is a reality to conform to. See longer discussion here.

I have always held this "conformance to reality" view of truth, but until recently I had no reason for it other than that it seemed like a good idea -- otherwise known as personal preference. It's just a definitional thing, because both concepts exist in our culture and are used separately for their respective senses by all people. Some people define "true" in public as personal belief -- I assume to promote some dishonest moral agenda -- but revert to the other definition when expressing (righteous) moral outrage at some other scumbag who pretends to apply the same definition against them.

Now, reading the Hebrew Bible, I can see that the Hebrew word sometimes translated as "truth" has as its root sense "confirmation" -- we get the English word "amen" from the same Hebrew root. In other words, conformance to reality is the fundamental meaning of the word "true" in Hebrew, and thus bears the approval of God. Switching off between different and contradictory senses of a word is fundamentally dishonest, and God cannot lie, so it makes sense for the definition of "true" in God's eyes (and in His Word written) to be consistent and (ahem) a confirmation of reality. I suspect that might also be true of the Greek word, but less obviously so.

Tom Pittman
2014 November 15, revised 15 Jan 23
 

Links:

KJV vs Greek (blog post)
Complete List of Essays
Complete Weblog list