If you’re like many, you might be confused as to why I talk about the meanings of Greek and Hebrew words when talking about the Bible. There’s a very good reason for this.
The Bible was not written in English, though it’s been translated into English.
Originally, the Bible was written in Hebrew (and some Aramaic) in the Old Testament and in Greek in the New Testament.
Greek? Who Cares?
Several years ago now, a family member was all worked up about his new pastor.
The new pastor was trying to change the way something had always been done in the church to something he felt was more Biblical. To teach the reasons why the pastor was talking a lot about what the different Greek words meant.
My family member was pretty upset. What does it matter what Greek words mean? Who cares about Greek?
Ancient Greek and the Modern Christian
When you hear me talking about the Greek word meaning such and such, and what that means for us as a Christian, you may be wondering the same thing. If skilled people translated the Bible from the Greek and Hebrew, shouldn’t we trust them? Doesn’t that mean original languages don’t matter?
Why should you care what the Greek or Hebrew words mean?
Knowing what those words mean helps us to better understand what God was actually saying, instead of just adding our own modern interpretation to the Bible.
Language to Language Translation Troubles
If you speak another language, you’ll also realize the main problem with translating: in most languages you can’t just say “this word in this language” means “that word in some other language”. We only do that in first-year foreign language courses in Junior High and High School! 🙂
No, many languages are difficult if not impossible to translate word-for-word into another language. It just doesn’t work.
Without being too complicated in how I explain this, I want you to understand how complicated it is to translate something from one language to another. There are grammar rules that are different in each language. How different words are used in each language changes from language to language.
There are figures of speech, too. I used to live in Austria, where they speak German. Figures of speech could be confusing if I tried to translate them word for word in my head!
Because of all of these issues, most languages don’t translate word for word into other languages.Most languages don't translate word for word into other languages Click To Tweet
When studying the Bible, we’re studying the words a group of translators at some point decided best fit the meaning of the original Greek and Hebrew texts. Sometimes, sadly, when choosing which word to use, or how to translate a phrase, their own beliefs influenced their decisions. Sometimes they just had to choose the word they thought was best or closest to the original.
So, it can help to read the definitions of the original Greek words used for certain keywords. Keywords refer to those words in a verse or passage that are especially important to the meaning of the verse. By studying these definitions, we can have a better understanding of a verse or passage.
Differences in English Translations
I have many friends who strongly believe that the King James Version is the only accurate translation into the English Language. Now, I do use a King James Bible mostly, although I read others as well. In fact, over the last few years, my discipline has been to select a different short book or passage and to read it every day in a variety of translations to grasp the meaning of it. Where two or more different translations differ widely, I usually study deeper.
I have one friend on Facebook who loves to share Memes about how “horrible” modern translations are because of how they differ from the King James. In most cases, this prompts further study from me. What do the original texts actually say? The answers are surprising.
For example, just this week she shared one about the story of the three Hebrew Children in the fiery furnace. The king says, in the King James, that he knows he threw three men in, but now there are four, and the fourth one looks like the Son of God.
In all other modern translations, the passage reads instead that the fourth one is “like one of the gods” or “like a son of one of the gods.”
That doesn’t sound as “good” does it?
However, the fact is, in the original language, this passage is more accurately translated “one of the gods” not “the Son of God” though that could also be accurate. In other words, it could mean either.
Personally, I think it would be more accurate for Nebuchadnezzar to say “like one of the gods” than to say “the Son of God”, as he was a pagan, even if it was a pre-incarnate Christ he was seeing.
This serves to show as an example as to why you can’t just compare it to your favorite translation and assume that other translations are either right or wrong based on that. What do the original manuscripts say?Don't compare other versions to your favorite Bible version for accuracy - look @ original… Click To Tweet
Oh No! Do I have to Actually Learn Greek?
Even if you are convinced of the value of studying the meanings of words in their original languages, at this point you may be panicking. Language learning is hard.
Do you have to actually learn Greek and Hebrew?
No, thankfully. Though that may be helpful (and if you’re a student right now, studying Greek and Latin will really boost your SAT scores, because many English words are based on them), there are many easy to use tools that can offer us short cuts.
Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible is a handy tool (available as a hardback book, an online study tool here, or as part of QuickVerse Bible Study Software) to help you out in this regard, as is Vine’s Expository Dictionary. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words works just like a regular English dictionary. Vine’s contains more detailed definitions of each word, with some commentary on how it is usually used.