Treasuring the Trail of Translation: Why Read the Greek New Testament Before You Teach the English One
This article attempts to convince an already busy person that the first step of preparing to teach the Bible is a slow step, one most of your hearers won’t or shouldn’t notice, and a step that’s intrinsically steep. Further, to compound the difficulty of convincing you to take this steep step, a shortcut sits on the corner of your desk. It’s as if the moment your knees begin to bark on a long trail, a gassed-up 4×4 pulls up, promising a comfortable ride to the peak. To be honest, persuading you to turn down the Jeep’s overture could be—dare I say it—an uphill battle.
But this brief article’s goal remains: if you’ve been taught the language, read the Greek New Testament before you teach the English one. And if you haven’t been taught the language, attempt to learn it for the four reasons detailed below.
1. Greek Often Forces a Closer Reading of the Text.
Before I’m accused of describing our English translations as unclear, let me clearly state that you do not need to know Greek to understand the Scriptures. In case you skimmed that sentence, let me be even more direct: our English translations are better than yours. You’ll probably die knowing an infinitesimal fraction of what those on your Bible’s translation committee knew.
If that’s true, then why not skip the steep step of reading Greek altogether? Because it might be argued that the clarity of our English translations potentially functions as an impediment to faithful exegesis. That’s not to imply that the English translation is too clear for the reader; it’s instead to put forward the possibility that the English language might be too familiar.
To illustrate, one doesn’t stare at each and every rock along the path when strolling down a paved neighborhood sidewalk. Because of familiarity with that particular terrain, the walker assumes a certain degree of smoothness, worrying little about tripping. However, when hiking a trail up the side of a mountain, one must assume the opposite posture. Before each step, one looks, and looks closely. Is that rock dry enough to prevent a premature slide? Where might my toe go to evade the moss or mud?
As you may expect after that comparison, the terrain of faithful exegesis for teaching others resembles a hike more than a suburban stroll. Your eye endeavors to meet every letter. Because, in faithful exegesis, missing a word might cause the interpreter to slip on the next one. And should a particular approach to exegesis lead one to laze or ease, then that particular process of interpretation might be subverting the nature of the task.
Greek work precludes skimming. It often minimizes the temptation to skip over that grammatical nuance God inspired. Since most do not have the ability to read Greek quickly, the practice itself forces a closer reading of the text.
2. A Closer Reading of the Greek Text Facilitates Understanding.
That first point leads, by necessity, to a second. Because reading the text slowly and closely must serve the aim of apprehending that which the text communicates. It’s not merely that every word matters, it’s that each word’s relationship to the words surrounding it actually convey the meaning of the text itself. The conjunction “and,” the preposition “into,” the verb tense of “seek,” the aspect of “find”—all of it leads the reader to the author’s intent.
To repeat myself, the clarity of our English translations absolutely leads toward understanding. In fact, various means—diagramming, arcing, memorizing—can facilitate a close reading of the text, accomplishing the same end. In one sense, Greek exegesis functions as another option, a slow, methodical, and sometimes challenging trail to the beauty of the summit, namely, understanding that which God revealed.
On the other hand, however, to their own disadvantage teachers of the Scriptures silo themselves from those who have studied the passage before them. And because many commentators discuss the intricacies of the New Testament in its original language, some of the most thorough tools for interpretation will be rendered nearly incomprehensible to someone without any knowledge of Greek. Conversely, the ability to read the original languages—at least to understand its grammatical categories—begins a conversation with those who’ve labored in the text long before.
3. Understanding Facilitates Treasuring the Text.
And yet, it should be said that an emphasis on reading and translating from the Greek actually lessens one’s dependence upon secondhand interpretation. Though commentaries help to check one’s work, in an ideal scenario scholars merely confirm something already discovered in the study.
To return to the trail, beholding the grandeur of an overlook far surpasses the most well-worded description of another’s experience. In other words, view exceeds re-view. Mount Mansfield attracts thousands of hikers each year, not merely because it’s the tallest peak in Vermont, but also because nearly half the trail lies above the tree line. Long before the summit—for over a mile—one can across Lake Champlain to the New York Adirondacks. Vista follows vista after vista.
I doubt that paragraph above convinced you. You need to see it to treasure it. Whether one contends that Greek adds a degree of color to the text or a certain depth of dimension, the original language does indeed sketch more fully the perspective of the author. And if that’s true, those preparing to teach would do well not to deprive themselves of the joy in beholding the vistas—seeing with their own eyes that which God’s revealed—in order that they might treasure the text themselves.
4. Treasuring the Text Facilitates Teaching It.
To paraphrase someone I once heard, “Preaching is treasuring the text in front of people.” That order is vital; treasuring precedes teaching. The text preaches first to the one teaching. Therefore, whatever means the one teaching uses to prepare, the steps in his or her process should serve this end: to delight in God’s revelation.
For the preacher, it’s not merely the peak he seeks. You ascend to arrive, yes, but the ski lift won’t accomplish everything the trail will. The slow and steep work of reading the original language stirs our affection for truths in the text, facilitates our feeling the emphasis of the text, and enables our deep meditation on the text. In doing so, it lifts clouds so that vistas throughout the passage might be seen.
After decades of translating, my mentor told me he wasn’t sure he could preach a sermon without studying the Greek first. His inability comes not from incompetence, but rather attachment to the joyous climb.