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Is It Greek Pedagogy, Learning Skills, or Something Else

Is It Greek Pedagogy, Learning Skills, or Something Else

These discussions seem to come up all the time about learning Greek, but the discussion also applies to Hebrew. How one can imagine it’s critically important to learn Greek if one is to preach or teach, but not so much to learn Hebrew, I don’t know. But the degree requirements of various colleges and seminaries reflect just such an attitude.

That said, I want to make some comments about learning and teaching, but more importantly about goals. Thomas Hudgins has written a good deal about this in a recent post, and he posted some material from Dave Black, which provides me a good link for that as well. Both make some excellent comments on pedagogy and what those of us who teach need from the students.

On the use of the word “we,” I want to note that my role as teacher is vastly different from Dave’s or Thomas’s. I tutored Greek as a student in graduate school, helping Master of Divinity students get ready for tests. And that was indeed what it was: Getting them ready for the test. None had patience for letting me help them comprehend the subject better. They wanted to make sure they had memorized enough answers to get by on the test. Since then I have occasionally offered classes in the local church or tutored individuals who were trying to learn. The key element here is that people came to these classes because they had a goal, and they pursued the goal.

And this is why I think we need to look at two other things. I used “learning skills” in the title, but what I really mean is the art and practice of being a student. There’s probably a perfectly good word for it, but short of suggesting you be a good talmid, I can’t bring it to mind. But beyond learning skills there’s motivation, and behind motivation there’s purpose, or perhaps mission.

That leads me back to graduate school and my graduate advisor, Dr. Leona Glidden Running. I was truly blessed to have Dr. Running as a teacher and advisor. I learned enormous amounts from her in classes in Syriac (which I audited), Akkadian, and Middle Egyptian. From the list of languages you can see that I had the motivation for learning languages. Thus I learned from good teachers and some whose pedagogy may have lacked a bit.

It was also Dr. Running who got me into tutoring and sent her students to me for help in both Greek and Hebrew. The problem with tutoring points me to what I think is a problem in ministerial education: Students going through language courses in order to check a box. We’re often fairly good at ditching traditions in Protestantism. Just look at the reformation! But folks, that was 500 years ago. What traditions have you ditched lately?

What I encountered were students who were studying Greek because it was required for the degree, some of whom had been told by ministerial advisers, mentors, and church leaders that the only reason they should learn Greek was to get their degree, and most of whom would serve churches that didn’t care what biblical languages they might have learned. Is it any wonder that they just wanted me to help them through the test? I can’t count the number of times I was called within hours of the test, or late on a Friday afternoon or even working into Saturday with desperate pleas for that help. At this time I was a Seventh-day Adventist and I took my Sabbath seriously. (I’ve recently commented that it’s one thing from my SDA background that I really miss.) But these ministerial students who were supposed to be preparing to shepherd people in that tradition, were quite ready to ditch their Sabbath rest to get past the test.

I know from reading what others have said that while the details may differ, the attitude is quite similar. Some seminaries have given up on the languages as a requirement. Often those seminaries are ones that have reduced the entire biblical studies requirement to a minimum. So study of biblical languages goes the way of Bible study, and it all happens without that much planning.

So speaking as someone who thinks biblical knowledge is critical, let me suggest that we need to reexamine this entire process. What is a Master of Divinity degree for? What are our goals? Within that, what are the goals for knowledge of the Bible? Of biblical languages? Once we know what we need—and want—then we need to ask how we get it. Forcing students to take one or two (or whatever number) of semesters of Greek and/or Hebrew doesn’t accomplish anyone’s ultimate goal, at least anyone I know of. Nobody actually hopes that the student will pay tuition, check off a box, and leave with no knowledge that he or she will use (except possibly the university finance department).

I don’t know about other biblical languages classes, but my teachers taught with the goal of having us learn to read the language. They knew they were only going to accomplish that in a few cases, but they still worked toward that goal. If the assumption of everyone else is that the student will not, in fact, learn the language, then we need to do something about that. That isn’t something that a Greek teacher can fix. He or she can try to motivate more students, to provide as much useful information as possible, but that all constitutes making the best of a bad situation.

Amongst the possibilities that should be considered are requirements for additional classes in history, cultures, people (sociology/psychology), linguistics, or other topics that helps a person understand a written text. Perhaps, in addition, one might include classes specifically in taking complex ideas and expressing them clearly and simply (to whatever extent possible). Then we can aim the biblical languages classes at people who do actually want to learn to use the material.

I have to put in my ritual dig at the whole educational system. I think that in the 21st century world the degree system is getting more and more out of date. Something more like the badges system that the Mozilla Foundation is sponsoring may be at least an early pointer toward a replacement. But that moves beyond this post …

In summary, in languages as in anything else, we need to keep our focus on the mission. That starts with knowing what the mission is.

And we don’t.

Similar and Different

Similar and Different

Dave Black has been posting some interesting things on his blog, and yesterday he wrote a bit about Greek and Hebrew language and culture. I’ve put this on jesusparadigm.com to provide a permanent link. Here’s the bottom line:

The bottom line: I think it’s a bit misleading to insist that grammar and thought are inherently related. There are just too many philosophical difficulties inherent in any theory of mental representations.

He’s absolutely right. I think it’s difficult to get this sort of thing balanced because of two problems. First, there is a relationship between the forms of language an the culture that speaks it, and second, we like to find a theory that settles everything. So the New Testament must be either all Hebrew or all Greek in thought. Why? Because it’s easier to handle. If I know that the background must be Hebrew, then every time someone uses a background from Greek philosophy in interpreting a passage, I can declare them wrong and come up with one final and absolute answer.

In fact, it’s necessary to check many things. Take Hebrews and “shadows of heavenly things,” for example. Is this an idea based on Plato’s philosophy, or do we adjust it to fit better into some idea of Hebrew thought? Perhaps we need to consider the possibility that the author of Hebrews actually has his own view of the relationship between earthly shadows and heavenly realities, and that it doesn’t derive entirely from the background.

Which leads be to an aside. One thing that can suffer when we study the background of thought in order to categorize it, is that we can miss the original thought of an author. But we also need to balance that against the soil in which the thought germinated. There’s probably a reason that an author chooses specific words from those available to him in order to express his original thought.

Similarly, we have the word hilasterion which either occurs or is closely related to words that occur in other Greek literature and is used in the LXX to translate some specific Hebrew terms. So when it’s used in Hebrews do we import the meaning of kapporeth, do we seek for meaning in its usage in Greek, do we spend our time on it’s etymology in Greek (surely an interesting subject!), or do we look strictly at its context in Hebrews?

I’d suggest that we’re going to do some of all of the above, because it’s likely that the author of Hebrews was acquainted with all of that material. He was skilled in Greek, he was acquainted with the LXX, and he was capable of original thought and composition. The final arbiter needs to be the context of his specific usage, but all those other elements form the soil from which that particular meaning is nourished.

I doubt that very many of those who argue the different positions really deny the role of other options. They just sound like they do as the press a theory. Sometimes, however, the main reason to press a theory is that it is distinctive and thus identifiable as our work. I recall hearing a sermon in which the preacher started by saying that he would show us how everyone got the story of the prodigal son wrong. He proceeded to present some good thoughts, though they were not nearly as revolutionary as his opening statement. He denied some other ideas, though his presentation had hardly made it clear that those ideas were wrong. After the sermon concluded, many people left talking about how they had been so enlightened by hearing the “real” meaning of the parable.

I would have said, instead, that they had heard an interesting interpretation of the parable, one with some considerable value, yet neither so original, nor so revolutionary, nor so exclusive as everyone thought. I had to wonder, however, if things had been stated in my preferred way, with “one option for understanding” and “maybe we should consider” and “different understandings are possible” strewn about in the sermon.

When we’re making a point, the temptation is to present all the evidence in favor of our viewpoint and try to downplay the things that are not in agreement. I encountered this in comparative literature. You could find those who thought that Genesis 1 & 2 were clearly copied from the Sumerian and Babylonian stories, and others who thought they were so different that they were clearly unrelated. The fact is that if you get to choose your elements you can make them appear to be very close or very distant. I’d suggest that the reality is that there is a relationship (I suggested in my work for my MA that this was one of sharing cosmological language more than one of literary borrowing/copying).

Similarly I’ve mentioned the etymological fallacy a number of times on this blog. The idea that a word’s meaning is determined by etymology is a fallacy. But I’ve invented the anti-etymological fallacy to go with that. That’s the opposite error which assumes that any use of etymology in determining the meaning of a word is a fallacy. Determines, no. May have some relationship, yes. Thus I’m certain to look at hilasmos and hilaskomai (amongst others) when studying hilasterion. How much help do I get from etymology? That depends on the particular word, and the circumstances of its use.

The pursuit of absolute and certain answers can tempt us to invent them when they don’t exist. It’s nice to settle back comfortably knowing that all words in the Greek New Testament should be understood as expressions of Hebrew thought. One can discard so many thick, multi-volume sets of references, and certainly one doesn’t need to read all those difficult classical Greek quotes to get ideas of the usage of the word. But comfortable and right are not the same thing.

I can think of so many applications of this that I’d better just stop!

The Importance of Breaking Rules of Style

The Importance of Breaking Rules of Style

When I was in the Air Force, I submitted a performance report on someone I supervised. The lieutenant who was the next person to endorse the report returned it to me, informing me that I shouldn’t use the passive voice so much. Problem was, I hadn’t used a single passive clause in the report. What the lieutenant didn’t like was my use of the perfect tense. He wanted to get rid of “has” and “have” because he’d heard they shouldn’t be there. And the fact is that my report did overdo the use of the perfect tense so I fixed it.

What I’ve found as an editor, besides my inability to properly edit my own work, is that the writing style people use is often the result of a number of rules of thumb they learned in High School English class. They don’t understand the rules, but they cling to them, because that’s what they know. They’re afraid of being wrong and looking uneducated. I often suggest to authors to make their written style closer to their spoken style. It’s natural to get a bit more formal when writing, but don’t overdo it.

My intention in writing this, however, is not to give advice about writing, but rather about reading and understanding.The value of a passive verb is in emphasizing something in a more subtle way than with bold print, an exclamation mark, or other more blatant approaches. It’s important to understand the way things are usually done so you can feel it when they’re done differently. In your native tongue this is automatic for most of us, though some people are more aware than others of the subtleties possible with language.

This is very important for those who study the Bible in the original languages. We still have a tendency to make exegesis a series of word studies, but the way the words are put together is extremely important. That’s why I emphasize reading quantities of a foreign language. There are many theories about the way to learn a language. I’m not going to jump on any one bandwagon except to say that one needs to have exposure to a large body of text in the language written by those who are proficient.

Modern tools provide many excellent opportunities to do this. Take as many of those opportunities as you can!

(For an example, see Dave Black’s notes on 3 John from 12/27/2016.)

Quick Thoughts after Reading Different Greek Texts

Quick Thoughts after Reading Different Greek Texts

Reading Greek editionsYesterday I read a few chapters (4 actually) of Hebrews with Stephen’s Textus Receptus (1550) beside my NA27, both from Logos Bible Software. It was an interesting exercise. I noticed a few things I hadn’t noticed before and was reminded of some things I know, but can easily neglect.

I started into biblical languages to get past the gatekeepers. I wanted to read the original text for myself and discover what was there without depending on others. In that goal I failed. It’s amazing the number of little things you can notice when you look at different edited texts. And that is what our Greek New Testaments these days are. (I’ll stick with discussing the Greek, though I could make similar, but not identical, points about Hebrew.) Someone studies the manuscripts available, or existing editions, or starts with an edition and just looks at particular variants, and produces a text which I then read. I can take the Nestle-Aland 27th edition text and read it from their edition, or from the UBSIV Bible I also have which uses the same text. They list different variants. Why? Because the editors determine that for the purposes of this edition, those are the variants you need to see.

Now it happens I’m fairly happy with most of their choices, though one reason I have various editions is so that I can check on other details. In my reading yesterday, for example, I noticed quite a number of differences in word order. It would be quite a daunting task to cover all those differences in a textual apparatus, but they might actually be meaningful. I’m very careful doing so, but I have been known to argue emphasis based on word order. Do I have the right word order?

My point is not to make one feel helpless. Rather, I think we should be thankful to those who have gone to the work to provide us with these tools. I’m thankful that I can read my Greek New Testament in an edition that combines information from thousands of sources and then gives me notes on a selected set of the most important variants. Hebrews 12:1 has its crowd of witnesses. Whenever I study the Bible, I am standing on a substantial pyramid of other peoples’ shoulders.

At the same time I have to remember that there is a time to get out of the rut of the ordinary and to look at things that are substantially different. I’m now interested in studying variations in word order, though I doubt I will ever have the time. Nonetheless, it looks like a field that could be fascinating to research and study.

Lessons? 1) Always go for the source, even if you won’t really get there. 2) Be thankful to those who have gone before!

Book Notes: Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek

Book Notes: Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek

linguistics for greekI try not to call what I do here “reviewing” as I don’t really try to provide an academic review. In fact, I might do better to call these “Ramblings after Reading.” In the case of this book I need to provide an additional caveat. Dave Black is a friend, and I publish several books by him (The Jesus Paradigm, Christian Archy, Why Four Gospels?, Will You Join the Cause of Global Missions?, and The Authorship of Hebrews: The Case for Paul). Since I own the company and have named myself chief editor, the fact that I’ve published that many titles by one author should indicate that I like his work. So don’t get the idea that you’re about to read a scholarly review by an impartial reviewer.

Probably more important than that, however, is the reason I read this book in the first place. I have long believed that we might do the church a favor if, rather than one semester (or even quarter) of a biblical language, we gave them one quarter of introductory linguistics. This is not because I don’t believe in the value of biblical languages for biblical teaching and preaching. Quite the contrary!

The problem is that there are many people using Greek or Hebrew in the pulpit, their Sunday School classes, small groups, etc. who don’t actually know enough of the language to support the use their making of it. I have come to the place where I tell those I can to beware. If a pastor or teacher says something like “What the Greek really says here is …” you’re about to be misinformed.

There are teachers and preachers who do have a solid knowledge of the languages and use them in their study. They’re not that likely to say “what the Greek really says” when they introduce their discussion of a Greek word or phrase.

Generally those who do that read the answer in a commentary or other study resource, and often they lacked even the skill to correctly interpret the commentary. In addition, the commentary itself may well have been wrong. I know it’s shocking, but even PhD’s whose books go through a serious editorial process can make mistakes.

There has been a great deal of effort put into correcting some of the most common errors, and so we have lists of exegetical fallacies, such as D. A. Carson’s aptly named book Exegetical Fallacies. I’ve even published one (via my company Energion Publications) titled “In the Original Text It Says …” which provides examples of some fallacies and suggests how to avoid them.

These tools are useful, but they only deal with the problem partially. Exegetical fallacies are committed because they often appear to work. Etymology often does point one to meaning, and thus one may become convinced, or just lazily assume, that etymology determines meaning. From valid observation to fallacy may not take that many steps.

There is no real substitute for some understanding of how language works, and to get that understanding you need to do more than learn the vocabulary of a foreign language. I don’t teach Greek or Hebrew regularly, but from time to time I’ll have a few students in the church who want to learn. I try to introduce some linguistics right from the start. I tell them I hope that they’ll keep going with their study of the language until they can use it regularly, easily, and fruitfully in study. But if they don’t, I hope they will at least remember a bit of how languages are put together. If you’re wondering whether I’m qualified to comment, you can discover how I pat myself on the back via footnote 1.1

So having outlined my view of the problem(s), what about the book?

I wish every person who was going to study the Bible using the original languages would read this book. I’ll concede the possibility of getting the same knowledge elsewhere, but it would be difficult, I think, to find a book that both sticks with the basics with such rigor, and then applies them so well to the problems of translation and exegesis. Both of those issues were problems for me in my study. I recall being told that “Greek doesn’t have syntax,” an obviously silly statement, and having to discover the details of syntax as I went through those later courses. We didn’t have a good text. I did read other texts, such as Barr’s The Semantics of Biblical Language (a more recent and less widely accepted book in those days!) but getting down to what it meant for me was harder.

Even though I have read a number of the works Dave Black cites or suggests for further reading, I still found this book helpful, because it helps provide a framework and make sure one hasn’t missed niggling details that will catch up with one later. You can find more detailed information on every topic (Dave provides a suggested list at the end of each chapter), but you will do well to get some landmarks by reading the chapters first. I’m reminded of one of my professors who said he’d like to see an introductory style course in Old Testament and New Testament given at the end, rather than the beginning, of one’s Bible study, because of the value of tying things together and drawing connections. I fully agree! Many people know quite a number of details, but fail to understand how these details fit into a bigger picture.

So what does this book cover?

It starts by introducing linguistics. This is valuable again in setting the boundaries. There are those who think I am a linguist because I have learned a number of languages. Not so! Linguistics is a field of study with many subfields, some of which will become topics for later chapters. (One will get a helpful idea of what is to come if one reads the preface, but that may be too much to ask! In particular, “read not consulted”–this book is an introduction, not a reference.)

Following this are chapters on phonology, morphology, and then syntax. The latter is greatly neglected in biblical languages courses of which I am aware. If the teacher can force the students through enough vocabulary and basic morphology, perhaps that is all that can be expected with the limited time. A particular strength of this chapter is the presentation of the basics of immediate constituent analysis and later of transformations. Both of these concepts can look very difficult, but they are basic to being able to understand. We do some of this when we outline, but few people have the patience for that. Never fear! Dave will show you how.

Chapter 5, “Semantics: Determining Meaning,” however, is the core of this presentation. Don’t imagine you can just jump to it, but a great deal centers on the concepts presented here. You’ll learn about etymology (what it’s good for and what it’s not), the difference between word and concept, semantic range, polysemy, synonymy (and many others) and why those terms are important. I find myself over-using the term “semantic range” and several paragraphs in this chapter helped me come up with some better ways of expressing the necessary concepts in less time and less technical language.

Chapter 6 is a very nice introduction to the history of the Greek language. You’ll find such an introduction in most grammars, but those chapters won’t be this detailed, and they won’t give you the practical applications. After you read this chapter you should know why understanding how language develops is important to both language student and exegete.

I’m glad that the final chapter, “Discourse Analysis” was added to the second edition. I was fortunate to have teachers who got me started in this areas, though the field has developed some since I was a student. My personal observation is that the thing that prevents people from doing more discourse analysis is that it seems to be too much work. Unfortunately, you can’t reap the benefits until you have done all that work, so you don’t realize what the rewards are.

Well, follow Dave through Philippians. See how discourse analysis can shed light on many pesky questions regarding that letter. You can agree or disagree on details, but you will be much better prepared to understand any particular verse.

May I also appeal to students at this point to learn how to do this for yourself. Don’t just depend on someone else who has done the work. It is absolutely helpful and a good idea to look at what others have done. But too many people get the meaning of the Bible from the outlines, headings, and notes provided in their study Bibles. You may come to the conclusion that the book is structured precisely as it was in the outline provided. But once you’ve done the work to determine that, I think you’ll feel that the time spent was truly worth it.

This book requires some knowledge of Greek. Dave mentions advanced students. To some extent he is right. I’d suggest it after you have a good facility with the language. I would also recommend that teachers study it so as to get an idea of how to present this material to students. Many of these concepts can be presented earlier in class, preparing the ground for more serious study later.

In other words, I think this is an excellent book. I would rate it 5 stars, and I believe it can be useful to a broader audience than the one intended by the author, because there is always value in a book that applies important concepts to actual problems.



1. Do I have any business making these kinds of criticisms? After all, I’m a publisher with just an MA degree. Quite true. Yet I’d say one should question my knowledge more when I set out to talk about theology than about languages. My undergraduate degree was in biblical languages, including four years of Greek and three of Hebrew (actually I bypassed first year Hebrew through personal study). I also took a class in textual criticism at the undergraduate level, along with a minor in French. That minor language, along with growing up overseas (four years in Mexico as a child) gave me a different perspective on language as well. We sometimes get a distorted view of Greek and Hebrew because we’re trying to make them fit a preconceived agenda. Studying a language without that religious baggage can be a big help. I often refer to Max Knight’s translation of Christian Morgenstern’s Galgenlieder as an excellent example of the difficulties of translation, expertly overcome. Incidentally, I received a copy of those poems from my undergraduate German teacher, who knew my interest in translation and wanted me to learn from them. I am eternally grateful to him.

I followed this with an MA in religion, again concentrating in biblical and cognate languages. So unlike many seminarians, I came to my MA ready to make use of the expertise of professors rather than needing to work on the basics, and I also spent all my time on the languages. At the same time, I spent hardly any time on issues of theology, and none at all on things like church administration, church history (I completed a church history requirement by taking patristic Latin!), counseling, homiletics, and so forth.

Then I took one quarter in another master’s program in linguistics one I did not complete for a number of reasons. Since then I have continued my reading in this area.

Greek and Ministry

Greek and Ministry

Thomas Hudgins is teaching Greek, and he thinks students should study with the intention of actually using their Greek in ministry (HT: Dave Black).

I’m delighted to see more and more effort put into this type of teaching. I was very frustrated as a graduate student when I saw how students in the MDiv program were merely trying to get by in their Greek course. The structure of their course work helped foster this particular attitude, because basic Greek was largely an effort to get enough knowledge of the basic vocabulary and grammar to slip through the test so Greek could be ignored from there on. The same applied to Hebrew.

Since my undergraduate degree was in Biblical Languages, and I was in the academic MA program rather than the MDiv program, I got tapped to help tutor Greek students. (My undergraduate program involved the equivalent of five years of Greek, with two year-long courses taken simultaneously, as well as textual criticism.) These students would try to catch me a few hours before their tests so I could drill them on the things they would have to regurgitate on a test paper. They had no patience for any of my efforts to help them understand the material.

Starting with a mastery of grammar actually works well for me. I learn languages fairly easily, but more importantly, I was already convinced of the value before I started my first Greek class, and I was willing to put in the effort necessary to learn the language well enough so I could use it. But for someone who is not planning to specialize, the focus needs to be a bit different.

One of the major differences is simply attitude, both on the part of teacher and of student. Are we acquiring data in order to check off a box on our list of requirements, or are we acquiring a tool?

I think linguistic concepts should be introduced right at the beginning. How does language work? Why do you have a hard time with pronouncing certain sounds? How does etymology help you learn vocabulary, and how can that in turn lead you astray? How can you study deeply, yet share with the people in the pews or in Sunday School classes in a way that is accessible?

I like Dr. Hudgins’ approach and his brochure. I’m sure his students will be blessed. As Dave said, may his tribe increase!

An Exemplary Post on Translating the Word Nefesh

An Exemplary Post on Translating the Word Nefesh

I’m linking to this post by Joel Hoffman not just for its content, which is indeed excellent, but also because I think it shows how to discuss translating a word from one language to another.

A couple of notes: 1) He’s discussing how to translate the word in a specific instance, not some general “what did this word really mean?” kind of topic, 2) he gives solid usage references in all the languages concerned, and 3) he manages to keep the discussion straightforward and easy for the non-expert to follow.

In a paper for publication, of course, one would need to cover all the extras, i.e. survey everything. In this case, we get what we need for the immediate issue without distractors. In other words, an exemplary blog post! May there be many more! May I even learn to write such!

(HT: Wayne Leman, Better Bibles)

Dave Black (and Charles King) on Greek Teaching Methods

Dave Black (and Charles King) on Greek Teaching Methods

Dave Black notes the following:

9:04 AM This morning Kyle Davis, one of my teaching assistants, sent me a link to this excellent essay: The Method of Teaching New Testament Greek (.pdf). On the several takeaways I got from reading it, this one is perhaps the most important:

Extensive memorization produces improved strategies for memorization, but does not increase the ability to memorize. If the learner implements higher order learning patterns, learning becomes easier and more effective.

Amen and amen! This is one reason I have reduced memorization to an absolute minimum in my own beginning grammar, Learn to Read New Testament Greek, and instead focus on teaching students basic principles of noun and verb morphology. Once you understand how language works, that information will stick with you a lot longer than had you simply memorized a long list of paradigms.

So grateful for colleagues who teach Greek and who are open to newer methods of pedagogy and linguistic approaches to the language. Why make the subject any more difficult than it already is?

My own experience is somewhat different than either Dave’s or that of the article author, as I’ve never taught a required Greek course. I did encounter students in required courses in both Greek and Hebrew when I was in graduate school. I had the recommendation of the professor as a tutor, and was frequently sought out in the hours before a test came up, which was normally too late for me to be of much help.

Since then I have frequently taught either individual students or small groups, but for the most part these were people who really wanted Greek or Hebrew in order to make use of it.

What does especially resonate with me from the cited article is the note about memorization. I grew up on memorization. We memorized extensive passages of scripture from the KJV in school. For example, I have recited Psalm 119 at one sitting, word perfect. That memorization didn’t make me a better memorizer. What helped me with learning was the simple process of consistently trying to understand what was going on and then fix it in memory through those relationships. Thus learning a system and then memorizing the minimum necessary makes great sense to me. It has made sense to my students as well.

I am also a firm believer in reading quantities of text in the source language. I was introduced to reader’s grammars by Dr. Sakae Kubo, who edited an early edition for Greek, and I consider them a wonderful tool. Computer based tools replace them for many, but I still need to sit down at a desk from time to time in order to study. I don’t use such tools much now, but I do still have them on my shelves.

The one item on which I’d disagree is on the value of translating English into Greek or Hebrew. I don’t push it a great deal, but several of my students have testified that it was helpful in fixing vocabulary in their memory.


James 1:13 – Tempted by Evil?

James 1:13 – Tempted by Evil?

In the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament on James (my review) the suggestion is made that apeirastos kakwn should be translated as an objective genitive, as “tempted to do evil.” They oppose this to a subjective genitive (“tempted by evil”) or one alternative which does not involve a new way of reading the genitive (67, 70-71).

It’s interesting to note that nearly all translations choose “by evil.” (I say “nearly” because all the translations I have in my library do so.) This is a time when I feel the limitations of my library, but Wallace (125) uses it as an example of a genitive of means, Robertson calls it ablatival (515-517), and Blass-deBrunner-Funk discusses it in a passage covering other cases of the genitive following an adjective, including examples that could have different translations, such as 1 Corinthians 9:21 (anomos theou/ennomos christou). The BDAG entry on apeirastos suggests “tempted to do evil” (and also cites the same passage from Blass-deBrunner-Funk that I have).

As I look at this passage it seems to me that the more natural translation is “tempted by evil,” while I don’t deny the possibility of the alternative. At first glance, the context seems to suggest something more like “tempted to do evil,” since this then forms the basis for the claim that God does not tempt anyone.

But I would suggest a logical connection to another phrase, James 1:17 “no inconsistency or shifting shadow” (ISV). Yes, this phrase is separated from the phrase in question, but it appears to me that James entwines multiple topics together as he relates them throughout the book. His point in 13 is that God is reliable and cannot be moved, a point which is actually supported by either translation.

Thus my second reflection is that the traditional translation of this passage actually fits the logic quite well.

Any thoughts?

Praying Without Ceasing and Hyperbole

Praying Without Ceasing and Hyperbole

Mike Sangrey has a post on translating 1 Thessalonians 5:17 at Better Bibles Blog where he suggests “Don’t stop praying!” would be more accurate than “Pray without ceasing,” which is what most of us are used to hearing. He arrives at this conclusion by looking at various uses of the Greek word in question (adialeiptws). Nonetheless the key argument seems to be that:

the words “without ceasing” carry the idea of “unending, continuous prayer” to the English mind.  I think such an action is impossible and others think so, too.

Just so! I think it’s impossible as well. But as the first commenter notes, this is likely a form of hyperbole. Now I’m quite comfortable with interpretive translations that try to adapt one idiom into another, or take a rhetorical device from the source language that is absent (or different) in the target language and replace it with another.

My concern in this case is that hyperbole is a perfectly good rhetorical device in English. We use it regularly. Sometimes our “holy filter” keeps us from seeing it in scripture, but that’s not because it’s absent from the language.

My question is this: If Paul was using hyperbole here, then what is wrong with hyperbole in an English translation? To be more precise, I could ask whether a Greek speaking reader might have heard the passage as “unending, continuous prayer,” realize he had encountered hyperbole, and apply it appropriately. If so, why not let an English speaking reader do the same?

If I might illustrate further, when Jesus says that if your right eye offends you, pluck it out (Matthew 5:29), is it not likely that we have just a small amount of hyperbole? If so, should I translate this verse into something non-hyperbolic, such as “it might be better to be blind than to have your eyes lead you into lust”? (I’m not proposing that as a good translation–just a pointer.)

I’m leaving comments open, but suggesting you comment at Mike’s post or on your own blog to keep the discussion linked.