“But the Greek REALLY says…”: Why Hebrew and Greek are not needed in the pulpit, Part 1

Para la versión castellana, vaya AQUI.

Come with me to ESEPA Seminary in Costa Rica: we meet at night around a table, and with me are all my advanced students of Greek. Throughout four semesters we have studied the ancient dialect, koinē, and they have found blessings as they read the New Testament in the original.

Tonight we’ll take a different tack: “I’m about to impart something very important to you,” I alert them. Nodding, they lean forward.

“Here’s the mystical wisdom: (1) With almost no exceptions, whenever I preach, I study  deeply the passage in the original language. But, (2) I almost never mention a Greek or Hebrew word from the pulpit. In fact, I go for years without making a peep in those languages.”

I let that sink in.

Then: “If you cannot state in plain, precise Spanish what you have found in the text, then you don’t really understand the passage and you shouldn’t be preaching on it.” Puzzled expressions! Then: “If you lard your sermons with Hebrew and Greek words, please do not tell your people that you studied with me, because I’ll deny that I know you!”

Is this reflective of some inner conflict on my part? Do I devote myself to teach Greek, only to sabotage my efforts? Do I have, linguistically, a “fear of commitment”? Not at all.

"I know your Bible says 'Yes,' but in the Greek it says 'No'!"

“I know in your Bible it says ‘Yes,’ but in the Greek it says ‘No’!”

Many people I know who are excellent students of the Word, some of whom are experts in the original texts, seem to agree that while the languages are vital for preparation, there is little need of using them during the presentation of a sermon or teaching, unless the audience knows the language. [1]

Now, a confession: In my file cabinet I still have the notes I used to preach my first real “church sermons,” given in the summer of 1978. I recall how I made reference to the Greek in Phil 3:12-14, Gal 6:1-5 and James 1:5-10. I looked up how to pronounce certain words (baros, phortion) and used them in my messages. I also said that a certain verb was an “aorist” and thus meant a point action (that’s not true, by the way). I got these data from commentaries that I barely understood. The problem there was that I only began to study Greek in the autumn of 1978. I look at those notes now and blush to the roots of my hair, first because I used the Greek wrongly, but second because I had presumed to speak about matters I knew nothing about. I might as well have been trying to explain differential calculus to the congregation.

A lot of people say of their pastors that, “He gets right into the Greek words, and shows how the English translations can’t capture what the original says.” I’m sad to see a definition of “expository” preaching as sermons studded with ancient words, as if one cannot expound the Bible in modern English. Plus, my personal observation is that One’s use of Greek (or Hebrew) is inversely proportionate to one’s actual understanding of that language. I am no expert in Greek, but I can say that for me, the more years that I have studied the language, the less I find myself referring to them in a message.

In church, I am regularly put in a tight spot (not in the church I attend, by the way). A preacher will make some statement about the Greek language, one that makes me cringe because it’s incorrect or poorly applied -  it’s like a chemist hearing that water is composed of helium and nitrogen atoms. But then the preacher will look at me for confirmation: “Professor Shogren, isn’t that correct?” What am I to do? I can’t say Yes, but I’m not going to say No either. Usually I give a mysterious smile and wait for it to blow over.

We are supposed to follow the example of the apostles when we preach, and they rarely used foreign terms. For example, in 1 Cor 1:30, Paul adapts the text of Jer 9:24, “Let the one who boasts, boast in this…” Can you imagine Paul saying, “Now in the original Hebrew, the verb for ‘boast’ is hālal, which in the Hithpa’el means ‘to boast, to make one’s boast in’”? And why doesn’t he do so? It’s because Paul’s goal is to explain in the language of his hearers what it means to boast about oneself and why we should center our existence on God instead. What kind of benefit could come from brandishing the Hebrew word, especially when it sheds no further light on God’s truth? (In a later post, we will consider when it might be useful to introduce an ancient term).

There are other, theological reasons, for preaching in clear English: the law of love; the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers; the doctrine of the reliability of Scripture.

1) The Law of Love. The second great commandment is that we love our neighbor as ourselves. People who are loving are not “arrogant, boastful” (1 Cor 13:4); they follow the precept, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” Using Greek or Hebrew in a sermon could be, in some cases, a signal that we are trying to elevate ourselves over the others of God’s flock; some humble people also refer to the original text, and this is between the individual and the Lord. Beyond this, we should remember that the more we speak in Greek, the less the congregation is edified: to paraphrase the apostle, “In church I would rather speak five clear words in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek.” Why? Because to the extent that the reader doesn’t know the language, there is no communication, and the hearer is not “built up” (see 1 Cor 14:16-19). If we don’t build up the Other, then we are not acting in love. And love drives us to the sweaty mental and spiritual work of translating our findings into plain English.

2) The Doctrine of the Priesthood of the Believer. Peter said that “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 2:5); Paul said that for each believer “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God” (1 Cor 6:19). We do not have a priesthood as Israel once did. The pastor, then, must not signal by his language that he is “clergy” and the rest are “laypeople,” who should follow the message that he has brought up from some dark wells of learning. Another application of this doctrine is this: when he preaches, the pastor is not only teaching the congregation, he is also teaching them how to study the Word. We never want to leave anyone with the idea that, “I can never really grasp the Bible the way that the preacher does.” The purpose of original languages is to inform the preacher from Monday through Saturday, not to awe the audience on Sunday. [2]

3) The Doctrine of the Reliability of Scripture. We want to instill in our people that the Word is inspired, reliable and meant to be understood and obeyed. When I preach, I will sometimes say, e.g., “I think the ESV captures this verse better than some other versions,” and point to the context or some other fact, and then leave it at that. But let us avoid the peril when we let the flock in on the “insight” that, “I know it says such-and-such in your English translations, but in the original it really means…” The subtext is, as in 2) above, you people need a “priestly expert” to interpret God’s Word to you. Even more dangerously, we might inject into the minds of the congregation a sense of tentativeness about whether they should obey what the Bible seems to plainly teach.

I have people come up to me regularly to ask, “What does this verse or word really say in the original?” And you know what the answer is, 95+% of the time? “What it says in your translation is what it says in the original.” An anecdote attributed to the late Howard Hendricks is that he would say, “The word that is translated ‘joy’ here in our English Bibles comes from  a Greek word that means…[wait for it!] ‘joy.’” Hats off to Dr. Hendricks; much of this is no more than a chasing of the tail that gets us nowhere fast. [3]

Note – yesterday I heard a very fine radio sermon on what it means to build up other believers. The preacher said “Build up – which in Greek is oikodomia – means that we, etc.” Those of us who have some knowledge of Greek already knew the word; most listeners did not. So why mention it at all?

Besides the original texts, I use about 20 English versions, 10 in Spanish, and some from other languages. And they capture the meaning of the original, some better than others, but all reliably. [4] When I wrote my commentary on 1 Corinthians, I invested years in the study of the Greek version, and they also asked me to base my comments on the Nueva Versión Internacional; the NVI is the Spanish version of the New International Version. In the end I concluded, “Wow, the NVI is really solid, I’m impressed with how it represents the Greek text of the epistle.”

The f0llowing will sound harsh, but let’s think through what is going on when a pastor constantly “corrects” the English translation: someone who perhaps has had a couple of years of Greek or Hebrew classes, in effect is saying that he could translate the original better than did the editors of the ESV, the NIV, or whichever. To show why that’s a problem, let’s take as an example of how a modern version is produced: a colleague friend of mine was one of the translators for the New Living Translation. He is an expert on the original languages of 1 Samuel, and he and two other scholars of renown worked just on 1-2 Samuel. [5] There was then an editor for OT Historical Books, another for the Old Testament, then style editors, general editors, that is, about 100 people working on the entire Bible: all had lifetimes of highly specialized study, these experts of international standing who were invited to participate in the NLT project. And all of them were committed precisely to this goal: to render in understandable English that which the original languages say! They weren’t ignorant of alternative interpretations; they didn’t “leave out” shades of meaning; rather, they wrote the best that they could determine, what the original really said.

I implore my fellow preachers to consider the erosion of confidence they cause when they imply that our Bible translations are not reliable; for many people, that will come across as “Therefore, the Bible is not reliable”. [6]

Let me close with a concrete example of a famous preacher, who every week it seems appeals to the Greek or Hebrew. With regard to John 14:16, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever” he comments:

The Greek word translated “another” may provide a helpful clue in understanding Jesus’ meaning in John 14. There are two Greek words frequently translated “another”: heteros and allos. Sometimes the biblical authors used those words interchangeably, but sometimes they used heteros to speak of another of a different kind and allos to speak of another of the same kind… Allos is the word Jesus used to describe the Holy Spirit: “another [allos] Helper.” That could be His way of saying, “I am sending you One of exactly the same essence as Me.” He wasn’t sending just any helper, but One exactly like Himself with the same compassion, the same attributes of deity, and the same love for them. Jesus had been the disciples’ helper for three years. He had helped them, comforted them, and walked alongside them. Now they would have another Helper – One exactly like Jesus – to minister to them as He had.

What can we say about this?

First: Actually, Greek scholars say that the two words for “other” were differentiated in Classical Greek, but not the Greek of the time of Jesus.

Two: He says, correctly, that “Sometimes the biblical authors used them interchangeably,” or in other words, this might not apply here.

Three: He says, “This could be his way of saying, etc.” Could be? The proof seems slight.

Four: If the Holy Spirit is exactly like Jesus in compassion, deity and love, then these are truths that would have to be demonstrated from this and other passages; the word allos cannot in itself bear all this theological weight.

So, couldn’t a preacher make exactly the same point without all these extraneous data? Something like:

In John 14:16, Jesus says that “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever”. Notice that the Lord says “another Helper,” meaning that Jesus was a Helper and the Holy Spirit will be another Helper. This wasn’t just any helper, but like Jesus, he is God and he will treat them with the same compassion, love, patience and wisdom that Jesus did. And he would come not as a human being, limited to one space and time, but as Spirit living in each one of them, wherever they went. God would continue to guide and care for them.

With its clearer English, doesn’t this shed light, the same light, on the passage? Plus it avoids a lot of words the congregation doesn’t know and won’t remember and that really don’t advance their grasp of the Bible; and it opens up additional minutes for deeper application of the truth to our lives:

And today we have that very same Helper in each one of us. Do you get to dreaming once in a while, about how it would have been great to have lived in Galilee and heard and seen the Lord during his ministry? But do you know what? Jesus himself tells us that we have a better help than even the disciples had, one who is always present every minute of the day, every place we go.

In Part 2 we will see that a lot of what is said about the biblical languages, besides being a distraction, isn’t even true in the first place. In Part 3 we will see how the apostles judiciously used a handful of foreign words – e.g., Amen, Hallelujah, Maranatha, Abba; plus there are other crucial words that we might teach our people with great profit, e.g., echad; the names of God; Yeshua; logos; Shalom.

NOTES:

[1]  I don’t believe that it requires any “special pleading” to point out that in this blog I regularly refer to Greek, and sometimes post highly technical articles, such as on the verb periergazomai in Were Thessalonians “meddling in divine matters”? 2 Thess 3:11 [Studies in Thessalonians]; that is because I am taking into account the readership of OpenOurEyesLord.com.

[2] The most egregious example I know of is the ministry of “Greek expert” R. B. Thieme. He took some Greek courses and went on to build an entire movement based on faulty, fallacious thoughts about the Greek text, used for cultic ends. Those who study the languages, even for a couple of semesters, can overturn most of his so-called insights; see http://thiemite.blogspot.com

[3] An extreme example of using Hebrew terms is found in the messianic movement that is sweeping Latin America. Some of these groups are sound, but many are not. A friend told me that in group in Mexico, they don’t call their leader a “pastor” but “roe” (row-EH). Why? Because that’s the Hebrew term for pastor; one finds it in the opening of Psalm 23:1 – Yahweh roi, “the LORD is my shepherd.”  The problem is that, no-one understands roe, and to make sense of it, someone has to say “roe means ‘pastor’” – it’s better in Spanish than in English, since the Spanish “pastor” may mean both a literal shepherd and Christian pastor. So, why bother using the term roe? My guess is that it implies that by calling the pastor roe my group achieves a higher level of authenticity – it is more Hebrew than thou.

[4] At the far fringe of the King James Onlyists are those few who argue that the pastor should not bother studying the Bible in other versions nor in the original languages, since the KJV is the inspired, reliable version of God’s Word. The basis for this belief is a notion that God preserved only one version, and that the KJV is “the One.” Among these teachers one should mention Peter Ruckman, the fiery blog http://www.Jesus-is-Lord.com, Chick Publications. This is an error of so many facets that we cannot deal with it here.

[5] Click here to see the names of the NLT translation team: http://www.newlivingtranslation.com/05discoverthenlt/meetthescholars.asp

[6] The other side of the coin is that we must help our flocks understand the basics of textual criticism, to ease the dismay we feel when we read the footnotes of the Bible to find, “This verse is not in the best manuscripts.” But that is a theme for another post.

Related posts:

“But the Greek REALLY says…”: Why Hebrew and Greek are not needed in the pulpit, Part 2

“But the Greek REALLY says…” Why Greek and Hebrew are not needed in the pulpit, Part 3

My four decades in the Bible – Part III

Is the NIV 2011 a Satanic, Homosexual, PC Bible? Part I

“‘But the Greek REALLY says…’: Why Hebrew and Greek are not needed in the pulpit, Part 1,” by Gary Shogren, PhD in New Testament Exegesis, Professor at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

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  1. […] also Gary Shogren’s excellent series of posts entitled “But the Greek REALLY says…”: Why Hebrew and Greek are not needed in the pulpit, Part 1 and “But the Greek REALLY says…”: Why Hebrew and Greek are not needed in the pulpit, […]

  2. […] La versión de esta entrada en inglés es más larga, se puede leer AQUI: […]

  3. […] very great length about why preachers should rarely use Hebrew or Greek terms in the pulpit; start HERE. This present post should be regarded as an additional comment on pulpit […]

  4. […] Part 1 and Part 2 I offered a personal philosophy of Expository Preaching without Ancient […]

  5. […] well said. You can find part 1 here. Part 2 is […]

  6. […] Shogren has an excellent series of posts entitled “But the Greek REALLY says…”: Why Hebrew and Greek are not needed in the pulpit, Part 1 and “But the Greek REALLY says…”: Why Hebrew and Greek are not needed in the pulpit, […]

  7. […] In Part 1, I urged a sharply minimalist use of ancient Hebrew and Greek words in a sermon, especially if there is no compelling purpose or, worse, the goal is to impress the crowd: it is a pitiable housepainter who departs the job with his scaffolding still up, hoping you’ll notice how far he climbed. See “But the Greek REALLY says…”: Why Hebrew and Greek are not needed in the pulpit, Part 1 […]

  8. Excellent post Gary! Thank you!

  9. I enjoyed this post greatly. I especially like reason #2. Maybe the best way to handle those more helpful words would be in a BIble Study where the focus is on the meaning of a few key words.

    I know “agape” should be in there. If I hear another sermon on John 21 where Jesus is disappointed with Peter because he could not bring himself to say “unconditional love” I might pass out!

    The lexicons are quite unhelpful with the definition as well as C.S. Lewis, and it was only when I looked up the actual usages that it become clear what it meant most of the time. Only Spicq is helpful – he would say it means most of the time “value” or “hold in high esteem”. I agree, and this makes the most sense. INterestingly “agape” also meant “happy, satisfied”.

    But even Spicq is not immune to criticism. At one point in his lexicon he calls “agape” “divine love”. Not helpful.

    • Thanks for writing in! I have Spicq in my Logos software, and use him often, although he’s not always a help. But neither is TDNT for that matter. I find the NIDNTT the most consistently useful. I’ve also posted a blog advising people not to continue using the Thayer lexicon; e.g., I show that it is the source of much of the confusion about agape.

      I agree with you on the John 21 issue, and it happens that I’m going from church to church speaking on that text as we go around presenting our missionary work, see http://shogrens.com

  10. A reader writes in: You say “Sometimes the biblical authors used [synonyms] interchangeably.” If words can be used interchangeably, what is the point of verbal inspiration and historical grammatical interpretation?”

    Gary: Verbal inspiration means that the text as we have it, and down to the very word, comes from God. It is fully divine. It is also a human text, in that the authors wrote as did people in 1st century Eastern Mediterranean.

    To give one hypothetical example: in one gospel, some saying of Jesus is introduced with the word for “and”, KAI. But in the parallel in another gospel, a synonym is used, DE. In English we probably wouldn’t notice the difference. The words KAI and DE are not absolutely interchangeable, but to a certain extant they are. If you believe in inspiration, you believe that the conjunctions are there by the will of God, but you wouldn’t necessarily decide that there is a hidden or cryptic message when one compares one passage to another – that’s simply not how we read texts, whether modern or ancient, secular or inspired. And if you practice historical-grammatical interpretation, you will probably come to the conclusion that the two words mean the same thing, or close enough to the same thing that it hardly bears mentioning.

    As an exaggerated counter-example, sometimes the rabbis would make a big deal out of saying, for example, that a Bible passage had the letter WAW 4 times in one sentence, and 5 times in the following sentence, and draw out some allegorical meaning from that datum. In my opinion, that’s not going to help anyone understand God’s word better.

  11. A friends writes in: In your section regarding “another”, HETEROS and ALLOS. What is the basis for this knowledge? Contextual usage?

    Gary: thanks, great to hear from you! Up through the early 20th century, most Bible scholars would begin their study of the New Testament text, not with koinē Greek of the Septuagint and the NT, but in school, where they would study Classical Greek and Latin. For example, we often hear that the entrance requirement for Harvard was a written exam on the Greek text of Ephesians (I don’t know if that was true or not); it would have been a snap for people with a classical education.

    The positive side to this is that people would bring a ton of background to their study of the Bible; the negative side is that sometimes the background wasn’t relevant. Some read the Bible as if its Greek was that of the 5th century BC, not the 1st century AD. It would be like reading today’s newspaper after learning the English of Chaucer.

    One result was that synonyms that had slight shades of difference in earlier Greek had lost those fine distinctions in biblical Greek. HETEROS and ALLOS are two such words. The preacher in this example does not commit himself wholly to the idea that the words must have distinct meanings, and in my opinion once one concedes that point, it’s not worth bringing up the pair of Greek terms in the first place.

    I would recommend newer word study tools, in particular Louw and Nida’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament based on Semantic Domains; I consulted with it, also the Bauer lexicon, the Liddell-Scott-Jones lexicon, several commentaries, and my own reading of the passage in the original. And yes, context has to have the final word on the question, beginning with the immediate context in John 14-16.

  12. A friend writes in: With respect to “3) The Doctrine of the Reliability of Scripture. We want to instill in our people that the Word is inspired, reliable and meant to be understood and obeyed.” Many times I am perplexed when dealing with textual issues in the course of teaching S.S. classes for fear of instilling doubt in the minds of students regarding the reliability of Scripture. For instance the end of Mark or the beginning of John 8. But I believe warning students of these types of problems is necessary to make them aware of scoffers and their destructive teachings.

    Gary: Blessings! I just added a footnote to mention the issue of textual criticism. I absolutely agree, in this day and age it is imperative that a pastor makes sure his flock understands the basics of this discipline, and also understands why one Bible version differs from another – that is, what is the difference between a relatively literal version and a dynamic equivalence.

  13. Gary, I enjoyed this article. However, for me words like “shalom” and “abba” seem to enhance the message for a bible study or a brief devotional.

    • Hi Phyllis! I do agree, and in Part 3 I will talk about words which, imho, are worth knowing, including these, and Amen, etc. Blessings!

  14. It’s not as though any of us actually thinks in koine (or in my case, classical) Greek. As a wannabe rhetorician, I am much more interested in what the writer is doing with the words he chooses. What did he intend his original audience to understand and to do with that understanding? Why was he communicating this? What was the rhetorical situation? To that end, the original Greek may be helpful, but the cultural context is much more helpful.

    • In the last few decades, cultural background has become more and more key.

  15. Gary, thank you for these wise words. Good for you for having the insight (and, may I say, chutzpah?) to write it! I hope every preacher with a semester or five of Greek and Hebrew reads this.

    • Chuztpah – Yiddish, right? :P Thanks Abram, always good to see you.

  16. […] Should a preacher refer to Hebrew or Greek from the pulpit? In all but a few instances, emphatically not, see “But the Greek REALLY says…” Why Hebrew and Greek are not needed in the pulpit, Part 1 […]


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