Greek, a science?

By Gary Shogren, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

Some thoughts I wrote on another wordpress.com blog, which I reproduce with respect to the blogger:

Greek study is a science. As with any science, it’s not possible to scan the web and read various articles and then make a truly informed decision. There are good things online – there is also a ton (imho, the great majority) of material written by people who are regurgitating third- and fourth-hand data. A parallel would be reading all about the BP oil spill online, material that includes legitimate analysis mixed with, let’s say, all the crackpot ideas that one can imagine. How in the world can the merely-curious such as myself get to the bottom of it? (As someone close to me says, it’s like reading some articles on skyscrapers and then imagining you are able to critique how one was constructed).

Too many pastors say, well, with a grin, Well, I’m no theologian, I’m no Greek expert. But, why not? Decades in the ministry and no time set aside to really dig deep? I speak as someone who was a pastor for many years before becoming a prof, by the way, so I know the realities of ministry. A pastor of great influence last week said he didn’t know the basics about Mormon beliefs. For a North American evangelical, that is unconscionable. A pastor does not have to be an expert, but he or she certainly should have a decent grasp on the biblical languages and theology.

A case in point: your thought that the TNIV is a “re-write in an attempt to be ‘gender-neutral’”. I don’t use the TNIV much, but I do use pretty much all of the English versions: NKJV, NIV, ESV, New Living, NRSV, etc., etc. The TNIV (and NRSV and NLT) are not re-writes in order to be pc…they are literal translations that recognize that English develops century by century, and that “a man” and “he” sound as if they are addressed to males only. Thus:

1 Thess 1:4 – adelphoi is “brothers” in the NIV but more literally and accurately “brothers and sisters” in later translations. This because the English “brothers” does not mean “siblings” but “male siblings”. I’m not sure if it ever meant “siblings”. If I asked you, “do you have any brothers?” you would tell me how many male siblings you have, not how many siblings.

2 Cor 5:17 is “if any man is in Christ” in the NIV, but “if anyone is in Christ” in others…more accurately in the English.

“I will make you fishers of men” in Mark 1:17 communicates to people unfamiliar with older versions as “fishers of adult males”. Not Jesus’ meaning! Hence, they will “fish for people” in the NLT. More understandable and more accurate.

On the other hand, “I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing…” (1 Tim 2:8 NIV) IS accurate, since the Greek speaks of men as adult males.

These versions are not examples of “caving in to a feminist agenda” – a zippy slogan, but one very hard to prove. They are like all versions an attempt to communicate in good idiomatic English what the Word of God said and says.

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Fortunately, Gary, you do criticize in spite of the disclaimer; I’m a great supporter of tension on the internet. We ought to all just go neutral and let ideas fight it out. I mean, we don’t really have to live with each other, and Christians can box too, and help each other up when it’s over, especially when the friendship is as virtual as the fight.

    Any way, the issue of science and language as presented here gets fuzzier for me as I get older. I remember Robert Theime in the 60’s and his 4 vectors of meaning in the Greek language. (my phrase) They were the kindergarten categories of mood, tense, number and person (I think) and by these you could zero in on meaning like a lazer guided missile. It gave that sense of power over the text, like science tends to do, and then “in the original” was the icing on the cake. His students felt as if they were dealing with meaning and interpretation at the molecular level. These are still some of the illusions we like to teach and study with today.

    I’ve come to feel that the meaning of the text where it is needed for life and ministry (where we need authority or confidence) is more centered in the life and culture of the church. This is not the category of “tradition” as in the Roman church and it is really not scientific, i.e., not reproducible to verify. It is not Koine we preach, it is Scripture. Its meaning flows from the life of the church through the ages. It is not founded on some stastistic of comparative usage in ancient documents. There is no power in that posture. It’s useless.

    You might compare my thoughts with the categories used to determine the Canon…Apostolic authorship and use and blessing in the churches, etc.

    • Ah, R. B. Thieme, yeah. I might also mention graduates of a certain seminary that, acc to one alum I met, “had gotten exegesis down to a science”. Roll in the text at one end, and the truth comes out the other end. What nonsense.

      I’ll blog on this at some other point, but I teach my exegesis students that I will disclaim them if I hear them running off Greek words (a la John MacArthur) from the pulpit. Also the Shogren Axiom of Greek in the Pulpit: that one’s use of Greek from the pulpit varies inversely to one’s actual knowledge of that language. Now that’s science!!

      • Another interesting thing about the use of Greek words from the pulpit (and I’m all for the occasional explanation of a Greek word) is that they often don’t really add anything to the message. It would be like occasionally taking time out to provide dictionary definitions of English words in your sermon. However, the fact that it’s Greek blind people to the fact that nothing has actually been added. Some commentaries do this as well. It seems more frequently significant to explain a grammatical point (like “going” in the Great Commission) than a lexical point.

        • I agree about syntax, and I have spoken about the participles in Matt 28 from the pulpit. Nevertheless, I typically do so to “correct” something they’ve heard before. That verse, also the use of the imperative in Rom 12:1, etc. My philosophy is that, a good deal of what comes from the pulpit is to help us unlearn what the congregation already “knows.”

          On the other hand, if some beloved teacher has already explained that the aorist imperative means to “start doing that which you haven’t been doing”, thereby supposedly revealing some level of hidden meaning from the text, and then I come along and disagree, who are they likely to believe?


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