Does reading the New Testament in Greek undermine your faith? And what can you do about it?

Christians revere the word of God.  We base our lives on it.  We study it, trying to immerse ourselves in it, in order to shape ourselves into what God wants us to be.

But we do this using translations of the word into English (or French, if we are French; German if we are German; and so on).  Inevitably we come to think of the standard translation of our day as the word of God, and its phrasing as divine.

If we come to Christ in our teens, the bible that our church uses will be the one that shapes our thinking, whose wording is embedded in our soul.  The songs we sing will use those words.  When we pray, and listen to His voice, those words are likely to shape how we hear His response.

So what happens to us, psychologically, as teenagers, if we then go to college and learn New Testament Greek and start studying it in the editions such as Nestle-Aland?  If the bible we know is “just a translation”; if we know that the “original Greek” is regarded as more authoritative, then there is the risk of two psychological effects.  Indeed it will be rather difficult for the ordinary teenager to avoid being influenced subconciously by one or both of these.

Firstly, we will certainly find ourselves asking how can we treat every word and subclause of the English translation that we knew as baby-Christians as the very words of God, when we can see the Greek, and see how the translators had to turn a knotty bit of syntax into something that made sense in English?  Does this not, inevitably, cause us to value the English less?  How can it not?  How can you treat something as divine when you can see where it deviates from the Greek?  Note that here I presume no error worse than the occasional paraphrase or mistake — the deliberate mistranslations of the new NIV are worse still, from this point of view.

How do we avoid this loss of trust, when we know that the Greek is authoritative?  And worse yet, when we see all the variants in the Greek, how can we even trust that?  What does it mean to believe that “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Mt. 5:18) when we know that the dots and iotas vary in the mss?

The second problem derives from the first.  A youthful mind, observing that knowledge of the Greek allows one to see mistakes and infelicities in the English, is naturally prone to become somewhat superior in its attitude to those who have never seen the Greek, and don’t even know of the problem.  Youthful superiority quickly becomes arrogance, a contempt for those trusting in the word in English, and the results are never pleasing.  The victim of it is likely to turn into something to which none of us would give house-room, all the while priding himself on his knowingness, while in reality knowing little more Greek than an undergraduate course in Biblical studies can teach him.  We can all think of blogs written by such fools, who, having abandoned any trust in the word of God, now parrot unthinkingly and even unknowingly the values and ideas of the society in which they happen to live, and which they have never evaluated.   Unconcious influence does not tend to produce critical thinking.

But what do we say, in response to this, even if we manage to avoid the laughable mistake of the second kind?

In the days when we all read the Authorised Version, there was a short answer.   The problem was reduced to some extent by the sheer prestige of that version.  It was possible to consider that God had inspired also the translators — and why not? –, and therefore to sidestep the issue.

But does anyone today suppose this of, for example, the translators of the New International Version, who shy at the word “heretic” and translate the plain old Greek word for “brothers” as “brothers and sisters”?  I think, in fact, if they had resisted the urge to tinker with the translation and left it alone, this might have happened; that the NIV translation would have become authoritative.  But I don’t think that will happen now.

I would suggest that we need to step back, and remember the fallenness of the world.  Let us suppose that God dictated an English version of the scriptures to me tomorrow (which, happily, is unlikely), perfect in every way.  Naturally I type this up in Microsoft Word, send it to the printers, the books appear and … there is a typo on page 1.  Or the typesetters omitted the last paragraph on page 397.  Or there is something.  What then?  Or, if this seems improbable, just run the book through a few reprints, and the same problems will certainly appear.

Imagine our position, in that situation.  Do we, or do we not, have the version that God dictated?

The answer of course is that it would be crazy to say that we didn’t have the gospel as revealed to me, in this illustration.  Of course we have the word; but in a damaged form.

The damage is inevitable.  We live in a fallen world.  We have treasure from heaven, but in earthen vessels.

God knows this.  We know this.  The English translations must be imperfect, because English is not a perfect language and the translators are not perfect men.  The Greek text must reach us in imperfect form, because the world is not perfect, and the scholars and the printers of the world are not perfect.

But assume that we did have the Greek text in perfect form.  Could we know, certainly, exactly what the meaning of each and every word was, in 80 AD?  Living as we do, almost 2,000 years later?  And we must remember that also, in some parts, the Greek is itself a translation of words uttered in Aramaic by our Lord.

Does any of this mean that we do not have the text?  Fools would answer yes, forgetting that the same argument applies to every book ever written on any subject.  We, as book-reading people, do not pay attention to this to any considerable extent when we read Livy or Tacitus or Jane Austen, and nor should we.  We live in an imperfect world; and we adjust to it.

What we do, in practice, is to minimise all these obstacles to hearing what God has to say.  Yes, the bible is inspired, word by word.  The words contained in it work in our hearts for God — we know this, not just from theory, but because we see it all around us.  We have to grapple with damage; damage in translation, damage in Greek, and much more powerful than any of these, damage when we read and don’t understand what God is saying to us.

The bible is a tool that God has given us.  It is as perfect as He can make it, and no doubt He interferes to help things along.  But not even God can prevent printer errors!  Nor should we expect it.

The English translations, then, are divinely inspired.  They may contain limited damage; yet in truth this is very limited.  A translation has to be very bad before the sense cannot pass through the translators words.  The Greek text is divinely inspired, even though we may not know precisely where the iota and dot should go; because a text has to be very bad before the sense of the sentence is lost.  And when we read it, we pray: so that our understanding is not so bad that we do not hear what God is saying.

It would be very nice if we had a bible that fell from heaven, graven on sheets of water-resistant PVC, which appeared in our hands miraculously when we are saved.  (It is not difficult to see why this is not so, if we imagine what would happen in our fallen world if it was!).  But this is not the case.

Long ago I heard a story of a group of Moslems who had no bibles, and yet, from reading the Koran, came to believe that Jesus was indeed the Messiah and the Son of God, and were converted.  Whether it is true I do not know, yet it could be so, and it shows how God works.  God will deal with people where they are.  He can cope with translator error, in order to speak to our souls.  He can cope with the trivial copyist errors that we find in what is, after all, far and away the best preserved Greek text of antiquity.

It is right to study the Greek, so that we can know most accurately what it actually is, and what it actually says.  But I have great doubts that, in the last few centuries, all that effort has actually caused us to learn that a single sentence of scripture was wrongly understood.

The answer, then, is a sense of proportion, and an understanding that the perfection of God’s word is in that word, not in any particular version, damaged as it must be, that comes our way.  We work with what we have, we learn it word for word, and we trust in God to keep the damage at bay, in the text, in the translation, and in our understanding.  And He does.

(And if I have inadvertantly fallen into heresy in this, I pray that God will show me and I will correct it).

7 thoughts on “Does reading the New Testament in Greek undermine your faith? And what can you do about it?”

  1. Peter has that bit in his letters about how Paul’s stuff is difficult to understand. And he was mostly writing to people who spoke the same Greek and lived in the same cultural and religious milieu as Paul. It was always something that required a lot of thinking and grace to understand fully, even though plenty of bits are very immediately clear.

    Meanwhile, missionaries with incredibly horrible seat-of-the-pants translations have pretty much always been able to get the gist of the Gospel across, to those who want to hear it.

    The point, I think, is that God is always there in the Scriptures, even in situations where the translation is bad, and therefore God’s Word always has power beyond the human effort. (Which is not to say that human effort means nothing, because grace builds on nature; but grace also overflows and more than fills in what we lack.)

    The other point is that God designed the Scriptures to work this way, because He knew all the languages it would be translated into (and guided their growth as they came along), He knew all the cultures they would enter, and He knew all the translators that would try their hand or their tongue (or their stick figure drawings and gestures, for that matter) at putting His Word across. He designed them to do stuff to us, if we paid attention.

    The Scriptures are a performative act by Him, in collaboration with us. Part of His Providence for Creation, just like air.

  2. Oh, and here’s another story for your bucket. Christianity came to Korea in the late 1700’s when some Koreans of the educated/noble class visited China on business and met some Catholics. They brought home a Chinese Bible of the day, read it (because really educated Koreans did read Chinese), and started passing it around to their buddies and following it. There was a massive crackdown by the Korean kingdom before they could get any priests to come, and pretty much everybody got killed except the apostates, and people who managed to stay Catholic out of the official eye, often in rural areas. The whole thing was hushed up.

    A generation later, one of the kids of one of the martyrs’ relations found a chest that had pages and pages of the Chinese Bible in it. He started these bits around to his buddies, and all of a sudden the steamroller was starting again. After a while, there was more persecution and executions, but this time they managed to get priests in there and stuff got rolling too much to stop entirely.

    It’s a pretty amazing story. I hope there’s a K-drama out there based on it, because it’s one of those parts of Korean history that’s so dramatic, even a soap opera couldn’t possibly think up anything better than the truth.

  3. However, the other thing that made the second pass more successful was that newbie Catholics did spread the word orally, in Korean, to people not of their own social class, instead of just passing Chinese books around to their buddies. So there’s that.

  4. From the apophtegmata patrum…

    Abba Abraham told of a man of Scetis who was a scribe and did not eat bread.

    A brother came to beg him to copy a book. The old man whose spirit was engaged in contemplation, wrote, omitting some phrases and with no punctuation. The brother, taking the book and wishing to punctuate it, noticed that words were missing. So he said to the old man, “Abba, there are some phrases missing.”

    The old man said to him, “Go, and practise first that which is written, then come back and I will write the rest”.

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