Is the English Bible that much of a mystery that those not schooled in Koine Greek or Biblical Hebrew cannot understand it? That seems to be the impression that some give, including the pastor of the church my family visited last weekend.
This pastor’s argument was that you couldn’t understand the following verse without knowing Greek:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.
Revelation 21:1 [ESV]
The basis for his argument was that the Greek word for new (kainos), didn’t mean “new” in this case. He said, “It means new as opposed to old — a fresh heaven and earth — something your English Bible doesn’t convey.”
“Huh,” you say?
Don’t worry, I was just as confused. This pastor, however, seemed quite sure of his superior knowledge as to the “real” meaning of the word “new.” After all, doesn’t it really depend upon what “is” is?
Is there really that much of a disconnect between the original languages and most modern English translations? The short answer is no.
Don’t get me wrong — there’s great benefit to study and use of the biblical languages. The sense of the text can be greatly enlightened by observing the original language structure. And, on occasion, there are valid discrepancies one can find between the ancient texts and many English translations.
That said, to imply that one can’t understand the Bible without knowledge of Greek and Hebrew is arrogant at best, and gnostic at worse. It also fosters an agnosticism among the congregation that risks leaving them suspicious of the only Bible they can read.
For one thing, most pastors aren’t equipped enough to be so confident in dashing off In my seminary days, I took five semesters each of Hebrew and Greek. This is considerably more exposure to the languages than the average churchgoer. This also only qualifies me just enough to be dangerous. I need years more spent in the text before I’d feel qualified to call myself anything beyond a novice. This area of study is tricky (just ask my lingui-genius friend Charles Halton), and unless you’re able to preach directly from a Greek or Hebrew text, tread very lightly (even then…).
One of the most helpful tips I learned in seminary was to never use the foreign language from the pulpit. Use it in your study, to be sure — just remember that most people in the pews don’t have a working knowledge of the hiphil stem of YRD, and even fewer care — that’s the preacher’s job.
What people do care about is the meaning of the ancient text. Your study should clarify, not confound the text. Only then will an “old” text be made “new.”