Saturday, April 2, 2011

Kissing Through A Veil--Thoughts On Learning Biblical Languages

 Recently, I was sitting in Starbucks, trying to study, when a man sat down next to me and struck up a conversation. Incidently, if you are an introvert and looking for a good way to witness, go to Starbucks with an interesting Christian book or your Bible and try to be left alone--they will come to you. After several minutes, he asked me if I had taken Hebrew. I told him that I had taken two semesters and unfortunately still wasn't very good at it. He then asked me if I truly saw it as beneficial outside of it being an interesting academic exercise? I replied that I did because it opened up incite into hebraic thought. I wish I would have been more articulate. I wish I had been more prepared. But looking back on my conversation I have more to say.

Jewish poet, Haim Nachman Bialik wrote that,"Reading the Bible in translation is like kissing your new bride through a veil." This is true. As I have worked on learning the original languages, the more I realize that no one translation has it all. If you do not feel called to learn Koine Greek or Biblical Hebrew, you should at least be reading several reputable translations. It all goes back to the idea that translation is interpretation to a degree. There are some instances where the syntax of a passage or the endings to certain words require a translator to untangle something in an interpretive way. Sometimes a word does not appear in the original language, but to make sense in English translators have to supply a word. Or sometimes a word can me several different things. An example of how this plays out can be seen in the work of Richard B. Hays who has proposed a subjective genitive reading of pistis Christou ("faith(fulness) of Christ") rather than "faith in Christ."
All of this to say: I don't believe that you have to be able to read the original languages to understand the Bible, but I do think that it is better to be able to read the Bible in its original languages. Kissing through a veil is better than no kiss at all, but if you can lift that veil it will be better!
It boils down to this: the Bible was not originally written in English, the world of the Bible was not 21st century American or anywhere else. So reading the Bible is somewhat of a cross-cultural experience. That is not to say that the Holy Spirit does not speak through the words of the Scripture directly to us in many ways or that the Bible does not speak universally in many ways. He can and does. Thank God! But the scandal of the particular is that the prophets, psalmist, apostles, etc. wrote their songs, books, and letters to certain people for a specific purpose and it is all too easy to impose our interests and purposes on the text. This topic is larger than mere linguistics but if we can lower one barrier to clearer understanding, shouldn't we try?
In the process of trying to track down my quote, I came across this interview with N.T. Wright, a theologian I had the privilege of meeting on one occasion. He speaks to some of these issues and some others. I felt it was well worth including here. Please share your thoughts.


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  2. I've studied Biblical and Modern Hebrew for the past 10 years. I agree with this quote!
    There's just so much context both grammatical and historical that can't simply be translated!
    Why hasn't there been more people talking about this issue?