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Interpretation and Translation

Students often want to know how a specific course will benefit them.  This is especially true for ministerial students who have signed up for Greek or Hebrew.  Learning an ancient language as an adult is not for the faint hearted! 

Even a perfect English rendering of the original language often results in some loss of meaning.  This is because two words almost never have the same semantic range between two languages. To say this another way, words from different languages do not mean precisely the same thing. This can be illustrated by examining the Greek word “logos.”  Many people know it means “word,” but in reality it is also rendered cause (Matthew 5:32), question (Mark 11:29), fame (Luke 5:15), rumor (Luke 7:17), intent (Acts 10:29),  matter (Acts 15:6), mouth (Acts 15:27), preaching (1 Cor. 1:18), doctrine (Hebrews 6:1), and reason (1 Peter 3:15).  Clearly, no one English word is sufficient to cover this entire range of meaning, so several different words are used.

While it is not necessary to know the original languages to understand what the Bible is saying, it can certainly help a lot.  Some passages seem to go from black and white to full color when read in Greek or Hebrew.  For any student beginning to study biblical languages, here are a few passages that illustrate the benefit this will bring.  In each case, the English translation is legitimate, but a deeper look at the Greek can greatly improve one’s understanding of what the verse is saying.

1 Timothy 6:10, “For the love of money is the root of all evil…”  At first glance, this verse seems to say that no evil would occur if there was no love for money.  Yet it does not seem that Adam and Eve fell in the garden because they loved money. A glance at the Greek reveals the word “evil” is plural in the Greek, and stands for all types of wrong.  Warren Wiersbe observed, “Verse 10 does not teach that money is the root of all evil, or even that the love of money is the root of all evil; but that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”

Jude 22, “And of some have compassion, making a difference.”  This passage is frequently misunderstood, and is often taken to mean that having compassion will enable a Christian to make a difference in another person’s life. However, that is not at all what the passage is saying.  It is clear from the following verse that some people are saved with compassion while others are saved with fear.  The participle rendered “making a difference” comes from a Greek word that often means to judge (See 1 Cor. 6:5, 11:31, 14:29).  Jude has been warning these believers about false teaching (v. 4) because some people were wavering in their faith. This passage is instructing Christians to made a distinction between the doubters who need mercy (v. 22) and those who need snatched out of the fire (v. 23).  

1 Peter 2:9, “But ye are a chosen generation… a peculiar people.”   Some people seem to think that a Christian ought to be different simply for the sake of being different.  They think that culture or fashion is wrong simply because it is popular.  It is almost as it they imagine first-century Christians wearing a different kind of tunic just so they can stand out in a crowd!  Trying to be culturally abnormal is not only unwise, but biblically unwarranted. The word rendered “peculiar” here does not mean odd or different.  It refers to something acquired with considerable effort.  This is a possession that is private, special, or cherished.

These few examples just illustrate the benefit of reading a passage in the original language and keeping an open mind when it comes to our understanding of it.  I try to remain willing to reexamine previous conclusions in light of new information.  And always remember that an inerrant scripture does not guarantee an inerrant interpretation!

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