Monday, November 29, 2010

"So what does the Greek say here?"

I'm guessing most seminary students/graduates get this question a lot in a church setting. I for one get it with some regularity in our Sunday school class. When we get to a tricky passage or verse in the text, people's heads swing my direction, and someone will ask, "So Shaylin, what does the Greek say here?" Now, don't misunderstand: I'm certainly not complaining. I'm perfectly happy to share any insight I can, and sometimes a look at the underlying text can be helpful. Unfortunately, however, there are a lot of times when my answer is fairly anticlimactic, because most modern translations of the Bible are made by people who know Greek a heckuva lot better than I do, and are therefore quite good, even where they differ from one another. That doesn't mean I don't reserve the right to disagree - I've even been known to cross out translations I don't like in my English Bible and write something better in the margin. But most of the time when I get asked that question, the passage in question turns out to be fairly straightforward, and the translation a good one.

The problem is, there's a tendency to view the Greek text as a sort of interpretive panacea: whatever problems or questions we have can be solved by looking at the Greek (or, of course, Hebrew; in fact, any time you read "Greek" in this post, assume I've also said "or Hebrew"). This idea usually doesn't last past the end of one's first (or maybe second) semester of Greek study, but among those who lack the special kind of mental instability that makes some of us want to spend our time reading dead languages, the idea persists.

The reality, though, is that learning Greek does not, of course, answer all our questions. All it really does is show us which questions are the important ones. The places where the Greek text is trickiest often don't get asked about, precisely because the translators have done their jobs well: they've rendered a difficult verse or passage in such a way as to make its meaning clear.

Where it gets really interesting, though, is passages where the text seems straightforward, and may even have been translated in a certain way for a very long time, but a deeper look shows it to be trickier than originally thought. I stumbled upon an example of that this morning in a post over at Joel Hoffman's excellent blog, God Didn't Say That. The post in question (direct link here) deals with the translation of Matthew 5:32. I won't rehash the whole post, but here are the highlights: The forthcoming 2011 edition of the NIV - a project I'm watching with great interest - translates this verse differently than previous translations, including the 1984 edition of the NIV, and the TNIV.

Most translations of the verse read something like this: "but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery" (NASB). The NIV2011, however, has "makes her the victim of adultery" rather than "makes her commit adultery." The difficulty, as Dr. Hoffman points out, is that of the two instances of the verb moicheuo (μοιχευω) in the verse, the first is in the passive voice, the second in the active, which means that what the woman does is in some sense different than what the man does in this verse. He concludes that neither the simple active translation of the NASB, NRSV, NIV, etc., nor the "victim" translation of the NIV2011 is acceptable, and I tend to agree.

Apart from the translation issue at hand - which I find intensely fascinating - Dr. Hoffman's post drives home the point I tried to make earlier. Sometimes looking at the underlying text of a difficult passage does provide us the answers we seek. But sometimes, as here, digging deeper into the text of a verse the meaning of which is widely agreed upon ends up raising questions we hadn't even thought to ask.

I suppose some, perhaps especially those just embarking on their seminary careers, might find that discouraging. Personally, I find it exciting. If we could get all the answers just by learning Greek (or, of course, Hebrew), then understanding the Bible wouldn't be as much of a challenge. It wouldn't be as fun. And it wouldn't present nearly the same opportunity for growth.

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