The Mythical Value of Reading the Bible in the Original Languages
One of the commonly suggested solutions for overcoming bad Bible translations is to “learn Hebrew and Greek” and “read the Bible in the original.”
While there are many good reasons to learn biblical Hebrew and Greek, I don’t think that better insight into the original meaning of the Bible is one of them.
This came up most recently in Dr. Bill Mounce’s latest post in his weekly “Mondays with Mounce” column about Bible translation: “A Translation Conundrum – 1 Tim 2:9 (Monday with Mounce 165).” There he addresses the Greek phrase en plegmasin, commonly “with braided hair” (ESV, NIV, etc.), but “with elaborate hairstyles” in the NIV2011 and “by the way they fix their hair” in the NLT.
Dr. Mounce explains that braided hair was one way of “enforcing a social pecking order and class system that was woefully inappropriate for the church.” Accordingly, just to translate “braided hair” leaves the modern reader wrongly thinking that there is something inherently undesirable about braided hair, when the point is really what that braided hair represented.
He concludes that this is “a good reason to learn Greek and Hebrew….”
In this particular case, what’s needed to understand the passage is not only a knowledge of the Greek language but a detailed understanding of Greek fashion (though, in fact, I think the fuller context of the verse makes the meaning pretty clear: “women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes.” [NRSV]).
This sort of issue is exactly what an amateur or even advanced Greek student would get wrong. Armed with a knowledge of Greek, such a student would look at the word plegma, discern that it means “woven,” and proudly announce that the NIV2011 got it wrong.
More generally, the notion that studying Greek (or Hebrew) leads to a better understanding of the original texts is predicated on the idea that a student can do better than the professional translators. While, unfortunately, Bible translations tend to be of lower quality than other translations, they are still good enough that it’s pretty hard for all but the most expert students of Greek and Hebrew to find a true mistake.
What usually happens instead is that a professional translation takes a variety of factors into account while the student misses some of the nuances. Most people, unless they intend to become an expert, will understand the Bible better in translation. Worse, because of their limited knowledge, they’ll think their own reading is better than the accepted translations. This is a case of the clichéd way in which a little knowledge is dangerous.
I still think there’s value to learning Hebrew and Greek. I see it as akin to going to a museum to see an artifact versus just reading about it. It brings people closer to the original in very powerful ways.
Additionally, both Jewish and Christian traditions hold that there’s inherent value to the original words, even beyond their meaning.
So, absolutely, learn Hebrew and Greek. But I think it’s a good idea to keep professional translations handy, too.