There is an idea which floats around in pulpits and Bible studies, and it goes something like this: “Greek is a perfectly precise language which clearly conveys its meaning, and this is the reason why God used Greek for the New Testament.” I do not pretend to know the mind of God regarding why the New Testament is in Greek. But there are some substantial problems in the assertion that Greek is “perfectly precise.” Uncovering these problems—in this article and a follow-up in the next issue—will actually help us interpret the Bible more accurately.
Humor me for a moment and read the following line:
new_string = re.sub(r'[a-zA-Z0-9:]+’, ”, string, re.I)
This is an example of precise language, taken from the Python computer programming language. This piece of computer code takes in a string of text, removes every English letter and any number, and then outputs the new text string. It is part of a bigger program designed to generate a digital Greek New Testament without any book titles or chapter and verse numbers.
Of course, if you don’t know Python, this line is nonsense. But to anyone who knows Python and who can look at the larger context of this program this snippet of language is precise. Computer coding languages are designed to function with near zero ambiguity. If you know the rules and terms of the language, you will (almost) always understand what is being communicated.
Limitations in language
Why begin a discussion of New Testament Greek with ugly-looking Python code? I do so to give a firsthand example of a language which is actually and truly precise. We could also begin with some legal language to make the same point. In both these types of language use, strict rules imposed from above manage to keep the languages exacting, accurate, explicit, clear-cut, meticulous. A consequence of this imposed precision is that computer coding and legal documents are boring (to most people) and narrow: they have limited capacity for communicating about large swaths of the human experience. They are not appropriate for love letters or stories or news reports or even grocery lists. They achieve precision by artificial limitations on usage. Languages used for real communication cannot be perfectly precise—but, ironically perhaps, this very “failure” gives them the ability to be so much more useful to mankind than if we all had to use computer code or legalese.
Of course, there are features of the Greek language which strike an English speaker as very precise. Without going into details, Greek word structure and syntax rules look very complex, elegant, and exacting to many learners of Greek—when it’s compared to English. Part of this impression derives from an awe learners feel at the hefty tomes on Greek grammar, tomes that are rarely read, let alone understood. These same learners are generally unaware that 1,400-page English reference grammars even exist. In short, the rumored precision of Greek is often a byproduct of warped perceptions.
Greek translation example: “Him” or “cross”?
Rather than pontificating about precision in Greek, consider a few examples with me in which the features of the Greek language that many find so precise actually cause difficulties for understanding the text. Compare the following translations of Colossians 2:15:
He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him (ESV)
And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross (NIV)
We know that “him” and “cross” are different, so what’s going on? Here is an example where the Greek system of precise agreement between nouns and pronouns (words like “he,” “she,” “it,” “us,” “they”) creates a lack of precision. The Greek word at the end of Col 2:15 can mean either “he” or “it.” The possible antecedents of this pronoun, in context, include both “Jesus” and “cross” (see Col 2:13–14) The ESV may be right; the NIV may be right. Either way, the Spirit through Paul chose to create an ambiguity here in the Greek. The very type of precision in agreement between nouns and pronouns that so impresses English speaking students of Greek creates imprecision at this point (and elsewhere). Of course, there is little difference in meaning between God triumphing over the forces of spiritual darkness in Jesus or in the cross, but English translators must make a choice.
Greek translation example: “In his flesh”
Consider with me another example where the precision of Greek leads to lack of clarity in meaning with more theological import. Compare the following three translations of Ephesians 2:14–15. The significant difference I’d like to highlight here is the placement of the phrase “in his flesh.”
For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances. (ESV)
For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the hostility, which is the Law composed of commandments expressed in ordinances. (NASB)
For he is our peace, who made both groups one and tore down the dividing wall of hostility. In his flesh, he made of no effect the law consisting of commands and expressed in regulations. (CSB)
Without going into detail about the complexities of Greek grammar involved, suffice to say that these words could legitimately belong in several different portions of the sentence—and so, in these three major evangelical English Bible translations, they do. Greek usually indicates which words belong together within sentences through a mixture of ordering patterns and special endings on nouns and adjectives to show how they relate to a verb. In most instances, the results are clear and, well, precise. However, in this case the Greek is imprecise, unclear. The three translations above all are defensible understandings of the Greek. And this example of imprecision is a little more important than the last one we examined: at issue here is our understanding of in what sense the law is “hostile” within God’s redemptive plan.
A practical tip
Many students of Scripture have come to terms with the idea that English translations differ from each other because it is not always clear the best way to represent what the Greek is saying in English. The truth of this statement can feed into the view that Greek is simply more precise than English and that translational difficulties are English’s fault. This can happen. But the above examples are just two of many instances showing that sometimes the problem works in reverse. Sometimes translators are faced with inspired ambiguities in the Greek of the New Testament, and they must make a choice what to do with that ambiguity.
In the next issue of Bible Study Magazine, I plan to offer some practical thoughts stemming from the various imprecisions in Greek. But here’s one to start with: ambiguity in Greek (and Hebrew) is one reason why it is beneficial to both read one Bible version regularly and to consult other translations regularly in study. Any given translation tends to solve ambiguity at the level of Greek in a consistent way. Studying one translation primarily gives needed consistency. Referencing other translations highlights areas where sometimes the original text is so ambiguous as to allow many different possible understandings. Recognizing that Greek is sometimes quite imprecise helps us to understand why Bible translations sometimes say quite different things from one another.
Nathaniel J. Erickson. (PhD, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is pastor at First Baptist Church of Manistique, MI.
This article is a preview of the next issue of Bible Study Magazine, releasing soon.