Is Greek more precise than English?

Discussion in 'Languages' started by Ben Zartman, Aug 12, 2019.

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  1. Ben Zartman

    Ben Zartman Puritan Board Sophomore

    I have been subjected much lately to the insistence that "Koine Greek allows for far more precision than English." The reason for that, according to these enthusiasts, is because Greek verbs have voice, tense, mood, etc., and nouns have gender and all that. They claim (though they still can only read Greek with an interlinear, and need a website like blue letter bible to parse the words for them), that "the Greek really pops out and means a lot more than you think it does" once you start paying attention to parsing and to sentence structure.
    While not denying that learning grammar and sentence structure is good, my question is: does not English do the same thing? We have imperatives; we have possesives; we have prepositional phrases, participles, infinitives, subjunctives, even nouns and verbs! It seems to me, after suffering though a very basic Greek class, that all these things are pretty visible in English.
    An example: "Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind" The preacher will spend fifteen minutes telling us that in the Greek it clearly states that we are emphatically to stop right now being shaped according to the world, BUT-a conjunction of opposite-hood; instead of that, rather than that, in the Greek "but" means so much more than "but," if only you knew Greek and could see that!- be continually present-indicative-imperative-whateverive-being transformed! Don't you get it?! If you could read Greek this would actually mean something! Well, to me it does. In English. Without diagramming the sentence. Am I alone in this?
    Again, I don't deny the necessity of Greek proficiency for those writing commentaries or preparing sermons, but is it correct to insist that Greek is a more precise and more expressive language than English? Can English not be unpacked and parsed and worked over in the same way? It seems to me that if one were to learn English grammar (which I suspect many of these Greek enthusiasts never did--that's why finding out that Greek has grammar blew their minds), one could actually read the Bible in English and know what it says.
  2. Alan D. Strange

    Alan D. Strange Puritan Board Senior

    @Ben Zartman

    Reading anything in the language that it was written affords opportunity to catch subtleties and nuances of various sorts that may be harder to capture in translation.

    However, unless one is a native reader (reading said subject matter in one's first language or a language known so well as not to require translation for that speaker/reader) one must translate anything read into one's native language: the advantage of the ability to read it in the native language is minimized if the work enjoys good translations and resources to discuss the language and its nuances.

    The Bible without question enjoys such. More than any other book in the world. Thus you put your finger on something. What's happening with the amateur Greek study of the NT (we'll stick to that one since that's what you mentioned) that seems so rich and rewarding to its adherents is that the Greek is forcing them to pay close attention to all the words and the grammatical structure.

    It's not a Greek v. English matter, properly understood. Certainly the moods and tenses of Greek verbs, e.g., hold some particular interest and significance. But all this can be translated into/discussed in terms of English. It is understandable that folks engaging in such have a sense of "this discloses matters to which I've never attended in this text." Yes, close readings often do. The same can be achieved by reading good commentaries or study Bibles that are alert to linguistic matters and can impart something of the significance of this: "the Greek here is rich/suggestive and here is its implication(s)."

    To then go on about the Greek language v. the English language is amateurish: doubtless well-meaning, because of the richness of God's Word, but ultimately misinformed linguistically, at least narrowly speaking. Part of the difference structurally, for example, is that between a highly inflected language (like Greek) and a weakly inflected one (like English). But Spanish and German, to take two easy and quick examples, are also more inflected than English (like Greek). But so what? It's not then that English is impoverished and fails to express what "only the Greek does." It's just that when you study the Greek, you are paying a close attention to its grammar, structure, etc. that you've likely not paid before, not that the Greek language is so rich and rewarding that you can't understand the NT without being able to read Greek for yourself.

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  3. RPEphesian

    RPEphesian Puritan Board Junior

    I'm no Greek professor but I have reading proficiency. You might say fewer actual words might be needed than in English because of the morphology, but English translations do just fine; though yes the originals let you catch nuances that are more obscure in English.

    Like what you said... "stop doing what you are doing this very moment and be conformed" is probably putting more in the words themselves than Paul intended. Far as I can see the word alla--but--in Greek means pretty much what it would in English. "Instead of this, do that." It's the context and subject matter of Romans 11 and 12--the bridge from the great works of God to real Christian living--that creates the sense of urgency, not the conjunction, aspect or tense of the verbs, or word choice. Those are to be interpreted in context of the subject matter itself.

    There's a lot of silly heuristics of Greek language out there, like always making the aorist a once-for-all as though the thing is astoundingly wonderful, complete or emphatic whenever used. Or making the present tense to always be in the sense of an ongoing action. Or saying that the word at the beginning is the most important or most emphasized; or confusing emphasis with frame of reference. Loading the Strong definition (quite insufficient in itself) or the entire BDAG lexical definition into every instance that the word appears. Not considering the author, time, occasion, content, audience, purpose, which are no less important to linguistic analysis; and these do much more to define the meaning of words, tenses, and cases in their context than do lexical definitions.

    Koine Greek was a down-to-earth language, used as a trade language across the Mediterranean world, though having a rich cultural history backing it. It had religious uses, high literary uses, and also everyday uses. Kinda strange to make it almost a heavenly or superhuman language in itself. It was a human language, yet made special in some sense only as the Spirit was pleased to give us the New Covenant realities through it. But no more otherwise than any other language.
    Last edited: Aug 12, 2019
  4. alexandermsmith

    alexandermsmith Puritan Board Sophomore

    I'm with you on this. I'm frankly rather alarmed by the trend so common today of always turning to the original languages in discussions of the Bible and of arguing that all Christians should be versed in them. For the layman this simply is not the case. The Lord has provided His church with (a) faithful translation which is all the layman needs. My concern is that this emphasis on the original languages is creating an almost gnostic approach to Scripture that unless one can read the original languages one doesn't quite have the true Biblical knowledge.

    Knowledge of the original languages only becomes important when, as noted above, one is writing a technical/exegetical commentary, in matters of controversy (the heavy lifting of which has already been done and the fruit of that work published in books) or those occasions (which are not many) when preaching on a text where the nuances of a particular word might not be so apparent in the English and this lack of nuance actually requires some parsing in the sermon. But in the latter case it would be, again, the minister who has done the studying and merely relaying the information to his people.

    The English translation was good enough for generations of godly, ordinary people. It's good enough for us.
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  5. Taylor Sexton

    Taylor Sexton Puritan Board Junior

    As someone who has studied and knows the original languages (except for Aramaic for those few passages which are in that language), this has been a concern of mine, as well, and you are right to point it out.

    Really, there are two extremes. One the one hand, you have the person who, as you rightly indicated, is something of an original language Gnostic, who believes that because they know the original languages that they somehow have a great leg up on most "ordinary" people, and that therefore only they "really know" the Bible. This is nothing but pride. On the other hand—and this is the only place I would slightly push back against what you said, all of which I in essence agreed with—you have the person who, because we are blessed with so many good English translations and commentaries, believes the original languages are unnecessary. To say the least, our Presbyterian and Reformed forefathers would take serious issue with such a sentiment.

    But, to be frank, I would take both of those extremes over what is so common today, and that is the uneducated minister who has no knowledge of the original languages, yet brings them up in every sermon as if he is an expert. I know a local pastor here who says in almost every sermon, "The Greek/Hebrew here says," all because he looked up a word in Strong's once. Most of the time he is dead wrong and makes an entirely erroneous point of exegesis from his "study." (For example, he made a big deal one time about how "this verse in Greek has no verb," all the while not knowing that Greek doesn't need a "to be" verb like English does.) Men like this are dangerous.

    The good thing about the day in which we live is that people no longer need to go to seminary, or even spend money, to learn at least Greek. Places like offer a free Greek course taught by one of the world's top Greek scholars, all for free. If a layman wants to learn Greek, and they have the time, there is no reason why they couldn't or shouldn't. I cannot conceive of a possible drawback.
  6. Pergamum

    Pergamum Ordinary Guy (TM)

    I have heard many folks assert that koine greek is the most exact language ever created. That is why God chose it to be the chosen vessel for the New Testament.

    But, that is a major assumption...more than one. First, that koine IS the most precise language (it probably is not), and second, that God had to choose the most precise language as the only fit vessel for His Word.

    Sanskrit seems more precise than greek, actually. But I am not sure.

    Greek had many nautical terms whereas the Jews seemed to hate the ocean. That seems ironic. Why didn't God just choose Hebrew for the WHOLE thing....

    I believe God's use of Koine Greek shows us that God's Word is able to be translated into all languages. God's condescension is such that he allowed a trade language used by many lower classes become the Word of God.
  7. Alan D. Strange

    Alan D. Strange Puritan Board Senior

    I agree with all the good brothers thus far in this reasonable and edifying conversation. Taylor is right about the comparative ease of studying/learning Greek these days. If one has the time and interest, go for it (good work, Jake!).

    But, and here's something that I now think must be said that might, at first blush, seem extraneous to Ben's whole topic, though it isn't at all. The Bible was not simply meant to be translated into every tongue, it was meant to be preached in every tongue.

    The notion that the laymen must be equipped with everything that one could possibly need properly to understand all of the Bible, even those difficult places of Paul, is anti-ecclesial and anti-confessional. The Word of God was never meant to be unexposited. It is rather, in the church, to be preached, to be exhaustively and effectively expurgated so that God's people might be maximally blessed.

    In this task, the preacher should have facility in the languages of the Bible. And if he does, he knows enough not to run around making the silly claims about Greek and denigrating English (or other languages) as inadequate to express what only the Greek can.

    We have excellent translations and first-rate sources to help you understand it all. But the Bible, in the first place, is not properly used by those whose motto is "Jesus, my Bible, and me." The Bible was a book given in community to the community and to be understood, first and foremost, within the structure of the community of the faithful, the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, the Bible is best and most rightly understood not by those who are Greek-language amateurs but by those who put themselves under its sound preaching and teaching by those gifted and called to do so.

    Nothing replaces preaching, not even a lay perusal of BDAG, Wallace, Burton's Moods and Tenses, etc. We have good translations. We need men trained in all the theological disciplines (including the biblical languages) to preach it faithfully and without compromise.

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  8. Taylor Sexton

    Taylor Sexton Puritan Board Junior

    It is a great annoyance to me in instances like this that PuritanBoard's software doesn't allow for multiple positive reactions. This is really good, Dr. Strange.
  9. Alan D. Strange

    Alan D. Strange Puritan Board Senior

    @Taylor Sexton


    It's important that men that have ministerial training, as do you, and are clearly gifted, as you are, affirm this. Sometimes such hesitate because it feels too self-interested: conscientious men don't want to seem simply to promote themselves or their offices, one of the reasons that good men sometimes unduly forbear from talking about stewardship (especially because of the obvious self-interest of the TV preachers who do).

    Here's the thing, though: it's not my office. It's His. And I hold it only because of His gifting and calling. My making much of the preaching of the Word is not about me (or you); rather, it's about Him. Because He makes so much of it, so must we. In a world that hates it. There is no other properly appointed way for God's people to best understand the Word.

    And much of the modern translation industry, for all the good that it has brought in helping folks better understand the Bible, has often been actuated by the desire to so translate (and, arguably, over-translate at times; this is all quite debatable) as to eliminate the need for the preacher. I cannot have this, however, not chiefly because I am one and am in the business of training them, but because God would have men duly gifted and called proclaim the unsearchable riches of Christ.

    We may not dispense with the preacher because you and I need a job (I've heard that one!) but because God will not do so. And amateur Greek scholars notwithstanding, we'll always need preachers. Those who understood Koine did; why should we imagine that we don't?

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  10. RPEphesian

    RPEphesian Puritan Board Junior

  11. Taylor Sexton

    Taylor Sexton Puritan Board Junior

  12. JimmyH

    JimmyH Puritan Board Junior

    A few years back I posted that I was trying to learn koine Greek on my own and had learned a few hundred words of vocabulary. I mentioned that this was just the 'tip of the iceberg.' A member sent me a PM asking what I meant.

    I replied giving the example of epi (επι). My vocabulary app included glosses for επι ;

    with genitive: on,over or when, with dative: on the basis of, or at, with accusative: on, to, against, or for. I did not mention tenses, cases, declensions. As for me, I've learned the alphabet, and some vocab, but I've still got a long way to go.

    Before I ever started with it I had read that koine is a richer language than English with nuances that are not easily translatable. I found that intriguing enough to spur me to look into it. My motivation in trying to learn the language is simply to exercise my 70 year old brain, and fulfil the ambition to read the NT in the original language.

    Thankfully we do have a plethora of accurate English translations and I do take advantage of multiple translations to better understand God's word. For a layman, reading commentaries it is rewarding to come across references in Greek and know the meaning of the word. If I get no further than that it has been a worthwhile endeavor.
  13. Alan D. Strange

    Alan D. Strange Puritan Board Senior

    It does indeed! I am privileged to know and have studied under Dr. Silva. He is a brilliant linguist and exegete. John Muether used to point out the irony that the most skillful English stylist at WTS was not a native English speaker (MS is from Cuba)!

    Just to branch out a bit, but clearly related, is when preachers say something like "if you could read this in the Greek, you'd see that Calvinism is what the Bible teaches." This is fatuous. Sadly, I have heard some liked by members of the PB say that from the pulpit.

    The real theological controversies that obtain between the Reformed and Rome or Calvinists and Arminians, e.g., do not exist because we confessionalists have better linguistic scholars! The problem with the RCC and Arminianism is not that scholars of that tradition are linguistic incompetents (there are fine NT Greek scholars among them). No knotty theological problem is a linguistic one.

    Does Greek study help one better understand the text? It may well. But there are many competent NT Greek scholars who are not believers at all! Will study of the koine keep you from theological error? No, not at all. All sorts of heretics have been capable language scholars.

  14. Alan D. Strange

    Alan D. Strange Puritan Board Senior

    That can sometimes engage is such detailed linguistic analysis and address conjectured cultural contexts and the like that it forgets to tell us, if it ever knew, what the text means!

    Certainly, as we tell our students, context is crucial (it's king, we often say): the immediate context, the surrounding context, and ultimately that of the whole Bible. But the particularity of the text is never to be lost in the pursuit of the sitz-im-leben. And what we preach, ultimately, is the text in its proper contexts, not the contexts, ignoring the actual text.

    The text itself, as to its meaning and significance, can fade in certain modern exegetical commentaries, that seem to foreground all sorts of matters that pertain to the text, while failing clearly to tell us what the text means.

    It would be comical if it weren't so tragic.

  15. kainos01

    kainos01 Puritan Board Senior

    Gotta look that one up later...

    Indeed. As a classics major in college, one of the texts my Oxford-trained professor had us translate in an early class was John's gospel. He treated it just as he did Homer or Aristophanes - merely clever literary fiction.
  16. Andrew35

    Andrew35 Puritan Board Freshman

    We mostly traded the inflections for auxiliaries and stricter word order (SVO, primarily) in English.

    Old English was inflected, since inflections are supposed to be the typical feature of the Indo-European language family.

    Not more precise; just a different system.
  17. bookslover

    bookslover Puritan Board Doctor

    Short answer to the title of this thread: not necessarily. All languages do exactly the same things, they just do them in different ways.
  18. Taylor Sexton

    Taylor Sexton Puritan Board Junior

    Not to derail this thread, but I think this is relevant to the OP. This that you said captures very well the frustration I had (and still have) with more modern exegetical commentaries by the end of my seminary stint.

    We spent so much time in our exegesis and canon courses reading these texts, digging into historical, textual, and critical issues, Ancient Near East studies, and the like, yet we never talked about what the text means.

    What tipped me over the edge in seminary was when I had a friend who got points docked off an exegetical paper for citing Calvin's commentaries. Now, I know that Calvin's work is not comparable in its goal to something that a Leon Morris or a Gordon Wenham would produce today. He's not going to be someone to go to in order to find the latest discussion and discovery when it comes to, say, verbal aspect theory. But this just goes to show how shortsighted some of our seminaries have become, to wit, that when we cite someone who will tell us what the text means, we get scolded because its not "modern scholarship."

    If our study of the text has not moved to application, I dare say that we haven't really studied the text.
  19. RPEphesian

    RPEphesian Puritan Board Junior

    If there are scruples about the precision of English, BDAG Greek lexicon has almost 1200 pages, but a Merriam Webster Collegiate might exceed 1600. If you need to go a step higher, the full Oxford dictionary has over 21,700 pages in 20 volumes.

    English a common language, business language, the air flight language, and an academic language. It contains a sizable chunk of all world literature. If you can say it in Greek, you can say it in English. Pretty safe bet.
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  20. arapahoepark

    arapahoepark Puritan Board Graduate

  21. Reformed Covenanter

    Reformed Covenanter Puritanboard Commissioner

    A useful observation by William Cunningham:

    There is perhaps no study which at a certain period of life is more useful in calling into exercise and improving the mental powers than the study of languages, especially of those languages which are full and copious, and have been carried to a high pitch of cultivation.

    William Cunningham, Theological Lectures on Subjects Connected with Natural Theology, Evidences of Christianity, the Canon and Inspiration of Scripture (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1878), Lecture I, p. 3.

    That point being made, I agree that having an overly high view of linguistic knowledge is not healthy. One does not even need to know the languages to be proficient in systematic theology, as neither Augustine of Hippo nor Thomas Aquinas were great linguists.
  22. RPEphesian

    RPEphesian Puritan Board Junior

    There's a strange irony to all this... some are concerned that certain passages can only be understood properly by knowing Greek, yet the translation philosophy of the day is to water down the English to be more readable and accessible.

    And I imagine the selling point of one or two is that they are really bringing out the original languages in ways that other translations do not.

    So there seems to be many ways to shake your confidence in the Word--saying the English translation you have isn't good enough, or "this English isn't easy enough". One in accuracy, another the usefulness in the hands of God.
  23. Ben Zartman

    Ben Zartman Puritan Board Sophomore

    Thank you all for the replies, and forgive my tardiness in responding--I usually get on PB mornings and evenings only. I'm glad to know I'm not alone in thinking that God's Word can be understood in English. I especially appreciate the comparison to Gnosticism--that was the nuance I couldn't put my finger on. Not that the Greek enthusiasts in my acquaintance go so far as to think Gnostically about the knowledge of Greek, but it comes across like that, and I find it slightly bothersome.
    But moving on from that just a little, what of the requirement they would put on everyone (and this is a very real insistence in my circles), that anyone who would minister the Gospel, or who would teach competently, must study the original languages? This does not affect me either way, since I am not called to preach or teach, but I wonder if an undue burden is being placed on some, especially native preachers in foreign countries, to go through the rigors and expense of learning Greek and Hebrew before they can be called to a local congregation.
    I guess I just drifted off topic (am I into ecclesiology here?), but I guess the question is: could a Bolivian church with very few canditates before it call a Bolivian man to the pastorate who wasn't proficient in Biblical languages? I understand the desirability of a seminary-trained pastor, but how important is the insistence on X amount of education?
    This has probably been discussed broadly elsewhere, so perhaps we could confine ourselves to the requirements for languages and thus keep within the topic.
    Thanks again!
  24. Edward

    Edward Puritanboard Commissioner

    German nouns have gender, as well.
    Die katze, der hund. How precise is it to refer to your tomcat with a feminine die katze, or your female dog with the masculine der hund? In those cases, it might be more precise to use the gender neutral English.

    Sort of like a dynamic translation of the Bible will give a more precise understanding than a straight up word for word literal translation.
  25. Tom Hart

    Tom Hart Puritan Board Senior

    The gender of German nouns (as well as gendered nouns of other languages) generally have little to do with "precision". After all, it's not just male and female organisms that are gendered, but inanimate objects, too.

    In German, for instance, Sonne (sun) is feminine, while Mond (moon) is masculine. (It's the same in other Germanic languages, including Old English.)

    In French, soleil (sun) is masculine and lune (moon) is feminine. (It's the same in other Romance languages.)

    Which language is more precise, French, German, or genderless modern English? None is more precise than another, of course. Each word has a plain meaning.

    Often, the gender of a noun matches the object that it name, but not always. Mann (man) is masculine, Frau (woman) is feminine, Mädchen (young woman) is neuter.

    Gendered nouns, then, are not an matter of precision. Rather, like a lot of things about language, it's just the way things are.
  26. Taylor Sexton

    Taylor Sexton Puritan Board Junior

    Of course, there must be wisdom involved. First of all, we should do everything we can to send already trained men to the mission field, so that they can train others to minister effectively when called upon to do so. However, when all odds are against it, then of course calling a minister who does not know the languages might be necessary.

    But second, here in America, I can see no reason why any minister of the gospel—a teacher of the Bible—should not be trained in the languages of the Bible. With the plethora of resources available to us in the West, some even free, there is simply no reason, except perhaps in rare cases, for a gospel minister not to be trained in these things.

    My :2cents:...
  27. RWD

    RWD Puritan Board Freshman

    “Again, I don't deny the necessity of Greek proficiency for those writing commentaries or preparing sermons, but is it correct to insist that Greek is a more precise and more expressive language than English?”​


    Maybe I’m missing something but wouldn’t your preceding sentiment constrain you to answer your question in the affirmative? In other words, if Greek wasn’t more precise and expressive, then why would you affirm the necessity of Greek proficiency for writing commentaries and preparing sermons?
  28. C. M. Sheffield

    C. M. Sheffield Puritan Board Senior

    Recently, I had a discussion with a woman in my church who when discussing the wording of a certain verse in a reputable translation said, "I know it's just a man's translation and we shouldn't place much store by it... it's not the original Greek."

    I corrected her, reminding her that that while no translation is perfect, all of the major translations are for the most part, the product of large-scale efforts by large teams of the most qualified scholars of the day. Their judgments on the best rendering of certain words and phrases ought not to be lightly cast aside.

    But this, I think, is what happens all too often. And the result is that ordinary Christians have very little confidence in their English translations of the Bible and are for that reason culpable to falling prey to false teachers who sound even the least bit proficient in Greek or Hebrew.
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  29. ZackF

    ZackF Puritan Board Graduate

    Why must Greek be the most precise language? What matters is that Greek was precisely chosen by the Lord. In some areas Greek may be as clumsy as a 500lb ballerina. What difference does it make whether or not we can perform a triple bypass or navigate our smart phones in Koine?

    The doctrine of plenary inspiration only cares that God chose the appropriate words of the language of His choosing. As Pastor Sheffield noted, Our Lord has blessed the church with translators.
  30. Tom Hart

    Tom Hart Puritan Board Senior

    Someone, a Pentecostal, once explained to me that the word for apostle means "sent out like a warship". I don't know where he had heard that, but he seemed to think it was the coolest thing ever. I'm fairly sure now that the verb could simply be used in a naval context, as it could be used in many other very ordinary contexts (much as the English "send out").

    "If you look at the original Greek, it says such and such that doesn't really come through in the Bible you're holding!" (How many times have I heard that?)

    Pseudo-scholarship comes with a cost.
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