Re: A little Greek is a dangerous thing

From: Dale M. Wheeler (
Date: Tue Aug 27 1996 - 11:54:05 EDT

Jonathan Robie wrote:

>Let me offer an opinion for people to jump on: Modern translations
>are so good that there would be no reason to learn Greek just to
>do a better job of translating it into English. None of us "little
>Greeks" will do better than existing Bible translators. What we
>can gain is an appreciation for the subtleties of the text, those
>things which can not easily be translated into English. This
>requires careful listening, and it takes time.

I've been teaching a course for both Greek and Hebrew for
about 10 years now (I suceeded the late Ed Goodrick, of
"Do It Yourself Hebrew and Greek" fame, here at Multnomah). There
are two issues I see which need to be addressed. First, is the
supposition Jonathan Robie presented above, namely that you
don't need to learn Greek, since the English translations do
such a good job. It strikes me--everytime I hear a student say
that to me--as a bit naive. For example, what do you do when
your 2 favorite translations disagree ? How do you know which
of the two is more transparently rendering the Greek text and
which is allowing a theological/hermeneutical grid to influence
their translation decision ? I'm sure the other Greek profs
could (and may) proliferate examples of this dilemma for the
English-only reader; here's one of mine: Compare Jas 1:21 in the
NIV with the NRSV. Which is a more transparent rendering of the
Greek: NIV "...which can SAVE you." or NRSV " SAVE YOUR
SOULS." Perhaps you think the terms are synonymous--I don't,
and I'm not happy to have someone's else theological perspective
layered on top of the text in such a way that I can't read
the passage to mean anything other than "Justification"--though
its interesting that the NIV seems to undecided (I demure from
calling this schizophrenic) in this passage, since they translate
DIKAIOSUNH in v 20 as "the righteous life that God desires"--
I happen to agree with that translation, seeing the discussion
related to Sanctification not Justification; but that's a
completely different topic--. What about the KJV translation
(assuming this is one of your favorite translations) of
1Thes 5:22: "Abstain from all appearance of evil", which
suggests a certain "ascetic" lifestyle to many. How do you
know whether that's a better rendering of the Greek text than
the New King James Version, "Abstain from every form of evil."?
The list could go on and on and on... To be sure, not everyone
necessarily needs to be able to make those distinctions all
of the time; but if you are going to stand in the pulpit (or
any other similar activity) and say "This is what the Bible
teaches..." it seems, in my humble opinion, that you'd better
know what the text says (regardless of how you end up
interpreting it). But this brings me to the second topic...

When teaching a very basic introductory class in Biblical
Languages, the first thing I had to decide was what was
obtainable and what wasn't, and what could students after
one semester be expected to understand, retain, and use. One
of the decision which came from such considerations is that
students can be taught to use BAGD Lexicon properly, rather
than leaving them in the etymological quicksand of Strong's,
Vine's, Wuest, etc., etc. They can also in the process learn
the difference between proper lexicographic research and
commiting "Root fallacy," "Illegitimate Totality Transfer,"
"Semantic Anachronism," etc. (for which see Carson, Exegetical
Fallacies). With that as one goal, its easy to figure out
just how much Greek they need to be able to get there; and
its not a lot, especially with printed (Analytical GNT,
Zewick, Reinicker/Rogers) and electronic (GRAMCORD) parsing
tools and interlinears. Kittel will still be over their
heads, both because of the fact that it constantly prints
Greek and Hebrew and it massive presuppositional overlay;
The New International Dictionary of NT Theology is, however,
accessible, as is Louw and Nida. And student so equipped can
also intelligently interact with serious commentaries on
the lexical issues.

As far as grammar goes, it once again depends on what you
want the student to be able to do. You aren't going to get
a student to reading/translating the text in one semester,
but, believe it or not, you CAN give them a fairly decent
understanding of syntax. I do this in my Master's level
Hebrew class. They don't need to learn to parse, they've
got Owens and Beall for that, and Green's interlinear with
Strong's numbers to be able to get from the text to the
tools (of course, you don't rely on his interlinear or
marginal translation). I take the students through the
various grammatical categories (Case, Verbs, etc.) and
have them go to passages with Green, Owens, and Beall,
find the words, and syntactically analyze them, looking
at a variety of English translations to see how the
various commitees have dealt with the problem (by the
way, how would you know, in Numbers 12, that the reason
only Miriam get punished with leprosy is because she is
the one who speaks against Moses, unless you were looking
at the Hebrew text and see that the verb to speak is
3rd FEMININE singular--there are no English translations
that I've ever seen that even try to deal with that
translation problem). I also teach my Hebrew students
how to use BDB and KB Lexicons, which should be their
primary sources of lexical data--if you learn how to use
them correctly (BAGD, BDB, and KB have undocumented
features and approaches that all Profs who use them know
about; the teacher just has to teach the students the
"tricks of the trade."). At the end of the semester,
I have them do an exegetical analysis of Gen 12:1-3,
which is loaded with grammatical and lexical problems,
interacting with serious commentaries, grammars, tool,
and translations; and lo and behold, they understand the
problems and can think their way through to solutions.

The MAJOR difference between these students and ones
who have had 3 years of Greek or Hebrew is the speed with
which they can get to solutions and their sensitivity to
some of the finer issues of the text. In fact, if I
was asked about designing a two year Hebrew curriculum
I'd start with my "Hebrew for Minisry" course, with the
addition of gradual vocabulary acquisition; 2nd semester
I'd continue this with my intense course in the exegesis
of the Psalms plus more vocab; 3rd semester would be a
"traditional" grammar (I like First Hebrew Primer, by
Simon, since it focuses on translation) and
fourth semester would be translation of large sections
of the OT. The reason the dropout rate for languages is
so high is because most programs start out with 2
semesters of grammar; at the end of which the students
may be grammatical experts, but can't read the text,
much less use their Hebrew in the interpretive process--
and they are not stupid, they can figure that out and
are not particularly motivated to continue such a

Well, that's my nickel's worth on this topic...

Dale M. Wheeler, Th.D.
Research Professor in Biblical Languages Multnomah Bible College
8435 NE Glisan Street Portland, OR 97220
Voice: 503-251-6416 FAX:503-254-1268 E-Mail:

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