How do I do good exegesis if I don’t know Hebrew or Greek? (Part 1)
- How do I do good exegesis if I don’t know Hebrew or Greek? (Part 1)
Let’s say that you want to do some serious exegetical work on a passage of Scripture–perhaps you need to write an exegetical paper, or you’re running this week’s Bible Study, or counseling a client through a trauma, or answering your friend’s very specific and theological questions in a coffee shop–but you don’t know the original languages and therefore feel some lack of confidence when it comes to explaining what the biblical text really means.
Can you deeply and analytically study and reflect on a text of Scripture without making use of the original languages, and if so, how?
The question is particularly important if you’ve already been convinced, as I’ve argued previously, that you shouldn’t make definitive conclusions based on the original languages if you don’t possess a working knowledge of them. The present post began as a kind-of appendix to that argument, but on further reflection deserves a series itself.
“So I shouldn’t come to definitive exegetical conclusions from the Hebrew and Greek if I don’t know the original languages?” one might respond. “If that’s the case, is it still possible for me to mount an exegetical case for my position, and if so, how do I do that?”
The short answer: yes it’s very much possible, but it is vitally important that you account for the limitations of working with the text “in translation.” If you want to properly exegete a passage without the evidence provided by the Hebrew and Greek, you need to (1) trust a native language translation while simultaneously (2) being perpetually aware of its limitations.
The Very Word of God
Before moving forward, it’s important to appreciate the oliphaunt in the room; there’s a related question in all this: do I need the original languages to understand the Bible?
The short and very true answer to that is a simple and unqualified “no,” and that “no” is both theological and practical. Theologically, the protestant church has always maintained the efficacy (but imperfection) of the vernacular. You don’t need access to the Greek or Hebrew (or Aramaic or Latin) to make use of the Word of God; rather, the original languages “are to be translated,” so that every nation “may worship him in an acceptable manner” (WCF 1.8). Translations are sufficient to enable acceptable worship of God Almighty, and that is a high praise!
What is more, the Reformed tradition has consistently maintained the efficacy of preaching as a means by which the Christian hears the very word of God. All Christians who humbly hear God’s word faithfully preached in their native language are, by the power of the Holy Spirit, hearing “the very word of God.”
But there’s a “but.” Of course there’s a “but.” Our confessional standards, which we have already quoted in affirming the legitimacy of translation, also affirm the “but” that we will develop forthwith:
The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by his singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as, in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal unto them.Westminster Confession of Faith 1.8.
The original languages have a kind of preeminence, both historically and theologically. They are special because they are original (and for no other reason). Or to put it another way, they are special precisely because they are not translations.
Lost in Translation
Switching from theology proper to practical hermeneutics, the “but” we anticipated above (“can I understand the Bible in translation? Yes, but…”) is this: every translation is, by definition, and therefore necessarily and irreducibly, a translation.
Profound, I know: translations are translations. Why does that matter? Simple: all translations, by necessity, are limited. There is no perfect translation, and that’s not because humans are fallible and sometimes we get it wrong. It’s because every language and culture and time and moment and community is different. Translations can never be anything more than a translation. They can be a good translation, or they can be a bad translation; but they are inevitably still “just” a translation.
Moving from one language to another language is not like moving from base 10 math to base 2 or base 15 or base 12 math. It’s not like converting dollars to pounds to whatever the Canadian dollar is. Language is not reducible to an algorithm. Language is a highly temporal, local, and cultural phenomenon; it is a nexus point of ideas, symbols, ethical norms, cultural expectations, philosophical ideals, shared (and unshared) stories, grammatical mechanics, etc. You can’t represent that mathematically. Translation is always interpretation because translation isn’t conversion; it’s literature, and it’s philosophy, and poetics, and its fashion, ethics, anthropology, politics, religion, history, games, memes… everything! No translation can perfectly translate all that.
So our “short answer” articulated above (“yes,” you can construct a rigorous exegetical argument from a translated version of your passage even if you do not understand the original Hebrew or Greek), though accurate, does need to be nuanced. While good translations accurately communicate the central message of the original, they should should not be equated with the original. On the contrary:
Translations are (usually) Excellent Interpretations
Translations are always interpretations. That may discourage you, but it need not. It does not invalidate anything we have said before. Yes translations are interpretations, but they are often very good interpretations, and are therefore worthy of one’s trust.
To put the matter in terms of the Westminster Standards, many generations of theologians, linguists, archaeologists, and scientists have, over the course of many generations, made a “due use of ordinary means” (WCF 1.7) to provide the English speaking church with many excellent translations. We are all beneficiaries of a rich, multi-generational, and multi-cultural band of translators who have studied grammar and history and anthropology and archaeology and historical philosophy and linguistics and ancient Near Eastern sociology and Ugaritic and Christian History and … well, every discipline under the sun.
The result of these multi-disciplinary studies are: the committees that approved the ESV and the NIV, NLT, NASB, RSV, NEB, NKJV, KJV, MEV, … etc. All great translations.
But none of them are perfect. Why? Because they’re translations, and translations can’t be perfect. The confession and the linguistics agree on this point: to translate is to fall short of the original.
And that’s our first point. How do I exegete appropriately if I am reliant on a translation?
First and foremost, remember that every translation is limited. All translations necessarily involve interpretations, and there’s no circumventing that truth. There’s no perfect translation, no commentary that captures it all, no software than can decode the original, no tool or book or “code” that can get to the “true” meaning apart from rigorous, historical, and systemic appropriation of the languages in their native setting. As such, nothing beats knowledge of Hebrew and Greek.
Second, and almost as importantly, most of the translations used by our churches are excellent. In the next post I will address which is the best translation (and in that regard I hope to surprise you, if just bit). Choosing the right translation for your context is enormously important, but is also probably easier than you think.
To be continued…
So next up: “What is the best (English) translation?” Or, to pose the question in terms of the thesis of presented above: which translation should I trust?
Also: we still need to talk about how to use even the best on translations, because, as we have argued each of them is limited. When we say something is limited, we are implying that it is not useful in every possible case. That’s what I am claiming here about translations. All of them are useful, but we need to be careful about how we use them. All of them have their limits, and it is imperative that we know what those limits are.