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Studying the Bible in Greek, an Interview with Dr. Paul Jeon
July 20, 2014
A: There are, to be sure, plenty of laymen who do an outstanding job reading and interpreting the Bible, especially if they have a background in law or literature. Knowing the original languages is only one aspect--albeit an important aspect--of hermeneutics. This initial comment is meant to temper any romantic notions one might have that knowing Greek is the key to becoming an excellent exegete. Having said this, I should underscore that knowing the Greek is one steps towards becoming a specialist, a person whom your Congregation members can come to in order to ask a more technical question. Perhaps more than anything else, possessing a strong grasp of the Greek enables a seminary student or pastor to better understand why the translators and commentators interpret a given passage or word one way versus another.
Q: As a professor of Greek at RTS, why is it important to study the Bible in this language?
Q: What are some key points that Christians will learn from studying the Bible in Greek?
A: Just one for the sake of brevity. Most seminary students begin their study of Biblical Greek with the notion that the language is some sort of mysterious and transcendent medium through which God has communicated His Word. This notion is perhaps reinforced by preachers who like to say in their sermons, "Well, in the Greek . . . ." In reality, however, the more one studies the Greek, the more one is impressed by how ordinary the language is. In fact, experts in classical Greek will argue that Biblical Greek is the least sophisticated--for the bourgeois. The point is that the student begins to appreciate further what Calvin said of God's missiological disposition: God babbles so we, finite and comparatively stupid human beings, can understand.
Q: Can you give us an example of one or two Bible passages that are more meaningful, when you understand the original text?
A: There is sometimes the tendency among translators to "pretty up" the language of the Bible. There is a myriad of reasons for this, which we won't go into at this time. But the Bible is often much more crass and "fleshly" than we're comfortable with--and perhaps this is a good thing for us who err on being more holy than God. For example, various English Bibles translate Philippians 3:8 along the lines of, "For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ." The word translated as "rubbish" might be better translated as "dung" (one of course could think of perhaps more abrasive but not entirely illegitimate terms to use). The force of Paul's use of this word should not escape us. It appears that Paul had no problem of using somewhat offensive terms to underscore how offensive it is for anyone to seek a righteousness outside of faith in Christ Jesus. Knowing the Greek in this instance provides some subtle insight into the character of Paul and the language of his ministry, which at the very least should challenge us to consider our own.
Q: How has your own faith been encouraged by studying the Bible in Greek?
A: This one is easy to answer: reading the Bible [in Greek] has forced me to simply read the Bible more slowly and consequently more thoughtfully.
Q: If someone wanted to begin learning Greek, how would you recommend they get started?
A: There's no one way or arguably best way to do this. Some suggestions I can draw only from my own experience include:
(1) Get started earlier than later. As we age, the habit of learning new languages rusts more rapidly than we realize.
(2) Be consistent. Ten minutes a day beats several hours of sporadic studies.
(3) Receive formal instruction. Much like learning golf, the last thing you want is to pick up poor habits--apparent shortcuts for mastering the language.
(4) Buy a Greek New Testament dictionary and memorize it. Literally. So much of learning any language is simply the mastery of vocabulary.
(5) Think long-term. Even a year of seminary Greek won't accomplish much. Personally, it was only after reading the Greek for over a decade that I began to feel like I had a decent handle of the language.