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Words I Hope I Never Hear Again – Part 5

This month's entry addressing the topic of original language references regardless of the speaker’s knowledge of Hebrew or Greek.
By DAVID LEVIN
Read Time: 8 minutes

Gratuitous Original Language References


This month’s entry moves away from examining specific phrases and misquotes, instead addressing the topic of original language references. Being much more familiar with Hebrew than Greek, I use mostly Hebrew examples below, but the principles apply to both. 

Christadelphian speakers and teachers frequently refer to words in the original languages of the Bible. These references might include the following:

  • Keying a word to its Strong’s catalog number 
  • Asserting a word’s “real” or proper meaning 
  • Proposing several alternate translations 
  • Using a word’s root to derive its meaning
  • Trying to pronounce and/or spell the word

Original language references are stock-in-trade for Bible school classes and study days, regardless of the speaker’s knowledge of Hebrew or Greek. This practice is more than accepted. It is expected. The unwritten rule of Christadelphian rhetoric is “You shall by no means fail to utter the original Hebrew.” 

What’s wrong with it? 

Language is a complex, organic feature of human life

Citing the words “in Hebrew” has two drawbacks. First, reference to the “original” is rarely needed to make a didactic or spiritual point. It’s just a way for a brother to display his “credentials” as a bona fide teacher. Second, and far more serious, original language references promote a simplistic and misleading view of how languages and translation work, fostering the conception that Biblical Hebrew is a “code” that is readily converted into English by anyone with a key to the code, that is, a concordance or lexicon.

What’s at stake?  

The speaker’s integrity and a community’s knowledge of how Hebrew (or any language) works and how translation works. Seldom is critical teaching at stake. There is little downside to dropping the window-dressing of citing the original Hebrew.

How can it be fixed? 

  • With respect to words in the original language, stick to Bible study, which is our forte. The two principal methods are linking passages where the same word occurs and examining the contexts where a given word occurs. When teaching, you don’t need to speak Hebrew; “same word” suffices.
  • When updating KJV archaisms, cite extant translations and versions rather than taking a tortuous tour of what “the Hebrew word really means” and ending up with what half the audience already has in front of them. 
  • Omit references to Strong’s numbers and the like. This practice adds no useful information and only reinforces the notion that the original languages of the Bible are simple codes readily converted into English, like solving a simple code A = F, B = G, and so on.
  • Giving the Hebrew word in a passage and trying to pronounce it is about as useful as your pharmacist giving you the chemical name and molecular structure of the active ingredient in a medicine. For the few that can use this information, it’s available, and leave it at that, unless you know the language and you’re reproducing one of the many wordplays in the Hebrew Bible.
  • Do not assert that because a word is translated a certain way in one place, it has the same meaning elsewhere. It might, but unless you are familiar with how Hebrew semantics works, you’re much more likely to be wrong than right. 
  • The Old Testament is replete with multiple appearances of a theme word in a narrative; this feature emphasizes a point and adds literary cohesiveness. However, you won’t always see these in English translations if occurrences of the word are translated differently. It’s great to find these and mention them in your talks, but in no case are you helping your audience by trying to pronounce the word or suggesting that the translators got it wrong by translating one way in this verse and another way two verses later. 
  • Avoid using the “majority rules” style of determining the meaning of a word, though it’s still useful information. If a Hebrew word is translated one way 25 times and only five times another way, that does not mean that five are incorrect or inferior translations. Using an example from English, “resistant” could just as easily denote “stubborn” as it does “durable,” depending on context. If a text calls for one usage much more than another, it doesn’t mean the minority occasions are wrong. This is true for any translation and the Hebrew Bible, probably more so. Hebrew words tend to have wide semantic ranges, and the texts encompass a huge time span wherein meanings and usage change.
  • When you find it appropriate to proffer an alternate translation, cite your sources(s). For example, “Alter translates this word as… and that makes sense to me.” This approach is honest and a lot safer than saying, “This word really means…”

Discussion: 

Language is a complex, organic feature of human life. Each one of us has our own unique vocabulary chosen from within the resources of our native tongue, with unique meanings assigned to those words and utterances according to our age, geographical location, educational level, personality, personal history, family of origin, and all the factors that make each of us an individual. In communication, you can share your thoughts, information, and desires with others of the same language community. As you have experienced many times, though, speaking the same language is no guarantee of successful communication.

Given that language communication between any two native speakers of the same language is difficult enough, how can you claim knowledge of texts from an ancient culture written millennia ago in a language far removed from English in grammar, vocabulary, sound, and orthography? With your two years of high school Spanish, would you attempt to translate Don Quixote? Then what are you doing asserting the “real” meaning of words and sentences from classical Hebrew?

Making assertions about the meaning of Hebrew words is the business of historians, linguists, philologists, epigraphers, and others with the scholarly background to assess the above factors. You do not have anything close to that level of expertise. You have access to their works, many written for lay Bible students. You can use concordances, lexicons, and other language study aids for your own edification. Still, when conclusions based on these resources are publicly proclaimed under the rubric “the Hebrew word here really means,” it leads to an oversimplified concept of how languages really work. 

Even if you’re aware that you’re over-simplifying the matter of translation when citing a word from a lexicon or concordance, the implicit message to the listeners is “Just get a lexicon or concordance, and you can know the real meaning of the Bible.”

This point is both subtle and serious. Every time a speaker asserts “the real meaning” or “correct translation,” it weakens, not strengthens, our understanding of Hebrew because it vastly depreciates the nature and practice of translation.

Complexities and Cautions 

Biblical Hebrew employs a relatively spare vocabulary for historical narrative, partially because many Hebrew words encompass a range of meanings. For instance, the same word, depending on context, can indicate “sound,” “voice,” “thunder,” “proclamation,” or “noise.” Hebrew has many semantic ranges as broad as common English words such as “take” or “run,” and thus are translated with several different English words. It is a huge mistake, but one I have heard all too often, for a speaker to assert that because a word means X in one passage, it can (or does) mean X in another–because that’s the translation that suits the speaker’s point. 

Poetry ranges from relatively straightforward to utterly opaque.

Poetry (Psalms and much of the prophets) ranges from relatively straightforward to utterly opaque. Hebrew poetry, compared to narrative prose, tends to have specialized vocabulary and like any poetry, flexible word order. You cannot draw the same inferences from poetry as from historical narrative.

Hebrew can be remarkably terse and cryptic, especially the Proverbs. Hebrew uses far fewer words than English, having many affixes and routinely omitting words, leaving much inferred. For instance, the famous warning (today we call it “trash talk”) from Ahab to Benhadad (I Kgs 20:11 ESV), “let not him who straps on his armor boast as he who takes it off” is expressed by only four Hebrew words, none of which is “armor.” There’s much to read between the words, let alone between the lines.

Hebrew idioms are a “whole ‘nother” matter. They occur regularly, often in straightforward contexts that seem quaint to English speakers, adding to the complexity of translation.

Hebrew roots (usually three-letter verb stems) connote fundamental movements, such as arise, strike, scatter, or gather. These are not always reliable guides to the meaning. Further, Hebrew verbs have a number of grammatical forms that nuance or change basic meanings—and neither Young’s nor Strong’s distinguish among these.1

I briefly list these features of Biblical Hebrew as a caution. Translation is a highly complex matter, not a simple one-to-one word correspondence. However, original language references are de rigueur for any Bible school class or lecture, often even in exhortations. It’s what Christadelphian speakers do; it’s part of the aura of the “speaking brother.” Never mind that you’re a high school teacher, accountant, or whatever; you’re expected to cite Hebrew words. 

I have heard speakers carry on at length about the “real meaning” of Hebrew words, citing several passages, none of which add anything at all to the spiritual lesson allegedly being taught. Making reference to Hebrew words rarely adds to the spiritual value of a class, even less to an exhortation. Stick with the aspects of Bible teaching that genuinely promote reverence of God’s word and develop a spiritual mind. 

Greek

English is far closer to Greek than Hebrew, and it has many Greek-based (some via Latin) words (especially in the sciences) that we use daily. Pointing out these connections often aids in understanding or remembering a text. One example: the word “crooked,” as in “crooked generation” (Phil 2:15), is the word from which we get the medical term “scoliosis,” or curvature of the spine. Noting links (from Greek to English) like that can leave the listener with a memorable visual imprint of a passage. 

N.B.—

The author pleads guilty to multiple counts of the above offenses
0
Are you guilty as well?x
. 

David Levin,
Denver Ecclesia, CO

  1. If you read Hebrew, I recommend Englishman’s Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance. There’s a revised edition, which I haven’t seen, but I suppose has the same format.
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David Styles
2 months ago

Thanks again David for this excellent discussion of the pitfalls of non existent linguistic expertise. I know many in our community have taken it upon themselves to become better informed and invariably it results in less reference to the original languages in their presentations.

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