Language is a strange and wonderful thing. Whereas Pythagoras believed that reality at its most basic level consists of numbers, the Bible reports that God spoke the universe and all that it contains into existence. Moreover, when the Son of God entered creation to redeem and rescue it from evil, one of his followers identified him as “the Word” and wrote, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”
On the other hand, when a group of people defied God and sought to build a tower as a symbol of their defiance, God overturned their rebellion by causing them to speak different languages. Humble and loving people could have overcome this opposition by learning to communicate with one another, but arrogant people like the tower-builders each insisted that he or she was speaking the only proper language and that those who spoke another language were wrong. As a result, the tower was never built.
Since that time, languages have changed, mixed, spread, and in some cases disappeared. English is largely a blend of Germanic and Latin vocabulary and grammar, with some Celtic and other influences stirred into the mix as well. As a result of that mixture and of centuries of change, English contains many mysteries, such as the contradictory pronunciation of the words “tough,” “though,” “through,” and “thought.” New words regularly appear. The word “inflammable” means “likely to burst into flame.” At some point in the twentieth century, someone feared that people would misunderstand the word “inflammable” and shortened it to “flammable.” Now both words are in the dictionary, with identical meanings, even though it appears they should be antonyms rather than synonyms.
A friend of mine thought she could obtain an easy A in high school by taking classes in Spanish. After all, she spoke Spanish at home with her family every day. To her disappointment, she discovered that speaking Spanish at home was not the same as understanding Spanish. Her grammar was not up to her teacher’s standards, her spelling was incorrect, and her vocabulary was smaller than she realized. Getting a good grade in her own language turned out to be far more difficult than she had expected.
This week another blogger took me to task for referring to the meaning of the Greek prefix “anti” in the title “antichrist.” In the Greek of the New Testament, as written in the first century A.D., the prefix “anti” means “taking the place of,” not so much “in opposition to,” as it signifies in contemporary English. The blogger’s rebuttal of my comment surprised me so much that I did not respond, and now it’s water under the bridge, too late for a meaningful discussion. If I offended anyone by seeming too proud of my knowledge of Biblical Greek, I apologize. But the blogger’s suggestion that knowing Greek and Hebrew are not helpful for understanding the Bible carries things a bit too far.
On the one hand, to learn the commandments of God and to see that we have not kept those commandments does not require any knowledge of Greek or Hebrew. The English translations convey that message quite well. To recognize Jesus as the Son of God who redeems and rescues sinners through his sinless life and sacrificial death also requires no special language skills. Once again, the translated Bible conveys that message effectively. To know of his victorious resurrection, his guarantee of eternal life in a new creation, and his ongoing presence in this world also requires no Greek or Hebrew studies. In this case also, the basic message is communicated flawlessly in any translation of the Bible.
Anyone who presumes to teach others about the Bible should go beyond these basics. Even if he or she does not learn to read Hebrew and Greek fluently, he or she at least should be capable of consulting reference books on the Bible and understanding their application. Not only does the Bible need to be translated from ancient languages into contemporary languages; information about the cultures in which the Bible was written needs to be learned as well. Misunderstandings of certain verses and conflicts between different interpretations of the Bible are reduced (but, alas, in a sin-stained world, not eliminated) by consulting the Bible in its original languages and contexts rather than trusting contemporary translations to convey the full meaning and nuance of each word, each sentence, and each paragraph.
The other blogger mentioned a case in which a man from Athens corrected a preacher who referred to some Greek word or phrase from the New Testament. Because no details were included, I cannot tell whether the preacher was truly in error or if the preacher was kind and polite enough not to insist to the man from Athens that the preacher was correct in his interpretation. Consider a similar scenario: a person in France has studied Elizabethan English in order to understand the plays of Shakespeare. Now this French person is teaching a class on Shakespeare. A man from North Carolina challenges the teacher’s explanation of a certain line, insisting that he has spoken English all his life and is better qualified to explain Shakespeare than anyone who grew up in France. (By the way, Andy Griffith performed a wonderful routine about Romeo and Juliet in which, when Juliet exclaims, “Romeo, Romeo, wherefor art thou Romeo?” and Romeo responds, in a thick Carolina accent, “Why I’m right here.”)
A Cuban-born woman once asked me the rule for when the letter t should be pronounced like a d in English. Until that time I had not noticed how often Americans pronounce ts as ds. Say the sentence “I wrote a letter to my sister” with crisp ts and notice how odd it sounds. But if a rule exists about when ts sound like ds, I’ve never learned it. By the same token, Spanish speakers often distinguish “b as in burro” and “v as in vaca” because their bs and vs sound the same.
Language is a strange and wonderful thing. When we think casually about communication, we tend to think of a single message being sent from one person to another. But there are several versions of each message: the version the creator intended, the version actually produced, and the version received by the audience. To further complicate matters, there is the actual creator and the creator assumed by the audience, as well as the actual audience and the audience assumed by the creator. When carefully studying a message, all these versions and participants must be kept in mind. It’s a wonder that two of us can communicate at all in this crazy world. J.