Scholarship and Sermonizing

Most American Christians are only vaguely aware that the Bible was not originally written in English. The attitude is something like the Hollywood Sci-Fi productions where space explorers encounter aliens far from earth who speak perfect English. (Wouldn’t it be a great plot twist if the English-speaking astronaut met a Martian who only spoke French?) Similarly, while folks in the pews (or stack chairs) realize there are different “versions” of the Bible, many do not understand the dynamics and history of the Christian Bible.

This is why Bible colleges like Nebraska Christian College teach classes in Greek and Hebrew, the two primary biblical languages. Both of these languages have modern counterparts, but knowledge of the Greek spoken in 2012 Athens or the Hebrew of modern Tel Aviv will be of little help in reading the Bible in its original languages. For this we need to know Biblical Hebrew and Koiné Greek, languages frozen in time over 2,000 years ago.

Being able to read the Bible in the original languages yields some interesting results. Let me give you two examples from my current book of study, James.

1. Trials vs. Temptations. In Christian theological formulations, we make a distinction between “Trials” (which may be placed in our lives by God himself) and “Temptations” (which are not sent from God). God may test us, but God does not tempt us. The first chapter of James, in English translation, speaks of trials/testing that can be a good thing, because if trials are patiently navigated, they lead to spiritual maturity. In the same chapter, we are told that God does not tempt us, but that temptation is the result of our own inner lusts or desires. The problem is that in Greek, the word translated “trial” and the word translated “temptation” are the same word (peirosmos). In Greek, our argument sounds like this: God tests us but he never tests us, or, God tempts us but he never tempts us. All of this is to say there is something else going on here, and the translators have obscured what James is saying (at least partially). But I must be careful. I do not want to use my knowledge of Greek to say that God indeed does tempt us, because James explicitly denies this (James 1:13).

2. The Christian “assembly” or “meeting” described in James 2:2 does not use the word for “church” we might expect (ekklesia). Instead it uses synagoge, the word that becomes “synagogue” when transliterated. Now I am all for translating rather than transliterating, but in this case the translation obscures a striking detail of James’s letter, the Jewish makeup of the congregation he is writing to. But be careful. The Greek word from which we get the word “synagogue” just means “assembly” or “congregation,” those who are “come together.”

My former student, Ann Campbell, is correct when she says I used to tell my Greek students that their Greek belongs in the study, not in the pulpit. If I remember correctly, I used to say that if I was ever in the audience when one of them were preaching and I heard them use the word “aorist,” I would come up and take them down. (Fortunately, I never acted on this stupid threat. God is gracious to fools like me!)

But the principle remains. When a preacher tells his or her congregation that the verb in a New Testament verse is in the aorist tense, the preacher has closed the text to the congregation, not opened it. The preacher is saying, “This is a highly technical matter and you must trust me more than your English translation, because I am in the only one in the room who knows Greek, and that’s all there is to it.” The average listener has no way to check whether or not the preacher’s point, based on the aoristness of a Greek verb, is valid.

Personally, I usually cringe when I hear a preacher trot out a sermon point based on the subtleties of the Greek text. Their point is usually not the result of their own work, but derivative of a point made by another preacher or author. And most of the time this type of pulpit exegesis is either distorted or just plain wrong. So, as I also used to tell my students, when you are tempted to do this, just remember that there may be someone like me in the audience. Be careful. Your Greek work, your Hebrew work belongs in the pastor’s study, not in the pulpit.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

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