Its all Greek to Me

I love the New Testament, and treasure its wisdom, but I can't read it in the original language because it was written in Greek, and my reading knowledge of that language is pretty limited. When I applied for ministry training, back in the late sixties, I assumed I would learn Greek, since anyone capable of university study in that era enrolled for BD, the Bachelor of Divinity, a postgraduate degree that usually included both Biblical languages, Hebrew and Greek. But by the time I got to Theological College some years later, the University of Otago had introduced a new degree, the B Theol (Bachelor of Theology), which was at that stage a four year course that did not include languages. These days it is a basic three-year degree, but I think Otago was still evolving the concept in 1972. My year was the first class to enrol for it, and because we could cross-credit some units from other qualifications, I was able to complete it in three years. I became the second person in New Zealand to graduate B. Theol.; I also got to choose the colour for the academic hood for the new degree, but that is another story.

All that is a roundabout way of saying that I did not study Greek, other than through some after school classes with the New Testament Prof, who wanted to make sure we at least knew the letters and how to sound out the words from an interlinear Greek/English New Testament. The fact that I am a greenhorn when it comes to the original languages of Scripture came home to me this week, when I got involved in a discussion about Bible translations. "Is there a policy," I asked, "to use the NRSV at our local church, or does it just happen that most of the preachers use that translation?" "No, its not a policy," I was told, but there is a view that the most popular version - the NIV - is inadequate, because it was apparently compiled in subservience to the rather narrow theological concerns of the Southern Baptist movement. That was a surprise to me, as most criticisms of NIV that I have seen charge it with being too liberal. The example that was given, was the translation of the Kenosis passage in Philippians 2, in which the Greek describing the divinity of Christ is ambiguous. NIV apparently smooths out the confusion, by translating firmly in the evangelical tradition. I have failed to find a reference confirming this claim (perhaps someone can comment?) and am left struggling to know for sure, because my Greek is rudimentary.

In fact NIV is a version I rarely use. My preference in sermon preparation is the NRSV or the New Living, which is a completely different animal from the very culturally-bound Living Bible of the sixties. I rarely use the King James (Authorised Version), because it contains a number of errors and omissions, being derived in 1611 from ancient manuscripts which have been superseded by others which are older and more numerous. The KJV is a beautiful piece of seventeenth century English, and its poetry is part of our Western heritage, but for me it is too burdened with words we no longer use to be useful to me as Scripture. That said, I often follow Gordon Fee's advice, in searching through and comparing a range of different translations, in order to get a feel for a challenging passage; he says the translators have all grappled with the same Greek or Hebrew text, so it is worth noticing the variance in the conclusions they have drawn.. And I also have some verses of KJV which I committed to memory in my childhood, when there was nothing else to use, and they still tend to resurface that way, eg Be Still and know that I am God, which apparently in Hebrew means something banal like 'stop fighting!'

But I am appalled to read the vociferous debates that are carried on between advocates and opponents of the KJV-only position. The former claim that the Holy Spirit reinspired the translators in 1611, so that the English words we have are superior (and infallibly God's Word ) to any other translation. If that is the case, I feel sorry for the apostles, who not only had no KJV, they had no written Christian scriptures at all! If some lobbyists are to be believed, they and anyone else who does not use the KJV were "servants of Satan." (see point 7 of this article). Radical Baptist pastor and KJV-only adherent Steven Anderson can even be seen burning an NIV on YouTube. I find this extremism ugly and embarrassing. The Bible is a unique means of God communicating with the people he loves, but it is not to be worshipped for itself; the true Word is the one revealed in the Scriptures, Jesus Christ. He is the one who redeems us, not the King James version. At a recent Wycliffe seminar the presenter said, "Perhaps it is more of a Satanic plot to get people squabbling about which Bible to use, and have them set on a dated English version which is hard to understand today." In that vein, I see the recently-publicised Conservapedia project - an attempt to rid the Bible of references to the social justice ministry of Jesus - as deeply misguided.

One final point. I am a teacher by gifting and experience. When I read the Bible devotionally, it is sometimes hard to resist the temptation to divide the passage into a three point sermon I could preach to others. For this reason, I often turn to The Message version, not a translation at all but a twentieth century paraphrase, but one written by a man who walks humbly with God and is steeped in the Biblical languages. Some would say its not Scripture, but God has spoken to me out of The Message on many occasions, and for that I am deeply grateful. God is bigger than all our human attempts to box him in, and although at times I struggle with the godshapedlife, by his grace, his Word is never Greek to me.

To Chew Over: Why did you choose the English translation you use? Do ever look at any others? Do you think there may be some value in doing so?

Speak Lord in the stillness, While I wait on Thee;

Hushed my heart to listen In expectancy.

Speak, O blessed Master, In this quiet hour;

Let me see Thy face, Lord, Feel Thy touch of power.

For the words Thou speakest,"They are life, indeed;

Living bread from heaven, Now my spirit feed."

May Grimes