By Andreas J. Köstenberger, Benjamin L. Merkle, and Rob Plummer
Never in the history of the world has there been less need for Greek word studies than in 21st century English-speaking North America. Many excellent Bible translations exist in the English language, ranging from the more functionally equivalent (NLT) to the more formally equivalent (NASB, ESV), with plenty of translations in between (e.g. HCSB, NIV). Wise Christians will employ this wealth of resources by comparing biblical passages in various translations.
Much misunderstanding could be corrected through simply reading the same passage in parallel Bible translations. For example, a youth minister once asked me (Rob) if 1 Timothy 4:12 taught that the church should not look down upon young people. He was apparently using the New King James Version, which translates 1 Timothy 4:12 as: “Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.” Nevertheless, it is not a group of “youth” or young people to which Paul is referring, but to Timothy’s young age (or “youthfulness”). My youth minister friend could have avoided confusion by reading a few other translations, such as the NASB, which renders the text helpfully: “Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe” (emphasis in original).
However, even as you develop greater facility in Greek and in word studies in particular, you should be cautious in presenting your insights. A pastor should never undermine the congregation’s trust in English Bible translations through comments such as, “The ESV gets this really wrong here . . . .” or “I can’t believe the NIV says . . . .” It is arrogant and detrimental for the pastor to present himself as the infallible pope of Bible translation. If the pastor is convinced that the Bible version which the church normally uses does not best capture the meaning of the underlying Greek text, he should identify another major translation that renders the text well. Then, the pastor can introduce the alternate translations with words like this: “The meaning of 1 Timothy 4:12 is made very clear by the New American Standard Bible translation. Listen to these words . . . .” By this respectful approach, the pastor is also teaching his congregation to acquire and reference other Bible translations. As a general rule, the pastor’s study of the Greek text should be like underclothes—providing support but not publicly visible.
Andreas J. Köstenberger (Ph.D., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is senior research professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Benjamin L. Merkle (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is associate professor of New Testament and Greek at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Rob Plummer (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Associate Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Check out the forthcoming volume, Going Deeper with New Testament Greek: An Intermediate Study of the Grammar and Syntax of the New Testament by Köstenberger, Merkle, and Plummer.
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