Greek and Pride

I was chatting a few days ago with a good friend of mine who was telling me about a small group discussion in which he regularly participates. My friend, who is both a rather accomplished Hellenist and an exceedingly humble man, expressed some benign but genuine shock that the group leader, who only has a year of Greek under his belt, finds it necessary to constantly make reference to the language in the course of group discussions. I replied to him that, in the words of the infallible Moisés Silva, many approach the study of Greek “looking forward to the possibility of accomplishing great feats of exegetical prestidigitation,” and that in my experience, very few outgrow that expectation. Revisiting Silva’s book God, Language and Scripture, where the quote above is found, I came across the following further comments which are much to the point:

“Quite possibly, [….] the most significant benefit of acquiring a knowledge of the biblical languages is intangible. Most of us are conditioned to think that nothing is truly valuable that does not have an immediate and concrete payoff, but a little reflection dispels that illusion. Consider the teaching we all received from birth. Has most of it been immediately rewarding? We are simply not conscious of how deeply we have been molded by countless experiences that affect our perspective, our thinking, our decisions. Similarly, a measure of proficiency in the biblical languages provides the framework that promotes responsibility in the handling of the text. Continued exposure to the original text expands our horizon and furnishes us with a fresh and more authentic perspective than that which we bring from our modern, English-speaking situation.

“In my own preaching during the past twenty-five years, explicit references to Greek and Hebrew have become less and less frequent. But that hardly means I have paid less attention to the languages or that they have become less significant in my work of interpretation. Quite the contrary. It’s just that coming up with those rich ‘exegetical nuggets’ is not necessarily where the real, susbtantial payoff lays.” (Moisés Silva, God, Language and Scripture: Reading the Bible in the Light of General Linguistics [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990], page 144.)

Quite so. In the end, as Bill Mounce has noted in a couple different places, it isn’t a little bit of Greek that is dangerous, but rather a little bit of arrogance, a little bit of pride. And when it comes to pastoral situations (though not, of course, in academic contexts), it is often the case that the number of cryptic references to Greek slipped in is directly proportional to a teacher’s amount of pride, while at the same time inversely proportional to his or her actual level of skill in that language.

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8 responses to “Greek and Pride

  1. The reference to the fellow’s paltry Greek reminded me of a favourite passage in Lewis’s ‘Preface to Paradise Lost’: ‘I once had a pupil, innocent alike of the Greek and of the Hebrew tongue, who did not think himself thereby disqualified from pronouncing this judgement [i.e., Milton’s aesthetic preference for Hebrew over Greek poetry] a proof of Milton’s bad taste; the rest of us, whose Greek is amateurish and who have no Hebrew, must leave Milton to discuss the question with his peers. But if any man will read aloud on alternate mornings for a single month a page of Pindar and a page of the Psalms in any translation he chooses, I think I can guess which he will first grow tired of.’

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  2. Ah, how delightful! Thanks for posting this quote. To me, Lewis the Literary Scholar is Lewis at his best. :-)

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  3. You are the bestest blogger in the history of the world!

    I think, as you’ve probably already pondered, what you wrote could be applied to so many thing whether they be Bible translations, theology etc.

    It makes me pause because although I don’t know Greek and teaching isn’t one of my gifts, there are some other areas where I think I know more than I really do or where concentrating on ‘things less substantial’ makes me feel like I’ve got something that others don’t.
    Jeff

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  4. Aaron,
    Love your quotation of Lewis, so I quoted Pindar this morning without touching the Psalms.

    Stefan,
    Thanks for suggesting that in (our) academic contexts, there’s no slip ups with what we slip in. Wonder if anyone will notice?

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  5. Jeff> You will note that your endorsement was duly added to the right side bar of my blog. ;-)

    And of course, you're quite right. This kind of thing is only symptom of a much larger spiritual illness which can manifest itself in nearly every area of life. I just find it particularly heinous (and dangerous) when it rears its ugly head in pastoral contexts. I mean, if someone's arguing loudly at Borders and throwing Greek words right and left just to be heard, well, you just ignore them (and feel embarrassed for them). If they do it from a pulpit or in a Sunday School class, though, then it's far more serious.

    Kurk> Sneaky, sneaky! You have grabbed my post by its Achilles' Heel. I've been trying to figure out how to phrase that caveat more correctly, because as we all know from bitter experience, budding academics with a year of Greek are about the most dangerously self-important creatures in the planet. But my point is that while the discussion of technical points of, say, Greek lexical semantics does have a place in academic discourse, they have little or no place at all in the church's proclamation: as Silva suggests, it is only the result of a teacher's careful attention to such matters that should come through.

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  6. Jeff> You will note that your endorsement was duly added to the right side bar of my blog. ;-)

    Great–that’s what I was going for. An accurate sentiment though especially after your long absence.

    It would be great if you have time to post any thoughts on the HCSB. If not no problem.
    Jeff

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  7. I do remember coming up with some pretty strange ideas during and after my first year of Greek. My favorite are the people who have had absolutely no training in the original languages and whose only contact with the original languages comes from a Strong’s concordance and are absolutely convinced that all the Bible translations are wrong in the way they translate a particular word. I’ve even heard some pastors make some pretty ridiculous statements like “God put that comma there for a reason” or “In Greek it’s in the present tense and the present tense always means that there is a continual action.” I’ve reached the conclusion that anytime a person uses the phrase “always means” or “all scholars agree” that they are lying to me.

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  8. Jeff> I probably won't have the time until about the end of the year, but I really want to get into the HCSB sometime. And thanks for your kind words. :-)

    Charles> That last sentence is priceless. I love you, man! ;-)

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