Studying Greek–Beginners' Pitfalls (Part 3)

by Kevin Cauley
(Author’s note: This article concludes this series of articles on “Beginners’ Pitfalls.” I hope that the reader has enjoyed studying these things and can take some practical benefit from them.)
7. Presume ordinary meanings to grammatical terminology.
I mentioned this particular pitfall earlier as an example of using grammar to interpretationalize the text, but I believe that this pitfall deserves its own brief discussion. When one reads through a Greek grammar, one will notice that words that describe grammatical constructions often appear familiar. Words like “absolute,” “accusative,” “locative,” “habitual,” “temporal,” “aspect,” “elative,” and even simple things like “gender” and “number” can provide difficulties to the beginning student. It’s easy to impose a definition one already has in mind upon one of these grammatical words and come to a conclusion that isn’t warranted. These words are used by the grammars to have reference to grammatical relationship. While if one ponders the grammar, the ordinary usage may be enlightening, to come to conclusions about grammar based upon the conversational use of the word more than often leads to misunderstanding. Moreover, it is a good idea to keep an English dictionary handy when studying such words as many times the English dictionary will give the grammatical meaning of a word as one of its definitions.
8. Presume that everything can be translated word for word.
I believe in word-for-word translation as much as is possible. However, I don’t believe that every Greek word can be translated with a single English word all the time. Some Greek verbs contain multiple thoughts and must be translated by multiple English words. Sometimes in order for the sentence to read smoothly in English, one must supply certain English words. Too, Greek nouns in the gentive, ablative, dative, locative, and instrumental cases often imply certain prepositions which must be understood in order for these words to make sense in the translation. We don’t decline English words into cases like the Greek language does. So we have to use some additional words to translate case. But even beyond that, there are idioms. Idioms are mostly small groups of words that, when used together, render a specially unique meaning that one would not normally expect from just reading the solitary words in the idiom by themselves. A frequently used idiom in the book of First John is EN TOUTW. Literally translated it means “in this thing” or “in this one.” Idiomatically, it may be translated “hereby” or “herein” depending upon how the phrase is used in the context. Another idiom that I discussed in a previous article relates to the use of definite article and the conjunction KAI to link together multiple epithets applied to the same noun. When so done in Greek, one may come to the conclusion that the epithets are being used adjectivally instead of as distinct and different nouns. (See my article, A Greek Proof For the Deity of Christ.)
9. Presume that nothing may be translated word for word.
Just the opposite of the above fallacy is the presumption that everything in Greek is idiomatic and that, therefore, nothing may be translated word for word. This presumption underlies most of the modern translation theories. They state that since one cannot translate everything word for word then nothing may be translated word for word. Hence the effort at word-for-word translation is abandoned and replaced with a more or less thought-for-thought translation process. While it is true that not everything may be translated word for word, it isn’t the case that nothing can be. 1 Thessalonians 5:16 (the shortest verse in the Greek New Testament) is a fine example of a passage that may be translated word for word. And frequently there is a one-to-one correspondence from words in the Greek to words in the English. God chose to reveal his message to us in words selected by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:13). It’s not the translator’s prerogative to abandon God’s chosen method of revelation in the effort to translate. So while we must recognize the existence of idioms in the Greek language, we must also maintain the feasibility of literal translation. This method of translation is referred to as the modified literal method.
10. Assume that you can know it all when it comes to the Greek language.
I offer this last “pitfall” more or less as an ending cap to this series of articles. The Greek language is tremendously difficult. Even grammarians who have studied the language for years and years find occasion to disagree regarding this or that particular aspect of the language. I started studying Greek in 1987. I’m still working on it today and wouldn’t dream of calling myself a “master” at the language. When we consider the vast period of time over which the language was spoken (some believe it to be nearly 2000 years, not including modern Greek), the amount of literature that was written in this language, and the fact that it was once the language of the world, we can begin to appreciate the complexities involved in understanding it. I would caution the beginning student not to believe that he could ever “master” the language as a whole, but rather come to understand that studying Greek is more like peeling an onion. Once one gets through one layer, there is yet another, thicker layer, waiting to be discovered. Of course, I don’t want to discourage one from studying Greek. There are true gems to be discovered and treasured in the language, but one should not set one’s expectations so high that he becomes discouraged, but rather be encouraged to know that just around the bend is another nugget waiting to delight the mind and capture the intellect.

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