“If the Bible has been translated, why do you need to learn Greek and Hebrew?” That’s a question I got posed quite a bit when I was preparing for seminary. After seminary I was posed a different question by some of my fellow pastors, “I’m a pastor, not a language scholar, why do I need to waste time with Greek and Hebrew?” It’s fair question, especially in our world of hyper-specialization, so let me give you my reasons for continuing with the language tools I learned I Seminary.
Before I begin, let me agree with my pastor friends. I am not a language scholar, nor will I ever be one. I simply don’t have the temperament for that sort of pursuit. This, however, makes the question posed by some of my fellow pastors all the more relevant. If I’m not a language scholar then why do I bother keeping up with the Biblical languages? I have two reasons.
First, translating the text helps to flip on the dormant language learning center of my brain. In many ways, I think multilingual pastors have an better grasp of the nature of preaching because they are in a state of interpretive flux by default. They realize communication requires bridges to be built between different sets of cultural assumptions. A monolingual pastor, such as myself, is more likely to miss this very important point. After all, if we understand one another’s words, we automatically understand each other’s meaning, right? Wrong. This is why pastors often get into trouble. We make the assumption the people with whom we are speaking naturally understand our meaning. Because of this, we forget communication isn’t a six lane highway, it’s actually a rickety old bridge which can be perilous to cross unprepared. When I translate Scripture, I’m reminded of that important lesson.
Second, translating my texts reminds me I am not merely crossing the bridge between my world and those of my congregation. I also have to remember there are multiple cultural settings within the text of Scripture. There are differences between pre and post exilic Israel. There are differences between the different Jewish sects in the New Testament, and even more among non-Jewish converts. There are even differences among the cultural history for the interpretation of a given text. When I prepare a sermon this awareness also has to be part of the discernment process – and translating the text helps me remember to keep it in mind.
Translating the text, then, reminds me communication is the process of continually crossing and/or building bridges between cultural understandings. It’s partly what keeps me on the lookout for stories, pictures, and other cultural expressions which may help me in that process. Do you need to be multilingual, or know Greek or Hebrew, to benefit from that awareness? No. My mediocre language skills are what help me to remember all communication is, at its core, translation and interpretation. I highly recommend it, but I’ve met many pastors who are fantastic communicators without knowing Greek and Hebrew. What’s important is learning the language lesson regarding communication, and daring to cross cultural chasms as a result.