We have been working through the book of Jonah in my Hebrew class, and this week we discussed several nuances in Hebrew that are tough to see in our English translations. The question was asked, “how do we show these differences when we teach or preach?” Our professor gave a response that caused me to reflect on one of the greatest privileges of seminary: gaining confidence in the text of the Bible.
“If you hear me preach, you won’t hear me appealing much to the Hebrew,” he said. He proceeded to tell us that one of the primary reasons we are studying the biblical languages is to give us confidence in what the text says so that we may preach its message clearly and accurately. It seems simple enough, but what I have underappreciated is just how much seminary has built up my confidence in the text of the Bible.
As one of my Greek professors often says, biblical languages aren’t the “open sesame” of Bible interpretation, but they can provide a great deal of help in evaluating interpretive options, understanding the flow of a story (or letter), and determining an author’s main idea. I can attest to this in my study of Greek, especially after studying syntax (how sentences are put together) and linguistics (the study of language and its structure). I can now read my Greek New Testament with relative proficiency, and I have a greater sense of confidence in the text itself and what it says.
What do I mean by “the text itself?” Two things. I am the kind of person who always wondered if my English translation was faithfully representing the Greek or Hebrew. Now I can know, or at least have a good idea. So first, I’ve gained confidence in the text by being able to read what the author actually wrote. As a side note, I have been surprised to notice just how good the majority of our modern translations are. I often find myself thinking about that translations I used to not read at all, “wow, I really like the way they rendered this phrase!”
Second, I have gained confidence in the preservation of the original text of the Bible. Many of you may know that there are several “variants” or differences in the copies that we have of the Bible. If you didn’t know this, rest assured that the overwhelming majority are minor differences, with only a small amount being significant, and these don’t call into question any main Christian doctrine. For both the Old and New Testaments, we do not have the originals. We have copies. A lot of copies. For the New Testament, thousands of copies. In one of my classes this semester, my fellow classmates and I are looking at some of the challenging variants in New Testament and giving a presentation on them in class every week. As we’ve done this, I have been encouraged by the high level of confidence we can have in establishing the original text of the New Testament through applying various text-critical principles to analyze the thousands of surviving copies we have.
So, if our professors are teaching us the languages so that we can have confidence in the text, mine have accomplished their goal. I still have a lifetime of learning ahead of me, but I am far more confident in the text of the Bible than I was three years ago. When I read my Bible in English, I can read knowing that I am reading a faithful translation of God’s Word. When I read in Greek or Hebrew, I can read with the confidence of reading the actual words that were written. When I study variants and look at ancient manuscripts, I can do so with confidence that the text of the Bible and its message have been graciously preserved by God for us through the surviving copies. In other words, when I open my Bible, I have confidence in the text. And according to Dr. Hardy, that’s what it’s all about!