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Biblical Languages, Texts and Translations VI

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Question #1:

Dear Bob,

I am reading the NIV as you recommended and comparing a number of the most jarring passages with the KJV. I'm finding it to be a good thing because it forces me to rethink familiar and comfortable passages. For example, Ecclesiastes 8:15:

"Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that shall abide with him of his labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun."

In the NIV "merry" is translated as "glad." The two words have a very different meaning in English. Which is correct? How would you translate that verse? Similarly, in Nehemiah 8:12 "mirth" is translated as "great joy" which could be the result of mirth but mirth doesn't depend on great joy. What does the original really say?

Another example of translation difficulty came from a JW visit. They read their version of John 4:24. Where the KJV says:

"God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth."

They translated "in spirit" as "with spirit." They got quite upset when I said the two were entirely different. "In spirit" is the only translation that makes sense to me. Is that correct?

Yours in Jesus Christ,

Response #1:

Good to hear from you again. On the NIV, I hope you have read the recent posting concerning the difference between the 1984NIV and the sneakily "new" NIV. There are differences (see in the body of the link: Bible Versions II).

Translation is an art, not a science. I think if you look at any good English thesaurus you will likely find that many of the words are considered to be synonyms. Yes, every word is different, and mirth is different from joy and "glad" different from "happy" but they are close. Since this is English we are talking about, let me note that neither is the Hebrew word (since if it were Hebrew, most English readers wouldn't be able to understand it at all). A perfect translation would capture the essence and the details, the style and the emotional feel of the original. That is impossible. But if the essential meaning is rendered in a way that comes close to duplicating the impression the reader would get of reading it in the original language, then we would pronounce the translation "good". Please note that because a version translates one verse or paragraph or chapter or book well, does not at all mean that the rest is "good" (different translators work on different sections, and even if it is a question of the same translator, well, we all do work of varied quality). Also, just because two translations are different, does not mean that one is right and the other wrong; they can be different and yet mean the same essential thing; they can be different, and yet both be "good" (or "bad").

To dig deeper into your questions, in Ecclesiastes 8:15 we have a noun and a verb from the same root (samach), and this is one of the standard Hebrew roots for joy, happiness, gladness, merriment, etc. (even today; I don't know if you've ever heard the song "Hava Nagila", but the chorus combines the samach root-verb with another common biblical word which is also used in the Bible to express rejoicing). So mirth/merry is perhaps to be preferred to enjoyment/glad since the KJV translation renders a Hebrew cognate pair with an English cognate pair, but is less effective (today) since mirth/merry are now considered more formal or archaic and that produces a different reaction in the reader despite today than it did in the seventeenth century despite the fact that semantically they mean essentially the same thing. It strikes me that this is the issue that may really be bothering you (n.b., Nehemiah 8:12 has the noun form of the same root samach, so it's a similar issue).

As to John 4:24, the first word, "spirit", has the preposition en, but the second word, "truth", has only the dative case without the preposition. The English words "with" or "in" are legitimate for either in general, but of course translation is based upon meaning in a particular context. In my opinion, these are both adverbial uses. So "spiritually" and "truthfully" is really at the heart of what is meant (although that may not be the best way to translate since it might sound a little "off" depending upon how it is done). Translating "with spirit" I would reject because I am not sure what in the world that would mean in English and if it wasn't meant to mean "spiritually" (that is, "in spirit"), then the translation would be objectively wrong. So it's not just a question of what the Greek actually means, but also of what the English is going to be taken to mean by the average reader.

Hope this helps.

In Jesus Christ our dear Lord and Savior,

Bob L.

Question #2:

Hello, Bob,

Yes, it did help. Thank you. I can sympathize with translation issues. I have similar problems with vernacular French in which some of their idioms are completely opaque to me and the dictionary is no help. That's one of the reasons I stopped relying on Strong's so much.

The NIV version I'm using has a copyright of 1985 and published by Zondervan and though it lacks the beauty of the KJV, it helps pull me from complacency and makes me consider passages like these more carefully.

I read the link (it was one I missed) and have to say, you made a rather strong case for the KJV. What has been done to the NIV is why I'm reluctant to trust newer versions. The authorized version of 1611 will forever be the same, warts and all. I'll stay with that one as my main version and refer to others as needed. If for no other reason, the language is beautiful and the poetry is beyond compare.

The versification in the NIV is rather annoying. Is that in the original? I would imagine the original languages scanned much differently than the English translation and to translate verse and keep the meter would be nearly impossible. In my opinion. I think the NIV would have been much more readable had they kept it straight text.

In any event, I don't want to be critical of the NIV since I couldn't do it at all. We are blessed to have so many good versions from which to choose.

Thank you for the link, too. It answered another annoyance; that of Jesus silently writing in the dirt with his finger. That episode never made any sense to me including mud on the man's eyes. I basically skipped over that and went on. Knowing that it's an addition makes much more sense.

Thanks for your explanation.

Yours in Jesus Christ,

Response #2:

You're very welcome. Everyone has preferences about versions, so I certainly understand preferring the KJV. I listen to it on audio tape most days commuting to work (the Alexander Scourby version is really a wonderful labor of love; see the link for an online version). I do advise Christians to try and gain some familiarity with other versions as well, precisely because there are differences in interpretation about many passages from version to version. The multi-version approach helps to avoid having blinders on in cases where dogmatism based upon a particular translation's interpretation of the meaning is entirely misplaced. You might also look into the NKJV. This is a reasonable updating of the language (and sometimes a correction of some of the mistakes; sometimes merely a different interpretation of individual passages) which makes the reading simpler and clearer, but is largely faithful to the KJV's overall approach.

As to versification, Hebrew poetry may be loosely described in terms of verses, but the poetic scheme is much different from Greek and Latin poetry on which traditional English poetry is based. Hebrew poetry is probably closer to modern English poetry which is often not identifiable as poetry through any absolute rhyme or rhythm scheme apart from the way the text is presented on the page (and of course this aspect of Hebrew poetry would be only conjecture so many millennia after the fact). There have been many attempts over the last three centuries in particular to identify or codify the scansion of biblical Hebrew, but suffice it so say that the only thing that has gained common currency is the accepted notion of parallelism between ideas where A / A, or A / B, or A B / B A and the like are not to be defined by the number or the length of the syllables, but rather by the idea(s) expressed. The NIV presents this scansion (as they interpret it) visually, but also through punctuation. The KJV also presents their interpretation of the scansion through punctuation, but also through their acceptance of the traditional Hebrew verse divisions. Estimates vary for the date of origin of these verse division in Hebrew, but if they go back past the 15th century, they do not do so by much farther than a few centuries (so they are at least one thousand years later than the close of the Old Testament canon, and probably closer to two).

Finally, the report of the mud made by our Lord and His placing it on the eyes of the blind man is scriptural. The point of this exercise (making and applying mud, then having the man walk to the pool and wash it off), was to provide visible actions in accomplishing this miracle which were prohibited by the graceless and pseudo-religious Sabbath regulations of the day; and in the way this event is recorded in John 9, that obvious set of putative "violations" (based on the traditions of men) is precisely what aggravates the religious establishment. This is an important issue since the Lord Jesus in His incarnation as the God-Man is the lifting of the shadows of the old and the replacement of them with the spiritual reality of the new (so that the episode explains quite a bit about why Sabbath observance has been replaced now with the moment by moment "rest" of faith; see the links: "Sabbath Rest" and "Faith Rest").

Yours in Jesus Christ our dear Lord and Savior,

Bob L.

Question #3:

Dear Bob,

While I'm reluctant to admit it, you're right in your recommendation to read other versions. I don't particularly enjoy it, but it does exactly what you suggest. I wouldn't have asked these questions had I not had those "wait-a-moment" issues with the NIV. I suspect I suffer from the "comfortable shoe" syndrome.

My usual approach is to read straight through from Genesis to Revelation, let simmer, bounce around for specific questions or issues and start the process all over again. Perhaps not the best approach but it seems to work for me. Maybe that's part of my problem?

I have copies of the RSV which, if I recall, didn't particularly impress you, Douay, which I haven't explored and Farrar-Fenton. FF is annoying because of the extensive versification and reordering of the books to approximate his notion of "original order" which makes it difficult to find a familiar passage for comparison.

Thank you for your explanation of the mud on the eyes passage. I never considered that before. It seems that many things in scripture are opaque until it's the proper time for understanding. I want to thank you, particularly, for your help and patience in bringing me to a greater understanding of God's word. I don't often like your explanations; they are many times uncomfortable or conflict with long held notions or in other ways point out the weakness in my thinking. I often disagree at first and even argue a bit but always end up with a greater understanding than I had in the beginning; sometimes with a completely new and much broader understanding.

Thank you for your work.

Yours in Jesus Christ,

Response #3:

Thanks for the thoughtful email. We can all afford to be stretched. I certainly get challenged by what I find in scripture as well and corrected often. The Lord will take us all just as far as we are willing to go.

As to versions, my view of some of these has changed over time. I like the KJV now more than I did in years past, probably because I've become more familiar with it over the last two or three decades; same goes for the NKJV, and also even the NLT and ESV. I grew up with the RSV; in my view it is either the best of all possible worlds (tradition a la the KJV balanced with innovation a la the NIV) or the worst of both (not committing wholeheartedly to either). I'm not familiar enough with either Douay or Farrar-Fenton to render a dogmatic opinion, but I doubt that I would agree with a version that attempted to "fix" the order of the books, given how much incorrect information is out there on the subject (see the link: Chronology of Bible Books II).

For suggestions about how to tackle the order of Bible reading (e.g., in my opinion, one should read Psalms more often than, say, Esther), see the link: Read Your Bible! (at the end of the file). As I say in that piece, while there are different ways to approach this, but the important thing is to get to it in some manner or other every day:

When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.
Deuteronomy 17:18-20 NIV

Thanks for your "teachable" attitude and your love for our Lord and His Word.

In Jesus Christ our dear Savior,

Bob L.

Question #4:

What was the height of Goliath? In the NIV its 6 cubits and a Span. Some say that in the oldest manuscripts it is 4 cubits and a span.

In Him,

Response #4:

Hello my friend,

The short answer is "six cubits and a span" (not four), or a bit over nine feet tall. Were "four cubits" the correct reading, Goliath would be only a bit over six feet tall no particular "giant", even in that day and age (cf. Saul's height as exceptional vis-a-vis the rest of the Israelites; i.e., he was very tall, probably at least six feet tall, but no giant).

H.P. Smith, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Books of Samuel (ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1912), 155: "For six cubits [LXX] has four, which hardly makes the giant large enough to carry his armour."

I concur. The Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament, has "four cubits", and so does the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (who wrote in Greek). Also, the reading "four" is (apparently) found in the Dead Sea Samuel scrolls (4QSam'a'). However, the Dead Sea scrolls are notoriously inferior in terms of their text. What they do more than anything is affirm that the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible is by far superior to the cheaper "popular texts" of which the Qumran scrolls are representative. The origin of the disparity is unknown, although it appears not to be a textual mistake but a scribal rationalization (i.e., replacing six with four because it sounds to the scribe more plausible).

Your friend in Jesus Christ,

Bob L.

Question #5:

Hi Bob,

Some things I noticed as I go through John 1 again:

This man came for a witness, to be witness of the light, that all through him might believe. (John 1:7)

If I recall correctly, all the apostles (except Paul) were ministered to by John before coming to Jesus, so the fulfillment of his ministry led to the ministry of the 11 apostles, which finally led to the ministry of the whole world. Therefore, we have seen this prophecy fulfilled in a very powerful way.

And of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace. (John 1:16)

Jesus' fullness was that He was entirely God and man, without compromising either. John is saying that we, that is the whole world, have received this wonderful fullness.

Also, I received a book on Modern Hebrew grammar, but I found some advice in there which may be pertinent to Biblical Hebrew:

"There are many false beliefs about the binyanim, such as that the pi'el is generally intensive and the hitpa'el generally reflexive. Taking 100-200 dictionary words at random, only one in five pa'al verbs have a causitive hif'il or an intensive or causative pi'el."

Generally, the binyanim provide a method of deriving new verbs from existing roots, but are surprisingly fast and loose as to derivation. Now, this does not mean that there aren't certain patterns within each verbal group (for instance, if the pa'al version of an action exists, and if there is a nif'al version of that same verb, then the nif'al is probably passive), but only knowing that a verb exists in a certain binyanim does not give me enough information to determine its meaning.

I say this advice because it probably holds true for Biblical Hebrew, seeing that Biblical Hebrew was a natural languages, and natural languages seldom have such nice `folk morphology' (cf. the numerous `folk etymologies' of words in English which, while making a good story, are totally false). Similarly, this `folk morphology' probably arose from clueless Indoeuropeoglots trying to make sense of Semitic verb patterns, which have no analogy in their native tongues.

I wait for you in the city that has foundations, whose builder and maker is God (Hebrews 11:10),

Response #5:

Interesting observation. Of course Paul probably never met John the baptist, and if he did, he did not respond spiritually.

As to Hebrew lexicography, I don't have the time (or inclination) to "count up" instances of the phenomena critiqued in the quote, but I can tell you that the "low ball" estimate given is dead wrong, at least for BH. Sometimes, this is all a matter of interpretation of a particular lexical item. A skeptic can find reasons, for example, not to find an intensive cast to a piel formation of a qal verb when one is pretty clearly present, just as a true believer can find reasons "for" such an interpretation when one is clearly not present. Ancient Hebrew lexicography is an interesting field, and has not really received the effort it deserves since the 19th century (in my opinion). So it is largely left to individual scholars/exegetes to do their own homework in most cases. Of course one needs to be very careful with extra-contextual evidence of all types; these can serve as hints, rarely as guides. The determinative factor in the meaning of any word in any language is the way it is actually used, not where it came from (even if this can be correctly discovered) nor what its form should indicate. In KJV English "pathetic" meant "having sympathy for" and rightly so given its Greek roots. But no one uses it that way today. As Horace said: usus / quem penes arbitrium est et ius et norma loquendi (". . . usage, in whose lap the power and custom of word-meaning lies" loose but illuminating translation).

One of the other things to be noted about Hebrew lexicography is that there are really fewer roots than any of the major lexicons suggest. That is to say that on the one hand for a single idea there is often a triliteral, biliteral, and "hollow" root meaning roughly the same thing (though these tend to be listed as separate words); and on the other hand where BDB, for example, finds two, three or more roots, there is often a common idea that binds them together; so that without any doubt in my mind a "contemporary" lexicon (if there were such a thing) would reflect that just as in the case of Latin, if it were not as well known as it is because of its particular historical circumstances, lexicographers might be finding different roots for verbs like ago, agere because of the wide range of possible meanings. At some point I plan to post some Q/A on these sorts of issues (until then, this link, while pretty basic, at least leads to other links: "Some Tools for Studying Hebrew").

Yours in our dear Lord Jesus,

Bob L.

Question #6:

Good morning, I had a lady from Bible Study ask a question about the Levi Priests. She was wondering if they did any prophecy writings like Habakkuk? I looked at Numbers 50. I felt their given role by God was to be the Priests and take care of the Tabernacle. Were there other duties they preformed? So I think what the question would be as Priests what were their role. We have in the Bible major and minor prophets would the priests have a role in that area. I hope my question is clear enough to get some information.

Thank you,

Response #6:

Good to hear from you. Apologies for the delay in response: I was out of town visiting family and am only just now beginning to "dig out".

As to your question, yes I think you have it just right. Prophets were individually called to be prophets by God on a case by case basis. Priests received their offices as an inheritance based upon their genealogy, having no other specific inheritance in the Land (Num.18). Exodus through Deuteronomy has much to say about what the priests did which was in the main taking care of the tabernacle/temple and the rites connected with it. They also of course were responsible for judging certain questions (determining skin infections etc.) and for teaching the Law (cf. Mal.2:7) no small responsibility. After all, the entire Mosaic Law was meant to teach about our need for a Substitute (Jesus Christ) and our relationship to Him through His "blood" sacrifice, and this would have been (or at least should have been) what the priests were most concerned with: true sanctification represented by the ritual of the Law. For more on the specifics please see the link: "The Jewish Tabernacle".

Please feel free to write me back if I missed anything here.

Yours in Jesus our dear Lord and Savior,

Bob L.

Question #7:

Thank you and I am glad you had some fun time away with family! I think the other day she wanted to know the time frame of where the Levi /Priests were at the time of the prophets. We were studying Habakkuk 5months. We dug every verse and cross reference verse from the OT to the NT. Like with Habakkuk, so the minor and major prophets.

Response #7:

Good for you and your group! That's the kind of serious Bible study we all need.

As to the priests, the Jewish priesthood began with Aaron and only came to an end when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D. of course it had long since ceased to function in anything like a godly fashion by the time of our Lord a generation or two earlier. The prophets per se wrote and were active between ca. 950 and 400 B.C. (although of course all scripture is "prophetic"). The Jewish priesthood was also functioning throughout this same period (but with a 70 year hiatus during the Babylonian captivity).

Yours in Jesus Christ our dear Lord and Savior,

Bob L.

Question #8:

Hi Bob,

This is not a question with regard to Christianity, but rather an observation with relation to your field of study (Classics).

Ever since I have gotten into science, I have desired a language for universal knowledge representation. Unfortunately, all approaches to designing and constructing an artificial language (such as Esperanto) have failed, partially because constructing an artificial language that can perfectly represent all the expressiveness of a natural language is unsolved.

However, Sanskrit strikes me as the best such language for this purpose. Why Sanskrit and not Latin? While Latin has the best lexicon for universal knowledge representation, Sanskrit is the only natural language which has a complete mathematical treatment of its grammar. The Sanskrit grammarian Panini lays out this system in his A adhyayi.

Sanskrit is the only natural language for which it is possible to write a computer compiler!

While it is true that Sanskrit is associated with the liturgical language of Hinduism, I nonetheless would find it very useful, due to its preciseness and clarity, to use it for general knowledge representation. It would especially be helpful to have a common Sanskrit Bible (similar to the Vulgate of St. Jerome).


Response #8:

An interesting observation! As I say, I have no Sanskrit personally. There is a parallel for translating scripture into an ancient language. The famous Old Testament scholar Franz Delitzsch translated the New Testament into Biblical Hebrew as an evangelical device for his fellow Jews. I have used this work on occasion and find that it gives excellent insights into what the Greek may mean from the Judeo-Hellenic way of thinking. All translation is useful, when carefully done. If you undertake this task, you will find out that it will require you to understand what you are translating on a very deep level. When a person thinks he/she understands a passage in the Bible, translating it into English (or any other language) is really the "proof of the pudding" and often makes one realize that there may be levels of meaning or even important basics that have yet to be thoroughly understood (I experience this all the time). So continue with your Greek and Hebrew studies!

Yours in Jesus Christ our dear Lord,

Bob L.

Question #9:

Dear Robert,

Are there scribal errors in the Old Testament? And what do older translations (LXX, Aramaic) have to say?


Response #9:

Good to hear from you. It's important to keep in mind the difference between the original text penned by the original author and all subsequent copies. The original Pentateuch written by Moses under the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit was absolutely the Word of God inerrant in every particular. Copies are copies. They may be good copies (even perfect copies); they may be less than perfect in some respect. I do think that it is fair to say that God has provided for the preservation of His Word in all manner of supernatural ways. But it is not correct, for example, to maintain that the manuscripts we have of the Old Testament are inerrant. That is true even of the New Testament where there are far more witnesses to the original text and the distance in time between original and earliest manuscript is up to a millennium and a half less than is the case with the earliest books of the Old Testament.

For one thing, obviously, we have more than one manuscript of scripture (OT and NT both), and they do not always agree in every single particular. For another thing, the dates of the various manuscripts are, generally, much later than the original. In the case of one of the best exemplars of the Masoretic text (the earliest and best textual tradition of the Hebrew Bible, in my opinion), codex Leningradiensis, the manuscript itself dates to ca. 1000 A.D. So the manuscripts we do have are clearly copies of copies, and it is inevitably impossible to opine with any certainty as to the number of times a text tradition or text family was copied (also for obvious reasons). Constructing "family trees" of different text traditions is a favorite sport of textual critics in all of ancient literature, but it is always only theoretical and in my view usually not particularly helpful. That is certainly the case for the Old Testament since we have virtually no direct information on the actual Hebrew text between the Dead Sea scrolls and the Middle Ages. The Dead Sea scrolls actually add very little to our understanding of the text other than to verify that the text we do have, the MT (Masoretic text), is extremely good. That is the main impression I would wish to make after all this background: in spite of the three and a half millennia which have passed since Moses first put pen to paper the Old Testament text we have today is essentially as he wrote it under the Spirit's superintendence, and the places where there are textual issues (mss. which disagree or questionable words/spellings/meanings which we may feel the need to emend) are very few (less than 1% of the text, I would estimate). Not only that, but the instances in that 1% where the correct solution to the problem results in any sort of significant change in anything of doctrinal significance are perhaps one in a hundred. In other words, when reading the Hebrew Bible, we are reading something so close to what was originally put down on paper that the difference between what we see and what the prophets wrote is close to negligible. It is not actually negligible, however, so that anyone serious about teaching the Bible ought to devote serious time and effort to the subject of textual criticism and that will only be profitable for those who have mastered the original languages.

The above was necessary to explain in order to come to the next part of your question. There are a number of ancient translations of the Bible, the Greek Septuagint (LXX) and the Latin Vulgate being the most famous, but the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Aramaic Targums also fall into the category of oblique "witnesses" to the Hebrew text (as well as the Syriac and Armenian versions, etc.). What all of the external witnesses have in common, however, are two factors which vitiate their usefulness: 1) their level of understanding of the meaning of the Hebrew is in many cases very questionable, and unfortunately but for obvious reasons this trend tends to be more pronounced in places where the Hebrew text is difficult; i.e., the very places where we might like help are the very places where we should be wary of accepting it; 2) the state of their own texts is far more problematic than that of the Hebrew Bible. The importance of this last point is often underestimated by those who dabble in these issues. But consider: if we do not really know whether the reading of the LXX on a passage in Genesis chapter 49 stems from the 2nd century B.C. translator or from someone who emended him centuries later or even from a mistake in copyist tradition at any point along the line, we may be resting on a hollow reed in attempting to use said translation to emend a word or phrase we do not understand or have a hard time accepting as original in the Hebrew. And if the person who did the LXX translation in the first place didn't really understand the Hebrew text he was translating (as is often the case with problem passages in my experience), then we are really kidding ourselves.

I spent a great deal of time in seminary on the Septuagint (and have made use it ever since), but have almost never gotten any help from it in the realm of textual criticism. The LXX's value is in its witness to the usage of biblical Greek in the centuries before the New Testament. I find the other translations of even less value because of their later dates and irrelevance for NT vocabulary work.

What I have found in all my efforts to understand the text of both testaments is that the standard scholarly editions of each are of very high quality and so close to the original that for those with facility in the original languages and a background in textual criticism there is usually no great problem with establishing the original text, even in those places where the editions have gotten it wrong.

Hope this helps with your question.

Please feel free to write back about any of the above.

In Jesus Christ who is the living Word of God,

Bob L.

Question #10:

Since it may take me a long time to arrange my life in a way that would allow me to go on an academic course to study biblical languages, I want to start doing some work in this area myself (and I have so far enjoyed and thanks to only to God's gifts been quite successful in learning languages) and I wanted to ask a very basic question regarding this matter: are biblical Greek and Hebrew much different from contemporary Greek and Hebrew? Are there textbooks for 'biblical' or 'ancient' Greek or Hebrew, and if so, would you recommend them? I had a look at the resources on your website, but I thought it would be a good idea to use Polish textbooks where I can (contact with my mother tongue is very limited these days). Finally, based on your experience - would you recommend a rookie like me to study both at a time or start with either of the two?

Response #10:

Yes, Biblical Hebrew and Ancient Greek are different enough from their modern counterparts to warrant studying them qua ancient languages instead of focusing on the modern derivations (see the links: "Hebrew Language Study Tools" and "History of Greek"). And yes, I think studying them with primers on the subject in one's first language is a very good idea. If you have the time, doing them together can be quite helpful since there are many parallels between ancient languages and the way grammarians describe and explain them (though of course Hebrew is Semitic and Greek Indo-European). I would recommend finding a tutor at least if taking formal instruction is not an option. Even for talented people like yourself, self-study has its limits and frustrations. It would be good to have someone to talk to in person about the issues that will come up right from the start (e.g., alphabets and pronunciation).

Question #11:

I'm now browsing through both English and Polish textbooks for biblical Greek and Hebrew. I'm thinking about Lambdin's 'Introduction to Biblical Hebrew' (available in both English and Polish). Would you recommend any textbook for Greek? Have you heard about Duff's 'The Elements of New Testament Greek'?

Also, at least for the time being, when I have no access to a tutor, I will enrich my study with a textbook that includes a CD with pronunciation - have you heard about 'The Cambridge introduction to Biblical Hebrew'? I'm sorry I keep coming back to this issue, I would just like to make most of your knowledge and experience on this matter.

Response #11:

Not a problem. Lambdin is wonderful and contains insights into Hebrew syntax you won't find in many advanced grammatical treatments. Cambridge ancient language books are usually very good (I use their series for introductory Greek), but I am not familiar with this book so I can't personally recommend it. If it is the CD which is catching your interest, well, there are plenty of pronunciation helps available on the internet which may be better than the accompanying CD anyway. See the link: Hebrew Language Resources (there are many more good things out there which aren't on this list too). As to Greek, I don't know this book either. Generally speaking, I am not a fan of learning Greek via "New Testament Greek". One is much better off learning basic Ancient Greek. As I say, the Cambridge Reading Greek is very good indeed (and there are many other very fine Classical Greek introductory texts). The language is the same, only the NT books tend to "dumb it down" by leaving out a few things not common in the NT. But, eventually, Greek won't be as much use as it could be if a person is unable to access Greek outside of the Bible (or is just uncomfortable or unfamiliar with it).

Question #12:

Dear Professor,

Would you recommend any website for reading the Bible in original languages? I followed your recommendation and I often use Blue Letter Bible, but it doesn't offer explanations of grammatical forms used, only the root forms. If there is a credible resource that breaks the verses down in more detail and that would help me understand the grammar behind each word, it would be of great use.

With prayer for you and in our Lord,

Response #12:

I don't know of anything online that is helpful in such a way. In fact, there is very little off-line that really does the trick from that point of view. That is one of the things a "good" commentary ought to do (and why there are so few commentaries I would be able to describe as "good"). Classics has many such books for Greek and Latin texts that do just what you ask, although probably the majority of them do put things at too a high a level of exploration to be absolutely beneficial to students. These resources are particular lacking in the Hebrew Old Testament, though, ironically, there must be literally tens of thousands of commentaries on the OT and its individual books. If it's any consolation, I found out many years ago that once a person gets to a certain level of skill in Hebrew and attains a certain level of doctrinal understanding, most of the real "work" has to be done on one's own in any case, because 1) most commentators are not very deeply grounded in the true theology of the OT (if the writers are even believers), and 2) most are not really interested in pursuing the truth that lives in the words scripture. The result is that they are not asking the right sorts of questions about what the passages really mean, nor are they able to fit these truths into an overall schema of truth which they lack and in which they are disinterested. As a result, most commentaries they tend not to see the problems or look for the solutions and only approach things superficially. To put things in terms of your profession, I suppose it is not impossible for a blind person who is grossly overweight to play soccer, but there will be a limit to how much that person can benefit you as a couch.

On the New Testament side, I may have already given you this bit of bibliography:

A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament Maximilian Zerwick (Author), Mary Grosvenor (Translator) ISBN: 978-8876535888

This is an excellent book that does what you ask in terms of the Greek New Testament without getting into the theology (which is a good thing since it is published by the Pontifical Institute). It is, however, a frightfully expensive book. You would do well to get one used if you can find one for significantly less than the full price. Moreover, since Greek is the hardest and most important "lift" in preparation for a Bible ministry, and since one can and will learn most of what would be learned from this resource in reading Classical Greek, and since it's better to cut one's teeth in the Greek outside of the Bible first, there are probably better things you could do with your money.

Sorry not to be able to be of more help on this. There are always new things out there in cyber-space every day, so if I do find anything I'll try to remember to let you know and vice versa too please. I do have some things for Hebrew listed on my links page: Hebrew Language Resources, but none of these really goes where you are interested in going. The best work was done many years ago and was not all that complete at the time (and generally liberal leaning, even in the 19th century). For a good example of something helpful in terms of grammar, besides Keil and Deilitzsch's famous commentary (which, while only occasionally truly helpful, is the one true "must" for OT study in Hebrew; see the link), I would offer S.R. Driver's Notes on the Hebrew Text of Samuel (see the link).

Keep running the good race, my friend!

Yours in Jesus Christ our dear Lord and Savior,

Bob L.

Question #13:

Dear Professor,

Thank you as always. I am not that disappointed that there is a scarcity of good resources in this area, as it is only in line with other areas of Bible study, but I thought I would check with you anyway, just in case. I frequently check the passages in Greek and Hebrew on the Blue Letter Bible website and I understand more and more. Being more than half way through Lambdin's Introduction to Biblical Hebrew (I need to say I'm thoroughly enjoying this textbook), I'm aware I've got a very long way to go, but nevertheless it's been enough to recognize a lot of forms and the grammar used.

I also start to see that, as you said, "Greek is the hardest and most important "lift" in preparation for a Bible ministry", but in many respects it's very similar to German ("passion" for prepositions, similar usage of cases), which I did study and spoke at a reasonable level. I will look into the resources which you recommended, in the mean time I've got a lot of work with both Lambdin and "Reading Greek". I cannot wait to be able to go into the depth of things and start making full use of the titles which you have recommended.

In our Lord,

Response #13:

You're very welcome, my friend!

I remain very impressed with your prodigious progress.

In Jesus our Lord whom we remain on earth to serve.

Bob L.

Question #14:

Dear Professor,

Just a couple of questions regarding ancient Hebrew pronunciation. I was looking for a video with correct biblical Hebrew pronunciation and I found this:


If you have the time, could you take a look at it and let me know if this pronunciation is correct (for example - Lambdin describes v and f as labio-dental, whereas in this video, since they are shown to be produced without teeth, wouldn't it make them labial)?

I was working out the sounds from Lambdin's descriptions, but hearing them is obviously very helpful.

With prayer and in our Lord,

Response #14:

There are a lot different "reconstructions" of biblical Hebrew. I think trying to recover the original is somewhat misguided because 1) it is probably impossible, and 2) it is not something that most people who want to master biblical Hebrew feel necessary to do (aside from some specialists in phonetics). English, for example, is always changing, and the same is true of almost all languages. I have personally adopted the Modern Hebrew pronunciation, and that works quite well in my opinion. This video is consistent with many suppositions about Ancient Hebrew, but not everyone would agree with everything proposed (on Aleph, for example: most people would not consider a glottal stop an actual sound). On waw, I think it fair to say that this pronunciation on the tape is somewhat esoteric as well (I use my teeth and I think that is true of most Israelis and it's OK that this is "modern"). But regardless of all this, I have found out that in learning ancient languages it is very important to be consistent with one's approach to allow the language learning part of the brain to access the information and process it effectively. Since most people use standard Modern Sephardic pronunciation (as used in Israel), there are many good reasons for following suit. After all, even early on in biblical times not everyone pronounced things the same (e.g., Judges 12:5-6).

Here is a good site for actually hearing the Bible in what I consider good Hebrew enunciation:

Audio of Biblical Hebrew

Yours in Jesus Christ our dear Lord and with many thanks for all your prayers!

Bob L.

Question #15:

Dear Professor,

Thank you for your guidance. What you wrote about with regard to the consistency of approach I wholeheartedly agree with. In fact, this is one of the main reasons I wrote to you with this issue - my limited knowledge of phonetics places some constrain on my progression at the moment.

I took a look at the website to which you refer and I plan to make most of it, although it would be good to understand the Hebrew that is being spoken, and I need more time for this.

I thought maybe you could very briefly describe the differences between some of the letters in the pronunciation that you use, as understanding them will be very helpful in revising and memorising the words:

1. With the same vowel points, what would be the difference in pronunciation of aleph and ayin (would these two also be pronounced in the same way at the start/in the middle/at the end of a word?

2. Between he and het?

3. Between teth and taw?

4. Between kaph (with dagesh) and qoph?

5. Berween kaph (without dagesh) and he or heth?

6. Between samekh and sin?

As always professor, your guidance on all these things is much appreciated.

With constant prayer for you,

Response #15:

You are very welcome. As to your Hebrew questions:

1. In modern Hebrew, no difference for most people; some try to make the 'ayin a "vocalized" glottal stop, but that is not really necessary.

2. Het has a guttural aspiration (cheth as in clearing one's throat) heh does not.

3. Modern Hebrew usually makes no distinction (ancient purists want to make teth more of a sharp dental, but that is not necessary).

4. These are very close, but kaph is aspirated (i.e., 'ch' vs. hard 'c').

5. Heh is an "h" or rough breathing; kaph and cheth are very close and in my experience most Hebrew speakers don't seem to distinguish them very clearly; if there is a difference it is that cheth is a more loudly vocalized and emphatic aspirated guttural.

6. No difference in modern pronunciation; some wish to make the former a dental in ancient Hebrew, but, again, not necessary to do.

Keep up the good work my friend! I continue to keep you and your family in my prayers.

In Jesus Christ our dear Lord and Savior.

Bob L.

Question #16:

For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them.
Isaiah 58:2 NIV

Why is 'seem' omitted in other translations?

Response #16:

This an interpretation on the part of the NIV, but I believe it to be correct. Without question, Israel is here being called to account for hypocrisy. Cf. Unger (UCOT in loc.): "They acted as if they were truly seeking Him". The verb here is imperfect, whereas we would expect a present participle if this were a mere statement. It is possible to translate "they will delight" or "they may delight" or "they were delighting (to give the imperfect one of its three main forces: future, modal, repetitive past). Here the idea is modal, sort of an irrealis or "contrary to fact". The best way to render that into English is with the auxiliary "seem" = i.e., they really are not desirous to so do. This is a good example of grammatical models often not answering all the questions we may have in Biblical Hebrew. But going with some basic truths about how the language works ought to be helpful: since this is an imperfect, it's not really acceptable to translate it as a simple present tense (even though that is what most versions do).

Question #17:

In your last response you wrote: "They acted /as if/ they were truly seeking Him. The verb here is imperfect, whereas we would expect a present participle if this were a mere statement." Could you provide me an example of how this translation would look with present participle, so that I can see the difference between the imperfect verb and a present participle and the impact it has on the meaning?

Response #17:

On Isaiah 58:2, Jeremiah 22:27 has a parallel construction "the land to which they desire to return". Here we have the standard Hebrew construction of a pronoun with a present participle for the present tense. English does the same thing, only we have to use the auxiliary verb "to be" in conjunction with the present participle.

Question #18:

I apologize for coming back to it, I'm still unsure about one thing regarding this passage. I might have misunderstood you, but it seems as if you were saying there is an imperfect verb and not a present participle first, and then you write that we've got a pronoun with a present participle - could you please clarify?

Response #18:

Isaiah 58:2 has the imperfect, and in your last email you asked: "Could you provide me an example of how this translation would look with present participle, so that I can see the difference between the imperfect verb and a present participle and the impact it has on the meaning?" Jeremiah 22:27 is just such an example, namely, of a present tense in Hebrew which is characterized by the use of the present participle. "They desire to return" is, literally, "they are lifting up their hearts/souls to return". So "parallel" was not the best word. Jeremiah 22:27 is an example of what you asked for that is different in respect of this critical question of tenses about which you inquired. Please do let me know if this is still confusing.

Question #19:

Could you please explain a minor difference between the citation and original text in 1 Peter 2:6-7 and Isaiah 28:16:

and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame the one who relies on it will never be stricken with panic.

Response #19:

Trust and reliance are synonyms, so I take it that the question concerns "will never be put to shame" versus "will never be stricken with panic". The latter is one of a variety of possible renderings of the Hebrew which is not easy to translate. Peter has followed the Septuagint here which has the same verb form which he used. The Hebrew chush means to move rapidly, and in the hiphil stem which we have here seems to mean "be flustered" or "flee in panic" or something of the sort. Being "rattled" in a decisive way is very close to being put to shame, although the former focuses on the internal state of the person in question and the latter on the outward impression given and observed. This is a great example of the problems in translating idioms from one language to another. I think the LXX did a pretty good job on this occasion and for that reason the Spirit led Peter to repeat their rendering.

Question #20:

Could you explain:

Psalm 51:4
Against You, You only, I have sinned And done what is evil in Your sight, So that You are justified when You speak And blameless when You judge.

It sounds as if David was saying: I sinned, so that you are justified when You speak' - could you please clarify this? Could it be translated 'when You speak (against me)', as the following verse suggests ('when You judge')?

Response #20:

As Paul says in Romans, quoting this verse:

What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God's faithfulness? Not at all! Let God be true, and every man a liar. As it is written: "So that you may be proved right when you speak and prevail when you judge."
Romans 3:3-4 NIV

David's point and Paul's too is that God is absolutely righteous and just. Therefore confession of sin to Him as the One who is truly offended is right and proper. The problem in Psalm 51:4 is the lema'an clause which admits of a variety of translations. As Gesenius' lexicon suggests, the sentence may depend upon David's confession (being understood in the words of confession in the first half of the verse). That is the view I take.

Question #21:

Could you please clarify this - what is the lema'an clause? How does this sentence depend on David's confession?

Response #21:

On Psalm 51:4, lema'an is the phrase which in BH introduces final clauses. The question is, on what does this final clause depend? For that is really what is at the heart of your original question in trying to understand this clause. In my view the clause depends upon what David says in the previous verses, namely, his confession of his sins. To expand the translation: "[I am confessing my sins in this way] so that you may be justified . . .".

Question #22:

Could you explain:

Jeremiah 27:5 NASB:
I have made the earth, the men and the beasts which are on the face of the earth by My great power and by My outstretched arm, and I will give it to the one who is pleasing in My sight.

By saying 'to the one who is pleasing in My sight' in this passage, does God have anyone particular in mind, or is it a general statement, referring to anyone who obeys Him?

Response #22:

Some may take this as Messianic, but NIV translates "to anyone I please", i.e., as if a generic statement where the "pleasure/righteousness" is in God's eyes rather than inherent in the individual. It can go either way and even both ways. Given that Nebuchadnezzar is the object of the gift of worldly control in the next verse the generic view seems at least to be correct in the following context (that does not negate the Messianic view in taking verse five on its own).

Question #23:

You wrote: Variations on this title occur rather frequently in scripture (e.g., Deut.10:17; Ps.136:2-3; Dan.2:47; Rev.17:14).

Some of these passages use the title 'God of gods' - what is meant by it, in light of the fact there is one God?

Response #23:

The Hebrew word for "God" is 'elohiym, and is technically a plural (i.e., a "plural of majesty"). The basic word means "mighty one", and in the singular or in cases of a true plural (rather than a plural of majesty) the word means "god" (as opposed to God) and, in addition to referring to "gods", is also occasionally used for angels or even human beings (Ps.82:6; Jn.10:34). So "GOD of gods" would be the way I would understand such passages as Psalm 136:2, for example.

Question #24:

So could this title be understood 'God of angels and/or human beings'?

Response #24:

Technically it could. In practice, my sense is that it is used as superlative. I would have to see a specific case where the more particular meaning might be entertained.

Question #25:

Dear Dr. Luginbill,

I was trying to figure from the information on your website approximately how long it was from the writing of the Psalms to Matthew. Is about 1400 years close? Or would 1040 be closer?

In Christ,

Response #25:

Good to make your acquaintance. The book of Psalms was written over some period of time beginning with king David's reign ca. 1000 B.C., and Matthew was the first gospel written ca. 40-45 A.D., so that 1,040 years is close the mark, but 1,400 would be far too long a period.

Yours in Jesus Christ our dear Lord and Savior,

Bob Luginbill

Question #26:

Dear Bob,

I think I recall in the story of Noah's Ark of there actually having been unicorns that existed, but I don't recall entirely. I was wondering, did the unicorn ever actually exist? If so, where are they today? I know it seems odd, but this caught my curiosity is all.

Response #26:

As far as I know, there are nor have there ever been any such things as unicorns. The KJV uses that word to translate r'em from Hebrew (it really means "wild ox").

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