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To Be (Im)Precise

by Tim O'Hearn

A few years ago I wasted a couple of hours after a midnight in a discussion with a man who believed the King James Version of the Bible was the original, inspired, infallible version of scripture. Talk of the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic languages was dismissed as "propaganda." To point out the errors in translation or even the changes in the English language over the years, was futile. It was equally hopeless to point out that the English language was so imprecise that many places it was ambiguous.

It has been said that part of the "fullness of time" (Gal 4:4) which God was waiting for to send his Son was that the Greek language was universal, specific, and static. That is, it was spoken throughout the known world, it was a precise language, and it was soon to be "dead" in that form, thus easier to understand throughout the ages.

A prime example of how the English language lacks that precision is the second person pronoun. In English we use only one word, "you," for singular and plural. Granted the south uses a plural form, "y’all," and in the northeast there is "youse." But even these can be singular. (The plural of "y'all" is "all y'all.") Even King James’ English was better, with "you" for the singular and "ye" for the plural. But for the most part, English is the only language where, when you say "you" in a group, no one can be sure how many people are being addressed.

Even the Greek can be ambiguous at times. For instance, in Acts 2:38 it refers to the "gift of the Holy Spirit." Does that refer to "the gift which is the Holy Spirit," the most common interpretation? Should it be the most grammatically common usage,"the gift which belongs to the Holy Spirit?" What about the logical "gift whose source is the Holy Spirit," or "the gift whose quality is that of the Holy Spirit," similar to "a place of rest." There are even a couple more, less likely, interpretations of the case we translate as "of."

For the most part, however, the Greek is more precise than English and was a more appropriate language in which the Word of God could be written. I will give but one example where the English translation is ambiguous but the original Greek is not. Ephesians 6:17 speaks of the "sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God." In English, which word, "sword" or "Spirit," is being referred to by "which"? We often interpret this, "the sword (belonging to or coming from the Spirit) which is the word of God." Unlike the English, the Greek word for "which" has a gender, neuter, which agrees with "spirit" (neuter) rather than "sword" (feminine). Thus the proper interpretation would be "the sword of the Spirit, which Spirit is the word of God." This makes the Spirit the word, rather than the sword. It is a fine, but important, distinction, especially when speaking about inspiration.

If you have read this far, you are possibly asking what difference all this makes. Going back to my midnight discussion, it makes a big difference. "God is not an author of confusion." (I Cor 14:33) If the English of 1611 is the original, then we need either to learn Middle English, or translate from that to Modern English. Either way can lead to confusion as compared to translating from the original Greek and Hebrew. Can we learn the word of God in English. Certainly! But we learn it better from a better, more modern translation that takes into account the precision of the original languages.