Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Lessons from Sem 2: Languages are Important

Dovetailing with the lesson that hermeneutics matter, Seminary also taught me that languages are important.

Even before I went to Seminary, I knew that languages were a big deal. The Christian tradition in which I was raised holds that scripture is inerrant in it's original form, which includes the original language in which it was communicated. For most of scripture, these languages are Greek and Hebrew.

The more I learn about other languages, the more I appreciate how distinctive they are from each other. I spent some time in Merida, Mexico when I was in college. I had learned the word "simpatico" in my spanish classes, and it meant something like "nice", or perhaps "friendly". When I got to talking with my Mexican hosts, I realized that there is no English word that captures the meaning behind "simpatico". Simpatico, properly translated into English, would mean something more like "friendship between people that is so profound that these people fit together as if they were designed to be in relationship with each other". Best friends are simpatico. But, as I was taught by my Mexican friends, simply calling a person "simpatico" because they are friendly or nice is a misuse of the term. Simpatico is much more intimate than friendliness, and it could be seen as offensive if you call someone simpatico when you only casually know them.

Another example is with the English word "predicament". I saw a video interview with Paul Tillich (a prominent 20th century German theologian) once, and he mentioned that there is no equivalent word for "predicament" in the German language. Predicament, he said, was a wonderful English word that described so much about humans and their relationships. Using a concept like "predicament" in German, he continued, required much unpacking.

Even though we have excellent English translations of the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, seminary gave me a better appreciation of what is lost when translators try to cram complex foreign words into simple English equivalents (or vice versa). On top of that, word plays and poetry lose much of their power when translated.

For instance, one of the first passages I translated from Greek was John 3:16. In English, it goes something like "God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life." Now, what does it mean to say that "God so loved the world"? Most people who speak english thinks it means "God loved the world sooo much that he sent his only son....". That's what I thought it meant before I was taught Greek. But it's wrong. In fact, the word "So" is the greek word "houtos", which means "thusly; in this manner". The translation then becomes, "God THUSLY loved the world..." -or- "God IN THIS MANNER loved the world..." At least in this case, the Bible doesn't teach that God loves us sooo much, as if the gospel message is similar to Romeo and Juliette. Instead, it teaches us HOW God loved us, and how we should therefore love others.

Makes a difference, doesn't it?

Wordplays make a difference in Genesis 1:1. In the Hebrew, this verse is highly unusual in its structure, and there also seems to be a word play. The word for "In the beginning" seems to be carefully chosen (and slightly mispelled) to simultaneously mean "begining" (reshit), and "create" (bara). Many people think that Genesis 1:1 is meant to be historical fact about the ordering of creation. The fact that the first verse (and many others) in Genesis is a tricky, artfully crafted sentence that has defied precise translation lets me know I shouldn't be so sure this was meant to be a story of historical fact.

Languages, as viewed from the standpoint of translations, are important.

As an American, I love the English language. Not only is it flexible, being both precise and beautiful, but it is also spoken almost everywhere. But when I hear English-speakers insult other languages, or declare that everyone in their community needs to speak English, I become concerned. The way I see it, the last time too many people got together and all spoke the same language, they tried to glorify themselves by building the biggest structure they could. For some reason the Bible doesn't make clear, God found this group of people speaking the same language lacking, and chose to confuse their language. Whether or not this story is symbolic, it does tell me something important - languages are a tool used by God.

What if, I wonder, that Latino who lives down the street and speaks bad English actually teaches me about simpatico in a way that draws me into a new way of thinking of Christian community? What if, as that Bavarian with whom I work describes his understanding of predicament, I realize how profoundly different from God I really am? Speaking English makes me feel proud and accomplished, as if I can make a name for myself that everyone can read and understand. Realizing the nuance of language tempers my pride.

Languages, as it comes to understanding our place in creation, are important.

I find it immensely wonderful that Christ sent me a Spirit that intercedes for me in ways that are beyond words. The language of my prayers are insufficient to capture the core of what I am trying to say to God. As much as I might be proud of my education and command of the English language, it is still a flimsy tool that I use to describe reality. The coming of the Spirit takes my attempts at articulation and translates them into a language beyond the inadequacies of creaturely language. The Spirit says for me what I am incapable of saying myself. The language it speaks get to a deeper reality than words ever can. It is amazing and humbling that God finds my finite being - my needs and my praises - to be beyond the very means I use to describe it.

Yet the Bible also teaches that the Spirit plumbs the depths of God, and reveals those depths to me. If my finite nature is beyond words, how much more complicated is the language the Spirit uses to reveal God to me? The language I am being taught, day after day, as I strain towards the mark, is the language of the divine.

Language, as it comes to understanding the infinite God, is important.

My prayer is that the words of our spoken language are continually colored by the unspeakable language of the Spirit. By that language which is beyond words may we find what is truly important.


Eric said...

Linguistic Anthropology has always piqued my excitement as well. What can we think that we have no word for? If there is something in this universe, there is a word for it. If we cannot express something to another person, it has no existence. This is a powerful statement that only makes sense when you think hard about it.

When you talk about the spirit, feelings, unspoke prayers, I start to hear the song, "More than Words," or perhaps, "You say it best, when you say nothing at all.." And yet, there is something unsettling going on here. Words are not enough so listen to my heart? I have no idea what my heart says, it changes all the time. Somehow, somewhere, I believe this is a huge cop-out. Under these ideas, we are bound by our vocabulary. If we want to feel God's presence, we need to get more words, perhaps another tower of babel?

Benjamin said...

Your comment stems from pragmatic epistemology. Specifically, Richard Rorty's contingency of language theory. For what it's worth, I reject this theory, which means I reject the assertion that those things that cannot be expressed to another have no existence. Maybe this only makes sense if you really think hard about it.

I'm a coherentist. Things make sense when they validate all the criteria one uses to judge. Those criteria need not be unassailable, as foundationalists make their criteria, but instead each defines their own working criteria for what defines the boundary between justified belief and unjustified belief. Entering into coherentist space is scary and tricky. It's even scarier than pragmatic epistemology, which is ultimately a known quantity. Coherentist space is like quantum mechanics.

I think you are misreading my post. I said nothing of feelings or listening to one's heart. Also, you mention being bound by vocabulary, which is a tenet of linguistic/pragmatic epistemology. If you hold to Rorty's theory of linguistic contingency (or something similar), then you must also hold to linguistic limitation.

The basic issues I'm raising in this post are these 1.) does the language you speak help define your conceptual space? For me, it is YES. 2.) can that conceptual space get lost when the language is translated? YES 3.) Can one learn something new by gaining a new language with which to examine the world? YES 4.)within Christianity, is there a language beyond our finite ability to put words around? YES

You've become so objectivist in your outlook, Eric, that you reject the idea of mystical understanding. If that is the case, much of my blog will rub you the wrong way. I'm a mystic mudblood to the core.

Tracy P. said...

So if you were talking to someone with little or no knowledge of scripture, who either wanted to start personal Bible study to know God better, or who was struggling with a life issue and wanted to know what the Bible had to say about it (two rather different scenarios), how would the issues of language and hermeneutics impact your recommended approach for them?

And, what practical ways (short of signing up for seminary or reading a lot of long scholarly books) can you recommend for someone who has studied the Bible for a number of years to better contextualize their understanding of its truths?

Benjamin said...


Your questions are difficult for this limited space.

For an experienced Bible reader, good hermeneutics demand at least an awareness of the blinders that we all wear. I would first recommend trying to get a feel for what they don't know. A book like "How to Read the Bible for All It's Worth" is a great lay-level start. Second, I encourage the use of commentaries. I own a wonderful commentary on Matthew that I'm going through again as the Sunday School goes through Matthew.

The first questions are harder by far. Let me start by invoking the model Jesus used to "educate" the disciples. Could the disciples have really gotten to know God better without an actual encounter with the actions of Jesus? Probably not. Why do modern Christians seem to think we can? I often find myself wondering if discipleship by Bible reading should be closer to the last step, rather than the first.

In any case, I would resist having the person just plow through Matthew, for instance. I would chose some Biblical passages in an easy to read translation that speak of God in ways that challenge us all. Passages like Sermon on the Mount, and Paul at Athens, and Peter on the rooftop, and the beginning & end of the story of Job.

I don't know how to answer the question about a person struggling with a life issue. The life issues most Americans struggle with are things like "where should I go to college?" or "who should I marry?" or "should I take that job in Kansas City?" I don't see the Bible telling me the answers to these questions, no matter what hermeneutic or translation I'm using. Scripture doesn't tell us things about our life, but tells us about the One who IS life (John 5:39). My use of hermeneutics would cause me to point the struggling person to a community who is trying to live out the love taught by Christ in the scriptures rather than trying to use scripture itself as an answer.

Benjamin said...


After re-reading your comment, I realized I answered your second question wrong.

Those books I mentioned are great, and not long and scholarly at all, but they are still books.

Another practical way would be to study the scriptures in community. If you'll recall, most of the early Christian communities were illiterate, so they all gathered together for someone to read them the scripture, and they discussed what it meant. Scripture study apart from community would be a strange concept for the early church.

This is quite a paradigm shift from our literate, individualistic, "personal Jesus" way of doing Christianity.

Tracy P. said...

What's interesting is that your answers give me an echo of my mom and grandma, who gave me a strong faith foundation, but indicated that one should leave the Bible reading and study to the professionals. I guess it would have been good if they could have studied in community--but I don't think they were ever persuaded that the Bible was accessible to the lay person. "The Bible is a hard book," they would say. Well, yes...

Benjamin said...

I occurred to me you might think I was heading that direction. You've mentioned the "hard book" thing before on this blog.

A faint echo is what I'm going for, but I definitely feel that the Bible is accessible to laypeople. I will go so far as to say that it is a book better suited to grown-ups, though. Stay tuned for a post on that.

Here's what I don't get. Most organized denominations fund seminaries. These seminaries fund Christian scholars who do research into the very issues we are talking about - hermeneutics, language, and more. What I don't understand is why we, as more lay-level Christians, don't seem to care that the scholarship we fund is completely useless to us.

Shouldn't we demand practical material on hermeneutics from our Seminaries that allow us to use and understand scripture better? Shouldn't we demand that our adult Sunday School material be on an adult level, rather than the 8th grade level? Shouldn't we expect seminary professors to visit our churches to give us training on whatever topic we, as a church, feel we need? Stay tuned for a post on this, too.

I resonate with your last sentence:
"The Bible is a hard book"
"Well, yes, but..."

Tracy P. said...

Oh my gosh, I'm repeating myself. Now I'm turning INTO my grandmother! :-)

I'll be waiting for those upcoming posts, but I think I'll refrain from quoting my forbears in the comments next time.

Chris B. said...

Benjamin, I hate to be that guy that offers corrections to the content of a post, but it seems to me the point you were making (in part) was that translation is important. Our English translations that read "God so loved the world" aren't using "so" in the way perhaps some English readers mistakenly take it (an adverb of degree), but as you correctly recognized the Greek should imply (an adverb of manner). It's a somewhat archaic usage, but to say, "Do it so," means, "do it in this way," and that's what the English translators are supplying. "So" has a very large semantic range.
Second, the words "in the beginning" in the Hebrew are bereshit, and the word for "create" is another word entirely: "bara" or "bero," depending on how you point it, meaning either "he created" or "of creating." There are no slight misspellings. Sorry to be such a stickler, but just in case you desire to use these examples again they'll be more precise. Cheers!

Benjamin said...


I agree completely on the use of "houtos", which means, as you have pointed out, "thusly" or, archaicly, "so". Thanks for pointing this out. I had the broadened definition in my unedited post, as well as a more full explanation of my understanding of the word "bereshit" in Genesis 1:1, as well as more Greek and Hebrew examples in the actual languages, as well as more examples from personal experience. But, since the post, even now, is longer than I would like, something had to go.

I would question, however, the usual translation of John 3:16 since the archaic usage of "so" lends itself to the type of misinterpretation I mentioned. To me "in this manner" seems a much more straightforward rendering, but it is fraught with political peril. How dare translators change the beloved John 3:16! But to not take the plunge differentiates John 3:16 from verses like 1 John 3:16 and 1 John 4:9 in ways that make me a little uncomfortable.

I'm going to defend my assertion about Genesis 1:1, though. To repeat what you were saying, reshit is the word for "beginning". To add the preposition "in", the "b" needs to be added, as well as some different vocalization (which is arguably speculative, unless we think the masoretes were inerrant). Now we have bereshit. But, as many Hebrew scholars have pointed out, the vocalization vs meaning is a little strange. To truly say, "In the beginning", the definite article should be added, which is missing in the Hebrew. My personal understanding, and the understanding of others like Michael Wise, Robert Alter, Emmanuel Tov, and some others I have read, is that the lack of the article is unusual. This prompted me to, in a decidedly un-scholarly way in this post, call this a "misspelling" for emphasis. The vocalization of bereshit, as was originally pointed out to me by Dr Wise, seems to indicate double wording. Bere sounds an awful lot like bara, especially since it is followed closely by bara in the actual text. Alter (or one of his sources, I can't recall), theorizes that this wordplay is smashing together the ideas of creation and beginning into as little linguistic space as possible, and purposefully ignoring the definite article to accomplish it. Creation and beginning, Alter theorizes, were simultaneous. I could be wrong, and I'm open to that, but something seems fishy. That something is lost in translation.

I just looked to see if there was anything on wikipedia about bereshit in Genesis 1:1, and there is! Whatever genius or shmuck wrote the paragraph (you never know with Wikipedia) dances around a couple of things, but ultimately affirms the precise translation of bereshit is open to interpretation, which is all I indicated in my post.

In any case, I welcome your sticklerness, it keeps me honest. I welcome more on my interpretation of Rorty, whom, I must admit, I'm not sure I always understand. To be honest, I'm a bit surprised you spend time on my sophomoric ramblings.

We should get together sometime. You still live in the twin cities?