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should we be using greek and hebrew in our sermons? – jonathan robinson

opened old book with flying greek letters on black and white background

Teacher of preaching Paul Windsor, founder of this blog, is remembered by many of his students as opining, “Your knowledge of Hebrew and Greek should be like your underwear, important for support but shouldn’t be shown off in public!” It is a pithy adage and I think an important warning to two types of preachers,

  1. Those with impressive knowledge of the original languages of scripture who might be tempted to display this knowledge without any benefit to the sermon.
  1. Those whose poor knowledge of Greek and Hebrew are tempted to sound impressive by using Strong’s, or E-sword, or some such, and make idiots of themselves.

Exegeting the passage in the original languages is very important for both nuance and accuracy and the original languages can often suggest illustrations or images which are less explicit in the English text but can powerfully communicate the message. Often there is no need to “show your working” when you are preaching and doing so is either in the realm of showing off or of revealing your ineptitude.

However, I am not wholly happy with the underwear analogy (and no doubt, like all analogies and underpants, it was only intended to stretch so far!). From time to time I think there is a point where it becomes appropriate to explain the original language of a text in order to persuade the congregation of the interpretation of the passage that you are preaching, or even of why another interpretation might be wrong. Often the understanding of a word or idiom in the original language provides an interpretive crux without which your explanation of the passages meaning is incomplete.

Not only this but no translation is perfect, while the scholars who produced them are usually of the highest caliber the editorial process and pressure from publishers not to stray too far from tradition mean that there will always be translation decisions that a preacher will want to push back on or at the very least nuance (a classic example might be 2 Peter 3:10).

Many English speakers who have grown up with the Bible often have a sense of over familiarity and it good for them to be reminded that this is not a text that arrived from Heaven in English but that they read it through a good but fallible translation. I think N.T. Wright’s famous complaint that “reading the New Testament in  English is like drinking wine through a tea bag” unhelpfully undermines people’s confidence in their ability to read scripture for themselves, but without going as far we can certainly encourage some (often much needed) humility. At the same time in most of our congregations now there are many languages present, it is important that the Bible is not understood to be an English document or that its interpretation is only for those with excellent English. I can’t think of a better way than referring, occasionally and judiciously, to the original languages.

Finally, as preachers we find great joy and insight from knowing the original languages, even if we are not yet experts on them. Why would we deprive the congregation of that. Are they not smart enough to understand?

What do you think? What are your experiences of giving or receiving sermons that refer to Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic?


One Comment

  1. Aaron Johnstone says:

    Hi Jonathan,
    Thanks a lot for your thoughts here. I found this really helpful while I was studying my final greek course (yussss) about a month ago. It was nice to have some practical application. I like the underwear analogy, I think it provides a helpful balance. From the very little experience I have, I too would perhaps prefer to qualify the analogy by demonstrating the usefulness of communicating a language/translation nuance but only where absolutely necessary. This provides a balance between undermining the translations our congregations are reading, and expounding meaning (that the English in any translation might struggle to communicate) where necessary. Thanks again Jonathan.

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