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Original Languages

Word Studies

Navigating the Original Languages

The intent of this segment is twofold: to provide the reader with a bit of insight into the Hebrew language, and to give a glimpse of the historical background of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament.  It opens with a few short stories that provide some background to the points made later on. 

Cainan took a long look out over the fertile plains, pausing from his labor for just a brief minute.  It was amazing how far one could see when one was elevated a mere hundred feet or so.  Looking down the side of the brick and mortar structure from where he was sitting, he marveled again at what men could do when they set their minds to a common task.  It was said that the goal of this tower was to reach up to heaven, and he did not doubt that it would achieve the goal.  Lost in his thoughts, he did not notice anyone approaching until the voice of Diklah, his supervisor, penetrated his thoughts from only a short distance behind him.  Guiltily, Cainan hurriedly started to his feet.  Judging from the tone of his voice, Diklah was not in a good mood.  As he turned, he saw his supervisor looking questioningly at him, as if waiting for an answer.

“What was that, sir?” he asked as he began edging his way around Diklah.

“Haben Sie Felsen in den Mund?,” growled Diklah as he moved closer, “Stoppen Sie Ihr Gesicht, wenn Sie mit mir sprechen und sich wieder an die Arbeit!”

Hurriedly, Cainan scampered by Diklah, saying quickly, “I just stopped for a second to grab a breath of fresh air, sir.  It sure is nice up here, isn’t it, sir?  Nice talking to you, I’ll be back to work now.  See you later, sir.”

“I wonder what weed he is smoking now?” thought Cainan as he bounded up a flight of stairs, “He sounded a lot more garbled than usual – must be some powerful stuff.”

Arriving at the top of the stairs, he saw his co-worker, Seba, already back at work.  Hearing him arrive, Seba turned and said, “Tutaj jesteś! Chodź tu i pomóż mi z tym.”

“What was that?” said Cainan as he headed over to grab his tool belt.  Not hearing any response, Cainan glanced back to see Seba gaping at him.  “What’s the matter with you?  You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Seba scowled, “Grasz jakiś żart na mnie?  Co się dzieje?”

It was Cainan’s turn to stare, “Seba, that didn’t make any sense.  You sounded worse than Diklah!  What’s gotten into you guys?”

“And that’s where it all started,” thought Lucius as he set down his pen.  Ever since that day, men have struggled to communicate between people groups, trying to overcome the language barriers which had been put in place by God.  There had been a lot of progress in the last hundred years or so after Alexander the Great had conquered most of the world.  The Greek language had spread until was spoken by nearly everyone throughout all the civilized regions.  Even he spoke Greek, although he would never give up Hebrew, his native tongue.

Greek was such an odd and different language.  Learning to get the structure correct had been difficult, but over time he had managed to become quite fluent – although he still had a slight accent.  It was because of his fluency in both Hebrew and Greek that he had been selected for the task he was now involved with: translating the holy Hebrew scriptures into Greek.  He and about seventy others had been working on this project for a long time, and it had proven to be a challenging task due to the immense difference between the two languages.  Lucius knew that many languages were similar to each other, but such was not the case with Hebrew and Greek.

Hebrew was a lovely metaphorical type language: nearly all the words were concrete terms, and only a few were abstract.  Concrete terms are words used for objects detectable by the human senses.  These are things that can be seen, tasted, touched, heard, and smelled; real, tangible objects.  Abstract terms, on the other hand, describe ideas, concepts, and emotions; things that have no physical form.  Examples of abstract terms include love, honor, kindness, and other such intangibles: these kinds of terms generally did not exist in the Hebrew language.  To Lucius, the absence of abstract terms did not detract from the Hebrew language, but actually served to enrich it.  For when one wished to express an abstract concept, one used a concrete term as a metaphor, and in his opinion doing this gave a richer expression to one’s communication.  His mind went back to the account of when Moses used the concrete term of ‘heavy’ when telling God of his inability to give a good speech.  Moses had said: “I am heavy of speech, and heavy of tongue.”  By using the term ‘heavy’, he had effectively described his lack of eloquence.  This was the beauty of Hebrew: it was a rich language full of metaphors.

It seemed to him a pity to take such a rich language and translate it into the comparatively dull and rigid Greek language.  But, that was his job.  As much as it pained him to do a work that would inevitably lose the richness of the original text, he knew he must continue the translation.  After all, if he didn’t do it, there would be somebody else, probably less qualified than himself, who would take up the project.  Allowing that to happen would be even more painful than doing the work himself.  He simply could not bear the thought of having someone less qualified than himself attempt to bring the holy Hebrew Scriptures into the Greek language.

He picked up his pen.  This next phrase was another example of the metaphorical quality of the Hebrew language:

“And he nursed in YHWH, who wove righteousness”

‘Righteousness’: one of the few abstract terms in Hebrew.  That would be easy to translate, but he found himself scratching his head over the metaphorical terms, trying to decide the best way to translate them.  Finally, Lucius set his pen to paper, praying that God was leading him.

“And Abram trusted in God, and it was imputed to him for righteousness.”

“And Abram trusted in God, and it was imputed to him for righteousness.”

A few hundred years later, Tertius set down his pen as Paul paused from dictating the letter to the Roman believers.  “You know,” Paul said, “I thank God for the Septuagint: the translation of the Hebrew scriptures into the Greek language.”

“Me too,” agreed Tertius, “I wouldn’t even be able to read the scriptures if they were only available in Hebrew.”

“You and untold numbers of Gentile believers,” smiled Paul.  “Not only that, but it would ten times more difficult to explain these concepts if I couldn’t refer them to the inspired scriptures given to my forefathers!  How would I even begin to explain and demonstrate the concept of imputed righteousness?  But if my readers have even a rudimentary knowledge of the holy Greek scriptures, they will be familiar with these terms and can understand what I am speaking of.  Can you imagine how long these letters would be if I had to explain every term in detail?”

“My wrist gets sore just thinking about it,” grinned Tertius ruefully, rubbing his wrist as he spoke, getting ready to write some more.

More than 1,500 years later, James placed the large volume on the shelf alongside of his other books.  There was scarcely enough room to house the volume – he would need another bookcase before too long!  This latest book was special – it was the first print edition of what had been years of labor, and was his contribution to English speaking Bible students.  “The Exhaustive Concordance” was what he called it, because it was the only one hitherto constructed that gave an index of every word of the King James translation, and of all the passages where they are found.  During its construction, he had insisted on keeping in view three great features: completeness, simplicity, and accuracy.  His intent had been to create a permanent standard for purposes of reference: so full in its vocabulary and lists that everyone consulting it would be sure to find a passage easily and quickly, by seeking it under any word that it contained.  At the same time, he wanted it so plain in its arrangement that a child could not miss his way in using it.  Finally, his goal had been that it would be so correct in its citations, both numerical and verbal, that the most scholarly might implicitly depend upon it.

In pursuit of simplicity, James had recognized that many Bible students were unable to read Greek and Hebrew.  To enable the English-speaking students to reference the Greek and Hebrew words, a numbering system was devised: all the original words were arranged in their alphabetical Greek and Hebrew order, and were numbered from the first to the last.  Thus, each original word was known throughout the book by its appropriate number.  This rendered reference easy without recourse to the Greek characters.

But James Strong had no idea how widely used this numbering system would become.  Although the Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance he created has been largely replaced by computer searches, the Strong’s numbering system lives on.  It is not uncommon to see Strong’s numbers in biblical reference books.

Almost exactly a hundred years after Strong published his concordance, Charles Van der Pool was hard at work on his monumental contribution to English speaking Bible students.  Before Van der Pool published his work, a Bible student un-versed in the original languages would find it difficult to take one of the significant words used in the apostle Paul’s writings and trace its use in the Septuagint (LXX), and thereby gain a richer understanding of its use in theological context.  Previously, the average Bible student was dependent on Greek scholars to explain the significance of Greek terms, but had no method of verifying the fidelity of a scholar’s work.  What Van der Pool did was link a number to every Greek word in the LXX.  He developed the AB-Strong numbering system, which built upon James Strong’s numbering system by inserting a decimal in the number for the Greek words found only in the LXX.  In addition, he set up his work in an interlinear fashion, giving an English translation in line with the Greek text.  This work enables the English student to cross reference Greek words used in the New Testament with their use in the LXX.  Words that carry theological significance in the NT can easily be examined in the Old Testament context that Paul and the believers of his day would have been familiar with.  In this day of liberal scholarship, the value of this work for the English Bible student cannot be overestimated.

The Hebrew Language

While there are many obvious differences between the Hebrew language and English, a key difference is the use of abstracts and concretes.

The English language contains a large proportion of abstract terms.  Abstract terms are words that refer to intangible qualities, ideas, and concepts.  These words indicate things we know only through our intellect, like ‘truth’, ‘honor’, ‘kindness’, and ‘grace’.  Examples of abstract terms can be found in Psalms 103:8 “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love”.  The underlined words are abstract terms, ideas that cannot be experienced by the senses.

In contrast to English, Hebrew is known as a concrete language, meaning the bulk of its words are concrete terms; it had few abstract terms.  Concrete words refer to tangible qualities or characteristics, things that can be seen, touched, smelled, tasted or heard.  An example of this can be found in Psalms 1:3; “He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season, and whose leaf does not wither.”

You may wonder how Hebrew speaking people were able to effectively communicate without using abstract terms.  How would one communicate trust (an abstract concept) if one’s language did not have a word for trust?  The answer is alluded to in the story above: they used their concrete terms as metaphors of abstract concepts.


English is an Abstract language; Hebrew is a Concrete language

In his book “The Hebrew Genius as Exhibited in the Old Testament”, George Adam Smith said, “…the Hebrews were mainly a doing and feeling people.  Thus, their language has few abstract terms.  Rather, Hebrew may be called primarily a language of the senses.  The words originally expressed concrete or material things and movements or actions which struck the senses or started the emotions.  Only secondarily and in metaphor could they be used to denote abstract or metaphysical ideas.”  In other words, the Hebrew language made heavy use of metaphors: the concrete terms were commonly used as metaphors for abstract concepts.

An outcome of a having a highly metaphorical language is that the range of meaning for a given word can be very broad, since it can legitimately be used to express both concrete ideas and abstract.  However, metaphorical nature also indicates the meanings are related in the same way that a metaphor relates the concrete idea with the abstract.  Generally, the metaphor provides vivid imagery to help us understand the abstract idea, as we saw in the story above.  Obviously, the context is a key component in identifying the intended meaning of a metaphorical use of a word.

The Greek Old Testament

It may also be helpful for the reader to be aware of the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament and understand its relevance for today.  This translation was done about 200-300 years before the birth of Christ and is commonly known as the Septuagint, which is Latin for 70.  Legend has it that 70 translators were involved in the work of the translation.  The common abbreviation for the Septuagint is LXX, the Roman numeral for 70.

The significance of the LXX is that it was widely used among the Jews at the time of Christ, and among the Christians throughout the apostolic era and after.  In addition, the New Testament writers readily quoted from it when referencing Old Testament passages.  This wide use would have provided a common basis of understanding for scriptural concepts, despite inevitable differences between believers with regards to culture, understanding, society, background, and even timeframe.  The apostles would have been free to reference concepts or use certain words from the LXX without explanation, knowing that their readers were likely familiar with the LXX.

It can be very helpful to consult the LXX in New Testament Greek word studies

Therefore, when studying a Greek New Testament word, the serious Bible student should take into account, if possible, the uses of the word in the LXX.  This can be especially helpful when there is not enough information given in the context of New Testament passages to help the reader understand the meaning of a significant word.  A word study in the LXX was formerly a difficult task for those who, like the author, are not literate in Greek.  But now, thanks to Van der Pool’s work, English-speaking students have a resource whereby they can to identify every place in the LXX where a given word was used and examine each context.  The name of this resource is ‘The Apostolic Bible Polyglot’ and it can be found via a search of apostolicBible.com on the Internet.  In a truly generous move, Van der Pool has made this valuable resource available for free in PDF format.  It can also be purchased online in a hard-copy book format.

Discombobulation

As mentioned before, it will be necessary to perform some word studies in the following chapters.  Generally, Strong’s numbers will be used throughout this work to refer to the original Greek and Hebrew words instead of inserting the actual Greek and Hebrew words.  Although the original words could easily be copied into this work, the author finds that Strong’s numbers are easier to keep track of (not to mention easier to pronounce).

Where verses are quoted to give an example of the use of a given Greek or Hebrew word, the verse will be quoted in English and bold italics will indicate the location the word within the verse.  Unless otherwise noted, all verse quotations are taken from the New King James Version (NKJV).  This is true even for quotations of Old Testament verses that are referenced to illustrate how the LXX used certain words.

When verse quotations are denoted by ‘LXX’, the quotation is taken from the Apostolic Bible Polyglot (ABP).  The ABP is an English translation with a Greek interlinear gloss where the numbers and Greek word appear immediately above the English translation.  Thus, the English word order follows the Greek words instead of English grammar.  To avoid confusion, Van der Pool numbered English words according to the order they would have if they followed English grammar.  See the following verse as an example:

And I shall shake all the nations. And [shall come the chosen of all the 5nations], and I will fill this house [with] glory, says [the] LORD almighty.  (Haggai 2:7, LXX)

When verses such as these are quoted within this work, the brackets will be removed and the word order adjusted according to the numbering.

And I shall shake all the nations. And the chosen of all the nations shall come, and I will fill this house with glory, says the LORD almighty.  (Haggai 2:7, LXX)

This article was taken from my book, “How The Bible Defines:  Election.”

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