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.
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.
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 [6 shall come 1 the 2 chosen 3 of all 4 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.”