With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

September 4, 2008 at 12:01 pm (Ancient Languages, Church, Theology and the Bible) (, )

Yesterday and today, I read over Doug Mangum’s series of posts comparing the new ESV and NLT study Bibles. Of particular interest to me was the third and final part in the series, where Doug compared the study notes of the two Bibles. In the course of his post, Doug pointed out several notes where he felt that the ESVSB over-theologized based on the Hebrew grammar. I scanned the Book of Jonah, available for viewing online, myself, and felt he was fairly justified in his points of contention with several of these notes.

When Doug ended with the statement, “what I’ve seen so far leads me to think it will be a worthwhile addition to the study bible market,” it started me thinking about whether or not I would say the same thing. I am in agreement with Doug in that I would be interested to see how the rest of the study Bible turns out (and certainly before making any bold judgments on the overall quality of the ESVSB – which I wouldn’t do based on one excerpt). However, considering the notes of the ESVSB brought this thought to my mind: in general (not speaking now of the ESVSB specifically) can a study Bible that makes theological or hermeneutical claims based on the Hebrew grammar, and on closer inspection, it turns out these claims are flat out wrong (or at least highly tenuous), really be considered “worthwhile”?

My problem is this: those of us who know the Biblical languages (or in my case, Hebrew and Aramaic, Greek to be added in this coming school year) have a great responsibility toward those who do not. There is enough self-perpetuated ignorance among lay people as it is, without those who have training in Biblical languages to be spreading more of it around. To me, this is almost unforgivable. Consider the general audience of study Bibles: the average Bible-minded Christian who doesn’t know Hebrew or Greek, and really has no resources to look up something a study Bible says about the language to verify its accuracy.

When it comes to interpretations based on the English, at least the lay person has English resources, if they so chose to utilize them, to look up and see if the information being given has some credence. However, when a claim is made based on the original language, what further resource does the lay person have? They are left with basically two options: trust that the person writing the study notes knows what they are talking about and accept what they say, or try to find someone personally who knows the languages to verify it with them. Since there are, sadly, hardly a glut of people running around in local churches who have a handle on Hebrew and Greek, most are left with option one. There is the option of looking in commentaries by people who know the languages to see if they say something similar, but ultimately it’s the same idea: they can’t know for themselves.

Therefore, I repeat what I said earlier: those who know the languages have a great responsibility. We cannot afford to be careless in our statements based on Hebrew words or grammar. There are hundreds of thousands of people depending on the accuracy, diligence, and scholarship of study tools to get it right. I, of course, realize that we are all human and we all make mistakes, nor do any of us have unlimited knowledge, and some are further down the road of understanding the languages than others. Obviously, there will always be some enterprising person who will make something of nothing regardless of how careful one is. However, to the very best of our ability and knowledge, when we are dealing with educating lay people (which study Bibles, among other tools, ultimately purport to do), we must be very careful in how we use the biblical languages to add theological meaning to the text.

Of course, ultimately, this would all be solved if every Christian would learn the Biblical languages. I am in full agreement with my husband there.

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