The Handbook: The Original Greek and Hebrew (Is Still Nonsense).

(This post is part of our Handbook for the Recently Deconverted. But anyone is welcome to read it!)

Back in my Pentecostal days, there was a phrase I heard non-stop: “the original Greek and Hebrew,” used to describe my denomination’s doctrines and creed. The idea was that our denomination, unlike those of all those other inferior Christians doing everything wrong, had gotten our ideas from “the original Greek and Hebrew” in the Bible and therefore were closer to what our god wanted out of his followers than all those other Christians were. I notice that Christians still love that phrase, so I want to talk about it today.

A 120-year-old Bible. (Credit: Wonderlane,  CC license.)
A 120-year-old Bible. (Credit: Wonderlane, CC license.) I don’t know why these don’t come standard with measuring tools, given how so many Christians use ’em.

Back then, whenever one of us got into arguments with other Christians–which happened about as often as it does today–that phrase was sure to come up early, often, and repeatedly. As this Christian site explains, we thought that while it wasn’t totally necessary to know these languages, people who were very serious about getting their Christianity totally correct would undoubtedly want to know Ancient Greek and Hebrew so they could read the Bible in its original languages, and thus totally understand what this god wanted. And it’s not hard to see Christians arguing amongst themselves about nuances of the languages–like here, where Christians wrangle about what “sin” means, or here, where someone spanks homophobic bigots-for-Jesus over the word “abomination”.

The most obnoxious of Christians tend to insist that the Bible is totally straightforward and plain to understand, right up until someone starts talking about something hugely unflattering to the religion–in which case they yank out the “Context: Get Out Of Uncomfortable Bible Verses Free” card, and insist that we can’t possibly really understand those Bible verses because of the nuances of the original Greek and Hebrew and cultures and blah blah blah.

Here is why I tend to check out when a Christian starts using that phrase:

1. It implies that the Christian god couldn’t make his demands, claims, and promises easily understood across languages, cultures, and centuries.
Nothing says “omniscient” to me like a god who can’t communicate clearly, and nothing says “loving” like a god making threats and demands using a language that can’t even be fully understood across the ages–but who holds humans responsible for those demands anyway long after our ability to understand them has faded.

On that note, I had a commenter once show up here to chirp that the Bible was very “plain” and simple to understand–and I thought he was screwing around and played along with it for a while till I realized he was totally serious. I couldn’t even imagine someone thinking that. (This is why we need to remember to use that /s tag, people. Or we need to go back to emoticons.)

2. It implies that this god and the religion about him are really just products of their time.
Some words are concepts that we always need. Did you know that some words in English have been largely the same for fifteen thousand years? Words like “father,” “give,” “you/thou,” “ashes,” “mother,” and the like were so important to our species that they’ve largely remained totally the same for millennia, across hundreds of languages long-gone and extant. So why did “abomination” turn out so differently, when–to hear quite a few Christians talk–it’s so hugely important of a concept to this god? And why are so many very important ideas–like infection and astronomy–missing from it? One could go on and on, but it undermines this religion’s claim to universality and dread importance to hear that so many super-important ideas in it can only be fully understood by mastering a long-extinct ancient language.

3. It marks the Christian as more concerned with correctness than compassion.
Given that these little squabbles generally center on how Christians should treat other people, and that they tend to end by justifying and rationalizing the poor treatment of other people, we should be leery of Christians who use that phrase. Christians who have to yank out “the original Greek and Hebrew” to bolster their arguments remind me of an old boyfriend I had who often tried to use dictionary definitions to win personal arguments (“I can’t be selfish because the dictionary definition of ‘selfish’ is blah blah blah so therefore you’re not allowed to be mad that I never do my share of housework and I’m not changing until you can convince me you’re right”). While it can be funny to tweak Christians’ noses with their poor understanding of the nuances of their religion’s holy book, we should be paying a lot more attention than we do to why they’re trying to borrow credibility and authority from these ancient texts.

The Christians who use this phrase simply want to be more correct, hardcore, gung-ho, and authoritative than all those other Christians–and they want to mistreat people and maintain their own status quo. And it’s okay to want to be correct in one’s definitions–how often must we correct a Christian claiming to have been an atheist prior to their conversions when really they were simply rebelling a little?*–but when people veer into nit-picking over definitions and ancient languages, there’s a reason for it: they can’t get away with what they’re doing in any other way.

4. It betrays a whole lot of ignorance on the part of the Christian regarding that selfsame text they’re trying to mine for borrowed credibility and authority.
The New Testament was not written in the form that modern readers know. There isn’t even really one “original manuscript” of its various books. I didn’t actually know that as a Christian myself, and I don’t think it’s something most Christians know nowadays. We have thousands upon thousands of fragments of it in its early incarnations, and the differences between these fragments can be considerable. But Christians who rely on “the original Greek and Hebrew” and quibble over tiny little details and are convinced that it’s super-simple to understand (and by wild coincidence happens to say exactly what they think it says) seem largely unaware of how inconsistent and unreliable their holy book is.

It’s just as ridiculous to rely on any one wording in the Bible for one’s nit-picky argument as it is to assume that an end-of-the-world prophecy hinges on one particular time zone.

Whoopsie. This was a real Bible that really got printed in 1631, accidentally omitting an all-important "not" in the highlighted verse. What, you thought that was just a throwaway joke in Good Omens? (Credit: brett jordan, CC license.) According to the photographer, only 11 of these Bibles exist today because the printers were fined and rebuked, and every copy that could be found was destroyed. No wonder Aziraphale treasured his copy so much!
Whoopsie. This was a real Bible that really got printed in 1631, accidentally omitting an all-important “not” in the highlighted verse. What, you thought that was just a throwaway joke in Good Omens? (Credit: brett jordan, CC license.) According to the photographer, only 11 of these Bibles exist today. No wonder Aziraphale treasured his copy so much!

A lot of what we think about when we think about the Bible is fairly modern in nature; most of the doctrines most Christians consider set in stone and of utmost importance are modern constructions and conveniences more than ancient understanding.

5. The Christians who like this argument style most tend to be the worst at the language.
It takes a lot of effort to learn a new language, and people who try it often go through a phase of thinking they’re way more competent at the language than they really are. Dilettantes are the worst of the lot, though; I’ve run into a lot of these with gaming and in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) and it’s uniformly hilarious. One young woman was convinced that she could take the Celtic words for “butter” and “fly,” mash them together, and end up with “Celtic for ‘butterfly'” as her SCA name for an early-Irish persona. Another went full-frontal Tolkien on a roleplaying game by borrowing the Sindarin words for “steel” and “hand” in the hopes of ending up with “steelhand” or something on one fantasy roleplaying game I helped with, but inadvertently came out–according to a knowledgeable friend of mine–with something closer to “bonehead” in feeling (I might be remembering the exact words wrong so don’t quote me on this, but that was the general result). In the real world, all one must do is consider the many Chinese-language tattoos that say something rather different than their wearers intended to get the idea of what I’m saying here.

Though it’s easy as pie to get simple, quick translations of Biblical verses and words–in my day we had to use books, but now you can get this stuff online for free!–one shouldn’t consider that the translations are going to mean exactly what one wishes them to mean, or that they support one’s argument. As the old joke goes, someone who picks and chooses these translations knows just enough to be dangerous and should probably leave this work to the professionals who’ve spent many years of their lives learning not only the languages but also the cultures around the languages rather than some bright-eyed fundagelical who’s just dipping a toe into the waters to bolster some claim or other.

6. It reveals a wildly inconsistent approach to living as a Christian.
As much as my old Pentecostal mates want to believe otherwise, there really isn’t any modern interpretation of the Bible–even theirs!–that is, or even can be, exactly like anything the original New Testament said. Not only do we not have any idea what the original New Testament said exactly, but there’s not really a way to mash what we do have into modern English and have it make sense. And Christians generally don’t actually try to do so, or want to do so.

Every single one of them cherry picks the Bible. They pick out what is fairly easy and convenient to follow and then find some magic explanation that lets them ignore what isn’t easy or convenient to follow. And they pick out what lets them be total bastards to others and control people around themselves and get their way, and then ignore totally the stuff that tells them not to do that. When outsiders point out that they are in fact doing this (notably by informing them that they are grandly failing this or that Biblical command), these cherry-picking Christians react with outrage and indignation rather than grateful acceptance–because those outsiders just ruined the fantasy that they are totally living the Bible in every way. When one Christian, Rachel Held Evans, wrote a book about her efforts to live one year as the Bible commanded to the letter, she got a lot of side-eye from other Christians over it–because they felt that she’d “caricatured” their misogyny-as-the-bonus-plan doctrine. But she didn’t. She did exactly what they do to others, except to them this time, and they knew it.

When Christians are this concerned with individual words, but totally unconcerned with the big picture, that tells the rest of us exactly why they’re concerned with “the original Greek and Hebrew.”

7. It doesn’t ultimately make any difference.
If fundagelicals figured out tomorrow that “the original Greek and Hebrew” meant that being gay is totally fine, do you seriously think they’d give up their culture war?

The answer, you already know, is “absolutely not, and don’t be silly.”

When conservative Christians decided to start this war, they found a way to translate their “original Greek and Hebrew” to justify doing so. When one of them starts getting a pang of conscience–or a child of theirs turns out to be LGBTQ–they find another way to translate “the original Greek and Hebrew” that lets them off the hook and allows them to stop persecuting LGBTQ people. The Bible nit-picking in either case happens after the emotions, intentions, and opinions get formed. I’ve never once run into a Christian who backed off from some cherished doctrinal position because of a competing, superior translation of his or her “original Greek and Hebrew.” But I’ve seen and encountered many, many thousands who use their favorite translation to maintain their position and try to convince others of it. As the saying goes, nobody gets argued into Christianity unless they’re already inclined in that direction–and in the same way and for the same reasons, nobody gets argued out of mistreating people if that’s what they really want to do. (You’d think people who revere a book that flat-out tells them that “the ways of a man always seem right to him” would be a little more aware of this potential pitfall.)

These little nitpicking battles don’t ultimately change any minds or bring about greater neighborliness or compassion. They are not only useless in terms of Christianity’s mission statements, but also actively detrimental to them–because outsiders and insiders alike see these arguments and get even more turned off from the religion than they were already. But because this stuff feels so good to argue about and makes Christians feel more correct and justified in their treatment of others, we’re not going to see an end to the practice any time soon.

The Worst Part of This Mentality.

When a part of someone’s doctrine rises and falls on the strength of a translation, that person is putting his or her feet on a collision path with Reality-Land’s Clue Train. The question isn’t if that person’s going to collide with the train; it’s when. This is that “cruel dilemma” I talk about sometimes–because I think it’s quite cruel for Christian leaders to set the Bible up as, essentially, an idol, setting their followers’ feet on that collision course and allowing them to face the most dreadful decision a Christian can ever face without any preparation, forewarning, or help.

The big problem with idols is that idols fall. They get revealed as being made of tin and propelled by hot air. They topple. They get found to be incapable of doing the stuff their followers thought they could do. When the Bible itself is the idol, then that’s a big problem for a Christian. All that needs to happen is for one little tiny point of doctrine to turn out to be not what the Christian thought it was to cast the entire religion into doubt. If the Bible verse that Christian relied upon turns out not to be as correct as the Christian thought, what else isn’t? If this or that cultural practice turns out not to be as solidly and reliably based upon that translation as thought, what else isn’t?**

If Christians had any sense at all, they wouldn’t let their doctrines and creeds rely this much on exactly and precisely what this-or-that Bible verse says in one particular little translation of one particular little fragment or collection of fragments. All that custom does is set millions upon millions of Christians up for that collision. Some will walk away from the collision with their faith intact–and might even drill down harder on their cherry-picking and questionable translations. But many more will wonder themselves right out of the religion, and for good reason.

While it can be funny to see people struggling to understand a language that isn’t theirs and a culture that is vastly different from their own, when Christians do it to justify hurting others then it stops being quite so funny. I wish they’d quit worrying so much about exactly what this or that Bible verse says and start worrying about how to be genuinely loving toward others. Nobody gives a shit what their ancient mythology book says–not even them, or they’d be more concerned with finding that out than they are.

What we’re interested in is whether or not this religion makes its adherents better people and neighbors.

And, well, um, generally it doesn’t.

* Unfortunately, constantly. Neil Carter wrote about this subject on Ex-Communications: “The perspectives they’re portraying sound unlike anything I’ve ever heard an atheist say. On the other hand, the stuff they say sounds a lot like what preachers and evangelists say about atheists.” A past in atheism is the trendy new pre-conversion testimony nowadays, just like a past in Wicca or Satanism (or both) was the cool pre-conversion testimony back in my day. And the people claiming this past appear to know about as much about actual atheism as people back in the 1980s and 1990s knew about Wicca and Satanism.

** Spoiler alert: pretty much everything.

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