Message for insiders or for all?
In the course of teaching Greek (both classical and Koine) the past 34 years I’ve found that translating Greek into English is a very different enterprise from understanding what the text means. A translation may at times sound very erudite, but to be relevant and beneficial the text must be understood — and then applied. One of my greatest challenges as a teacher has been to get my students to see the need to give up theological jargon when translating from Greek into English. If we can use simpler and clearer words to express the truths of Scripture, then by all means let’s do so. Why, for example, should we render Rom. 12:11 “distribute to the needs of the saints” when “share what you have with God’s people who are in need” will do the job and is much clearer? Or why should we insist that the purpose of pastor-teachers is “to equip the saints for the work of the ministry” when we can say “to prepare God’s people for works of service”? If all we do is parrot the standard English versions while translating from English to Greek, I’m afraid we’ll end up with nothing but another secret religious society. If insisting on the use of theological jargon actually helped people to become more obedient to the Word of God, I’d say do it at all costs. But is there any evidence that it does?
To admit this inadequacy honestly can be very intimidating to the teacher. It means, in fact, that we can no longer be content to offer courses in Greek exegesis that fail to include serious self-examination.
We lose meaning and truth and community when we take a universally understood concept like “service” and consistently prefer to translate it as “ministry” when the concept shows up in the scriptures. Stop it! I still remember when I quoted Jesus to a law school buddy like this “Father, forgive them, cause they don’t know what they’re doing.” He had heard that comment from Jesus many, many times (in the yoda-speak version–who talks like that?!?), but he said he had never really heard what Jesus was saying until I said it like that. Think about that folks. Why had this man who had attended so many services and heard that text quoted never “heard” it? How many other messages have we failed to deliver, I wonder? And this wasn’t a listener issue, as if he lacked ears that wanted to hear Jesus. It was because in church, we’re proud of our mastery of Christian-ese and we revere the yoda-speak of so many translations like a badge of honor. It’s not. It’s a reason for shame. Building or maintaining barriers to God’s message that aren’t necessary, or saying his message in ways that only insiders can understand when we don’t have to is nothing to be proud of. It’s trying to mark our churches off as ‘separate’ and more mature, more reverent, more godly by our religious sounding language. It’s going the way of the Pharisee.