Lost in Translation

In the next chapter of Preaching the Old Testament, Dennis R. Magary gives some tips for “Keeping Your Hebrew Healthy.” Of course, just the title implies at least two presuppositions: (1) some (at least) cursory knowledge of Hebrew and (2) the belief that Hebrew is important to preaching the OT.

In the last post, I ended with the following question, “Do you think one can preach the OT without a working knowledge of Hebrew?” Of the few answers, they typically amounted to something like, “Yes, but…” That is, typically most preachers seem to believe that the First Testament can be preached effectively without the languages but that knowing Hebrew would greatly impact their preaching. Magary’s purpose in this chapter is not to convince his reader that knowing Hebrew is important. He assumes that his reader already believes that. However, he does offer the following comments, which I would like to use as a launching point about the importance of Hebrew.

The whole point of studying Hebrew and Greek in seminary is to be able to have direct access to the biblical text—the very foundation for Christian faith and practice—in the languages in which God’s Word was originally given. (p. 30)

As fine as contemporary translations are, as carefully as they have been prepared, a translation is still a translation. It is and will always be at least one step removed from the original. (p. 30)

…those whom God has raised up to speak his Word, to explain to each age what he has revealed to us about himself and what we need to know to live life before him…need to understand what he has said. The ability to read and study the Scriptures in the languages in which they were written ensures a more accurate understanding.

I guess that if you cornered me, I would also answer like some of you, “Yes, but…” However, I would quickly follow the “but” with, “why would you want to?” That is, why would any preacher spend his life reading, studying, and preaching without recourse to (what is closest to) the inspired text. In other words, the reason the languages play such an important role in my preaching and teaching is that a biblically-defined view of inspiration takes the graphe (the written documents) as what is God-breathed (per 2 Tim 3:16). Simply put, I think it would be a shame to sit under preaching week end and week out that is informed only by the reading of uninspired text(s) and uninspired commentaries on the text. As Magary seems to be saying above, albeit with less dogmatic language than what I have used, there is always something lost in the act of translation.

I will list some of Magary’s helpful hints in a separate post.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Amen and amen. Can there really be any meaningful understanding of “sola scriptura” if one’s understanding of the “scriptura” part is a hand-me-down? I find that most conversations, whether they be about hermeneutics, systematic theology, or apologetics, tend to degrade toward opinion and conjecture without a sure footing in the languages.

    Great series Randy, you have brought a number of thoughtful things to my attention. Keep it coming!


  2. Posted by maxgrace on June 28, 2007 at 10:56 am

    I’ll add another Amen. The farther our preachers drift from the Word in its original languages, the weaker the witness of the church becomes. Could mental laziness on the part of preachers be to blame? What is it? People are craving for meat–practical, yes. Relevant, yes. Broken down and explained, yes. Acknowledging mystery and awe, yes. But still meat. The words of God are true power… Thanks for the post.

    Dennis Magary was my Hebrew professor, and has preached for me numerous times when I pastored in Chicago. He is MASTERFUL both as a prof and as a preacher. It was a privilege to sit under his teaching.

    Bill Giovannetti

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