The Original Language Smokescreen

greek-bibleMy first year of college at Cornell University, I took an elective course in ancient Greek — an odd choice for an engineering student. I did it because, as a newly converted Christian, I was tired of pastors using the phrase “in the Greek” during their sermons as a way to add validity to their conclusions. I wanted to learn some Greek so I could examine their claims. For it seemed that the meta-message in their “in the Greek it says” sales pitch was something like:

  • “I am closer to God — I know the language he used.”
  • “I am smarter than you, so don’t doubt me.”
  • “You can’t really understand the Bible with out the Greek, so I will teach you.”

But I was impressed with the preacher’s knowledge of Greek.  I actually did horrible in that class, it was tough for me.  It was only later my language skills would blossom. But diving into Greek did help me to start to see behind the original language smokescreen used by religious folks.

Since then I have seen Hindu Sadhus (native language being Hindi) do the same with Sanskrit (a dead language) , Zen Japanese Buddhists Priests do the same with ancient Chinese, and Pakistani Muslims (who speak Urdu) do the same with Arabic. The power of claiming to be in touch with the original language of your holy text is huge. And it often brings the listening audience into a state of easily manipulatable state of admiration or intimidation.

Sure, knowing the original language of a text can help a preacher understand the text better. But obviously the preacher will then translate and interpret using his/her own perspective and add his own errors.  Translations are tricky things (I once made a living of it with Japanese). So sure, scholarly speaking, there is something valuable in studying the original text which I will not deny. But what I want to briefly explore here are the dark sides of “Original Source Mystique”.

It is not only religious folks that use the original language smokescreen. A philosopher, for instance, in discussing Kant may try to add credibility to their understanding by quoting Kant in German and then translating for the listener. This is the “I-am-smarter-than-you” move which gives much power to the smokescreen.

Quoting the original also has that quality of “essentialism” that Bruce Hood writes about in his book “Supersense” and which Dawkins writes about in his book “The Greatest Show on Earth”. Essentialism is the belief that a person or thing has an essence. A common accompanying belief is that this essence can be passed on from the original object — a spirit to heaven, karma into objects, etc.  So, for instance, in Martial Arts, and in many oriental practices, a big deal is made of being in the lineage of a famous teacher — as if the essence of that famous teacher somehow is thus more available to any teacher in that direct lineage.

Wrestling with the original text, likewise, gives the image of being there right next to the founder of the religion or philosophy. Quoting original texts gives the feeling of ancient wisdom. This is another cognitive temptation — to feel that if something is ancient, it must be good.

There is so many cognitive tricks that can be tapped into by quoting original texts, it is no wonder it is common.

Alle Sachen, unterliegen der Auslegung je nachdem, welche Interpretation aus einem bestimmten Zeitpunkt auf eine Funktion der Macht und nicht die Wahrheit.
— Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900)

Ooops, sorry, that was in the German, the translation would be, “All things are subject to interpretation whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.”

Smile !


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

23 responses to “The Original Language Smokescreen

  1. geoih

    I agree, it’s very pretentious.

  2. Thanks for the comments, post, and conversation. Yeah, dealing with an original language can definitely get in the way with one’s relation to other people. It can be done quietly and without pretension, but maybe that’s uncommon at the moment.

  3. Note to readers: Adam (click on his name to go to his blog) has a Christian blog (he is a preacher) where he discussed this issue. It is his blog that inspired this post. Adam is a good writer and he appears to have a very gentle mind ! Thanx Adam !

  4. I think in this case one should be better off the more they know. Or at least if you know some Greek you would be more aware of translation issues and more likely to take anyone’s translation with a grain of salt, knowing translations are not verbatim meaning for meaning word selections.

    I wonder if what you mention of “essentialism” has any connection with current evangelical concepts of the importance of sola scriptura to their faith. If the bible is truly all a person needs for the essential things in life, there is a sort of magical quality it takes on, that it was delivered inerrantly from God, and then knowing the original language is a key for unlocking the magic within.

  5. Ian

    Great post!

    I’ve noticed that preachers mostly roll out the ‘in the Greek’ card when the English doesn’t say what they want it to say. Greek isn’t ‘closer to the original’ then, it is another bite at the cherry.

    Then lots of preachers use that trick but don’t know much NT greek (they did a year at seminary a decade or two ago). So they pull out Strongs and they choose a different gloss and say something like. “In Greek ‘genea’ has another meaning, it can mean ‘a nation’ – Jesus is really saying ‘this nation shall not pass away’.” Completely misunderstanding the difference between glosses and meanings.

    And I’ve also heard sermons preached when a preacher has obviously got stuck with a nasty verb form, tried to guess what the headword might be, hit the wrong headword and preached a complete mistranslation.

    In my experience (I like to think I’m pretty strong in NT greek – I can read it pretty well unaided) there’s more smoke and mirrors in the way preachers use the Greek than there is anything else. It is mostly about vanity.

  6. Temaskian

    I identify totally with ATTR’s thinking: “at least if you know some Greek you would be more aware of translation issues and more likely to take anyone’s translation with a grain of salt, knowing translations are not verbatim meaning for meaning word selections.”

    Many Christians are not even aware of the translation issues at all. So learning how to look up Greek words is an essential skill for the layman.

    It’s true that I used to be awfully awed by preachers who used Greek words in their sermon. As a result, I was more pliable to whatever they had to say.

  7. societyvs

    I agree 100% – how does the original language help (in most cases) with the interpretation being made? Like you, I have questioned this one for years as well.

    I studied three courses in greek at a bible college (Alliance) over 3 semesters. Let me tell you, the translation we use in english is fairly accurate – consistently accurate in fact I don’t even see the need to look up greek words and their depth to see the point being made in an english translation. It may happen but it’s quite rare.

    I used to find some people do this to make a better point about a passage – to make it sometimes even make it say more than was being said. I think this is a type of fallacy – not sure the name – but it’s interpretive in nature.

  8. ““All things are subject to interpretation whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.””

    i’m not sure how to interpret that 😉

    everything is an interp. all history is revisionist. but maybe the truth is relational and lies between us?

  9. Nick

    I like the quote. It makes me think of the Constitution.

  10. @ Ian : Thanx for further concrete examples and the witness of a Greek Geek ! I means more coming from you.

    @ ATTR & Temaskian: I agree with the emphasis of both Ian and Societyvs. As I wrote, I am not against the scholarship, but I am cautioning one of our common misuses of knowledge.

    @ ATTR — I like the magical quality of the bible thing — indeed, many Christians are Bibliolatrists !

    @ Luke — I hold in very high regard the notion of “relationship” — see my post on “EN“. And I am drawn to phrases like “truth is relational” but when it comes to testing bridges and medicines, I am of another ilk. It is as if I use multiple epistemologies — I think we all do, actually. The question is when to use which one.

    Thank you all for visiting !

  11. Temaskian


    Translations are fairly accurate but not always accurate. Oftentimes, they are tainted by prior assumptions and peer pressure. Nobody wants to translate something in a way that would put their standing in the community in doubt. Translators are all too human.

    And if you want to be fundie, puritan, or fussy about things, you can surely argue that no 2 translations exactly the same. In fact, some particular verses may have wildly different meanings depending on which translation you happen to have, or be reading. If you don’t think so, you’ve not been exposed to enough versions of the bible. Or you’ve not done enough comparisons.



    I’m not saying there’s a perfect translation, or that by going back to the original text, you’ll have a sure-fire solution to what the author was saying. What I’m saying is that we have to be prepared to question a translator’s rendering of a text. You can’t just accept a translator’s rendering as the gospel truth. Translators, scholars are fallible too, and are affected by their individual paradigms, or theology.

  12. Ian


    It is worse than that. There are no two *greek* versions of the new testament that agree, some of them have very different elements, some have whole extra or missing chapters.

    Even if you could read the original language, it isn’t clear which version you’d want to trust.

    Okay most people use NA27, but that in itself is an interpretation based on a huge number of divergent mss.

    If we can’t trust a translator’s translation to be ‘gospel truth’, why should we trust the scribes, redactors and countless other intermediaries that have come between the authors of the text and us. And if so, which ones should get more trust?

    Let alone the editing decisions that left swathes of similar material on the metaphoric cutting room floor. Those editors, too were affected by their individual theologies.

    The ‘original’ Greek is no better a foundation to build on than the English. Both start from a theology and mold the text to their needs.

  13. Dr. Jim

    It is all part of the mystification of the text, the same kind of hocus pocus and woo that astrologers, shaman, faith healers, etc. use.

    In some ways, religion does a lot of obscuring for the sake of power, the manipulation of emotion (not always negative) and more.

    Also note how often Christian preaching and apologetics relies on half sentences quote mined from a variety of biblical books. Theology and morals via subjunctive clause. The church has so throroughly mystified the text and wrapped scripture in a pre-arranged script, they can make it say anything they want. But that’s the magic of it all, isn’t it?

  14. Temaskian


    Glad you agree. You’ve elucidated the situation well. The problem is that many Christians are not even aware of the issues that you and I are, and are totally dependent on translators and bible scholars, and trust them, that they are giving them a version of the bible that is 100% trustworthy. That is the kind of attitude that I hope to change. And a good way to start their doubting process is to show them that there are quite a few equally valid ways to translate the bible.

    Of course, it would be even better if they were made aware of the fact that there are so many manuscripts, and they differ, so we’re not even sure what the exact Greek words are. I don’t think that’s something their pastors preach about often, though.

    Dr Jim,

    “Also note how often Christian preaching and apologetics relies on half sentences quote mined from a variety of biblical books.”

    Totally agree, that’s another oft-used tactic.

  15. Sorry, I haven’t read the other comments, but I will leave my $2.

    I am the type of person who is bored with details. I always prefer the summary, because I’m convinced that what needs to be said can always be said simply and clearly in a few words.

    One of the reasons I believe I ended up leaving the Christian religion was because of the obsession with single-word meaning.

    It was sickening to see people arguing about the meaning of a single word or expression in the Bible, and how its interpretation led to a new denomination.

    To me, when you read something, it is the general idea that you’re interested in, not prepositions or single words. The Christian strategy of making people’s head spin with Greek and Hebrew translations just doesn’t pan out with me.

    You are right. Talking about Greek originals is just a way to give pastors ethos, to make the congregation believe that they know what they’re talking about. They know, unconsciously perhaps, that less than one-in-a-million will actually check the Greek.

    BTW, after reading Misquoting Jesus I am further convinced that focusing on translations is a waste of time.

  16. Some of the cynicism here is misplaced. I would agree that some of these people use ‘original source mystique’ as kind of a magisterium, but I know that a great many of these people believe that if they can get to the original source as it was delivered, they will have found ‘truth’ that has not been perverted by men somewhere along the way. That may or may not be naive, but I find nothing inherently faulty with the thinking that understanding the legislator’s intent is key to understand the legislation.

    An example of the truth of this theory is that the later translations of the bible have been shown to be terribly flawed (in as much as they differ from the earliest versions known to exist and/or versions in the languages in which they were composed by the authors), for a variety of reasons.

    Recognizing this and trying to overcome it by getting closer to the original text seems perfectly reasonable. How is it different than an empiricist working back through the millenia of evolutionary development?

  17. Trying to get back to an original is great — but it has shown how texts are manipulated in general. Other forms of textual criticism have shown mixed authors, false authors, false time periods, faked prophesies and much more. When many preachers run to the Greek, they are not seeking truth, they are seeking veneer.

  18. Sabio, if you post something and then that is put into an email and sent around the world and translated into dozens of languages, surely there can be nothing wrong with some educated person concluding, “I should do my best to find the original article before making assumptions about what I have read”.

    If his process of tracking down your original article only shows that many of the translations were flawed, I don’t see how this reflects at all on what you wrote originally. I’ve already granted that in addition to the translations, hucksters will employ the technique you used, but it seems to me something that serious people of any opinion ought to be able to agree on.

  19. Mark,

    Pastors aren’t studying or teaching the congregation of the many manuscripts or variances between them.

    They’re quoting from the Greek that has been given to them as the truthful one. Thus they aren’t seeking at all, just quoting.

    The scholars that do textual criticism are the ones seeking. But–shocking–pastors never read textual criticism. They read the version of Greek “original” that they were told in seminary was the one and only.

    There is no intelligence or a searching mind involved in what they do. It is all parroting and pure ignorance.

  20. @ Mark — sorry, I think I have already answered your question. I think others have too. Hope you agreed with some part of what I wrote.

  21. Sander


    Could you illuminate the Nietzsche source for me? Or is this your own translation from the English translation back to the original German? A simulacra as it were?… Just having a little fun. But you would help me out a lot with the source.


  22. Sander, you caught me. That was a “Google Translation” translation — so I am sure it is terrible. Do you have the original? I looked around a bit but couldn’t find it. Why, what is your interest in this conversation?

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