Original Languages: Why Bother?

This post isn’t about biblical theology, but about language.

Do you read texts in their original langauges? Most people don’t. I understand why—it takes a long time to get reading competency in a language. Not as long as you think, but longer than you’re probably prepared to study. But, if you do, treasures are revealed to you.

Today in some churches is the Sunday of Zacchaeus, the short tax collector who climbs a tree to see Jesus as he passes by. Jesus has dinner with him, and everybody complains because he is a sinner, etc.

But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.”

This is the translation approved by the US Catholic bishops. After this, Jesus says that salvation has come to his house. Seems straightforward, right? Bad guy repents and gets saved.

But let’s look at the Greek for verse 8:

Ἰδοὺ τὰ ἡμίσειά μου τῶν ὑπαρχόντων, κύριε, τοῖς πτωχοῖς δίδωμι, καὶ εἴ τινός τι ἐσυκοφάντησα ἀποδίδωμι τετραπλοῦν.

The verbs are bolded for you convenience. The first one (pronounced something like “didomi”) means “I give”. It’s present active indicative, not future or subjunctive as the New American Bible has it. “Behold I give half my possessions to the poor. . .” It’s the same with the second verb, “apodidomi”, “I restore” or “I repay”. Zacchaeus is literally saying that right now, this very moment, that’s what he does, not that he will do it in the future.

So, it could be interpreted differently, not that he was a bad man who repented, but that he was a good man. What to make of “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham?” It could be his eagerness to climb the tree that is the key, couldn’t it?

I don’t know the answer. As I said, this post isn’t about the Bible as theology. But because I can read a little Greek, I can see that the text itself is not the same as the translations. The translation is an interpretation. At Online Great Books, we encourage people to read the original texts (in translation) rather than commentaries on the text, because we want you to interpret it for yourself. Translations often contain hidden interpretations, and if you can read something in the original langauge, you probably should.

I know it takes time and effort, but imagine how many languages you could learn if you quit Netflix.

6 thoughts on “Original Languages: Why Bother?”

  1. Today was my first time hearing a Sunday of Zacchaeus homily, but I was very surprised when the priest had said about Zacchaeus repenting and how he had been a bad man. Funny enough, my initial understanding of the passage had been that he was always a good man and that he was explaining to Christ how he helps people (which is why I thought Christ chose his house to stay at in the first place).

    Getting a breakdown of the greek was great! Your current blog series has inspired me to get back to learning it (and watch less Youtube as well). Thanks!

  2. What ancient languages are essential to know?

    – Hebrew
    – Latin
    – Homeric/Attic/Koine Greek

    Is there anything else?

  3. I used to do a decent amount of messing with the Greek and Hebrew when reading the bible. I used to know the alphabets and could read it without understanding what I was saying (probably sounded like a 4 year old too), but I’m quite out of practice.

    Might start up again.

    I wonder if another take on that specific text might be that in spite of the good Zacchaeus might have already been doing, salvation did not, in fact, come until Jesus came to him.

    Maybe the point is the good wasn’t good enough.

  4. Hi Karl,

    I’ve been listening to you on podcasts with Scott for many years and I have always appreciated your manner. This post is no different.

    Also, there may be a small typo in the sentence, “the verbs are bolded for you convenience”. It seems to me you may have intended to use “your”.

    All the best,

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