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The Bible as seen through the eyes of . . .

« Henry Goodman reads Psalm 22 in Robert Alter’s version | Main | The Dynamics of Parallelism in Psalm 26:1-3 »


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Mike Aubrey

I like this series already.

David Reimer

This isn't quite germane, John, and you probably already know it. But Paul Mosca's Ps 26 article has long struck me as a helpful exploration of this psalm:

Paul G. Mosca, "Psalm 26: Poetic Structure and the Form-Critical Task", CBQ 47 (1985), 212-237.

You often include bibliographies with your posts, so I thought I might as well chuck in this one!

Charles Halton

"None of the above" I totally agree.



Thanks for the reference. "Do you see what I see?" Upon reading Mosca's essay, I note that he sees many of the same structural features that I do.

Hebrew Student

This is a really great post about Hebrew. Your conclusion at the end, that you really have to understand the original language (Hebrew), is one that I totally agree with. We should spend more time reading the Scriptures in the language that God gave them, rather than spending hours getting confused over how to translate it.

Bryan L

Can't I just read a few good commentaries and get all the info that I would need to understand the fine grain of the biblical text? Why do I need to know the Biblical languages really well to do that?

BTW how long do you think it would take to learn the biblical languages as well as you're talking about? 5 years? 10? More? Would schooling be required to? A degree?

Bryan L

Doug Chaplin

I offer an uncomfortable fact that suggests a more positive evaluation of translation. Go here:

Dan Martin

While I grant without reservation that the original language contains insights that are lost in the best of translations, I would be hesitant to downplay the value of translation to the extent I hear in your post, John. It's kind of like the discussion in a wholly different environment, over which kind of camera is best. While it's empirically true that one camera will capture better detail, highlights, shadows, and nuance than another, a wise photographer has observed that the best camera is the one you have in your hand when you compose and take the great image.

In the same way, the "best" biblical text is the one that gets the seeker or the believer interacting with the divine story. Disciples have been well and truly won to the kingdom, and goaded to holiness and devotion and obedience, through translations you and I would likely agree were hideous. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit doesn't restrict action to the original tongues only. . .


A very interesting and lively conversation.


I concur with clayboy, of course. The Septuagint is essential background to the exegesis of the NT authors. They read their Bible in Greek, according to a text approximating the "original" LXX, and/or a revision thereof toward proto-MT.

That just means that, in order to understand the NT in fine detail, a thorough familiarity with the Septuagint and the history of its correction toward the proto-MT (a moving target)is very helpful. One more reason why, if the desire is to understand the Bible at this level of detail, knowledge of the primary sources in the original languages is essential.


I concur that it is entirely unnecessary to read the Bible in the original languages in order to receive healing from God and justification by virtue of God's grace through faith. The Holy Spirit accomplishes these things apart from precise information about the fine grain of the biblical text.

But should you want to be able to savor the fine grain of the biblical text, should you want to discuss the pros and cons of existing translations of the Bible measured against the text thereof, it is essential to learn the biblical languages and master the literature in those languages. That's my point.


The time required to acquire the skills necessary to adjudicate between differing translations of the Bible based on cross-examination of the source texts is long. It requires a mastery of detail like that required of a lawyer or a physician. Excellent flesh-and-blood teachers along the way are also essential.

It's possible to study the Bible without a strong grasp of the original languages. But don't fool yourself. It's like kissing a bride through a thick blanket. You won't even be able to feel her lips.

Bryan L

"It's possible to study the Bible without a strong grasp of the original languages. But don't fool yourself. It's like kissing a bride through a thick blanket. You won't even be able to feel her lips."

But if I read everything you had to say about the translation of Psalm 26:1-3 and have all that information in my head when I read a translation of it, or make a translation based on your notes, then what am I missing out on when I read it?

I think a better analogy that the kissing through the sheet one might be the difference between a newlywed who doesn't know everything about his wife (but it's all exciting and new) and someone who's been married for 40 years, who knows everything about his wife, and there's no real surprises left (but it's familiar and comfortable). I'd probably prefer something in the middle ; )

Bryan L

Bob MacDonald

Nice to read the old and the new. What translation does for you if you do it - is to show you how many decisions are made on your behalf by a translator. Your own decisions may be poorer - but at least you know you are making them. Also translation may put one in touch with ancient thought processes - how ancient one may not realize for many years. But as for the reality of the Spirit - best if this is the motivation to translate, and not its purpose - as if by intellect one could apprehend the ultimate. One is most likely to hear and believe in the tongue one was born in, I think. There are no sheets or blankets to worry about. Then in obedience, one might learn something new in the old tongues.

Translation is definitely fun - especially continuing open to correction. Thanks John for these lovely posts. I wonder if the KJV is using creative synonymy partly because concordance is immensely difficult to achieve.

This was my translation of the passage some time ago. I am really happy to have been invited to read it as prayer.

Judge me יְהוָה
for I have walked in my completeness
and in יְהוָה I trust
I will not slip
Try me יְהוָה
and prove me
test my centre and my heart
for your loving kindness is before my eyes
and I myself have walked in your truth

centre is a Canadian euphemism - or misspelling - take your pick.



Thanks for asking the questions you do.

You ask what you are missing out on, in terms of understanding Psalm 26, after reading everything I've said about it, after reading, in addition let's say, half a dozen commentaries.

Believe me, you continue to miss out on a ton of things. It's as if you are at the door of a castle, the drawbridge is down, but you prefer to know only as much about the castle as is possible from the outside.

Bryan, if I had you in my study, and you knew Hebrew well enough to just pick up the text and read it, any passage of interest, and we studied Ps 26 together, we could go at it for hours and hours and continue to learn new things together. Not airy-fairy things, but basic things we wouldn't know without taking the time to learn of them, the contours and specifics of the horizon, the subtext and context and cultural parameters the text expresses and presupposes.

It never is like what your analogy suggests, that in biblical studies, one feels that you know everything about the subject. It really is a science in the best sense of the word. At least, that is how I live it. An answer to a particular question paves the way for a new set of questions. The vista, and the interconnections, simply get wider and wider, and deeper and deeper. Old questions have to reframed, but the most interesting never go completely away.

It's hard enough to attain clear and reliable knowledge about an ancient text like the Bible and the thoughts that are expressed in that text when one is utterly familiar, in the realm of the possible, with the languages in which the text was written, and the cultural expectations the text presupposes.

It is impossible to attain such knowledge without familiarity of the kind noted.

If someone told you that it is possible to be an expert on Roman law of late antiquity without knowing Latin well enough to read the laws without difficulty, without being thoroughly acquainted with the culture the law expresses and presupposes, you would laugh in their face I presume.

A so-called expert in Roman law who reads said law in translation only, and about the ambient culture in translation only, is bound to make elementary mistakes without even realizing it.

A so-called expert in Roman law, even if she knows the laws inside and out in Latin and has also read widely in Latin literature, the Latin historical authors, private letters in Latin, Roman archaeology, and so on, will still make elementary mistakes without realizing it. But surely the chances of doing so diminish.

Once again, it is important to make distinctions. Is it possible for someone to grasp the book of Job without any Hebrew whatsoever? Absolutely, even if, as is the case also for even the most learned scholar, individual passages in the book remain obscure.

But in this case as well, knowing Hebrew and knowing ANE culture acts as a check. It allows one to rule in some interpretations and rule out others with a far greater degree of certainty than would otherwise be possible.



I think your translation has a lot going for it. On reading this series, it won't be hard for you to figure out in what ways we differ in our understanding of the text.

I do not agree with you that the best and perhaps the only language one can hear the Holy Spirit in is one's mother tongue. I do admit that I was not taught to read Hebrew as a medium of communication in which the King of the Universe speaks by Christians. I was taught that by Jewish teachers.

Since Greek and Hebrew are not taught in seminaries as languages of the Most High - only communication in one's mother tongue is allowed to play that role - it is no wonder that the biblical languages are considered a distraction by many students, and their professors, too. They are a distraction, if one never gets to the place of reading the Bible in them and being bowled over by the goodness of God that shines through.

In the world today, there are a few teachers who teach Dante or Cicero or Homer in and from the original languages in terms of "full body contact" - with such a deep love and understanding of the texts, every contour of the language, that it changes the name of the game completely.

There are a few teachers left who love and breathe the biblical texts in the same way. Perhaps, however, the category is disappearing.

I would consider that a crime against humanity.

How many hours of training does a heart surgeon or a constitutional lawyer need to dedicate to their respective fields of study? How many fine details must they master?

Who wants a delicate heart problem to be diagnosed and addressed by anyone other than someone who has acquired and continues to acquire whatever knowledge is of use for that calling? Who wants a Supreme Court justice to sit and decide if she hasn't already drafted hundreds and hundreds of excellently crafted opinions concerning the constitutionality of laws, in accordance with tried and tested procedures and traditions?

No one, I presume.

But we settle for far less when it comes to the Bible. Is it any wonder that it speaks to us so feebly? Or if it does speak to us, it's only because we've made it into our ventriloquist of choice?

Dan Martin

John, I do not for a moment wish to suggest that original-language study is either irrelevant or unhelpful (in my limited skill I try myself). I'm merely trying to center the discussion. Though I don't believe it's your intent, I sense in your comments a haughtiness that only those who have the time and resources to pursue original-language study full-time are going to be able to engage meaningfully with the text. Such an attitude can easily lead to the exclusivity of the clergy and academics, which led to the excesses of pre-Reformation Roman Catholicism, and IMHO leads also to the "my way or the highway" attitude of many "pastors" I've known. On the other hand, it can lead the "layman" to a hopelessness that s/he can never approach the text, so why bother.

Your illustration of Latin for Roman law misses a key point, in that nobody who wrote Roman law ever intended a holy body of believers to be engendered and nourished by it. If God's intention was/is different, and I think we both believe it was/is, then the scriptural text becomes a different animal than every other text. . .and the difference is the Breath of God in dialogue with both text and reader.

So I beg you, in appreciating (and teaching others to appreciate) the beauty and nuance of the original languages, be careful not to make the scripture inaccessible to all but the clergy, the academics, and those wealthy enough not to need a profession. The Word of God (I mean the Incarnate Word, not a text) reaches out to the lowly and ignorant as well as the exalted and studied.



I'm fine with what you say, but I fear that the Holy Spirit is an alibi for many people who have the intellectual gifts and the wherewithal to tackle an ancient language or two, but do not, because the ideal is not held up to them, and even if it were, they would reject it.

It has nothing to do with being independently wealthy. I know many laypeople who have mastered an incredible amount of detail and acquired a number of specific skills outside of their day job, because they are avid horsemen, hunters, musicians, or artists.

There is absolutely no reason, on principle, why a number of pastors and laypeople could not put in the requisite amount of study to truly master Greek and Hebrew.

But before anyone would wish to do so, they need to understand the gain associated with the pain. They also need to have access to teachers who set the bar high for them, and have the skill sets needed to do so.

Dan Martin

There is absolutely no reason, on principle, why a number of pastors and laypeople could not put in the requisite amount of study to truly master Greek and Hebrew.

True. And they (we) should. I haven't had the time to "master" it, but I've worked a bit on N.T. Greek. I do it precisely because I don't want to be unarmed when someone makes a high-sounding pronouncement about what the originals say.

And therein may lie the problem. Not only do the "laypeople" not see a need (and the lay/clergy distinction is itself actually part of the problem), but many (most?) clergy aren't interested in the level of accountability an educated congregation would offer.

And you're right, the Holy Spirit is used as an excuse for a lot of sloppy thinking. I'm just worried about the opposite error of elitism. We should guard against both.


Dan, I'm impressed that you've taken the time to learn some Greek and would encourage you to work on it until you can pick your Nestle-Aland up and read it without using a dictionary.

It is not at all a popular view, but I think that hierarchy properly understood, in which "authority over" is understood as "authority on behalf of," is a gift and a blessing. So I'm fine with hierarchy of the kind we already as the basis of a common life in the Pastoral Epistles for example.

On the other hand, the most effective way to keep pastors reading their Bible in the original languages is to have some of those in their care familiar with the languages as well. At this point of time, most pastors have given up on Hebrew and Greek even if they did take them in seminary.

Dan Martin

Well, I think we may be using the term "hierarchy" in rather different ways, which would account for our different takes. I refer to the notion (I'm sure you're familiar with it) that says "God put me here as shepherd over you, so you should accept my teaching at face value and not question it." That sort doesn't WANT "sheep" in his fold that can and do seek the original-language meaning.

On the other hand, the very notion of different gifts, given to the edification of the body, taken along with submitting ourselves to one another a la Ephesians 5, certainly could be seen in a hierarchical mode I suppose, as long as the leaders remember their own duty to submit. I don't know as I've ever seen it function that way, but I certainly accept the hypothetical possibility.

As for developing my Greek much more, I have a hunch that'll have to wait till the kids are grown & gone; you mention other people developing hobbies and the like. . .I personally wonder how they do it. For now, my hobby is raising my family ;{)

But I come by it honestly, I guess. My Mom & Dad both studied NT Greek (Mom has done her own translation of the New Testament), and actually taught lay-level intros to biblical word study and Greek in churches when I was a kid. If you want to see where I get it from (and see the translation), have a look at



I would like to post about this New Testament on my blog soon. I think it was brought to my attention earlier and I dropped the ball on it. However, I have glanced at it now and there are some great features to it. Thanks.



Thanks for your insights and witness.

I see hierarchy realized positively in the life of the church, in the workplace, and in the family, on a daily basis. I see the detrimental effects of what happens when there is an absence of hierarchy on a daily basis.

Authority is a positive concept in the Bible because it is "authority on behalf of." The criterion and context of its realization are the "theological" virtues, faith, hope, and love, the greatest of these being love.

We all know plenty of church leaders, work bosses, and husbands and wives who are abusive in word and deed toward those under their care. This is an argument for getting the exercise of authority right, not for eliminating its exercise altogether.

Dan Martin

This is an argument for getting the exercise of authority right, not for eliminating its exercise altogether.

Fair enough, John. I think we are both talking about the difference between authority in a biblical sense (what Greg Boyd describes as "power under") and authoritarianism of the sort Jesus described in Matt. 20:25-28. I have no problem with the kind of authority Jesus set up as a contrast to the earthly sort. I just rarely see it.


I hope you find a congregation and a workplace in which servant leadership predominates.

The congregation I serve depends on it no less than on the physical air it breathes.


I have read thru all the comments. I have been studying the different translations and walk away confused. It is a struggle for me. I want to know exactly what God meant to say. I feel as though I cannot say my Bible, whatever translation, is reliable and true to the original text. I have been to many Christian denominations. Some may consider them conservative (AV 1611 only), and liberal (NIV pew bibles). I have asked around seeking others opinions. I have come to the conclusion that the only way to get the true intended meaning is to translate it for yourself. I have the desire to learn the languages but feel short on time (second coming) and it seems so unrealistic. I am not asking for the easy way out, but desire to know the best way to approach the language? Where do you obtain an original copy of the text? How can I trust those copies?

With my interest and all the questions, I still feel as though things can be gained from reading English translations. I wonder how many of the teachings I have accepted myself are false because of mistranslation? Should I read all English translations as thought for thought and not literally? This seems dangerous.

Would like your input.


Hi Nick,

Jesus may come again tomorrow, but I wouldn't let that stop you from learning Greek and Hebrew, if you have the desire and the patience to do so. As a believer once put it, "Even if knew that the world was going to end tomorrow, I would still plant my apple tree today." That's how it is: we are always called to plant seeds for the future; we are unfaithful if we don't. We will be judged accordingly if we don't.

So long as you can only read the Bible in English, I suggest you read it in two or three translations at once: ESV, NIV, and NLT for example, because each attempts to be faithful to the original texts in a different way.

Over the almost two thousand years that the Bible has been in existence, the people of God have read it in versions with differ among themselves on details, but the core teachings of Moses and Christ are clear in almost any translation available - without a doubt in the translations mentioned above. Things like "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God," salvation by grace through faith not works lest any man should boast, 1 Corinthians 13 which tells us that three things, and only three things, are of permanent value, faith, hope, and love, the greatest of these being love.

I wish you the best, Nick. Look around for a good teacher or two, at a local Bible college or university for example. Allow yourself to be mentored by someone who demonstrates humility and the other gifts of the Spirit. You will not be disappointed.

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    by Calvin Park, M. Div. student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton MA
  • Resident aliens
    reflections of one not at home in this world
  • Revelation is Real
    Strong-minded comment from Tony Siew, lecturer at Trinity Theological College, Singapore
  • Ricoblog
    by Rick Brannan, it's the baby pictures I like the most
  • Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth
    Nick Norelli's fabulous blog on Bible and theology
  • SansBlogue
    by Tim Bulkeley, lecturer in Old Testament, Carey Baptist College (New Zealand). His Hypertext Commentary on Amos is an interesting experiment
  • Ancient Near Eastern Languages
    texts and files to help people learn some ancient languages in self study, by Mike Heiser
  • Midrash, etc.
    A fine Hebrew-to-English blog on Midrash, by Carl Kinbar, Director of the New School for Jewish Studies and a facultm member at MJTI School of Jewish Studies.
  • Phil Lembo what I'm thinking
    a recovering lawyer, now in IT, with a passion for a faith worth living
  • Roses and Razorwire
    a top-notch Levantine archaeology blog, by Owen Chesnut, a doctoral student at Andrews University (MI)
  • Scripture & Theology
    a communal weblog dedicated to the intersection of biblical interpretation and the articulation of church doctrine, by Daniel Driver, Phil Sumpter, and others
  • Scripture Zealot
    by Jeff Contrast
  • Serving the Word
    incisive comment on the Hebrew Bible and related ancient matters, with special attention to problems of philology and linguistic anthropology, by Seth L. Sanders, Assistant Professor in the Religion Department of Trinity College, Hartford, CT
  • Singing in the Reign
    NT blog by Michael Barber (JP University) and Brad Pitre (Our Lady Holy Cross)
  • Stay Curious
    excellent comment on Hebrew Bible and Hebrew language topics, by Karyn Traphagen, graduate, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia PA (archive)
  • Sufficiency
    A personal take on the faith delivered to the saints, by Bob MacDonald, whose parallel blog on the Psalms in Hebrew is a colorful and innovative experiment
  • The Sundry Times
    Gary Zimmerli's place, with comment on Bible translations and church renewal
  • Sunestauromai: living the crucified life
    by a scholar-pastor based in the Grand Canyon National Park
  • ta biblia
    blog dedicated to the New Testament and the history of Christian origins, by Giovanni Bazzana
  • Targuman
    by Christian Brady, targum specialist extraordinaire, and dean of Schreyer Honors College, Penn State University
  • Targuman
    on biblical and rabbinic literature, Christian theology, gadgetry, photography, and the odd comic, by Christian Brady, associate professor of ancient Hebrew and Jewish literature and dean of the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State
  • The Biblia Hebraica Blog
    a blog about Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the history of the Ancient Near East and the classical world, Syro-Palestinian archaeology, early Judaism, early Christianity, New Testament interpretation, English Bible translations, biblical theology, religion and culture, philosophy, science fiction, and anything else relevant to the study of the Bible, by Douglas Magnum, PhD candidate, University of the Free State, South Africa
  • The Forbidden Gospels Blog
    by April DeConick, Professor of Biblical Studies, Rice University
  • The Naked Bible
    by Mike Heiser, academic editor at Logos Bible Software
  • The Reformed Reader
    by Andrew Compton, Ph.D. student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures (focus on Hebrew and Semitic Languages) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
  • The Sacred Page
    a blog written by three Catholic Ph.D.s who are professors of Scripture and Theology: Michael Barber, Brant Pitre and John Bergsma
  • The Talmud Blog
    a group blog on Talmud News, Reviews, Culture, Currents, and Criticism
  • Theological German
    a site for reading and discussing theological German, by Mark Alter
  • theoutwardquest
    seeking spirituality as an outward, not an inward quest, by David Corder
  • This Lamp
    Incisive comment on Bible translations in the archives, by Rick Mansfield
  • Thoughts on Antiquity
    By Chris Weimer and friends, posts of interest on ancient Greek and Roman topics (archive). Chris is a graduate student at the City University of New York in Classics
  • Threads from Henry's Web
    Wide-ranging comment by Henry Neufeld, educator, publisher, and author
  • Tête-à-Tête-Tête
    smart commentary by "smijer," a Unitarian-Universalist
  • Undeception
    A great blog by Mike Douglas, a graduate student in biblical studies
  • What I Learned From Aristotle
    the Judaica posts are informative (archive)
  • Bouncing into Graceland
    a delightful blog on biblical and theological themes, by Esteban Vázquez (archive)
  • Weblog
    by Justin Anthony Knapp, a fearless Wikipedian (archive)
  • Writing in the Dust
    A collection of quotes by Wesley Hill, a doctoral student in New Testament studies at Durham University (UK), and a Christian who seeks the charism of chastity
  • גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב
    by David Miller, Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism, Briercrest College & Seminary, Caronport, Saskatchewan, Canada
  • ואל-תמכר
    Buy truth and do not sell: wisdom, instruction, and understanding - a blog by Mitchell Powell, student of life at the intersection of Christ, Christianity, and Christendom
  • משלי אדם
    exploring wisdom literature, religion, and other academic pursuits, by Adam Couturier, M.A. in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)

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  • Ancient Hebrew Poetry is a weblog of John F. Hobbins. Opinions expressed herein do not reflect those of his professional affiliations. Unless otherwise indicated, the contents of Ancient Hebrew Poetry, including all text, images, and other media, are original and licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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