Is it necessary that we know how to use the original biblical languages in order to study the Bible ? Of course not. But does that mean we should ignore the importance of how the original languages “work” in order to grasp a better understanding of the biblical text? Of course not.
Most people in Sunday School classes or community Bible studies have ample tools available to them in order to break the surface meaning of the biblical text. Whether it’s a good translation, a decent commentary or computer related Bible study aides, the tools are out there – many of them free – if people have a desire to dig a little deeper into the meaning of God’s word. Does that mean God’s word is not obvious on its surface? Well, to be honest, there are times when I would have to say yes. The words seem clear enough and challenging enough, but there’s more to understanding the Bible than just reading a compilation of words. English words seldom, if ever convey the same strength or thoughts the “original” words did and that’s where the difficulty comes in. Here’s an example that may illustrate my point and show how translations may differ.
In the book of James, chapter two, verse one we read these words: My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. (ESV) If we break this sentence down it would look like this:
- My brothers
- hold not
- the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ
- the glory
- with partiality
Most of the major translations present the sentence as an imperative or command. The NRSV and NLT present it as a question – “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” (NRSV)
Of course there are many things that could be discussed regarding this verse, but it’s important to see how translators play a role in shaping the text and giving it certain meaning. It could be that James is questioning his reader’s faith when they show partiality, or it could be that James is adamant about the fact that showing partiality should not be part of the believer’s conduct. There’s a significant difference between the two and it is very much worth discussing. Would a discussion change the fact that as believers we often show partiality? No – but it forces us to take a hard look at partiality and how it affects our personal life and witness. After all, showing partiality or favoritism is often a “what’s in it for me” approach to human relationships. We show partiality to the “rich” because we believe there’s something to gain. We show partiality toward the poor because we believe they have nothing to offer us. Recognizing that is powerful in and of itself. Can one call our faith into question if we show partiality? Perhaps, especially if it’s consistent conduct, but simply showing partiality does not invalidate personal faith. It’s dishonoring to God, as James makes very clear, but it does not negate faith.
Does looking at the Greek help us understand the point James is trying to make? In some respects it does. If nothing more, it helps us clarify how James sets up the importance of showing partiality when it comes to living out one’s faith. Partiality is not congruent with how Jesus lived and it’s not an appropriate way for us to live. In other words, if we have a living, vibrant and on-going faith then partiality is not welcome.