Why Linguistics Is Necessary for Interpreting the Biblical Text

I am a multilingual. My (chronologically) first language is Korean, because I grew up with Korean immigrant parents who knew little English. But English is my native language. I also took Spanish in high school and lived for most of my life in Los Angeles, so I can confidently say I speak broken Español. I also studied Koine Greek and Biblical Hebrew in seminary, and learned to read German most recently. I would really like to pick up other languages as well–I lament the fact that I’ve been living in Canada for over four years now and know very little French!

I’m thankful to have had the opportunities to study and acquire different languages (of course to differing degrees), and have observed some things along the way, especially regarding how languages work. I’m also thankful to be studying linguistics–not just languages, but linguistics–along with New Testament studies during my doctoral work. Having said all that, here’s my take on why biblical scholars should have at least a working knowledge of linguistics.

sinaiticus-hpLinguistics can be defined as “the study of language and of the way languages work.” Koine Greek, or Hellenistic Greek, is a language. But unfortunately, some still hold to the belief that Koine is simply a spiritual code for English–thus, many are still stuck on what the best translation of a Greek word or clause into English might be. But if the ultimate goal is to understand the meaning of the Greek text (or Hebrew, or Aramaic, text), translation only goes so far. This was highlighted during the Greek language and linguistics section last month at SBL. If we understand that some languages work in ways that differ from other languages, and that languages accomplish things in sometimes different ways, our goal should be to understand how Greek might work and how Greek “does” things as a language system.

As a simple example, in Korean, the common greeting is: “ahn-young-ha-sae-yo.” At the root is the word “ahn-young,” which literally means “well-being,” or something similar, but is used mostly as a form of greeting, and its literal meaning is seldom used. I guess it’s similar to the Greek word χαίρειν, which has the root χαίρω (to rejoice) but is used more commonly as a greeting. We probably should not read too much into it. But I digress. Literally, the greeting “ahn-young-ha-sae-yo” would be translated as “be well-being” but of course no native English speaker says that–it’s also really bad English. And when a Korean speaker says this phrase, they do not necessarily mean the full extent of what that might literally mean. It’s simply the way Koreans greet one another. And when they depart, they say “ahn-young-hee-ga-sae-yo,” which literally would mean “depart in well-being.” But in English, it’s just “goodbye.” Oh by the way, the etymology behind the word “goodbye” is a contraction of “God be with you,” but of course, when we use that today, we rarely, if at all, mean “God be with you.” It’s just the way we English speakers depart from one another. Well, to be exact, it’s evolved to just “bye.”

Back to my point. The problem for biblical scholars is that we do not have native Koine Greek speakers to ask how Greek works, as distinct from modern English (and of course, it’s not that modern English is one entity either–we have many modern Englishes, such as American English, British English, Australian English, African English, not to mention the varieties of Englishes within even those categories). So the best we can do is to study and know linguistics, the general study of how languages in general work, the theory of how languages work, in order that we might have some tools to be able to figure out how Koine Greek works–in order to understand the language of the New Testament. And of course, read Greek texts.

I am suggesting something more than just learning what the word “semantics” means or debating how we should pronounce Koine Greek (though both are not unimportant discussions). I am suggesting that, as biblical scholars, we need to have some working knowledge and theory of how language(s) work and then figure out how Greek seems to work, given the very many texts we have in Hellenistic Greek. And being fluent in more than one modern language may help us understand that each language has its own system and way of “doing things.” Then we can effectively move forward from asking questions regarding how to translate Greek to asking the ultimate question of what the meaning of a text is as conveyed in its original language.

— David I. Yoon

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5 thoughts on “Why Linguistics Is Necessary for Interpreting the Biblical Text

  1. I really identify with this article. I am studying Biblical Studies with an emphasis on Languages currently in my undergrad.
    I am currently enrolled in an Introduction to linguistics class, and a class on the structure of the english language.
    I’ve already taken 4 semesters of Greek and 3 of Hebrew, and NOW, with these linguistics classes, I’m finally able to start connecting the dots of what it all means.

    Linguistics learning is essential to interpret biblical text, you’re spot-on.

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  2. David Putman and David Yoon,

    I have been interested in getting a working knowledge of linguistics, especially as it concerns Biblical Studies. I was wondering if you could both suggest some introductory materials as well as some intermediate and advanced resources. For example, I am curious to ask what text books are being used for David Putman’s linguistics course. Are there any articles, books or audio resources that you would suggest?

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  3. Dan,

    That’s a good question, as there isn’t actually much out there that really targets what you’re looking for. Maybe one needs to be written in the near future. I’d say that a good start is John Lyon’s ‘Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics.’ It’s a bit outdated and old (about 50 years), but it’s a good start to get a general grasp on various aspects of linguistics. His more recent ‘Language and Linguistics’ (1980s) contains stuff that the Intro doesn’t have. But you might also want to delve into Porter’s recent ‘Linguistic Analysis of the Greek New Testament,’ although admittedly it is not an introduction. But if you have the patience to work through it, you’ll learn a lot and have a good knowledge about linguistics in New Testament Greek studies.

    — Dave Yoon

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    • Dan, I hope you have found what you were looking for. There might be few things available to introduce linguistics and biblical studies. But there is a plethora of introductory linguistics texts more recent than Lyons. For example, “Fromkin & Rodman” (& Co) in any of its many manifestations, Crystal’s Encyclopedia, Fasold & Connor-Linton, the Language files stuff, McGregor (W.B. 2009), O’Grady, Katamba & Dobrovolsky, Rowe & Levine, … and so on. Happy learning.

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