This summer, I’m starting to learn Greek and Hebrew, the original languages the Scriptures were written in. It’s very difficult to learn the vocabulary, the new alphabets, and all the complex grammar rules that are particularly to these languages. Why put in all this effort? I’d like to mention some examples I heard about a few years ago that really emphasize for me the imperfections of translations, and how beneficial it can be to someone interested in learning the Scriptures to be able to understand the grammatical structures and vocabulary subtleties present in the original text.
The first example is actually everyone’s favorite and most well-known Bible verse, John 3:16. John 3:16 in the ESV says: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (italics added).
Almost all mainstream translations translate the italicized word as “so”. But it turns out that the Greek word Οὕτως, translated as “so” does not mean refer to the extent of God’s love (although no one would theologically disagree on how vast God’s love is). Rather, it could better be translated “in this way”, the way the English word “so” is used in the phrases, “I will do so”, or “so it turned out”.
This adds a layer of richness to John 3:16 that most common English readers now no longer realize is present in the text. So John 3:16 might be better translated to say (as the CSB, LEB, HCSB versions render it): “For God loved the world in this way, that he gave his only Son”.
Now what does in this way refer to? To understand this, we have to look at the context of the previous verses 14 and 15.
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God loved the world in this way, that he gave his only Son” (John 3:14-16; ESV, translation of Οὕτως changed).
This is actually referring to the story of Moses and the bronze serpent in Numbers 21:4-9. The Israelites are faithlessly complaining again to God despite his constant presence and provision, so the LORD sends fiery serpents to bite and afflict the people. But he gives them a way to be saved from their sin: “And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live” (Numbers 21:8-9; ESV). And so what John 3:14-16 is actually saying is that in the same way as he gave the bronze snake, God gave his Son for the world, so that anyone who believed and looked at Christ on the cross in faith that he would be saved from their sins would live. This is so much of a richer understanding than what we would get if we only understood the word “so” as a quantifier of God’s great love. But understanding “Οὕτως” as “in this way” gives us a beautiful understanding of how God has worked through history, by pointing to the Christ even thousands of years ago as he dealt with the Israelites’ disobedience, knowing that it would be written down for our instruction (I Corinthians 10:11; ESV).
Let me give another example. John 7:8 and 7:10 are sometimes cited as a possible contradiction in the Bible. Jesus’s brothers are going up to the Feast of Booths, and because they do not believe in him, they challenge Jesus to show himself publicly at the feast. Jesus seems to say to his brothers that he will not go up to the feast, but then later he does go up.
John 7:8: “You go up to the feast. I am not going up to this feast, for my time has not yet come.”
John 7:10: “But after his brothers had gone up to the feast, then he also went up, not publicly but in private.”
Some commentators say that we could understand this denial as meaning that he would not show himself publicly. But there is no need for such an explanation.
The Greek word translated as “going up” is ἀναβαίνω, which is in the present active indicative. In Greek, in the use of the present indicated from context (the other primary uses are repetitive or descriptive, neither of which are indicated here), this represents an action happening in the temporal now. This means that indicated in the verb form is the concept of “now”. We could thus translate John 7:8 as saying, “I am not going up [now] to this feast.” Typically, translators want to respect what is directly written in the text, and so most translations do not include this “now”, which is implied only by context of verse 10. But clearly this is within the understanding that the contemporary hearers of the Gospel of John would have understood, and so for them there would have been no contradiction.
I have used solely examples from Greek because I have some background in Latin, and so these examples really resonated with me when I first heard them. But as I dive into both these original languages, I am sure that I will bear much more rich theological fruit of all kinds, and with it, a better understanding of the Scriptures and our God who penned them.