Should Christians know Greek and Latin?

Although not everyone can be a Greek and Latin scholar, every Christian who can read well should be able to do the following:

  1. Know the Greek alphabet
  2. Read Greek phonetically by sight
  3. Use the Strong’s Concordance and Lexicon in Bible study
  4. Use an interlinear Greek New Testament

All these resources are on-line so there is no excuse for not using them. Even a cursory knowledge of Koine Greek is extremely useful for Bible study.

Latin is also useful for studying theology. If you have a good knowledge of the English language and even a cursory knowledge of one or two romance languages, such as Spanish or French, then you already know a lot of Latin. While it just takes a little practice, you can learn to read a lot of Latin just from the root words you already know from being an English speaker. Where you will be deficient is Latin grammar and the ability to construct a sentence. But you should be able to decifer some Latin even with a basic vocabulary.

For instance, if you don’t know Latin, can you guess at the meanings of several words in the Latin version of Irenaeus’ Against Heresies?

Neque enim ante multum temporis visum est, sed pene sub nostro saeculo, ad finem Domitiani imperii.

The proper noun here, Domitiani is the Emperor Domitian. Other words should be instantly recognizable as the prefixes and roots of many English words.

ante – “before”
multum – “many,” “much,” “multi”
temporis – “time” (temporal, temporary)
visum – “see” (visual, vision)
sub – “under”
ad – “toward”
finem – “end” (final, finish)
imperii – “reign” (emperor, empire, imperial)

Using the English words before, much, time, see, under, toward, end, reign and Domitian, can you make a guess as to what the translation is?

Most theology up until about 300 years ago was written in Latin and many theological works of just 100 years ago, such as Systematic Theology by Charles Hodge, quote directly from Latin and Greek without translation. These theologians assumed the reader could decifer a few short quotations.

In fact, “literacy” in past centuries meant you could read in different languages. In Harvard’s founding documents, the Puritans wrote: “One of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity: dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.” The entrance examination to most colleges included a portion that needed to be written in Latin and in Greek. The Puritans who were to be trained for the ministry were expected to be proficient in these languages by the age of 13. Certainly, we can accomplish a fraction of the intellectual achievement that our forefathers thought of as common knowledge.

I am not a biblical language scholar and I’ve never studied these languages in depth, but I realize it is important to know some Greek and Latin to understand some major issues in theology. As an example, consider the following question:

When was the book of Revelation written?

The vast majority of scholars have held that Revelation was written toward the end of the reign of Domitian around 96 AD. This is based on one paragraph from Irenaeus.

Irenaeus (c. AD 120-200) was bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul, which is now Lyons, France. His writings were formative in the early development of Christian theology. He was a disciple of Polycarp, who himself was a disciple of the Apostle John.

Irenaeus is thought to have been a Greek from Polycarp’s hometown of Smyrna in Asia Minor, now Izmir, Turkey. The author of five books, Against Heresies, this second century apologist was a champion of orthodoxy and documents the reception of the New Testament books through the Church Fathers who bridged the time between the Apostles and Irenaeus day.

Here is the English translation of Irenaeus:

We will not, however, incur the risk of pronouncing positively as to the name of Antichrist; for if it were necessary that his name should be distinctly revealed in this present time, it would have been announced by him who beheld the apocalyptic vision. For [it or he] was seen not very long time since, but almost in our generation, towards the end of Domitian’s reign” (Irenaeus, Adversus haereses 5.30.3).

In Greek, Irenaeus writes literally: “Not therefore before long time that was seen …”

The phrase “that was seen” comes from a verb in Greek. It can mean “he/she/it was seen” – and it can refer either to the Apostle John or the vision described in the book of Revelation. However, if we look at the context of what is being discussed, Irenaeus is saying that if John knew who the identity of the Beast was, he didn’t communicate it to anyone.

Irenaeus writes elsewhere that he had known some Church Fathers, such as Papias and Polycarp, who had seen and heard John preach. If John knew the identity of the Beast of Revelation, he didn’t tell any of them. Therefore, it was John “that was seen not very long time since” in the last years of Domitian’s reign, not the book Revelation (see John 21:20-25).

The assumption that Irenaeus is decribing the date of Revelation’s writing can be traced back to Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History. In speaking of the persecution under the Roman emperor Domitian, Eusebius states:

In this persecution, it is handed down by tradition, that the apostle John, who was yet living, in consequence of his testimony to the divine word, was condemned to dwell on the island of Patmos. Irenaeus, indeed, in his fifth book against the heresies, where he speaks of the calculation formed on the epithet of Antichrist, in the above mentioned revelation of John, speaks in the following manner respecting him. “We will not, however, incur the risk of pronouncing positively as to the name of Antichrist; for if it were necessary that his name should be distinctly revealed in this present time, it would have been announced by him who beheld the apocalyptic vision. For that was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.18).

Note that Eusebius assumes “that was seen” in Irenaeus’ statement refers to “the Revelation,” and not to “John.” On this basis, Eusebius places the writing of Revelation during the time of Domitian. This assumption has been repeated by thousands of other writers. Note also that all the existing copies of Irenaeus are in Latin, except for these fragments of the original Greek quoted in Eusebius and elsewhere. The ambiguous subtlety of the Greek version is not as clear in the Latin translation. Even though Eusebius was writing in Greek, he still interpreted “that was seen” incorrectly. Eusebius’ assumption has ever since obstructed a clear understanding of the book of Revelation. Without this error, we can interpret Revelation to apply to events from 64 to 70 AD (the Great Tribulation) because we can conclude from other evidence that it was written in the reign of Caesar Nero, in the same time period as most of the New Testament books.

Now with the Internet, there are literally hundreds of articles explaining the issue of Revelation’s dating. The layman no longer needs to rely on an expert or a Bible commentary to tell him when the book of Revelation was written. He doesn’t have to own the expensive multi-volume, Ante-Nicene Fathers by Phillip Schaff to read Irenaeus. He can go directly to the source for free.

By far, my favorite resource for biblical and patristic texts on-line is:

http://www.textexcavation.com

It takes a little while to get used to the navigation, but I find myself going back to this website again and again.

4 Comments

No such thing as a masculine verb in Greek: it can mean ‘he/she/it was seen’ – and it can refer either to John or to the vision.

“No such thing as a masculine verb in Greek” —

Here is the citation for this:

http://rdlindsey.com/revnotes/Irenaeus.htm

I think the writer may have meant that the verb agrees with the nominative case — not “masculine.” Would that be more accurate? How would you rephrase this?

The problem is that it is not clear whether the subject of the Greek verb refers back to John or the apocalypse.

Perhaps the writer was confused with the Latin translation (which denotes gender in the passive perfect tense (though neuter – visum est – or so it is thought, which makes the passage problematic since it can refer to neither John – visus est – nor the apocalypse – visa est).

I would say that the subject of the verb is ambiguous in Greek.

As I said in the article, I am neither a Greek nor Latin scholar by any stretch. But my understanding is that even the vision – visio – does not work here either, since it is a feminine noun.

By CONTEXT alone, I would say that Irenaeus was saying simply in paraphrase: “If it were necessary for us to know the meaning of 666, John could have announced it (told it verbally) because he was seen recently — almost in our day — during the time of Domitian.”

It makes less sense to say that the vision was seen almost in our day, since that is not cause for John announcing the meaning of 666.

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