The Importance of Learning English Grammar to Read Your Bible
Posted on 30 Apr 2022 by Jerome Leng
As part of our Things to Know to Read the Bible Better (TTKTRTBB) programme, our adult groups are currently going through a series of studies on English grammar so they can read the Bible better… yes, you read that right! Folks in their 20s to 60s are learning the rules of the English language that they’ve probably forgotten (or ignored) from their primary school years. It’s quite hard to care about English grammar when you can speak Manglish and get away with it. Well, at least until you’re expected to use “proper” English in your job (to the horror of some degree graduates)! Other than that, Malaysian English works just fine for most of us.
“Why you like that?”
“Aiya…no need to speak so nice lah. Just tembak oni. We Malaysians can understand wan.”
And indeed, we can. We’ve adapted English to suit our colloquial expressions with great success. Have you seen videos of foreigners trying to speak Manglish? Those videos are both entertaining and self-affirming of our superiority as innovators of the English language. “Why do they find it so hard to speak in a way that feels so natural to us Malaysians?” we wonder (and laugh).
Well, I would argue that it is precisely because we are attuned to our colloquial English that we need to spend some time understanding how English grammar and syntax actually work. Our goal is not to stop people from speaking Manglish and convert them into grammar Nazis. Our goal is to help them read their English Bibles and listen to English sermons better as a Malaysian, English-speaking congregation.
One of the amazing things about Malaysia is that most of us are bilingual or trilingual. Sometimes, it can get confusing for us because we’re not sure whether we are speaking English, Manglish, Mandarin in English, or Tamil in English. The rules of grammar for each language are different and as we translate one language into another, we need to ensure that we follow the rules of the language that we are translating into lest we confuse our hearers or become the subject of ridicule over lunch.
And here’s the thing, the Bible was not originally written in English! It was written in Greek and Hebrew.
Bible translations apply grammar rules
Our English Bibles are translations of these languages which means translators have the difficult job of ensuring that they are accurately translating the original languages into readable and intelligible English. Some English translations attempt to preserve the wording in the original language (these are known as formal equivalence translations). Hence, some verses read rather awkwardly in English.
Compare the English Standard Version (ESV)’s Ephesians 2:1-3 with the New Living Translation (NLT)’s translation:
2 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
2 Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. 2 You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. 3 All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.
The English of the NLT is smoother since the verses are broken down into more sentences. Note in the ESV that v2 is a relative clause with the participle “following” repeated twice as a modifier for the verb “walked”. This is a complex sentence that follows the sentence structure in Greek more closely than the NLT. I believe the ESV makes it more obvious that the ideas of v1 and 2 are connected because of the grammatical connections between the phrases.
Paul is making a point about their “deadness”, which is seen in their lives as they live according to the course of the world and Satan. This connection is not apparent in the NLT. In fact, the NLT tells us that they were dead “because of” their disobedience and sins. But the word “because” is not present in the original Greek manuscripts, nor is it clear that the text is indicating a causal relationship between their deadness and disobedience. With the NLT, an interpretation has been offered in the translation of the text itself.
Each word of the Bible has its meaning
Conjunctions like “because of” and prepositions like “in” are words that mean something, don’t you agree? They are not throwaway words, nor do they mean the same thing. The former suggests a reason; the latter could suggest the context in which their deadness is experienced. So which is it? What does this verse actually say? In this instance, is the NLT accurate in its translation of v1?
This is where knowing grammar comes in.
If we want to be responsible interpreters of the Bible, we need to be sensitive to the text. And one of the ways we can read the Bible better is to understand the difference between a conjunction and preposition, and how they help us understand the syntactical relationships between words and clauses.
Part of the problem with our Bible reading is that we are reading the Bible too quickly! We need to learn to slow down when we read our Bibles because we’re often skipping words. If we pay attention to the grammar of the Bible passages, I believe we will pay closer attention to the details of the text. What is the main verb of the sentence? How does this participle modify the verb? Is it functioning adjectivally or adverbially? How does this prepositional phrase function in this sentence? Who is the subject of the relative clause? Etc. In answering questions like these, we are identifying the function of each word and their contribution to the sentence’s meaning.
Those of us who have gone to seminary and were taught to read the Bible in the original languages have experienced this “slowing down” since we have to understand the Greek first and then translate it into English. This process has made me more careful with my handling of the Scriptures. I remember thinking how important it was for Christians to learn how to read the Bible with proper grammar in order to be faithful in their interpretation of the text. Without grammar, it was impossible to translate the Bible from its original languages into English.
So how can the average Christian not know the rules of the English language when they are already at a disadvantage for not knowing how to read the Bible in Greek and Hebrew? The least we can do is to learn English grammar to read the Bible better. Remember, the English Bible is a translation. If you want to use translations like the ESV, CSB, or NASB that use the “word-for-word” translation philosophy, then my advice for you is to learn English grammar. Reading the text grammatically will enable you to be more accurate in your interpretation of the Bible because it forces you to identify the syntactical relationship between the words in the text. This is the first step in reading your Bible better.
This article was written by our Pastor-in-Training, Jerome Leng.
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