There are people who think the classics are a dated luxury. Anyone who believes that should stay far away from the Christian Bible.
It’s been many years since I was able to read the New Testament in English. Now, don’t think I’m showing off there. My Greek is not wonderful, and I find a parallel text very useful indeed. The problem is that, the more you read the text in the Greek original, the more you realize just how much you are missing in even the very best translations by the world’s greatest scholars. You miss all sorts of nuances and cross-references, echoes and resonances. As the (Latin) saying has it, Omnis traductor traditor: Every translator is a traitor.
An author might want to place special emphasis on a particular word or phrase, to bring out a theme or motif. When we translate it, though, that pattern is often lost. We don’t like to use the same word repeatedly, so we try to vary it slightly, especially if the English meanings of the word are slightly different depending on context. And thus we lose the author’s intent.
As an example, I offer the Greek word hodos, “way,” which was a very early name for the Jesus movement, before the invention of Christianity. Jesus proclaimed himself the Hodos, and the Truth, and the Life. No later than the early second century, the converts’ manual that we call the Didache, the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, declared that “There are two Ways [Hodoi], one of Life and one of Death, and there is a great difference between the two Ways.” Note, incidentally, that I have capitalized the word Way in these phrases, to bring out the reference to a movement. As the original text demands no such punctuation, I am acting as a traitor.
Any standard English translation will include those specific Way references. Most such usages are lost, though, as they are often rendered as road, path, journey, or route. We thus lose the impact that the text would have had on a Greek reader, who found himself battered so repeatedly by way-words.
Some authors did this much more than others. Hodos occurs an impressive 101 times in the New Testament, most frequently in the Gospels and Acts. Mark begins his gospel by quoting Isaiah: “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. . . . Prepare ye the way of the Lord . . . ” Any early Christian would recognize there a specific reference to the movement he had just joined.
Other references proliferate. Remember the Parable of the Sower? In the Greek, some of the seed “fell by the way side [para ten hodon], and the fowls of the air came and devoured it up” (Mark 4:4). You have to stick to the Way.
And here’s Jesus sending out the disciples on their mission: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts.” Jesus actually tells His followers to take nothing for their Hodos. They aren’t on any old journey; they’re on the Way.
Luke’s account of the Journey to Emmaus is telling (Luke 24). Jesus meets two people along the road, but they do not recognize Him until they break bread together. The text actually says that they had already suspected something as they traveled with Him, “while he was talking with us along the road [hodos], as he was opening the scriptures to us.” Believers know Jesus through belonging to His movement, as they travel His Way.
Luke repeatedly deploys Way-talk in Acts. In Acts 9, Saul/Paul travels to Damascus to seek out and arrest those of the Way, the Jesus-followers. Blinded by his vision, Saul/Paul is healed in Damascus by a Christian who tells him of the Lord Jesus, “who appeared to you on your way [hodos] here.” In Jerusalem, Barnabas tells the apostles how Saul had been converted along the way. We usually talk of the Road to Damascus, but it’s better to refer to it as a way. Paul began on the wrong way, but found the right one, the Way of Truth.
Sometimes, we really don’t know whether evangelists meant the word solely as “road” in an uncomplicated literal sense, or if we are meant to see other implications. In the story of the Good Samaritan, we hear of the priest passing by the injured man. The text actually reports that “a priest was going down that road [hodos] and when he saw him he passed by on the other side.” Is the reader meant to think that the priest was going down the wrong way, rather than the one Jesus was advocating?
Sometimes, roads are just roads; other times, they are not. If you try to read the Bible without the original languages, you will lose your way.