Understanding Small Details Can Enhance Your Bible Reading, Scholar Says in Annual Gheens Lectures
Six surprising details will forever change your Bible reading, Peter Williams told the Southern Seminary community during the 2023 Gheens Lectures, held February 8–9 in Heritage Hall.
English New Testament readers often take these six details for granted: question marks, capital letters, quotation marks, paragraphing, verse division, and punctuation. But Williams said these markings are additions to the Greek text. While sometimes helpful, these translation decisions can distract readers from the author’s original meaning.
“Question marks weren’t used consistently until the fifth century and the original letters weren’t upper or lowercase,” Williams said. “For centuries, Christians read their Bible’s fine without punctuation and speech marks. Some of the useful marks in our Bibles went from optional and helpful to now binding our interpretation.”
Williams serves as principal of Tyndale House at Cambridge in England and is one of the leading Bible scholars in evangelicalism. The topic of the lecture series was “Surprising Aspects of Jesus’s Teaching.” He is a member of the translation committee for the ESV Bible.
Williams pointed to Pilate’s conversation with Jesus in Mathew 27 as an example. Pilate’s exact words to Jesus were, “You are the king of the Jews.” Most English translations add a question mark to Pilate’s words, but Williams said this causes readers to miss the significance of Jesus’s response.
“Pilate intends to ask a question,” Williams said. “But in God’s sovereignty, the actual pattern of his words convey the truth that Jesus is king. Jesus answered, ‘you have said so’ because he took Pilate’s words as a testimony to the truth rather than a question.”
In another lecture, Williams argued that it is possible that Jesus taught and spoke often in Greek. Many scholars maintain that Jesus spoke only Aramaic, but discoveries since the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947 demonstrate the use of both Hebrew and Greek alongside Aramaic in Roman Palestine.
Williams offered several lines of suggestive evidence from the New Testament that suggest that the Lord used Greek.
One example came from the Sermon on the Mount. There, Jesus addressed an audience from several different places surrounding Galilee, an audience that would’ve been composed largely of Greek speakers, so it is quite possible he would have delivered his famous address in Greek.
“When groups from so many different places came together, we would therefore expect the teaching to be given in the language most likely to be recognized by all, namely Greek,” he said “This is, of course, unless the teaching were to be given in more than one language.”
Ultimately, the language Jesus spoke doesn’t change anything about what he taught, so it’s not an issue with massive consequences.
“In one sense it doesn’t matter at all what languages Jesus spoke,” Williams said. “Whether he taught in Aramaic, Hebrew or Greek, most Christians in the world today will be reading his lessons in translation anyway.
“But the understanding that it is perfectly plausible that Jesus may have spoken Greek helps us to understand his life a little more clearly — not as someone who lived in an isolated rural outpost, but as a member of a vibrant and cosmopolitan community. It also encourages us that there is no need to imagine a gulf between what Jesus originally said and what is recorded in the Gospels.”