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13 June 2018

The interlinear bible.

For those who want the illusion of being able to read the original.

INTERLINEAR BIBLE /in.ter.lin.e.er bi.bel/ n. Bible which presents the same text in different languages printed on alternate lines.

First time I stumbled across an interlinear bible was back in high school. I was killing time in a Christian bookstore. (Remember those?) This one happened to have an interlinear Old Testament mixed in among the bibles. Never knew such a thing even existed, but I wanted it immediately: It had “the original Hebrew”—the Masoretic text of the scriptures, in a language I couldn’t read at all, ’cause I hadn’t even learned the alphabet yet. But its secrets were unlocked with a word-by-word translation, displayed beneath every Hebrew word. Looked like yea:


Acts 2.42-44 presented interlinear-style. Oak Tree Software

Wanted to buy it immediately, but the sucker was expensive. (A lot of interlinear bibles are. Low demand, y’see.) Something like $80 in 1980s money.

Ten years later I bought the NIV interlinear Old Testament, which was still a bit expensive: I paid $50 in ’90s money, plus shipping. Also got the NIV interlinear New Testament to go along with it.

Then I went to university, minored in biblical languages, and my Hebrew professor told me I had to get rid of my interlinears.

What? Why?

Because, he explained, it’s a “cheater bible.” Every time I pick it up to read Hebrew, I’m not really gonna read the Hebrew. My eyes are gonna drift down one line to the English translation. It’s like having an answer key: I wouldn’t have to practice my vocabulary. Wouldn’t have to remember any word-prefixes or word-endings. Wouldn’t have to remember a thing. The interlinear would be my crutch, and as my memory of Hebrew decayed—as it will, when you don’t practice—it’d become more and more of a crutch. I’d go right back to reading English instead of Hebrew. Yet I’d imagine to myself, “But I know Hebrew.”

Yeah, I had to admit he was absolutely right. Whenever I open up an interlinear text, that’s always what I catch myself doing. That’s why I’ve gotta turn off that software or close that book, and go back to a Hebrew-only text.

But that’s me, and anyone else who can read biblical languages. If you can’t—if you know a few original-language words, but certainly can’t read Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, and wish you had more access to those languages—that’s what an interlinear bible will do for you. It erases some of the barrier between you and the original languages.

But there is still a language barrier. So don’t get overconfident.

"Reading" an interlinear bible.

The illustration above comes from Olive Tree Bible Software. The NIV interlinear bibles I bought were in print, although the New Testament has since gone out of print. But I’ve bought family members The New Greek-English Interlinear New Testament, which has worked for them.

Most interlinear bibles only include a word-by-word translation. The better ones will include further information. Sometimes its Strong number, so you can look it up in a Strong’s-keyed dictionary. Sometimes a transliteration—the same word written in our Latin alphabet so we can read it. (Unfortunately, transliteration tends to follow a custom, and custom doesn’t adequately tell you how native speakers pronounce the word. When I transliterate words, I go for pronunciation. It’s why I spell the Greek word for love agápi instead of agape.) Sometimes the parts of speech—noun, verb, adjective, or participle; singular, dual, or plural; past, present, future, or timeless; masculine, feminine, or neuter; subject or object; ablative, absolute, construct, dative, genitive, instrumental, locative, nominative, or vocative.

And of course computer bibles make everything clickable. (Man alive, do I not miss the ’90s.) If you want an internet interlinear bible, you’ve got BibleHub, or Scripture4All’s PDFs, or NLT Interlinear’s New Testament, or Bible Gateway’s Mounce Reverse Interlinear New Testament.

Oh, the reverse interlinear: Unlike a proper interlinear, where the top line is the original-language text, a reverse interlinear is an English translation—like the CSB, ESV, NASB, or William D. Mounce’s translation. Beneath each English word is the original-language word it was translated from—and sometimes Strong numbers, pronunciation, etc.

What’s the purpose of the reverse interlinear? The publishers wanna show off how “literal” and “accurate” their translation is. It’s easier to read. And it turns their translation into the baseline—into the authority—instead of the original-language text. Which is not the wisest mindset. The downside is you don’t actually get to see the original-language text: You see it out of order, jumbled up to match the English. There’s something to be said for seeing the unchanged original.

Of course, when we “read” an interlinear bible, we’re not really reading the original. We’re reading the English bits. The word-by-word translation. Not so much the unfamiliar foreign-language words.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with this, so long that we realize that’s what we’re doing. But a lot of people aren’t entirely aware that’s what they’re doing. They’re making the same mistake my Hebrew professor warned me about: They think, “I’m reading the original!”—and no they aren’t.

And of course there’s the usual problem of thinking, because each word has been individually translated for them, that translation is really just decoding—that the best, most proper way to translate a bible is word-by-word. I’ve written about that previously.

Misinterpreting an interlinear bible.

The danger of the interlinear bible is when people who don’t really know original languages, decide the interlinear bibles have granted them the ability to translate bible. So they do.

If you’ve never learned a foreign language, y’may not be aware there’s a vast difference between translation and decoding. What nearly everyone does with their interlinears is decode. ’Tain’t translation. But they think it’s translation, and sometimes they’ll try to apply their translations—with messed-up results.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses are an obvious example. Chicago megachurch pastor Charles Russell, whose church evolved into the JW’s, barely knew the Greek alphabet, much less Greek. But he had an interlinear bible, Benjamin Wilson’s The Emphatic Diaglott, and the JW’s still publish an edition of The Emphatic Diaglott as the basis of their bible interpretations. Russell used it all the time, and came up with some pretty weird things as a result.

Fr’instance, Russell retranslated John 1.1 to read,

John 1.1 NWT
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.

The word was a god? Well sure; that’s what we see in The Emphatic Diaglott.


John 1.1-5 from the 1864 edition of The Emphatic Diaglott. Check it out; it says the word is a god. Archive.org

Y’see a number of people make the mistake of thinking Greek articles make a noun definite. If you read o theós it means the God, uppercase-G, meaning the LORD; if you read theós without the article it means a god, lowercase-G, one of the pagan gods, or lesser gods, or some super-powerful angel like Michael. And since John 1.1 reads, kai theós in o lógos/“and God is the word,” but “God” has no article, Russell deduced this “God” wasn’t the God, but a god. Another god than the God. A secondary god.

Of course, any Greek-speaker can tell you Greek’s articles aren’t definite articles. They pretty much work as noun markers: They emphasize a noun, and help make clear what type of noun we’re talking about. (If a noun-ending isn’t obvious, the article usually is.) Sometimes articles don’t mean “the,” but “this,” “that,” “who,” or “the one [who is something].” Quite often we translators leave it untranslated, lest it make English confusing. For instance, just about every personal name has a Greek article: Persist in translating these noun markers, and Jesus becomes the Jesus, Paul becomes the Paul, Melchizedek becomes the Melchizedek—and English doesn’t do that. (Unless you’re trying to be pretentious.)

In John 1.1, the article is there to highlight the subject. Greek articles do that a lot; English doesn’t. If we translated 1 Corinthians 13.4 like that, as if all the articles are definite articles, I’d have to make it, “The love acts patiently. The love behaves kindly.” The love? Which love? Well, Paul and Sosthenes were describing all love. Literal translations are confusing; they’re bad English; hence we leave the noun markers untranslated.

Anyway, Russell imagined he discovered something new, and taught it to his church. As a result the Jehovah’s Witnesses are Arian: They believe, same as Áreios of Alexandria, that Jesus isn’t the God, but a god; a lesser, subordinate deity created by the Father.

But noun markers don’t make a noun definite or indefinite. Context does. The noun marker is there to help us figure out parts of speech. In theós in o lógos, it’s to indicate lógos is the subject, and theós describes the subject. The lógos/“word” is the theós/“God” whom we’ve already seen twice in this verse. The same God. It’d be strange to assume John introduced a new god to the story.

If you’re gonna insist every single noun-marker is “the,” and every single lack thereof is “a,” the Jehovah’s Witnesses actually wind up with a lot of errors in their English translation, ’cause they didn’t apply this principle consistently at all. Properly, John 1.1 would have to be translated as, “In a beginning was the Word”—and which beginning might this be? Russell didn’t realize, according to his own rules of grammar, he had to teach there was more than one beginning.

Anyway, learn from the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ example. Never presume you’ve discovered something, or figured out something, which generations of Christians missed; as if the Holy Spirit only talks to you and no one else. There are good reasons why translators don’t render the scriptures the same wooden way the interlinears do. Learn why this is. Compare your interlinear bibles, same as every other translation, with other bibles.