Crossway has posted the preface and introduction (pdf) to the ESV Reverse Interlinear New Testament. We reproduce the preface below. The pdf at Crossway’s site also explains some of the conventions the Reverse Interlinear uses.
What Is a Reverse Interlinear?
A conventional interlinear New Testament provides an English translation directly below each Greek word in a Greek New Testament. This tool is called an interlinear because the English words are placed between the lines of Greek. Since the English words are merely translations of individual Greek words, the English words are out of grammatical word order, do not constitute any particular translation, and cannot easily be read. Their only use is as a reference. This is not to say that conventional interlinear New Testaments should not be used. One simply must be aware of their purpose and limitations.
A reverse interlinear displays an English translation as the primary text and then weaves the corresponding Greek words between the English lines. So the word order of the English translation is untouched, but the Greek words are rearranged to correspond with the English. This means that the English lines are readable and the text can be used as a working everyday English New Testament.
Furthermore, since Greek is not as dependent on word order as English, often the Greek found in a reverse interlinear is also readable. This means that there is nothing prohibiting someone from reading the English lines and then growing accustomed to reading the Greek lines as well. One of the features of this reverse interlinear is that the Greek words are numbered according to their original order. This provides an easy reference to the original for situations where the Greek word order could make a difference.
The Purpose and Benefits of a Reverse Interlinear
For the layperson or pastor who has never learned Greek, a reverse interlinear provides an inductive access to the original language of the New Testament. Everyone has a favorite English Bible translation. Not only do most people tend to memorize Scripture in one translation, they normally read out of just one Bible because they become familiar with the locations of verses and passages on particular pages. Those who choose to use a reverse interlinear as their day-to-day Bible, in addition to learning the locations of particular verses, will become familiar with repeated Greek vocabulary and phrases that underlie the English translation. Furthermore, this particular reverse interlinear does not merely attempt to connect English vocabulary with Greek vocabulary, it associates English and Greek syntax, allowing the reader to compare multiple word constructions in the two languages.
There are many kinds of clauses and phrases in both languages. To produce a finished English translation, the structures of these phrases and clauses are often mixed and matched. For example, the English Standard Version often translates Greek participial phrases (e.g., “running into the house”) with a conjunction and an indicative verb (e.g., “and he ran into the house”). Using this interlinear, one doesn’t need to learn the meaning of all of those grammatical terms to get a feel for how Greek is used at the phrase and clause level. This is a helpful advantage over a system that simply aligns vocabulary words. This broader understanding of both languages can be gained inductively over time simply by reading one’s favorite English translation while noticing the underlying Greek.
For those who need to refresh their Greek skills or who have just finished a beginning course in Greek, this reverse interlinear can sharpen those skills and advance their fluency in the language. It is not uncommon for a person who knows some Greek to use a conventional interlinear as a tool to translate parts of the New Testament. However, in many places where translations are not woodenly literal, a conventional interlinear does not provide any guidance for connecting the Greek to the reader’s favorite English translation. Many English words in our favorite translations are left unaccounted for, and the reader is left wondering where the translation came from. This also happens when people who know some Greek translate the Greek New Testament alongside their English Bible. It isn’t long before these students start seeing English words in their translation that are difficult to account for, and they have no idea where to look to find the answers.
This grammatically oriented reverse interlinear provides the answers by showing exactly which Greek words and phrases produced the difficult English. Students immediately see which Greek words produced the English, and by using the parsing information they can look up the corresponding grammatical information in their favorite Greek grammars. If you are more inductively oriented, you can just take note of the Greek lexical and grammatical information as you read your favorite translation and gradually get a feel for how the Greek is translated. Every English word is connected to the Greek. You are not left on your own to determine where the English came from.
Overcoming the Objection of the Dangers of Dabbling in Greek
Of course, some would say that learning Greek little by little with such a tool as a reverse interlinear is too dangerous for a layperson. They say that the risk of misusing or misunderstanding the language is not worth the effort, and we should leave the original languages of our Scriptures to the professionals. If such an argument were taken seriously, however, it would be very difficult to determine who is qualified to work in the original languages or even read the Bible at all, since mistakes and misrepresentations are not made only by laypeople. One does not have to look very far to find scholars knowledgeable in the original languages who have abused Greek grammar for theological purposes. How could we determine which scholars should be banned from reading the Greek New Testament? I am of the opinion that the more people who read or dabble in Greek the better. It would mean an overall increase in exegetical conversations using the original languages. For this reason, my hope is that this reverse interlinear will be an encouragement and an aid to help many Bible readers dare to dabble.
This encouragement for Bible readers to start dabbling even though it is dangerous should not imply that the dangers are not real. Perhaps the most common danger comes not from those who use the original language with ill motives but from those who approach the Greek with unrealistic expectations. Most references to the original Greek in sermons and articles refer to the meaning of certain Greek words as if the Greek unlocks a deeper and more accurate meaning disguised by English translations. So many people then go on to learn Greek intending to unearth some previously ignored word meaning that will have a significant effect in their Bible study. I believe this estimation of the purpose of original language study is unrealistic and does not do justice to the value and work of translators. The first job of translators is to render the meaning of the Greek in English. They have many tools at their disposal to accomplish their task and to render their understanding of the Greek in English accurately. So when a dabbler discovers something in the Greek that isn’t represented in translations, instead of thinking he has unearthed a golden nugget of meaning he should rather take it as a warning that he may be doing something wrong.
After a time of study, students sometimes say that the work involved in acquiring Greek skills isn’t worth the effort because they rarely see anything that substantially differs from their English translation. Their disappointment is the result of an unrealistic expectation of the purpose of Greek study. Beginners should not expect to correct translators who have years of experience. Rather, they should be encouraged that they are doing something right by coming to the same conclusions as those who are more advanced. Yet, this is not to say that we shouldn’t expect Greek study to affect our understanding of the Scriptures in ways not available to those who are completely dependent on English translations. It is just that the fruit of our labors will normally be in areas other than word meaning.
The primary benefit of working in the original biblical languages is noticing structural patterns and word play. Good translations correctly conveying the original meaning in good English style obscure these. Often the original Greek repeats words or structures that help to identify a contrast or forcibly present a paradox. Such repetition is not as common in good English style, so these structural clues are often obscured by translations, which primarily attempt to render meaning rather than structure. More often than showing the word repetition, translations hide the repetition in verb tense, voice, and mood. In making these necessary and difficult choices between form and meaning, some of the flavor of the original is inevitably lost. If we want to have a realistic and fulfilling expectation for the benefits of learning Greek, we should look toward developing a taste and a love for the ipsa verba (the very words themselves) of Scripture. This is something that translations cannot replicate, and this deficiency will end up affecting our understanding and appreciation of our Scriptures. This is analogous to the difference between hearing the original presentation of a momentous speech with all of its intonations, pauses, and inflections and reading a transcription of the speech. Reading the Scriptures in the original Greek, with all of its inflections, will often strike us differently from reading the words and grammatical structures of a translation.
It is my earnest hope that as you begin to dabble in the original Greek, your love for God’s very words will sustain your efforts and encourage you on to further study and fluency with the language of the New Testament. It is difficult to refuse more of a good thing. So please dabble and enjoy the meaning and the very words, sentences, and paragraphs in which God ordained to reveal himself. Approach these words in all reverence and fear, not in self-seeking pride or ambition. Do so with a humble spirit prepared to be molded and shaped by the “washing of water with the word” (Eph. 5:26). Of course there will be mistakes, but that happens in English Bible study too. What is important and reassuring is that the Holy Spirit will guide and keep us, and that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).