“But the Greek REALLY says…” Part 2


Why Hebrew and Greek

are not needed in the pulpit.


“I know in your Bible it says ‘Yes,’ but in the Greek it says ‘No’!”

“…Okay, wait, so then, hah, hah, so then the second guy says to the first one, ἐκεινος οὐκ ἐστιν ὁ κυῶν μου!! Oh, mercy, that one gets me every time!”

In Part 1, I argued in favor of a sharply minimalist use of ancient Hebrew and Greek words during a sermon, especially if there is no compelling purpose or, worse, if the goal is to impress the crowd: it is a pitiable housepainter who departs the job with his scaffolding still up, hoping you’ll notice how far he had to climb. See “But the Greek REALLY says…”: Why Hebrew and Greek are not needed in the pulpit, Part 1 and Part 3.

Now, I believe an interpreter of the Word should invest the time necessary to work through it in the original, just as you would learn Spanish if you were going to teach Don Quixote, week in and week out, for the rest of your life. However, in our sermons we should avoid Hebrewfying and Greekitizing, simply because it is rarely of help.

Now we will explore some issues with the Greek language, where the interpretations we hear are simply erroneous. Let’s explore an overarching belief about the Greek language; second, distortions of specific Greek words.

General Myth-information – “Greek is a kind of super-language. It is the most awesome medium ever for communicating.”

These quotes or summaries are culled at random from the internet (in italics, followed by my comments):

Greek was a very precise language with five tenses to enable narrow definitions and the explanation of abstract concepts, especially spiritual and relational, which in other languages such as English just cannot be easily done.

Those who read any Greek at all know that it is not a fail-safe data transmitter. There are plenty of inherent ambiguities: for example, should Acts 19:5 be translated as baptized “by”, “in” or “into the name of the Lord Jesus”? All are possible in the original; the indistinctness is due to the Greek; English versions are usually more specific.

In John 14:1b, does Jesus say “Believe in God; believe also in me”; or “You believe in God; believe also in me” or even “You believe in God; you believe also in me”? All three are possible in the original Greek; in English versions the translators have to make decisions about what is being said. If John 14 had been originally penned in English, it would have been more exact than the Greek. Again: did Paul say “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people” in Titus 2:11 or “has appeared to all, bringing salvation”? Both are possible.

Lastly, when it comes to verb tenses, one way in which Greek is more precise is that it retains the subjunctive mood, whereas it is becoming extinct in English, especially in Britain (the giant’s “Behe alive or be he dead” uses the subjunctive; so too “If I were a rich man”). Nevertheless, it’s not difficult to translate a Greek subjunctive into English. What’s more, when it comes to the verb tenses, English, with its 12 outdoes Greek with its 5.

Every Greek verb scientifically communicates 5, count’em, 5 bits of data! Since this used to be a favorite claim of R. B. Thieme (see Part 1 of this post), I will quote his comments on 1 Thess 5:17, “pray without ceasing” – “The verb proseuchomai in the present middle imperative means ‘pray’. The gnomic present tense refers to a state which perpetually exists…The dynamic middle voice indicates that the subject, the believer, acts for himself with reference to himself and others.”

First of all, English communicates the same data set: if you know how to use “I am, you are, he is, we are, you are, they are” then you can deduce the same 5 pieces of information from each form.

Second, Thieme is simply mistaken on both counts: the verse is not a so-called “gnomic present,” which is used  in a proverb such as “a stitch in time saves nine.” Next, the verb does not have the “middle voice”; he misses the fact that the verb is “deponent”. Thus Paul is not saying that the believer should pray with reference to himself in others; a student with a month or so of Greek instruction would be able to spot this error.

The upshot is that, the more the preacher refers to the Greek in this fashion, the more damage is being done. Not only is this “insight” mistaken, it positively detracts from Paul’s meaning in the verse.

“Greek has a huge and highly technical vocabulary.” In fact there are only about 5400 vocabulary words in the Greek New Testament; the English language actually has more words than any known language, with 400,000+.  The average English speaker might regularly use 5000 words. Shakespeare used about 29,000 words in his works.

“Greek has many words and synonyms, each with finely-shaded meanings.” If someone pulls out as proof that New Testament Greek has two words for anger, thumos and orgē, remind him that in English we have (thanks Thesaurus.com) “acrimony, animosity, annoyance, antagonism, blow up, chagrin, choler, conniption, disapprobation, displeasure, distemper, enmity, exasperation, fury, hissy fit, huff, etc., etc.”

“During the time of Christ, the Koine Greek language was the most explicit, precise and unambiguous language the world has ever seen! A veritable peak of human communication by words!”Such a breathless announcement! But as we have seen, while Greek is excellent and should be studied, this claim is just a myth.

Specific Myth-information – “The average Greek word conveys more or other information than does your English translation.”

Evangelical Christians are supposed to disdain “oral tradition.” Nevertheless, there is a large body of folklore about New Testament Greek; it circulates from pulpit to pulpit, from generation to generation. The traditions are disproved and rejected by qualified researchers, but somehow they refuse to die. I am going to give a brief list of the more common errors; to save space, I’m not going to footnote each point.

MYTH: The aorist tense is punctilear, a point in time, once and for all action. Thus, 1 John 2:1 means “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin even one little sin.” Or Rom 12:1 means “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies once and for all in a point of time as a living sacrifice”. FACT: the aorist tense simply does not mean a point of time; in these two verses, one deduces what kind of action it is  from a careful reading in context. An excellent counterexample is John 2:20 – “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple”; how can an action be a point of time and also go on for 46 years?

MYTH: doulos means “bondservant” and diakonos just means “servant” and, according to a recent bestseller, this provides the key to understanding the Christian life: Christians are not God’s servants, but his slaves. FACT: both terms are used of Christians, and their meanings overlap.

MYTH: Matthew 28:19 does not say “Go and make disciples”, since the word “go” is a participle; and thus Jesus did not command them to go anywhere. What he said was “As you go, make disciples.” FACT: this is a technical point – the participle for the word “go” is adverbial to the imperative “make disciples” and therefore is also a command. this means that we are under orders to “go and make disciples” just like your Bible says.

This is one of those examples of the phenomenon we saw in Part 1, of preachers who “correct” the English version, stating that the translators did not capture the full meaning of the original Greek. In fact, if a translation such as the ESV or NLT does not translate a verse like Matt 28:19 with “As you go”, it’s because the translators – international-level experts in their field – have heard of the interpretation and found it wanting. John 21:15-17 is a prime example: probably every teaching you have heard on this passage says that “Jesus kept asking Simon Peter if he loved (agapao) him, and Peter kept replying with a weaker word, that he merely liked (phileo) Jesus.” “Your Bibles don’t reflect the difference in the verbs!” we hear. But here again, the experts in Greek verbs have made the decision that these two synonyms overlap in this passage and that it’s proper to translate them both as “to love.” That’s not the only way to interpret the passage, but it seems to be best.

Here we might mention Wuest’s word studies and his Expanded Translation, and also the Amplified Version of the Bible. Both of these, which have as their goal the unpacking of deeper meanings, in fact introduce more confusion. Thus in John 21 the Amplified reads, without justification: “When they had eaten, Jesus said to Simon Peter, Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these [others do—with reasoning, intentional, spiritual devotion, as one loves the Father]? He said to Him, Yes, Lord, You know that I love You [that I have deep, instinctive, personal affection for You, as for a close friend].” For “Rise, pick up your bed and walk” in Mark 2:9, Wuest has the tortuous “Be arising and pick up your pallet at once and carry it away, and start walking and keep on walking.” Wuest’s rendering is not hinted at in the original text and gives zero help to the English reader.

MYTH: agape/agapao consistently mean “divine love.” FACT: they mean love; it could be love by God (1 John 4:10) or Christians’ love (1 Cor 13). Or it could be love for the world (1 John 2:15).

MYTH: the word for “judgment seat” in 2 Cor 5:10 is bema. One teacher says: “The bema was not a judicial bench where someone was condemned; it was a reward seat [in athletic contests]. Likewise, the Judgment Seat of Christ is not a judicial bench…the Christian life is a race, and the divine umpire is watching every contest.” FACT: bema can also mean “judgment seat”, and it is so used in Acts 18:12, 16 and in Matthew and John’s description of Jesus’ trial before Pilate. This redefinition of bema avoids the context of 2 Cor 5:10, which shows that Christians will be tried before their Judge: “each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” An athlete wouldn’t receive punishment for an “evil” performance on the field.

MYTH: the word for sin is hamartia, which means “to miss the mark.” Therefore sin is basically missing the mark of God’s righteousness. FACT: nowhere in the New Testament does it mean missing the mark, it means an offense against God. See Is sin “missing the mark”?

MYTH: the word for departure in 2 Thess 2:3 is apostasia; it refers to the departure of the church from the earth in a pre-tribulational rapture. FACT: while the verb aphistemi may mean “to depart (physically)”, the noun apostasia means religious apostasy or political rebellion; the best explanation of 2 Thess 2:3 is that the Day of the Lord will not come “if there has not first come the Apostasy and the Man of Lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction.” See What comes before the Day of the Lord: the final “apostasy” or the “departure” of the church? [Studies in Thessalonians]

MYTH: miraculous healings were becoming less common as early as the AD 60s: the proof is that Paul healed (the verb iaomai)  the father of Publius in Acts 28:8 by the laying on of hands, but that he did not do other healings – the Greek words changes to therapeuo, meaning that Dr. Luke probably treated them with his medicines. FACT: besides the historical problem of imagining that the governor of Malta didn’t have access to a physician, the truth is that both verbs may be used to refer to miraculous healing or to medicinal treatment.

MYTH: a word in Greek has the same meaning of a related word in English: dunamis is “literally” dynamite; Eph 2:10 says we are God’s “poem” (poiema); martus is not just a witness but a martyr; hilaros in 2 Cor 9:7 means that “God loves, literally, a hilarious giver!” FACT: Dynamite wasn’t invented until 1800 years after the New Testament; poiema means “workmanship,” not poem; martus in the first century meant a “witness” and only in the following century one who testifies to the point of death, a “martyr.” The adjective hilaros is a distant cousin of the English “hilarious,” but it means what all the Bible translations say it means: “cheerful, glad, happy, without reluctance, gracious.” Translating it as “hilarious” is misleading; plus, what in the world would it mean? As someone writes, “When you are hungry and need food, the hilarious giver throws a pie in your face.” A historical note: one of the earliest hymns in our worship is the Greek “Phos hilaron”; the English version translates it as “O gracious (hilaron) Light (phos), pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven, O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed!” Hear it sung here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MPjVZO0tzqQ.

MYTH: the two words for “word” (rhema, logos) don’t overlap; rhema means an utterance or spoken word. This is the basis for the Rhema teaching, better known as the Word of Faith or the Name it and Claim it Movement. FACT: they often overlap and are used interchangeably; nowhere does the Bible promise that “uttered” declarations must magically come to pass. [1]

In Part 1 of this post I argued that it is the rare sermon that requires the preacher to mention a Greek or Hebrew word. Now I would like to conclude with a second affirmation:

It is useful and perhaps even necessary to bring up a Greek or Hebrew word in the case where the listeners have already heard misinformation about the original language. That is, we should bring up the original in order to defuse a false notion and that the listener might unlearn what he or she has heard before.

In Part 3 we will consider where it would be positively helpful to bring up Hebrew or Greek in a sermon.


[1] Other words where the flock might arrive with imperfect understanding of the Greek and thus need correction could include the Spirit as Paraclete = “one called alongside of”; homolegeo = confessing sin (1 John 1:9) is merely “saying the same thing” as God does about sin; and metanoia = simply “a change of mind”. To go further would simply be to multiply examples.

~ Gary

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[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://christmycovenant.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/cmc-gary-shogren-sm.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Copyright Gary Shogren.

Gary has a PhD in New Testament Exegesis. He serves as Professor at Seminario ESEPA, San Jose, Costa Rica[/author_info] [/author]

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