More Precision in Understanding
God’s word is powerful. When reading our Bibles we hear his voice. However, it does not mean that Scripture is always easy to understand—some things are difficult. Knowledge of the underlying Greek helps the preacher and teacher to check their interpretations and not go off on a rabbit trail that might be suggested by our English translation but is not found in the original. Yet, reading the Greek New Testament does more than just providing signposts and setting boundaries to our interpretation. It also helps to immerse us in the details of the text.
Knowing Greek is not a bludgeon for preachers to silence any questioning of their exegesis, but it is a powerful entry into seeing the patterns and emphases present in the text. The original Greek opens up the text in all its nuance and coherence. English, or any other language, does not have a one-on-one relation with the Greek of the New Testament; therefore, a translation has to make choices between what to reflect and–painfully–what to leave out. A translation can give you much of the meaning, but even the best translation will not be able to render the full depth of the original.
The limitations of a translation into modern English become particularly clear when we think about the repetition of words and phrases. Repetitions are part of creating relations between various sections or parts of a book, or even between books. They also add to a sense of a text “hanging together.” In translation, these repetitions often fall away, even though there is often a distinct function and beauty about them. Of course, it is easy to get carried away here. It is not the case that the repetition of an inconspicuous word is telling us something special. In this brief post, we are not going to formulate any rules; rather, we will simply go through four examples that illustrate the level of detail found in the text.
This short book offers Greek students answers to crucial questions about The Greek New Testament, Produced at Tyndale House, Cambridge and the Greek New Testament in general.
The wonderful thing, though, about language is that we can explain the beauty of Scripture in any language—it just takes a little longer. It is my experience that there will always be people in our congregations who appreciate hearing about the finer details of the word of God that they love so dearly. And a pastor reading Scripture in Greek will be able to bring the text to their congregation with more confidence and more precision.
Related Words in Romans 12:3
No one wants to fall foul of an exegetical fallacy, but that does not mean we should not pay attention to the roots of words. In Romans 12:3 Paul uses three related words in one sentence, and it is clear that he wants the reader to see their relation:
. . . I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment . . .
λέγω γὰρ (…) παντὶ τῷ ὄντι ἐν ὑμῖν, μὴ ὑπερφρονεῖν παρ᾿ ὃ δεῖ φρονεῖν, ἀλλὰ φρονεῖν εἰς τὸ σωφρονεῖν …
The verb φρονεῖν “to think” is used four times—twice without a prefix, and twice with a prefix. The first prefix is a simple word, ὑπέρ, which in its adverbial use has the sense of “beyond” (see 2 Cor. 11:23). Not “thinking beyond/above”, ὑπερφρονεῖν, what one ought “to think”, φρονεῖν, but “to think”, φρονεῖν, “in order to σωφρονεῖν.”
What is the prefix σω- about? It is the root of some of the best-known words in the New Testament, σωζω “to save”, σωτηρ “savior”, σωτηρια “salvation”. Outside the Christian use of σωτηρια, the word is normally used in the sense of “health.” This sense still comes through in σωφρονεῖν, like in Mark 5:15, where the healed demon-possessed man is now sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and “sound of mind,” σωφρονοῦντα.
Romans 12:3 teaches that Paul expects his readers to notice such a play on words, and that the relation between these words is understandable. φρονεῖν, ὑπερφρονεῖν, and σωφρονεῖν are three different words in the lexicon, yet clearly related, and Paul uses this relation deliberately. Later on in the letter to Titus, Paul uses various forms of σωφρον- to explain what a godly life looks like, but we will not explore that now.
Difficult Language in Revelation 16:17
The third series of seven numbered events is coming to an end, and the seventh angel pours out his bowl in the air. And then a great voice comes from the throne which says, “It has happened”, or, “It is done”, γέγονεν. The consequences of this mighty announcement will be unpacked in the following description of the fall of God’s enemies. But as so often happens in this book, the shape of the language is used to underline the message. The perfect of the verb γίνομαι, γέγονεν, is followed by a series of five consecutive instances of the same verb, ἐγένετο. This is not bad style, though it becomes a bit jarring after the third instance. Rather, it is a great use of language. The echo of the great voice, γέγονεν, reverberates through the following sentences five times ἐγένετο.
Though the sequence of a repeated “It happened” is difficult to translate into “good” English, it is an apt illustration of the type of phenomenon one should expect in Revelation. In this book, the shape and form of the language do not always follow conventional grammar, but often there is a reason.
For many preachers, it is already an act of bravery to preach through Revelation, and the challenges are certainly not small. Translations have to make difficult choices, and some of the unusual language of Revelation is difficult to reflect in English. But just as the first hearers will have thought about the strangeness of the imagery and the language, so it is good to convey the same to our churches.
Repetition of a Phrase in Acts 8:35
In the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, we find a number of repetitions that are important. One of these is the constant referral to the Ethiopian as “the eunuch.” Couldn’t Luke have chosen a different term to refer to the good man? Why put so much emphasis on the fact he is a eunuch?
Another repetition may be more difficult to spot in English, even though the ESV translates the relevant words of Acts 8:35 correctly:
Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.
ἀνοίξας δὲ ὁ Φίλιππος τὸ στόμα αὐτοῦ καὶ ἀρξάμενος ἀπὸ τῆς γραφῆς ταύτης εὐηγγελίσατο αὐτῷ τὸν Ἰησοῦν.
The words used to introduce the content of what someone says are never high on our list of things to notice. And they are also the ones likely to be translated into more idiomatic English (e.g. compare John 4:13 and John 4:16 in Greek and English). But here in Acts 8:35, we have quite a heavy introduction, “And Philip opening his mouth . . .” Why is Philip described in this way? The answer lies three verses earlier in Acts 8:32, in the words quoted from Isaiah 53:
. . . and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth.
. . . καὶ ὡς ἀμνὸς ἐναντίον τοῦ κείραντος αὐτὸν ἄφωνος, οὕτως οὐκ ἀνοίγει τὸ στόμα αὐτοῦ.
The Servant did not open his mouth during his suffering. But times have changed. Now, after his death and after his resurrection, mouths are to be opened and the good news is to be proclaimed, just as Philip is doing right here.
The repetition of a single phrase is not without meaning, especially when simpler alternatives are available. Not only does repetition add to our sense that a text “hangs together” (cohesion), but here it also adds nuance to our understanding of the passage. And the Greek helps us to notice it.
A Long-Distance Repetition in John 1 and 13
Our final example comes from the Gospel of John. This gospel is, of course, known for its internal references. In John 21, Simon Peter sees the disciple who had asked Jesus about who would betray him, something described in John 13. Nicodemus, in John 19, is described as the one who had come earlier to Jesus (in John 3). And we get references forward, such as in John 11, where Mary is the one who anointed the Lord (in John 12).
Not all connections between the various parts of this book are as explicit. Perhaps one of the most beautiful examples is found when a key phrase in John 1:18 is repeated:
. . . the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.
. . . ὁ ὢν εἰς τὸν κόλπον τοῦ πατρός, ἐκεῖνος ἐξηγήσατο.
The footnotes to this verse in the ESV give already an indication that the translation is not straightforward. We leave aside the questions around the phrase “the only God” and concentrate on the phrase “who is at the Father’s side”, ὁ ὢν εἰς τὸν κόλπον τοῦ πατρός. The footnote here helpfully points out that a more formal-equivalent translation of the phrase εἰς τὸν κόλπον is “in the bosom of the Father.” The English language has changed such that this phrase is not immediately intelligible, but let’s stick with it for the moment. The only other time John uses the word κόλπος is in John 13:23:
One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table at Jesus’ side
Ἦν ἀνακείμενος εἷς ἐκ τῶν μαθητῶν αὐτοῦ ἐν τῷ κόλπῳ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ ὃν ἠγάπα ὁ Ἰησοῦς·
Also here we find the same footnote to the phrase “at Jesus’” side telling us that the Greek has “in the bosom of Jesus”, ἐν τῷ κόλπῳ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ. Thus, we have the disciple who is loved by Jesus occupying the same privileged position as the only-begotten One has with the Father. The beloved disciple remains unnamed in the book, and quite deliberately so. But what we do know is that this disciple was a true follower and standing with Jesus’ mother at the cross. He is characterized by being the object of Jesus’ love. In some way, he is the “model disciple,” the ideal follower of Jesus.
[Biblical Greek] puts us in a position where we can “Come and see,”—where we listen directly.
Later, in John 17, Jesus will speak openly about the unity between him and his followers and how this is like the Son’s unity with the Father. But already in chapter 13, this is prefigured in the repetition of a single word that speaks about the intimate position that the beloved disciple has “in the bosom of” the Son.
In conclusion, do we need Greek in order to appreciate the examples discussed above? It certainly helps. It puts us in a position where we can “Come and see,” where we listen directly. Reading Greek (and likewise the Hebrew of the Old Testament) helps us to develop a sensitivity to the beauty of the language that is difficult to appreciate otherwise. And it is not just about beauty; it is also about meaning. Thankfully, we can explain all this in modern English. But for those who can, the blessing of approaching Scripture in the original is a great privilege.
Dirk Jongkind is the author of An Introduction to the Greek New Testament, Produced at Tyndale House, Cambridge.
This advice is purposed not to make things easier, but to make the process more realistic, and more pleasant.
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Biblical Greek is not just a tool for use in ministry. It gives us the most privileged place from which to listen to the voice of our Lord.
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