“But the Greek REALLY says…”: Why Hebrew and Greek are not needed in the pulpit, Part 2

“…Okay, wait, so then, hah, hah, so then the second guy says to the first one, ἐκεινος οὐκ ἐστιν ὁ κυῶν μου!! Oh, that one gets me every time!"
“…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 “Be he 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. But one teacher goes much further: “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.

PS – anyone “get” the joke in the cartoon?


[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.

But the Greek REALLY says…” Why Greek and Hebrew are not needed in the pulpit, Part 2, by Gary Shogren, PhD in New Testament Exegesis, Professor at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

22 thoughts on ““But the Greek REALLY says…”: Why Hebrew and Greek are not needed in the pulpit, Part 2

  1. The 1995 revision of the Reina Valera Spanish bible makes a distinction. Perhaps that’s where I got it from, but I’m pretty sure my Spanish bible is the 1960 revision. I’ll check at church tomorrow – I leave my Spanish bible there because I only use it when at church.

  2. Thanks for this. I don’t know any Greek, but as a translator myself (of modern languages) I’ve always been suspicious of people saying “but the Greek really says…”. I always think, “so why didn’t the translator, who probably knows a lot more Greek than you, translate it that way, if that’s what it really means”?

    I also get suspicious when people say “In the Greek it’s the same word that is used in passage X where it is translated as Y”. As a translator, I know that a word in one language can be translated in many different ways in another language depending on the context.

    1. Hi Tim, thanks for your comment!

      As far as I understand it, you are right on all counts. One example is how katartizo/καρταρτίζω is used in Gal 6:1 – “Restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.” Someone will point to the use of the same verb in Mark 1:19, where James and John are “mending” their nets. “You see, Paul literally means that we must ‘mend the net of’ another person.” Not precisely what Paul had in mind.

      Translating from an ancient language to a modern is not a whole lot different from modern to modern; I do a lot of work between English and Spanish, since I do most of my teaching in the latter now. The main drawback is that it’s harder to figure out meaning in a language that nobody speaks.

      If you type “Greek” on my blog, you’ll run into a bunch of other articles I’ve written, including the other two parts of this post.

      Invite your friends to the blog! Gary

      1. Thanks for your reply. Regarding the words for “love” in the “feed my sheep” passage, I always assumed there was a distinction between the two Greek words, because some translations make a small distinction in English. In the NIV the distincion is “love” vs. “truely love”. Do you think the translators were wrong to use “love” for one Greek word and “truely love” for the other?

        1. Hi Tim, I’m looking at the NIV 1984 and 2011 and don’t see “truly love” in either of them, nor in any other version I have on hand. My tentative guess would be that the translators take that from the context, but I can’t be sure without seeing the text.

          1. Thanks for your comment. Well, I’ve got no idea why I thought his. I’ve checked all the English translations on Bible Gateway, and the only ones that used different words are ones I’ve never read:

            Knox: care vs. love
            NIRV: really love vs. love
            World English Bible: have affection vs. love

            Finally, the amplified gives different amplifications for the two words.

            As I’ve said, I’ve always been a sceptic of preachers who say “But the Greek says”, but I’ve never been sceptical about this instance, because for me it explained the strange phrasing at the end: “Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’”. Why doesn’t it just say “Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time”? The explanation of the Greek made sense here. Having said that, I did wonder why the translators didn’t make the distinction explicit in the English.

          2. Hi Tim, thanks for the comment.

            I see what you mean about what Jesus and Peter should have or might have said. However, this is always a very speculative venture, given that we don’t speak koine, and also given that we are not immersed in the Johannine style. My impression is that “the third time” is what grieved Peter, especially given that the motif of “three times” had just played such a large role in their relationship in John 18.

            But I could be wrong!

      2. I’ve done a little more research on “katartizo”. Here’s an interesting take on it: [link to another site]

        See the section at the bottom, entitled “The Greeks had a word for it: kαταρτιζω”

        I find it interesting that the author uses three paragraphs to explain that “restore” means… wait for it… “restoration”! Good thing the author delved into the Greek or I’d never had understood what the English translators meant by “restore”!

  3. I wonder if the notion of Greek’s superiority to other languages arose during the Second Sophistic — the era of culture wars between all things Greek and all things Roman. Seneca (the younger), writing in Latin, bemoans the paucity of Latin terms available to him as he strives to convey concepts from Greek philosophical texts to his non-Greek readers. Translation is a tricky business. As the linguists at my institution are fond of saying, “Translation is treason.” Nevertheless, as you point out, the people who do the work of translation are skilled at their job and have made informed choices. I do wonder, however, the role that one’s theology plays in making those choices. I’m thinking of instances such as the decision to transliterate “baptizo” rather than to translate it or the decision to translate both “presbytidas” and “presbytera” as older women, even though the latter is the feminine form for elders. In cases such as these, perhaps familiarity with the cultures that produced the original text and the culture in which the translators worked would be helpful (writes the history adjunct and aspiring classicist!).

    1. Hi Carrie, always great to hear from you!

      There was that wave of Greek renewal, and I would suppose that that might have affected classical studies in the 19th century. Even more, however, before the discovery of troves of papyri, even learned Greek scholars could argue that the Greek of the Septuagint and the NT were a unique dialect of Holy Spirit Greek. If the Spirit specially created a dialect, then a priori, one might deduce that being immaculately conceived it was incapable of weakness. But then once the other koine texts started coming in, it was impossible to maintain that hypothesis. Except for the thousands who never quite got the word.

      Theology does to some extent color one’s translation. An excellent example was how the King James version rendered episkopos in 1 Tim 3:1 as “bishop.” Plus there is the ongoing debate over whether Phoebe was a servant of the church of Cenchrea, its deaconess or its deacon (Rom 16:1-2)!

  4. Gary,
    Once again, thank you for debunking errant teaching. I always learn something new when I click here! I know that I have had to “unlearn” many things that I used to believe to be true; as I have picked up false doctrine from many teachers over the last 11 or so years of being a believer. (Not many seem to heed James 3.1?)
    I use the interlinear AV/RV which is a great help as it confirms much of what you say.
    In two of the examples you list in your part 2, you mention the “bema” and “departure” as two words that many teachers twist to mean something different to what was originally intended. Are these 2 examples in your opinion the DIRECT result of Dispensational theology?
    I have found that it is just pre trib rapture believers who understand 2 Corinthians 5.10 to mean nothing more than a reward ceremony? And this is in spite of the fact that the Bible teaches in Matthew 13, for example, that there is such a thing as true and false Christians?
    God bless

    1. Always great to hear from you, Colin!

      It does happen that the bema teaching and the apostasia teachings are distinctively Dispensationalist, but I’m not sure if they are uniquely so.

      With regard to apostasia in 2 Thess 2:3, that interpretation that it is the church’s “departure” at a pre-trib rapture came into being very late in history, in the late 1940s, by Schuyler English and Kenneth Wuest, both dispensationalists; see also H. W. House “Apostasia in 2 Thessalonians 2:3: Apostasy or Rapture?” in The Return: Understanding Christ’s Second Coming and the End Time (ed. Thomas Ice and Timothy J. Demy; Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1999). However, that view seems to be a minority opinion even among Dispensationalists.

      Google both of these teachings and you will find plenty of contemporary proponents. See this article http://www.dbts.edu/journals/1998/combs.pdf

      I deal with this question indepth in my blog (What comes before the Day of the Lord: the final “apostasy” or the “departure” of the church? [Studies in Thessalonians]), and also in my Zondervan commentary on 1-2 Thessalonians.

  5. Thanks for this note, Dr. Shogren! I found this blog after reading “How did they suppose “the perfect” would come?…”, and I’m so thankful for both the article and these posts. I look forward to getting more acquainted with your work.

    This may be a difficult request to respond to, but I thought I would give it a try: I’m writing a paper on patristic understandings of the relationship between love and knowledge. “How did they…” is a treasure trove of references, which I will begin to explore now, but I’m wondering if you would direct someone like me to specific Fathers? You reference Cassian and Irenaeus at the end, when you speak of love – are those the ones that you would recommend reviewing first?

    Whether or not you get a chance to respond, thanks!

    1. Hi Lucila, and welcome to OpenOurEyesLord! Tell your friends!

      Your question is not an easy one. Do you have access to the commentary series, the Ancient Christian Commentary? It culls material from the first five centuries of the church and goes verse by verse. I’ve used some of them with great benefit. You might look up the volume on 1 Corinthians and track down the verses. You might also look to see how the fathers interpret 1 Cor 8:1 in particular.

      Also – I highly recommend Pastoral Rule by Gregory the Great, available online here: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/36011.htm

      By the way, you can download my 1 Corinthians commentary (English version) as a free pdf, here: https://openoureyeslord.com/2012/05/21/free-commentary-on-1-corinthians-2/

      Blessings! Gary

      1. This is so very helpful. At a library with Ancient Christian Commentary series.. going to the stacks to get the book now. And, I’ve already downloaded your commentary on 1 Corinthians – eager to read it!

        One more note: I am from Argentina, studying at Regent College in Vancouver – It is so unexpected to find a North American theologian who learned Spanish to teach in Latin America. I am intrigued and encouraged by your decision, and thank God for it.

        Blessings to you and your family!

        1. My pleasure, Lucila!

          You can read about us at http://shogrens.com I was a pastor for some years, and now a professor of NT for 25 years. After teaching in the US and part-time in Romania, I was called with my family to Costa Rica. I maintain a Spanish-language blog, http://razondelaesperanza.com Some of my posts there do not appear in the English one, since some of the issues are not relevant – for example, I write a great deal about the Messianic movement that is now working its way through Latin America.


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