The Greek means… No it does not!

When I was at theological college I was at a gathering of young adults from my church when the discussion focused on the consumption of alcohol. This was a big taboo for Christians in my church tradition. One of the young adults had recently started attending a different church and confidently declared that when the Bible says Jesus turned water into wine it was non-alcoholic. “It’s all in the Greek”, he said. “We learned about that in church tonight”.

There it was. “The Greek says”. It’s the ultimate tool in the preachers toolkit, the piece of knowledge that puts the preacher’s opinion beyond dispute. Who can argue with “the Greek”? Well, someone who can read biblical Greek. The young adult who insisted that the Greek word for wine in John chapter 2 means “non-alcoholic wine” was somewhat stumped when I pointed out that the very same Greek word is used in Ephesians 5 to tell us “not to get drunk on wine”.

Preaching is a pretty hard gig. Each week a pastor stands up and is expected to deliver something that reflects sound research and rigourous cross disciplinary thinking, to appreciate a text in its original historical context and then consider how to bridge the gap between the original setting and ours with meaningful life application. And all this is to be delivered in a rhetorical style that is simple without being simplistic as it engages the heart and the mind and the will. That’s no easy task. So I’m loathe to be critical of any preacher.

But if I hear another preacher say “the meaning of the Greek is…” I’ll be tempted to scream “no it’s not”.

The Old Testament was written predominantly in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek. Because no two languages are structured identically and because words have a fluidity of meaning, translators often have to choose between two, three or more possible ways of rendering a text in English. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus famously says “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” In English “righteousness” is often understood in a fairly narrow way as indicating personal integrity, but in biblical tradition the concept can be far broader and include the notion of social justice, that is, doing what is right in our relationships with each other. It can also refer to God’s righteousness, which in their biblical tradition often speaks of God being faithful to his promise to save, bring peace and justice, and so on. So when we come to this saying of Jesus we need to ask ourselves what type of righteousness does he have in mind? Is he speaking of personal integrity, a strict private moral code, social justice, God’s righteousness, or some combination of these? Knowing the Greek term translated as “righteousness” will not help us answer this question. What we need to do is to weigh up the context, both the broader biblical concepts of righteousness, the way Jesus uses the concepts, and our understanding of Jesus’s broader mission and see what we think this suggests about Jesus’s meaning in the sermon on the Mount.

What a preacher can say is “this verse could be translated as ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice’ or ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for God’s salvation’ or ‘blessed are those who hunger and thirst to live right’”. That’s as far as the Greek will take you. Then it’s a matter of dialogue as we grapple with the story of Jesus and what righteousness means in light of that story. The moment the preacher says “the Greek word means…” and equates that with one of the possible options we’ve explored s/he is not explaining the Greek, s/he is opting for one of the possible interpretations.

My beef with this is that it takes the Bible out of the hands of the congregation and makes the preacher the authorised interpreter.

The ability to read the Bible in its original languages is a wonderful gift. It helps you get inside the thought forms of the biblical world and to see things that you might otherwise miss. Used well it can help you to see the possible range of meanings that might not be as obvious within the English translation. But that’s as far as it will get you. Greek words no more have a singular meaning that English words do. So let’s dispense with sentences that begin with “the Greek means…” in favour of “there is more than one way we could translate this verse. Here are the possibilities… Now what do you think?”

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lyn Jackson
lyn Jackson
8 years ago

Anthing that puts the Bible into the hands of the congregation to grapple with, wrestle with, try to apply… has to be a good thing. If a pastor’s strategy accomplishes that, great! Sometimes, the Greek or Hebrew helps… but only in so far as it opens up options and shines a light on contexts. For me, learning what the Hebrew words for “righteousness and justice” meant was mind-blowing, a real turning point. So pastors, interpret, comment, teach, facilitate, but don’t tell us what to believe! We’re in charge of that.

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