"He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything."
Colossians 1:18

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Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Painless Pointer on the Greek

WARNING:  If you have a stack of blank flash cards at the ready, please put them aside.  Conversely, if you are pushing away your laptop in disgust, pull it back in.  I did say "painless." 

English sentences are constructed fairly rigidly.  I could say, "Fairly rigidly are constructed sentences English," and you might understand me, but, once you got past the fact that I was speaking like Master Yoda, you would admit that I simply am not being very clear.  It is either confusing or unintelligible, since we derive the meaning of our sentences, in part, from the order in which we arrange the words within them.  For instance, if I say, "He made his friend the captain," it means something completely different than, "He made the captain his friend."  Only the order dictates the meaning here; it determines (for you grammar geeks) what the direct object and indirect object are.

This is not the case nearly so often in the Greek, where nouns and verbs are modified to demonstrate their function in a sentence.  This means they can be moved about within the sentence without impeding clarity. 

Yes, Josh, but what is the point of this?  Why does it matter?  It matters because the syntactical flexibility afforded by Greek grammar effectively emancipates word order from its enslavement to sentence meaning.  The word order does not help to define what the sentence means, so Greek authors used word order for something else entirely:  emphasis.1  If there were a word or phrase they sought to stress, they would put it at the beginning of a sentence or clause.  Thus word order can be an additional clue as to the author's focus or intent.

The issue we must confront is that in our English Bibles, these emphases are not always elucidated.  Sometimes they do not survive translation, because the English equivalent either would not make sense, or would sound, once again, like Frank Oz's diminutive Jedi creation.  It can be well worth the effort, though, to discover the word order from the Greek.

Consider a few examples which I will quote from both the 2001 English Standard Version and the 1898 Revised Young's Literal Translation (which generally seems to reflect a rather stringent adherence to original word order - I did verify both of my examples in the original Greek, but cannot speak regarding the entire translation.  And of course I do not recommend it as a primary Bible, as it does not account for the legitimate archaeological or lexical advances made by conservative biblical scholarship over the past century or so).

1.  Matthew 7:22

  • ESV:  "On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?'"
  • RYLT:  "Many will say to me in that day, Lord, lord, have we not in your name prophesied? And in your name cast out demons? And in your name done many mighty things?"
This is familiar - Christ describes how some unbelievers will attempt to convince Him of their sincere deservedness of heaven.  Two major word order differences are evident.  First, the ESV recounts the actions these people supposedly carried out, each followed by "in your name."  However, the original word order has the phrase "in your name" moved out to the beginning of each clause, as seen with the RYLT.  The ESV, then, would suggest that these unbelievers will point to what they did as proof of their deservedness of eternal blessing (prophesying, casting out demons, and mighty works); however, the original Greek indicates that they hang their hopes more on how they did these presumed works (in Christ's name).  This adds a sobering layer of tragedy of their foolish assertions:  not only do they believe they have worked their own way into heaven, but they believe that it was all carried out for the Lord. 

Second, the ESV begins the verse with, "On that day," while the RYLT starts out, as the Greek does, with "many [people]."  It would seem, then, that Christ's concern is not to emphasize that people will voice their own desperate deception on the day of judgment, bur rather that there will in fact be many such people who are deceived.  This is in keeping with verse 21, where Christ begins by saying, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven." (ESV) Not everyone will enter; in fact, many will prove to be hypocrites.  These are nuances, perhaps, but sobering ones that enrich the text; no?

2.  Colossians 2:6
  • ESV:  "Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him."
  • RYLT:  "As, then, you did receive Christ Jesus the Lord, in him walk." 
This one is a simpler example.  There is a subtle shift in the final clause of the sentence; the original Greek, reflected in the RYLT, draws out an emphasis upon Christ:  "in him walk."  There is, once again, a stress not upon the what, but the how.  Everyone walks in some manner or another (cf. Phil. 3:17-19), but our receiving of Christ should prompt us to walk in him.  Don't just walk; walk in him, brothers and sisters! 

As I said, it is often worth the effort to find out the original word order in the Greek as a part of our New Testament studies.  Tools like the more literal Bible translations, or even some online interlinear Bible tools (like this), can help us in this task without requiring us to be fluent in Koine Greek.  However we do it, though, it can help us to get into the minds, and into the hearts, of the biblical authors, and capture just a bit more of the Lord's revelation.

And there's nothing wrong with that at all.

1 Mounce, William D.  Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar.  2nd Edition.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan. 2003.  pp. 31-32.


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