Friday, July 22, 2016

What’s Wrong with the Greek?

Nothing! But much is wrong with the way some preachers use, misuse, and abuse the Greek language and Greek texts of the Christian Bible. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and Aramaic, and the New Testament in Greek. Our English Bibles are translations from those languages into our language. The antagonistic use of the Greek language in the average pulpit seems to fall into two primary categories, though these are by no means exhaustive. References to the Greek are (1) often used to cast aspersion on the King James Bible, and (2) often used to make elevated clerical pronouncements to an uninformed laity (i.e. You do not know the Greek and I do, ergo, I am right). These two approaches strip away confidence in God’s Word and one’s confidence to study it without an interpreter. Brethren, these things ought not to be!

I propose to give examples of the use of the Greek language in an improper manner with negative effect.[1] I build no straw men. All of these examples given I have heard in Baptist pulpits.

Use, misuse and abuse
One misconception implied by some preachers is that they have or know the original text. They state in the pulpit, “the original says thus and so...” This may be used to contradict (most often) the King James Version (KJV) or perhaps another Bible version they use, or it may be used to prop up a pet view that the English translation does not clearly support. The facts are: (1) the are a number of Greek fragments, manuscripts and text, and (2) we have not have the “originals.” By original is meant the first copy that came from the hand of the author. No teacher, preacher, seminary – no, not even a museum – possesses the first writing of Matthew, Mark. Luke or John. A test won’t find Paul’s fingerprints or Peter’s DNA. To imply otherwise is false and misleading, and inserts the preacher in a special category unavailable to the average “pew sitter.” The implications of not having the originals must be considered. Some insist that only the original manuscripts, the autographa, are inspired.[2] If by this they mean that the direct breath-inspiration of God was only on the original writers this is not problematic. However, most also mean that no copies or translations can be considered inerrant and infallible. This is problematic. If the second is true, we cannot have the inspired, infallible and inerrant Word of God today. In trying to deflect criticism of copies and translations, preachers and conservative scholars play into the hands of liberals and infidels. An accurate copy of the inspired Word of God is still the inspired Word of God. An accurate translation of a copy of the Word of God is still the inspired Word of God. Can a translation be considered the inspired (i.e. infallible, inerrant) Word of God? Did not the inspired New Testament authors, writing in the Greek language, include quotations from the Greek translation of the Old Testament Hebrew? Did not Jesus, teachings his disciples and the multitudes, make references to the Greek translation of the Old Testament Hebrew? They considered the translation an accurate reflection of the original autographs and their copies. If so, then a translation can be considered reliable. If not, Jesus and the New Testament writers erred in quoting them as God’s Word.

This misconception of the “original” is further exacerbated by faulty comparison of translation to Greek text. The King James Bible is based on the Textus Receptus (though others were consulted).[3] The majority of modern versions of the New Testament are based on the Codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus (most commonly available in Nestle’s and Aland’s Greek text). Preachers, whether ignorantly or with motivation, often give a reading from the KJV, compare it to the reading in the Nestle-Aland text, and then proceed to charge the KJV with a translation error. Even those who do not accept the accuracy of the King James Bible, the Textus Receptus, or the Majority Text should be able to recognize this as dishonest and distorted debate tactic. Those who are ignorant need to learn better. Those who are dishonest need to repent. The Nestle Greek New Testament  was first published in 1898, and the Nestle-Aland in 1963. These did not serve as either a basis of translation or a means of consultation for the 1611 Authorised/King James translation of the Bible. The KJV translators should not be charged with mis-translating from a text they did not even use!

The italicized words of the King James Version are often held up for criticism. These italicized words are words that have no direct equivalent in the Greek text, but are needful for the English grammar or meaning.[4] Therefore, there are supplied by the translators. For this reason, some have thought they can leave out any italicized they wish, or that all italicized words don’t belong and should be skipped. This fails to recognize any differences between the original and receptor languages. We should not suppose these supplied words are created out of thin air! In our own language we often speak and even write with “understood” subjects, verbs, and so forth. When translating in to another language, these “understood” words often need to be supplied to be understood, to make our statements coherent. This is the same kind of thing the italicized words perform in English translation.

Three examples of leaving out italics, and the consequences, are:
Colossians 1:19 For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell;
Colossians 1:19 For it pleased that in him should all fulness dwell;
Philippians 1:21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
Philippians 1:21 For to me to live Christ, and to die gain.
1 Corinthians 14:2a For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God:
1 Corinthians 14:2a For he that speaketh in a tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God:
In Colossians 1:19 the object Father is “understood” and in Philippians 1:21 the verb is is “understood” in the Greek text, but these are needed in the English. The translation of 1 Corinthians 14 (in the KJV) is often vilified for use of the italicized word unknown. Tongue means language. The context of 1 Corinthians 14 shows the tongue or language discussed is one not comprehended or understood by the hearer. If the contextual meaning is not supplied, 1 Corinthians 14:2a reads as a misleading or incorrect statement – For he that speaketh in a tongue (i.e. language) speaketh not unto men, but unto God. In fact, people speak every day in languages that are understood by other people. They are not just speaking to God. When we know this is an unknown (to the hearer) tongue/language, then the meaning becomes apparent. It is frightful to see people (usually preachers) drop italicized words, especially because they don’t support their theology. It is dishonest or ignorant for anyone who uses any Bible to attack the KJV for its italicized words. All English Bible versions supply words that have no Greek equivalent, whether they signify them or not. Isn’t it better to use a Bible that plainly identifies where they are used?

Another abuse of the Greek is using word studies to deflect or negate the meaning of the text. This may be done with assumptions concerning roots, synonyms, possible meanings, etc. Words have meanings, but they almost always have a range of meaning. Therefore, their meaning is found in the context of their usage, and not just a favorable definition we pull out of a dictionary, concordance or lexicon. Context is key. When it is not, the interpretation of a text may depend on the interpreter’s definition of one or two words, even while contradicting more reliable witnesses. One common misconception is the root fallacy, where the root or origin of a word is overemphasized to determine its meaning. An everyday English example of this is our common farewell, “Good bye.” Good bye is a contraction of “God be with ye.” Even though this is true, it does not warrant our believing that everyone who says “good bye” means “God be with ye.” It is often asserted that any New Testament text using the Greek word agapao always refers to a special kind of Godly or spiritual love. A widely-accepted interpretation of John 21:15-17 demonstrates this. The interpretation is controlled by assigning different meanings to agapao (Gk. to love) and phileo (Gk. to love) – regardless of the immediate context (verses 15-17) and the larger context (the gospel of John). It can be seen without diluting the context that both Jesus and Peter understand the two words to mean the same. It can also be seen that John used the word interchangeably in other places. Just because the complete semantic range of two words are slightly different does not imply we can assign arbitrary meaning as it suits us. The John 21:15-17 sample involves no major doctrine. Nevertheless it illuminates how easily a text can be forged by word studies to accommodate false doctrine.

Some seem to believe that the appeal to the Greek is the final appeal – the last word which cannot be contradicted. It is best to follow the maxim “if you can’t prove it with the English Bible, you can’t prove it with the Greek.”[5] The Greek is not a rabbit’s foot used to settle all questions. Folks who have intimate understanding of the Greek language differ in their biblical interpretations just like the rest of us! Do not some of those who hold baptismal salvation understand the Greek as well as some who hold sola fide? Why do they not agree, if Greek is the “final appeal?” Studying and understanding the Greek language is a help, but it is not magical! Else, all Greek scholars would agree. Further the language scholar must depend on a transcription as much as Bible students must depend on a translation. Don’t accept something as “gospel” just because someone asserts, “It’s in the Greek.”


  • Realize, you who know a little about the Greek language should be careful that this limited knowledge does not cause you to overrule more obvious and dependable witnesses such as context, comparing scripture with scripture, etc. Many fanciful figments claim a Greek foundation.
  • Beware; you in the pews must not become mindless robots that depend on preachers to interpret the Bible for you because “he knows the Greek.” Even the newest Christian must “search the Scriptures” and “study to shew thyself approved unto God.”
  • Understand, some so-called and self-made scholars are not fluent in the Greek language. They may only be repeating what they’ve read and heard from others. Instead of getting God’s enlightenment from the “original” you may only be getting second or third hand commentary.
  • Remember, those who crucified our Lord understood Greek, Hebrew, and Latin! See Luke 23:38.

This is not written to argue that the Greek or Hebrew languages have no place or merit in Bible study. They do. But it should be understood properly and approached with common sense. Be warned that language studies are not only used, but often misused and abused. Nothing is wrong with the Greek, but something is wrong with the way it is sometimes used, whether maliciously or ignorantly. 

[1] I deal with the Greek language for the following reasons: (1) It is the Greek that is more often the center of controversy, and what is most referenced in American pulpits and religious discussions; (2) the Greek is much closer to our language, and therefore more easily understood and followed by us; and (3) my knowledge of Hebrew is next to nothing. Though the Hebrew language is not discussed, the principles mentioned here in reference to the Greek also apply to the Hebrew.
[2] The autographa is simply a theological term meaning the original manuscripts. It is regularly used in theological discussions about the Bible. Sola autographa is the view that the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible only applies to the first or original manuscripts. This is the predominant view of American evangelicals and fundamentalists. On the other hand, etiam apographa (apographa are the copies of the autographs) recognizes that accurate copies of the autographa may also be considered infallible and inerrant.
[3] Some sources say Theodore Beza’s 1598 version of Stephanus’ text. The Textus Receptus or Received Text is the name of a certain group of printed Greek texts of the New Testament within the Byzantine/Majority Text tradition (The term Textus Receptus originated in the 1633 printing of Abraham Elzevir, but has been applied backward to its predecessors). The German New Testament of Luther, the William Tyndale translation of the New Testament in English, and the Reina-Valera Spanish translation of the New Testament were based on this text. In fact, most New Testament translations in Europe were originally based on it.
[4] When the Authorised or King James Version of the Bible was first printed, it used roman type to signify words supplied by translators. Later roman type became common and began to be used for printing the KJV. In order to distinguish words supplied by the translators, their type style was changed to italics.
[5] If you don’t read the Bible in English, then insert your own language – “if you can’t prove it with the Spanish Bible [for example], you can’t prove it with the Greek.”

This post is adapted from the article “What’s Wrong with the Greek.” which first appeared in The Baptist Waymark, Vol. III, No.3 , May-June 1995, pp. 1-2.

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