“But If You Look at the Original Greek…”: A Plea for Caution

“But If You Look at the Original Greek…”: A Plea for Caution December 15, 2015
The entry for the Greek word aiōnios in a modern Biblical lexicon

(Some of the impetus for this post was inspired by a similar one on Reddit’s /r/Christianity from about a year ago. Since I mainly market my Patheos posts on that subreddit, well then…  if you’ve already seen the original one, just consider this a friendly yearly reminder.)

Quite a few months ago, I was involved in an exchange that’s in some way stuck with me ever since, for several reasons relevant here.

In discussing some of the teachings of the prominent 19th century German rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, someone wrote that “[p]rayer is more than asking God for things, more than even a conversation with God, it is judging yourself to see where you need to improve, and aligning yourself and your will with God.”

As a kind of anticipatory note here, it might be noted that as a whole, this person’s mini-derasha was almost unanimously received well. And if something positive might be said about the post, it could certainly be conceded that it expressed a more cautious sentiment than that of the well-known quote ascribed (rather apocryphally) to Søren Kierkegaard, that “[p]rayer does not change God, but changes him who prays.”

But there was a problem when the person attempted to go deeper here—specifically when they relied on Rabbi Hirsch’s attempt to find support for this idea hidden in the very etymology of a/the Hebrew word for “(to) pray” used in the Bible:

When breaking down the word itself, להתפלל, it has three parts. ל-הת-פלל. Going right to left, the first letter, ל, means “to”, as in “to do something”. The second set of letters, הת, is reflexive. This turns the action towards the self. The last word, the root, is judge. That means the word for prayer translated literally means “to judge yourself”.

Now, the first two observations here are correct. But it’s the last one that’s problematic—that the root word here means “to judge.” Unfortunately, only on rare occasions does this root really have this meaning; and furthermore, when we look at the actual contexts in which this form (reflexive) of the verb is used, it becomes clear that “judge yourself” could not have been intended. 

In the end, what this verb seems to suggest is nothing more than something like “to bring your own prayer” or to “supplicate for yourself.”

When we look at several other popular examples where there’s been a dubious appeal to the original language(s) of the Bible, we might detect a common argumentative strategy behind this: it’s often used for apologetic or otherwise revisionistic purposes.

In the particular case of prayer above, we could certainly say that it offers a more sophisticated understanding of God—one that distances him from a sort of crude caricature as a wish-dispensing genie. But in a way it also does apologetic double-duty, by diminishing the problem of prayers going unanswered. (The more that prayer was only really intended to be self-transforming or merely a time of self-contemplation, the less the supernatural has to be involved at all.¹)

And there was evening and there was morning: the first day…”

Looking at another example of popular appeal to the original Biblical languages, we can find a similar apologetic intent—and a similar error, too.

In the creation narrative of Genesis chapter 1, God creates the universe and all life on earth in six days. On the surface, we certainly notice a conflict between this extremely brief period of time and the timescale of scientific cosmology and evolution, in which cosmological and biological processes unfolded slowly, over billions of years—in contrast to the instantaneous creation, merely over the course of days, suggested in Genesis. Even beyond this though, we might also point to what appears to be an internal contradiction in this creation narrative: the calculation of a “day” itself is dependent on earth’s rotation vis-à-vis the sun and its light; yet the sun itself is not said to have been created until the 4th day.

The 3rd century Alexandrian Christian theologian Origen noted this problem, asking

Now what man of intelligence will believe that the first and the second and the third “day” existed—(even) with “evening” and “morning”—without the sun and moon and stars? (De Principiis 4.3)

Origen and others offered various solutions in an attempt to explain this apparent contradiction. In the wake of modern advances in geology, however—and eventually cosmology and evolution—a new apologetic view came to prominence: that these “days” aren’t true days at all, in the way that we think of them.

This reinterpretation has often centered on the Hebrew word for “day” used here, yōm. Favored by various types of Old Earth creationists, these people have appealed to purported instances in Biblical and non-Biblical literature where yōm signifies a longer period of time.

Yet there are serious problems with this. If we actually look at most, if not all of the instances in which yōm is claimed to denote something other than a literal day, we find that these other uses of yōm are as a part of idiomatic phrases: think something like “any day now” or “on the day that [something happens]…”

Further, the use of days as a sort of structuring device—even a scheme of seven days—is paralleled in other ancient Near Eastern texts that came from roughly the same cultural milieu that the Israelites did; and there’s no indication in these texts intended to suggest non-literal days.

Finally, as suggested above, the Genesis text itself says that these days consisted of an “evening” and “morning.” Again, Origen simply could not imagine that the Biblical text would have such an absurdity or contradiction here—which for him, then, was proof that these details could not mean what they appeared to mean. In retrospect, though, Origen’s view here strikes one as naive and ad hoc; and, today, there are several other options that allow us to accept that the text really did intend to suggest actual 24-hour days here, and to understand the apparent contradictions that arise from this as a sort of byproduct of ancient worldviews or literary composition.

As evangelical Old Testament scholar John Walton writes—who at the moment is probably the undisputed leading authority on the subject of the Genesis creation narratives in their ancient context—

These are seven twenty-four-hour days. This has always been the best reading of the Hebrew text. Those who have tried to alleviate the tension for the age of the earth commonly suggested that the days should be understood as long eras (the day-age view). This has has never been convincing. (The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, 91)

What Walton, myself, and others accept, then, is that while on the level of story there’s no good reason to think that these “days” were intended as anything other than solar days, the creation narrative is just that: (part of) a story. The creation days were used as a component of the story—possibly related to those associated with the construction of ancient Near Eastern temples²—but perhaps were never truly intended as a specific cosmological statement; at least not beyond the rather undefined idea of God’s agency in creation itself.

And these will go away into eternal punishment…

There’s been an increasingly prominent debate in recent years with regard to Biblical teachings on Hell, and the general nature of the afterlife—one in which the interpretation of several Greek words has played a crucial role (and where, in my opinion, some of the most egregious misuse of the original languages has taken place).

Of course, the word “hell” itself has long been the subject of dispute, in regard to its appropriateness, or lack thereof, in rendering Biblical terms for afterlife realms. Yet this is old news³; and what’s come to forefront in more recent times is another set of words in the New Testament relating to the afterlife—particularly afterlife punishment.

Perhaps the most common starting point here is with Mathew 25:46. In this verse, it’s suggested that at the grand final judgment at the end of time, “[the unrighteous] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (New Revised Standard Version translation). In what we might rightly call the “traditional” interpretation of this verse, this is taken to suggest, more or less, the unrighteous ending up in “hell”—where genuinely everlasting torment⁴ is inflicted on the damned, from which there is no escape.

Yet, in tandem with recent trends in theology and philosophy of religion in which the justice of this portrait of afterlife punishment has been challenged, some have begun to wonder if verses like Mathew 25:46 really lend themselves to the traditional interpretation. In particular, people have looked toward the original Greek text here—turning to Biblical Greek lexicons, and etymology in general, for insight into the components of one phrase in the verse, similar to what was done for the disputed Hebrew words described earlier.

The relevant Greek phrase from Matthew 25:46, translated above as “eternal punishment,” is kolasin aiōnion. The first word here (in uninflected form) is kolasis. For those who’ve taken a closer look at this word, in hopes of finding a window for an alternative interpretation that might questions its association with the traditional understanding of afterlife punishment or torment, a well-known use of the word by Aristotle has come into focus.⁵ In this, Aristotle contrasts kolasis with another word for “punishment,” timōria, in that

kolasis “is inflicted in the interest of the sufferer,” whereas timôria is inflicted “in the interest of him who inflicts it, that he may obtain satisfaction.” (Ilaria Ramelli and David Konstan, Terms for Eternity: Aiônios and Aïdios in Classical and Christian Texts, 67)

Taking a cue from this, and again in line with recent theological trends, this is used in support of an afterlife punishment that’s not retributive, but only corrective or palliative. Further support for this is that often kolasis is taken to have had an original meaning of “cutting off,” which is associated with the pruning of trees. To this effect, prominent modern univeralist Thomas Talbott reproduces a quote from the Scottish theologian William Barclay, who went as far as to say that “in all Greek secular literature kolasis is never used of anything but remedial punishment … [kolasis] was not an ethical word at all. It originally meant the pruning of trees to make them grow better.”⁶

One takeaway here is that—as anyone serious about historical linguistics and ancient translation quickly learns—etymology is a poor guide for determining the meaning of a word in any particular instance.⁷ And as anyone familiar with ancient Greek literature knows, philosophers and other writers could themselves capitalize on faulty etymologies in the course of making a particular philosophical or rhetorical point, or otherwise make far too much of a distinction between otherwise synonymous words. (And ironically, elsewhere Aristotle erroneously etymologizes a particular word with precisely the meaning that’s often denied for it by those who’d wish to diminish support for eternal punishment, as will be described later.⁷ᵇ)

Further, as the premiere modern lexicon of Biblical Greek suggests, “Aristotle’s limitation of the term . . . to [corrective] disciplinary action . . . is not reflected in gener[al] usage.”⁸  In fact, elsewhere, even Aristotle himself seems to have not made a distinction between kolasis and timōria!⁹

The argument of William Barclay, then, does not stand. Not only is kolasis used in “secular Greek” to suggest clearly non-remedial punishment—a particular gruesome example comes from the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, describing the ancient Sicilian tyrant Phalaris torturing his enemies by putting them within a hollow bronze bull, underneath which a fire would be lit⁹—but in Biblical Greek and other early Jewish and Christian Greek texts, too. In fact, in many cases—like in the Septuagint—it may even harder to find where it does suggest remedial punishment.

(I’ve demonstrated all of this in exhaustive detailed in my post here, starting at the section “On the Word Kolasis and Its Relatives,” and continued both in the comment section at the bottom of that post, as well as in a second post, which is linked at the end.)

I had originally ended here with a very long section here on the Greek word aiōnios, the second component of Matthew 25:46’s kolasin aiōnion; but due to length, I’ve decided to save it for another post.

In the meantime though, what can we do to ensure that we’re not making similar sorts of mistakes about the Hebrew or Greek text of the Bible?

Usually, I’d say that if that we’re in doubt about the issue we’re talking about—especially if we don’t otherwise have a good grasp on the Hebrew or Greek language, or some of the complex issues of lexicography and translation that really allow one to speak authoritatively about Biblical language in its original context—we should refrain from repeating tidbits of folk linguistics/translation that we’ve picked up second-hand.

At the very least, we might be careful to, say, cautiously frame our arguments in terms of the knowledge that we do have: “(I haven’t done an exhaustive study of the issue, butto the best of my understanding…” Needless to say, this certainly applies to me, or anyone else, too, whenever they haven’t done such a study.

To conclude: if you want to offer some more homiletic thoughts on (translated) Biblical texts, in a more casual setting, there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you really want to offer truly substantive analysis of something in the Bible from a historical standpoint, or a textual one, this is usually a long process that involves a lot of both direct and tangential research and knowledge. Many people see the argumentative/rhetorical currency in appealing to the original historical or lexical context of a Biblical passage, to help bolster whatever theological point they’re making; but they want to take historical or lexical shortcuts to get there.

As suggested earlier, specifically when this comes to looking at the original languages, this can often take the form of a haphazard appeal to etymology, or a glance at (often outdated) lexicons, from which wide-ranging and unrestrained conclusions are drawn. One of the problems with an over-reliance on things like these, in the absence of having a more thorough background on the issue, however, is—as my predecessor before me wrote—that “they give people the confidence to use languages they don’t know to prove points they shouldn’t make by making claims that aren’t true about a text they don’t understand.”

On one final note: if you want to consult Biblical language lexicons for insight here, try to avoid outdated ones like Strong’s Concordance. Of course, Strong’s is still among the most popularly used lexicons, due to its being freely available online. But for Greek, the academic standard has for some decades now been the Bauer-Danker lexicon, its most recent edition commonly known as BDAG. For Hebrew, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, abbreviated HALOT, is now the standard; though the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon, BDB, is also still in use, and more easily available.

⁂       ⁂       ⁂


[1] I’ve contrasted this was a sort of classical understanding—represented, for example, in Plato’s Euthyphro (14c), where Euthyphro affirms in response to Socrates’ query that “sacrifice [is] a gift to the gods, and prayer a request for something from the gods.”

[2] See especially the chapter “The Seven Days of Genesis 1 Relate to the Cosmic Temple Inauguration” in Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis 1.

[3] As a general rule of thumb, the names of afterlife realms in Biblical translations are now transliterated: that is, the sound of the word in the original language is spelled out phonetically in the language of whatever translation you’re looking at. For example, Hebrew שְׁאוֹל is transliterated as “Sheol,” and Greek γέεννα is “Gehenna.”

[4] Consisting of actual physical torment; but also psychological torment, too, especially in Christian tradition.

[5] 1369b13

[6] Talbott 2014²: 81.

[7] So much so that linguists and lexicographers speak of the etymological fallacy.

[7b] Since I didn’t get to this in this post, cf. my comment here.

[8] Noted in BDAG. I’ve lost the exact page reference here.

[9] Cf. a fragment of Aristotle quoted in Iamblichus’ Protrepticus, itself probably derived from Aristotle’s Protrepticus.

[10] The Greek text reads εἴ τινα βούλει, Φάλαρι, κολάζειν τῶν ἀνθρώπων, ἔνδον τοῦ ταύρου κατειργνὺς πῦρ ὑποστρώννυ κάτω: δόξει δ᾽ ὁ ταῦρος στεναγμοῖς μυκᾶσθαι τοῖς ἐκείνου, σὺ δ᾽ ἡδονὴν τοῖς στεναγμοῖς ἕξεις αὐλοῖς μυκτήρων.

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