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Common New Testament Greek Errors

Barry is the founder and Professor of the M.Div. program for Mindanao Grace Seminary, Philippines.

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Learning and Sharing

It is exciting to learn something new and even more exciting to share what we learn. But sometimes what we learned was incorrect or incomplete. I teach New Testament Greek 1,2, and 3. Bible languages are not my field of study. The truth be told, I am not very good at it. It is hard for me to learn. My background and passions are Systematic Theology and preaching. By teaching NT Greek I am improving my own understand of the topic. I am thankful for the opportunity.

When I taught introductory Greek, I shared a story about my experience when I learned a Greek word. I was having lunch with a friend and a Presbyterian pastor. We were discussing the differences between the Baptist and Presbyterian doctrine. The Pastor said that most Baptists were “ignorant” and that is why they held the positions they do. My friend and I were both puzzled. He then asked us, “What does agape mean?” In my foolishness, I spoke first. I said, “Agape refers to the love of God. It means ‘God’s love.’” He smiles condescendingly, and said, “You heard someone say that and you are just repeating it. Look it up.”

I could not wait to get home. I knew I was right. I heard my pastor use this word many times. I also heard other preachers say this. Imagine my surprise when I looked in my unabridged copy of Strong’s Concordance and found that not only were there several definitions for the word, not one of them referred to the deep, special love of God. The word agape was just a generic word. With this in mind, I offer three common mistakes I see people making. It could be that the person was like in the example above. They don’t know and are just repeating what they have heard. I also see beginning Greek students and those who have never studied Greek making these errors.

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I. Root Word Fallacy

This is perhaps, the most common mistake. I often see this with people who have not studied Greek. They will go to a Greek dictionary for word study. And from this, they are convinced that they have received a new or deeper insight.

A classic example of this fallacy is found in 1 Corinthians 4:1

“This is the way any person is to regard us: as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.”

The word rendered “servant” in English is the Greek word ὑπηρέτας (hypereretas). It is a form of the word ὑπηρέτης (heperetes). Strong’s Concordance notes that the word is a compound of two original words “hypó, "under" and ēressō, "to row") – properly, a rower (a crewman on a boat), an "under-rower" who mans the oars on a lower deck; (figuratively) a subordinate executing official orders, i.e. operating under direct (specific) orders.”

No doubt, someone stumbled across this compound word and began to wax eloquent on how the ministry of Christ is like the one who is the lowest rower on the boat.

“Think of those large galley ships and on the bottom deck would be the ‘under rowers.’ They were slaves…”

When viewed in this way, the word paints a very vivid picture. It would be easy to draw out graphic details of these lower-deck slave rowers. But there is a serious problem. A word is not necessarily defined by the compounds which compose it. D.A. Carson points out that the word is never used in classical literature in this way. The word is used in the New Testament as a synonym for servant or slave.

J.P. Louw said that using the Greek word in this way would be akin to determining that the meaning of the word butterfly is “butter” and “fly” (flying butter) or a pineapple is the apple of a pine tree.

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2. Ignoring the Context

NIV (2011): "Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God."

Both the KJV and the NASB use the phrase “nor of the will of man” in place of the NIV’s use of “a husband’s will.”

At question here is the word ἀνδρὸς. Both Strong’s Concordance and Thayer’s say that the word means “man, male.” There are occasions in the New Testament where the word has been used for husband.

Example: “Jacob was the father of Joseph the husband (ἄνδρα) of Mary…” (Matthew 1:16)

The word translated in English for husband here is the Greek word for man.

How then do we determine whether this word should be used as husband or man, given that the New Testament uses both? The answer is context. In Matthew 16 we have a relationship being expressed that clearly shows that Jacob is related to Mary as her husband. Whereas, in John 1, there is nothing in the context regarding marriage or any relationship between people. The context, both broad and narrow, is universal.

3) The Aorist Tense is “Completed action, once and for all”

An elementary Greek student knows that the verbs of New Testament Greek emphasize kind of action and not necessarily the time of the action. Time is secondary if at all, of importance. While the Greek aorist can be used for punctiliar tense (refer to a point or location of action), it is most often used in the generic sense/ Aorist tense simply states an action that has occurred, without further reference. It is not the aorist alone, but the context which will give us clues to the kind of action.

Example: 1 John 5:21 “Little children, guard yourselves from idols.”

If we look at a resource, such as an online parsing guide, we see that the word “guard” (φυλάξατε”) is “Aorist Active Imperative 2nd Person Plural.”

Does this mean that John intends his listeners to put on their guard and they will be protected “once and for all times”? Of course, it cannot mean that.

Conclusion

I offer this article in complete humility. I have showed at the beginning, I am as guilty as any one of these mistakes. These errors show that a little Greek is a dangerous thing. But neither do I condemn thee, go and learn some more.

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