It’s Greek to me

Several years ago, frustrated over the differences between various translations of scripture, I decided to take the matter into my own hands and read the New Testament in the original. Even though the task has not been easy, I strongly recommend this course of action to everyone who really wants insight into the scriptures.

So often, when we do read the Bible, particularly the familiar passages in the Gospels, we have heard them so many times that the words roll off us like water off a duck’s back. Reading it in the original opens up the text.

There was a time when it was assumed that every educated person knew Greek. Sadly, that time has passed and we are poorer for it. For those of you who think that learning Greek is too difficult, take heart. I was never good at languages, but this is much easier than high school French. First, your goal is to read one short book and you already know what that book says. You aren’t going to speak to ancient Greeks, or follow a speech in ancient Greek, or write a letter to any ancient Greek. So you are really only learning a quarter of what you would have to learn in an ordinary language program.

Second, there are all kinds of study guides easily available in book form or on CD’s. There are excellent dictionaries, lexicons, concordances, and other tools. I particularly rely on an interlinear, which gives two English translations, and then the Greek and underneath each Greek word the English translation. It is okay to cheat, there isn’t going to be an exam.

There are 138,162 words in the New Testament. However, because most of them occur many times, if you learn only 319 different words, you will have learned 80% of the text. And the good news is that many of them have English cognates or are the root of English words, such as cosmos, ecclesia, logos.

You do have to learn a different alphabet, but if you like puzzles or codes you will find this relatively simple. I started by simply writing the English letter over the Greek.

I have heard that learning a new language is an excellent way to prevent the deterioration caused by Alzheimer’s. And look at this way, if you are older and spiritually preparing for heaven, when you get there you can speak to St. Paul in his own language.

Once you acquire even the smallest grasp of the Greek original, I guarantee that the scriptures will open up for you; obscure passages will become clear.

For example, consider John 21:15-17. In the English, Jesus asks Peter three times “Do you love me?” and three times Peter answers “I love you.” But in the Greek two different words are used for love. “Phileo” carries a meaning of tender affection or friendship and “agapao” meaning self-sacrificing love, the love of God who gave his only son, the love of Christ who offered himself for us on the cross. When the passage is read in this light, we see the tension. Jesus asks Peter, will you lay down your life (agapao) for me and Peter answers you’re my best friend (phileo); again Jesus repeats the question, will you lay down your life for me, and Peter responds I love you with much affection. Finally, Jesus asks, do you love me as a friend (phileo) and Peter answers yes, you know all things, you know my affection for you (phileo). Peter aware of his failure on the night before the crucifixion cannot say that he will lay down his life for Jesus.

Another insight, which I gained from the Greek original, was into the New Testament understanding of the relationship between power and hierarchy. There are those who complain about the hierarchical structure of the Church and at the same time demand power. In Greek there are several words, which are translated as power. One is “dunamis” (it is the root for the word dynamite). It is usually used to refer to the power of God, his mighty works, his miracles. Dunamis is the power of the Holy Spirit. According to Luke 24:49, the apostles were to be clothed with this “power” from on high.

The other kind of power is “exousia.” This refers to delegated authority and is sometimes translated as authority. Authority power comes to those who are part of a hierarchy and are obedient to those who are over them. Thus Jesus has both dunamis power and exousia power, he had the power of the spirit to do signs and wonders and the authority to teach because He is obedient to the Father who sent him.

In the Church, it is through the hierarchy that the individual priest receives the authority power to change the bread and wine into the body and blood and to forgive sins.

Those who want authority power without hierarchy or obedience simply don’t understand the Greek.

Dale O’Leary is an internationally recognized lecturer and author of “The Gender Agenda: Redefining Equality.”