The Importance of New Testament Greek

PULPIT: The Importance of New Testament Greek

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Professor of Biblical Languages, S.D.A. Theological Seminary

An intimate knowledge of the Greek New Testament is not a sine qua non for any minister of the gospel. However, to assert that a sound insight into the language of his profession is an asset of prime value to the gospel worker is to make a statement that is accepted by most unbiased people. The moral of the following quotation is applicable to our situation today:

"Every precursor of the Protestant Reformation, and every leading Protestant Reformer, was either the disciple of a Greek or of some scholar who had been taught by a Greek. The well-known watchword of Romish intolerance, 'Cave a Graecis ne fias haereticus' contained, and still contains, a most suggestive meaning. 'I am not a Lutheran,' said Zwingli, 'for I knew Greek before I ever heard mention of Luther's name.' 'To know Greek,' adds Merle d'Aubigne, 'was the basis of the Reformation.' " GEORGE BENEDICT WINER, A Grammar"-of the New Testament Diction (Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark, 38 George Street, 1860), pp. viii, ix.

Many speak against the study of New Testament Greek, "since," they say, "we have such an abundance of helps." But the truth is that these very supports enhance the true worth of immediate recourse to the Greek of the New Testament. Within the past few decades the Greek New Testament has been revivified. Important discoveries are now embodied in new grammars, lexicons, and expository dictionaries, by such scholars as Deissman, Moulton and Milligan, Lidell and Scott, Vine, Robertson, Dana and Mantey, and others. These splendid accomplishments make a familiarity with the New Testament Greek more satisfying, more important, and more illuminating certainly not less necessary.

We are living in an age of investigation in all fields pertaining to the Bible. The historical scenes of the Bible accounts are being searched for every mite of evidence relating to the historicity of the Book. Many scholars of rank are devoted to an intensive search for evidence. A tremendous amount of material has been un covered, and awaits translation and interpretation. Men of the Book, professional men engaged in interpreting the Word of life to souls in need of salvation, should not be so ignorant of the language of their text that they cannot appreciate and evaluate the worth of the evidences brought to light. Shepherds of the flock are responsible to disclose this valuable material to their congregations.

Europe awoke from the Dark Ages with the Greek New Testament in her hand, with the result that the world was spiritually resuscitated. That Book has the same dynamic power in this age. The words of Erasmus in the preface to his edition of the Greek New Testament are true today:

"These holy pages will summon up the living image of His mind. They will give you Christ Himself, talking, healing, dying, rising, the whole Christ in a word: They will give Him to you in an intimacy so close that He would be less visible to you if He stood before your eyes."

I give here a few of the practical advantages to a minister who reads his Greek New Testament.

First, authority. The Greek New Testament is one of the two truly authoritative bases of our beliefs. In the final analysis, every point of truth we hold is to be founded on God's original documents. The Old Testament is authenticated by the New; our doctrines must be established by the original Word.

Second, spiritual and psychological balance; i.e., a poise and self-possession in knowledge such as the Bible teacher can get from no other source. In addition to this personal composure, the worker wins to a fuller and larger degree than is otherwise possible the confidence of those who listen to him.

Third, deeper insight into the message of the New Testament. This means a ministry raised to a higher plane of efficiency, better equipped to unfold the message to the educated classes. This, then, is an achievement of supreme importance.

In seeking to excuse his ignorance of the original words of God's Book, one may hear a minister irrelevantly say, "Spurgeon broke grammar, but he also broke hearts." But we must not overlook the fact that Mr. Spurgeon did not break hearts because he broke grammar, but in spite of that. Moreover, despite an insufficient schooling in his younger years, he made himself efficient in both Hebrew and Greek. Another excuse made is that "sticking to the Greek spoils originality in sermons." Such a statement is just the opposite of truth. A scholarly apperception of Hebrew and Greek did not preclude originality in the sermons of Spurgeon, Camp bell Morgan, J. H. Jowett, and many other great preachers; neither did it make their sermons stiff or heavy. John Knox studied Greek when over fifty years of age; his example should encourage men today.

The standard of general education is steadily being made broader and higher. The average man is much more inclined to question the foundations of religious belief today than he did sixty years ago. It is becoming increasingly clear that the teacher and preacher of the Word must be a specialist.' The lawyer, the doctor, the engineer, each must know the language, the terms, and the meanings of the vocabulary of his profession. The minister of the gospel, a professional man, should not be less zealous and conscientious in becoming conversant with the expressions, words, and phrases given him by the Holy Spirit in the language of the New Testament.

Words, speech, are the truest picture of the soul. The very heart of a people's theological thinking is found in the expressions of their theology. Generally, theology is best characterized by its conception of sin. How many of us know that there are over thirty generic words for sin in the Greek New Testament, excluding specific names for certain sinful acts? Sin is a terribly important matter that the preacher should be able to make plain. And inevitably the language of the New Testament must be its own authority in respect to sin, as is true of every other doctrine.

There are eight different Greek words in the New Testament, each one of which is at times translated "judgment" in the English Bible. The minister of the Word ought to be very sure that he is giving the correct idea. This word "judgment" in the English Bible may be given as the translation of unlike Greek words that mean a judgment stated, the carrying out of a judgment, a court of judgment, an opinion, advice, purpose, an estimate. Of these Greek words, each with its own peculiar meaning, one may be used only once, or ten, or thirty, or even more than four hundred times. As ministers we must certainly make proper discrimination; to do just that is one of our responsibilities.

Nothing in the New Testament is so small that it is insignificant. Even the definite article, associated with gesture, an index finger, should not be handled loosely. Matthew 4:5 is an instance of leaving out the definite Greek article, so that the A.V. reads "a pinnacle," whereas the Greek says "the pinnacle"; i.e., the very wing bearing the name "winglet," the only one that overlooks the abyss down which the devil tempted Jesus to throw Himself

John 4:27 is an instance of inserting the definite article in the English where the Greek does not have it. We read, "He talked with the woman"; the Greek says, "He talked with a woman." To converse with a woman in a pub lic place was not consonant with the grave dignity of a rabbi. Lightfoot quotes the rabbinical precept, "Let no one talk with a woman in the street, no, not with his own wife." Horae Hebraicae et Talmudicae, vol. 3, p. 287. The apostles were astounded that Christ con versed with any woman in public, not that He was talking with that particular woman.

There are six Greek words translated "servant" in the English Bible. Do we point out the differences in meaning, elucidating the correct spiritual lesson in each case? Do we know which word it is that emphasizes the position, the dignity of the master? which word it is that stresses the worth and value of the service rendered to the master? Do we know which word designates the servant who ministers the things of the church, and which one specifies the one who ministers the Word itself? Are we acquainted with the fact that "servant" in one case in the New Testament means a medical attendant, and is the modern Greek word for doctor?

Many times we have read the verse:

"Whom God set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the for bearance of God." Rom. 3:25.

This is a favorite text of a number of preachers and teachers when they speak of the gracious- ness of God in the forgiveness of sins. Certainly the remission or forgiveness of sins committed in the past is the idea conveyed by the King James Bible. Yet that is not what Paul is saying. The word for "forgiveness," aphesis, the standard one in the New Testament to express that gracious act of God, is derived from the verb aphiemi, which verb is found 150 times in the New Testament. The noun derived from it, aphesis is used 17 times in the Greek New Testament. It is translated in the English Bible as follows:

Remission---------------------------nine times 

Forgiveness--------------------------six times 



This same noun is given in the Septuagint more than one hundred times. Paul does not have this word aphesis, "forgiveness," in Romans 3:25.

If the apostle Paul were talking about the forgiveness of sins in Romans 3:25, why did he not use aphesis, the word that means just that, and with which he was so familiar? The very fact that he used a word neither he nor any other New Testament writer has utilized any place else must certainly be proof enough that he wanted the precise meaning which the word he did employ conveys. So he gave us paresis, which means "pretermission," not "remission."

The act of God that Paul is here contemplating is that of sins being temporarily passed over, but not sins absolutely forgiven. Sins thus temporarily passed over may or may not be subsequently punished. (Compare 2 Samuel 16:10-12; 11:21-23; 1 Kings 2:9, 4446.) The marginal reading of the English Bible of Romans 3:25 is the correct one: "Passing over." The divine act of passing over sin is described in Acts 17:30 by the compound participle hupo "over" and eidon "to look," = "to overlook," "to take no notice of," "not to attend to," translated in the English Bible "winking at." It is further described as the Lord allowing people "to walk in their own ways" (Acts 14:16), also as divine "forbearance" and being "longsuffering" (Rom. 2:4; 9:22)

The apostle used "passing over" for the sake of exactness in that particular connection. The punishment was temporarily delayed. For what actually took away the sins of the Old Testament believer was the shedding of Christ's blood. A transitory delay in the inflicting of sin's penalty is nothing less than a forbearance on God's part. Such a pretermission of sin can only be a fleeting and secondary incident in relation to the full atonement accomplished by Christ. The primary end of Christ's atonement is the absolute and everlasting pardon of the sinner; the "passing over" is a temporary irregularity not in strict harmony with the principles of retributive judgment. This "passing over" demanded a justification. The justification is provided in the words pro "publicly" and tithemi "to place," "to set." It is used by the classical Greek writers to describe the public display of gold and silver utensils, the public exhibition of the body of Socrates. The application in our verse is to the crucifixion of Christ as the culmination of the entire humiliation of the Son of God.

This word paresis used only by Paul, and that but once (Rom. 3:25), but frequent in the classics, always means "to pass by for the present only." Josephus speaks of Herod planning to punish a man, but passing it over for the time being. This is precisely what Paul is talking about in Romans 3:25. No longer could God pass over sin as though it were a mere incident, for so some men had begun to interpret His forbearance. To straighten out this misconception on men's part, God publicly set forth Jesus Christ, as the cover of the mercy seat, to convince man that long-suffering was not indifference. The claim must be paid in full. The man who did not accept the sacrifice of Christ as meeting the penalty must evidently meet that obligation in his own person. A suspended judgment was no guarantee that the debit did not have to be met ultimately.

The question naturally arises, Why did the translators put the word "remission" in the English Bible? Why did they not make the necessary distinction? The reply is, Because of fear and theological bias. The effect of the great controversy at the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth century was terribly strong. In that bitter dispute Cocceius, the Dutch theologian (1603-1669), was a leading exponent. The "covenant" or "federal" theory taught that as long as the old covenant existed, there was only a "passing over" of sins, and not a true forgiveness. This theory was in correct. So-the English translators, in their zeal to insist on the true forgiveness of sins under the old covenant, inserted an incorrect translation, and made Paul say something in English that he never said in Greek. Yes, words are important in New Testament Greek.

Language is the sign of intellectual life; speech is the sincerest portrait of a people's soul. The Koine Greek became the world speech when Alexander the Great united the Greek and Persian empires. This international language was God's missionary gift to the church. Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor, wrote his meditations in Greek. Marseilles, the great French port, was a center of Greek learning. The apostle Paul wrote to the church at Rome in Greek. The spirit and heart of the message of Jesus Christ are enshrined in this Koine Greek of the New Testament. Ministers of the Word should know the spirit and heart of that message.



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Professor of Biblical Languages, S.D.A. Theological Seminary

May 1952

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