Big sigh. It happened again yesterday. I was skimming through one of my social media sites and just briefly read the introductory section of an interesting looking article. I can’t remember if it was in the first or second paragraph, but it was right up there close to the top, when the author wrote (in regard to John 3), “. . . ‘born again’ literally means ‘born from above.'”
Grrr and grrr.
First, let’s lay aside the fact that the author equated two English phrases that have no “literal” equivalence. However, what we cannot lay aside is the inference, nay, I would suggest, the very strong implication, that the Greek word behind the two phrases has a “metaphorical” or connotative meaning and a “literal” or denotative meaning. It doesn’t. That is just wrong. The author is trying to make a profound spiritual point, and all he did was expose his ignorance.
Just to set the record straight, I looked up in my Greek lexicon the Greek word under consideration (anothen, for those who are curious). The lexicon gives three primary definitions for the word, with a number of sub-definitions. Those definitions are: 1. locally, from above; 2. temporally, from the beginning or for a long time; and 3. again, anew. There you have it. Three meanings, three definitions. No “metaphorical” or “literal” about it. Some words have different meanings, and the context of the passage is controlling when we attempt to discern which possible meaning is appropriate for that passage. (The lexicon goes on to note that in John 3 the meaning is deliberately obscure, so as to generate discussion as to the meaning Jesus intended).
This discussion just goes to prove a mantra my first year Greek professor drilled into us Greek newbies – one year of Greek (or less) only serves to make you dangerous. It takes a minimum of two years, and far preferably more, before you can claim an adequate understanding of a foreign language. Another preacher friend said it this way – the purpose of learning Greek or Hebrew is not to discover of new world of hitherto unknown spiritual truths, it is to keep you from making some really profound, and stupid, mistakes.
This sort of problem is compounded nowadays with the proliferation of computer programs which parse and decline Greek words with the simple move of a cursor. This is not a problem for the wise user who understands his or her limitations and simply uses the program as an aid or tutor. Where it becomes a serious problem is when someone mouses over a word, gets a thumbnail description of the tense or declination of a word, and then goes off to wax eloquently about things he or she knows little or nothing about.
[Pet peeve and aside here – more and more theological schools and seminaries are reducing or eliminating the emphasis on biblical languages in their degree programs. This is a huge, and in my opinion, tragic, move. It is justified because once a graduate leaves the school, he or she never really makes use of the hours and hours spent memorizing arcane rules and words that only occur 10 or 15 times in the text. In my opinion, that is a response to a crisis by letting the inmates run the prison. Just because graduates do something stupid – and yes! I have done and still do the same stupid thing – is no reason to abandon a critical part of theological education. Rant over.]
The example I used above regarding John 3 is not really a huge issue – I think the author borrows on expertise he clearly does not have, but his topic is not of any huge exegetical or theological import. There are, however, other examples where the profession of knowledge one does not have does become critical.
Quite some time ago I was reading an article written by a fellow minister of the Churches of Christ. The topic of his article was a Greek preposition, one of those little words (in this case eis, pronounced by some as ice, but I prefer the pronunciation ace), that are notoriously difficult to translate in a number of instances. The targets of his ire were those who want Acts 2:38 to mean that the first hearers of Peter’s sermon were baptized because of the forgiveness of their sins, rather than for the purpose of having those sins removed. The entire point of his article is that this little word can never, in no way, absolutely not, never, ever, ever, be translated as “because of.”
Except it can, and in at least one case, it has to.
In Matthew 12:41 Jesus said, “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” You guessed it, the little word I highlighted is that same little word eis. In this context the only way you can make sense of the statement is to understand that the people of Nineveh repented as a result of, or because of, Jonah’s preaching. Jonah preached, they repented. If that is not a causative meaning, I will eat my lexicon.
The meaning of eis in Acts 2:38 cannot mean “because of,” because the context will not allow it to mean “because of.” The sins of those in the audience had not been forgiven – they had just asked Peter what to do in order to have those sins forgiven!! Peter told them what to do in order for their sins to be forgiven – repent and be baptized. But – and this is critical – to base one’s theology on the vagaries of a little Greek preposition is just wrong. Talk about putting a hermeneutical cart in front of an exegetical horse! While I agree with my preacher brother that the use of eis in Acts 2:38 is “for the purpose of,” I lost a lot of respect for his exegetical skill (and maybe some of his integrity) because he based his argument on a false conclusion.
I will defend my understanding of truth until my face turns blue, but I refuse to use bad, or in this case, utterly incorrect arguments to do it.
The point is, if you only have a rudimentary knowledge of Greek or Hebrew, then recognize your weakness and don’t go around spouting information the truth or falsity of which you are absolutely clueless. If one year of university level Greek only serves to make a student dangerous, what is the result of training that is less than that?! By all means use those computer programs that help you understand more of the text – I am not arguing against their use as a helper, but they can only give you a thumbnail picture of what is going on. In order to fully understand and comprehend what is going on in the Greek or Hebrew, one must learn not only the grammar of the language (verb tenses and such), but the syntax (what it means for certain noun declensions and verb tenses to be used as they are) as well.
As the old adage goes, it is far better to remain silent and have people think you a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.