Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, February 15, 2016

Greek words with no English equivalent

I am currently reading through the New Testament focusing on just one thing: discipleship. Specifically, why should we care about spiritual growth? We’ve gone through the gate; why should we worry about the path? (The answer, of course, is that, according to Jesus, life is at the end of the path, not the other side of the gate.)

This is a practice I strongly encourage. It doesn’t have to be discipleship. You can pick any theme you want. By focusing on one theme, you will probably see things you haven’t seen before.

I am just finishing Matthew, and in reading the NIV I came across a few strange word choices. What they have I  common is that I don’t think there is an English word that fits.

When Judas comes to Jesus in the garden, Jesus responds, “Do what you came for, friend (ἑταῖρε).” “Friend” suggests that Jesus still felt kindly toward Judas (and he may have) and was giving him one last chance to change his mind. The problem is that this is not what ἑταῖρος means. <a href="">BDAG</a> defines it as, “person who has someth. in common with others and enjoys association, but not necessarily at the level of a φίλος or φίλη, <i>comrade, companion.</i>” It can describe a “member of one’s group,” and it can be a “general form of address to someone whose name one does not know.” Whatever translation you settle on, ἑταῖρε does not denote friendship. Nevertheless, most translations opt for “friend” (ESV, NIV, NET, NASB, HCSB, NRSV, KJV). The only option I can think of is “comrade,” but that has political overtones.

When Jesus cried out on the cross, one of the soldiers was going to give him something to drink. But another soldier stopped him saying, ”Now (ἄφες) leave him alone” (27:49). I don’t know about you, but “now” has no meaning to me. ἄφες is the aorist imperative of ἀφίημι meaning, “Stop!” or perhaps “Wait!” (ESV, NRSV, NLT). The NET is a tad periphrastic: “Leave him alone!” Any of those are better than “now.” But the point is that there is not an exact equivalent.

Finally, in Matt 28:9 the angels tell the women at the tomb, “’He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now (ἰδοὺ) I have told you.” ἰδοὺ is easily translated as “Look!” or “Listen!” depending on context, but “now” has no meaning. I guess the only way to read the English is to see “now” as temporal. “Now,” in the sense of “just now I have told you this.” But that is tautological. Once we stopped being able to say “Behold” or “Lo,” ἰδοὺ has become much more difficult to translate.

My point is not to complain about the NIV. It is to illustrate that there are certain words and forms in Greek that simply have no easy translation in English.” Translators are Traitors.” We are all traitors to the text as we cannot always get the meaning right.

But that is why we all need to learn Greek!