The New Testament in Greek

An advantage of having had a classical education is that I have the chance to read my New Testament in the original Greek. At times, I must admit, I find it useful to have a good English version at my side to help with the more difficult words and passages. On the other hand, I find that there are many times when the use of particular Greek words or phrases sheds new light, or suggests a new translation, that gives new illumination to the message.

In John’s Gospel Chapter 21, for instance, most translations (J.B.Phillips being an honorable exception) give Jesus asking Peter three times “Do you love me?”, and Peter replying “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” The catch is that for the first two times, Jesus uses the verb ‘agapao’, (“Do you care about me?”), and Peter replies with the verb ‘phileo’ (“You know that I am your friend”). No wonder that Peter becomes distressed, when Jesus’s third question is “Am I your friend?”

Another instance is the use of the little word ‘the’. That’s a word that does not appear at all in Latin, but is used in Greek much as it is in English. In English, ‘the’ is the definite article. It is related to the word for the second person singular ‘Thee’, in familiar use by Quakers and by the Authorized Version of the Bible. It points out an object that if necessary can be addressed on an I-Thou basis. If we say “The cat sat on the mat”, we mean that there is a definite cat sitting on a definite mat that we can address. If we said “A cat sat on a mat”, that gives us only a vague and not particularly interesting piece of information.

One instance of this is in our usual translation of the Lord’s Prayer, the words “Deliver us from evil”. St. Matthew’s Gospel quite definitely sets out “Deliver us from the Evil One”—reminder that “we wrestle not with flesh and blood, but with principalities and powers, and spiritual wickedness in high places.” We miss this in the accepted translation. But things also can work the other way. The angel, speaking to Mary, said “Holy Spirit will come upon you”, without any ‘the’. Going back to John’s Gospel, in Chapter 20 we read how Jesus breathed on his disciples, and said “Receive the Holy Spirit”. Only, he didn’t say that. He said “Receive Holy Spirit”—generic, not particular. Similarly, in the account of Pentecost in Acts, the Greek says that “holy spirit”, rather than “The Holy Spirit” fell on the apostles, even though both ‘holy spirit’ and ‘the Holy Spirit’ had been promised to the disciples at the time of Jesus’s ascension. Paul’s question to some disciples of John that he found in Ephesus (Acts 19) was “Did you receive Holy Spirit when you became believers?”, not “the Holy Spirit” as it is generally translated.

Perhaps all of this is nit picking, but I rather think not so. When it comes to the spiritual world, I like Swedenborg’s concept that spirits are unlimited by time and space, but have no consciousness of whom they are affecting, until the affected person makes contact with them in some way. Rather as a writer or broadcaster has no way of knowing who is receiving his or her message, until someone writes or phones in to establish communication. But when such communication has been established, we can be ‘possessed’ by one or more spirits, good or evil—in fact, the Gospel story is full of occasions when Jesus cast out specified evil spirits, and in one parable he insisted that after such spirits had been thrown out, a new spirit must be installed, or the old ones will return in sevenfold force.

Following this idea up, it would seem that Holy Spirit is flowing at all times throughout the whole universe, bringing a message to those who will receive it. But it is when we hear, respond, and dialogue with this voice, when we say:

“Come down, O love divine
Seek thou this soul of mine
And visit it with thine own ardour glowing”

That ‘holy spirit’ becomes for us The Holy Spirit—our friend and guide, that can indeed possess us if we are willing, and can overcome the power of the other evil spirits that beset us.

At any rate, I would like it if translators would make this distinction in their work. It might just be significant.

– Anglican Messenger, 2006*