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Word Power

A little knowledge of New Testament Greek can be a dangerous, or edifying, thing
2001This article is part of CT's digital archives. Subscribers have access to all current and past issues, dating back to 1956.

The first lecture given to every beginning Greek class includes an encouragement that the New Testament indeed contains hidden gems—and once we master its Greek language, suddenly these treasures become ours. Immediately—it never fails—the class sets to work learning the Greek alphabet. And within a few months, the young preacher often takes the results of these mining expeditions directly into the pulpit: "Now Paul really meant something different than you see in your NIV, for the Greek verb in the verse means . …" At once the congregation is dazzled and a new tone of authority rests over the sermon.

Mature pastors know the pitfalls of this sort of preaching. And mature exegetes of the Greek New Testament also know the dangers of making single Greek words carry too much freight. They hold their breath when sermons launch "word studies" and they positively cringe when teachers unpack the "root" of a word to find new meaning—as if butterfly really has something to do with butter and flies, or as if synagogue has something to do with the Greek ago ("lead") and syn ("together"). Sometimes teachers apply an anachronistic meaning to a word. The Greek noun dunamis (power) later contributed to our English word dynamite, but that does not invite us to rewrite Romans 1:16 to have Paul say, "I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the dynamite of God unto salvation for everyone who believes." It is a nice thought but has little to do with Paul's meaning.

Nevertheless, there are rich words that enhance our understanding of Scripture and can barely be brought into English with a simple translation. The translation team of the New Living Translation (of which I am a member) worked hour after hour looking ...

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