Word Study #3: “justice” and “righteousness” — the Same Word!

April 23, 2009

This one is a challenge, and one that requires the use of historical lexicons, rather than just the concordance. Most people who use only English translations assume that these are two very different ideas. However, they are actually translations of the same word! The choice by the translators is completely arbitrary, and has created serious misunderstandings among people who are sincerely concerned with faithfulness.

Listing of classical uses of dikaios, (the adjective form), begins with Homer, who is thought to have composed his famous epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey around the tenth century BC. The first appearance of dikaios refers to well-ordered, civilized behavior; being observant of one’s duty to both gods and men. Later, it referred to equality, fairness, and impartiality; to legal precision; to doing or receiving what is right and just. (This was the original English meaning of “righteous”, as well.) It referred to the mutual obligations in contracts.

The noun form, dikaiosune, was also a legal term: the business of a judge in a courtroom. It referred to legally claimed rights or demands; to the vindication of the innocent and the sentence passed upon the guilty.

The verb form, dikaioo, could refer either to the demanding or maintaining of one’s rights, or to being “set right”, to be caused to act properly, or to be treated justly. Therefore, whether vindication or punishment was in view, would depend upon the perspective — or the behavior — of the individual concerned. And the resultant behavior would depend upon the “justice” of the situation — and the judge!

None of these ideas is foreign to the Old Testament prophets, who frequently called for justice among God’s people. Neither is it foreign to the New Testament writers. How the simple concept of “justice” morphed into the much more elusive, theological construct of “righteousness” is unclear. I’m inclined to guess that it happened contemporaneously with the transformation of the Law, (which was designed to promote/create a just and fair society,) into an increasingly complex system of ceremonial and ecclesiastical minutiae that required constant professional analysis, refinement and interpretation!

When people in positions of leadership begin to acquire power over their fellows — be that power physical, political, or theological — justice among the general populace is one of the early casualties. The stern requirement of “righteousness” , defined (and therefore understood) exclusively by those in power, then became a useful tool in retaining and increasing their dominion.

Turning to the concordance, (the back of the book this time — see the introduction to Word Study), it is interesting that the adjective dikaios is translated “just” 33 times, “right” 5 times, and “righteous” 41 times. The context will provide you with some clues to the reasons why different words were chosen. But remember, the original word did not change. The changes were an artifact of the ideas of the translators, not the first writers.

The verb form was rendered “justify” almost exclusively — a word which today is understood far more theoretically than the more accurate “to make just” or “to do justice” would allow. For the noun form, most translators do not touch the idea of “justice” at all, moving exclusively to the term “righteousness.” This can only have been a theological decision, as there is no linguistic reason for the departure. Read an assortment of these references, substituting “justice” for “righteousness,” remembering that it is the same original word in each instance. How would that affect your understanding of any of these passages?

I suggest that the biggest difference would be the substitution of the concept of transformation for the sleight-of-hand idea to which many of us have become accustomed. You know the drill — the statement that “God doesn’t see” us as we are, but “sees” instead the moral perfection of Jesus. Could the originators and the perpetrators of that line really think that the Creator of the universe is so easily deceived? Or would choose to be? If one understands the active nature of the verb dikaioo, it becomes clear that there is no deception or pretense involved. Dikaioo implies a transformation of the lives of those who come to Christ — a new creation — that endows people with the true justice that the Lord Jesus embodies.

A proper linguistic understanding of dikaios, dikaioo, and dikaiosune eliminates another “favorite debate” of folks who enjoy focusing on theoretical theology rather than the practical principles of faithful living: the endless argument over whether “righteousness” is “imparted” (instantly created) or “imputed” (attributed or assumed) — both without regard to any empirical evidence — to an individual who makes a profession of “faith” (see Word Study #1 for this one). Neither of these words appears in the New Testament — nor do most of the terms that refer to theoretical speculation. More to the point of the transformation of life described by all the New Testament writers, would be the recognition that the justice of God, created and exemplified by the Lord Jesus, is carefully implanted in those who are his. It is all a gracious gift, to be sure: but one that, like everything else about such a wonderful new life, needs to be watered, nurtured, and cultivated, in order to grow to reflect with integrity the perfect justice of our Lord, the Giver of Life.

Word Study #2: “doubt” vs. “unfaithfulness”

April 20, 2009

The usual way to communicate the opposite of a word, in the Greek language, is to add an “a” as a negative prefix: hence, “pistos“, faithful (see last week’s post), becomes “apistos“, unfaithful. Unfortunately, when people begin to “label” each other and each other’s ideas, it is not that simple. Due to changes in the English language over the course of time, the concept of “doubt” has crept in to confuse the situation, and grossly distorted the picture. Many people assume that “doubt” indicates a perverse, deliberate refusal to “believe,” (read, “accept the required dogma”), making it essentially synonymous with “unbelief.” This has no basis in the original language.

If you will look for “doubt” in Young’s concordance, you will see that the term has been used to translate four different Greek words, which are themselves quite distinct from one another. Interestingly, not one of these describes a situation where a person has taken a deliberate stand against faithfulness. Mostly, the individuals are puzzled, and trying to make sense out of a confusing event. Uncertainty, for which no one is scolded, is much more in evidence than the outright rejection of a message. We must be just as careful not to confuse these ideas.

The first of the terms that has been translated “doubt” is aporeomai. Historically, it conveyed a sense of utter bewilderment, of being at a loss to understand something. In the New Testament, it appears only four times: in John 13, when the disciples were trying to figure out who the betrayer would be; in Acts 25:20, when Festus confesses to Herod that he has no clue what charge to write, upon remanding Paul to Rome; in Galatians 4:20 of Paul’s uncertainty as to the continued faithfulness of those brethren; and II Corinthians 4:8 when he speaks of his own confusion. “Baffled” might convey the thought in more modern language.

Diakrino, by far the most common of the four, referred historically to discussion or debate, to discernment or evaluation. Here again, there is no negative connotation. It is used of Peter trying to figure out his vision, prior to visiting Cornelius (Acts 10:20 and 11:12); of the discernment required in dealing with the issue of meat offered to idols (Romans 14:23); and the restriction of discussions requiring discernment to mature believers (Romans 14:1). Jesus uses it in the statements about moving mountains (Matt.21 and Mark 11), indicating that these are not “playthings” for discussion.  Perhaps one of the most significant is James 1:6 — where the request for wisdom is plainly intended to be used for instructions for action, and not just “ammunition” for debate or argument. The flavor, consistently, is discernment, in an effort to be faithful.

Diaporeo is more similar to aporeomai, but is considerably stronger. It refers to a matter for agitated discussion. It describes the confusion of the crowd at Pentecost, (Acts 2), trying to understand what is happening; and also the confusion among the temple authorities when (Acts 5) the apostles were not found in prison where they had been locked up so carefully. It refers to Herod’s confusion, when he finally decided that Jesus must be a resurrected or reincarnated John the Baptist, and the bewildered reaction of the women at the empty tomb (Lk.24:4). It is used together with aporeomai in II Corinthians 4:8, as the more severe of the two terms.

Distazo is used only twice in the New Testament. Jesus uses it to Peter in Matt.14:31, when the latter floundered in his attempt to walk on the water. This has frequently been read as a rebuke, but rightly understood in the historical context of the word, “hesitation, uncertainty”, it sounds more like a critique than a criticism: “You almost made it!” Uncertainty definitely fits the other use, the resurrection scene where some were “uncertain.”

The important point is that none of these indicates a refusal of faithfulness.

Quite apart from all of these is apistia (noun), and its related apisteo (verb) and apistos (adjective) forms. Look at the very different flavor of the historical uses: (v) to disbelieve, distrust, suspect; (n) faithlessness, treachery, unbelief, disobedience; (a) untrustworthy, incredible, suspicious, disobedient, disloyal, faithless.
The verb form appears in the New Testament seven times, the noun twelve, and the adjective ten.
It refers to outright rejection of Jesus and his message (the home-folks at Nazareth, or the present state of Jewish opponents); the ancient Hebrews who did not enter the Promised Land; Paul’s description of his own days as a persecutor.
Sometimes it is related to ignorance: as in Paul’s former case, or that of an unbelieving spouse (I Corinthians 7). Jesus connected it to outright disobedience in the case of the slave-overseer who abused his subordinates. Paul frequently uses the two terms in close association.
In almost every instance, it constitutes a deliberate rejection of God’s ways, by the deliberate choice of disobedience.

The remedy is in a joint effort among the brotherhood (Hebrews 3:12-14.) It requires mutual support and daily “coaching” to hang on and to avoid the deception which would lead to unfaithfulness.

So what of poor Thomas, who has been made a scapegoat through many generations as “the doubter”? Which of these words do you think applied to him? And in what way? Was Jesus scolding him for not being gullible, and immediately accepting the word of what seemed to him to be delusional reports? I don’t believe he was. To get the whole story, we need to look back at the account of Thomas at the time of Lazarus’ death. I submit that Thomas was the most faithful of them all, on this occasion. Everyone had tried to dissuade Jesus from returning to Judea, knowing that it was suicide to do so. But he was adamant, so Thomas spoke up –“Let’s all go along –we might as well die with him.” That’s faithfulness! and Jesus had not forgotten that scene. After the resurrection, he knew what Thomas needed in order to believe — and provided it. Jesus’ admonition was in the present tense: “Don’t become unfaithful, but faithful!”

Perhaps only together can we rightly discern between necessary caution and unfaithful refusal. Maybe that’s yet another reason why our gracious Lord has given us to each other!

Word Study #1 — Faith/faithfulness

April 17, 2009

As we begin this series of word-studies, let me remind you of the perspective from which all this work is undertaken. My serious study of the New Testament was motivated by having been invited to “come and see” a supremely attractive way of life, introduced, advocated, and empowered by the Lord Jesus Christ. The invitation to participate in the Kingdom that he described and demonstrated was irresistible — and the more I learned, the more I wanted to be a part of it. My search has been two-fold: (1) for instructions in experiencing that Life, and (2) for folks with whom to share it.
Consequently, I have resonated with the intensely practical tone of the New Testament. I see the Lord Jesus and his followers outlining and modeling the way people were originally created (and are presently being re-created) to relate and interact. Neither they nor I place any value on high-flown speculation or complicated theories. The “demonstration project” in which (Ephesians 3:10) whatever “rulers and powers” may exist in heaven or on earth, are enabled to see the wisdom and love of God, is not an intricately argued philosophical or theological system, but the manifestation among us of his gracious gift of Resurrection Life!

Therefore, a good place to start seems to be with the concept of “faith”/faithfulness, since one’s understanding of “pistis” and its related words will color his perspective on virtually everything else. Understanding the meaning of this concept must include the noun, verb, and adjectival forms: pistis, pisteuo, and pistos.

First, look up “faith” in Young’s concordance. Scan quickly down the column of references, and notice that not one makes any reference to an “intellectual assent to a list of statements or propositions” about the nature, history, or purposes of God. Historically and linguistically, pistis has nothing theoretical about it at all. The classical writers used it to describe trust or trustworthiness, loyalty, confidence and honesty. It was also a term used in politics, of a treaty, an exchange of assurances, of political protection or safety granted in exchange for submission. In economics, it referred to good credit, a guarantee, pledge, or security deposit!

This fits well with the definition provided in Hebrews 11:1, which speaks of “substance” and “evidence”, both courtroom terms. If a case lacks “substance” it is thrown out of court. “Evidence” is confined to information actually seen or experienced by a witness, or it is not accepted.
The writer then turns to a list of individuals, in each case citing the demonstration of their faithfulness to the call of God. Abraham, for example, did not deliver a sermon about the nature of God — he simply followed instructions. God said “Go” and he went, without having the slightest idea of where he was going (Heb.11:8). Proceeding down the list, notice that the pattern of following instructions is common to all.
Not a word is said about what they “thought” or “believed” about what was going on. They simply followed orders. Careful note is taken that it did not “all turn out ok” for everyone. Commendable faithfulness does not guarantee one’s safety or prosperity!

Another interesting cluster of references centers around the many healings that took place during Jesus’ ministry. Notice that it was often not the patient, but the person who brought someone to Jesus whose “pistis” is commended: the friends who lowered a paralyzed man through the roof, Jairus who sought help for his daughter, the centurion who advocated for his servant/child, among others. And when the disciples failed to heal the boy while Jesus was on the Mount of Transfiguration, it was their “pistis”, not the child’s or his father’s, that was critiqued. In John’s account of the man at the pool (chapter 5), the healed man did not even know who had restored him, nor did the blind beggar at the temple gate (chapter 9). And in no case was anyone urged to “believe” that a healing had taken place in the absence of empirical evidence. On the occasions when Jesus did make the usually quoted statement “Your faith(fulness) has saved/rescued you,” it is after some action by the person that demonstrated his/her commitment to/trust in Jesus.

The verb form, pisteuo, usually translated “believe”, historically was used in the sense of trusting or relying on someone. Where an object of that trust is expressed, it is usually the person of Jesus, or something he had done. Out of 233 occurrences, the reference is to a future event only 4 times, and to some fact about 5-10 times (depending on how you classify them.) Those facts include (1)Jesus’ resurrection, (2) his “I AM” statements, (3)something he had said. In no case is there a detailed list.
Clearly, there had already been efforts to reduce faithfulness to such a list by the time James wrote his letter. It is still just as true, as he notes in 2:19, that if one wants a “list” (a “creed”), the devil himself could acknowledge everything on anyone’s list as “true.” It is one’s commitment to the person of Jesus that sets his people apart — and strangely, that appears on no “lists.”

An additional clue to the active nature of both the noun and verb forms is found in the grammatical structure. Frequently, translations render the object of “faith” or “believing” as “in Christ.” This phrase is one of Paul’s favorites, but he uses it to describe the context, the very atmosphere, in which our resurrection life exists. The choice to use, or not to use, a preposition is of the utmost importance in understanding. “In” can be expressed by two different prepositions: en, and eis. En may only be used with the dative case, which implies a static situation: the location or environment in which something takes place. This is used when speaking of the condition of those who have been called out of their former life into a new one. Eis, on the other hand, is used only with the accusative case, which is much more active, more dynamic. And it is eis that is used with pisteuo — it implies motion, direction, or purpose. I have usually rendered it “become faithful toward”, or something similar, to convey the active sense of the case.
There is yet another construction that has been erroneously translated “in Christ”, which uses no preposition at all. That is where the text employs a genitive case — most commonly indicating possession, but also frequently the source of the object. Here, adherence to the text requires “of” and not “in” for accuracy. Thus, Gal.2:20, Eph.3:12, and others are pointing to our dependence on his faithfulness (Jesus!), not our own.

The adjectival form, pistos, has suffered less abuse, being frequently translated “faithful.” Other historical uses included such ideas as “genuine, loyal, credible.”

It is for these reasons that I have usually chosen to render pistis as “faithfulness” or “loyalty”, and pisteuo as “to be or to become faithful” or “to trust.”

It should be noted also that with the more active understanding of the words, as in James 1, the age-old Reformation argument about “faith” vs. “works” simply disappears. As James points out very well, behavior is the only way that “faith” can be demonstrated. These are two sides of the same coin, not conflicting principles.

May we all constantly increase in faithfulness, by means of the perfect faithfulness of the Lord Jesus!

Helps for Word Study

April 8, 2009

The discipline of Word Study is based upon the linguistic principle of context. Responsibly used, the New Testament is itself its own best commentary, as the usage of a word provides the most accurate clues to its intent. It is also helpful if you can explore the historical and contemporary uses of the vocabulary, but that can wait. For responsible word study, the tools you need are few:
1. at least 2 or 3 different New Testament translations — the more the better. NOT paraphrases. A paraphrase is not a helpful study tool, as it invariably departs from a literal rendering of the text. One of these should be the KJV, to facilitate the use of the concordance.
2. Young’s Analytical Concordance. First compiled in the 19th century, Young’s work has resources not available elsewhere. Entries are sorted by the original word used in the text, and in the back, a separate section identifies alternate translations for most words.
3. A notebook
4. A few brothers/sisters to compare notes with. This is IMPORTANT, as you will discover things that you will find it hard to accept unless they are confirmed by the study of others whose faithfulness you trust.
5. Leave your other commentaries, dictionaries, etc. on the shelf, until AFTER you have completed your own study.

There are many places where one English word represents the same Greek word throughout the text. These are the easiest. Even here, looking at the context is very constructive. Write down what you understand the word to mean before you begin, and compare with your conclusions. Consider the audience being addressed; the subject under discussion; whether the focus is past, present, or future. Ask questions!

It is important to look up every reference. Use multiple translations. Often the greatest insight comes from the references that don’t seem to “fit.”
Read the surrounding material. What does the word seem to mean here?

You are right now looking at New Testament references only, for language reasons. If you want to include OT uses, you will need a copy of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT, and a concordance to that work, since the correspondence between Greek and Hebrew words is outside the scope of this study.

After you have looked up every reference to your target word, try to formulate a definition that would “fit” in every instance. Can you think of a synonym, or a phrase, that describes it?

If your target word appears with more than one Greek word in the listing, you need to proceed to Lesson 2.

There are many places where the same English word has been used to translate two or more Greek words. This results in the confusion of separate concepts as if they were one. The Greek language, for the most part, is much more precise than English. If a different word is used, A DIFFERENT CONCEPT IS INTENDED!!! Accurate understanding requires that these differences be identified and communicated. The approach of Young’s Concordance is very helpful here. References are separated according to the original word, which enables the student to distinguish which passages are truly talking about the same idea, and which are not connected, even if the same English word has been used.

For example, the English word “gift” is used to translate no less than NINE different Greek words! It is NOT a single concept! The different words have implications including such ideas as:
–the identity and relationship of the giver and receiver
–the nature and purpose of the gift
— the intentions of the parties involved,
and other considerations. The carefully chosen vocabulary of the writers must be honored, by any responsible translator or teacher!

Ask yourself, what is the difference between these terms? Why was one chosen over another? What errors result from assuming that all are alike?

Yet another complication occurs when a single Greek word has been translated by multiple English words. This usually happens when the translator’s theological presuppositions are challenged by the text. “Righteousness” and “justice”, for example, are translations of the SAME WORD! Dikaiosune and its related verbal and adjectival forms, are LEGAL, not philosophical or religious words. However, it appears that translators/theologians preferred a “theological” flavor — which of course can be kept pretty theoretical rather than practical! — to the more overtly obvious concept of “justice.” Sadly, it is not rare for folks to prefer theoretical speculation to practical instructions! That was one of the big problems the “establishment” had with Jesus!

To discover these situations, “the answers are in the back of the book,” in the section titled “Index-Lexicon to the NT.” You need to copy down the original word (Young has helpfully transliterated them for you in both sections), and look it up in the back, where he has listed all the other ways that the KJV translators rendered it. Then return to the main concordance listings, and track down each of the alternates.

Realize that THESE ARE ALL THE SAME WORD — consequently, the same concept! Your conclusion must include ALL the references. You need to come up with a single word, phrase, or concept that would fit in ANY of those contexts! Be careful that you confine your search to groups of references that appear under the SAME ORIGINAL WORD.

For example, look at the word, AGGELOS. The transliterated form, “angel”, has been used when the powers-that-be thought that the reference was to a supernatural being. Where they assumed the creature to be human, they wrote “messenger.” But THE WORD IS THE SAME! This indicates that the focus is not upon who or what is carrying a message, but simply upon the FUNCTION being performed. Yet a huge mythology has grown up around speculation about many sorts of “angelic” creatures — when the very same word is used of quite ordinary humans. God can use natural or supernatural “messengers”, as he pleases! Even you and me!

This is also true of many other words referring to functions served by many individuals in the NT church. They were not “titles” or “offices” at all (Jesus had forbidden that!) but simply assignments to do a needed task. “Titles” were assigned much later, as a hierarchy developed.

Well, folks, this is just to get you started. In the next weeks, I hope to post a few specific studies to whet your appetite. I will augment them with some further linguistic research. One of my favorite resources is the Oxford Greek Lexicon (Liddell/Scott) which lists literary word usage through many centuries, and provides fascinating insight. But basically, with these few simple tools, you can find a huge amount of wonderful stuff.

Happy digging!

The Problem with Words

April 7, 2009

I mentioned in other essays that in my translation work, I have studiously avoided what I referred to as “Christian passwords.”  These are words so frequently quoted that it is assumed that “everybody knows” what they mean: usually a standardized, sanitized definition that rattles no doctrinal cages. This is not helpful in finding out what the writer wrote, or what the reader understood, in the beginning.

Words are funny things. Essential for communication, they can nevertheless confuse as much as they clarify. Words encompass far more than their “lexical meanings” (a term used by linguists to refer to dictionary definitions).  Connotations, implications, shades of meaning vary widely, depending upon the perspectives of a speaker/writer and the hearer/reader, which may — or may not — be similar.

Our understanding of words is heavily dependent on context. If I use the word “drive,” for example, how do you know whether I am referring to : operating a car — collecting funds — playing golf or baseball — a very hard rain — intense ambition — basic physical needs — a gadget on my computer — or a host of other things? (English is particularly bad at this.) Only the context can give you a clue.

When one moves between languages, the situation becomes even more complicated. There is seldom a one-to-one correspondence between two words, in any two languages. If one tries to translate “literally,” how is he to choose among all these “meanings?”
Cultural convention, likewise, affects the “flavor” of what is understood by certain words. This varies over time. (In the 1950’s, the heyday of the McCarthy persecutions, “red” was no longer simply a color! It was a dangerous accusation!)

Also, any currently spoken language is constantly changing. Consider as an example that is not theologically “loaded”, that in Elizabethan (KJV, Shakespeare) English, “quick” meant “alive,” not fast, sudden, or rapid. “The quick and the dead” meant “the living and the dead,” not, as some would have it, the two categories of pedestrians in city traffic!

All of these considerations and others come into play when one turns to the study of Scripture. Over the years, many “definitions” or understandings have become codified into “doctrines,” which in turn have become weapons in the battle for “orthodoxy.” Subsequent “translation” works, and assorted Bible dictionaries and chain references, have then incorporated these standardized understandings, without reference to the freight carried in the words chosen by the original writers.  (Please see the essay, “The task of a Translator,” posted previously). Many “proofs” are derived entirely from English texts, without regard for departures from the source documents. Accurate understanding depends upon trying to hear what was communicated to the first readers.

“So must we all learn Greek?” Ideally, yes. It is a fascinating, enlightening study that can enormously enhance one’s appreciation for the graciousness of the Lord’s invitation to us, to become a part of his Kingdom!  But even without direct access to the Greek language, a student of Scripture can uncover a vast quantity of treasure by careful use of the tools of Word Study.

The basic principle behind this study method is simple linguistics: one learns best to understand the meaning of a word by observing the context in which it is used. That’s how you learned to talk! When your toddler is learning to talk, you don’t hand him a dictionary! You point, and demonstrate — “show and tell!”  This is also the best way to learn another language.

So give it a try! I can almost guarantee surprises — and delight. And who knows — you just might get “hooked”! There are worse addictions!

Translation Notes Updated

April 6, 2009

Hello all,

Just wanted to highlight that a revised version of the Translators Notes has been uploaded.  This version includes some spelling & grammatical edits as well as some minor revisions, and a better-rendered illustration of Greek verb tenses at the end.  The entire document is 191 pages and is just under 1 meg.  Feel free to download it from the link at right!  More soon. . .