Word Study #115 — “Conversation”

Requests for a study on “conversation” sent me beating the bushes for etymological dictionaries!
The English word is used 13 times by traditional translators for the noun anastrophe, as well as once for politeuma and once for tropos. The verb anastrepho is translated “have conversation” twice. But in none of these does the implication parallel our modern use of “conversation” as “sitting around with a cup of coffee and talking about things.” This time, our misunderstanding is a result of the English language, not the Greek.

Like all languages, English has changed both its structure and its vocabulary over the years. In the mid-14th century, “conversation” referred to “living together and having dealings with others; one’s manner of conducting himself in the world” – which is much closer to the Greek words in the text.

In the early 16th century, the domain of “conversation” added criminal behavior, and in the late 16th century, it included sexual intercourse. By the late 18th century, it was the legal term for adultery! (I found the most useful source to be an Etymological Dictionary by Douglas Harper, who lists his own sources as the Oxford English Dictionary, and others by Klein, and Weekley.)
None of these varied definitions is a part of the modern understanding of “conversation”, and only the oldest is included in the lexical information on any of the Greek words so translated in the New Testament.

According to Liddell/Scott, anastrepho, of which only the middle and passive forms were rendered “conversation”, was used classically as “to dwell, to go about in public, to be engaged in some activity, to conduct oneself, to behave.”
Classical uses of the noun form, anastrophe, likewise included “one’s dwelling or abode, mode of life or behavior, civilized life, occupation, or concern.” Active voice occurrences, in both cases, carry the more literal sense of overthrowing, reversing, or returning, but they are not relevant to the ”conversation” question.
Politeuma, with only a single New Testament appearance, was classically a reference to citizenship, with its duties and privileges. Please see W.S.#100, as well as the essay on “citizenship” (#150), and the small book, Citizens of the Kingdom which is also available as a free download on this site.
Tropos, usually used in an adverbial phrase, refers to the manner or custom in which anything is done.

Are you seeing any pattern here? This is not the first time that misunderstanding of a word has led well-meaning people to assume a theoretical rather than a practical focus for their ideas of “faithfulness [faith]” (W.S.#1). “Conversation”, like “faithfulness”, is used in the New Testament to refer not to talk, but to behavior!

Anastrepho, for example, only translated “had our conversation” in II Cor.1:12 and Eph.2:3, where Paul is clearly referring to his/their manner of life before their conversion, is rendered “abide” in Mt.17:22 regarding Jesus spending time in Galilee; “be used” in Heb.10:33 of the mistreatment of believers; “behave yourself” in I Tim.3:15; “live” in Heb.13:18 and II Pet.2:18; and “pass” in I Pet.1:17 – all referring to one’s manner of life.

Anastrophe, used 13x, and uniformly translated “conversation”, is also an obvious reference to one’s manner of life or behavior, whether in the unconverted past (Eph.4:22, I Pet.1:18, II Pet.2:7), the setting of an example of appropriate living (Gal.1:13, I Tim.4:12, Heb.13:7, Jas.3:13, I Pet.2:12, 3:2), or a goal toward which the faithful are urged to strive (I Pet.1:15, II Pet.3:11).
Realism also requires a recognition that while “holy” (W.S.#32) living may result in the conversion of others (I Pet.3:1), it may also provoke persecution and false accusation (I Pet.3:16). Peter, perhaps even more than most other writers, seems to assume persecution, simply advising his readers to be certain that abuse is not deserved, for some less noble reason (see also I Pet.4:14-16).

The single use of politeuma in Phil.3:20 is poorly translated in traditional versions, as the lexical reference to citizenship fits the context much better. Certainly behavior is also in view. During the process of the transformation of life by the power of the Lord Jesus, an observable difference is expected. This is part of learning citizenship in the Kingdom!

Tropos appears only 6 times in the New Testament, and was rendered “conversation” only once (Heb.13:5). Elsewhere, it is rendered “manner” (Jude 7), “means” (II Thess.2:3, 3:16), and “way” (Rom.3:2, Phil.1:18), and clearly refers to something being done or accomplished.

So, what are we to say for “conversation”? Primarily, that it does not belong in a (later than 14th century) English translation of the New Testament – at least, not as a rendition of any of the words for which it was used historically.
Certainly one’s “way of life” will be accompanied with conversation about its source, goal, and practice. But as we have seen before, a life transformed by commitment to Jesus’ Kingdom is a demonstration project to be lived, not a theory to be debated.

I like the quote attributed to Francis of Assissi, “Preach the gospel at all times – use words only when necessary.”
Kingdom living will provoke conversation – but does not consist of it.

“The Kingdom of God does not consist of talk, but of power” (I Cor.4:20) – the power of the King’s resurrection!

Thanks be to God!


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