I confess myself not the philologist I’d wish to be when handling texts in classical languages. Though, due to the resources I have amassed in my personal library, I feel confident enough in the expertise of others more learned than myself whenever I invoke explanation of the original text, particularly relevant to the New Testament and early Christian literature appearing in Greek. However, years ago before I learned how to handle the original language of Greek, I misused the language in several ways in preaching and teaching which I regret now. Therefore, I’d urge a word of caution to all preachers and Bible teachers before using Greek in their sermons and studies by following a few elementary principles, especially if they aren’t well versed in the language.
First, don’t cite “the Greek” as if an expert when one may not be. Even today I typically will preface, unless I’m well versed in a passage or term, citing the original by stating something along the lines of, “Linguists explain …,” or “Scholars say.” It’s as much verbal plagiarism when I portray myself as an expert when I’m really not, especially when I’ve needed to rely upon those more learned than I.
Second, don’t explain the meaning of Greek terms by breaking down their compounds. One particular example which many are aware of has to do with the term translated as “church”—ekklesia. Many will rightly explain the compounds as ek meaning “out of” and kaleo meaning “called,” and they refer to the Greek term as “the called out” in order to explain who we are as the church. To folks in the pews, this sounds like a rather intriguing way of understanding what and who we as the church are to be. However, that’s not how the term was understood in the first century. It was predominantly understood as “assembly” or “congregation.” We don’t break down our compound English words to define them, so we shouldn’t think it alright to do so to ancient words either.
Third, how a term was defined in the period in which it was written ought to be how we understand and explain it. In the first century, philoxenia is translated as “hospitality.” If one were to break down the compounds, we could say that it means to “love a stranger,” but the term meant “hospitality.” When we’re left to sort out is what all the implications of the term meant then in that time period. When I wrote my dissertation, I unpacked this particular term in one chapter. I explored classical literature, but how I conveyed the term wasn’t by how it was used in Homer which was written presumably some 700+ years before the first century AD. What I used to best understand the term was how it was used in classical and Judeo-Christian literature in the first century, because words tend to change meanings. Take, for example, the term that many youths use today: “lit.” They’ll say, “That’s lit.” They don’t mean that something is on fire per se but use it as slang to express some sort of goodness to which they are referring.
Fourth, don’t read our understanding of English words back into how a word is translated into English. Using philoxenia again, when we think of hospitality we often envision inviting friends over for supper or something akin to such. However, that’s not how the term was understood so much in the first century AD. It often entailed being hospitable for a stranger, giving them shelter and food, and protecting them while under one’s own roof. The host took the responsibility of the entire welfare for their visitor(s), and when they departed, they were given a gift from the host. Hospitality then was also understood as a religious duty more so than a kind gesture. To the Greeks, showing hospitality fell under the purview of Zeus, who was the god of strangers. To have mistreated a stranger, as the Egyptians were often known to have done, amounted to incurring the wrath of Zeus. In Christianity, hospitality was given because Christians recognized the image of God in each individual, and in later Christian theology showing hospitality was a duty that if one were to have neglected amounted to risking God not showing them hospitality in heaven upon their death thus making it a matter of one’s salvation.
Using original languages to better understand the Bible is worthwhile, but we must be sure to do so with integrity.