Greek to You? Don’t Dismiss It! The Importance of Recourse to the Greek Text of the New Testament

blog 8.17.15often and to strive to master ancient Greek. I am no Greek scholar, but as the years tick by I am becoming more and more familiar with the language in which God chose to inscribe His Holy Word of the New Testament.

Something of the hidden richness of the Greek text struck me recently as I was teaching my parishioners in Bible study. (We are preparing for the arrival of the Pope in Washington by studying the Office of Simon Peter, as laid out in Scripture.)

Why do I speak of the richness of the Greek text as “hidden”? Surely a good translation shows forth the meaning of the text, right? Well, no; not fully. There are too many subtleties and complex constructions that English just cannot accurately convey. Much is lost in the translation; much is hidden.

Consider, then, a well-known section in Matthew 16. The Lord has just declared Simon to be “Peter” (rock) and then goes on to give him the “keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.” The Lord says to Peter, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mat 16:19). The only problem is that this is not exactly what the Lord says. The Greek is much richer and more emphatic. It not only affirms Peter’s authority, but also describes how and why that authority is commendable and infallible.

Here is the Greek text, followed by an English translation that is as literal as possible:

δώσω σοι τὰς κλεῖδας τῆς βασιλείας τῶν οὐρανῶν, καὶ ὃ ἐὰν δήσῃς ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἔσται δεδεμένον ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς, καὶ ὃ ἐὰν λύσῃς ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἔσται λελυμένον ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς.

I will give to you the keys of the Kingdom of the heavens, and whatever, if you might bind on the earth, it will have been bound in the heavens; and whatever you might loose on the earth, it will have been loosed in the heavens.

Note that the verbs related to heaven’s binding and loosing are dedemenon and lelumenon. They are perfect (passive) participles in the middle voice. As such, they indicate something that has already been done in Heaven before Peter does it on Earth.

Hence a literal, though awkward, English rendering would be “Whatever you might bind on the earth, having (already) been bound in heaven, and whatever you might loose on the earth, having (already) been loosed in heaven.”

But this is just not the way we talk in English. And thus most English renderings go something like this: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” And, while smoother, it loses the inspirational emphasis that the Greek text conveys.

The Greek text makes clear that if Peter binds or looses something on Earth, it is because Heaven has inspired this act; in no way is Heaven engaged in a “rearguard action.” Rather, Peter is inspired to carry out what has already been done in Heaven. Heaven is not forced to comply with Peter’s decision. Rather, Heaven binds or looses, and then inspires Peter and his successors to do likewise. The Greek conveys this important subtlety; the English does not.

This subtle but important description of inspiration also fits well within the context of Matthew 16. Recall that Jesus had said to Peter, who correctly identified Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God, Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven (Matt 16:17).

Thus, Heaven “has Peter’s back,” inspiring what Peter utters. Heaven is not bound by Peter, it inspires him. Our Faith is not in Peter as a man; it is not in any of Peter’s successors as men. Rather, our faith is in God, who protects Peter and his successors from error and inspires what is formally taught and proposed for belief.

Is the English text wrong? No. It is just limited in conveying the subtleties. The Greek text is better at affirming the Catholic belief in the infallibility of the formal papal teaching on Faith and morals. It affirms more clearly that our faith is in God, who inspires. And while we pray that whoever is pope is a smart guy, this is not the source of our confidence. The source of our confidence is God’s capacity to inspire even sinful men who are not brilliant theologians. Our faith is in God, not in men as such. The Greek text invites us to believe that whatever is bound by the pope has already been bound in Heaven.

As another example, consider how Peter was prepared to teach properly at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) by the vision God gave to him in Acts 10. In this vision, Peter was instructed to baptize the first Gentiles and receive them as brethren. Thus, when the time for the Council came, Peter was ready to speak and teach the truth. He loosed on Earth what had already been loosed in Heaven. And while it is true that St. Paul later had to rebuke Peter (Gal 2) for not living the teaching fully (for Peter drew back to consort only with Jewish Christians out of fear and social pressure), it remains true that Peter taught it rightly by inspiration. And this is what is promised: that whatever Peter would formally bind or loose on Earth had already been bound or loosed in Heaven.

And thus the Greek, in all its subtlety, sets forth an important reminder that the mechanism of infallible teaching from the Pope is not in the man, but in God, who inspires and leads Peter and his successors.

13 Replies to “Greek to You? Don’t Dismiss It! The Importance of Recourse to the Greek Text of the New Testament”

  1. Thank you Father, for this lovely reflection. It speaks to the longing so many of us have, to come closer to our God, through a clearer understanding of His Word. We often go back and forth between the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, trying to gain a sense of what we are missing in the nice smoothed out translations. Those subtleties that you so cogently point out, are often the key we need to gain those rare AHA! moments.

    Your love for your children, both here and offline is evident in the care you have taken to present us with examples of what we miss, without someone like you to guide us. God bless you Father.

  2. Thanks Father, we needed to hear this. It was comforting and reassuring. You knew we needed to be comforted and reassured! You are such a good shepherd:)

  3. Subtle is a (huh?!) subtle word. What you revealed is not subtle, goodness gracious, it is a dynamo! Our separated brethrens cannot comprehend this power given to Peter in Mt 16:19 (and his successors) because they say Peter is fallible because of his weakness as attested to what happened in Peter’s denial of CHRIST. But explained the way you explained it, it is packed with dynamo far more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped in Nagasaki. This explains the infallibility of the Pope speaking ex
    cathedra, with the backing of the wisdom of The HOLY SPIRIT among the Bishops of the Church; of course, The WORD, The Sacred Scriptures and The Tradition of The Church. If only our separated brethrens can comprehend this, this great scandal of CHRISTianity of division (which makes it harder for us to convert those in other religions), the whole world can worship as one. Maybe, just maybe, we will be free of this mess we are in. FATHER make as ONE. YHWH SHEKINAH.

  4. Father, I had no idea that it was the opposite of what I thought. This makes Peter’s authority even clearer. Thank you so much for your teaching and preaching.

    On an aside, we will begin study of Latin using the Osso book when it is available. How I wish I had the time to study Greek too! I really, really enjoy all your language lessons here.

  5. I have had an issue with this for a while. The problem is not the English language, the problem is the translation to the English language.

    If the words exist in English (and they do) to properly convey the meaning held within the Greek texts, why has it not been translated so? In fact, given what you have written, the current translations seem almost deliberately off the mark.

    As Catholic Bibles written in English receive the Imprimatur, does this not subltly suggest a bias against speakers of our language? Why was the effort not made to ensure a better translation? Is this the fault of the “re-gendering” of the Holy Bible back in the 60’s, or did the fault exist even before then? Does this vanilla-making exist in other languages or is English the only language with the disadvantage in translation?

    Sorry, Msgr, you unfortunately hit a nerve. I intend no disrespect, I am just frustrated. I have so many times while reading the Bible found a passage hard to understand, and it now appears to be due to human influence.

    Ah well, perhaps it is still the Divine Will.

  6. Here’s a way for us to evangelize Greek Orthodox persons! (Who do not recognize the primacy of Peter)

    1. Actually this is a first step to realizing that the Orthodox have it right. The Church was not built on Peter, it was built on faith. A thorough examination of the Greek will show this to be true. So kudos for examining the Greek, now carry that through.

  7. One important distinction must be made: not every utterance from the Pope is inspired by God. But what we can be assured of is that when the Pope BINDS us to something (i.e., a matter of doctrine that we must believe or a heresy that we must not believe, or defines something as sinful or not)… those are the utterances that are infallible and we know come from God. But his opinions on things like climate change and whatnot are simply his personal opinions. Interesting, but not binding.

  8. My reaction to this excellent and important article is similar to that of C Beltz, @8/18 1:23PM. The more that I read and study the Bible, the more that a fundamental issue has become apparent:

    Is the purpose of the translation of Sacred Scripture (to English, or any other receptor language) to (1) make it easy to read in the receptor language (English) or (2) convey a strictly accurate meaning of the text in the original language? If these are truly the divine words of God, shouldn’t it be, must it not be, the later?

    Is it any wonder that we have profound misunderstandings and disagreements about the words of Scripture if they are not accurately translated into English or other languages? We are disagreeing about an incomplete, and often inaccurate, translation of the original text. Isn’t comprehending all the subtleties of the Word of God the ultimate point of reading Sacred Scripture, to fully take in and make our own what God has revealed to us?

    When those who translate the text so casually treat Scripture during translation as to not fully and accurately reveal its meaning, are they not conveying that they do not take its divine nature seriously? Aren’t they revealing that it is just another piece of human literature, open to be handled, dare I say manipulated, for their (and our) convenience and purposes?

    A variant meaning has often been put into the text, or the intended meaning has been hidden, through translation from the original to the receptor language. Whether intentional or not, this is not a trivial issue. When we read and study Sacred Scripture in translation, at a minimum, we must always be aware of this reality.

  9. Let’s offer up learning Greek for our suffering brethern on Earth and in Purgatory and for every good intention in our hearts.

  10. From a great poet (and Nobel Prize winner)

    You asked me what is the good of reading the Gospels in Greek.
    I answer that it is proper that we move our finger
    Along letters more enduring than those carved in stone,
    And that, slowly pronouncing each syllable,
    We discover the true dignity of speech.
    Compelled to be attentive we shall think of that epoch
    No more distant than yesterday, though the heads of caesars
    On coins are different today. Yet it is still the same eon.
    Fear and desire are the same, oil and wine
    And bread mean the same. So does the fickleness of the throng
    Avid for miracles as in the past. Even mores,
    Wedding festivities, drugs, laments for the dead
    Only seem to differ. Then, too, for example,
    There were plenty of persons whom the text calls
    Daimonizomenoi, that is, the demonized
    Or if you prefer, the bedeviled (as for “the possessed”
    It’s no more than the whim of a dictionary).
    Convulsions, foam at the mouth, the gnashing of teeth
    Were not considered signs of talent.
    The demonized had no access to print and screens,
    Rarely engaging in arts and literature.
    But the Gospel parable remains in force:
    That the spirit mastering them may enter swine,
    Which, exasperated by such a sudden clash
    Between two natures, theirs and the Luciferic,
    Jump into water and drown (which occurs repeatedly).
    And thus on every page a persistent reader
    Sees twenty centuries as twenty days
    In a world which one day will come to its end.

    -Czeslaw Milosz “Readings” (Berkeley, 1969)

  11. I came to this one backwards, as I began in Classical Greek and then found that I did not have enough Latin to take a Classics degree in four years . . .
    Another point worth considering is that the Septuagint (in Greek) is the Old Testament scripture in common use in the 1st c. A.D. – and when Our Lord quotes the OT it is most often word-for-word from the LXX, or very close. So Greek will also give you a helpful key to the OT, even if you aren’t reading Hebrew yet (a Jewish friend tried her best to teach me, but I never got past my aleph-beis).

    As for the translation issue . . . while I am as annoyed at some English translations as anyone (cough, cough, NAB, cough, cough), translation is a ticklish business, because a strictly literal translation will be largely unreadable, given the differences between Greek and English grammar.

    To convey the meaning of the Greek verb forms here really requires a footnote rather than an attempt to unpack the meaning. You would really have to invert the clauses, saying something like “Whatever has been bound (by) heaven, you will bind on earth, etc.” which then has strayed quite a distance from the original.

    I’m reading the Knox Bible right now, and I do enjoy the footnotes, which he resorts to whenever a meaning seems obscure.

  12. I had planned to use this verse in discussion with a protestant friend who questioned papal infallibility. I went to the revised King James version to check what was written there, and it was very close to the translation you have provided. I thought it was incorrect and planned to tell her so. Your article has opened my eyes. I am humbled.

Comments are closed.