Tag Archives: greek

Synoptic Gospels

The first three gospels in our NT are called the ‘synoptic’ gospels. They share a lot of material, and it seems very clear they were written with a great deal of mutual influence. Unpicking the particular pattern of influence is a tricky puzzle, commonly called the “Synoptic Problem”. Currently the most widespread view is that Mark was first (known as “Markan priority”), then both Luke and Matthew used Mark as a source, along with another shared source (known as “Q”, short for the German “quelle” which just means “source”) that Mark did not have access to. I’m not so sure, I tend towards a more complex picture that is somewhere between this and the “Farrer” hypothesis, which says that Mark was first, then Matthew used Mark, then Luke used Matthew*.

These debates are played out based on the patterns of sharing between the gospels. Obviously the same stories are found in multiple gospels (although, surprisingly very few are shared between the Synoptics and John – other than a couple of key events, John seems to have a conspicuously different life of Jesus). But beyond the same stories, the exact same words are often used, in idiomatic ways that are very unlikely to be coincidence. There are other clues: signs that one writer has copied another. The Fatigue argument** shows how writers can copy, intending to make a change to the copied text, but then get bored and revert to a straight copy. For example in the well known parable of the talents, Luke (19:17) has the servants given “cities” initially, but is obviously copying the same text Matthew uses (Matt 25:21 doesn’t say specifically what they are given), because by the end of the parable Luke has reverted to calling them talents as Matthew does.

When you learn about the synoptic problem, your homework is to colour in synoptic parallels: versions of the gospels printed with the same story from each gospel printed side by side. In this way you can see the material and the phraseology that is unique to each gospel, that is shared between each pair, and that is common across all three.

Now in the modern age, we can program computers to do our homework for us. And behold: a complete colour map of the synoptic gospels.

In this map the three columns represent the three gospels, Matt first, then Mark, then Luke. Each small square (2×2 pixels) in the diagram is one Greek word (from the Nestle-Aland 27 critical edition), so the size of the column tells you the relative size of the gospel (Mark is by far the smallest). The words are from left to right and top to bottom, just as you’d expect.

The color of the pixels tells you whether the word is shared in that story between the gospels (so there’s some complicated matching behind the scenes to compare equivalent stories, no matter which order they appear, and then map them back out into the proper order for diagramming). The color key is:

Red – Matthew’s gospel only.

Green – Mark’s gospel only.

Blue – Luke’s gospel only.

The other colors are combinations of Red, Green and Blue light:

Red+Green = Yellow – Matthew and Mark only.

Red+Blue = Magenta – Matthew and Luke only (so called “Double tradition” material, normally associated with the Q source).

Green+Blue – Cyan – Mark and Luke only.

And finally all three gospels agreeing is shown in black (I know, it should be white, but white is difficult to distinguish from the Yellow and Cyan).

So the diagram tells you an awful lot about the gospels: it shows that virtually none of Mark is unique to Mark. It shows the big block of magenta material near the start of Matthew and Luke which is the sermon on the mount and other so called “sayings” material of Jesus – the stuff that is thought to come from Q. It shows there is a lot more Yellow than Cyan, so Matthew sticks to Mark far closer than Luke does. And it shows there is more Magenta than Cyan, so Luke sticks far closer to Matthew than to Mark (giving further credence to the idea that Luke used Matthew who used Mark). You can also see that the birth narratives at the start of Matthew and Luke are very different, and that Matthew and Luke also have a number of other large blocks of original material.

So the colouring scheme used here is based on words in stories. there are other ways of dividing this up. In particular you can divide it just by which stories are shared. This doesn’t tell you as much historically, since we can’t tell if the stories were copied from one another or just in common circulation. But if you colour that way you get very different amounts of each color. You get much more black, for example – which is to say that the gospel writers often all write the same story, but in quite different words.

The final thing to say is about John. I said John is very different. How different? Well I couldn’t put John in the same diagram as above, because I didn’t have enough distinct colours to clearly show the 15 different patterns of sharing between 4 gospels. But here is John on its own. In this diagram the brown color is the stuff that is only in John. The other colors are as before: the stuff that John shares with Matthew (red), Mark (green), Luke (blue), Matthew and Mark (yellow), Matthew and Luke (magenta), Mark and Luke (cyan), and all three of them (black). Clearly John is a totally different beast.

Anyway, I’ve written enough on this. I love diagrams like this – diagrams that are incredibly complicated and specific, but that the overall patterns can be seen from those details.

* If you know anything about this topic, then it might not surprise you to know that I was a student of Mark Goodacre, who is one of the most longsuffering proponents of the Farrer hypothesis. I’m not sure I totally agree with Farrer, however, the Q arguments still sway me somewhat.

** The fatigue argument, one of the most elegant synoptic arguments, in my opinion, is also due to Mark Goodacre.


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Texts of the Greek New Testament

In a previous post I discussed the greek word translated “daily” in the Lord’s prayer. In the comments I got asked about the categories that we use to talk about the greek text. I promised to post more on that, so here goes. I don’t have long this evening to edit this thoroughly, so I may do that more over the next few days.

So, we have a lot of different Greek texts of the New Testament. How are these classified, grouped and understood? Well aside from dating, which is (obviously) a continuum, there are two important ways to group them:

The First Division — Type of Text

The most obvious division is between three groups of text that have different forms. They are the Papyri, the Uncial Texts and the Minuscule Texts. The papyri were written on papyrus (obviously), the uncial and minuscule texts were typically written on vellum, parchment or paper, and bound into codices (in book form), although in many cases we have only individual leaves. The difference is in the style of writing. The uncial manuscripts are written in capitals, the minuscules in lower case.

1 John 5:7-8 in the Codex Vaticanus, a Uncial Codex of the Alexandrian text-family.

1 John 5:7-8 in the Codex Vaticanus, an Uncial codex of the Alexandrian text-type

This division is roughly chronological – papyrus manuscripts (c. C2 – C8) tend to be earlier than uncials (c. C3-C10), which are in turn earlier than minuscules (c. C9-C16). This isn’t rigid, however. There is a lot of overlap between papyri and uncials in particular.

When you see a NT manuscript discussed, it will be referred to by a code. Papyri have a prefix written as a Blackletter P (e.g. 18, a papyrus of Rev 1 found in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt and now held at the British Library). Minuscules are written as numbers (e.g. 44, a complete  C12 text of the gospels also in the British Library). Uncials have a broader range of symbols, the most important are represented by single letters, in a range of different scripts (e.g. א, Codex Sinaiticus, or B, Codex Vaticanus), often with superscripts (so Ha is distinct from He – the stories behind these letters are complex and for another day). These letters are called ‘Sigla’, and there are a little less than 50 of them. Other uncials are represented by their number, which is always given with a leading zero (to differentiate from Minuscules), so 068 is a C5 uncial of John 16, once more at the British Library [I’m picking the British-housed texts deliberately – there are plenty of these texts not housed in the British Library!]. All Uncials have a numerical value, but those that also have a letter are rarely referred to by their number (א is 01, for example).

The Second Division — Text Family

Scholars also divide the texts according to the text tradition they come from. A text tradition is a group of related texts. Because corrections, changes, editing and additions all tend to be copied from one text to another, the premise is that, texts that all display the same features, are likely to trace back to common ancestry. This isn’t always a perfect premise, but it is normally a good one.

So we divide the texts into three again. The Alexandrian text tradition, the Byzantine text tradition and the Western text tradition.

These are obviously named for places, but don’t let the names fool you. Each of these traditions may be clustered in a particular area, but they are all relatively geographically spread. The names are names of convenience rather than being hard-and-fast geographical distinctions.

The Alexandrian text is evidenced in the earliest manuscripts we have. Most of the Papyri are Alexandrian (those that aren’t are either later, or else are unclassifiable because they contain too small a fragment, or contain sections without significant variation among the text-types). The Alexandrian texts are clearly the earliest we have. Whether they are better evidence of the original text, is a more theological debate. As I’ve said before I have little patience for the obsession with ‘original’ texts, whatever that means. Recently critical editions of the NT, and most new translations, have methodologically preferred the Alexandrian texts because of their demonstrable age, and the fact that they lack what look like interpolations and decorations of later texts.

The Byzantine text tradition is also sometimes called the Constantinople tradition (Constantinople was the capital of the Byzantine empire – the Greek speaking part of the Roman empire that survived until the C15 – 1000 years after you were probably told the Roman empire fell in your western-biased high school!). But it is also more problematically called the Majority text. This name is somewhat politically charged, it is the remnant of a bad scholarly program that tried to prioritize this text over the Alexandrian tradition because of the sheer number of manuscripts we have. It doesn’t take a scholar to notice that the quest for authenticity is not democratic – there are more extant copies of the LOLcats bible than the Byzantine text tradition – that doesn’t make the LOLcats bible more authentic. So I’d recommend staying clear of “Majority Text” (and its paranym “Received Text”). The Byzantine texts are much later, and tend to be more verbose than the Alexandrian. It is in the Byzantine family that we have the bulk of texts with the post-resurrection narratives in Mark, for example, or the woman caught in adultery, or the end of the Lord’s Prayer. We also have a lot of Byzantine-style texts in the form of Lectionaries – compilations of bible verses used for daily prayer or ritual. This is not surprising, the Byzantine empire was a Greek-speaking Christian state. Byzantine texts often have more fluent, liturgy-friendly, wording. You can think of the Byzantine texts as being equivalent to the various versions of the Latin Vulgate used in Catholic Europe.

P37, from the University of Michigan library. An example of a Papyrus containing the Western text of Acts.

The Western text tradition is more eclectic. Originally named for a group of texts associated with the Western Mediterranean, this group of texts has now been found in a much wider spread. From France to Switzerland to Syria. It is characterized by a freer style, bordering on paraphrase and retelling at points. There are more additions (some the same, some different to the Byzantine texts), although in Luke there is a section that is shorter in the Western text (proving that all rules have exceptions). Unlike the Byzantine texts, which were highly influential in the production of early protestant translations, the Western texts haven’t had much of an impact on our English bibles, and so their alterations are less well known. There are relatively few Western texts, in contrast to the other categories. Though a couple of Papyri in this text-type are very early (C2-3 for P37, for example), most scholars consider their obvious paraphrasing and changes in wording to be evidence that they witness a later stage of the text than the Alexandrian text-type. With a much smaller number of texts, we get more patchy coverage. We have no copies of this tradition for the non-Paul epistles and Revelation, for example (and it could be that these books were not canonical for the communities who originated the Western text-style). Scholars of the Western text tradition often use non-Greek sources as primary evidence, particularly Syriac versions of the text, which appear to have a lot of similarities.

There are plenty of other texts that aren’t obviously thoroughly in one category or the other, or else are so fragmentary as to have no clear indication of their type. Various other text-types have been proposed, although none are unequivocally accepted. The Ceasarean text tradition, for example, is useful in categorizing some patterns of change in the Gospels, but on close inspection tends to fragment into sub-families and more nuanced arguments.

And that, phew, is a whirlwind tour of NT text classification. I hope it wasn’t too tedious. I find this geektastic, but I’m aware that there were plenty of my fellow undergrads asleep in these lectures!


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Give us this day our ………. bread. — Matt 6:11

Fill in the gap.

The Lord’s Prayer is probably the most famous passage from the whole bible. Certainly in the UK where many folks grew up saying it every day in school. But the funny thing is we don’t really know what should fill the gap.

The greek word is ἐπιούσιος (epi-OO-sea-os). Which is a very odd word. It doesn’t appear in other greek literature, and it doesn’t appear elsewhere in the gospels except in the two versions of the Lord’s prayer (Matt 6:9–13 and Luke 11:2–4). So we have no absolute way of knowing what it might mean.

But it seems to be pretty obvious. The Greek splits into two parts: “ἐπι-” (epi) is a common prefix in Greek that means “upon”, or “over”, and by analogy “beyond”, “more-than”. We have it in our word “epidemic”1 where “-demic” is again related to a Greek root meaning people (c.f. words such as demographics or democracy). The second part of the word “-ούσιος” is a common morpheme in Greek with meanings of “substance”. Hence the debate in the early church between whether Jesus and God were “homo-ousios”: of the same substance.

So using this analysis, we get “Give us this day our super-substantial bread”. And this is exactly how it was translated in the Latin Vulgate (“supersubstantialem”), and in some of the earliest English bibles. But, of course, if you are a protestant, “super-substantial bread” is unacceptably reminiscent of “trans-substantial bread”. And Jesus praying a Catholic prayer? Unconscionable!

Instead you can kind-of make a contrived Greek derivation through a misspelling and odd contracted verb form of ἔπειμι (EP-eye-me) “to come upon”, which is often used along with the word for day (“ἡμέρα” herm-EH-ra) to mean “on the following day” (if you’ve read much of the gospels you’ll recognize that phrase, that’s what it is translating). So it could be that we are meant to read “give us this day our following day’s bread”2, with a spelling mistake and a missing word (the missing word isn’t uncommon, it must be said). From there with a squint we could end up with “daily”. Phew. We’ve avoided sounding Catholic! Hoorah! Let’s not mention the fact that there are perfectly reasonable ways of saying “daily” in NT Greek (such as “κατά ἡμέρα” and “πᾶς ἡμέρα” both using the word for day “ἡμέρα”), so that this construction would be an obtusely strange way to say “daily”.

So early protestant translators used “daily”, even though there is very poor evidence for it3. The King James Version, and practically every English version since has used “daily”. I can’t find who originally used this form of words. It is present in Luther’s 1545 version (“täglich Brot”), was written back into the lexicons, and has passed into most other languages from there (“pain quotidien” in the French Louis Segond, for example, and “日々の食物” in the Japanese Living Bible [specially for Sabio]).

So we’ve ended up with “daily” bread. More through historic accident and sectarianism than through good Greek.

So let’s use the obvious Greek parsing “super-substantial”, via a more common English phrase “supernatural” (which is further from the Greek, of course, I’m not suggesting the author meant supernatural, just that supernatural is the nearest reasonably common word in English). We get the Lords prayer (following Matt):

Our father in heaven:
May your name be holy;
May your kingdom come;
May your will be done,
As in the heavens4, so upon the earth.
Give us today our supernatural bread.
Forgive us our sins, even as we forgive sinners5.
Do not bring us to temptation, but from hardships draw us to yourself.6
—Matt 6:9-13 (tr. mine)

So all together we have a prayer which is about the life in the new Kingdom. It doesn’t talk about prosaic things. And using “daily bread” stands out therefore, where “supernatural bread” works fine.

But of course, when you have such an iconic translation, the translation becomes more important than the ‘original’ (or even first 1500 years of) meaning of the text.


[1] My first thought for an example was “epididymis” which is the coiled tube that pipes sperm out from the testicle. It has a more amusing derivation “epi-” meaning “beyond”, of course, but “-didymis” is also greek, and in fact you may know it from a character in the NT, Didymus Thomas. Didymus means “twins”. So the epididymis, is “beyond the *nudge-nudge-wink-wink* twins”.

[2] Jerome, the translator of the Vulgate, mentions that the (now lost) Gospel of the Hebrews had “bread of the morrow” here, so the sense of the following day’s bread is not entirely new. But Jerome concludes the “of the morrow” translation doesn’t work in context and makes little sense. He wisely goes with the Greek. He doesn’t mention “daily” as a possible translation.

[3] Interestingly, the Syriac translation (Pesshita) of the NT uses “neccesary”, although it isn’t clear what parsing of the Greek they were using to arrive at that. This is sometimes pointed to as supporting evidence for the use of the “daily”, though that is a huge stretch even then, since the Syriac used is definitely not that for “daily” – as in the Greek, there is a perfectly normal way of saying “daily”, used elsewhere in the Pesshita, but it is not used here.

[4] I’ve taken a liberty here of pluralizing the Greek singular word ‘heaven’. The plural form is very common as well, both in Greek and Hebrew and doesn’t seem to have much of a semantic difference. Here it just reads more smoothly.

[5] My translation of ‘sin’ here is a bit sneaky. Sin would be correct in Luke’s version, but in Matt he uses the normal word for debts. It is pretty certain, however, that it is being used metaphorically, to mean spiritual debts, and this is the sense in which Luke obviously takes it. Not many folks would argue that the gospel writers want you to understand that Jesus is talking monetary debts here. Particularly since Matt 6:14 goes on to have Jesus explain that he was talking about sin. Of course, if Jesus were to be taken as asking you to pray for the forgiveness of your monetary debts, then it would dent my suggestion that the Lords prayer is all about the kingdom.

[6] The “For thine is the Kingdom” bit at the end is not considered authentic. It is only found in some text traditions and has numerous variations in other texts, so I have omitted it in accordance with the recommendation of Nestle-Aland. — I’m sure that would be yet another reason why conservatives hate the NA text.


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The story of how a bible verse is read — 1 John 5:7-8

Annotated exceprt from the Codex Sinaiticus

1 John 5:7-8 highlighted in the text of the Codex Sinaiticus, with various textual features signified.

Following on from yesterday’s post on the Johannine Comma, I was enjoying looking again through the online copy of the Codex Sinaiticus. It is both more difficult, and more rewarding than reading the reprinted greek critical text. I thought it would be interesting, for those who don’t know greek, ancient texts, or have never used their greek on primary documents, to point out a few interesting features. There’s loads I could say, and far far more I’m ignorant of, but I’ll limit myself to the text I posted yesterday, the text surrounding the Comma in 1 John 5:7-8.

As a brief reminder, an english translation would be:

For there are three that bear witness: the Spirit, and the water, and the blood, and these three agree.

– 1 John 5:7-8

I’ve indicated five things in the document.

  1. ΟΙ (“oi” – a form of “the” or “these”) here is unusual and isn’t in other versions of the text. It is probably a mistake, because later in the highlighted section we get ΟΙ ΤΡΕΙΣ again (“oi treis” – these three). When copying, it is very easy to have your eye drawn to the wrong occurrence of a word and write what comes before or after. So the extra ΟΙ before this first use of ΤΡΕΙΣ is considered a copying error.
  2. A pair of characters (ΣΕ) gets added into a small gap. Maybe there was not enough room? The two letters mark the end of the previous word and the start of the next, respectively.
  3. We’re missing an Ν from this word (ΜΑΡΤΥΡΟΥΝΤΕΣ “marturountes”- bear witness to). The overbar indicates this abbreviation, it can also be seen in the same word in the Codex Vaticanus, below.
  4. This is the word for ‘spirit’ (ΠΝΕΥΜΑ ,”pneuma”, spirit is also the word for breath, and this is where we get the word pneumonia). It was conventional from very early on to write certain words as acronyms. We call these ‘nomina sacra’* – sacred names, because most commonly they are names (although words like ‘cross’ are also abbreviated in this way). Here we get it written ΠΝΑ. The bar over the top of the word is often used to indicate abbreviation.
1 John 5:7-8 in the Codex Vaticanus

The same text 1 John 5:7-8 highlighted in the Codex Vaticanus, for comparison. Vaticanus is a very similar text to Sinaiticus, from the same text family. But still there are thousands of differrences. See if you can spot the differences in just this passage. Apologies for the quality of this scan, I'm using the Vatican's own published scans, which are pretty low quality.

And finally you notice that the words are all written into one another. There are no word spacings and words are free to continue over the end of the line without this being indicated. The red squares show word boundaries.

[Quick note, in my modern greek font, the capital sigma appears as Σ, but you’ll notice in the text it looks more like a C – letter forms change over time and between regions]

I know that’s a very short passage, but I hope it gives the sense of how dense these texts are, and how much effort it takes to engage with them as a textual critic. I don’t have the patience to do this kind of work, although I do love the manuscripts themselves. I’m very much glad I can just buy a critical copy of the NT and have the hard work done for me!

* A challenge for anyone who knows a bit of greek: You can see two more ΠΝΑ abbreviations on the same page – one on the top line (overbar is half-clipped off the image) and one at the start of the third line. There is another nomina sacra at the bottom of the page: ΘΥ for “God”. But 10 points for any readers who can spot the other two in the image.


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The Johannine Comma – The story of how a bible verse was written — 1 John 5:7-8

The Johannine Comma in the Codex Sinaiticus

A version of the greek text (The Codex Sinaiticus - part of the Alexandrine text tradition) without the comma in place. The highlighted area shows 1 John 5:7-8. The small text above the following line shows a correction to a scribal error. The full photographic facsimile of this text is available online.

One of the hard things about studying the bible is working out what version of the bible to study. There are thousands of copies, all written by hand, and all different. Reconstructing what might have been the original text is the job of ‘textual criticism’, and it isn’t an easy job.

One example (which is much easier to figure out than many) is the so-called Johannine Comma. In the first epistle of John, chapter 5, there is a suspect phrase spanning the end of verse 7 and the start of verse 8. Those two verses say:

For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.

– 1 John 5:7-8

This section seems to read pretty well, and the two parallel sections fit together. In wider context, however, the passage does jar a little. And it becomes really suspicious when you realise that it seems to be slam-dunk evidence of the doctrine of the trinity, but that doctrine wasn’t formulated for more than a century after 1 John was composed. The trail is even more intriguing when you look at the earliest manuscripts we have, and the textual traditions from those early manuscripts.

[An aside – a textual tradition is what we call the set of copies that are made in one community or region from an initial set of texts. So we have an ‘Alexandrine’ textual tradition which is the set of texts copied in Alexandria, derived ultimately from some original set of texts (original for Alexandria, not necessarily first copies of the original works). Because of the copying within a textual tradition, you get consistent errors showing up through the family of copies, and conversely by looking at what is consistent and what is different within a tradition, you can reconstruct what the original texts in that tradition might have looked like.]

We find that the section about the trinity (the section in italics, above) doesn’t exist in early manuscripts. In fact it only appears in one textual tradition. That textual tradition is a tradition built on an early Latin translation of the Greek text.

What we think happened is this:

  1. The original text looks like it has a trinity in it (spirit, water and blood). But after the doctrine of the trinity was decided upon, some scholar felt that this alternative trinity needed explanation. So they wrote a marginal note in their copy of the latin version of the text, showing the parallel between John’s trinity and the trinity of God: one heavenly, one earthly.
  2. Some later point this text was copied. A scribe seeing this marginal note mistook it for an omitted part of the text (it wasn’t uncommon to add accidentally omitted parts of the text as marginal notes, much as we’d insert a bit more content into a handwritten text by writing it in the margin and adding a line, arrow or caret). He merged it into the text as best he could.
  3. At a later date again, a translation into Greek was made of this Latin text, and so the appropriate section was then turned into greek along with its surrounds.
  4. The textual tradition that grew out of these texts is the one that ultimately was used in the writing of the King James Version of the bible. So it ended up in the KJV.

Most recent bibles will omit the Johannine comma, with the text placed in a footnote. The evidence is so clear  that you might think it would be worth removing entirely. It is testimony to the great weight of the KJV of the text in English that most bible editors won’t do this. They think (rightly, I say) that people will compare their translation against the KJV and wonder why they are missing chunks out. So the footnote has to be there to explain.

This chunk of text is just representative of thousands upon thousands of variations in the early text. Almost every verse in the New Testament has several alternate renderings. Some are obviously incorrect (such as spelling mistakes), others dramatically change theological implications, and others (like this one) invent evidence for things that the New Testament writers knew nothing about.

It is that texture: interdependent, complex and contingent, that makes it such a fascinating text, I think.


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What's In A Name?

I’ve been reading some more church history for the period beyond 451 CE (the Council of Chalcedon, which marks a natural end to ‘early’ church history for lots of reasons).

Nestorian Priests

Nestorian priests in a procession (courtesy of Wikipedia) - Nestorius was the most vocal proponent of the two-natures, not intermingling, view of Christ.

The period from the early 4th century CE was marked by a power-struggle among Christians to determine what was orthodox and what was heresy. This was overlaid onto political struggles as different bishoprics fought for pre-eminence against the backdrop of the fading glory of the Roman empire. One of the biggest struggles for orthodoxy was on the question of who Christ was.

It had been decided in 325 CE that Jesus was of one substance with God. The battle ground moved off from ‘substance’ to whether Jesus had one or two ‘natures’, or ‘persons’. Arguing over ‘substance’ was not allowed, but arguing over ‘nature’ particularly was definitely in fashion. One faction claimed Jesus had just one nature, another that he had two separate natures, yet another that he had two intermingled natures, and yet another that his divine nature entirely subsumed his human nature.

What has been interesting to think about is the extent to which these factions coalesced on linguistic grounds. If your language, for example, doesn’t make a clear distinction between your ‘substance’ and your ‘nature’ (and very few languages do distinguish in the way Greek did), you are likely to find it baffling how anyone can say Jesus and God are the same substance but different natures. Even today in English it is very difficult to really convey the so called orthodox picture of Christ. It just doesn’t make much sense in our language and culture.

What I find deeply tragic is the effects of this linguistic dispute. At points open war broke out between the factions. And when non-Christian invaders arrived (the mostly understanding Muslims, and the often murderous Mongols) the internal divisions meant that whole states disappeared, church traditions were destroyed and hundreds of thousands of lives were lost. It is almost inconceivable the human suffering that resulted from a curious peculiarity of the Greek language.

This kind of violent wordplay is still with us, unfortunately.

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Glosses and Meanings

There’s one issue that comes up a lot in debates and always irks me. I was reading a blog this evening and got irked afresh.

It is the difference between a gloss and a meaning.

When translating from one language to another there is rarely a direct 1:1 conversion between words. Words have nuances, they apply to a range of situations. When you translate from one language to another you need to keep your translation short, so you pick a ‘nearby’ word. These picks become standardised and are used by most translators most of the time.

They are called glosses in the trade.

For example. Lets imagine that English didn’t have the word ‘tired’. How would you express the following sentences:

  • “I’m tired of your incessant nagging.”
  • “I’m tired of this wallpaper.”

I would say something like:

  • I’m exhausted by your incessant nagging.
  • I’m bored of this wallpaper.

So exhausted and bored can be used as stand-ins for tired. They are Glosses.

But a gloss isn’t the same as a meaning. We can’t say that tired means either ‘exhausted’, or ‘bored’. It means some combination of part of the meaning of these two words, with other nuances (possibly connected with sleep) besides.

As a translator, most words come with a package of glosses that are tried and true. If you’re translating a biblical text, for example, I’d expect you to use established glosses, or be able to justify in detail another word choice. Buy a linguistic reference and often you’ll get nothing but glosses. And this is where the problem lies.

Strongs Concodance and DictionaryMany folks get hold of a copy of, say, Strongs lexicon, look up words and think that what they’re reading is a definition. They think that the glosses are alternate meanings. And they pick the one that best expresses their needs.

Someone might say ‘Jesus says “this generation will not pass away”, but the greek word for generation also means “race” – Jesus is really saying that the Jews won’t pass away before …’ As usual this is as simplistic as it is wrong.

‘Genea’ (γενεα) has glosses including ‘generation’ and ‘race’, but they aren’t separate meanings. The meaning of ‘genea’ is some combination – it contains a sense of place and time and people, the criteria by which an identity is formed: a genea is an ‘us’. We can’t go around writing the full definition of a word when we translate, though, so we have to choose a single gloss.

The comment thread to this post is a great example of someone (Theological Discourse) simply not getting that ‘Happy’ and ‘Blessed’ are different glosses, not different meanings. You can just skip between the comments by TD and John Loftus to get the rather acrimonious gist. Incidentally I disagree with John Loftus’ analysis of Psalm 137 too, but that’s another story.


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