Category Archives: Greek

What Makes a Commentary Good?

(July 9, 2017) 8:50 AM I’m reading Gordon Fee’s commentary on 1-2 Thessalonians this morning. It’s truly a unique treasure-trove.

As Don Carson writes on the dust cover, “Fee could not be boring even if he tried. The zest of his prose makes him exciting to read, and his scholarship is always rigorous.” This morning I’m focusing on Fee’s discussion of what he calls the “disruptive-idle” in 2 Thess. 3. Here are a few takeaways:

1) Fee correctly notes the beautiful play on words Paul uses in vv. 11-12 when he writes ergazomenous and then periergazomenous. The Thessalonians weren’t being “busy.” They were “busy-bodies”!

2) Fee is right to “translate out” (as he puts it) the “walking” metaphor that Paul uses to describe a person’s behavior. (Greek students are aware of this controversy: peripateo versus zao.)

3) The “traditions” to which Paul refers here have to do more with how God’s people live in the world than simply how they think. Hence this classic Fee quote:

At this point a certain sector of the Christian church wants to yell “foul,” because they think one really can divorce how one is related to God (by faith alone) from how one who has such faith must live in the world. But Paul was not privy to the kind of theology that thinks such division between faith and works can actually be made. Paul is obviously dead against anything that resembles “faith + works = a right relationship with God.” But as this passage makes plain, he equally spells death for “faith” that does not lead to “works” (= behavior) appropriate to that faith.

4) I love Fee’s emphasis on the imperfective aspect of the verb pareggellomen in v. 10:

Paul’s verb (pareggellomen) is in the imperfect, thus implying an ongoing, or at least repeated, command.

Friend, I’m less and less impressed with many of the newer commentaries that seem to be coming out these days at a furious pace. Their authors are new names to me, perhaps even those who are just starting out in the academic world. The best voices, however, are often those with a world of experience, both in the classroom and in the world. I’m compelled by this commentary because I know Gordon Fee to be a man who’s not content to sit behind a set typing script for commentaries. He’s genuinely concerned about the mess we humans have made with the world around us — and within us. He gets down on our level, shoulders brushing. Fee, like so many other outstanding commentary writers, had been trained (whether in seminary or some other way) to believe that a story isn’t enough. Faith without works is in fact dead. We dilute the power of the Gospel when we divorce it from the world God came to redeem.

(From Dave Black Online. Used by permission.)

Are Grammar and Thought Inherently Related

6:45 AM Last night I was prepping for our LXX class in the spring semester (which I’m co-teaching with my esteemed Old Testament colleague, Chip Hardy), and I thought to myself, “Our once casual relationship with Greek and Hebrew is about to transition to ‘It’s complicated.'” I honestly don’t remember how I decided to offer this course years ago. I think I just sent an email to my dean saying, “I want to do one. Haha.” You know, like how Sir Edmund Hillary informed his friends he wanted to climb Mount Everest. “Summiting the world’s highest mountain. I may want to do that. Haha.” Well, we pushed the button, and the rest is history. This is now the fourth (or fifth) time we’ve done this. There are plenty of obstacles to keep us busy. The first fallacy we have to deal with is the supposed difference between Hebrew and Greek thought. Hebrew, we are told, is obviously good. Greek is irretrievably bad. Hebrew thought is better because it is holistic, concrete, and dynamic. We are told, furthermore, that the whole Bible, including the New Testament (written in Greek), is based on the Hebrew attitude and approach. We are reminded that the aim of the Hebrew system is da’ath Elohim (“Know God”), whereas the Greeks emphasized gnothi seauton (“Know thyself”). Thus in the Greek system, knowledge is emphasized; in the Hebrew system, the goal is to shape the character of the student. It’s Athens versus Jerusalem all over again. Listen, it’s all very simple. The Hebrew language was used by God to deliver His truth to Hebrew speakers. The Greek language was used by the same God to deliver His truth to Greek speakers. A “Christian” worldview bestrides them both.

I recall someone arguing that Hebrew is action-oriented because of its unmarked word order: verb, then subject. In English we say, “God created.” In Hebrew we say, “He created, God.” This is said to reveal ” … the dynamic variety of the Hebrew’s thinking” (Thorlief Boman, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, p. 28). Ergo, Hebrew thinking is dynamic; Greek thinking is static. What, then, do you do with languages like Korean, where the verb comes at the end of the sentence? Or German, which has a mish-mash of word order depending on whether the clause is a main clause or a subordinate clause: “I know that the student is good because he has studied” = “Ich weiss dass der Student gut ist weil er studiert hat” (lit., “I know that the student good is because he studied has”). Speak like Yoda I can! Woohoo!

And then there’s the question, “Which language is easier to learn: Hebrew or Greek?” Some say that Greek grammar is more complex than Hebrew. Others argue that Hebrew grammar is more complicated than Greek. After all, “Hebrew often lacks a verb in its sentence!” Huh? Of course there’s a verb there. It’s just implied, as in the Greek sentence Ho anthropos agathos, “The man is good.” This phenomenon even occurs in English: “KNX News Radio time, 10:30.” My opinion is that if you enjoy learning languages, you’ll find neither Greek nor Hebrew to be very difficult. You’ll probably have to work harder at your Hebrew vocabulary simply because Greek shares more cognates with English. But vocabulary acquisition is simply a matter of rote memory.

The bottom line: I think it’s a bit misleading to insist that grammar and thought are inherently related. There are just too many philosophical difficulties inherent in any theory of mental representations. Human language is an adequate vehicle to communicate divine truth. Every human language. Just ask Wycliffe Bible Translators.

(From Dave Black Online. Used by permission.)

Some Subtleties in 3 John

[12/27/2016] 7:34 AM This morning I read 3 John as part of my “daily devotionals.” (I don’t have daily devotions, as everyone knows. There’s nothing virtuous about that statement. If you have “devotions,” more power to you. But my relationship with Christ is such that I’ve never been able to schedule a time to meet with Him. Yes, I’m a crotchety grandpa about certain things.) Here are a few takeaways in no particular order:

1) The chiastic structure of the letter. Ah yes, another “chiasmus.” There is a certain attraction to assigning the name chiasmus to just about anything we find in the New Testament. Here is the trouble: It’s too easy to impose on the text something that isn’t there. That said, I’d outline 3 John as follows:

  1. Introduction
  2. Praise for Gaius
  3. Condemnation of Diotrephes
  4. Praise for Demetrius
  5. Conclusion

The bull’s-eye, the central matrix, is what John has to say about Mr. “Nourished-by-God,” who wanted to be the boss of the church. More on that later.

2) How to filter the kingdom. The Christian life is more than being faithful to the truth. Gaius was that, to be sure. But John commends him for “living out the truth” — living in a manner worthy of the calling he’s received. God makes us worthy as we desire to “imitate what is good” (v. 11): meeting needs, nurturing little souls, the daily labor of parenting, etc. What keeps you from doing the truth? What changes do you need to make in 2017? Bonhoeffer, writing in prison, was on target when he said that repentance is “not in the first place thinking about one’s own needs, problems, sins, and fears, but allowing oneself to be caught up into the way of Jesus Christ” (Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 361). Good advice, if you ask me. I need to take it to heart.

3) Minimizing human leadership. Our human pedestals are such nightmares. They always backfire. Diotrephes had to be “number one.” I don’t mean to minimize the importance of pastoral leadership. But folks, our priorities are backwards. All the wrong things become too big (hierarchy, professionalism, success, size of membership) and all the right things become too small (Jesus first, humility, simplicity, everyone pulling their weight). This issue is no longer trite. It is destroying churches. When our Christian superstars fail, the church loses influence in our culture. It’s high time we humbled ourselves as Christian leaders. Ultimately, the claim of being Top Dawg predicates the rejection of Jesus’ sole lordship (Col. 1:18). It’s just that serious.

4) The passive voice. Say what? Take a look at verse 12. The idea here is “Everyone speaks well of Demetrius.” Many translations actually render the verse this way. But John actually wrote, “Demetrius is well-spoken of by everyone.” That’s the passive voice. And there’s a difference between the active and passive voices. The passive voice usually calls attention to the grammatical subject. Compare these two sentences:

  • “Today, Japanese Prime Minster Abe will visit the Arizona Memorial.”
  • “Today, the Arizona Memorial will be visited by Japanese Prime Minister Abe.”

See the difference? The second sentences carries a meaning like, “Today, the Arizona Memorial [of all places!] will be visited by Japanese Prime Minister Abe.” This is part and parcel of grammar. We study language, and we reap the benefits.

5) The importance of your physical health to God. Note John’s greeting in verse 2: “I hope all is well with you and that you are as healthy in body as you are strong in spirit.” Why isn’t this a reality for so many? We live with such a ridiculous “the spirit matters” but “I don’t have to care for the temple” mentality. What an insane approach to the body God has given us. I mean, we Baptists are the worst offenders. Of course, you can be a skinny person and still be a glutton. But if the number of self-deprecating potluck jokes from our pulpits means anything, we’ve got a problem, Houston. If you need to exercise, then exercise. Wrestle whatever is holding you back. You are too important to the body of Christ to lose years to heart disease and obesity. (Talk about pressure. I have to be fit to preach about presenting our bodies to God as living sacrifices?)

Well, I need to be off and running with today’s chores. Yet who can deny the importance of lying back in our lounge chair and listening to Him? Then, and only then, can we make a hard and fast connection between the brute facts of life and the reality of God. Perhaps if you and I read John’s third letter now and then, we’d find more ways to love God and people.

(From Dave Black Online. Used by permission.)

The Importance of Syntax in the Greek New Testament

7:55 AM “Christ died.” That’s in the aorist tense in Greek. So it must mean “once and for all action.” I was actually taught this in seminary back in the Dark Ages. Nobody would agree with that assessment today. The aorist tense says nothing about the kind of action of the verb. To get “kind of action” you have to go outside the tense to 1) the meaning of the verb and 2) the context. When you do that with “Christ died,” I suppose you could argue that the verb is referring to “once and for all action.” After all, how many times does a person die? And yet when the author of Hebrews wants to make the point that Christ died “once and for all” for our sins, he actually uses the adverb hapax — “once and for all.” Likewise, when the author of 1 Thessalonians commands us to “pray without ceasing,” not only does he use the present imperative, he adds the adverb adaileiptos — “without ceasing.”

Moisés Silva once reminded us not to place too much semantic weight on tense or aspect. He argues that it is the context that is determinative. Which means: Somehow we Greek teachers need to get our students to move beyond word-bound exegesis. Lexical analysis is important, but it is the “handmaiden and not the queen,” as the author of Using New Testament Greek in Ministry puts it. We’ve got to move beyond individual words to study the ways in which words work together to convey meaning. This is why I no longer postpone “exegesis” to third semester Greek. Students need to get this straight, and get this in their first year of Greek instruction.

To my Greek 2 students: The spring semester will be upon us before you know it. For me, morphology — how words are constructed — is vitally important. Yet I also believe that a language’s syntax is important, and getting the syntax right will help us to avoid the exegetical fallacies that many still commit. Furthermore, the study of syntax is where the fun is. Nuggets of truth often jump off the page instead of being buried under a wealth of morphemes. Yes, there is controversy over whether students can even be taught to read New Testament Greek. But I hope that one day we can put aside our methodological biases and equip our students with the tools they need to do accurate exegetical study. This includes the study of discourse analysis as an essential part of exegesis. It also means that we can no longer ignore the rhetorical level of language as a meaningful level for readers. To anyone who says style and rhetoric isn’t important, I would simply point them to the scale of the cosmetics industry, which is predicted to reach 265 billion dollars in 2017.

Don’t be discouraged from doing syntax. There is plenty of help for us out there in the cyber world. My friend Harold Greenlee is now with the Lord, but his essay The Importance of Syntax for the Proper Understanding of the Sacred Text of Scripture is still worth reading. Syntax has been one of the most enjoyable and fun things I’ve done in my 40 years of teaching, and I hope you will enjoy it as much as I have.

(From Dave Black Online. Used by permission.)

Reading Hebrews in the Good News Bible

8:06 AM I was reading Hebrews 1 this morning in the Good News Bible (TEV).

book jriririroiroParts of it are truly outstanding. The translators render “Thou are my Son; today have I begotten thee” as “You are my Son; today I have become your Father.” Great so far. And then there’s this footnote on v. 8: “or, God is your kingdom.” The text of the Good News Bible, of course, reads “Your kingdom, O God, will last forever and forever!” The confusion here stems from the Greek: Is theos nominative or vocative? The translators have taken it as a vocative (correctly, in my view), but at least they note the alternative. Good for them. But here’s what puzzles me. Notice that they begin a new paragraph in verse 4.

book hbeyeueieieThis is impossible. It contradicts the Greek text. Verses 1-4 are all one long sentence in the original. Making a new paragraph in verse 4 is just not empirically possible. It’s completely illogical — like asserting “married bachelor.” This sort of inconsistency drives me nuts. (People sometimes tell me I’m too OCD about these kinds of things but it’s part of my temperament.) I really, truly, sincerely believe we can do better. And yet, these kinds of oversights are hardly exceptional. Am I hereby trying to make a case for the study of Greek? In one sense yes. But at least you can compare other English translations before arriving at your conclusion as to the paragraph structure of a New Testament book. Again, I deeply appreciate the translators who produced the Good News Bible. When I was a teenager I literally could not put this book down. The text was readable, and the line drawings were fantastic. But our focus should always be on faithfulness to the text as the Holy Spirit inspired it — and this includes matters of syntax and structure, not just words.

Finally, as an aside, I had to smile when I realized (again) how Hebrews is placed after Philemon in our English Bibles. This wasn’t always the case. In our earliest manuscripts, Hebrews comes after Romans or between 2 Thessalonians and 1 Timothy. (Both codex Sinaiticus and codex Vaticanus place Hebrews after 2 Thessalonians.) In other words, Hebrews assumed a prominent position in the Pauline letters at an early date. It was only in the fourth century that Hebrews began to consistently appear after Philemon. My point is that, according to the earliest manuscript evidence, Hebrews was an integral part of the Pauline collection. David Trobisch, who is an acknowledged expert in all things canonical, has argued that the placing of Hebrews after Philemon was a distortion of the original canonical edition of the New Testament. (See The First Edition of the New Testament, p. 25.)  Needless to say, these facts are not sufficiently heeded by today’s New Testament students, in my opinion.

All of this is relevant to our LXX class, because one of the earliest questions we will face is: “Which books should be included in the Septuagint?” It’s necessary to raise this question because there is no one indisputable “Septuagint” but “Septuagints” (plural). Ralhf’s edition of the LXX even contains the Song of Mary from Luke 2!

9781938434730mThink about this: If Hebrews is genuinely Pauline, this would change everything about the way we interpret Paul. Hebrews would be included in our New Testament theology books, and when we wanted to study, say, Paul’s view of church leadership, we’d have to include such passages as Heb. 13:7 and Heb. 13:17. The undeniable reality is that questions of canon and authorship matter. Of course, both sides demonize the other. Proponents of Pauline authorship are dismissed as obscurantists, while proponents of Hebrews’ non-Paulinity are accused of succumbing to the spirit of the age. But why should we tolerate this kind of judgmental divisiveness? Maybe we need another conference on campus to discuss the issue!

Anyhow, that’s my take on Hebrews for today. The fact is, all of us have biases and presuppositions. Many issues we have never personally studied. We tend to rely too heavily on the work of others. I know I do. So whether or not you espouse the Pauline authorship of Hebrews, prayerfully consider looking at the evidence yourself before making up your mind.

And do be patient with me when I chase rabbit trails.

Peace out,


(From Dave Black Online. Used by permission.)

Using Greek in Sermons

(From Dave Black Online, Used by Permission)

9:18 AM Good morning, bloggerdom! Greek teachers love to debate the marks of a good sermon. Some say it’s perfectly okay to use Greek from the pulpit. Others (myself included) think it’s quite unnecessary. Sproul’s famous dictum (“A great preacher is like an iceberg: you see only 10 percent, but underneath you sense the 90 percent”) suffices for me. Last night I was listening to a sermon on the radio. As the speaker began to use Greek in his sermon, he excused himself by saying, “Greek is far more expressive than English” (which it is not). At one point he “corrected” the translation he was reading from, noting that “here the Greek has ‘He emptied Himself'” — which is precisely what many English versions have as well.  Unreflective use of Greek can emasculate the message to the point of ineffectiveness. It can make you look foolish and pedantic, and can lead people to distrust the usefulness of their own English Bible translations. Not long ago I served as the editor (along with my colleague Allan Bevere) of a book called “In the Original Text It Says.” The publisher’s blurb reads as follows:

When you hear the words “in the original text it says” or “in the original text this means,” it’s time to be wary. Those words often provide the introduction to misleading information. But how can the hearer discern just what is correct and what is misleading? How can pastors avoid giving their congregations misleading information?


I could write at length about all of the exegetical fallacies unearthed in this marvelous little guide to exegesis. I must also mention the ground-breaking work by my friend Moisés Silva called Biblical Words and Their Meaning. Incidentally, such books can be marvelous ways to nurture younger Christians. But one thing is sure: Those who may know very little about the Christian faith will not be helped very much by over-exegesis.

Luke 2:14 and Textual Criticism

9:10 AM Take your Bibles please and turn to Luke 2:14  — a Christmas verse if ever there was one. The critical text of the Greek New Testament reads as follows:

δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις θεῷ καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκίας

We might paraphrase this as:

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men of [i.e., who enjoy God’s] goodwill.

What happened to “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth goodwill toward men”? There are two readings here in the Greek manuscripts, and they are very similar:

“of good will” (genitive case) = eudokias

“goodwill” (nominative case) = eudokia

The latter reading is represented by the KJV and the NKJV. The former reading has been adopted by most modern English translation. So which is it? What is the original text here? In his blog LXX Studies, John Meade has an excellent discussion of the variant. He concludes:

Thus the angels are pronouncing peace to men of God’s favor, not peace on earth, goodwill to men [indiscriminately].

I tend to agree with this conclusion. The external evidence for eudokias seems definitive. Meade takes it a step further and suggests that the reading is a Septuagintalism or Hebraism. This may or may not be the case. But his discussion raises several important questions:

1) If you are a pastor, can you follow this discussion? If you had to choose between the genitive or the nominative here, would you know what to do and how to proceed? If not, why not?

2) Assuming that a knowledge of Greek is necessary to be able to resolve this problem, what about textual criticism? Few students study this area of exegesis. Yet it is an essential part of our task as exegetes/teachers/pastors. In fact, the bottom portion of our printed Greek New Testaments (the so-called textual apparatus) sometimes takes up half the page, so important are textual variants in the study of the New Testament. Can you make an intelligent decision here, based on the textual evidence provided to us by the Greek manuscripts, the early versions (Latin, Coptic, Syria), and the statements of the early church fathers (the “patristic” evidence)?

3) Can the LXX shed light on New Testament Greek? I imagine John Meade would answer, “Much in every way.”

As the God-man, Jesus presented the sternest challenge ever made to humanity. He demanded peoples’ total allegiance and obedience. Here Luke reminds us that “peace” is available only to those who enjoy God’s goodwill, that is, those who comprise the new humanity that Christ came to establish, the people of God. “Christmas, then,” writes Meade, “is not an empty hope for world peace.”

It is remembering [he continues] how God in Christ actually brought peace on earth to the people of his favor in the past, and that past historical reality is the ground for a certain hope that he will act in the future, that he will indeed come again to establish his justice and righteousness in the consummation of his kingdom in the new creation. “World peace” is part and parcel of why we cry, ”Come, Lord Jesus!” It is not a lament or a gripe to God, as if the first advent of Christ had failed. The first advent brought peace through the blood of Jesus’ cross. The second advent will fulfill or consummate what Christ’s first coming inaugurated.

It’s worth thinking about.


Are You Keeping Your Greek Fresh?

6:55 AM In our doctoral seminar yesterday we talked about the need for Greek in doing exegesis and for teaching/preaching. Of course, it’s much easier to claim one knows Greek than to be a Greek reader. That’s the problem I’ve found with many of my former students. With that in mind, try an experiment. See what happens when you turn to Mark 6:30-32 (which is fairly simple prose) and start translating the passage without any helps. It can lead to a rather sobering discovery. Like many of you, I love foreign languages, but we need to work hard to retain what we have acquired. In France I insist on speaking French (much to the chagrin of my auditors). I love speaking German in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria (as well as in certain parts of Pennsylvania). I can order a burrito in Athens in Modern Greek. Of course, when I return to Hawaii, my birthplace, I find it easy to switch back into my mother tongue, Pidgin. I can also hold my own in England and Kentucky. (Lame joke.)

So what if you took three years of French in high school? The result? Can you even count to ten still? “Use it or lose it” is more than a cliché, friends. And that goes for Greek too.

(From Dave Black Online, November 5, 2014. Used by permission.)