What does the Lord’s Prayer mean?

As David has just pointed out, there is a post about an error in the Lord’s Prayer at New Epistles. I commented on that “error” there, but I think that the issue warrants a posting here.

The problem arises out of our understanding of

Οὕτως οὖν προσεύχεσθε ὑμεῖς (Matt. 6:9a)

“After this manner therefore pray ye:” (KJV)
“Therefore, you should pray like this:” (HSCB)
“This, then, is how you should pray:” (NIV)
“Pray like this:” (NLT)

The usual interpretation is a fairly literal one, as though Jesus had said:

“Pray these words:”

The Greek doesn’t say that. The meaning is more accurately:

“Make your prayers go like this:”

In other words, the Lord’s Prayer is really a template of how to pray.

Repeat the words and it becomes meaningless ritual. Pray according to the template and you can be sincere and real.

Praying using Jesus’ words as a template gives us the following way to form our prayers:

1) Acknowledge who God is.
2) Pray for His work on earth.
3) Ask for what you need.
4) Ask for forgiveness.
5) Ask for a way to deal with temptation and opposition.

The order is crucial, and it’s the part we get wrong all the time.

How often do we open our prayers with requests to deal with our immediate situation, with pleas for forgiveness to deal with our feelings of sinfulness, with requests to rain down fire and brimstone on our enemies. (OK, that’s a little over the top, but you get the idea.)

When we do so, we easily lose track of just who God is.

If we started every prayer putting God’s majesty and His agenda first, we might just get a better perspective on life.

As for the “error”, the fact that we throw in a doxology, which has early roots, is moot if the Lord’s Prayer is a template. To wring our hands over whether it is an error or not is to succumb to the same kind of literalist thinking that leads us to ritualistically repeat Jesus’ words. The very kind of thinking which prevents us from learning how to form all our prayers the way Jesus commanded us.

Scholarly Legends

Well, I guess I’ve been tagged by David. Even though I’m supposed to be packing for the first of my summer travels which start tomorrow, I’ll hold forth on something that has been bothering me for the last week.

In 1991 the most eloquent curmudgeon in the field of linguistics, Geoffry Pullum, a professor at — of all places — UC Santa Cruz, that most laid back of all the campuses of the University of California, published a volume of wickedly pointed, but very entertaining, essays about the state and practice of the the field of linguistics, entitled The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax. The essay that gave the book its title can be read online in a rough OCR’ed version here.

Cutting to the chase, the punchline is this: the CW about Eskimos having hundreds of word for snow is hooey. Baloney. The scholarly equivalent of an urban legend.

Pullum draws on the work of a linguistic anthropologist and Mayanist (!) by the name of Laura Martin, a professor at Cleveland State and one time chair of the Department of Anthropology. She traced the growth of this tidbit of CW from Franz Boas’ introduction to the original Handbook of North American Indians, where he cited 4 words, to the full blown legend it is now. In the early 80s she read a paper on the topic at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (I was in the audience) and circulated a long essay meticulously documenting the whole history, but the American Anthropologist would only publish a much reduced version as a research report (vol. 88.2:418-23 [1986]).

But Pullum’s point isn’t really about Eskimo — interesting though that may be. As he himself says:

“[This essay] isn’t about Eskimo lexicography at all, though I’m sure it will be taken to be. What it’s actually about is intellectual sloth. …. The tragedy is not that so many people got the facts wrong; it is that in the mentally lazy and anti-intellectual world we live in today, hardly anyone cares enough to think about trying to determine what the facts are.” (pg. 171)

Well. I’m here today to grouse about a similar urban legend in Biblical Studies with ugly implications for Bible translation. Dr. Jim West brought it up again last week in a piece called “Why Modern Translations of the Bible Bungle it” and I rankled. The whole piece is based on just a scholarly legend not unlike the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax.

The arugment of the piece is this:

The times of the Bible were very different from ours.
The Bible needs to express these differences.
Therefore the language of the Bible in translation should sound different.

I’m tempted to stop here and let the reader work out all the fallacies in that reasoning which should be perfectly obvious when it is laid out as a syllogism. But the fact that huge segments of the church have bought this bogus line for so long suggests I had better be more explicit.

The times of the Bible were very different from ours. This is no doubt true. We have more stuff — a lot more stuff. I don’t mean that we’re more materialist, I mean that science and technology have given us lots of manufactured goods that either didn’t exist or were only available to the wealthiest people of those days. We have indoor plumbing; they were lucky to have outhouses. We have cars and planes. The had horses and camels, and they walked a lot. We have machines, washing machines, dishwashers, and printing presses; they had slaves and scribes.

But, I ask, just how relevant is that to the message of the Bible?

Hardly at all.

Why does the Bible speak to us today? It speaks to us because it’s about human nature. It’s about loyalty and honor, love and respect, and trusting God. These things (and their opposites) haven’t changed a whit since Adam. (If they have, then, as Paul said, we of all men are to be most pitied.)

The Bible needs to express the difference of our worlds. Here I take issue with the premise right up front. The stuff of the Bible that is of interest are those things about human nature. The differences in the worlds and worldviews is irrelevant, beyond the fact that knowing something about them helps us to better understand the motivations and reactions of the people.

So you can see why I reject the conclusion.

Do I think we should go around changing pigs into sheep? or wine into pulque?

Not at all.

But there is an ocean of difference between substitutions of that magnitude and using language that drops a veil between the heart of the reader and the Word of God (Mt. 25:12):

But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, know you not. (KJV)
But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ (ESV)

Instead of

But he replied, ‘I assure you: I do not know you!’ (HSCB)

(Notice the Message is way off base here, but in a different way:

He answered, ‘Do I know you? I don’t think I know you.’)

Now I don’t think it’s an accident that so many students of the Bible fall prey to the mistake of believing in the essential foreignness of the Scriptures. It has an easy explanation.

Anyone who is seriously interested in studying the Bible will study Greek and Hebrew in order to dig deeper. And, as anyone who has learned a second language as an adult can tell you, it takes a very long time before that language stops sounding foreign, even if you are moderately fluent in it. Often you’re a half beat behind as the native speakers rattle on. And they are constantly saying things in ways you’d never have thought of in a million years.

And for languages that you don’t have to actually use in live interaction, the matter is worse. It is the rarest of people for whom written languages become truly alive.

The distance that so very many Bible scholars feel when approach the Scripture in the original languages is not essential to the Scripture. It arises unnoticed as the product of language learning. They feel distance when reading in Greek and Hebrew and think that the distance is in the text. They read passages they don’t fully understand and think that therefore the author was expressing a mystery.

Not at all. The NT is natural in Greek as the Egyptian papyri show. It should be natural in English.

That foreignness stuff, that’s a scholarly legend.

Where angels fear to tread

Since there seems to be a buzz at the moment (see here, here, and here) about the value of learning the original languages — something that I highly recommend, by the way — I interrupt my posting on inerrancy issues to give my two cents as a linguist on the matter of learning a dead language. Since the reasons and benefits have been outlined already I want to warn about a particular kind of pitfall, which far too few are aware of. And if you are aware of it, will help you get the most out of even a minor investment in Greek and Hebrew.

When I was in high school many, many years ago, the language I studied was Latin. (That should give you a good idea of just how long ago that was.) Some time in the fourth year, when we were reading Vergil and doing translation exercises, I noticed that no one’s translations sounded like anything we would normally say. Instead they sounded rather more like the English of the Bible and the the Prayer Book. (I was raised an Episcopalian.)

And it bothered me.

Now, given that it was forty years ago, I’m a little fuzzy on the details of how the next thing happened, but somehow during that school year I ended up with a different Latin dictionary. And, lo and behold, my translations started to sound different. I remember very vividly that they sounded more modern. I don’t remember for sure if Miss Lang gave me better or worse grades for them. But they were much more satisfying. And since I ended up with A’s in Latin, she couldn’t have given me grades that were too bad.

As you can imagine from my recounting this experience decades later, it was an ah-ha moment for me. I got an early glimpse into just how centrally important reference materials are to the student of a dead language.

But even with that it wasn’t until March of 1995 when Geoff Nunberg, doing his semi-regular piece on Fresh Air, reviewed the release of an album of Elvis songs in Latin, that the full implications hit home. (The piece can be found here.)

A short version of Prof. Nunberg’s review goes like this. He pointed out that we tend to think of Latin as a kind of polite, vaguely British exercise. (He called it Edwardian.) That view is possibly best epitomized by Winne Ille Pu (Winnie the Pooh in Latin — and, yes, I still have the copy I got in the 1960’s when it first appeared). But this is really not a true picture of Romans at all. We have lost sight of the fact that Romans were Latin, as in Latin lover and Latin America. Prof. Nunberg’s review pointed out that Elvis’s lounge songs translated into Latin do remarkably well, because the songs are, well, Latin.

This, of course, set me off re-thinking all of my classical education.

Suddenly Cicero’s Cataline orations sounded to me like the DA in Palermo bringing charges against a major Mafia don.

Caesar seemed like just another ego-obsessed Latin American dictator.

I started to hear Latin in my head sounding like it was spoken by the characters in Mediterráneo.

Why am I telling you this?

Because the thing about learning dead languages is that there is no corrective for misleading views of what the meanings, implications, and worldview are. If you study German and go to Germany, your mistakes are quickly apparent. There’s a lot of “Oh, so THAT’s what that means”. But not so with Greek and Hebrew. We have to supply the corrective ourselves.

That’s why I was so mad at Mel Gibson. He completely blew his chance to show us what it was really sounded like in The Passion of the Christ.

Aramaic from that era should have sounded like Arabic, both in having the pharyngeal sounds that make Arabic sound strangled to our ears, and in having a wide range of intonation. There should have been no Latin to speak of. Everyone in the Eastern Empire was speaking Greek as the lingua franca. And the whole thing should have been louder and much, much more emotional.

Keep this in mind as you study Greek or Hebrew. You can learn enough to read the Bible without a pony and still hear the KJV in the back of your head. You can read the Greek and still come away thinking in terms of twentieth century theology.

No, these writers were Jews, Italians, and Greeks. Much more Levantine. Much more animated and rougher around the edges than we take as proper in our churches nowadays.

Don’t get me wrong. There are great rewards for the investment in learning Greek and Hebrew, but the biggest lesson to learn is not how to parse the verb forms or how to recognize apparently odd uses of singular agreement with neuter plurals.

The biggest lesson is to learn how to let the text speak for itself, lest you think you’re hearing the original but you end up where angels fear to tread.

Why felicity isn’t just truth in disguise

The proposal to start thinking about inerrancy, or something akin to inerrancy, in terms of the linguists’ notion of felicity seems to have generated a bit of a buzz. I had wanted to post on belief vs. trust next, but the comment threads seem to demand a deeper delving into what felicity is.

So here goes.

At first approximation, as I said before, felicity is like sincerity. A speaker using language in a way that is consonant with his or her beliefs and in ways that are appropriate to his or her position in society and his or her position in the situation with respect to the speech act can be said to be speaking felicitously.

It turns out that as obvious as all that seems, there are surprisingly many details and those details can make an significant difference if we are looking to build a theory of inerrancy.

The classic cases are complex — those in which one of the participants has a privileged position and is acting officially in that position — the jury giving a verdict, the pastor marrying a couple, an accused person entering a plea.

We find the defendant guilty of murder in the second degree.
I pronounce you husband and wife.
I plead not guilty by reason of insanity.

In each of these cases, not only does the general situation have to be appropriate, but the utterer has to be the appropriate person acting in the appropriate way at the appropriate point in the unfolding ritual.

The full specification of felicity in these complex cases constitutes the filling in of all the appropriates. In the case of the wedding, the man and woman have to have been licensed to be married and have to have given their verbal consent to marry one another. The utterer has to be licensed to perform marriages, and has to say the utterance at the right time in the ceremony.

Felicity in the kind of communication that is analogous to a written text, rather than in formal or ritual contexts, is simpler. The speaker (author) is obligated to provide only information that he/she believes to be valid and that he/she has sufficient reason to believe in its validity. (I’m knocking myself out here to avoid the term true.) We generally refer to violations of felicity as lying, although actual lying is more complex. (Isn’t everything?)

Since our grasp of the world is one which has many holes, we constantly hedge our assertions to help maintain felicity.

I think John was there last night.
John seemed to be drunk.
The alleged bank robber was apprehended last night.

In fact, there many languages which, by convention, require speakers to mark just how good their evidence is for a particular assertion. Failure to do so correctly is tantamount to lying. Ottawa (a variety of Ojibwe) is like that:

Esban maa gii-yaa. ‘There was a raccoon here. (I saw it.)’
Esban maa gii-yaadig. ‘There was a raccoon here. (I saw evidence to that effect.)’
Esban giiwenh maa gii-yaadig. ‘There was a raccoon here. (Someone told me.)’

Now besides hedges there are two other ways that felicitous communication can deviate from truth in the strictest sense.

First, the quality of information the speaker (author) is passing on need only be sufficiently accurate for the purposes of the communication. Notice, in particular, that it doesn’t have to be fully true in every detail. We all certainly know people who say:

I’ll be there at 3.

but don’t show up until 3:10 or 3:15. We don’t leap on them as having lied (or in this case promised infelicitously). (OK, in some situations people are stricter than in others, and the strictness of interpretation is culture-dependent. In Latin America there’s a lot more slippage in assertions about time than in, say, Holland.)

Second, we leave a lot of stuff out if it’s irrelevant.

Father: What did you do today?
Son: Oh, I went to school.

Interactions like this are the subjects of jokes because the amount of information the father thinks is relevant is more than the amount of information the son thinks is relevant. But even were the son to meet the father’s expectations, the amount of detail he would leave out is enormous — the route taken to school, stops made along the way for traffic control devices, order of classes, stops at his locker, exact books carried to which classes, what chance encounters there were with friends in the hall, what notes were passed in class, … I could go on. But you get the idea. There is a parameter of relevance. If he got caught passing a note in class and sent to the principal, then THAT would be relevant, and felicity demands he communicate that information.

Now what happens when there is a dramatic asymmetry between what one of the interlocutors knows or understands and what the other does. Then these two parameters: precision of utterance and omission of content play a much bigger role. The possessor of the greater amount of information is allowed to simplify and even withhold information without being charged with being infelicitous.

We encounter this kind of asymmetry most commonly in situations of teaching or in lectures or presentations by experts.

So if you ask a chemist how benzene is structured, she’ll probably talk to you, as a non-specialist, about its ring structure and maybe about double bonds, and maybe draw the standard picture.But she probably won’t explain about the complex orbitals the electrons share above and below the plane of the molecule. These omissions and the fact that the double bonds indicated by the three little lines in the standard picture aren’t exactly double bonds don’t count as infelicitous communication.

Of course, just how much must be present and how much gets left out is governed by conventions of individual languages/cultures. Some cultures allow much more dramatic deviations from exact “truth” than we do. But the fact about asymmetric communication is true of every culture I know anything about at all.

Well, you may have already figured out where this is going.

If we believe that Scripture is inspired, then there are two sources of felicity that need to be accounted for. First, the author himself, and second the source of the inspiration, i.e., God. But notice that the conventions of asymmetrical communication means that God can be communicating to us without telling us everything and even dumbing things down and still be communicating felicitously.

God doesn’t have to tell us the truth — in the narrow platonic sense — to be felicitous. He just has to see that the writer He is inspiring gets point of the communication accurate.

This is what gets us out of having stand on our heads theologically to deal with “misquotes” from the LXX or questions about whether Jesus’ parables were true stories, while at the same time obligating us to the virgin birth, the miracles, the teachings, and the resurrection. These latter are all points of the text, which felicity does require to be accurate.

The itch that inerrancy scratches

No one so far seems to have noticed that a theory of inerrancy based on felicity is setting the bar very low. Felicity is the null assumption for any communication and particularly for historical texts. If we find a papyrus letter from a Roman soldier stationed in Syria to his father in Egypt, written in Greek, we assume that he meant what he said in the body of the letter, that both he and his father spoke Greek, and that he really was stationed in Syria, and so on. You pretty much have to be living in George Smiley’s world, not to assume felicity in a text.

So whatever the itch is that inerrancy scratches, felicity doesn’t do it.

So what is that itch?

From where I sit it looks like this.

• People want to believe in the right thing.

• Truth is the guarantee that something is the right thing to believe.

• If the Bible is all true, then it must be the right thing (also vice versa).

• Besides, if the Bible is all true, then it’s a moral failing not to believe it, because it is a crucial operating assumption of our society that we agree to believe in everything that is true.

So the task becomes finding reasons to ascribe the abstract quality of truth to the Bible.

And that’s the misstep.

Looking for pre-existent truth runs afoul of almost all modern (and post-modern) thinking. Since Kant we have known, in one form or another, that the perceiver plays an important role in ascertaining what is true. In an even more interesting development of thought about epistemology the chemist turned philosopher, Michael Polanyi, in his book, Personal Knowledge, shows that, not only does judgment and art underlie received scientific fact, but even the society of thinkers on a topic plays an important role is determining what counts as true.

(If you doubt Polanyi’s point, just look around in theological circles.)

And what he’s talking about isn’t mere philosophy. He’s talking about the kind of science that has given us lots and lots of things we can (and do) trust every day of our lives. We drive cars and fly in airplanes. We buy foods at the store with confidence that they are safe and take medicines with the confidence that they will have the effect that the doctor wants. All of this is brought to us as the ultimate end product of assuming a platonistic world and invoking Aristotlean logic. All highly useful.

And I’m not willing to give up any of it.

But that doesn’t also mean that I have to apply low value understanding of truth to texts, if I know better.

It’s fine that we know that engineering works perfectly well on models of Newtonian physics, but that doesn’t obligate us to insist on Newtonian physics for all our thinking about physics in general.

The problem for us in the inerrancy discussion is that even if cutting edge thinkers for the last two centuries have given up on Plato and his belief in the pre-existence of reality, Euro-American society as a whole hasn’t. And that includes all the parts of Christianity that I’ve had contact with.

Most folks continue to believe that there is a large variety of absolute facts out in the world that are utterly independent of people. We, as a society, act as if our perceptions and categories were derivative of realities that exist independent of us and our society. And, believe me, if you live in a monolingual society dominated by a single culture, you can go a very long way believing this. We use the word true to ascribe trustworthiness to these assumed realities.

But then does this apply to text? and particularly to literature? Do texts have to be platonically true to be of interest?

Does Jane Austen suffer any because her texts are not true accounts of verifiable events?


When people say, “Fiction can be truer than fact.”, they mean exactly that. Good fiction can lay bare deeper truths about the way things are, often better than even the most factually accurate historical account. In history, we do not know what those people were thinking. At best we can infer. In fiction we can read their thoughts off the page.

Giving up on ascribing platonistic truth to Scripture actually allows us to stop imposing a double standard. As it is we not only think that truth implies a validity to imperatives — read commandments — we say that, or at least act like Matt. 5:30

If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell. (NASB)

has a different validity than Matt. 5:43-44.

You have heard that it was said, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, (Matt. 5:43-44)

If you start with felicity, it forces you to admit that you have to look elsewhere to figure out such things.



But then it’s a mistake to think that there is anything about Christianity that is safe.

The 800 pound Gorilla

After several weeks of blog chatter about the firing of a professor at Westminster over his book on inerrancy, a metadebate has broken out between Alan Lenzi, who calls for a moratorium on the topic, and John Hobbins, who says that’s not a real option.

Emotionally, I’m with Alan on this. I’d rather not talk about it. If you’ve followed any of the comment threads to my posts, you should know that I find the contemporary practice of theology not only tedious, but unhelpful and often utterly misleading.

But, if you are talking into the blogosphere about Bible translation, inerrancy is the 800 pound gorilla in the room. It does no good to try and ignore it. Inerrancy underlies the persistent belief that a more “literal” translation is a better translation, most recently found here (but read the post by Suzanne and the comments here).

Several times commenting on various blogs, I’ve leaked pieces of my view on inerrancy, only to have them misunderstood in various ways. So I’d like to take a whack at it in a place where I can have the space (and time) to fully articulate my view.

Most statements about orthodox view on inerrancy center around a notion of truth.

“[T]he view that when all the facts become known, they will demonstrate that the Bible in its original autographs and correctly interpreted is entirely true and never false in all it affirms, whether that relates to doctrine or ethics or to the social, physical, or life sciences” (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 1987, p. 142).’

So that’s where I’ll start — with the notion of truth in general.

In the 1960’s, after the posthumous publication of John L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words, the philosophical and linguistic worlds became aware that the notion truth only applied to a portion of language.

In short, it makes no sense to talk about whether utterances like the following are true or false:

Thank you.

What time is it?

Take out the garbage.

Instead there is a more abstract notion originally called HAPPINESS (now generally referred to as FELICITY) which applies to all language.

At first approximation, if you use language sincerely then it is FELICITOUS.

If you mean please when you say please,
if you mean thank you when you say thank you,
if you do not know what time it is and you honestly think that someone knows (or can easily come to know) what time it is when you ask them what time is it?,
if, when you tell someone take out the garbage, you are in the right kind of social relationship with them and believe that they are physically able to do so,

then the respective utterances are FELICITOUS.

Truth is just a part of the special case of felicity for simple declaratives. If you say

John came in at twelve last night.

you must believe it to be true to be uttering it felicitously.

So part one of my statement of belief about inerrancy is that

Scripture is fully felicitous communication.

Looking at it this way has many interesting implications which I will take up in later posts.

The Holy Spirit — reprise

For the past week or so, I’ve been thinking about the Holy Spirit issue. Suzanne started us off in the Psalms asking about whether it is appropriate to capitalize the phrase or not. That led me to ponder about the categories that were around in the culture of the time. But being the linguist that I am, I began to wonder about whether there was direct textual evidence that the writers of the NT knew about the person of the Holy Spirit, or whether our understanding is by implication.

This is not a small matter to me because, as many of you know, I think we have fallen into a trap of reading theology into the text instead of letting the text speak to us directly. The question of the Holy Spirit seemed like a really good test case. Here’s what I found.

GEEK WARNING — what you are about to read is for serious Greek geeks. I will stay away from technical language as much as is possible, but this is a warning to fasten your linguistic seat belts and keep your hands inside the vehicle at all times.

GET OUT OF JAIL FREE CARD— if all the linguist’s detail isn’t your kettle of fish, I hereby give you permission to skip to the end and read the conclusion.

The various phrases that have been translated as Holy Spirit all contain two key words in Greek:

ἅγιος ‘holy’ (an adjective)
πνεῦμα ‘spirit’ (an noun)

They appear together either with the adjective first or with the adjective second:

ἅγιον πνεῦμα
πνεῦμα ἅγιον

This is typical of Koine adjectives. They can occur either before or after the noun they modify. Classical Greek grammars say the adjective normally comes first, but by the time of Roman era Koine the normal order is noun followed by adjective. (This was also recently noted by Mike at ἐν ἐφέσῳ.)

For example the phrase φωνὴ μεγάλη ‘(a) loud voice’ occurs 38 times in the NT, only three of which are in the order μεγάλη φωνή. And πνεῦμα ἅγιον occurs 78 times in the NT in that order. ἅγιον πνεῦμα only occurs 11 times. The order noun + adjective is the most frequent even in the LXX.

And if you have multiple modifiers then they all go after the noun. (Revelation is great for examples of this.) This is a very good indication of what the neutral order is.

δράκων μέγας πυρρός ‘a big, red dragon’ (lit. ‘dragon big red’)
βύσσινος λευκὸς καθαρός ‘clean, white linen cloth’ (lit. ‘linen-cloth white clean’
θρὶξ ξανθίζουσα λεπτή ‘a thin, yellow hair’ (lit. ‘hair yellow thin’)

Clearly the order noun + adjective is the normal case in Koine.

The question then arises, what is the difference between the neutral order (noun + adjective) and the other order (adjective + noun)? The standard answer seems always to be that the other order is “emphatic”, whatever that means.

But, at least in the case of ἅγιον πνεῦμα and πνεῦμα ἅγιον, there is a very interesting fact. There are eight instances in the NT with the order ἅγιον πνεῦμα and seven of them are possessive genitives and have the article.

There are 17 total instances of possessive genitives with ἅγιον and πνεῦμα in either order, 10 with the article and 7 without.

My considered opinion is that there is no meaning difference, or at least not what most people would think counts as meaning. I believe that it is simply that the fronted adjective sounds more “high-falutin’” because it harkens back to Classical Greek. The fact that it occurs almost exclusively in a single construction suggests that it’s not a matter of meaning difference at all, but just a marker of style.

Now let’s explore the second way factor we need to know about to interpret the phrases with ἅγιον and πνεῦμα. That is the presence (or absence) of the article, ὁ.

Combining the presence or absence of ὁ with the word order there are four possibilities, and it’s important to look at these features together because they interact as shown in the following table.


fronted modifier


πνεῦμα ἅγιον

ἅγιον πνεῦμα


τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον

τὸ ἅγιον πνεῦμα

Either order of noun and adjective is possible with or without the article, but if the order is noun + adjective and the article is present, then the article must be repeated before the adjective.

So the question about the meaning of τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον comes down to what the meanings are that are associated with the presence of the article.

There are many ways in which the Greek article ὁ functions like the English article the. In rough approximation it refers to an entity that the author believes the audience can uniquely identify.

One way that a referent is uniquely identifiable is because the entity was introduced earlier in the text. A clear example can be seen in the beginning of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:

19 ἄνθρωπος δέ τις ἦν πλούσιος καὶ ἐνεδιδύσκετο πορφύραν καὶ βύσσον εὐφραινόμενος καθ’ ἡμέραν λαμπρῶς — (The rich man is introduced with no article (≈ a in English). ἄνθρωπος τις ‘a certain man’)

20 πτωχὸς δέ τις ὀνόματι Λάζαρος ἐβέβλητο πρὸς τὸν πυλῶνα αὐτοῦ εἱλκωμένος — (The poor man is introduced. πτωχὸς τις ‘a certain poor man’)

21 καὶ ἐπιθυμῶν χορτασθῆναι ἀπὸ τῶν πιπτόντων ἀπὸ τῆς τραπέζης τοῦ πλουσίου ἀλλὰ καὶ οἱ κύνες ἐρχόμενοι ἐπέλειχον τὰ ἕλκη αὐτοῦ — (The rich man is referred to with the definite article, here τοῦ.)

22 ἐγένετο δὲ ἀποθανεῖν τὸν πτωχὸν καὶ ἀπενεχθῆναι αὐτὸν ὑπὸ τῶν ἀγγέλων εἰς τὸν κόλπον Ἀβραάμ — (The poor man is referred to with the definite article, here τὸν.)

ἀπέθανεν δὲ καὶ ὁ πλούσιος καὶ ἐτάφη — (The rich man is referred to with the definite article again, here .)

Often, however, the way an entity is identifiable is because the entity in question is a readily identifiable part of the world around us, like the sun, the clouds, the streets, the city. There are several such examples in this passage.

21 καὶ ἐπιθυμῶν χορτασθῆναι ἀπὸ τῶν πιπτόντων ἀπὸ τῆς τραπέζης τοῦ πλουσίου ἀλλὰ καὶ οἱ κύνες ἐρχόμενοι ἐπέλειχον τὰ ἕλκη αὐτοῦ (the dogs, which presumably roamed the streets of the city, not unlike many Third World cities today.)

22 ἐγένετο δὲ ἀποθανεῖν τὸν πτωχὸν καὶ ἀπενεχθῆναι αὐτὸν ὑπὸ τῶν ἀγγέλων εἰς τὸν κόλπον Ἀβραάμ ἀπέθανεν δὲ καὶ ὁ πλούσιος καὶ ἐτάφη (the angels and the bosom of Abraham)

Note, however, that not all languages make the same choices regarding which of the things that are “around” get definite articles and which don’t. Hence, we say God, without an article but in Greek one says ὁ θεός. A related choice of this sort that is different between English and Greek is that many abstract nouns take definite articles in Greek, but not English

τὸ αγαθόν ‘good’
ὁ πονηρός ‘evil’

The last way that an entity can be treated as uniquely identifiable is if it is in a frame that is activated by some other word or phrase in the preceding context. If so, you can refer to it with a definite article, both in Greek and in English.

For those who don’t know what a frame is, a simple example should suffice.

A man walked into a restaurant. The maitre d’ seated him and handed him the menu. The waiter took his order and brought a plate of bread to the table.

In this example, you get to say the maitre d’, the menu, the waiter, the table, because once you mention restaurants, the frame of a restaurant is brought to mind, including all the things you find in the prototypical restaurant, like maitre d’s, menus and tables, waiters, and so on. In fact frames also include the kinds of things you expect to happen and in what order, but that’s too far afield for the purposes of this post.

In the Luke passage there are frame related definite articles.

20 πτωχὸς δέ τις ὀνόματι Λάζαρος ἐβέβλητο πρὸς τὸν πυλῶνα αὐτοῦ εἱλκωμένος (Well, it’s really the gate of his house. Rich men live in houses nice enough to have gates.)

21 καὶ ἐπιθυμῶν χορτασθῆναι ἀπὸ τῶν πιπτόντων ἀπὸ τῆς τραπέζης τοῦ πλουσίου ἀλλὰ καὶ οἱ κύνες ἐρχόμενοι ἐπέλειχον τὰ ἕλκη αὐτοῦ (Those who eat sumptuously, eat at tables, and there is so much food that scraps fall to the ground, and beggars are dirty and have sores.)

There is much more to the use of the article in Greek, but this is the outline, and it provides all we need to know to tell from the text itself what the writers of the NT thought regarding the Holy Spirit.

For the folks who are skipping to the end, here’s the conclusion:

The writers of the NT must have been referring to an entity that they believed to be “around” when they used the definite article in passages like Acts 15:8

καὶ ὁ καρδιογνώστης θεὸς ἐμαρτύρησεν αὐτοῖς δοὺς τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον καθὼς καὶ ἡμῖν

And God, who knows the heart, has testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us. (NET)

because it has no antecedant — no prior mention — to set up the use of the definite article, unless it (He) was a known entity in their conceptual world. Hence it is perfectly appropriate to think from the wording of passages such as this, that the Holy Spirit is a known entity in the mind of the author (here Luke), which he expects his audience will be able to identify.


• There is one quirk in the use of definite noun phrases in Greek which I haven’t seen discussed in the Koine grammar books. Many instances of noun + adjective as the object of a preposition or as a complement of an adjective lack the article even if they are understood definitely. This post has been technical enough. A full discussion of that issue will have to wait for some other time.

• If you look in the grammar books for word order help with nouns and adjectives, they don’t tell you much. For example the Oxford Grammar of Classical Greek just mentions it in passing (pg. 125). David Allen Black in It’s Still Greek to Me (quite a good book in spite of it being a little glib in presentation) only says:

The attributive adjective can usually be recognized by the article that precedes it: τὸ ζῶν ὕδωρ, “the living water.” Frequently the adjective follows the noun: τὸ ὕδωρ τὸ ζῶν, “the living water” [literally, “the water, the living”] (John 4:11). The meaning is the same, but the later position is emphatic. Occasionally the attributive adjective is used without an article ὕδωρ ζῶν, “living water” (John 4:10). In such constructions the noun also does not have the article. (pp. 59-60)

and he’s got it backwards, noun – adjective is the normal (unmarked) order. Adjective – noun is the special order, as we showed above.

Things are not what they seem

This weekend I went to a wedding in Kingsburg, CA. That’s about 180 miles from my home in Castro Valley. The couple met at Berkeley Covenant Church.

She’s an MK from Colombia and a recent Berkeley grad. Born in Kingsburg, she grew up in Medellín where her father has been a Covenant missionary for over 20 years.

He’s a Berkeley graduate student in economics from Montreal and a PK. His father is the pastor of a French-speaking Mennonite Brethren church.

This weekend had more than its fill of things that didn’t fit our usual categories. For those of you not familiar with California, you’ll need a little background.

First, there were a LOT of Swedish settlers in northern California and the Central Valley. Kingsburg, about 10 miles south of Fresno on CA99, was one of the centers of that settlement. The Bay Area was, too. Berkeley Covenant, founded in 1903, was established as a missionary outreach to Swedish speakers. It was Swedish speaking until 1935. Only now, in the first decade of the 21st century, is the last generation of California native speakers of Swedish dying out. The last native speaker at Berkeley Covenant, now in his late 80’s, is from Kingsburg.

Kingsburg is very proud of its Swedish heritage, even piping Swedish music onto the streets of the downtown business district in honor of the centennial of the incorporation of the town. And Swedish symbols are everywhere — even at the MacDonalds.

The motel we stayed in had rooms that looked almost exactly like the medium price range rooms at the Covenant retreat center in northern California, Mission Springs, complete with the horse on every door.

All of this belies that fact that the area has a sizable Hispanic population. You hear Spanish everywhere. The local Catholic church has masses in both Spanish and English and plenty of Hispanic bilinguals attend the English masses. On Easter it was SRO at all the masses in an ostensibly Protestant stronghold. (11,000 population, 17 Protestant churches, including two Covenant congregations.) This is not unusual for the Central Valley, where conservative Christianity is strong in both evangelical and Catholic guises. There are even towns, like Escalon, which are reputed to have more churches than bars.

Back to the wedding. The whole affair was loaded with stereotype breaking features. The bride looks like a Swede from Kingsburg, tall and blonde. But in reality, because she grew up in Colombia, she’s Latin American. The groom, a Mennonite with a German last name, is French Canadian. Even personally, it seemed a bit odd to me to be attending the wedding of friends both of whose parents are younger than we are, but then the church can be like that. One can have easy cross-generational relationships through participating in various ministries.

There were unusual things about the service as well. It was jointly celebrated by the respective fathers. It was trilingual — mostly English, but some in French and Spanish. When they came to the part where his father, as the primary celebrant, asked, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?”, her father answered that if his mother and father were willing to give him in marriage to their daughter, then he and her mother were willing to give her in marriage to their son.

A murmur rippled across the crowd.

The exchange of vows was unusual, too. His father began by cracking a joke, saying that vows would be exchanged in French and Spanish, and that they realized most of the guests wouldn’t understand one or the other sets of vows. “But,” he quipped, “you’ve heard these many times before, so just remember what they say.” Some muffled chuckles ensued. She said her vows in French, which she speaks fluently, administered by his father. He said his vows in Spanish, which he doesn’t speak, administered by her father.

I tell you all this to loosen you up for what I am about to say about categories and mismatches in the ongoing discussion of the Holy Spirit — or is that holy spirit?

The root of the problem is that the categories related to spirits and the Holy Spirit are different between modern church thought and the worldview of both OT and NT times. What we think of reflexively when we hear the words holy and spirit together is a familiar category, the Third Person of the Trinity. It’s clear that that is NOT what anyone heard in Biblical times.

In the Old Testament, God may have sent His Spirit to act in the world, but it was just seen as a part of Him, like our spirits are part of us. And there were other spirits that were understood to be holy as well, but my understanding of OT culture is too limited for me to go any further.

In Roman era Levantine culture, however, the understanding of Greek speakers both mirrored the OT understanding and was influenced by the Greco-Roman belief in supernatural beings that embodied abstract notions like love and war, compassion and anger, and holiness. Roman and Greek gods were often portrayed as embodiments of these notions. Amor/Eros and Mars/Ares.

So in NT era thinking there is no separate category for the Holy Spirit apart from a spirit of holiness and both distinct from a holy spirit. If, by the time of some of the manuscripts, the doctrine of the Trinity had started to gel to the point that some scribes copied in such a way to make some verses distinguish THE Holy Spirit from the other two, that doesn’t solve the problem for us. That’s post hoc and the issue remains. We have three categories where the writers of Scripture had one.

Recognizing the problem doesn’t solve it, unfortunately. It just gives us a way to address it. But it does serve to point up a serious problem floating below the surface in many of our discussions about translation.

The categories of 21st century Euro-American Christianity are NOT those of the NT writers. We make many, many translational — and even doctrinal — mistakes because we fail to recognize that that one very pervasive fact has a much deeper implication:

Words that are legitimate dictionary equivalents often don’t mean the same thing.

A view from the Planning Commission

As some of the regular readers of this blog may remember, I got involved in politics pretty much by accident last summer. The county tried to reorganize our neighborhood and we, all 6700 of us, stood up and said no. Three of us, whose main qualifications are that we are willing to stand up and speak in front of an audience of hundreds, emerged as the leaders. And that got me nominated and appointed to the Alameda County Planning Commission.

Well, on Monday we had a very difficult case. A Mexican woman (to judge from her accent in Spanish) stood up to petition for a variance in building an addition to the family house. (She spoke because her husband has no usable English.) Her English was tentative and, because one of the planning staff is bilingual, she was allowed to testify in Spanish.

The story is wrenching. They hired a contractor and filled out the forms for permits, which the contractor said he would apply for. He asked for money up front and constructed a sorely needed addition, which was largely complete when a county inspector noticed that the construction was unpermitted because it did not conform to the setback ordinances. The contractor, who, it turns out was unlicensed and therefore didn’t actually apply for the permits, disappeared. Now the family has been told they will have to tear down the addition they need and which has already cost them $40,000. We toured the site and the neighborhood and noticed that setback ordinances are widely violated throughout the area, but the homeowners association is adamant in this case, and if the Planning Commission were to allow this as an exception — clearly the compassionate thing to do — it would give the next person a precedent on which to demand a variance. Our hands are pretty well tied. There are no grounds to find for a variance. So we continued the case to see if the planning department can work something out.

Now my Spanish is OK. I pretty well followed what she said, but there is one interesting thing in the woman’s testimony and how I heard it that shows the tendency for English speakers to misread the meaning of gendered language.

In the course of her testimony the woman cited the reason for needing the addition was:

Tenemos cuatro hijos.

Since I was working hard to keep up, I processed that

they have four sons.

and it wasn’t until the official translation came back

‘They have four children.’

that I noticed the error.

ElShaddai Edwards may be upset that gender language in Bibles tends to attract excessive attention, but here is evidence that even I, who know better, tend to misread the meaning of gendered forms in a language that I don’t speak natively. The reason for bending over backwards on this point over and over is that English speakers misread the gender by reflex.

The facts?

The patterns are clear and they work the same in Greek and Spanish.

Greek — Spanish — gloss

υἱόςhijo —son’
υἱόι – hijos — ‘children’ (in special contexts ‘sons’)

πατήρ — padre‘father’
πατέρες — padres — ‘parents’ (in special contexts ‘fathers’)

ἄνθρωπος — persona —person’ (NOT ‘man’ ‘woman’)

This is hard to swallow for English speakers, especially if they are immersed in a tradition of Bible translation which has gotten it wrong for a long time. (See a fuller discussion here.)

Speakers of languages with grammatical gender do much better, for example the Reformers (as pointed out by Suzanne in a comment on the previous post), many of whom were German speakers. They know from their own languages that just because ἄνθρωπος is grammatically masculine does not mean it refers directly to men and only indirectly to women, any more than the grammatically masculine word Mensch does in German. The same is true of persona in Spanish. Just because it is grammatically feminine does not mean it refers to women primarily and only secondarily to men. The most macho Spanish speaker will not mind being referred to as una persona.

And we are all children of God.


In Spanish if you want to say ‘They have four sons.’ you have to say.

Tienen cuatro hijos hombres.

(The dictionary will tell you to say hijos varones but my Mexican friends say that sounds a little archaic.)

In Greek you don’t NEED to add a modifier to υἱόι to get the reading ‘sons’, but because there is ambiguity in referential gender, Koine has expressions like υἱός ἄρρην (lit. ‘male son’) and υἱεῖς ἄνδρες ‘grown sons’ (lit. ‘sons men’) with modifiers to clarify actual gender reference.

What do we want from our translation?

This semester I’m co-teaching a seminar (actually a practicum) on lexicography for endangered languages. Twenty some odd years ago I published an extensive dictionary of the Ottawa and Eastern dialects of Ojibwe (a.k.a. Chippewa). It’s what got me my job here at Berkeley.

In this seminar we talk a lot about what dictionaries are supposed to look like. To a large extent that depends on a combination of the purpose of the dictionary and the audience expected to use it.

And also it depends on the preferences and prejudices of the author.

The other professor co-teaching this practicum is a classicist and historical linguist by training. He got involved in work with California native languages after he came to the Berkeley department. But he still retains his historical and classicist leanings, often chaffing at the low level of scholarship in the field of linguistics. (Sad, but true, and Chomsky only made an already bad situation worse.) When the discussion a few weeks ago turned to how you list glosses in a dictionary, he articulated his preference for having the more literal glosses first, ones that make it easy to see the word parts of the original, even in those cases where native speakers only notice those meanings when prodded.

So for the Yurok(1) word kwegeru’r (< kweruhl ‘snout, long nose’) he prefers:

kwegeru’r n ‘any long-nosed entity; esp. pig, hog’

where I would suggest:

kwegeru’r n ‘pig, hog; or more generally any long-nosed entity’

To a certain extent this is a matter of taste. Both entries carry the same information. But my experience with average dictionary users is that there is a difference, and it’s quite an important one.

Linguists have the patience to work all the way through an entry, however it is structured, to find what they want. But if you don’t put the most relevant information right up at the front of the entry, you’ll lose the ordinary user. The obsolete, but still widely used, Thayer Greek Lexicon provides a good example.

περι-πατέω, -ῶ ; impf. 2 pers. sing. περιπάτεις, 3 pers. περιπάτει, plur. περιπάτουν, fut. περιπατήσω, 1 aor. περι-επάτησα; plupf. 3 pers. sing. περιεπεπατήκει (Acts xiv. 8 Rec.elz), and without the augm. (cf. W. § 12,9 ; [B. 33 (29)]) περιπεπατήκει (ibid. Rec.st Grsb.) ; Sept, for הַַַָָָלַך; to walk; [walk about A. V. 1. Pet. v. 8]; a. prop. (as in Arstph., Xen., Plat, Isocr., Joseph., Ael., al.): absol., Mt. ix. &; xi. 5; xv. 31; Mk. ii. 9 [Tdf. ὕαγε]; v. 42; viii. 24 xvi. 12; Lk. v. 23; vii. 22; xxiv. 17; Jn. i. 36 v. 8 sq. 11 sq.; xi. 9 sq. ; Acts iii. 6, 8 sq. 12; xiv. 8, 10; 1 Pet. v. 8 ; Rev. ix. 20 ; i. q. to make one’s way, make progress, in fig. disc. equiv. to to make a due use of opportunities, Jn. xii. 35. with additions : περιπ. γυμνός, Rev. xvi. 15; ἐπάνω (τινός), Lk. xi. 44 ; διά w. gen. of the thing,

and so on.

I think there’s an important lesson here for the translation debate. Bible readers can be looked at like dictionary users. Some are very sophisticated and will tolerate a lot to find out what the text means. But that’s not the ordinary Bible reader. How much are we to treat ordinary Bible users like specialists? The literal translations (which, by the way, aren’t nearly as literal as we like to think) might have a place as study Bibles for the serious Bible student, just like dictionaries structured for linguists. But what about the ordinary Bible reader?

Romans 10:17 says

So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (ESV)

So the witness of Scripture is that the primary thing we need from our Bible is to hear God in it.

Notice that it does not say

Faith comes from studying …

Study Bibles are fine but we need a Bible that doesn’t stand in the way of our hearing.

There is a prominent member of our church who recites Scripture from memory. I’m not talking about a verse or two. He can recite entire passages, even whole books, from memory. On occasion he is called upon to do so as the Scripture reading.

The effect is astounding.

Even though he’s not a particularly good actor, his presentation of Scripture reaches places in your spirit that does just what Rom. 10:17 says. You hear it and you believe it. Your faith is built up. The added dimension of putting together a whole passage with natural speech rhythms and intonation overcomes unnatural wordings in the text. And that’s great for such performances, but why can’t we have a Bible that duplicates that experience when we do our daily reading? one that sounds so natural that it touches our spirit directly?

(1) Yurok is spoken by about 70 people along the westernmost stretch of the Klamath River in Northern California. More information about the tribe is available here.