Thursday, July 17, 2014

Researching The Original Words

It is wonderful to know that people are listening to me and it's particularly awesome when someone is interested enough in what I have to say that the person sends a heartfelt comment. Thank you oh majestic Dionysian friend! The particular episode to which I refer is Episode #4 of This Week In Heresy and you can check it out at ... and hey! While you're there, please consider leaving $$$ in Gina's tip-jar at the site!

The question at-hand is this:

The listener expressed a desire to learn enough Greek to check primary sources without pursuing an advanced degree and knowing it all by-heart or by-rote. It's an excellent question and I'm happy to respond. This kind of question comes up a lot, and personally I think it is a common question because it gets to the core of the challenge we inevitably encounter in any community of faith that worships a deity or deities from an ancient timeframe. The very remoteness of the text as we encounter it now, relative to its original author, serves to stimulate our sense of wonder. People get easily amazed by the very idea that someone like me can read a different language, in a different alphabet, from a different culture, and purport to speak with authority on what the text is "really" saying.

Here's the secret: the only difference between me and any one of you is that I made a religious commitment to do this work and I have the training. Truth be told, there are no hidden magicks here. No divining rods. Just books. Yay books! (And web sites as well, but let's start with the books!)

Following is my answer to the question.
Warning: this answer is a long answer. LONG.

Step 0
Any attempt to connect from a modern or modern-ish English translation of any verse of the Christian New Testament starts with one prerequisite. Learn the Greek alphabet. This often intimidates people, but I promise you that it's not as hard as you might think initially. We carry a deep-seated general awareness of Greek letters and even the order of the Greek alphabet because it is amazingly similar to the Roman alphabet. And for that matter, the Greek alphabet has a familiar cadence in it that you will find in most Indo-European languages. It's also a similar flow as Arabic and Hebrew, believe it or not, and for those of you who don't know about the Cyrillic alphabet here's another treat: the Cyrillic alphabet is based on the Greek alphabet and shares almost all its letters. So if you look at Greek text and see things that look Russian or even generally Slavic to you, there's the reason why. You can teach yourself the Greek alphabet by simply going to Wikipedia and looking it up. I promise it isn't that hard, really:

Step 1
Find an English verse with a word that you want to check in the Greek.

Step 2
Find the exact verse in the Greek text. Here's the trick: find a Greek text that is "indexed to the Strong's Concordance of the Bible." All hail James Strong! All hail James Strong! Strong was a 19th-century scholar who indexed every single word of the Bible from the King James English. Literally, every single word. Every. Single Word. And he then tabulated every word based on its root form [the equivalent of the "infinitive form" for verbs in English or the "lexical form" of verbs in Greek], and published it all in a stunning volume called Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible but commonly referred to as Strong's Concordance or just Strong's for short. Also note that many Bibles are published with "interlinear" features, but my favorite one -- and the absolute best one I have ever seen -- is Jay Green's Larger Print Interlinear Hebrew Greek English Bible, Volume 4 of 4 Volumes (

Step 3
New Testament printings such as Jay Green's (above) with text indexed to Strong's have entries in the form Gnnnn or just nnnn where G is the Roman letter G and nnnn is a number from 1 to 4 digits in the integer range 1 to 5624. There are also a number of publications -- and web sites, naturally -- which will list all occurrences of a specific Strong's number in the entire New Testament. This provides you a neat way to look across the entire New Testament to see where a specific word or its derivatives appear. This is also a point where you see evidence of my assertion that there is no such thing as a value-free translation, because you will often find that the same Greek root-word is translated into the King James English with different English words in different places in the Bible. Such discrepancies reflect "editorial decisions" on the part of the translators at the dawn of the 17th Century CE; such decisions inherently reflect the translator's viewpoint and may or may not be "faithful" to the original text... reminder: review TWIH Episode 4 for my lengthy discussion on the perils of being "faithful" to the "original" text. And a little historical footnote: a major motivation of King James VI/I [Scotland/England] to commission the KJV was in response to sectarian protests by none other than a particular English band of Christians. They were known as the Puritans.

Step 4
Now that you know the root-word of your specific English word, you can look it up in a reference document. There are literally hundreds of such publications. The challenge here is that the most comprehensive ones are designed for reference-library-use only, so they tend to be multi-volume sets that are insanely expensive. A library such as the amazing consortial library at the Graduate Theological Union is an excellent place to do this research, but there are online sources as well and I will now walk you through an example of how to do this online. This online process can potentially save you HOURS of work, and in seminary I was only allowed to use such a shortcut after I had learned the traditional book-based way of doing the research. And now you know.


Following is an example of how to study a word in the Bible in order to build a deeper understanding of its use.

Let's say that I encounter the word fate when reading Philipians 3:19 in the NIV translation of the Bible (point of reference: the New International Version is the most commonly read version of the Bible at this point; its goal was to create an English text that is more "approachable" to the modern reader than the KJV). Here's the verse in question.

Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. 
-Philippians 3:19 NIV

Ok so the first issue I have is that the verse is in the NIV not the KJV. That's easy enough to fix. Following is the exact same verse from the KJV.

Whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things.
-Philippians 3:19 KJV

Well isn't that interesting. I can already see that this is going to be one of those times when English translations do not use the same word. [Full disclosure: I chose this verse as a setup to illustrate that point. I'm sneaky like that.]

Now I have the word in the KJV, and I can pivot across to a Strong's Concordance. All hail the Internet. One of the most useful web sites ever for this kind of work is a site owned by Tim Greenwood Ministries. They are based near Los Angeles. While I shall not address their theological biases in this post (no comment), I do credit them with ownership of the best site I have ever found to speed up this kind of work. Whether or not I agree with their theological stances, I -- and all of us who do this kind of work -- owe a profound debt of gratitude to them for the following resource:

The wonderful thing about this resource is that you can simply enter a Bible citation and jump into it. So, really, you could've skipped the pivot from NIV to KJV... but I took you through that step just to highlight the slippery nature of translation efforts. [See, I am sneaky like that.]

All you have to do now is type Philippians 3:19 into the left text box then click the Search icon right below it. And poof, guess what you will see? The web site will take you to a verse-by-verse account of Chapter 3 of Philippians and will focus in on the specific verse in question.

Now, look to the left of that verse and you'll see an icon with the word Tools in it. If you hover on the word Tools you'll see a contextual menu, but don't click there -- just click Tools and something awesome will appear: your chosen verse will appear in Greek with the Strong's numbering below it.

You are now looking at the "original" Greek text, and the Strong's coding for every single word appears below it. How cool is that? There are also other tabs for accessing online commentaries on the word/verse/chapter/book in question, but be warned: many of the linked commentaries carry strong ideological bias just like many translations do.

Find the second row, where the word end appears. Moving to the right you'll see G5056; further to the right you will see the Greek root word τέλος. You can click G5056 and it will take you to an interpretive treasure-trove. Of particular note when you click G5056 is the "outline" of Biblical usage. Just scanning over that outline quickly, you will see that the word τέλος doesn't sound nearly so nice as the word destiny did in the NIV, does it? Welcome to why being the Greek Geek can so easily become a political statement! Another neat thing on this web site, looking further down the G5056 entry, is the number of times some form of the Greek root-word appears in the KJV text as well as how it is translated. This can be critically important information when trying to reconcile discrepancies in Bible translations, or when arguing points of theology. There is even more there: you can click any of the highlighted English entries in the "KJV Translation Count" box and the site will show you every occurrence in a line-by-line list. This comes in particularly handy when I am writing a sermon; I will often say things like "the Greek word XXXX occurs nnnn times in the New Testament" and this is a quick way to get that number.


So that is the quick (quick?!?!) answer to a deceptively simple question from a listener. Note that I have left the heart of the listener's question -- what the original words meant to the original audience -- basically unaddressed in this post. There's the rub: in order to answer such a question we end up placing a lot of trust in commentary texts. This is why I strongly advocate the use of multiple commentaries. Never draw your own conclusion from only one commentary. Responsible scholarship demands that you review as many different "expert" voices as you possibly can. Only then should you form your own conclusion based on what moves in your spirit as you ponder all the available voices.


Greetings folks! Apologies for the delay! My return was delayed faaaaaar longer than I expected. Rather than do a video-series, Gina has now started a podcast version of This Week In Heresy and it is going well from what I have heard. My first episode of "TWIH" was episode four which went live one week ago. Please support Gina's efforts -- yaknow, like with $$ (you can donate to the virtual tip-jar from the TWIH home-page) -- and please enjoy the episodes that are already live. New episodes launch every Friday.

Topics in the first four episodes include interfaith ministry, emerging church identity, racism and Batman, and yes indeed, thoughts on how to translate death and dismemberment from none other than ME! Check out This Week In Heresy at ... in addition, Gina will be posting mini-sodes from time-to-time under the subtitle "The Heretic Speaks" and those mini-sodes promise to be quite something to hear. Go Gina go!

I received a wonderful question from a listener in response to my TWIH episode. It's one of those great questions that makes people like me do the dance of joy (50 bonus points to the house of the first person who guesses the origin of my "dance of joy" statement... a clue: NUMFAR, NO-LONGER DO THE DANCE OF JOY!). Response to Lon's question forthcoming. Enjoy!

-η Κοινή Σπασίκλα

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

συχνά εγώ ονειρεύομαι για την γλυκιά σοκολάτα!

It is weird to be in a holding pattern... especially when one is busy with school at the same time. I do want to assure you, my faithful readers, that The Greek Geek shall return, and soon. We're scheduled to do principle photography in early/mid-March and our hope is to start releasing new episodes during Holy Week 2012. Western Holy Week. Not the Holy Week as observed in the eastern church.

Which brings us to today's lesson.

It is deceptively simple, although like almost anything in the Christian world the details can drive you insane. The simple reason for why Western and Eastern/Orthodox Easter are sometimes on the same Sunday, sometimes almost on the same Sunday, and sometimes waaaaaaaaay far from each other has to do with the Julian calendar versus the Gregorian calendar. All nations -- I believe with the singular exception of Ethiopia -- now use the Gregorian calendar for purposes of civil time, and the Western Christian polities use it for calculating church time. But the majority of the Eastern/Orthodox polities still use the Julian calendar for purposes of calculating moveable feasts. For those of you wondering what a moveable feast is: it is somewhat a misnomer; most feast-days are calculated by adding or subtracting a specific number of days relative to Easter, and therefore most feast days stay fixed relative to each other and with respect to the date of Easter. They only move on the secular calendar because Easter itself moves. Confused yet?

Now for an interesting historical side-note. 

Full implementation of the Gregorian calendar in the West happened a lot more recently than most people realize. The British Empire and its American colonies "went Gregorian" in 1752, literally over one night. This has a significant impact on calculating exact historical times. If you look closely at dates from American pre-Revolution colonial history, you will notice a gap from Wednesday 9/2/1752 and Thursday 9/14/1752, inclusive. This is because in 1752 the Julian and Gregorian calendars were approximately 12 days off from each other. For the sake of civil sanity, it was agreed not to mess with the day of the week, but only with the date -- Wednesday was still followed by Thursday, but rather than adding one day (2+1=3), the Powers That Be added 12 days (2+12=14) to the calendar. This seems weird at first, but it makes sense when you keep in mind that so many Christian feast-days are based on a number of Sundays before or after Easter. If we had made the calendar transition along with day-of-week, then Wednesday 9/2/1752 would have been followed by Monday 9/14/1752. Moveable feasts calculated as "the ## Sunday before/after Easter" would seem fine... except that in 1753 Easter Sunday would've fallen on Friday 4/22/1753. Clearly, this would have collapsed the entire liturgical calendar so it makes sense in hindsight.

And now for an interesting side-note to the side-note: adoption of the Gregorian calendar for civil/secular time occurred later in the eastern part of Christendom and in the areas where Islamic and/or Jewish calendars were common. Russia, Greece, and Turkey all used the Julian calendar until the 20th century; thus, when you look at dates in a history book referring to the first few decades of the 1900s in eastern Europe and west/central Asia, you might want to check whether the date is Julian or Gregorian.

Confused yet? Here is where it all comes together:

Most of the Eastern/Orthodox polities still use the Julian calendar for the lunar cycle that determines Easter's date but the date itself is expressed in terms of the Gregorian calendar. Since the two calendars are currently almost exactly half a lunar cycle off -- and getting further off each year, I might add -- a curious thing happens with the reckoning of Easter. It is normal for any lunar-determined religious observation to jump around the calendar since the lunar cycle is approximately 2.5 days shorter than the standardized solar cycle.  But when one uses the Julian dating, you can end up having a different full moon date serving as the determinant for calculation. Thus, the "jumps" across the calendar that we see for Easter occur both in the West and the East, but not necessarily in the same year.

Believe it or not, this explains it. And yes, I struggle to understand it sometimes myself. The result certainly appears erratic, but trust me: it really is determined by the mathematical consequences of two calendars that reckon time closely relative to one another but not quite identically.

For the record:

2011 - both Easters 24 April
2012 - Western Easter 8 April, Eastern Easter 15 April
2013 - Western  31 March, Eastern 5 May!
2014 - both Easters 20 April

And now you know.
Χριστός Ανέστη! Αληθώς Ανέστη!

Friday, February 8, 2013

οι γάτες οι όμορφες μου γκρι γούνα έχουν!

Once upon a time...
There was a show called THIS WEEK IN HERESY. 4 of its 10 episodes featured a rather outspoken seminary student named Philip Tanner who took viewers through places in the Christian New Testament that appear to be doctrinal justifications for anti-gay theology -- but which mean something totally different when we look at them in their original language: the generation of Greek spoken widely across the "civilized" world during the Hellenistic Era. The Greek spoken during this era is called Koiné, Hellenistic Greek, Ελληνιστική Κοινή, or simply Κοινή. The common tongue.

As a side note... I always find it fascinating how when fantasy or sci-fi stories invoke a Common Language, we tend to have such a hard time accepting such an entity. And yet... in our own global history we have unmistakable proof that yes, indeed, Κοινή was just such a language. But I digress.

As my colleagues from 4M Ministries & I continue to grow into our shared and yet distinct ministerial calls, we are restructuring and expanding the vision. It is an exciting time, albeit a tad scary as well. And as part of our expansion, we are now starting individual blogs. This, then, is the first entry in the Greek Geek's individual blog.

I want to take a minute to speak about grammar, spelling, and diacritical marks on this blog. In order to properly render this blog, your browser will need to be able to recognize the standard Greek character set. I am not an expert on Unicode standards, so I unfortunately cannot provide technical help on such things. I can tell you that my authoring environment is a MacBook Pro running Lion (OS X v10.7.5) and using Firefox. One thing I do know, however, is that the Polytonic Greek character set is less widely supported than "standard" Greek. For purposes of this blog, then, I will avoid Polytonic characters unless absolutely necessary. For those of you who have some knowledge of Greek, then, you are likely to encounter what will seem like a mish-mash with modern Greek spelling but Κοινή linguistic features. So, to be clear: yes I know that I am mixing different "generations" of the Hellenic language strata. And that's that about that, cool?

I think I'll stop now. Comments, suggestions, etc., are always appreciated.

Για Θεού είναι η δόξα και η εξουσία στους αιώνες των αιώνων. Αμήν.