Biblical Greek Word Games

In my Sunday School class, we’re currently working through a book on the Gospel of John, by a man called Mark A. Matson. The book is pretty good, but in yesterday’s lesson he explained something in a way that fundamentally misses a very important point. It involves Biblical languages and playing word games.

The scripture in question is John 3:1 – 21, in which a Pharisee called Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. Verses 2 and 3 are rendered by the ESV as

2. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”

3. Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Now, ignoring the fact that Nicodemus didn’t ask a question yet, Jesus’ answer is interesting because it confuses Nicodemus. He responds to Jesus in verse 4

Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”

Mark Matson has this to say about this exchange

The basis for the miscommunication lies in the double meaning of the phrase used for “born again.” The Greek adverb anothen, which modifies the verb “to be born,” has two possible meanings. It can mean “again,” as Nicodemus interprets it, or it can mean “from above.” The latter meaning is what Jesus suggests (contrary to bumper stickers that claim you cannot enter the kingdom of God “unless you are born again”) and serves as the basis for his subsequent discussion about being a man from heaven who tells of heavenly things (cf. 3:12 – 13). He is “from above,” and he brings the Spirit that allows others to be born “from above.”

That explanation sounds great and appeals to our desire to find deeper or hidden meanings in biblical passages. But there’s a huge problem with this explanation:

Jesus did not speak Greek.

As a Pharisee, Nicodemus most likely didn’t speak it either. As 1st Century Jews in that region, they would have been speaking Aramaic. Even though the books of the New Testament were written in Greek, the predominant language of the region was Aramaic. There are several instances in the Gospels where a direct quote from Jesus in Aramaic is written down, and then followed by a translation into Greek (or into English in English bibles). One example is in Mark 5, when Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter. Mark 5:41 records this

Taking her by the hand he said to her, “Talitha cumi,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”

If Jesus were speaking Greek, there would have been no reason to provide a translation.

Basically what I’m getting at is that Matson is wrong in trying to argue that Nicodemus didn’t understand what Jesus was saying because of confusion on the meaning of a Greek word. I believe that Nicodemus didn’t understand because he was listening on a completely different plane than where Jesus was speaking. It’s just that simple. Jesus was speaking of things far beyond Nicodemus’ experience or intellect, and he was naturally left wondering what Jesus was saying. In my class, we also found it interesting that in other instances, mostly in the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus goes out of his way to try to explain things in language that his listeners will understand. His parables are great examples of this, because he explained deep things using language and examples that the people listening could grasp. But in this case, he comes at Nicodemus from a much higher point. I can only guess that Jesus assumed, since Nicodemus was “a ruler of the Jews,” he would be able to comprehend the lesson.

I must say, however, that it’s very easy to fall into the trap that Matson has. During the first year or so that I was studying Greek, it happened to me all the time. The trick is to step back and remember that even though the text was originally written in Greek, that was a translation of what was spoken. In most cases, these dialogs were spoken as much as a hundred years before they were written down, preserved in an oral tradition.

I fully believe that learning Greek so that you can read the ancient texts is a worthwhile endeavor, and that’s why I have spent so much time pursuing it. But you have to remember that these books were not dictation from God, and try not to read too much into the way things were written.

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One thought on “Biblical Greek Word Games

  1. Jews in time of Jesus spoke Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. The rural Jews spoke mainly Hebrew and the city dwellers Hebrew (praying) and Aramaic (mainly daily). Few Jews lived in Hellenic influenced cities such as Caesarea spoke Greek also with their foreign Greek neighbors.

    Most of the New Testament books were written in Hebrew and only some late books were written already in Greek. All books were translated into Greek until the beginning of 2nd century.

    I presume that both, Jesus and Nicodemus well understood each others because Greek, Persian and Roman words already entered the Hebrew and Aramaic that was spoken at that time by Jews. You might consider Aramaic to be the ancient-English of the dwellers on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

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