Studying Greek–Beginners' Pitfalls (Part 2)

(Author’s note: Last week we looked at some beginner’s pitfalls in studying Greek. This week we continue those thoughts along the same lines. If necessary, please review the context of last week’s article for continuity.)
4. Assume That There Are No Rules to Greek, Just Exceptions
As we mentioned last week, there are those who assume that there are no exceptions to the rules of Greek. But another fallacy is to study the Greek language through the rose-colored glasses of postmodern thought and take the opposite extreme, namely, that there are no rules, just individual statements, each with its own subjective interpretation. (Truthfully, this mistake is more likely made by intermediate students than beginning, but it is mentioned here in an effort to balance out point #3 in the previous article.) Without going into an in depth analysis of postmodernism, it seems obvious that language must have some kind of rules in order for that language to be understood in another. Take for example the Rosetta Stone. That archaeological discovery was key to being able to decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphics. How were we able to decipher it if language has no rules? If such were the case, then no foreign language could ever be decipherable. However, by comparing Egyptian Hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone to other known languages and understanding that languages follow patterns/rules, Hieroglyphics become decipherable.
Languages do indeed have more or less consistent rules. One such consistent rule in the Greek language is the meaning of the present tense. Present tense verbs in Greek signify ongoing or continual action. Are there some exceptions to this? Yes, such as present tense verbs with aorist stems. However, even this exception follows its own rule in that the verb in the present tense with the aorist stem falls back to the aorist tense rule, namely, that the aorist tense signifies point action (an action that is performed and completed in a single moment). These special verbs are recognized and categorized differently from regular stem present tense verbs. To suggest that there really are no rules in Greek grammar is to make the grammar to be unknowable and to subjectivize the translation process, which many translators of modern versions are, in fact, doing today.
5. Focus Upon One Definition and Ignore Context.
Another pitfall that the beginning student may stumble into relates to vocabulary. When one begins studying Greek vocabulary, there is an emphasis upon a one-for-one translation of a Greek word to an English word. This is done in order to build a student’s vocabulary in a relatively short period of time. And while it is the case that Greek words have a primary or main definition, like English, most words may also take additional, secondary (and even tertiary, etc.) meanings in different contexts.
A great example of this is the Greek word for “head,” KEFALH. The word may refer to one’s physical head (the one with the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, etc.). But the word may also refer to a leader, i.e., the head of an organization. These two meanings are apparent in the English language as well. The word is used in both senses in 1 Corinthians 11:4. Paul writes “Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head.” In this passage, the first use of the word “head” means my flesh-covered skull. The second use of the word “head” however, refers to an organizational head, namely, Christ. The meaning of the passage is when a man covers up his head (skull) while praying or prophesying, his Head (Christ) is dishonored. So we have the same word, but two different meanings of the word.
Another example is the Greek verb LUW, which can mean “to loose” or “to destroy.” In Matthew 21:2 the word is used in regard to loosing the colt upon which Jesus was to ride into the city of Jerusalem. The same word, however, is used in John 2:19 and 1 John 3:8 to mean “destroy.” How does one know the difference between the two meanings? One must understand the word in light of the context in which it is used.
An illustration of this fallacy is to assume the word DIAKONOS (deacon, servant) has no special reference to an office in the church (as Paul teaches in 1 Timothy 3:8-13), but that it is simply indicative of one who serves whether male or female. Such an over-simplification of the Greek language is not warranted because most words have more than one definition. When such is the case, one must examine context to learn what definition is being used and not assume that there is only one definition of the word.
6. Focus Entirely Upon the Context and Ignore the Definition.
Once again, there is an opposite extreme to the above pitfall, namely, that once one begins to understand that context helps a person to determine which definition of the word is being used, one may assume that all words are defined by context and the definition has no bearing at all. Such ignores the fact that words do indeed have definitions. Context helps us construe the correct definition, but in standard writing, context does not redefine words.
One such example of imposing context upon the definition of a word so as to come up with a completely new definition of the word is the way some interpret Matthew 19:9. Jesus says, “And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.” Some look at this passage and say that Jesus was redefining adultery to mean divorce and remarriage. However, such is not the case. Jesus was not stating that that behavior was adultery. Jesus was stating that divorce and remarriage doesn’t legitimize what is in actuality adultery, the definition of which is to carnally know someone else instead of one’s legitimate spouse (compare Ezekiel 16:32). In other words, simply because one divorces and remarries doesn’t mean that one is NOT committing adultery simply because they have gone through the process of divorce and remarriage. Those who take the context of this passage and redefine the meaning of adultery are missing Jesus’ point and committing the fallacy under discussion.
More to come?.

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Kevin Cauley

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2 thoughts on “Studying Greek–Beginners' Pitfalls (Part 2)

  1. I just read your article “Studying Greek–Beginners’ Pitfalls (Part 2)” with great interest. How can I get Part 1?
    Thank you.

  2. I just read your article “Studying Greek–Beginners’ Pitfalls (Part 2)” with great interest. How can I get Part 1? Thank you.
    PS: I might have accidently sent you my old Yahoo e-mail address (aaamorrisr@hotmail.com) which had expired after not being used for 4 months. However, my AOL account has been active for years! I apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you. Thanks.

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