Reader Questions Answered

Return to homepage

Out of curiosity, what do we know about idioms in ancient Greek?  Idioms can (correctly) change the translation to something dramatically different from the literal words. (7/11/2009)

What’s an “Idiom”?
Some Interesting Idioms in New Testament Greek
Some idioms that need new translations

This morning, in lieu of actually getting to work on something useful, I played a few hands of Spider solitaire on the computer.  At one point, I was amused to hear myself think, "Now, if I just play my cards right, I can win this." 
 
Most of us in this Bible study are native English speakers, and those few who aren't are a heck of a lot more fluent in English than I am in, say, German, which is my second-best language.  We all know that "play one’s cards right" does not really mean "correctly put each card in a game where it belongs."  "Play one’s cards right" is an idiom that means "do things carefully and correctly in order to achieve some goal."  I promise you that's what I meant when I thought it - my brain actually intended the idiomatic meaning, and not the literal meaning, of the phrase.
 
I have studied five languages, including English, and all of them have idioms.  Our fellow-reader is absolutely correct in saying that translating an idiom literally from one language to another can dramatically change the meaning of the text.  Generally speaking, good translators do not make this mistake, because they know the problem exists and because they learn the meaning of most idioms in the first two or three years of their study of a language.  In most cases, either the literal meaning is nonsense in the second language, or the literal meaning is clear enough in context that it doesn't matter, as in my card game.  However, serious errors are possible. When I took German, we read a real short story (as opposed to one made up for a text book) in which the main character was at dinner and, among other dishes, was eating crab. All of us translated this as “he was eating crab.” Our professor insisted - and although we all argued about it, I’m sure he was correct - that it should have been translated as “he had cancer.”

Another problem with translating idioms is that living languages change all the time, and Biblical languages don’t. So a translation that works for one generation fails for the next generation. We’ll see an example below. One error in translating an idiom helped give rise to the doctrine of original sin.

What’s an “Idiom”?

First let me tell you the bad news. I checked several textbooks, and I couldn’t find a decent list of Biblical idioms. The closest I came was a list of idioms in Figures of Speech in the Bible, by E. W. Bullinger. Bullinger has a small section devoted to idioms, and many of the examples given below are ones I found there.

Linguists use “idiom” in two different ways. The first way, and the one that I would say is more common among linguists than among non-linguists like us, is that an idiom is a syntactical, grammatical, or structural form in a particular language. So, for example, a linguist might call verb position an idiom:
We aren’t going to discuss this meaning of “idiom” much here for three reasons. First, it isn’t what our fellow reader is talking about. Second, translators just about never make a mistake about this kind of idiom after the first year of study. Third, even if the translator does mess it up, it’s usually not that big a deal: you understood all three sentences in the bullets above. Although two are broken English, they’re still understandable.

Once in a while, though, an idiom in this group will bite you. A common idiom of this type is “Let,” as in “Let him hear,” or “Let them come.” The modern speaker of American English probably understands these as “Allow them to hear,” or “Allow them to come.” “Let” is a not-particularly-good translation of a verb form we don’t have in English. In English we have what’s called the “imperative,” in which an order is given to the person being spoken to, i.e., the “second person.” “Go!” means “You go!” Greek has what is called the “third person imperative,” where the person being given the order is not the person being spoken to, but rather a third person: “He go!” (I have actually heard tiny English-speaking children use this construction, by the way.) The closest we have to this in adult English is when Mom says to one child about the other, “Tell Johnny I said to go!” Thus “let” in older translations of the Bible rarely or never means “allow,” but rather is closer to “direct.” (“Suffer” means “allow.”) Some newer translations, like the CEV, just go with the second person: “If you have ears, listen!”

This type of syntactical error can sometimes result in a serious misrepresentation of the text. For example, St. Augustine’s doctrine of original sin is based in large part on Romans 5:12, translated in the Latin Vulgate as “By one man sin entered the world, and death by sin; so death passed upon all men, for in him all men sinned” (italics added). The Greek translated as in him, eph’ ho, is actually an idiom of this first type. Let's say that eph’ means in and ho means him; nevertheless, eph’ ho means “because,” and is so translated even in the KJV: “... death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” (In fact, eph’ rarely or never means in in the first place; it means on, over, upon, or to, but that's not the argument here.) In him is just about impossible, but since Augustine didn’t see any value in reading Greek or Hebrew, he relied on a bad translation and got it wrong. Consequently his doctrine on original sin departs from that of all earlier Church theologians and teachers (see God’s Strategy in Human History by Roger T. Forster and V. Paul Marston, Appendix, "Original Sin").

The second way that linguists use “idiom,” which I think is the way most non-linguists use it, is to indicate that a series of words is a set phrase whose real meaning can’t be figured out from the literal meaning of the individual words. For example, “on the wagon” means “not currently drinking alcoholic beverages,” and “on the bandwagon” means “taking a popular position.” Not only can’t you figure out the meaning of either idiom by looking up the words in a dictionary, but knowing one gives you absolutely no help with the other.

Some Interesting Idioms in New Testament Greek

Possibly you have heard the anecdote about the elderly lady who went to see “Hamlet.” Asked how she liked the play, she said, “I don’t see why everybody thinks Shakespeare was a genius. All he did was string a bunch of clichés together.”

A very similar situation exists with Hebrew and Greek Biblical idioms and English. As near as I can tell, many English idioms are idioms for us because they were translated (mostly by the King James Version) almost word for word from the Hebrew or Greek idiom. I’m not going to talk about these today, because you already know what they mean. Like “stay on the strait and narrow path” (not straight, as frequently understood or written) (Matthew 7:14). What does that mean? Go back and look at it. Does it literally mean “control your behavior so that you do not break rules or laws”? No. But except in very specific circumstances where I am giving you directions about how to get somewhere, this phrase is talking about behavior, not directions. Often a Hebrew idiom came directly into the Greek Old Testament, then into the New Testament, and then into English.

Other times, of course, a Hebrew or Greek idiom would be so weird in English and is so common in the original Biblical text that it is rarely translated word for word. A good example is “verb-ing you will verb.” This idiom is Hebrew’s way of saying “you will certainly verb,” and it is just about always translated that way. For example, in Genesis 2:17, God tells Adam that if he eats from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, “dying you will die.” This comes into the KJV as “surely die,” which is what many translations say. I like the Schocken Bible, which says, “you will die, yes, die!”

By the way, some scholars assert on the basis of this very idiom that Jesus spoke only Aramaic, and not Greek. Several places in the NT, Jesus or someone else uses this idiom, although of course it’s reported in Greek. For example, in Luke 22:15, Jesus says, “Desiring I have desired to eat this Passover with you.” It’s not a Greek idiom in any way, shape, or form, so people figure he was speaking Aramaic. Probably so, because he was in private with his disciples celebrating an ancient Jewish holiday. You can’t prove it, though, because Judean Greek had a lot of what are called “Hebraisms” in it, which means 1. Aramaic or Hebrew words and phrases that were spelled or said in Greek and 2. Hebrew sentence structures and so on that were brought over bodily into Greek. (I believe Jesus spoke, at minimum, Aramaic, Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, but I can’t prove that, either.)

Now, both idioms we just saw - strait and narrow path, and dying you will die - would make some sense in English and in context, even if we didn’t know that they were idioms. Others wouldn’t.

By this time you have figured out that idioms can’t be explained. They just have to be defined or translated. Knowing what they really mean often isn’t critical, but it can help you understand the text. So here’s a list of some common or interesting Greek idioms in the New Testament, with the literal English meaning (or in some cases the usual translation) followed by the real English meaning.

“Answered and said”(e.g., Mat. 4:4) or “Opened his mouth and said” (e.g., Acts 10:34). Said, answered, prayed, asked, spoke, addressed, etc., depending on the context. An introductory Hebraism that sort of substitutes for quotation marks, the phrase “answered and said” is frequently used even when no one has previously spoken. In general, only one English verb is really necessary.

“Feared with great fear” (e.g., Mat. 4:41) or “were amazed with great amazement” or “were glad with great gladness,” etc. Were terrified, were astonished, were overjoyed, etc., and usually so translated.

“Three days and three nights.” Some part of three consecutive American 24-hour days, i.e., somewhere between a little over 48 and a little under 77 hours. We talked about this one in the recent supplement on Passover, when Jesus was in the tomb from Friday evening until early Sunday morning: three days.

“Forty days and forty nights” (e.g., Mat. 4:2). A time period that is longer than a week but shorter than a year; a month or two. I get the impression that sometimes it just seems like a long time: “How long were your in-laws in town?” “Forty days and forty nights.”

“And it came to pass” (e.g., Mat. 7:28). It happened. An introductory phrase that typically means we’re about to change the topic - remember that the original text had no paragraph separations. This one could usually be omitted entirely, because the sentence virtually always goes on to say what happened.

“What to me and to you?” Usually translated “What have I to do with you?” (Mark 5:7, John 2:4). It seems to mean, depending on the context, What is the relationship between us? What do we have in common? What business is it of ours?

“Soul.” Greek psuche. 1. Life. 2. Self. 3. Non-physical part of the whole person. Here’s a funny example from the KJV, which is identical in some other versions and translations: “For whosoever will save his psuche life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his psuche life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own psuche soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his psuche soul?” (Mat. 16:25-26) Same word in the same sentence structure in two consecutive verses, translated two different ways!

Similarly, “Save one’s soul.” 1. Most commonly, save one’s physical life (but often misunderstood or even mistranslated). 2. Eternally save the non-physical part of one’s person. Strictly speaking, the scripture doesn’t say we have a physical part and a non-physical part, so this misunderstanding arises partly from the Western way of thinking about ourselves as a body with a separate soul.

“Walk.” Often this literally means “walk”; however, it also very commonly means “behave in a such a way” and is often translated that way in modern times, although your KJV will have “walk” (Mark 7:5). For example, “walk in the Lord” means “behave like the Lord” (Col. 2:6).

“Son of …” Also daughter of, child of. 1. Emphatically belonging to, typically, a school of behavior. For example, we might call a man with 15 arrests and three felony convictions a son of lawlessness (John 17:12). A child of the light is a person who is immersed in the ways of God. 2. Physical descendant of.

“Son of man.” 1. A son of man is a person; see previous idiom (Ex. 33:11). 2. The son of man is Jesus Christ (Mat. 9:6).

“Hear.” Usually, understand and obey, as in when a mother says to her child, “Do you hear me?” (Mat. 11:15; Luke 6:47). Often it literally means to hear a sound (Mat. 11:4). Occasionally it means believe or understand (Mat. 13:18, John 6:60). It depends on context and on the grammatical form of the word for whatever is being heard.

“Hard.” Difficult to do or understand (John 5:60). We say the same thing: “that is really hard” rarely means that’s solid.

“Stiff-necked.” Stubborn (Deut. 31:27).

“Hard-hearted.” 1. Strong-willed, either for good or ill (Ex. 8:15). 2. Slow to understand (Mark 8:17). Never, as in English, unsympathetic.

“Eat, drink, or taste.” 1. Experience (Gen. 2:7; Mat. 6:28; Prov. 4:17). 2. Receive, understand, and apply (Psalm 119:103-104). 3. Eat, drink, or taste.

“Something of something else,” e.g., angel of might, kingdom of God, king of kings. The something else is the most impressive characteristic of the something, or else the something is the most impressive of its class. An angel of might is not just a mighty angel, but rather an angel whose most impressive characteristic is essential mightiness. A king of kings is not just the Roman emperor, who has other kings reporting to him, but the greatest imaginable king. This is similar to the verb example given above, “dying you will die.”

“Break bread.” Eat a meal.

Some idioms that need new translations

I’m not going to get into either feminist objections to old translations or traditionalist objections to new translations, except to say that if everybody read Greek, few of these objections would have come up. In the past 50 years in American English, “man” has changed its meaning. It used to mean, 1. a human being, 2. an adult male human being. Now it means, 1. an adult male human being, 2. a chauvinistic, exploiting oppressor of the down-trodden masses.

Consequently, some people get really uptight about a word that, in the first place, doesn’t appear nearly as often as you think it does in the Greek and Hebrew text, and in the second place, has only recently changed its meaning in American English.

Don’t blame the Greek or the King James Version for this; it’s American English that has changed the meaning of “man” and “men.” However, if this sort of thing is important to you and you are ready to buy a good, modern translation of the Bible with study notes (which you should), consider one of the so-called “gender neutral” translations, which should actually be called “more accurate” translations, at least in this specific area.

“Men.” 1. More often, a mixed group of men, women, and children. 2. Less often, a group of adult men. The Greek usually, but not always, uses anthropoi (560 NT occurrences) for the former and andres (214 NT occurrences) for the latter.

“The man who…” or “him who” or “a certain man.” The one who; someone. Generally speaking, neither anthropoi nor andres is in the Greek. Dig out your King James Bible. If a word is in italics, it isn’t there in the Hebrew or Greek. Very often, man will be in italics. A much more accurate modern American translation is “a doer,” as in a sower, a listener, a believer, a walker, a speaker, etc., or “a certain person.” A good example is “If any man have ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:23). The Greek has neither man nor him. It says “If anyone has ears to hear, let that one hear,” or more elegantly in English, “Let anyone who has ears, hear.”


Copyright 2009, 2011 by Regina L. Hunter.  All rights reserved.

Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the Bible-study participants.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers for their support and enthusiasm.  All errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.

Our Sponsors:

St. John’s United Methodist Church, “Transforming Lives Through Christ.”
2626 Arizona NE, Albuquerque, New Mexico 87110
Traditional worship services are held Sundays at 8:15 and 11:00 a.m. in the sanctuary.  Casual worship services are held Sundays at 9:30 a.m. in the Family Life Center.  Jazz Vespers are held monthly on the second Saturday at 5:00 p.m. in the sanctuary. St. John’s feels especially called to the worship of God and to the service of our neighbors through our music program.

Storm Dragon SoftwareTM
Get a free demo of our computer adventure game, full of hidden-object puzzles, tiling and jigsaw puzzles, cycling puzzles, and more.

Age Games: Animal ReaderTM
Computer games that children can play all by themselves!

Ducks in a Row, Inc., developers of Home Safe SoftwareTM.
Keep It SafeTM - Home inventory software so easy anybody can use it.