Why Greek Matters: A Brief Illustration

Posted By on January 25, 2014

I came across this post today on Bill Mounce’s blog. I sent it to my MEMRA Greek students. Bill is the author of a leading Greek Grammar and a friend. It’s a post illustrating interpretive options for the simple conjunction kai. Hope you all read it. If you do, realize that the same interpretive issue is at stake in Galatians 6:16, where it causes a hailstorm of controversy.

Gal 6:14-16

14 But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15 For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. 16 And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and (kai) upon the Israel of God.

Circumcision neutrality and a “new creation” in this chapter = the Church. So … the Church and the “Israel of God” – one group or two?  If you say one, you *aren’t* going to have separate destinies for the Church and Israel in prophecy. In other words, there’s no rapture. If you say two, then that idea is intact (at least here).

We have here another illustration of the ambiguity involved in “doing prophecy” that popular prophecy (pseudo)-experts don’t tell you about. Now it comes down to the semantics of a conjunction! This is (again) why obsessing over prophecy (read: making it an article of faith so important as to define who’s a “real” believer or not) is a waste of time.

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31 Responses to “Why Greek Matters: A Brief Illustration”

  1. Tim Wood says:

    New Test. Stud. 56, pp. 357– 395. © Cambridge University Press, 2010
    doi:10.1017/S0028688510000056
    Israel and the Mercy of God: A Re-reading of
    Galatians 6.16 and Romans 9–11*
    SUSAN GROVE EASTMAN
    Duke Divinity School, Box 90967, Durham, NC 27708.
    email: seastman@div.duke.edu

    Please comment on the article. She goes beyond the kai issue and brings in new angles.
    Thanks, Tim

  2. roberterasmus says:

    Nice piece to publish and while I agree with your take (for the most part) on eschatology NOT being a “marker” of good or bad Christians; you do understand the issues regarding ongoing Battles Between the Bickersons won’t go away regarding Galatians 6: 14-16 by just reading this post. I note that Mounce himself prevaricates (in a good way) by saying, “If you just went word for word and translated with “and,” you would suggest there are two groups of people, and IN MY VIEW (my emphasis) of Pauline theology that is not possible”. Thank God for his honesty here; that at least some other things drive his theology and that possibly other things should.

    Interestingly, while I agree with the wrongness of the two (2) groups hypothesis Mounce doesn’t come down hard (he can’t IMHO) on grammar and syntax being the total reason. While the text drives the bus, the wheels of Biblical Theology are fitted beforehand.

    • MSH says:

      well put; Bill is trying to be honest, but I agree with your assessment that “other things” might be keeping him from that.

  3. Keith R. Starkey says:

    Hmm!

    First, Paul says, “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.” Okay, so in his context, particularly of the whole letter and Paul’s message in general, no one is of this new creation except those who have put their faith in Christ, not circumcision, or any other “work.” So far so good.

    Then he says, “and as for all who walk by this rule…” he hasn’t departed from his point: it is only those who put their faith in Christ…etc.

    Then he says to those who walk by this rule, “peace and mercy be upon them…” same context, same point.

    Finally, he finishes “and upon the Israel of God,” there being no movement away here from his context: they, the Israel of God, whomever they be, must have faith in Christ to be included in this group, which, as we know, comprises both Jew and Gentile.

    This “Israel” is, therefore, believers in Christ, so there’s no distinction here of a separate body other than the body of Christ—it makes no sense here to say that Paul suddenly throws in some out-of-the-blue statment about the Jews who don’t believe in Christ—and since Jew and Gentile are one in Christ, there’s nothing here prophetically disturbing to the timing of the rapture (if you hold a rapture view) or to divisions of the body of Christ and the body of literal Israel. Nothing is different here than in anything else Paul noted elsewhere; namely, many Jews believed in Christ during Paul’s lifetime, and they are one in Christ, and many Jews don’t believe in Christ, and, therefore, are not part of this group Paul is talking about.

    So I see no issue here for either side of the prophetic line to find in this verse.

    • MSH says:

      The ascensive kai redefines “Israel” in Pauline language as not being geographic / ethnic / political Israel. This would go well with Galatians 3, where Paul does the same thing – eliminates a distinction between Israel and the Church. That distinction is absolutely essential for a pre-trib rapturist theology (see how that view handles Rev 4:1, for example). The rapture teaches that the Church is removed from earth — but the tribulation (and other things) then plays out on earth in fulfillment of prophecy given to (ethnic/geographical) Israel.

      Naturally, this doesn’t close the door on whether “Israel” in Rom 9-11 cannot be read ethnically/politically, but the ascensive reading of kai here, if correct, becomes part of a serious argument that would say “Paul, in his comments about Israel, was actually thinking of a Jew-Gentile group of believers – and so he held no special future in his mind for national Israel.”

  4. Dk says:

    Greetings and blessings Dr. Heiser,

    Thank you for pointing out something so simple, yet so important. Just a short time ago, I converted from a long time pre-trib rapture believer. I am now convinced the “rapture” is one of the events that will occur on the Day of the Lord. As you well know, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is a foundational rapture passage for pre-tribers. A few weeks ago I was reading 1 Thessalonians as part of my daily reading. I passed chapter 4 into chapter 5 and was stopped cold at the second verse where Paul mentions the Day of the Lord. Thanks to one of the courses you teach I am now well acquainted with Day of the Lord. I realized Paul was still talking about the same subject and became a post-trib “rapture” convert within a few days. I know we will indeed be caught up with Christ, but now realize there will be no second chances for those left behind and it will most certainly not be a secret. So, thanks again for sharing simple bits of information that help folks like me piece the truth together. More importantly, this conversion has led me to a greater fear of the Lord and a deeper respect for the Scriptures.

    I am very grateful for your teaching.

    Dk

    • MSH says:

      To blog readers of comments: this is a person who understands the implications of Gal 6:16. He has now moved to what appears to be a post-trib position. This helps preserve a form of the rapture (held in such a way that a hard and fast distinction between Israel and the Church isn’t necessary – the Church suffers with Israel during the presumed tribulation).

      I mention this since some who hold to a pre-trib rapture may not really grasp the arguments made for that view.

  5. Patrick says:

    I think in the context there, Paul is discussing the church AS the Israel of God sort of in consonance with say the Phillipians 3 passage( “we are the circumcision”!).

    My pastor has used the term “even” for kai there in sermons, but, I notice the article offers “namely” as a possibility, which I like better.

  6. Jeremiah D says:

    Or you could just do what the NLT did, and translate “Israel of God” as “the new people of God,” and occlude the issue altogether. If you were trying to bifurcate the people of God for prophecy purposes, this translation would not even allow it because it says, “they (the new creation) are the “new people.” Ironically a lot of people I know of who teach rapture heavy eschatology use this translation frequently. The only question I would have on this translation is would “new people” be a dynamic interpretation since the greek clearly uses the word for Israel?

    • MSH says:

      Nice point!

      I think this goes beyond dynamic equivalence. It’s highly interpretive. I’m a big believer that Bible translation should *retain* ambiguity / original wording and not do interpretation (as much as is possible). Translators should translate, not answer questions or do exegesis with their translation.

  7. KP says:

    My elementary school principle once said to me upon one of my frequent visits to her office that she never knew if should she hit me or hug me. Well, Michael, you often generate that same feeling in me.

    As an avid reader of this blog I am used to having my precious little beliefs torn asunder and consigned to the flames, but this one (really the entire “prophecy is a waste of time” series) really hit me hard.

    I have been firmly entrenched in my Pre-Millennial, Pre-Trib views for most of my adult life (and I’m no spring chicken), so these beliefs are very deep rooted. But deep rooted or not, if the biblical text doesn’t support those beliefs then those beliefs are clearly not biblical. There is just no other way to honestly approach God’s word but to let it say what it says and simply deal with it.

    Fortunately my faith is ultimately based upon the crucified and resurrected Christ and not on rapture scenarios or prophecies in the news and thus I shall continue to grow from faith to faith with a little more wisdom and a lot more humility.

    I will also now have a lot more room in the bookcase for more scholarly works to replace my vast collection of “left behind” literature.

    Thank you, Dr. Heiser, for continuously turning my theological world upside down. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

    • MSH says:

      Loved the illustration. Now for a hug. You don’t need to abandon your position. Just realize that it has problems — it’s a preference. They all have problems. (Group hug).

  8. roberterasmus says:

    I’ll add an Amen to the “retain ambiguity” part Michael; and especially here where “the Israel of God” is critical for EITHER interpretation and, as you point out, the “new people of God” is flat out pushy. I hate that the NIV in Ephesians 2:19 (and 3:8) interpolates “holy ones” as “God’s people”, but the killer is Ephesians 3: 6 where they stick in this egregious phrase, “…Gentiles are heirs together with Israel” (“Israel” is not in the text and they are forcing a theological issue with it).

    I’m one who would rather see “and” for kai in Galatians 3:16 (an unabashedly dispy doodle). And, Michael, what exactly DO you teach about the “day of the Lord”?

    • MSH says:

      The Day of the Lord is a time when wrongs are righted, evil is judged, God is vindicated, and believers rewarded for their faithfulness.

  9. Craig says:

    Off topic a little bit. Read all chapters leading up to this verse and I don’t see anything eschatological that would allude to either pre-trib or post-trib or any-trib view you want to take. Nor anything that would suggest Israel and the Church are separate entities or one unified entity. But, I was questioning this:

    Gal 6:15 “…new creation.” In the flow of the context this phrase seems to me out-of-place: it doesn’t make sense in the sentence its written. I researched the Greek word translated “creation” a little and discovered it is also translated or used to mean “ordinance.” I don’t know the grammatical rules behind translating the text. But, using “ordinance” make more sense in the flow of the context of the reading because Gal 6:16 references a “rule.” “Ordinance” and “rule” now there flow of ideas in the text that make sense.

    I think “Israel of God” alludes to the Jewish people, especially the circumcised Jewish Christians attempting to have their fellow gentile Christians be circumcised. Circumcision is a mark on the body, so to speak. Paul reiterates what marks on his body he will glory in; the marks of Jesus (marks received for preaching the gospel-marks of the Spirit, sowing to Spirit.) This in contrast to other Jewish Christians glorying in the mark of circumcision (a mark of the Law-bondage, sowing to the flesh) received by the gentiles so they would not endure persecution.

  10. Andrew T. says:

    To answer your question: .. One group, not two!

    The problem isn’t with the translation of kai, rather the problem is with the translation of ekklesia.

    The Old English word ‘cirice’, ‘circ’ arose from the Old High German ‘kirihha’ which it ‘borrowed’ from the Greek κυριακός (G2060) meaning ‘belonging, or pertaining to the Lord’. Instead, the tendency to translate another Greek word ‘ἐκκλησία’ as ‘Church’ is an innovation arising from the struggles of the Protestant reformation, or specifically the translation of the King James Bible.

    Before the King James Bible ‘κυριακός‘ was translated ‘Kirk’ or ‘Cirice’ (church) while ‘ἐκκλησία‘ was translated instead as ‘congregation’ which is what the word means in secular Greek. (In Greek democracy ἐκκλησία was the ‘assembly of citizens’ everywhere except in Athens. In Athens the ἐκκλησία was given its own word δῆμος (demos)).

    For example, the Tyndale translation has [Matt 16:18] as:
    “And I saye also vnto the yt thou arte Peter: and apon this rocke I wyll bylde my congregacion. And the gates of hell shall not prevayle ageynst it.”

    Moreover, most bibles have [Heb 2:12] quoting [Ps 22:22] except that here the ἐκκλησία from the Greek Septuagint remains un-tainted:
    “saying, ‘I shall tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I shall sing your praise.’”

    So ‘church’ which means ‘belonging to the Lord’ should be translated from κυριακός and should be translate exactly as ‘the Lords’, and another Greek word ‘ἐκκλησία’ has been given κυριακός’s meaning (for political reasons) instead.

    King James who commissioned the King James bible was sensitive to translation because he was still managing the reverberations of the Protestant reformation. Specifically he was still settling Protestant/Catholic claims to worship property as a consequence of assemblies breaking away from the Catholic Church.

    King James provided his translators with a list of 14 instructions, the 3rd of which was:
    3. The old ecclesiastical words to be kept as the word church; not to be translated as ‘congregation’, &c.

    Not knowing Greek – King James did not want physical buildings ‘churches’ associated with their congregations, rather he wanted them to belong to the Church of England. Accordingly he did’t want ἐκκλησία to be translated ‘church’, and not ‘assembly’.

    This decision forever tainted ἐκκλησία, specifically giving it novel and sacred meaning, not found in its secular language.

    In [Galatians 6:16] the ἐκκλησία is Israel – so there is only One Group!

  11. roberterasmus says:

    Fine history lesson on the KJV; some of us know it, many probably didn’t. But the conclusion of your lesson is a non sequitur. Neither the word ekklaysia nor kuriakos appears in the verse and nearby context does not provide anything definitive either. Your stating that the ekklaysia IS Israel doesn’t make it so.

    • Andrew T. says:

      True – my stating that the ekklaysia IS Israel doesn’t make it so, but the corollary is also true – your stating that the ekklaysia is the church doesn’t make it so.

      The ekklaysia is obviously someone so whether I’m correct or not there should be a reasons discussion about who Paul is referring to. Whereas, if the ekklaysia is not the ‘church’ ecclesiology has no foundation as a theology so we we shouldn’t be thinking biblical folks are referencing the church when they use the word.

      Now since the Old testament frequently speaks about the faithful sons of Abraham as the congregation of Israel ([Exo 12:3,6][Psa 68:26][Jer 6:18] to name a few) and makes no distinction, it makes sense to assume that the use of the word ekklaysia is contextual, and consistent with how the writers of the LXX would have used it.

      Accordingly, though I may be wrong with the assertion the ‘ekklaysia is Israel’ it’s a more rational hermeneutic than believing in a spiritualized hypothetical church that has no basis in previous scripture, Greek linguistic norms or biblical promises.

      Therefore I have the easier job defending my position since it, at least, is plausible.

      • MSH says:

        So, are you positing that ekklesia does not refer in the NT to believers (collectively)? If so, since the word is used of the “Body of Christ” (Eph 5:23; Col 1:18, 24) what do you think the Body of Christ is? Only believing Jews? No believing Jews – only believing Gentiles? I can’t see how you’d say believing Jews and Gentiles since then you’d be agreeing with me (and a boat load of other people).

        Shorter version: What is the body of Christ — this thing called ekklesia?

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