Cargo Cult Greek

A little learning is a dang’rous thing; / Drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring: / There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, / And drinking largely sobers us again.

Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism

Here’s a hot take (at least among certain circles), because what else are blogs for?

I’ll give you the headline upfront: approximately no one without specialized training in classical languages should be trying to use Greek to inform their understanding of the New Testament.1 Sure, feel free to study Greek if you enjoy it; as a former Latin student myself I can certainly see the aesthetic appeal of the Classics.2 But as a basis for hermeneutics? I think this is an area where most of us honestly should venture far less often.

It is somewhat trendy within certain Christian circles to reference the Greek text of the New Testament to lend a scholarly air to whatever claim one is making. Let me give an example, from a Bible study that I attended a couple of months ago on 1 Timothy 6:1–10.3 It was pointed out during the study that the Greek word ἑτεροδιδασκαλεῖ (“to teach a different doctrine”) is used only twice in the New Testament, once in 1 Timothy 1:3 and once in 1 Timothy 6:3. These usages supposedly “bookend” the epistle, a fact from which some conclusions can apparently be drawn. Perhaps this particular analysis is sound; I have no basis for judging otherwise. But it is with this general shape of analysis that I take issue.

Say you’ve observed that the same Greek word is used in two different places. Great! How confident are you that you’ve understood the nuances of the context? Of all the different senses of the word? Of changing usages of the word over time? Here’s a (perhaps contrived) example: the English adjective “fair” has many meanings. It can mean pleasing in appearance; it can mean light in color; it can mean impartial; it can mean of average quality. Suppose an author describes both Alice and Bob as “fair.” It would be a mistake to assume that Alice and Bob are being described in the same way, despite the use of the same English word in both cases!

Or—and maybe this is an even spicier take among Reformed circles—how familiar are you with modern textual criticism? Now certainly you don’t need to be a professional philologist to have an opinion on these matters; it’s perfectly fine if, for instance, you can’t tell the difference between the Alexandrian and Byzantine text-types. But I’d also submit that if you’re not even familiar with, say, the basic outline of the synoptic problem, you likely do not have enough familiarity with the serious scholarly study of New Testament manuscripts to have a strongly held opinion on these things, or to use the Greek text to inform your study of the Bible.

I also think that the rigidity of many popular analyses of the Greek tends to cut against a modern understanding of linguistics. I cannot pretend to be a great authority on Greek, but this why I feel like, in the wrong hands, interlinear glosses can be quite deadly to sound interpretation. It is far too easy for someone lacking familiarity with the language to suppose that there’s a (near-)bijective correspondence between English and Greek words. Formal equivalence, when taken to its extreme, is just as problematic of a translation philosophy as dynamic equivalence taken to an equivalent extreme. A sentence is not just the sum of its constituent words; it is not possible to understand all of the nuances of the text merely by consulting an interlinear. Perhaps you believe that the Bible qua Scripture, as a divinely inspired text, ought to be read differently, more—dare I say—literally.4 Fair enough! This is a claim one could advance, but I think one ought to be explicit about advancing (and defending!) it.

Once, as I was walking around the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh, I was approached by two missionaries from the World Mission Society Church of God (the “God the Mother” cult). Seeing that I was fairly interested in the Bible, they started talking to me. They spoke a lot of nonsense about holidays and the bride in Revelation, but the funniest thing they did was to try to use the plurality of the Hebrew אֱלֹהִים as a word for Deity to argue for the existence of God the Mother. (That’s elohim, if your system can’t render Hebrew.) This is, of course, a lousy argument: for one, it generally takes a singular verb.5 For another, they seemed quite unaware of the substantial scholarship of the assuredly monotheistic Jewish grammarians and rabbis on this matter; this word for Deity is generally taken to be a homonym of the common word for gods. For example, this was the opinion of Maimonides.

I am worried that most of us (myself included), when attempting to use the Greek, cannot avoid falling into similarly silly traps, which may easily lead to erroneous conclusions about the text that serve only to reinforce our existing beliefs rather than deepening our understanding of God’s Word as they might appear to. Uninformed people arguing about Greek is precisely how you get things like the infamous New World Translation used by Jehovah’s Witnesses, with its grossly mistranslated Gospel of John.6

Now it is true that other translations have their own flaws and biases. The ESV, for instance, is the subject of well-known accusations of possessing a complementarian bent.7 The NRSVue, on the other hand, basically threw the in towel and gave up on attempting to translate the famously controversial ἀρσενοκοῖται (1 Cor. 6:9). Nonetheless, I would contend that almost everyone without specialized training would be much better off reading a good English translation or two (with an awareness of their favorite translation’s biases) than trying to come up with their own questionably correct interpretation of the Greek. I hate to sound elitist (because this is an error to which I consider myself exceptionally prone), but I think that ancient languages is a field in which most of us ought to leave things to the true experts.8

Perhaps a good example of the kind of debate that I have in mind is the controversy around the Greek word βαπτίζω (“to dip, sink”), which we transliterate into English as the verb baptize. There is a longstanding debate over the proper mode of baptism—that is, whether baptism ought to be done by full immersion into water, or whether sprinkling or pouring water onto the head suffices. You will sometimes hear Baptists argue that the Greek word—whose original meaning, after all, is to dip—implies that the rite should always be carried out by full immersion. Maybe this argument holds some weight, but I personally don’t find it conclusive.9 After all, words often take on specialized meanings beyond (and sometimes divorced from) their common ones.

For instance, the word ἐκκλησία (“assembly”), as used in the New Testament, refers to a religious congregation, and especially the Church. Yet in other classical texts, the word is used to describe the assembly of the citizenry of an ancient Greek city-state. Does this mean that the Church ought to be characterized by the practices of the ancient Greek polis? Should it consist only of the elite men of society, or should it vote using shards of pottery? Certainly not! While I’m at it, I might as well give a more inflammatory example: the English adjective “catholic” is a transliteration of the Greek word καθολικός (“universal”). Yet (pace our Catholic friends) it would be a mistake to suppose that the Roman Catholic Church, as an institution headed by the Pope as the Vicar of Christ, is to be equated with the “universal Church.” The word “catholic” has clearly taken on a specialized meaning here.10 Is it too far to suppose that the word “baptize” has taken on a similarly specialized meaning, not to be confused with its Greek roots?

I don’t want to belabor the point any further, so to summarize this post with a punchline: I think the popular usage of Greek often lends a veneer of rigor that is in actuality quite lacking; it smells of cargo-culting. For those not aware, the analogy of cargo cult science comes from Richard Feynman’s famous 1974 commencement address at Caltech, in which he compared pseudoscientific practices—with all the rituals of science but none of its actual rigor—to the cargo cults of the South Pacific.11 I think that Greek often serves a similar purpose in Bible study: it lets many of us pretend to be experts, whereas in reality, we are far from experts in the original texts. This pretension of expertise is quite dangerous, for the interpretation of Scripture is a weighty task. To reference the eminently-quotable Alexander Pope again, let not fools rush in where angels fear to tread!

Thanks to Sara Keriakes for reading a draft of this post. All remaining errors are doubtless mine and not hers.


  1. And likewise Hebrew and Aramaic for the Old Testament, although this is less common.↩︎

  2. Tangentially related anecdote: my proudest buzz in all my years of high school quizbowl is probably first-lining “The Lord’s Prayer” off of a clue about the Greek word ἐπιούσιον, the infamous hapax legomenon that Jerome notably translated inconsistently.↩︎

  3. To be clear, I’m not trying to disparage anyone in the study; I thought it was a well-taught study by someone who clearly loves Scripture. I just thought I’d use this as an example of a somewhat worrying trend that I’ve observed.↩︎

  4. As a tangent, my limited understanding is that the trend of much of modern scholarship is in some ways going the opposite direction, explicitly considering more and more contextual evidence when reading the Biblical text. For instance, lots of Old Testament scholarship is about shining new light on the Bible via other Ancient Near East texts, and in some ways, the controversial New Perspective on Paul movement is about interpreting the Pauline epistles in light of first-century Second Temple Judaism.↩︎

  5. There are a handful of exceptions to this, as well as a handful of places where the Septuagint and Masoretic texts disagree on the plurality of the verb. But for the most part this is true.↩︎

  6. Here I’ve made yet another rather incendiary claim. But, well, this is my personal blog, where I’m free to post hot takes for everyone to agree or disagree with.↩︎

  7. See, for instance, the uproar over the changes to the translation of Gen. 3:16 in the 2016 revision of the ESV.↩︎

  8. To be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about pastors referencing Greek words in their sermons. Many ministers probably took a few Greek classes back in seminary; it’s not clear to me that this automatically confers a sufficient background for fully understanding all the nuances of the original text. And of course, it’s not like there’s a definite cutoff (say, having a PhD in Classics) beyond which one is qualified to speak about Greek. I think we should all engage with Greek to the extent that we feel we are qualified to; my point in this post is to say that for most of us, this is “very little indeed.” This is an area in which I defer to pastors to make the right call; I trust that they are indeed approaching the Word of God with humility and reverence, and that they are better judges than I am of how they ought to compose their sermons.↩︎

  9. For full disclosure: I (like perhaps most Chinese Christians, but that’s another topic) am generally in line with the Baptists on this matter. Though I don’t think I am equipped to judge the linguistic argument over the word βαπτίζω, I do find the argument about identification with Christ in his burial and resurrection to be a strong one. Moreover, the Didache suggests that the accepted practice in the early church was to prefer baptism by full immersion into running water: “concerning baptism, baptize this way: … in living water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head…” (chapter 7).↩︎

  10. Incidentally, the Apostles’ Creed, in the original Latin, contains the phrase sanctam Ecclesiam catholicam (“the holy catholic Church”). When reciting the creed, you will sometimes see Protestant churches add an asterisk, swap out the transliteration “catholic” for another translation, or even omit it entirely, to avoid confusing congregants on the meaning of the word.↩︎

  11. From his speech: “In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.”↩︎