When we are looking at the Koine Greek we can just look at an interlinear text to find its meaning. An interlinear will show the Greek with the English translation below each Greek word. For a lot of cases that is all we might want to do. Or, if we want to go more in-depth, we can use a lexicon to discover the meaning. Part of that decision depends on where we are in our language development.
When we are little kids we slowly learn our language over many years. But even high school graduates, while usually fluent enough to communicate adequately to do what they need to, are certainly not experts in their native language. Further still, we may receive extensive education in some field and still not be experts in our native language. So what do we do? We use dictionaries, thesauruses, and other language tools to help us understand words or phrases that we don’t understand as they come up.
The same is true for Koine Greek. One of the differences between English and Koine Greek is that so much information (number, case, gender, and so forth) is contained in the word endings in Koine Greek. A primary tool for finding what a particular form of a word means is a Lexicon.
In this example we are going to look up a Greek word in a lexicon to find its meaning.
But before we do we are going to have to get a little more technical for a minute. Understanding this lesson will depend on how much we understand things like number, case, gender, mood and voice from English. Many things are the same in Koine Greek as English, but some are different. We need to look at a quick overview of number, gender, case, tense, person, mood and voice.
Number refers to the word is singular or plural.
Gender refers to whether the wordis masculine, feminine, or neuter. Gender can be a little confusing because sometimes words we think of as, for example, feminine, are either masculine or neuter. For example, both masculine and feminine horses are masculine words, and both boys and girls are neuter words. It is a matter of learning which words are masculine, feminine, or neuter, and applying the appropriate endings.
Case refers to how the word is used in a sentence. Nominative words are subjects; objective words are objects; genitive words show possession; dative words show indirect objects; vocative shows a calling out, so to speak.
Tense refers to where in time the action occurred. Past, present, and future are relatively straightforward. They are simple to understand. Complicating things are tenses such as perfect, imperfect, pluperfect, and future perfect.
Person refers to whether you are taking about (1st) I/we, (2nd) you, (3rd) him/her/it/them.
Mood indicates an aspect of the verb. Indicative means that the verb is indicating something, imperative means the verb is a command; interrogative means a question is being asked, and so forth
Voice refers to whether the subject is acting (active voice), being acted upon (passive), or somewhere in the middle (middle).
So, back to our exercise. Say we are reading a word in Koine Greek, and don’t understand it. The word we are going to look up is one from Matthew 6:12:
Now there are online lexicons[i] that are available. The ones that I have found are tied to the Strong’s numbering system, which incidentally is G863 in this case. This is a valuable tool which you can quickly use to get to the root word, but they don’t show you the tense, mood, case and so forth so that you can dig into to the sense of the word. I am still looking for an online lexicon that does that. In the meantime I use a hard copy, a real book, Zondervan’s Analytical Greek Lexicon.[ii]
Here is the word we are looking for on page 61 of that book:
We see here that our word is 1st person, plural, present tense, indicative mood, active voice of the root word which we find on page 62:
We can see here that translation is no easy thing. Look at the various meanings that are given to this word in its various forms. Translators have translated this word as “forgive”. To forgive is one, but not the only meaning given to this word in translation. Other translations include cry, forsake, put aside, and remit. If we think that the word is mistranslated we can use the information here to investigate other possible translations that we might want to use to understand the verse better. A big key is how the same word is translated in other verses. For example, if a word is always translated other ways in other verses and just in this verse is translated as it is, it looks suspicious that the translators may have tried to force their interpretation of the verse.
I personally think the way that it is translated as “forgive” is okay in our example.
Sometimes, also, you can see why a word is translated differently in a different version from the information here, and in doing so gain a much better sense of the meaning.
The biggest point, perhaps, that can be made here is that you don’t need a PhD in Koine Greek to be able to investigate the meaning of words. Just as in English, as you learn more vocabulary, grammar, and syntax, you get more fluent in language. But where you are lacking you can always do some research with lexicons and dictionaries to dig into the meaning, and decide for yourself what the author meant.
[i] Online lexicons are available at http://www.studylight.org/lex/grk/browse.cgi, and http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/kjv/.
[ii] THE ANALYTICAL GREEK LEXICON, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Thirteenth Printing, 1976
© copyright 2011 Mark W Smith, all rights reserved.