Abstract: “In languages descended from or heavily influenced by Latin, it is possible to bludgeon people with truths, because in Latin, ‘truth’ is a noun. But this is not possible in Koine Greek. In the Koine Greek of the New Testament, truth is an activity, not a blunt object.”
After a conversation earlier today, I’m going to share this longer post with you because a few of you might find it useful or beautiful, or may want to refer to it in conversations later. The topic is what some key words from the New Testament mean in the original text, because they get thoroughly sucked dry and mangled in English. If the post is useful, it may provoke some readers to read certain things in a very different light than how they are typically read in our culture, or may help them challenge others to do so.
This is written in response to a reader who asked me about the meanings of the words ‘truth’ and ‘belief,’ and how they are connected.
Truth (in English)
A truth (from the word “troth,” the same word we use in “betrothed”) is something you trust deeply, perhaps with all your heart. As I wrote in a post earlier today, a truth is not a fact, and a fact is not a truth. These are very different concepts. It is a truth that I will stay with my wife until she or I die. That is not a demonstrable fact, and will not be for many years, I hope; it is a truth. It is a truth that my wife loves me; this is not a demonstrable fact in any scientific sense, but I trust it deeply. These are truths. And when we got engaged, we pledged our truth (troth) to each other. In religion, one might speak of the Truth of divine promises — something deeply and profoundly trusted by the worshipper, promises judged by the worshipper to be worthy of their trust.
In English, a truth is a promise. In English, you believe in a truth (a promise) likely because you trust (have faith in) the subject who gave you that truth. So, for example, if in religious belief God gives you a promise about salvation or about comforting you with the Holy Spirit, the salvation or the comfort is a ‘truth’ or a promise, and God (and/or, potentially, writers of sacred texts and ancestors) is the subject who has relayed that promise to you. So in English, you believe the truth (the promise) and you trust (have faith in) the subject (God). The object, if there is one, is you yourself, the one trusting.
Belief (in English and Greek)
In Greek there is no word used in the New Testament that corresponds to the modern English “believe.” The word in Greek is much closer to “trust.” It is the verb for the Greek noun that we translate “faith,” but we don’t have a verb for faith in our language (which is a rather enormous oversight, if you think about it), so for four centuries we’ve been forced to substitute the word ‘believe’ as a placeholder for the missing word that doesn’t exist in English and that no one thought to invent. Often with unfortunate consequences, because the modern sense of ‘belief’ is very far from the words actually used in the text. To be fair, the original meaning of ‘believe,’ centuries ago, WAS closer to the intent, so the substitution may have made more sense at the time; the word “believe” has changed a lot over time. It originally didn’t have anything to do with your mind at all. In its Old English and Old Germanic roots, the word meant to hold something dear, to love it. Ten centuries ago, you would ‘believe’ a spouse, meaning you’d embrace and love them and hold them dear. (Compare ‘lieve’ root with modern German ‘liebe’ for love.) That’s what ‘believe’ originally meant.
Truth (in Greek and Latin)
“Truth” is actually a substitution, too, in the case of the New Testament, because again, we don’t have a word in English that means the same thing as Greek “aletheia,” or even close. Truth (a promise) was selected as nearest to the spirit of what translators felt the New Testament was looking to convey. “Aletheia” actually means “unforgetting.” Not just remembering, but un-forgetting (“a – lethe”), the daily act of holding a promise present in your mind and heart, of letting that promise drive all that you do. Literally un-forgetting it. Implied in the word is the idea that we are naturally in lethe (forgetting). Lethe is the river in Greek myth that the dead drink from to forget their lives and pasts and all that mattered to them, so that they can cross the river and dwell as somnolent shades in the underworld. The New Testament writers are telling Greek-speaking readers that, figuratively speaking, they have drunk from Lethe and are at risk of forgetting their relationships and their past and what’s been done for them, and the promises made for their present and future. Hence the word “aletheia,” unforgetting, un-Lethe’ing your heart. In a sense, resurrecting your heart, day by day, hour by hour, from the underworld of forgetfulness where life is expressed in hues of gray, without the constant awareness of joy.
In modern Western culture, when someone young and in love slips a love letter inside their clothing to keep it near their heart and to feel the paper against their skin, that is an unforgetting: an ongoing, constant unforgetting of the new love and joy, and of the promise for the future that the letter embodies.
(Paul’s “aletheia,” and the gospel writers’ subsequent adoption of the word, is an attempt to translate a similar concept from Hebrew, one that you can get the substance of if you read Deuteronomy 6, about keeping your history and the promise before your mind and your eyes constantly, wearing it on your forehead, writing it on your doorpost, telling your children the story when you wake and when you lie down, when you go about your day, when you come home from work, etc. Paul coins the word “aletheia” to transfer that concept into a Greek context. Topic to discuss more fully in some other post, but I mention it because this is also one reason why Judaism does not share Western Christianity’s ways of belaboring “biblical truth”; the Jewish concept of witness is much closer akin to Paul’s ‘unforgetting’ than to English ‘truth.’)
So, for example, when in the book of John Jesus says “I am the Aletheia,” he is saying “I am the Unforgetting.” He is describing himself as an embodied unforgetting of God’s promises, a daily living-out of the promise of union and reunion between God and humanity, and between humanity and humanity, and a daily and ongoing incarnation of God’s promise of ‘ki eyeh immakh’ (I will be with you). It’s a very nuanced and breathtaking passage, which unfortunately we don’t have the vocabulary to render well in English.
Also, notice that in Greek, ‘truth’ (unforgetting) isn’t really a noun or a thing. It isn’t a statement. It’s an ongoing action, a verb wearing noun’s clothing. In Greek, it’s easier to verb nouns than in English. “Believe in the Truth” is a weird Englishism that would have been incomprehensible and fairly circular to writers in Koine Greek, much as if you were to say to someone today, “Trust in Trust.” (Say what?) In the Greek New Testament, rather than ‘believe in the Truth,’ you strive all the time to unforget promises, and you hold dear and trust the one who gave you the promise. Where most of our culture’s conversation about belief is transactional in nature (accept this premise and sign on the dotted line), the original text is entirely relational (trust someone and hold their promise constantly before you).
One reason our translation gets so tilted on its side is that we’ve filtered our religion through the lens of Rome, and our translations (and in fact, the European languages we’re translating into) are profoundly influenced by Latin. The Latin Vulgate translates ‘aletheia,’ rather horribly, as ‘veritas’ (“something verified or confirmed”). This kind of substitution is common in the Vulgate. In the book of Mark, for example, the Vulgate routinely replaces a Greek word conveying a concept similar to ‘authority’ with the Latin word for ‘power’ or ‘force.’ But a moment’s reflection might persuade us that authority and power are not the same thing.
In similar fashion, the empire-builder Romans replaced the Greek idea of aletheia with the idea of verifiable fact. (‘Fact’ itself is a Latin word: factum est, “it happened’). That is why in our culture, we still confuse “truth” with “fact.” That’s a typically Roman thing to do. Our modern translations follow suit. (This is also why, in the story of the trial, Pontius Pilate had no idea what Jesus was talking about. “What is truth?” he asks, because his cultural and linguistic vocabulary leaves him ill-equipped — much as our own leaves us ill-equipped — to “get” it.)
In languages descended from or heavily influenced by Latin, it is possible to bludgeon people with truths, because in Latin, ‘truth’ is a noun. But this is not possible in Koine Greek. In Koine Greek, truth is an activity, not a blunt object.
When Paul says, “Hold fast to the truth,” in Greek he is not saying hold fast to a mental opinion you have in your head; in Greek he is saying, Keep unforgetting the promise. If I might paraphrase, it means: ‘Keep unforgetting who loves you, and how much he loves you.’ And in Greek grammar, that isn’t a one-time activity but something that is ongoing, every hour, something to be actively doing all the time.
Addendum: Exhibit B -“Charity”
It’s easy to remain unaware of the extent to which language shapes our thinking. Here’s another example. The word “charity” has only meant what it means now for roughly 150 years. The word was originally coined as a translation of “caritas” in the Vulgate New Testament, and many older Bible translations have this word “charity” everywhere. But “caritas” doesn’t mean giving at the office; the word means a caring love that holds the other to be of high value. In turn, Latin “caritas” is an attempt to translate Greek “agape,” which means a reckless, spendthrift love that holds no accounts and no ledgers, the love where you sacrifice everything you own, even if you are as rich as king, to save one endangered child. That’s the word that we translated ‘charity.’
In the Old Testament, “charity” translates the Hebrew word for “justice.” In ancient Hebrew, there IS no separate word for charity; our often derisive concept of charity does not exist in that language. The people who wrote the Old and New Testaments regarded responding to the needs of the poor and the marginalized (“the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow”) not as acts of charity but as, depending on the text, acts of justice or acts of reckless love.
Stant Litore is the author of The Zombie Bible, The Ansible Stories, The Running of the Tyrannosaurs, and Dante’s Heart — and is endlessly fascinated by religious studies. You can support his work — and get some amazing stories to read — by joining his membership on Patreon: www.patreon.com/stantlitore