Category Archives: New Testament

Does Lust Need a Purpose?

Aramaic in the New Testament (Post #5)



Matthew 5:28 records Jesus’ famous saying about the sinfulness of lust. Often it sounds like you can seriously sin by accident. Usually, the translation sounds something like this:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt 5:27-28 NAB)

Greek Background

However, a closer inspection of the Greek and the various translations reveals a difficulty. The Greek does not say “look at a woman with lust.” Rather, it says “…look at a woman in order to lust [after her]” or “…look at a woman for the purpose of lust.” In Greek grammar, this is what we call a purpose clause, indicated by the short words, pros to, plus an infinitive in the Greek. A good example is in Ephesians 6:11 – “Put on the full armor of God in order that you may be able to stand against the scheming of the devil” (my trans.).

Aramaic Background

Recent grammarians have, however, relied on a hypothetical Aramaic background to this Greek saying. Rather than translating the phrase as a purpose clause, they have looked to a possible Aramaic construction, where the pros to represents an Aramaic lamed, a letter that functions as a particle indicating one of any number of things: a genitive relationship, direct object, indirect object, ethical dative, purpose, direction (See Alger Johns, A Short Grammar of Biblical Aramaic, p. 11). Fr. Maximilian Zerwick explains the supposed Aramaic background of pros to in his Biblical Greek:

“Indeed the sense need not even be consecutive; in the passage in question [Matt 5:28] one would expect the sense ‘with concupiscence’ simply, and this may in fact be the sense intended, if the προσ το [pros to] can be understood as a servile rendering of a Semitic (Hebrew or Aramaic) le + infinitive which, though of it means ‘to(wards)…’ and so has final or consecutive sense, may also be used without any such connotation and simply with the sense ‘…-ing.’ (p. 135, sec. 391)

Notably, Fr. Zerwick relies a lot on what “one would expect.” The difference between the two translation options might seem inconsequential, but I think there’s an significant theological principle at stake.

Theology of Intention

What’s important here from a moral theology perspective is intention. When this passage is translated based on a hypothetical Aramaic reconstruction, rather than on the actual Greek text, it sounds as if one can seriously sin by accident. The typical translation weakens the intentionality of the act being indicated by the Greek grammar, making lust sound like an almost unintentional part of “looking” since “with lust” (or in RSV “lustfully”) merely functions as an adverb modifying the verb “to look.” But if it is translated as a purpose clause, which follows the Greek grammar most closely, then the teaching indicates that a moral intention must be involved—a decision to look for the purpose of lust or in order to lust.

A Better Translation?

And, if you really want to consider the Aramaic background, the le particle also works to indicate purpose, as I listed out above. So you can have your Aramaic cake and eat it too. The ESV translation, in my opinion, strikes the balance right, with this translation:

But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Mat 5:28 ESV)

You can’t sin by accident. Lust involves an intentional choice to commit evil, to violate God’s commandments.

What is “character” in Romans 5:4?

In Romans 5, St. Paul strings together several virtues wherein each leads to the next. Here’s the passage:

More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame…(Romans 5:3-5a)

This is one of those passages that could simply sound like a nice saying, rather than having theological meat on the bones. I was especially interested in what Paul means by “character.” What is that? 031303-N-3228G-001.jpg

The Greek word for character is dokime (δοκιμη). This word is related to a bunch of words all having to do with approval: dokimazo (to prove or scrutinize), dokeo (to think, suppose), dokimos (accepted). The word has to do with outside approval. Paul is not talking about self-esteem, but moral approval by others–I think we are safe to say, especially the moral approval of God.

Notably Paul uses the word several other times: 2 Cor 2:9, 8:3, 9:13; Phil 2:22. He places an emphasis on this idea of testing or proving one’s character. For him, the true test of character is suffering. If a person can endure “affliction” or persecution or suffering for the sake of the Gospel and maintain their faithfulness to the truth, then they are “approved.” Interestingly, Liddell-Scott-Jones does not cite examples of this word prior to St. Paul. Perhaps it was a favorite of his.

This whole concept reminds me of spy movies where a spy is captured and tortured for information. The heroic ones stick it out and keep their mouth shut, while the cowards cough up secrets before the pain is too much for them to bear.

To me, this is why experience is so valuable. A person with great experience of life who has kept the faith stands as an example of proven character. Not all Christians will suffer at the hands of persecutors, but perseverance in the face of any suffering, whether through physical illness, moral trials or even emotional pain, can be an occasion for spiritual growth and growth in dokime.



Maranatha – Aramaic in the New Testament (Post #4)

A while back I started a series of posts on Aramaic in the New Testament–an odd topic that is tough to find much about on the Internet. I’m taking the Aramaic words and phrases in the New Testament on a case by case basis, breaking down the details and explaining what’s going on.

In this post, I want to examine a word you have probably heard before: Maranatha. This word/phrase only occurs once in the New Testament: in 1 Cor 16:22. In the Greek, it looks like this: μαράνα θά, but this actually has no meaning in Greek itself. It is a transliteration of the Aramaic, marana tha (מָרָנָא תָּה) or marana atha (מָרָנָא אֲתָה). The Greek manuscripts disagree about how to spell this transliteration. Some have maran atha, others maranatha (you can see how these two match the second version of the Aramaic above) and the one I’ve chosen which is the text in the Nestle-Aland 27th critical edition.

This phrase even in Aramaic is a little grammatically confusing. It basically means “Our Lord, come!” so we have to point out three different elements:

1. The noun for “Lord” is mar. (As in Mar Ephrem, the great saint of Syriac/Aramaic Christianity.)

2. The suffix -na means “our.” Hence, “marana” is “our Lord.”

3. The verb tha (Come!) is the Peal Imperative 2nd masculine singular of the the verb atha. Atha means “he comes” and shows up in the alternate forms of maranatha. It is simply the 3rd masculine singular perfect form, the dictionary form for this word.

So maranatha can be translated either as “Our Lord, come!” or as “Our Lord comes/will come.” It could be a plea or a statement of fact. Many translators prefer the “plea form” since it is supported by the brief prayer in Revelation 22:20, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

This word only appears once in the New Testament, but it reappears in a very early Christian document, the Didache. Gareth Hughes wrote a little study on comparing the two uses of the word here.

There’s a little taste of Aramaic to begin your new year!

EDIT: I wanted to add a chart of the possibilities here for clarity’s sake.

Words Translation Parsing for Verb in bold
marana tha Our Lord, come! Peal Imperative 2nd masc singular (Older Imperial Aramaic)
maran atha Our Lord comes/will come Peal Perfect 3rd masc singular
maran atha Our Lord, come! Peal Imperative 2nd masc singular (Later 1st century Aramaic)

Here’s a very old article on Maranatha by Nathaniel Schmidt (1894).

Who is Melchizedek?

Melchizedek, a figure so heavily emphasized in the letter to the Hebrews, is shrouded in mystery. Who is this character and why is he so important?


In the Bible
Melchizedek shows up only three times in the Bible. At first, he is a priest to whom Abraham pays a tithe (Gen 14:20). Melchizedek is here called a “priest of God Most High”; he offers bread and wine and blesses Abraham (Gen 14:18-19). Second, he shows up in a royal coronation psalm, written to celebrate the Davidic king, wherein the Lord “swears” an oath that the king “is a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (Ps 110:4). Lastly, he shows up in Hebrews, which mentions him 8 times and emphasizes that Christ is a high priest in the line of Melchizedek, applying the line from Ps 110 to him (Heb 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:1, 10, 11, 15, 17).

In the Dead Sea Scrolls
Melchizedek appears in a document discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls called 11QMelchizedek or 11Q13. In this text, Melchizedek returns to inaugurate the jubilee year, the “year of Melchizedek’s favor”* according to the text of 11Q13, instead of the “year of the Lord’s favor” in Isa 61:2. The text describes Melchizedek as a “godlike being”* who judges and executes God’s vengence. It cites Ps 82:1 and Ps 7:7-8 to describe him.

In Apocryphal Literature
Melchizedek is mentioned in 2 Enoch 68-73 (“the Exaltation of Melchizedek”) as being conceived without a father, being born from his mother’s dead body as a 3-year-old and continuing the line of priests from Enoch and Seth. The Nag Hammadi text “Tractate Melchizedek” in Codex IX, identifies Melchizedek as Jesus Christ.

Philo explains Melchizedek as a just king and relates him to reason (logos). See Legum Allegoriarum 3.79-82.

In Early Jewish Literature
Some early Jewish writers equate Melchizedek with the archangel Michael, leader of the heavenly armies. Other early Jewish authorities identify Melchizedek with Shem, the son of Noah (Targumim Pseudo-Jonathan, Neofiti, V, P).

In Early Christianity
There was actually a group of Christian heretics called “Melchizedekians”, referred to by Epiphanius of Salamis in his Panarion, Book II, chapter 55 (Greek, English excerpts). They regarded Melchizedek as actually greater than Jesus. There is also an early Christian work called Historia de Melchizedek (PG 28:525) attributed to pseudo-Athanasius.

So what to make of all these different identities? Clearly, early Jewish and Christian writers were very interested in Melchizedek’s identity and often sought to explain him in a way that pulled together other concepts–priesthood, redemption, eschatology. The best source, of course, is the Bible. Melchizedek should mainly be seen as an Old Testament priest who serves as a “type” of Christ. He foreshadows Christ’s universal priesthood through which we can be redeemed. The letter to the Hebrews provides the definitive interpretation of Melchizedek–a man, yes, but a man who points to the God-man.

I am indebted to Harold Attridge’s commentary on Hebrews (Hermeneia series, [Fortress Press, 1989]192-95) for pointing me to the right sources. You can find an online reproduction of his essay here.

*See Michael Wise, Martin Abegg, Jr., and Edward Cook, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 456.

Missing Bible Verses

P46You might be surprised when you’re reading the New Testament and a verse disappears into thin air. For example, if you are reading Acts 8:36, you would expect Acts 8:37 to follow, but oddly, 8:38 is the next verse. What happened to Acts 8:37?

Or try to look up Romans 16:24. Or Matthew 17:21.

In fact, there’s a whole list of Bible verses that have been, er, excised from modern editions. Why?

The versification system that we use in English is based on the King James Bible (and some precursors) that relied on the Greek “Textus Receptus” (relying for the NT mainly on Erasmus’ edition) while modern translations are based on more recent text-critical work. The Textus Receptus  represents a Byzantine text type, but the newer critical editions are based on an Alexandrian text type. The Alexandrian text is now generally regarded as more accurate.

So our versification system is based on the King James, which is based on the Byzantine text, but our translations are based on the Alexandrian text. This means we’re using a verse system that does not line up with our text and it creates, well, holes. Even the Nova Vulgata, the Catholic Church’s official edition omits the verses.

Then are these omitted verses Scripture? Well, not exactly, but they were regarded as Scripture by many Christians for ages. Fortunately, most of them are not crucial verses.

Just a little piece of Bible-reader knowledge that will prevent you from calling the publisher in outrage when you find that a verse is missing from your Bible!

How did Philadelphia get its name?

Ok, so this is really bizarre. Philadelphia is mentioned once in the Bible, in Revelation 3:7 where Jesus conveys a letter to the Christians there. So, I got curious, why was the city named “Philadelphia.” Of course, everyone knows that Philadelphia is the city of brotherly love. And the original Philadelphia was in Asia Minor, modern day Turkey–not Pennsylavania! So the original Philadelphia was founded by a king of Pergamon named Attalus II Philadelphus (or “philadelphos” in Greek). “Philadelphos” was this king’s nickname because he loved his brother so much.

Right, so how does that work? How is your love for your brother famous? Well, here’s how the story goes: Attalus II’s brother, Eumenes II, was the king of Pergamon. Once, when he was traveling back from Rome, his convoy came under attack and he was presumed dead. Word got back to Pergamon and so Attalus II ascended to the throne and married his brother’s wife, Stratonice. Well, a little while later, Eumenes shows up alive at Pergamon! Attalus II returns Stratonice to Eumenes and the two brothers reign together as co-regents. At a certain point during their co-regency, the Romans approach Attalus and try to get him to betray his brother for their benefit. Attalus refuses the offer and thus becomes renowned for his faithfulness to his brother. Finally, two years after Eumenes brief disappearance, he actually dies. Attalus II becomes sole monarch over Pergamon and re-marries Eumenes’ widow, Stratonice. How bizarre is that?! How often does a queen marry a king’s brother twice?