Greek Bible Words: Meaning, Translation, and Mistranslation
There are a good number of words in the Bible which have been used within Christianity for so long that society at large has lost sight of what those words actually mean. So the common perception of these words is often quite different from their literal meanings in Greek (the New Testament was written in Greek), and carry undertones layered in by the church over centuries. This page lists a number of Greek words commonly found in the bible, gives their translation, and explains their original meanings as they were in the Greek language. The list is alphabetized according to the most common English translation.
In the given pronunciations, “o” is always short as in “hot”; “oe” is long as in “so”.
Greek Bible Words
Apostle - ἀπόστολος (apostolos)
Literal meaning: ambassador, emissary, envoy, diplomat
Word breakdown: from “apo” (away) + “stello” (dispatch, send) = one who is sent away or dispatched
This word commonly referred to foreign ambassadors.
Church - ἐκκλησία (eklesia, pronounced “Eh-kleh-SEE-ah)
Literal meaning: assembly
Word breakdown: from “ek” (out of/out from) + kaleo (to call/summon) = one who is called or summoned out to a public assembly
Originally, this was a political term referring to the public assembly of all eligible voters (that is, all adult, male citizens who had completed military training) in the Athenian democratic system. In such an assembly, each person could have their say, and all of their votes counted. Each person contributed directly to important national decisions and legislation.
Damn - κατακρίνω (katakrino, pronounced “Kah-tah-KREE-noe”)
Literal meaning: make a judgment against, condemn
Word breakdown: from “kata” (down/against) + krino (to separate/choose/decide/judge) = to decide/judge against
The word “damn” in the common public perception, has come to imply a divine act whereby God sends a soul to an eternity of torment. The original word had no religious connotation, and it certainly did not suggest eternal punishment. It meant, simply "to make a judgment against".
Devil - διάβολος (diabolos, pronounced dee-AH-bo-los)
Literal meaning: accuser, prosecutor, slanderer, false accuser
Word breakdown: from “diabalo” (to backbite/slander, accuse, or give hostile information)
In the new 2011 NIV (New International Version), John 6:70 reads, “Then Jesus replied, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!” Is Jesus calling Judas a demon? No. According to Liddell & Scott’s highly reputable Greek-English lexicon, one sense of “diabolo” is simply “to give hostile information”. So it seems likely that Jesus is (correctly) calling Judas the “one who will give hostile information” about him to the Jewish religious leaders, betraying him to his death. So why does the English translation use a word like “devil”, which by now in English has the sole meaning of “evil spirit” or “the supreme evil spirit”?
Disciple - μαθητής (mathetes, pronounced mah-theh-TES)
Literal meaning: student, pupil
Word breakdown: from “math-” (aorist root of a verb meaning “to learn/perceive/comprehend”) + suffix “-tes” (“one who”) = one who learns
Doctrine - διδασκαλία (didaskalia) , διδαχή (didache, pronounced dee-dah-KHEH)
Literal meaning: teaching, instruction, education
Word breakdown: from “didasko” (to teach)
The modern sense of “doctrine” is almost invariably religious in nature. For example, we don’t generally refer to the “doctrine of chemistry”. In the true sense of the Greek word, it would have been perfectly natural to apply it to something like chemistry, as it referred to any kind of systematic instruction, teaching, or education. It did not imply a “dogma“, in the sense of a “formulated code of acceptable and established beliefs which are not to be disputed”. It originally did not have a religious meaning.
Eternal - αἰώνιος (aionios, pronounced ai-OE-nee-os)
Literal meaning: pertaining to an age/eon, lasting for an age
Word breakdown: an adjective formed from the noun “aion” (an age/era/period/span/epoch/eon)
One acceptable translation of the word “aionios” is “lasting for or having to do with an age (a long, yet distinctly finite period of time)”. Since it is an adjective built on the noun “aion”, it need not convey something beyond the meaning of the noun from which it was derived. Since “aion” refers to a finite span of time, rather than an unending span of time, “aionios” can refer to something with a similarly finite span of time. For example, if we take the noun “day”, and build from it the adjective “daily”, then the adjective refers to the same time-frame as the noun. A “daily shower” is thus a shower taken each day, not a shower taken every minute or every year.
The renowned New Testament scholar, William Barclay, in his book William Barclay: A Spiritual Autobiography, says that something can be “eternal“ without being "aionios". He tells us that Plato, who may have created the word, saw it as a word strictly referencing God. According to Barclay, “aionios” denotes something that pertains to God, and can only rightfully be used of something having to do with God.
Jesus was quoted in the canonical gospels defining "eternal life" as having an intimate knowledge of God, which is to say a personal relationship with God (John 17:3). Jesus did not say that such a relationship would lead to eternal life, but that such a relationship is eternal life. Thus, he defined "eternal life", not as an endless duration of life, but as a quality of life. Namely, it was the quality of a life lived in fellowship with God. This definition is uncannily reminiscent of Plato's and Barclay's. Eternal life is "eternal" because it emanates from the only thing that is truly eternal: God.
From that perspective, whatever is the opposite of "eternal life" is neither transient life nor a punishment with eternal duration. It is the quality of a life lived without fellowship with God (keeping in mind that "God is Love"). By divine providence, the quality of life lived without love always ends up in misery at some point. In this sense, "eternal punishment" is "eternal" in the sense that it also, like "eternal life", is a loving emanation of the only thing that is eternal: God.
This misery, after it has been endured for as long as an individual can endure it (perhaps multiple eons/aions or lifetimes for some souls), always drives the soul to seek something better. And that search can only end in the discovery of Love/God. It ends in the quality of life known as "eternal life".
Fornication - πορνεία (porneia, pronounced por-NAY-ah)
Literal meaning: prostitution
Word breakdown: from “porne” (prostitute)
“Porneia” originally meant prostitution. Eventually, it may have also come to refer to other taboo sexual acts, such as adultery or incest. The English word “fornication”, however, has come to mean much more than even these extended meanings, denoting any sexual act outside of marriage. This meaning was not inherent in the Greek word.
Jesus - Ἰησοῦς (iesous, pronounced ee-eh-SOOS)
Literal meaning: “YHWH saves” or “YHWH is salvation”
Word breakdown: a Greek version of the Hebrew name “Yehoshua/Yahshua”
The best English rendering for the Jewish name “Yahshua” is the English name “Joshua”.
γέεννα (geena, pronounced GEH-eh-nah)
ᾅδης (hades, pronounced HAH-des)
ταρταρος (tartaros, pronounced TAR-tar-os)
In the Old Testament in the King James version (which has massively impacted English speakers for centuries), the Hebrew word שְׁאוֹל (Sheol), is translated “hell” many, many times. However, Sheol meant merely “the Grave”. It did not in any way imply an afterlife or punishment or suffering.
Three different words in the New Testament are translated as “hell”. γέεννα (Gehenna) referred to a valley (Valley of the Son of Hinnom) outside ancient Jerusalem where garbage and dead bodies were thrown out to be burned. In Judaism, this came to refer also to a place where the wicked go to suffer and be purified of their sins, after which they went to Olam Ha-Ba (The World to Come, essentially “heaven”).
ᾅδης (Hades) was originally the name of the Greek god of the dead, and when people died they were said to go to the “house of Hades”. Eventually, “hades” (which means “the unseen”) came to mean a shadowy place where all people go when they die.
Ταρταρος (Tartarus) was a mythological place within the earth where Zeus (the chief of the Greek gods) imprisoned the Titans. It was not a Christian word, but the name of a place in pagan mythology.
Lust -ἐπιθυμία (epithumia, pronounced eh-pee-thoo-MEE-ah)
Literal meaning: desire, longing, craving
Word breakdown: from “epi” (on/upon) + thumos (heart) = a having of one’s heart set upon something
The word “lust” to modern English ears has come to usually imply sexual lust. But the word originally meant any strong desire for something, whether it be sex, money, power, excitement, knowledge, or anything else that someone strongly set their heart upon. In the New Testament, it doesn't always have a negative connotation. It is sometimes used, for example, to refer to the longing of good friends to be reunited after a long separation.
It's interesting that the Buddha said that desire is the root of suffering and evil. 2 Peter 1:4 talks about the “corruption/decay that is in the world through desire”. Although the translators of the 2011 NIV, perhaps afraid of what might happen if they were to translate a verse of scripture without inserting imaginary words, render “evil desires”, the word “evil” is not in there. The cause of this corruption is just “desire”, plain and simple.
James 1:15 says, “Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” So, this tells us, as the Buddha does, that desire causes evil and suffering (if you consider death to be a sort of suffering).
Preach - κηρύσσω (kerusso, pronounced keh-ROO-soe)
Literal meaning: to announce, to make a public broadcast, to proclaim, to be a town-crier, to be a herald
The Greek word referred to public proclamations of the town-criers and heralds, whose roles in that society were similar to the roles of news anchors and radio/TV spokespeople today: to make announcements and deliver news to the public. It was not a religious word. In our society today, however, the word “preach” has come to carry almost exclusively the religious sense of “deliver a sermon”. From the word “preach”, a religious establishment may justify the existence of a word like “preacher”, which refers to someone who makes a living delivering their own religious sermons to groups of people. Thus, the structure of the religious system is reinforced by the existence of this title and office: “preacher”, which is an extension of a word that originally had no religious connotation at all.
Punishment -κόλασις (kolasis, pronounced KO-lah-sis)
Literal meaning: corrective discipline, chastening
The renowned New Testament scholar, William Barclay, in his book William Barclay: A Spiritual Autobiography, pointed out that "kolasis" originally referred to the pruning of trees, and never denotes anything but remedial discipline. The word “punishment” is thus a bad translation because it implies punitive discipline rather than solely corrective disciple.
Repent - μετανοέω (metanoeo, pronounced meh-tah-no-EH-oe)
Literal meaning: to have an after-thought, to change one’s mind
Word breakdown: from “meta” (after) + “noeo” (to think/consider) = to have the benefit of afterthought, to rethink, to think twice, to reconsider, to change one’s mind
To modern ears, “to repent” seems like a very dramatic sort of action, wrought with great emotional turmoil, shamed prostration on the ground, tearful begging and solemn promises… at least to me, that’s what the word brings to mind. In Greek, however, it simply meant “to change one’s mind or reconsider”.
From a mystical or transpersonal perspective, this word denotes a complete transformation of a person's entire mindset. It is a metamorphosis into a higher stage of consciousness. Personally, I believe that the authors of the Christian canon may very well have used the word in a similar mystical sense. Elsewhere, such authors enjoined their readers to "be transformed" and to "have the mind of Christ".
Sin - ἁμαρτία (hamartia, pronounced hah-mar-TEE-ah)
Literal meaning: missing of a target, error, mistake, failure
The word originally referred to occasions when one missed a target that one was aiming at. In English, “sin” is almost inconceivable outside of a religious context. In Greek, it meant any kind of mistake, error, failure, or shortcoming.
Scripture - γραφή (graphe, pronounced grah-PHEH)
Literal meaning: a writing, something written
Word breakdown: from “grapho” (to write)
The word translated as “scripture” simply means “a writing” or “something written”. It is not an inherently religious word, and it does not denote divinely inspired writing unless that is what the author intends it to denote within his own religious context. Once more, in English, it is impossible to imagine this word without religious connotation, as it was originally.
This article has examined just a few of the common Greek Bible words that have morphed in meaning over centuries of use within Christian contexts. Many more examples could be given, but hopefully the selection of cases discussed in this article will suffice to show the reader that many words used for a long time in a religious context once started out with very different connotations than they have come to represent in the collective psyche of our present culture. Hopefully, this will motivate the reader to explore such phenomena further, or at least to exercise caution when presented with commonly accepted interpretations of ancient texts.
© 2010 Justin Aptaker