Defending the Faith: Original languages can shed light on scriptures

Published: Thursday, March 14 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

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I once saw a cartoon showing a bearded man standing at a pulpit. “As a Mormon intellectual,” he said, “I would indeed be ungrateful if I didn't stand on my feet this day and bear my testimony in the original Greek.”

Greek and Hebrew are neither required for understanding the gospel nor essential to salvation. But they can sometimes be useful for more than merely showing off.

For example, missionaries often cite 2 Thessalonians 2:1-8 in order to illustrate the concept of an apostasy from the primitive church:

“Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him,

“That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand.

“Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition.”

The word that the King James translators rendered as “falling away” here is “apostasia,” which might more accurately be defined as “rebellion” or “revolution.” Paul proceeds to describe the “man of sin” as someone “who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God ….

“For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.”

What on earth does the phrase “only he who now letteth will let” mean?

The crucial Greek word here is “katechon,” or “holding back.” How did it become “letting”? In Anglo-Saxon, the verb “laetan” meant “to permit.” It survives in modern English as “to let.” But Anglo-Saxon also featured an antonym or opposite, “lettan,” which meant “to prevent.” And it survived for centuries in English as (guess what!) “to let.” “I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me!” exclaims Hamlet when his friends Horatio and Marcellus try to restrain his pursuit of the ghost of his murdered father.

The old sense of the term lives on still in the redundant legal phrase “without let or hindrance,” which simply means “without impediment,” and perhaps even in tennis, where a “let” results from an illegal serve or something that interrupts play.

Paul’s prophecy in 2 Thessalonians 2:7 can be retranslated more clearly as follows: “For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; but the one now holding it back will continue to do so until he is taken out of the way.” In other words, the apostasy is already coming, and, when the apostles are removed, will proceed unrestrained.

Another passage where a glance at the original language can help is 1 Corinthians 15:29, which Latter-day Saints happily (and correctly) use to defend the idea of vicarious baptism for the dead: “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?”

Some critics have claimed that by using the pronoun “they,” Paul was actually distancing himself from the practice. But there is no “they” in the Greek of the passage. That’s an unavoidable artifact of the English translation, but Paul didn’t use it. Except when a pronoun is included for emphasis, Greek typically doesn’t require one because, as in this case, it’s already included in the verbal form. Had Paul included it, he would indeed have been emphasizing that he didn’t count himself among those endorsing vicarious baptism for the dead. But he didn’t include it here, because that wasn’t his point.

Finally, there is the beautiful eighth psalm, which, in the King James Bible, reads partially as follows:

“When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;

“What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

“For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.”

The King James translators followed the ancient Greek Septuagint version here, which speaks of “angeloi” or “angels.” They ignored the original Hebrew text, which declares that God has made humans “a little lower than the Gods” (or “than God,” Hebrew “elohim”). Interesting, that.

Daniel Peterson, BYU professor of Islamic studies and Arabic, edits the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, founded MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs "Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture," and blogs daily for Patheos.com. His views are his own.

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