One of the highlights of my college education at the University of Washington was two quarters of Classical Greek. Classical Greek is only one generation older than Koine Greek (the language of the New Testament), so I was excited to manipulate my secular school for spiritual purposes. Having a rudimentary understanding of Greek has allowed pieces of scripture to show more life and vibrancy in my studies and I would recommend studying this beautiful language to any student of the Word (that means any of you!).
My favorite encounter with the Bible and its Greek intricacies happened while I was still in my first quarter and it was incredibly exciting… to me, anyway. It all has to do with the Middle Voice.
James is probably my favorite book of the Bible, and James 1:20 is one of the most helpful verses I remember from it. I’ve grown up using the NAS translation, and thus recited the passage as such:
“for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God”
I love that! It’s clear and concise. My application and thinking towards this verse had always been something along the lines of “when I get angry, I can’t accomplish God’s work in the world.” I was surprised to one day read an NIV Bible and find this treatment of the same verse:
“for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires”
This more internal wording of the concept made me do a double-take and I determined to get to the bottom of the divergence of the translations.
Think back to English class and dust off your memory concerning “voice.” If you’ll recall, when a verb is active, the subject is performing an action (e.g. “I gave Ryan some money”). When the verb is passive, the subject is acted upon (e.g. “Ryan received some money from me”).
In Greek, there is a Middle voice. It has no counterpart in English and it thereby difficult to translate. In essence it conveys reflexivity that is either physical (“I washed my hands”) or motivational (“I bribed Ryan”). Hansen & Quinn’s second revised edition of “Greek: An Intensive Course” describes it this way:
“Greek also has a middle voice. Like the active voice, the middle voice indicates that the subject performs the action. But the subject has a special interest in the action; the action somehow returns to the subject. The nuance added by the middle voice varies from verb to verb and cannot be translated by any fixed formula. Greek would employ the middle voice, for example to indicate that Homer, instead of merely performing the act of educating his brother (active voice), was doing so for an ulterior motive of his own, or that Homer, instead of personally educating his brother, was having someone else educate him.”
The verb in question here (ergodzetai) is in the middle, thus the intent is reflexive. Additionally, if you look at verses 17, 18, 21, and 25 of the same chapter, there is a theme of personal blessings towards those who submit to the Lord. When we become preoccupied with anger, we hinder the blessings and spiritual growth that God intends for us. This study opened my eyes to understand that my sin is not simply a speed bump in my Christian life, but rather a stop sign, or worse yet, a u-turn.
Again, if you are willing to put in the effort, a study of the original languages of our Holy Scriptures can be extremely rewarding. It brings the text to life and helps you to understand the complex and harrowing task translators subject themselves to in bring you the Word of God in your own language.