I took Greek 101 during my junior year of college at NDSU, the bastion of theological education. 🙂 NDSU, known mostly for its Ag-related and engineering curriculum, also had a religion department. It was actually a pretty decent religion department. One of the best courses I ever took was The Teachings of Jesus at NDSU.
Back to Greek 101. I thoroughly enjoyed my introduction to Greek – I still have the course book (see below). I learned that a plethora of our English words have Greek origins. (Example: The Greek word for horse is hippo; for river – potamos; combined – hippopotamus). My NDSU introduction to Greek whet my appetite for further discovery – discovery that has subsequently impacted my theology and faith.
One of the things I learned in Greek 101 is that the ancient Greek of the New Testament was an exacting language. A Greek word had one meaning and one meaning only. There were few, if any, exceptions to the rules. On the other hand, English is one of the weaker languages, containing words with multiple meanings and many exceptions to the rules. So, how does one translate an exacting language into a weak language? It’s difficult at best. That’s why I often access biblical passages online, looking at multiple translations simultaneously (example). It’s also why I like using the Amplified Bible (AMP). As we’ve discussed previously, it expands the English to better align with the richness and exactness of the original Greek. The Wuest New Testament does a similar treatment.
Greek 101, as well as the Amplified Bible, compelled me to learn some key biblical Greek words that have shaped my theology and faith. One of the first words I discovered is pisteuō (pist-yoo’-o), most often translated throughout the New Testament as believe. An example is the famous John 3:16 (For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life). The Greek word translated as believe is pisteuō. Belief implies a cognitive acceptance of something as true. In this case, its an acceptance of Jesus as God’s son, leading to eternal life.
Pisteuō is a stronger and richer word than believe. Pisteuō suggests a trust in, reliance on, and an adherence to Jesus – a much more powerful concept. When I help young people understand the significance of pisteuō versus believe, I ask them what percentage of students at their school might say they believe in God. They typically agree on a high percentage – say 60 to 70%. After explaining that pisteuō means “trusting in, relying on, and adhering to” God, they lower their estimation significantly, usually under 25%.
When we rely simply on the English version of believe, our faith can become transactional. Pisteuō is not a transactional term. It smacks of following (i.e., adhere to). Jesus didn’t invite people into a transaction. He invited people to follow him. Transactions tend to be clean and clear-cut. Following is messy (ask the original disciples!). Transactions are not relational. Following is highly relational. In my observation, western Christianity tends to lean transactional. I suspect it’s not what God intended.
Next time you read scripture, I encourage you to substitute “trust in, rely on, adhere to” each time you come across the word believe. It will bring your scripture reading to life. And likely your faith!