The Book of James, Part 13:
Rabbit Trail: Translation and Transliteration;
A Closer Look at πειρασμον


Last week, we chased a rabbit about why Jesus included the phrase "lead us not into temptation" when James clearly states that God does not tempt us. Several of you told me that we adequately covered that question by the understanding that that statement in the Lord's Prayer is a plea to God to strengthen us, to protect us from the temptation that is with in us, to protect us from ourselves, to help us avoid the trap and fall into sin.

Then we finished up with two more ways in which God shows us that God is good to us. In previous lessons we have looked at

  1. Because God is good, He does not tempt us.
  2. Because God is good, He gives us good gifts.
    And last week we looked at
  3. Because God is good, He gives us new life:   His gift of salvation, a new life, is by his grace, by his volition. And we looked at
  4. God is good and he does not change.
God does not change. He does not deviate. There is no shifting. God is dependable. Not only is God good, He will always be good! God was good, he is good and he will be good, forever.

A word about transliteration:

This morning I want to start by chasing another rabbit.   It not a teaching from James, but is an understanding that I would like you to have about the languages of our Bible and how it really works to go from the original language to English.   It is not something you have to know and understand, but I think it might give you a better understanding and appreciation of some of the issues when Wayne talks about the Greek or Hebrew words or when we deal with them here in class.

Although, from our perspective of American and English arrogance, we think in English and sort of have a mental attitude that the whole world really is based on English, and that all the other languages are just local ways of writing English.  Of course the opposite is the reality.   Except for modern writing (modern in the total scheme of human communication), all the documents that we have are crude renditions of work in other languages, converted into English with all the problems of that conversion.   This happens in two ways.

First the characters [letters and symbols] of the original language were used in the original document.   Since few English speaking people can read and understand the original language characters, the first transition is what is called "transliteration."

Transliteration is an attempt to use English letters in place of the original language characters. There are a lot of problems in doing this.  Let's talk about Greek as an example.   (Hebrew has the same kinds of issues.)

First, Greek has 24 letters, English has 26.   There are some Greek sounds for which there are no English letters.   Transliterators take care of this by combining the available letters to patch the holes.   There are a lot of other quirks and difficulties, of which I have little comprehension.   Suffice it to say that this process is not simple or precise.

For example, Matthew 6:13 in Greek is:

πειρασμος  (peirasmos) is the word for "temptation".
πειρασμον  (peirasmon) is the object of preposition εις (eis), translated "(into) temptation".

This Greek word, πειρασμον, is the word that ultimately is translated "into temptation". Both Joe and Pat have been harassing me about my pronunciation of some of these words. I have now arranged with a couple of my Greek-speaking friends to coach me on the pronunciation of Greek words in these lessons. So to the extent that I do not just mess up the pronunciation that my friends have coached me on, the way I pronounce them will be as I am told they are pronounced in Greek.

By the way, there are several different Greek languages. There is what is called Classical Greek, which is the language in which the Greek Classics were written. By the time of Jesus, the predominant form of the language was Koine Greek. Koine Greek gradually changed to modern Greek, but the changes were not dramatic and the pronunciation is not significantly different. New Testament Greek is Koine and the pronunciations and meanings are used from about 300 B.C. to 500 A.D.

How many of you can pronounce πειρασμον?   So one thing that translators do is to get the Greek word (or Hebrew word if it is in the Old Testament) into a form that the English speaking user can get their mind around.   To do this, they have to know what πειρασμον looks like in English letters.  In this case the transliterators chose to write the transliterated word as p-e-i-r-a-s-m-o-n.

When I say that the Greek word translated as temptation is peirasmon [peer-az-MON], that is not technically correct.   Technically the Greek would is πειρασμον, but that is not very helpful.  We need to see a sort of equivalent word in English letters to get out mind and mouth around it.   Of course for most of us, we then have to have the transliterated word, p-e-i-r-a-s-m-o-n, phonetically sounded out just like we have in a dictionary.   In this case, the phonetically sounded word is shown as pi·ras·mon.   If we were all English pronunciation experts and if all of us had the same accents (right!) then we would not have to have the phonetic description of the transliterated English word.

There is one issue that I have not yet been able to prove to my satisfaction. It turns out that it is probably not important, but the phonetic pronunciation could be the Greek pronunciation of the Greek word, or the English pronunciation of the transliterated word. Since the transliteration is a letter-by-letter conversion from Greek letters to English letters, the resulting word will be pronounced pretty closely to what the Greek word would be pronounced. Although I have tried to get a definitive finding of whether the phonetic rendition is of the English word or the Greek word, I still don't know for sure. In the case of πειρασμον, my Greek friend says the pronunciation of the Greek word is (peer-az-MON), which is virtually identical to the phonetic spelling in the New Testament Greek Lexicon. So I am not going to worry about that technicality. If one of you can give me proof of the correct answer, let me know, just to tie up that loose end.

Transliteration helps us English-dependent people get our mind and mouth around a sort of equivalent-sounding word, but it does not help us understand what the word means, it just helps us pronounce a sort of English substitute word.   To understand the meaning of the word requires that someone be familiar with the usage of the original Greek or Hebrew word and familiar with all of the attributes of the word in the original language (tense, person , mood, case …).

So there are hundreds of combinations of these attributes of Greek words that tell us much more that we see in English.  They tell us if the speaker was male or female, or not indicated; if the word is the action of the speaker, or if the speaker is the subject of the action; if the topic is singular or plural; and so on.   I do not know how many attributes Hebrew words have.

So the meaning of the word is a function of what it meant as used in the original language, and all of the color of the word that is included in the attributes of the word.  In the Bible dictionaries of the original languages, the word is shown in the original language, it is shown as transliterated, it is shown phonetically and the aspects of the word are shown as well as examples of how the word is variously translated in the Bible and the various meanings that are attributed to the original language word.

For Example: Matthew 6:13 says "lead" which is the Greek word shown below, from a Greek New Testament Dictionary.

The Greek pronunciation is ees-FEE-ro. The transliteration is eisphero. The pronunciation is [ice-fer-o]. It is a verb. In this case, the lexicon does not tell us anything about the tense and mood of the verb. I don't know why, but none of the lexicons that I checked for this word included the verb tense and mood Then they give us several possible definitions and where the Greek word is used in the New Testament and translated that way. Note that Matthew 6:13 is shown as being translated under the second definition.

So εισφερω is translated "to bring in, carry in, cause to enter, lead to", and "speak about" in various places in the New Testament. Which of these meanings to choose is determined by the translators, based on the context and the words used in conjunction with it. Note that meanings 3 and 4 depend on other words around it, about the ear (=hearing).

You can go even farther behind the Greek word in the lexicons and read paragraphs about the root of the word and the history of its usage and meaning which can also sometimes help us understand exactly what the writer may have had in mind when he used that word.

There are plenty of places for lack of precision.

  1. First, in the choice of English letters chosen to be the equivalent of the Greek or Hebrew letters. There are circumstances where the choice of English letter might not always be the same, depending on how and where the original language word is used.
  2. The next lack of precision is in the selection of the possible meanings and the choice of the English word which best conveys the original meaning, especially since English words do not have near the precision of attributes of the Greek or Hebrew words.
So when you see me or Wayne show a Greek or Hebrew word on the screen and it is composed of English letters, realize that that is simply the transliterator's attempt to show the word in English letters.  It is not really the original word.   Unless you see strange characters, like εισφερω or , you are looking at a transliteration of the original word, not the original word.  Then when we give you the meaning, realize that this is one of several possible meanings.  Usually, the possible meanings are pretty similar and do not change the meaning of the Biblical phrase being studied, and of course the meaning shown will be the meaning that serious Biblical scholars have reached a consensus on as being the best and appropriate meaning.  So don't throw out the proposed meaning.  Just realize that it is not perfect or absolute.

I am sure that you remember that comes from Genesis 1:1 and is b'reshith, which means that in the beginning, before anything existed, before there was a beginning…   In English we start that verse In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. ... B'resith bara Elohim eht hashemaim w'eht ha'aretz.  ("In the beginning created God created the heavens and the earth").  But I am sure that you remember that, from our study of Genesis.

Back to James:

Remember, we broke this section into the following:

  1. Acknowledge The Danger of Temptation (1:13-15)
  2. Appreciate The Goodness of God (1:16-18)
  3. Avoid the Appeal of Anger (1:19-20)
  4. Abandon the Rest of Sin (1:21)

Next week:

...we will discuss the appeal of anger and the rest of sin as James puts it.  We will also start into the next section of the Book of James.  We will be studying James 1:22-27, looking at the attributes of a disciple of Jesus.


So re-read James 1:19-21, looking at your attitude and management of anger and read through verse 27 to see what James says about what we should be like as a representative of Jesus.