“The Devil is a Liar and So is His Father”: Why Greek Matters

When I was a student at the seminary, a member of my church asked me, “Why do they teach Greek and Hebrew at the seminary? Don’t we already have good English translations?” I wasn’t sure how to answer at the time. We didn’t really expect that students would be writing their own translations to replace the standard ones, did we?

Dr. James Voelz posted a blog in January where he offered the following analogy to explain why we need the original languages: “The difference between reading the NT in English, on the one hand, and knowing Greek and interpreting the NT with it, on the other, is like the difference between watching an NFL game on a 12” black-and-white TV and being at the game.” I think this is an excellent answer because it affirms the importance of Greek without undermining confidence in our English translations.

However, I would like to offer a different, complementary answer from my experience translating the works of Cyril of Alexandria for the past ten years. The fundamental insight is this: translators make a lot of decisions on behalf of the readers, and you want to know what those decisions are. Some decisions are subtle, and some are quite significant. I know this because when I was translating Cyril, I was the one making the decisions. And if you read my translation of Cyril, then you basically have to trust that my decisions were good and appropriate.

The same is true in a translation of the Bible. And I’m not talking about inferior translations. The best translations have to make a lot of decisions as well. Not every possible meaning and nuance can come across in English, so translators have to do their best to bring across what is most important for the reader to understand. When a decision is really significant, translations sometimes flag it in a footnote. See John 1:2 in the ESV, for example, where they note that the verse could be punctuated in more than one way. However, not all translation decisions rise to that level of significance. In that case, they are left unmarked and the reader is not aware of the thought process that went on behind the scenes.

Consider John 8:44 from the ESV, for example:

You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies [λαλῇ τὸ ψεῦδος], he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies [ὅτι ψεύστης ἐστὶν καὶ ὁ πατὴρ αὐτοῦ].

The ESV, along with all English translations, construes the final αὐτοῦ as a neuter pronoun whose antecedent is τὸ ψεῦδος. “The devil is a liar and the father of it (= falsehood).”

There is another possibility, however. The pronoun αὐτοῦ could be a masculine pronoun referring to the devil. In that case it says, “The devil is a liar and so is his father.” If you are reading John in English, you are completely unaware of this possibility. The translator has decided on your behalf to suppress it. And there may well be good reasons for this. For one thing, the Bible never speaks of the devil having a father.

But let’s just imagine that Jesus really did intend to say, “The devil is a liar and so is his father.” What might that mean? Cyril of Alexandria actually takes the verse this way, so we can use him as a model of how someone might explain and defend that interpretation.[1]

Cyril acknowledges that the notion of the devil’s “father” presents a difficulty. He reports that interpreters before him suggested that the devil in the New Testament had an even more horrible Old Testament devil as his father. But he rejects this idea because there is no Scriptural basis for it. Instead, Cyril insists that “father” is not to be understood biologically but metaphorically. If you imitate someone’s behavior, then that person is your “father.”

Cyril goes on to identify Cain as the one who imitates the devil. So Cyril understands the verse this way: “The devil (= Cain) is a liar, and so is his father (= Satan).” So when Jesus tells the Jews, “You are of your father the devil (= Cain),” he is really saying that they are imitating the behavior of Cain, who is himself imitating the behavior of Satan.

It seems to me that this interpretation has two features that recommend it. First: it explains why Jesus says that the devil is a “murderer from the beginning.” In the account of the first murder in Genesis 4, Cain is the murderer, not the devil. When did the devil commit murder? I suppose one could get around this by claiming that the devil “murdered” Adam and Eve spiritually by tempting them, but it seems to me much more straightforward to think that a reference to the original murder is a reference to Cain killing Abel.

Second: in his first epistle, John makes an explicit connection between Cain, the devil, and murder. John exhorts the reader, “We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one (ἐκ τοῦ πονηροῦ) and murdered his brother” (1 John 3:12). To say that Cain is ἐκ τοῦ πονηροῦ is tantamount to saying that the evil one is Cain’s father. In what sense is Cain the son of the evil one? In the sense that he imitates his behavior. This is exactly the way Cyril reads John 8 as well: when the Jews want to kill Jesus, they are imitating their father Cain, who is imitating his father the evil one.

Now my point in laying all this out is not to argue that Cyril is correct and that modern English translations get it wrong. It may be that Cyril is the one who gets it wrong. But if you are not even aware of the possibility of construing the verse this way, then you have no chance of considering an interpretation like Cyril’s.

This is not a criticism of the ESV or of any other English translation of the Bible. You would not want a Bible that attempts to alert you to every possible nuance that the Greek could convey. It would be unreadable. But by learning Greek, you can gain access to that richness. Ultimately, the point of learning Greek is not to write your own translation of the New Testament, but to understand the decisions that the different English translations have made on your behalf.

ENDNOTE

[1] The following comments are a summary of the views Cyril expresses in his Commentary on John 8:44. See Commentary on John: Cyril of Alexandria, vol. 2, translated by David R. Maxwell, edited by Joel C. Elowsky (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 1-5.

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4 Comments

  1. Remy Sheppard June 13, 2019
    Reply

    This was a really insightful and thought provoking post. Thank you!

  2. timothy saleska June 15, 2019
    Reply

    Hi Dave,
    Thanks again for a really helpful explanation of why students need to know Greek and Hebrew. Yes, as I translated the psalms in the commentary I wrote, and especially as I started to write the exegetical notes, the need to make translation decisions and then try to explain those decisions was a continuing pressure. Decisions started at the get go and are made over virtually every word or phrase. When you compare various English and non-English translations on a verse by verse basis, you quickly see how translators can vary. I found it easy to argue with myself over which translation would be “the best.” Sometimes I went round and round in my mind. I’m still doing that, as a matter of fact. Ha. Oh well. Thanks again. Shalom

  3. Andrew Bartelt 27 days ago
    Reply

    Thanks, Dave — excellent points re why we work with the original languages. Every translation is, to some degree, an interpretation, and anyone who has used (or tried to write!) a commentary, as Tim notes, knows how difficult it can be to make some of these decisions.

    But the bigger discussion concerns the insight into why (and how, and how much) we teach and use the languages, for what purposes, and what difference it all makes, both at seminary and, as is the real purpose, in the parish. This should also be part of the synodical discussion of SMP – again on the convention floor this summer –, and whether just “requiring Greek” (whatever that may really mean, and, of course, what about Hebrew and the importance of the “First” Testament??) is really a good move for a program that knows what is missing when you are limited to a bible in translation. Better to function in knowing one’s limitations than to try to get “just enough not to be that helpful.”

  4. Guillaume J Williams 24 days ago
    Reply

    Thanks for the interesting article David. Knowing the original languages, the possible translations of a chosen text and even what other possibilities there even with variants is quite helpful at times in the parish when you have someone with a different translation than everyone else or just one that has made some interesting ‘decisions’ and you have to explain to them why the translators chose to translate it that way. It gives understanding to even the lay people.

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