Hessians vs. Yankees

Hessian_jagerHow did the word “mercenary” get a metaphorical sense and a literal one?

It started in classical Latin, says the OED, long before English was a twinkle in the Celtic eye. Mercenarius back then could refer straightforwardly to a soldier paid to serve in another country’s army or, in an adjectival form, to someone who was doing something for money when he shouldn’t have (either shouldn’t have been doing the something or shouldn’t have been doing it for money).

But etymology is a funny thing. Mercenary in contemporary English basically has two senses, and I think in most people’s minds the literal sense predominates even if it didn’t come first in history. A mercenary to most is a soldier fighting not for country but for pay.

My impression is that the adjective, always pejorative (“Edward had mercenary reasons for marrying Eleanor”), in most people’s minds derives from that literal sense. But why? What’s so wrong with being a soldier for pay that its adjectival form would become only and ever a slight?

My humble guess is that people do see something intrinsically wrong with killing in war when you’re not doing it in self-defense. Another way of putting it: it isn’t worth giving your life for money, only for kith and kin. Someone who takes that risk is essentially elevating money to a level of importance it simply doesn’t deserve. A colonial American matriarch could comfort herself with the thought that her son’s blood bought freedom for his nation. But what were the Hessian mothers supposed to do?

A Christian is not mercenary, C.S. Lewis has pointed out, for striving after the reward of God Himself. But if he tries to use his relationship with God to get stuff, he’s been converted to Hessianity.

Why Study Greek?

I have always enjoyed languages, especially English, because my father did for me what I hope to do for my son: he insisted that I express myself and he created a welcoming environment for that expression. I took Latin in eighth grade, and my eyes were opened not only to a bit of Latin but, more importantly, to the real nature of my own language.

I later took about six years of Spanish in high school and college, I am officially “proficient” in German (after 40 hours of grammar cramming and the judicious use of an online dictionary!), and, of course, I’ve taken a good bit of Greek and two years of Hebrew.

By my count, I’ve taken 9 semesters of Greek, including three semesters of intro, three of book classes, one of textual criticism, and two of grammar and linguistics.

But a shift has been going on in my thinking over the years, especially because of those last two classes. I learned through them that the value of Greek is not in original word meanings hidden to the lay public. That’s a farce, and a dangerous one. It’s not really in syntactical treasures which will wow your congregation, either. It’s not in besting available English translations. The value of knowing NT Greek is found in, well… It’s in…

Moisés Silva

I have found myself in just the position of Moisés Silva, and it’s partly his fault. He tells the story in one of his chapters in Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation of how he was asked to address a group of prospective seminary students on why to study Greek. Out of the abundance of his linguistically sensitive heart, his mouth spoke, so he began with some warnings and continued with some negatives. As time ran out, he squeezed in a few positives. He found out later that one prospect chose not to attend his school because of his talk. He was never asked to speak on that topic again!

The negatives of knowing Greek are better than the negatives of not knowing it, but they’re still present. That’s probably because linguistics needs to be made a part of the study process, or at least it needs to be a requirement for the undergraduate liberal arts training which should already be undergirding a future pastor’s seminary studies.

But I’ll allow Silva to bring us back to the title of this post: What are the positive reasons for a future pastor to study Greek and Hebrew?

A measure of proficiency in the biblical languages provides the framework that promotes responsibility in the handling of the text. Continued exposure to the original text expands our horizon and furnishes us with a fresh and more authentic perspective than that which we bring from our modern, English-speaking situation.

In my own preaching during the past twenty-five years, explicit references to Greek and Hebrew have become less and less frequent. But that hardly means I have paid less attention to the languages or that they have become less significant in my work of interpretation. Quite the contrary. It’s just that coming up with those rich exegetical nuggets is not necessarily where the real, substantial payoff lies.

Silva also points out that Greek grammar may not be the secret key to good theology, but it can certainly rule out the possibility of bad theology in a given case. Jehovah’s Witnesses can impress someone with the fact that “God” in John 1:1 has no definite article, but a rudimentary knowledge of predication and definiteness in Greek will soon show their view to be in error.

Silva also notes that pastors who do not know Greek will not be able to interact with commentary literature or evaluate different English translations. If a member of the church asks him why two translations differ, he’d have to shrug his shoulders.

Silva also points out that if seminaries don’t require Greek and Hebrew, students won’t take them. It’s the equivalent of removing algebra and history from the required list of high school courses. And if students in seminaries don’t take Greek, teachers of their other courses will have to lower the complexity of their lectures. They won’t be able to make subtler linguistic points to their classes. And students won’t be able to speak as intelligently among themselves. And someone who might have been a great scholar of Greek will never get the chance because we won’t be introduced to the topic—do gospel Christians want to cede all Greek and Hebrew scholarship to unbelievers?

Finally, Silva says, there are intangible benefits to studying Greek and Hebrew. In high school, you take algebra whether you will be using sine and cosine in ten years or not. It improves you. It makes you culturally literate. It lays down some brain pathways you will use in ten years. The biblical languages do the same.


I’m sure Silva and I have missed some good reasons for studying Greek, but let me say that all the reasons for it become better reasons if you also take advantage of the advances in linguistics which scholars like Silva have made available. So I’ll end with a few book recommendations on the topic (click to buy):

If you don’t read anything else on this list, read this book. And re-read it a few years later. It’s that good.

This is the second place to start. Silva is less difficult than Barr but goes more in-depth than Carson chooses to in his more introductory text.

This is a classic; Barr was a teacher of Silva’s. Difficult if you haven’t mastered some linguistic concepts already.

Poythress has a simple style that, like John in the NT, belies his intellectual and theological depth. In that he follows his mentor and friend, John Frame.

Haven’t gotten much into this, but I’ve read the opening and I’ve seen it recommended.

I’ve sampled this, and I found it quite helpful.

This isn’t a work of linguistics, per se, but it is very stimulating on hermeneutics in general.

Linguistics, Homosexuality, and Friendship

Back in 2005, I wrote the following for the monthly newsletter I’m charged with producing:

Touchstone recently dedicated its cover story to the disintegration of male friendships in American society. In the article, perceptive cultural observer Anthony Esolen noted that the unceasing thrust for the normalization of homosexuality in America has pushed boys into heterosexual promiscuity (lest they be accused of homosexuality) and out of healthy male friendships. Men, too, simply could never express—and rarely have reason to anymore—what David did regarding his friend Jonathan: "Thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women." Even in the 19th century, Esolen shows, thoroughly heterosexual men knit their souls together. Today that sentence is difficult to write. "What do the paraders achieve, with their public promotion of homosexuality?" asks Esolen. "They come out of the closet, and hustle a lot of good and natural feelings back in." (Touchstone, 9/05)

I just re-read that essay, available here, and I must say that my rather pedestrian summary does no justice to the beauty of Esolen’s style and the power of his argument.

I’m thankful I grew up in a culture which still let me have close male friends, and I’m trying to hang on to that culture and maintain it for my now-gestational son.

Incidentally, Esolen also has some thoughtful objections to the idea often touted on this blog that usage determines meaning—at least the idea, not touted on this blog, that this statement is sufficient to describe the world as it is. Vern Poythress, in a book I’ve been reading on language, has made a similar point: usage may determine meaning, but God is still ultimate. He’s the one who guarantees that words have meaning and that we can understand one another at all. That’s a point from special revelation, and it’s one parallel to the Bible’s assertion of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Esolen, as a Catholic might be expected to do, makes his point from general revelation: the world is set up in such a way that some syntaxes and some syllables won’t work, and some meanings will never exist in language because they don’t exist in real life. That’s another pointer to God’s ultimacy, because He’s the one Who made the world as it is.

I encourage you to read the whole thing.


I admit it. Look it up. “Snafu” has a less-than-clean etymology.

The other day, a nice middle-aged man heard me say, “Oops, I made a little snafu!” He later stopped me kindly in private and informed me about the word’s etymology. “I was sure you wouldn’t have used the word had you known where it came from!” he said. I didn’t think it appropriate to reply with anything other than, “Oh! Ok!” And I haven’t used it in his presence since. He really is a good man!

But for the sake of biblical studies, here’s my reply, borrowing from Moisés Silva’s excellent book, Biblical Words and Their Meaning (p. 38):

We must accept the obvious fact that the speakers of a language simply know next to nothing about its development.

Silva’s point is that the historical development of Κοινη Greek words is not nearly as important as many interpreters imagine. My point is that people simply don’t use “snafu” as an acronym anymore. If my own internal usage computer, which has been processing English since 1980, isn’t enough proof, check out the title to a PCWorld magazine article from last October:


Windows Update again upgrades machines without user permission; Microsoft has no explanation.

PCWorld isn’t exactly a rebellious and profane organ of the far left. “Snafu” simply means “a mess,” no matter what it meant in 1941.

Usage determines meaning.