My Word I’m “Bad”! No, Really… MY Word Can Make Me “Bad”
Kerry A. Shirts, MM, 32°, RAM CM, RAM
Ritualist/Education Officer of Eagle Rock Lodge # 19
Idaho Falls, Idaho
December 18, 2010
I owe the entire impetus to this exegetical research paper to a nifty book I own by George H. Guthrie, J. Scott Duvall, Biblical Greek Exegesis, Zondervan Publishing, 1998. Their idea and research is simplified in order to teach a student how to use a concordance, lexicon, and Bible dictionaries and commentaries, so their research is not meant to be as in-depth as I am going to go into. Their approach was delightful and I will expand on it. It is a message for all of us, no matter what our stations in life, Freemasons, Jews, Christians, etc. I have especially Freemasons in mind, but the application of this practical and interesting advice from one of the volumes of our Sacred Law, the Bible, is useable and seriously necessary for everyone of any walk in life to “get in your gut,” so to speak.
It is important to realize that words change meaning through time. Words also can have both a central meaning as well as peripheral meanings. Kenneth Wuest put it quite accurately:
“Some English words have changed their meaning in the 300 years since the Authorized Version was translated. Since this version still remains the most widely used translation of the Scriptures, there is need of bringing that particular part of the translation up to date. Then again, a student of the English Bible often interprets a word according to its current usage in ordinary conversation instead of in its more specialized meaning. Again, in the case of synonyms, one English word may be the translation of four Greek words, each having a shade of meaning slightly different from the other. This added light is denied the student of the English Bible. Consequently, while he may not arrive at an erroneous interpretation of the passage where the particular word occurs, yet he does not have as accurate and clear an interpretation of it as he might have. Or again, a Greek word may have a very rich content of meaning which would demand a few sentences if not a paragraph to bring out. But in a translation like the a.v., where the translation is held down to a minimum of words, it is impossible to bring out this richness of meaning. A knowledge of the Greek word is of help here. Then, there are some words dealing with the theology of the n.t., or its doctrines, which are not understood by the English reader, but where a knowledge of the Greek word and its usage is of great help.”
While reading Gutherie and Duvall’s analysis of a Biblical word, it dawned on me that this would make a nice little piece of research to do in greater depth than they did for a practical way to live our lives. The Greek word they suggested (with some very interesting ideas) was the adjective σαπρός, (sapros) which in its lexical semantic range of meanings essentially boiled down to meaning “bad.” Allow me to elaborate a bit on this.
The word σαπρός is first found during a discussion of Jesus’ teachings of judging and finding out how to tell the good from the bad in the Gospel of Matthew. Alan Hugh M’Neile noted in his commentary on Matthew that Jesus sought to make his sayings balanced and alternated synonyms such as ἀγαθὸν (agathon – “good”) with καλοὺς (kalous –“good” or “beautiful”) and σαπρὸν (sapron – “bad”) with πονηροὺς (ponerous – “evil or bad”), thus his entire phrase is balanced and poignant, hence directly to the point, as Jesus was wont to do in his teachings. His statement reads thus:
Matt 7:17 οὕτως πᾶν δένδρον ἀγαθὸν καρποὺς καλοὺς ποιεῖ, τὸ δὲ σαπρὸν δένδρον καρποὺς πονηροὺς ποιεῖ.
18 οὐ δύναται δένδρον ἀγαθὸν καρποὺς πονηροὺς ποιεῖν οὐδὲ δένδρονσαπρὸν καρποὺς καλοὺς ποιεῖν.
“So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.”
“The saying must be balanced by instances in which the Lord saw the possibilities of good in bad people. Here, as in xii. 33 ff., he deals with the principle that evil as such cannot produce good; cf. Job xiv. 4. σαπρός is not ‘rotten,’ for a rotten tree would produce no fruit of any kind, but ‘worthless.’” Gutherie and Duvall noted that the Greek lexicon [the BAGD] establishes that σαπρός has two meanings listed. Something to do with spoiled fish (Matt 13:48), of decayed trees (Matt 7:17-18; 12:33), of rotten fruits (Matt 12:33; Luke 6:43). The other meaning is a figurative meaning of bad, evil, or unwholesome (Ephesians 4:29).
At Matthew 12 this teaching is even more powerfully presented within the context of some enemies of Jesus accusing him of casting out demons by the Father of demons. The Greek is Βεελζεβοὺλ ἄρχοντι τῶν δαιμονίων –Beelzeboul archonti ton daimonion – “Beelzebub, the prince of the devils.”
Jesus’ response to this is to show how illogical their thinking was. He used the natural world, as well as the idea that if “Satan cast out Satan, he is divided against himself” - ἐφʼ ἑαυτὸν ἐμερίσθη – then his kingdom cannot stand. One cannot be against oneself. After a few more examples Jesus gets to the example of the tree. He proclaims a direct command for his enemies to be logical and coherent at Matthew 12:33:
Ἢ ποιήσατε τὸ δένδρον καλὸν καὶ τὸν καρπὸν αὐτοῦ καλόν, ἢ ποιήσατετὸ δένδρον σαπρὸν καὶ τὸν καρπὸν αὐτοῦ σαπρόν· ἐκ γὰρ τοῦ καρποῦ τὸδένδρον γινώσκεται
“Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit.”
A good tree will not bring forth bad fruit. “Matthew perhaps saw a link in the thought that the Lord, being a ‘good tree,’ could not produce the ‘bad fruit’ of alliance with Beelzebub.” If Jesus was casting out demons by Satan’s power, his remark on the strong man is appropriate as well. He obviously had defeated the strong man first (Satan), if he was using Satan to cast out Satan’s own army. Or as James E. Talmage put it “Christ had attacked the stronghold of Satan, had driven his evil spirits from the human tabernacles of which they had unwarrantably taken possession; how could Christ have done this had He first not subdued the ‘strong man’ the master of the devils, Satan himself?” A good tree will not produce bad fruit, anymore than a bad tree will produce good fruit. This analogy from the natural world draws upon the Old Testament in interesting ways, as “fruit imagery was applied to the physical labor of an individual (Ps 109:11; 128:2), but most often it applied to moral acts (Proverbs 1:31; 11:30; Isaiah 3:10; 32:16-17; Jeremiah 6:19). It could also be applied to speech (Proverbs 12:14; 13:2; 18:21; Hosea 14:2). It was also used as a theme of judgment in the Vineyard of Israel, such as in Isaiah 5:1-7 and Ezekiel 17:9.
It is Jesus’ next teaching that I want to focus on however. It is profoundly relevant to us today even 2,000 years after it was spoken to another group of people from another time and place.
“How can ye being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things. But I say unto you that every idle word that men shall speak shall they give an account thereof in the day of judgment.” (Matthew 12:34-37)
Words matter! Why? “The nature or heart of a man determines his speech and action. Given the tree, the fruit follows – verse 33. Judge; pronounce; call both tree and fruit good or evil; they must both be of one kind, in fact and in thought.” M. R. Vincent said the Greek ἐκβάλλει (ekballei) – “to bring forth” in Matthew 12:35 is feeble. “The word means to throw or fling out. The good or evil things come forth out of the treasure of the heart (34). ‘Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.’ The issues of the heart are thrown out, as if under pressure of the abundance within.”
The world renowned Biblical Archaeologist William F. Albright, and his colleague C.S. Mann noted that the Syriac text of the New Testament for the concept of “idle words” used the words “mella battala. In both Aramaic and later Hebrew the words from the stem btl mean both ‘lazy’ and ‘hurtful.’ Excuses about hasty judgment, speaking on the spur of the moment, cannot be accept when the subject matter is as serious as good and evil. The sayings look back to the accusation that Jesus was involved in an alliance with Satan.”
Jesus equates saying bad words with having a bad heart, analogously to a bad tree which brings forth bad fruit. The Greek σαπρός is seen at Matthew 7:17; Matthew7:18; Matthew 12:33, while at Matthew 13:48 σαπρός is used of bad fish which are thrown away as opposed to good fish which are kept. At Luke 6:43 we read “there is no good tree which produces bad fruit… nor a bad tree which produces good fruit.” σαπρός semantic meaning in all contexts has to do with that which is bad, rotten, decayed; having no value (Mt 7:17, 18; 12:33(2×); 13:48; Luke 6:43(2×)+); 2. harmful, unwholesome (niv, nasb), corrupt words or speech (kjv, nkjv, asv), evil talk (rsv, nrsv), foul word or language (njb, nab) offensive talk (reb), bad language (neb), (Eph 4:29)
At Ephesians 4:29 σαπρός is translated as “unwholesome” – “let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth.” In relation to the other instances where it has been translated as “bad” in reference to trees and fishes, Gutherie, Duvall have a timely note – “the strong contrast within the verse (unwholesome words vs. words that edify and give grace) should take precedence over the literal meaning in the metaphors and parables of Jesus – rotten or bad fish, fruit, and trees.” Lets take a closer look at Ephesians 4:29 which turns out to be intriguingly instructive for our purposes here, that of learning to bridle our tongues, along with our passions.
πᾶς λόγος σαπρὸς ἐκ τοῦ στόματος ὑμῶν μὴ ἐκπορευέσθω, ἀλλὰ εἴ τις ἀγαθὸς πρὸς οἰκοδομὴν τῆς χρείας, ἵνα δῷ χάριν τοῖς ἀκούουσιν.
(KJV) “Let no evil talk come corrupt communication proceed out of your mouths, mouth, but only what that which is useful for building up, as there is need, so good to the use of edifying, that your words it may give minister grace to those who hear unto the hearers.”
Kenneth Wuest notes that “the Greek order is, “every word that is corrupt, out of your mouth let it not proceed.” Expositors says: “pas (πας) (every) …mē (μη) (no), the well-known Hebraistic form, the negative attaching itself to the verb, means ‘non-utterance’—let that be for every word.” The word “communication” is logos (λογος), “a word,” here in the sense of “a saying, utterance, speech.” “Corrupt” is sapros (σαπρος), “rotten, worn out, unfit for use, worthless, bad.” Paul goes on; “Every word that is corrupt, out of your mouth let it not be proceeding, but whatever is good, suitable for the use of edification with respect to the need, and this, in order that it may impart grace to those who are hearing.” “Grace” is charis (χαρις), the new testament word for God’s grace in salvation. Here it refers to the spiritual blessings and benefits that will accrue to the hearers from the gracious words of the speaker.”
The Greek ἐκ-πορευέσθω is in the imperative mood -πορεύομαι go out, the mood which Gerald Stevens teaches “is timeless, a mood of command.” This is more of a demand upon us, rather than a gentleman’s polite request. And here at Ephesians 4:29, our word σαπρος can mean “rotten or worn out and unfit for use, and then worthless, bad... here it does not seem to mean filthy, but, as the following clause ἀγαθὸς etc., suggests, bad, profitless, of no good to anyone. Some, however, give it the more specific sense = foul, as including scurrilous and unbecoming utterance.” Ellicott reminds us that, of course, “the exact shade of meaning will always be best determined by the context. ” And this context shows us that the Greek adjective πᾶς is the nominative singular for the word “all” or “every. ” πᾶς modifies the nominative noun λόγος which here means a word such as in speech or a statement. The syntactic force of λόγος is that it is the subject of this sentence. And, logically, and obviously we know that λόγος is modified by the nominative adjective σαπρὸς meaning “rotten” or “worthless. ” So this is about every single rotten or worthless word going out of our mouths (στόματος – stomatos).
Markus Barth showed that the ancient Hebrew and perhaps Phoenician expression was “pass your lips, ” and the Homeric expression “escape from the hedge of the teeth. ” Yet this is not the entire meaning in our verse. Paul also indicates that it is necessary and desireable for us to “build up” our fellow humans. The Greek noun in the accusative, οἰκοδομή (oikodomē), means building (Matt 24:1; Mark 13:1, 2; Eph 2:21); 2. construction, build up (1 Corinthians 3:9; Ephesians 4:12; 1 Timothy 1:4 v.r.); 3. making more able, a building up, edification, strengthening (Romans 14:19; 15:2; 1 Corinthians 3:9; 14:3, 5, 12, 26; 2 Corinthians 5:1; 10:8; 12:19; 13:10; Ephesians 4:16, 29)
I think the ethical and moral situation described in this little study of a couple Greek words and concepts is profoundly informative for us to practice, not only in our words, but specifically and strongly in our hearts first. Another scripture can parallel this one. “Colossians 3:8 shows that people whose hearts have been changed by Christ should exhibit new behavior, including new habits of speech, especially in relation to one another. When Paul prohibits the three categories of evil speech in Ephesians 5:4 – obscenity, foolish talk, and coarse joking – he may be further defining what he meant by unwholesome talk in 4:29. But the immediate context of 4:29 – the contrast between speech that builds up and speech that tears down – suggests that here he is referring to speech that damages relationships in the Christian community. This goes beyond obscene speech to destructive speech.” Words can destroy empires, states, cities, and lives. They can also build these up as well. “One of the most overlooked emphases in the Pauline letters is his exhortation concerning the spirituality of ordinary human speech. In Ephesians 4:25 – 5:20 and a parallel passage in Colossians 3:5-17, we find the strongest possible language – both negative and positive – exhorting believers to give heed to their speech.”
As Freemasons we all ought to be able to agree with this aspect of one of our Volumes of Sacred Law, and begin practicing and continue implementing these important exhortations in our lives, and in our mouths.
- Eugene A. Nida, Johannes P. Louw, Lexical Semantics of the Greek New Testament, Scholars Press, Society of Biblical Literature, 1992: 11.
- Wuest, Kenneth S. (1997, c1984). Wuest's Word Studies from the Greek New Testament : For the English reader (Studies in the Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament: p.9-10). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
- Alan Hugh M’Neile, The Gospel According to Matthew: The Greek Text with Introduction, Notes, and Indices, Macmillan & Co., 1957: 95, note 18.
- George H. Gutherie, J. Scott Duvall, Biblical Greek Exegesis, Zondervan, 1998: 131.
- Rudolf Bultmann showed that Matthew was the Gospel writer who attributed the Pharisees as being Jesus’ enemy on this occasion. Mark never identified who the opposition was, in his History of the Synoptic Tradition, Hendrickson Publishing, 1963: 52.
- Balz, H. R., & Schneider, G. (1990-c1993). Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (1:167-168). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans comments on “Archon” are interesting. “In Matt 20:25 ἄρχοντες applies to earthly lordship in general (material, though not verbatim, parallel in Mark 10:42; Luke 22:25), whereas in Romans 13:3 it refers to the ruling authorities in the sense of Hellenistic-Roman administrative language and in Acts 16:19—there only in the New Testament—to municipal officials. In Acts 4:26, in a prayer from Ps 2:1f., “the kings of the earth” are exegetically interpreted in a pre-Lukan sense to refer to Herod Antipas and οἱ ἄρχοντες to Pilate (cf. Acts 4:27–30). In the Synoptic Gospels and Acts persons in special positions are usually designated as ἄρχων: e.g., the judge in Luke 12:58, a member of the Sanhedrin in Luke 23:13, the high priest in Acts 23:5. As the ἄρχων of the people (Acts 7:27, 35) Moses attains typological significance in Lukan theology in connection with the Christ-event (cf. Luke 2:38; 24:21; Acts 3:15; 5:31). A comparison of the Synoptics shows that ἀρχισυνάγωγος (president of the synagogue) is used interchangeably with ἄρχων (cf. e.g., Mark 5:22 par. Matt 9:18; Luke 8:41; Mark 5:38 par. Matt 9:23). This may result from the fact that in Diaspora Judaism both offices, though clearly distinguishable, could be held by the same person. More likely, however, is an imprecise knowledge of the more detailed function of the ἄρχων, as is shown also by the Lukan designation as ἄρχοντες (pl.) of Jewish “rulers,” who are, among other things, only members of the Sanhedrin. Although when an individual ἄρχων is mentioned weight is surely given to the meeting of the person with Jesus (cf. Luke 18:18, where, unlike Mark 10:17/Matt 19:16, the “rich young man” is thus designated), still pl. ἄρχοντες is also used in the Lukan writings to refer to the responsibility of the Jewish leadership as a whole for the death of Jesus (cf. Luke 14:1; 23:13, 35; 24:20; Acts 3:17; 4:5, 8; 13:27. In John 3:1; 7:26, 48; 12:42 ἄρχων / ἄρχοντες denotes individual members or several members of the Sanhedrin who, in contrast to “the Jews” and “the Pharisees,” are open in their attitude toward the message of Jesus.
- M’Neile, Ibid., p. 179, note 33-35.
- James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ, Deseret Book, 1948: 268.
- G. K. Beale, D. A. Carson, editors, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, Baker Academic, 2007: 298.
10. Alexander Balmain Bruce, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, (The Synoptic Gospels), Wm. B. Eerdmans, 5 vols., reprint, 1976, Vol 1:190, note 33-35.
11. M. R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, MacDonald Publishing, 2nd ed., 1888: 47.
12. William F. Albright, C.S. Mann, The Anchor Bible, Matthew, Doubleday, 1971: 157.
13. Swanson, J. (1997). Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Greek (New Testament) (electronic ed.) (DBLG 4911, #2). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
14. Gutherie, Duvall, Ibid., p. 133.
15. Wuest, K. S. (1997, c1984). Wuest's word studies from the Greek New Testament : For the English reader (Eph 4:29). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
16. Zerwick, M., & Grosvenor, M. (1974). A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament (587). Rome: Biblical Institute Press.
17. Gerald L. Stevens, New Testament Greek, University Press of America, 1994: 361.
18. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, Vol. 3, Wm B. Eerdmans, reprint, 1976: 347, note on verse 29.
19. Charles J. Ellicott, Ellicott’s Commentaries Critical and Grammatical on The Epistles of St. Paul With Revised Translations, James Family Publishing, reprint, 1978: “Ephesians,” p. 113.
20. Lukaszewski, A. L. (2006; 2006). The Lexham Syntactic Greek New Testament: Expansions and Annotations (Eph 4:29). Logos Research Systems, Inc.
21. Markus Barth, The Anchor Bible, Ephesians, Doubleday, 1974: Vol. 2: 518.
22. Swanson, J. (1997). Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Greek (New Testament) (electronic ed.) (DBLG 3869, #3). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
23. Gutherie, Duvall, Ibid., p. 138.
24. Gutherie, Duvall, Ibid., p. 140