The Differences between "The" in Ancient Greek and English

Why does such a minor word, the definite article, "the," need a whole article to explain? Actually, whole books have been written on this. One out of every seven words in the Greek NT is this word. It is used for a variety of purposes in Greek, often changing the meaning of the following word. 

So, naturally, it is the most often untranslated, mistranslated, and, shockingly, added word in the translation of Jesus's words. When first studying Jesus's words, I overlooked how important these little words were in his meaning and, by overlooking it, made some of my most serious mistakes in translating his words, but over time my understanding of the importance of this article has grown and grown. However, modern Biblical translation has increasingly valued simplicity over accuracy. It is always easy to drop a little "the" here and there.

Another reason for the many problems with the definite article in our English translations is that Latin doesn't have a definite article. Our first English translation, the King James Version, was largely based on a Greek translation, the Textus Receptus, taken from the Latin Vulgate (see this article). In looking at the Vulgate to understand the meaning, the definite article is lost. This difference may account for the split between the Western rites, which read Latin, from the Eastern rites, which read Greek.

However, much of Jesus's use of Greek comes from the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, written a century before his life. The Greek article is important in the Septuagint because Hebrew also has a definite article. In Hebrew, the article, however, is not a separate word, but a prefix ( ה (Hei), which is used to make the "h" sound in English) added to the front of the noun making it a definite noun. Like Greek, Hebrew has no indefinite article ("a," "an").  So more information in Hebrew was captured in Greek, but lost in Latin.

The Important of the Accurate Use of "The"

In looking at English translations of the Bible, the lack of a definite article in the translation doesn't mean that there was no "the" in the Greek or, if Jesus is quoting the Septuagint, in the original Hebrew. For example, Jesus usually describes himself as "the son of the man," which is always mistranslated as "the son of man," leaving out the definite article before "man." This is especially problematic because in Greek saying someone is "the man" has a special sense, much as it does in English. However, while the phases "a son of the man" and "the son of a man" are found in the Septuagint, Jesus's unique formulation, "the son of the man" doesn't seem to exist. This means that it didn't exist in the Hebrew either. But accurately translated, Jesus phrase very likely points to him being the expected son of King David, "the man" in his people's history (see this article). And, even if it doesn't mean that, it certainly means something and we need to wonder at it.

Nor does seeing "the" in the translation mean that the definite Greek article appears in the original Greek source. For example, in at least one verse, Matthew 10:23, Jesus does refer to "the son of the man" but "a son of the man" but this is also translated as "the son of man," inserting the first "the" and dropping the second. Did Jesus change the line for a reason? Since I believe that the Divine spoke through Jesus, my view is that it was intentional. And we should think about what that purpose was. However, because of sloppy translation, we do not even see the difference in our Bibles. Despite all the preacher that claim every word in the Bible is important, translators of the Bible seem to act with complete indifference about the actual words used by Jesus.

There are also important instances where Greek and English use the article differently. For example, with the word "God." We don't say "the God," but in Greek that is the way it almost always appears with the sense of "the Divine." The reverse problem occurs with "Lord." In Greek, the word "lord" often appears with ot the article, but the article is added. This is because "LORD" refers to a proper name, Yehova, in Hebrew. This is known as the Tetragrammaton, YHWH, יהוה in Hebrew, and it is NOT translated into Greek. For example, the phrase, "the Lord, your God" is better translated as "LORD, that God of yours."

"This" and "That" and "The One

The ancient Greek article has a lot of different forms (o, e, to, oi, ta, tou, tes, te, ton, ten, oi, tois, tous, tais, tas, etc.) because its form changes dramatically with the number, gender, and case of the word. Many of these forms overlap with Greek pronouns, especially demonstrative pronouns. The words are or could be the English definite article "the," but many times "this" works better depending on context. The Greek article "the" is more definite than "the" in English. The Greek article is really a weaker form of a demonstrative pronoun, as in "this" or "that" and "these" or "those."

Many, if not most, of Jesus's verses are clearer if we use "this" or "that" appropriately instead of using the simple definite article, "the." For example, if Jesus refers to the past, we can safely use "that." If he contrasts the past with the present, "this" should be used with the present tense. This simplifies many of Jesus's statements and makes the easier to understand in English. For example, in John 5:32, Jesus says: "It wasn't Moses who gave you that loaf from the sky but this Father of mine gives you this loaf from the sky, this true one." All the words in italics are the definite article, but translated them as definite article, even different definite articles makes the line easier to understand. 

Like demonstrative pronouns, the Greek article is used as a pronoun when it stands alone without a noun. "This" is usually translated as "the one" or, "the ones" but it can also have the sense of referring to a previously mentioned noun, like any pronoun, as in "this" or "this one," referring back to the previous noun.

Like the English definite article, the Greek article can transform an adjective into a noun, for example, "strong" into "the strong," but it can also transform various verb forms and adverb words into nouns as well.

When preceding a verbal adjective, a participle, it also creates an noun, "sowing" becomes "the one sowing." When it precedes an infinitive of the verb, it creates a noun describing the action, "to sow" and becomes "the sower."  In English we use the gerund, not the infinitive for this same purpose. A gerund is a verb form that ends in -ing. A gerund phrase includes the gerund, plus any modifiers and complements. Gerunds and gerund phrases always function as nouns. They can act as subjects, direct objects, indirect objects, predicate nominatives, or objects of a preposition in a sentence.

The Most Common Untranslated Articles

The most common untranslated article is in a possessive phrase. The phrase "the name of his" is translated as "his name." However, the Greek phrase putting the possessive pronoun before the noun as we do saying "his name" works perfectly well. In Greek, as in English, there are possessive forms that precede the noun without an article.  Jesus, however, habitually uses the "the xxx of his" phrasing. There are several reason why he prefers the more complicated form.

This demonstrative nature of the article is especially important in this construction. In a possessive phrases, "the name of his" "the name of mine" sounds much more natural in English to say "that name of his" or "this name of mine." The noun is more emphasized by the article preceding it. Also, we must remember that Jesus love to use the final words in a phrase as a "punchline" (see this article) so the "mine" is emphasized as well.

Greek can also have constructions that has both the article and the possessive pronoun before the noun, so it is literally, "the my name." Jesus also uses this construction and it too is usually translated as "my name." However, again Jesus uses this construction for a reason.  It should be translated as "this, my name." It emphasizes the specificity of the thing rather than its possession.  In Greek, the word that comes first is assumed to be the most important, but, in the case of Jesus, the word at the end is also used as a punch line.

We also see the opposites form, where the possessive pronoun comes before the definite article. We see this construction not once but twice in Matthew 7:24. We have to assume that he is emphasizing the possession rather than the specificity of the thing.

The Most Misleading Untranslated Article

However, in Biblical translation into English, we commonly see the Greek article left out or translated as an indefinite article. For example, in the phrase always translated as "the son of man" is actually the phrase "the son of the man" or "this son of this man." This is especially important because the phrase "the man" has a specific meaning in Greek as it does in English. It means something like "the main man." More about this phrase in this article.

Another place where the article is almost always left off is with the word translated as "heaven." This Greek word actually means "sky" and often "skies," since the plural word appears often, but it is usually translated as "heaven" in the singular. Phrases that should be translated as "in the skies" and "of the skies" and so on. These are almost always translated as "in heaven" and "of heaven." Both the article and the plural form is eliminated. More about the "sky" phrase in this article.

Another such strategic elimination of a Greek article is in the Greek phrase translated as "the Holy Spirit." In Greek, the actual phrase is "the spirit, the holy." Since the last word is an adjective, the sense is "the spirit, the one holy." However, this does not appear to be a name or title. So the article before the adjective is ignored so that the words can be legitimately translated as "the Holy Spirit (see this article on this phrase.)

You may notice that these three non-translations are based on dogma. For religious reasons, translators wanted to think of Jesus as the son of all humanity not a "main man." Recognizing multiple "heavens" as separate from "the heaven" just doesn't work according to mainstream Christian interpretation.  I am not going to note here places where such changes are made with the seeming intention of shifting the meaning to a particular point of view because the general assumption is that all translations of the Bible are made in good faith, but they are not accurate translation.

The English Indefinite Article and the Added Definite Article

Greek has no indefinite article like English does. This means that there is no phrase "a man" - just the word "man" standing alone. This may seem odd at first, but there is no indefinite article for plural words in English either. We just say, "men" like the ancient Greeks did.

However, in translating the Greek of the Bible "the's" are frequently added when no definite article is written in the Greek. Is this justified? The thinking is that if the noun refers to a specific person rather than a generic person, a "the" should be added. However, how can we tell? How do we know we aren't changing a generic statement about any man into a specific statement about a given person? The reason given is usually "the context." In looking at the Greek and at changes of this nature, it is usually impossible to see how the context dictated such a change. At least, not when we focus on Christ's words. The focus of the study here is very narrow.

Some Important Special Cases

A couple of good illustrations of the differences between Greek and English use of articles in the NT are provided by the words "God" and "Lord." In English, we do not use the article with the word when referring to the Supreme Being. However, in NT Greek, the article is always used, o Theos, "the God" or "the Divine," not theos, which would mean "a god." This means that "God" is treated as a title in Greek but a proper name in English. 

However, the Greek and English word for "Lord" works differently. The Greek word, Kyrios, without an article, is used to refer to God. However, when referring to Jesus as "Lord" or "Master," the word is usually used with an article, "the master." In English, we use the title, "the Lord" in the New Testament to refer to Jesus as the Supreme Being. 

However, the Greek article can also appear before a proper name, even when it is not a title. For example, the name of King David may appears as "the David." Again, to understand how this works, we have to see the Greek article more like a demonstrative pronoun, "this David" or a form of emphasis, "the David" separating King David from other Davids.