Two Words for One

READING SCRIPTURE IN Multiple translations leads one back to the original languages sooner or later. There is a danger there: as my friend, Steve once said, “Nothing is more dangerous to the faith than a man with an interlinear Bible and a Greek dictionary.” The same is seemingly true with Hebrew, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

A paper I did on fire back in February documented the translation of Greek into Latin.

Faith is the important word. In Greek, it’s pistis. This is how the Greeks begin the Creed at liturgy: “Pisteo”.  In Latin we say “Credo”. Pistis is also used to say “by faith” here in Hebrews. In Latin, though, the translation uses a form of “Fideo”. We’ve broken this Greek “Pistis” thing into two Latin parts: a credo or “I believe” – I assent to this teaching – and a fideo or “I trust”. Picture the Greek word Pistis as breathing. Then we can imagine the Latin words breathing in at “Credo” and then breathing out at “Fideo”.

So one Greek word becomes two Latin words. Where the Greek carries all of the meanings, the Latin words each carry about half of the content. By the time it gets to English, we’re back to one word (Faith) but we’ve farmed out all the other content to other words: believe, trust, even hope. We can believe in Santa using the same word we use to say believe in Jesus. But no one trusts in Santa, I think. (Put a shrug emoji here.)

One of the online struggles between the Christian east and west is over the whole definition of “Grace”. Again, it’s an issue with translation in a lot of places. Is it the divine life itself, or is it the action of the Godhead (atonement) that allows us to participate in the divine life? Essence and energies, can we know God? Flipping the sides, the West would say grace is actually God – and so we can experience him. The East would say it is the energy of God – not God himself. But, we say, God is absolutely simple. You cannot get a part of God. The East would say, exactly, therefore this can’t be God…

Meh. An ecclesial Abbot and Constantinople routine.

Another example is “Lord have mercy”. By the time it gets into English, it’s something that chained oarsmen scream in bad claymation movies as they get whipped. Crying out, “Have mercy!” means “Stop beating me up!” And so when we say, “Lord, have mercy!” we acknowledge that God is a tyrant whose bullying wrath we need to divert. To this the Greeks reply with a useful etymology:

“The word mercy in English is the translation of the Greek word eleos. This word has the same ultimate root as the old Greek word for oil, or more precisely, olive oil; a substance which was used extensively as a soothing agent for bruises and minor wounds. The oil was poured onto the wound and gently massaged in, thus soothing, comforting and making whole the injured part. The Hebrew word which is also translated as eleos and mercy is hesed, and means steadfast love. The Greek words for ‘Lord, have mercy,’ are ‘Kyrie, eleison’ that is to say, ‘Lord, soothe me, comfort me, take away my pain, show me your steadfast love.’ Thus mercy does not refer so much to justice or acquittal a very Western interpretation but to the infinite loving-kindness of God, and his compassion for his suffering children! It is in this sense that we pray ‘Lord, have mercy,’ with great frequency throughout the Divine Liturgy.”*


This is a standard complaint in the Orthodox world – that the west has forgotten what “mercy” means. Making it worse is the translation into Latin, miserere, which really is a legal term: I’m wretched, give me a light sentence.

It’s that second part of the Greek essay that got to me recently, though – linking the Hebrew “hesed” חסד.

See: in Hebrew, Hesed is far more than “eleison” (truly rooted in eleos, meaning oil). Hesed is such an unusual word that the translators of the King James Bible invented a new word: lovingkindness. And I’ll go one further: in later scriptures, including Christian texts in Hebrew, hesed means “Grace”. Mary is called “full of Hesed”.

So back to the East/West split. Before “mercy” or before “essence and energy”, before the Latin “Miserere” (which does mean lighten up your beating…) or the Greek “eleison” there was the Hebrew “Hesed” which combines all the meanings into one word and gets used to imply all the layers PLUS divine Grace. So that – western insistence on divine simplicity – actually makes sense here: Miriam is full of Hesed, overshadowed with the Holy Spirit (God himself) which encamps within her the Divine Logos made fully man.

Essence and energy are one – at least before we translate it again.

Author: Huw Raphael

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He is almost 59. He feeds the homeless as a parochial almoner and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He is learning modern Israeli Hebrew and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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