There is a saying in theological circles: there are layers of meanings to be discovered in scripture. For some of these meanings, knowledge of the original languages in which the various books of the Bible were written – Hebrew and Greek – can be greatly helpful. These days, it’s easier than ever to gain a grasp of these languages, right at home. There are vast resources on the web for those of us interested in knowing more about Hebrew and Greek. For example, Hebrew4Christians.com includes audioclips to help you with pronunciation, and entire prayers you can study and enjoy.
The Hebrew Bible, originally written in Hebrew, conveys meaning from its very first letter. It starts with the letter Bet. This letter looks inward, towards the rest of the text. The Hebrew might best be translated as, “when the beginning was beginning,” noting that there was already a back story, something we are not capable of knowing, and that the letter Bet cannot turn and view. the selection of the second, rather than the first, letter of the alphabet as a starting point echoes this very concept.
The following story, conveyed in the Gospel of John, was originally written in Greek, and deep meaning is contained within its pages. Without a little understanding of Greek, or a good Bible commentary, some of the deeper meaning of the text might escape the reader.
Jesus’ Asks Three Times…
This story has two parts. The first takes place in the Gospel of Matthew, and the second in the Gospel of John. The story is probably very familiar: Peter’s denial of Jesus, and Jesus’ restoration of Peter’s call. In Matthew, the story is conveyed that, at the last supper, before Jesus is taken into custody, Jesus tells the disciples what is about to happen. Peter loudly protests his faithfulness to Jesus, and Jesus predicts that Peter will thrice deny him before the cock crows (Matthew 26:33). So, when Jesus later appears to Peter and asks Peter thrice whether he loves Him, Jesus is allowing Peter to negate the three denials, inviting him again as a follower, and thrice giving Peter the commission of shepherd, to “feed my lambs” and “tend my sheep.” But there is also a deeper story, for which we must look at the original Greek, for different levels and flavors of love.
The first time, Jesus asks Peter about love, he uses the word αγαπας (agapes, from agape – a deliberate, self-emptying love, as with loving God). He asks “do you love me more than these?” Peter replies yes, but uses the word φιλω (philo, from the word philio, a more brotherly, friendly love) to describe his love for Jesus. The second time, Jesus asks Peter, it’s almost the same – but Jesus omits “more than these.” He’s stepped down the question, asking just about the quality of love, not a comparision with others. And the third time, Jesus lowers the bar even more, matching the word for love that Peter has been using to answer him all along. He asks using φιλεις (phileis, from philo). Peter, now grieved, answers yes. (John 21:15-19).
It’s wonderful to meditate on how Jesus loves, allowing followers to love at the level to which they are capable, and how Jesus can restore wholeness, even after a falling out or a turning away. That’s the sort of beautiful insight that awaits us, within the original languages.
These biblical insights aren’t ours – they have been discussed by many Christian theologians and rabbis of blessed memory. We offer them just to help illustrate the sort of deeper awareness that you might gain from studying the original text.