New Testament Greek (and Hebrew) Idioms

I can talk until I’m blue in the face, and not exhaust the topic of idioms! Idioms have to take the cake for some of humanity’s most colorful means of expressing itself. “But what is an ‘idiom’?” you might say.

Merriam Webster’s defines “idiom” this way: “an expression in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself either in having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements (such as up in the air for “undecided”) or in its grammatically atypical use of words (such as give way).”1 That’s a dictionary definition for you. I like this one better: “idioms are sentences that sound ridiculous to everyone but the native speakers who use them.2

It should be no surprise that the Greeks had their own idioms. A few of them even show up in the Greek New Testament! This post is a little excursion into some of the less obvious idioms that often get “translated away” by English translations, because they wouldn’t communicate the same thing in English.

As an amateur Greek student, I have spent enough time with the Greek language in speaking, hearing, and reading it that I can tell when I see many of these that “this one isn’t necessarily meant to be taken ‘literally'”. What I don’t know, however, is how many of these idioms may in fact be Hebrew idioms that were translated into Greek, and understood by the original readers simply because they knew the Hebrew language and culture. I have attempted to sort out some of the more obvious Hebrew idioms into a separate section below.

As often happens, this post was inspired by reading someone else’s post. In this case, I was reading a post from The Ezra Project, which got my wheels to turning. But, enough of the introductions! Let’s cut right to the chase, and look at some of the most interesting Greek (and Hebrew) idioms in the New Testament!

Interesting Greek Idioms in the New Testament

Ἐκύκλωσαν οὖν αὐτὸν οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι, καὶ ἔλεγον αὐτῷ, Ἕως πότε τὴν ψυχὴν ἡμῶν αἴρεις; Εἰ σὺ εἶ ὁ χριστός, εἰπὲ ἡμῖν παρρησίᾳ.

John 10:24

Here’s the NET Bible note (tn #62) for John 10:24:
How long will you take away our life?” (an idiom which meant to keep one from coming to a conclusion about something). The use of the phrase τὴν ψυχὴν ἡμῶν αἴρεις (tēn psuchēn hēmōn aireis) meaning “to keep in suspense” is not well attested, although it certainly fits the context here. In modern Greek the phrase means “to annoy, bother.”

ἐλπίζω δὲ εὐθέως ἰδεῖν σε, καὶ στόμα πρὸς στόμα λαλήσομεν.

3 John 14

Here’s the NET Bible note (tn #30) for 3 John 14:
Grk “speak mouth to mouth,” an idiom for which the contemporary English equivalent is “speak face-to-face.”

Τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ χριστοῦ ἡ γέννησις οὕτως ἦν. Μνηστευθείσης γὰρ τῆς μητρὸς αὐτοῦ Μαρίας τῷ Ἰωσήφ, πρὶν ἢ συνελθεῖν αὐτούς, εὑρέθη ἐν γαστρὶ ἔχουσα ἐκ πνεύματος ἁγίου.

Matthew. 1:18

Louw & Nida 23.50 makes a brief comment about this, “ἐν γαστρὶ ἔχω (an idiom, literally ‘to have in the womb’): to be in a state of pregnancy — ‘pregnant, to be pregnant.’”

Θέσθε ὑμεῖς εἰς τὰ ὦτα ὑμῶν τοὺς λόγους τούτους· ὁ γὰρ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου μέλλει παραδίδοσθαι εἰς χεῖρας ἀνθρώπων.

Luke 9:44

Here’s the NET Bible note (tn #155) for Luke 9:44:
Grk “Place these words into your ears,” an idiom. The meaning is either “do not forget these words” (L&N 29.5) or “Listen carefully to these words” (L&N 24.64). See also Exod 17:14…

Καὶ ἐλθὼν εὑρίσκει αὐτοὺς πάλιν καθεύδοντας, ἦσαν γὰρ αὐτῶν οἱ ὀφθαλμοὶ βεβαρημένοι.

Matthew 26:43

Louw & Nida 23.69 explains: “(idioms, literally ‘their eyes were weighed down’) to become excessively or exceedingly sleepy — ‘to have become very sleepy, to be very sleepy.’” [cf. Mark 14:40]

καὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Μὴ δύνανται οἱ υἱοὶ τοῦ νυμφῶνος πενθεῖν, ἐφ’ ὅσον μετ’ αὐτῶν ἐστιν ὁ νυμφίος;

Matthew 9:15

Louw & Nida 11.7 gives this succinct explanation: “υἱοὶ τοῦ νυμφῶνος (an idiom, literally: sons of the wedding hall) guests at a wedding, or more specifically, friends of the bridegroom participating in wedding festivities — wedding guests or friends of the bridegroom — A literal rendering of the idiom ‘sons of the wedding hall’ has often been seriously misunderstood, for example, the bride’s children born prior to the marriage. (Matt 9:15; Mark 2:19; Luke 5:34)” See also Carl Hagensick’s article in The Herald Magazine.

Hebrew Idioms in the Greek New Testament

Λέγει αὐτῇ ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί, γύναι; Οὔπω ἥκει ἡ ὥρα μου.3

John 2:4

Here’s the NET Bible note (tn #8) for John 2:4
Grk “Woman, what to me and to you?” (an idiom). The phrase τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί, γύναι is Semitic in origin. The equivalent Hebrew expression in the Old Testament had two basic meanings:
(1) When one person was unjustly bothering another, the injured party could say “What to me and to you?” meaning, “What have I done to you that you should do this to me?” (Judg 11:12, 2 Chr 35:21, 1 Kgs 17:18).
(2) When someone was asked to get involved in a matter he felt was no business of his, he could say to the one asking him, “What to me and to you?” meaning, “That is your business, how am I involved?” (2 Kgs 3:13, Hos 14:8).
Option (1) implies hostility, while option (2) implies merely disengagement. Mere disengagement is almost certainly to be understood here as better fitting the context (although some of the Greek Fathers took the remark as a rebuke to Mary, such a rebuke is unlikely).

Καὶ εἶπεν πρὸς αὐτούς, Ἐπιθυμίᾳ ἐπεθύμησα τοῦτο τὸ Πάσχα φαγεῖν μεθ’ ὑμῶν πρὸ τοῦ με παθεῖν·

Luke 22:15

In Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers we find this explanation: “with desire I have desired.—The peculiar mode of expressing intensity by the use of a cognate noun with the verb of action, though found sometimes in other languages, is an idiom characteristically Hebrew (comp. “thou shalt surely die” for “dying thou shalt die,” in Genesis 2:17), and its use here suggests the thought that St. Luke heard what he reports from some one who repeated the very words which our Lord had spoken in Aramaic.”

Ὁ λύχνος τοῦ σώματός ἐστιν ὁ ὀφθαλμός· ἐὰν οὖν ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου ἁπλοῦς ᾖ, ὅλον τὸ σῶμά σου φωτεινὸν ἔσται· ἐὰν δὲ ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου πονηρὸς ᾖ, ὅλον τὸ σῶμά σου σκοτεινὸν ἔσται. Εἰ οὖν τὸ φῶς τὸ ἐν σοὶ σκότος ἐστίν, τὸ σκότος πόσον;

Matthew 6:22-23

Jim Myers wrote an excellent article called “Those Mysterious Eyes” from which I’ve gleaned some of the thoughts below. The key to understanding the words of Jesus in Matt. 6:22-23 is knowing what the Hebrew Old Testament says about “good eye” and “evil eye”.

The good of eye — he is blessed, For he hath given of his bread to the poor. (Prov. 22:9 YLT)

Beware that there be not a thought in thy wicked heart… and thine eye be evil against thy poor brother, and thou givest him nought; (Deut. 15:9 KJV)

Here’s the NET Bible note (tn #23) for Proverbs 22:9, which could be the passage Jesus had in mind when he spoke these words: “Hebgood of eye.” This expression is an attributive genitive meaning “bountiful of eye” (cf. KJV, ASV “He that hath a bountiful eye”). This is the opposite of the “evil eye” which is covetous and wicked. The “eye” is a metonymy representing looking well to people’s needs. So this refers to the generous person (cf. NASB, NIV, NRSV, NLT).”

And I guess we’ll wrap it up there for now!

Sources:

  1. Entry for idiom: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/idiom
    See also the etymology of idiom: https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=idiom
  2. I found this gem here at MimicMethod.com
  3. See the following OT passages, translated into Greek from Hebrew (מַה־לִּ֣י וָלָ֔ךְ):

    Judges 11:12 Καὶ ἀπέστειλεν Ιεφθαε ἀγγέλους πρὸς βασιλέα υἱῶν Αμμων λέγων Τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί, ὅτι ἦλθες πρός με τοῦ παρατάξασθαι ἐν τῇ γῇ μου;

    2 Samuel 16:10 καὶ εἶπεν ὁ βασιλεύς Τί ἐμοὶ καὶ ὑμῖν, υἱοὶ Σαρουιας;

    1 Kings 17:18 καὶ εἶπεν πρὸς Ηλιου Τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί, ἄνθρωπε τοῦ θεοῦ;

2 thoughts on “New Testament Greek (and Hebrew) Idioms”

  1. Interesting post, fellow Greek Geek!
    You did well to explain Matthew 6:22-23 in light of Proverbs 22:9 and Deut. 15:9. Proverbs 28:22 is similar. Furthermore, understanding Matthew 6:22-23 to be talking about generosity and stinginess fits perfectly with the context, which is about money. Previously in Matthew 6, Jesus taught about laying up treasure in heaven and not on earth, and right afterward He talked about not being able to serve both God and Mammon (riches). All nice and tidy… Until we come to Luke 11:34.
    Luke 11:34 is not in the context if money, but in the context of light and lighting. Why did Jesus talk about stinginess and generosity in that context? (Or were there additional meanings for the idiom and a different meaning is intended in Luke? Jesus no doubt said similar things at different times, like any good teacher, and this was probably a different audience.) Any thoughts about what is meant in Luke?

    Reply
    • χαίρε, Ματθαῖος!
      Thanks! Most of my thoughts on Matt. 6:22-23 were based on the article by Jim Myers that I linked to in that discussion; maybe I should make that a little more clear in the post. 🙂

      You’ve raised an excellent question about Luke 11:34! I’m not sure I have an answer for that one. I’m inclined to think that Jesus was creating a bit of a play on words using the same idiom to mean something slightly different. I don’t think that the two passages (or “meanings” of the idiom in the two passages) are mutually exclusive though, because our actions (generosity/miserliness) most certainly will affect our spiritual condition (light/darkness). (cf. Matt. 25:31-46)

      The context of Luke 11:34 is that the “evil generation” was looking for a sign from Jesus to prove his divine authority. But Jesus, κατὰ τὸ εἰωθὸς αὐτῷ, didn’t give them what they asked for; instead he rebuked them for ignoring the obvious light shining right in their eyes, and persisting in asking for further “proof” of his authority. If I could paraphrase the passage, I think it might go something like this:

      “I (Jesus) am the Light that came into the world. I came to shine, so you won’t find me hiding my light under a bushel, but instead I shine out from the lampstand for everyone to see. If your eyes were good/healthy, you’d be able to see that I AM who I say I am. Since you obviously can’t see very well, (and keep asking for more “signs”) you’d better check whether your eyes are OK, because if your eyes are bad, your whole body/life is going to be negatively affected. Even the GENTILES (Ninevites and “the queen of the south”) could recognize God at work, and repent; while you, the evil generation, do not!”

      Perhaps this was a bit of a “slam” at the Pharisees who did surely “give alms” as all good Jews did, (a good eye), but were intent on killing Jesus, who was their promised Messiah (proof that the “light in them” was actually darkness)!

      John 9:39-41 has some similar imagery about eyes/sight and spiritual condition too. Here’s the NET note #110 sn on Jn. 9:41:

      Because you claim that you can see, your guilt remains. The blind man received sight physically, and this led him to see spiritually as well. But the Pharisees, who claimed to possess spiritual sight, were spiritually blinded. The reader might recall Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in 3:10, “Are you the teacher of Israel and don’t understand these things?” In other words, to receive Jesus was to receive the light of the world, to reject him was to reject the light, close one’s eyes, and become blind. This is the serious sin of which Jesus had warned before (8:21-24). The blindness of such people was incurable since they had rejected the only cure that exists (cf. 12:39-41).

      Reply

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