To summarize this article, Christ uses the Greek phrase variously translated as "verily, I tell you", "amen, I tell you" or "truly, I tell you" more commonly than any other statement. He used it like a "catchphrase", that is, something that takes on its humor from repetition The phrase is a play on words. While "amen" in Hebrew means "truly", a very similar word in Greek, men, also means "truly". However, in Greek, amen also means "to reap." It is easy to imagine this out of place first word drawn out for humorous effect. So the meaning here could be "To reap, I teach you," as well as "truly I tell you." It also has the sense of "I teach you certainty" or "I teach you reality."
Many of Christ's verses begin with the Greek phrase translated as "Verily I say to you," or "Truly I say to you." In John, the phrase begins with two "verily's" or two "truly's." In Greek, this phrase is: Ἀμὴν [ἀμὴν] λέγω ὑμῖν. In Roman characters, this comes out as "Amen, amen, lego humin." The purpose of this article is to examine this phrase, Christ's use of it, and its deeper meaning in Greek.
The complete phrase first appears Mat 5:18 ...until heaven and earth pass away,
(The site convention is to show the titles of verses beginning with this phrase [or its brothers or cousins] with ellipses [...], so that all the verses don't look alike and this phrase doesn't push out the real topic of the verse.) We haven't taken an exact count of the verses of Christ words that begin or contain this phrase, but it is well over a hundred verses.
The "brothers and cousins" of this phrase are the similar phrases that are also used as introductions to a verse. We see many of these variations in the "commandments" section that begins at Mat 5:18. At verse Mat 5:20, Christ begins the verse with "For I say to you," without the "verily." Just two verses later, Mat 5:22, Christ repeats this phrase but with a "but" instead of a "for", "But I say to you." This pattern of continues through this section of Matthew, chapter five. We see another couple occurrences in Mathew, chapter 18.
Use of the Phrase
The phrase is a form of word play, starting with the fact that the word "amen" works in both Greek and Hebrew. The Greek word ("men") means "truly" and in this form also is the infinitive form of the verb meaning "to reap grain."
Initially in Matthew, the phrase (often without the "verily" with an added "but"), is used to introduce Christ's versions of the commandments. Frequently, it is used following a verse about the OT commandment of Moses, which are often introduced with a "you have heard."
However, later in Matthew and throughout Mark, the phrase is used differently. It is always used with the "verily" to introduce ideas that seem hard to believe. As an example, in Mar 11:23, where Christ says that if you have faith, you can move mountains.
However, in John, when we move to the "verily, verily" version of the phrase is always used, its use changes again. First, it is used much more frequently than in the synoptic Gospels. Its use starts right away, at John 3:3, Christ's first statement in John. Now, it is used to introduce ideas that are expressed in metaphors. It seems to apply especially to verses that have a deeper, hidden meaning.
The use of the phrase with the pronoun "ego lego" is rarer but clearly meant to be humorous both because of the alliteration but also because the use of the pronoun with a verb accentuates it to make the person speaking the issue.
The Source Words
This phrase comes from the three following words:
Ἀμὴν (see its form here) "Verily" is from amen, which is from the Hebrew, meaning "truly", "of a truth," and "so be it." As a metaphor, it means "faithful" and "firm." However, though amen is of Hebrew originally, it resembles a Greek word with a similar sound and meaning, the Greek word men, which is generally used to express certainty and, like amen, means "indeed", "certainly", "surely," and "truly." This overlap between Greek and Hebrew is a coincidence, but the kind of one Christ would find entertaining. It is also the infinitive form of the Greek word amao, which means specifically "to reap grain," and generally "to reap" or "to cut." Christ uses the idea of the harvest and reaping to describe his work in many passages, but he uses a different word, therizô, that gets translated as "reap", but that word means "summer work" referring generally. It is also the noun meaning "shovel" but that fact doesn't seem to the part of his wordplay.
λέγω (1st sg pres ind act) "I say" is from lego means "pick up", "choose for oneself", "pick out," and "count," "recount", "tell over", "say", "speak", "teach", "mean", "boast of", "tell of", "recite," "nominate," and "command."
Of these words, the only one whose meaning is simple is "you." In these "amen" phases, the "you" is virtually always shown in the plural because they are always addressed to either public crowds or the group of the apostles.
The meaning of the "I say" comes from the Greek word lego. While this word can mean "to say" or "to tell," in this phrase is clearly means "to teach." Christ only uses this phrase to describe his teaching. In beginning of Matthew, it is used to describe how his teaching is different from the original law of Moses. In Mark, it is used to describe teachings are that are more difficult to believe. By the end of John, it is used to describe teachings that must be explained or thought about in metaphorical terms to be understood.
This brings us to the meaning of "amen." Perhaps the biggest problem with this word is that it is used differently at the beginning of a statement than at the end. Of course, our use of it today is always the "ending" use, where it means "so be it." However, in the beginning of a statement, it is used to express the truth of what is said.
Why the Hebrew "Truly?"
To understand what Christ means when he says that he teaches "truly," we have to look at how he uses the word "truth." We also have to answer the question of why he uses the Hebrew word in this phrase, rather than the Greek.
It is easy to understand why the Greek word "truth" is not used. In Greek, the word translated as "Truth" means literally "not hidden" and "obvious." Christ uses it frequently, but it doesn't work in the way he uses this phrase. He specifically uses this phrase to introduce ideas that are not obvious and are someone hidden by metaphor.
However, Christ's idea of "truth" remains consistent between Greek and Hebrew despite the different shade of meanings in the words. What is "true" is what is real. Truth is reality. Something that reality is obvious, but sometimes it requires a deeper understanding of the nature of things.
Consistent with this idea of "truth," Christ uses amen to means "truly", "really", "in truth," and "in reality."
In other words, he uses this word to contrast what people think with what is really real. This is particularly apparent in John's use of the repeated word. It is what is really real, what is truly true. It is the real truth and the true reality.
The Humor of the Statement
However, when we read Christ's words in the Greek, this "amen" phrase often seems humorous. Some of this comes from its simple repetition. This is especially true in John, where it is always used in the repetitive form, "amen, amen" or "really true." Of course, this could also be understood as "to truly reap I teach" or "truly, I teach to reap."
While, especially in John, this phrase is often to discuss difficult ideas. However, these "difficult ideas" are often teases. Such as Mat 24:34 ...This generation shall not pass, where Christ refers to the second coming and says something like, "this generation MIGHT not pass away until all of this stuff MIGHT happen"
However, the general feeling is folksy, as we would say, "Tell you true." Again, this folksy feeling is often in contrast to what seems, at first to be very serious topics.
There is also obvious humor because the phrase mixes Hebrew and Greek. Think of how it feels to through in a Spanish word into an English sentence. It always has a lighter feeling to say "Hi, amigos!" than "Hi, friends." It is hard to think of an English speaker inserting a common foreign word (as opposed to an intellectual one) and not have the resulting statement seem funnier. "You are a mench!" is funnier than "You are a man!"
In English, we often thank that a person who begins a phrase saying, "honestly," is being less than honest. The fact that you are saying that you are being honest makes people suspicious. This seems to be a part of the humor here. Christ actually says in Mat 5:37 (But let your word be, Yes, yes;) not to be excessive in claiming "yes" or "no." To get this sense, however, we have to explore the Greek not the KJV.