For those interested in the creation of the play and novel We Saw His Sermon on the Mount, I want to explain the process involved in creating the work and its translation of Jesus's words from the Greek. This article is an abbreviation of the information at the tend of the novel version of the work.
Since my source was primarily the Greek itself, I want to address some specific questions about how the Greek words of Jesus shaped this story. This story was recreated in a very logical way from the written Greek that has been passed down to us through antiquity.
I spent my first twelve years of education in parochial schools, hearing Jesus’s words daily in religion classes. During my many decades, I have read those words in many different biblical translations. Perhaps I was unique in wondering how those words could have drawn crowds of thousands of people.
Studying His Words in Greek
When I began studying Jesus's words fifteen years ago, writing the articles on this site, I immediately understood his popular appeal. The man I found in the Greek was a lot warmer and more playful, more entertaining, and more enlightening than the Jesus I heard about in school, read in the biblical translation, or, for that matter, ever saw on the movie screen. He was also a lot more human and relevant.
I examined the Greek words close to see what was going on in them. Where those words indicated that they were part of a discussion, I added fictitious dialogue so that the conversation flowed naturally. In places where Jesus addressed a single person, I invented a character. When topics changed, I added a new question from the audience.
To bring out as many shades of meaning in the Greek as possible, I added the different reactions from the audience. I wrote this all originally as dialogue, people describing the event. That dialogue became a play. In that play, the six witnesses of our story re-created the Sermon for an assembly of early Followers. That stage play became an audio play and that audio play became this story.
The Spoken Greek of Jesus
Jesus’s Greek was unique because it was spoken, not written. See this article on the difference between spoken Greek and written English and this article about how we can know that Jesus taught in Greek. This makes it different than almost all other recorded ancient Greek text. In spoken language, meaning comes from the spoken words and their order, by their intonation, by words are emphasized, and where the speaker pauses. The written record of the Sermon includes only the word order information. Originally, it didn’t even contain punctuation of any kind.
Unfortunately, a translator can never capture all the shades of meaning and plays on words in the original. Translation from one language to another sacrifices the different possible meanings for every word translated. We see this in translating rhymes, which Jesus also used. Words that rhyme in one language almost never rhyme in another. We can, with effort, duplicate the sense of a rhyme from one language into another, but to do so, we must use completely different words.
Many and perhaps most of Jesus’s verses in the Gospel have at least one word with multiple meanings. My story explores some of those shades of meanings. Often, I try to capture the lost sense by merely using the primary meaning of the Greek word in its original word order instead of the traditional biblical translation.
A Range of Meanings
Different people in different eras see different things when they read Jesus’s words. The words are eternal. In every era, we have to apply the right context to appreciate them fully. My story attempts to apply the context of the era. It puts real people on the hillside with ordinary people then, not now. These people say things that ordinary people might say. Jesus does things good speakers do.
The original word order in Jesus’s words is mostly lost in translating his spoken words into grammatically correct English sentences. This incorrect word order often erases the drama and humor in the original. It also erases the clear evidence that Jesus was answering people’s questions by many of his statements. The one thing we can do for certain to get back to Jesus’s original words is go back to that original word order.
Since we start with the assumption that Jesus was a great speaker, we must imagine how these exact same words, in the exact same order, made perfect sense, not only holding Jesus’s audiences but entertaining and enthralling them.
Recreating the Discussion
The result of adding fictional questions and comments is that Jesus’s words flow more naturally. There are several “unnatural” characteristics in Jesus’s Greek words that I use to form the action and dialogue of the story:
- A sift from addressing the crowd to addressing an individual,
- The use of a “but” showing opposition to something said,
- The use of a “because” indicating an answer to a question.
- A sudden change in topic, indicating prompting from listeners,
- The introduction of unusual or uncommon words.
Let us each of these situations simply and why they are hidden in English translation.
Jesus sometimes addresses the crowd. Other times, he talks to individuals. These shifts are hidden in English because we use the same pronoun and verb forms for both the singular and the plural. In Greek, however, not only are the pronouns different, but all the verbs are singular or plural as well.
There are many clauses introduced with the Greek version of our conjunction “but.” In translation, that “but” is frequently changed to an “and” because the translators could see no opposition to Jesus’s previous statement. However, if we assume someone makes an objection to Jesus’s previous statement, the “but” makes sense.
Jesus also begins many phrases with the Greek conjunction that means “because.” This words appearance also accompanies as apparent change in topic. This is what is expected when answering question. Adding these lines is easy. We simply imagine what type of question would have triggered Jesus’s answer.
Inserting questions can also explain why certain words or images seem to appear out of nowhere. Why does Jesus suddenly refer to people as “dogs” and “sows?” This doesn’t seem very Jesus-like. More generally, Jesus uses unique words for well established ideas throughout the Gospels. Since it seems unlikely that he was showing off his vocabulary, a good explanation is that he was echoing his audience’s words back to them rather than using his more common terms.
The resulting questions and interactions in the story are fiction, but they must be like what happened because what actually happened created the words that we have today. While the details of what happened were certainly different, the Sermon could only have resulted from a similar flow of events.
The Requirement of Humor
Jesus’s words were meant to make people laugh right from the start. We can know this for sure from the order of his words. All humor, in every language, has the punchlines at the end of clauses. This structure is necessary to create surprise and make us laugh. This is true in English, Greek, and every other language. Jesus commonly puts his keywords at the end of clauses not the beginning as proper Greek demands. He continually adjusts his word order depending on the surprise he wants to create.
Much of what Jesus says can be broken down into the setup and the punch line. The setup must create an expectation of what is going to follow. The punch line must frustrate and disrupt that expectation in a surprising and entertaining way. We can see this from Jesus’s first words: “Fortunate...those...” is the setup. “Beggars” is the punchline. No one expects “beggars” to follow a description of “fortunate.” It is funny to think of beggars as fortunate.
Jesus also repeats certain phrases for comic effect. In TV sitcoms, characters have “catchphrases.” Jesus seems to have invented the concept. By repeating a phrase or a gesture, it becomes more entertaining over time. The main catchphrase in this story is the “realm of the skies” or, less literally, “kingdom of heaven” as we usually see it in the Bible.
Jesus is also particularly good at wordplay. After years trying to capture his wordplay in translation, I could no longer accept the academics claim that Jesus’s words were translated from Aramaic. We cannot capture most plays on words between languages.
Since I could not capture Jesus’s wordplay directly in English translation, I explain it indirectly through the characters’ comments and their reactions. While describing a joke is not as funny as hearing the joke, it is better than nothing. Even then, I can only capture maybe seventy percent of the shades of meaning in the original Greek. Wordplay of this depth cannot be translated or added in translation, not from Aramaic to Greek or from Greek to English.
In this work, I translate Jesus’s Greek words more simply, more literally, and more closely to how his listeners would have heard them at the time. This makes his words seem new in a different way. For example, I translate the Greek word usually interpreted as “heaven” in the Bible as “sky.” The word truly meant the blue vault above us with its clouds, birds, and the sun, but it also meant the starry night with the moon and comets. The seen sky represented everything that was real but beyond our reach, the universe. Jesus usually used the word in the plural with an article, so “the skies.”
Moving away from the traditional biblical vocabulary also opens us up to other possible meanings hidden in what Jesus was saying. The story gives us a broader context for his words. It creates spaces in which the characters can explore different shades of meaning for the reader. Though they avoid philosophy, the characters in the story offer us different perspectives on what the words meant to them. Many of these shades of meaning are implicit in the Greek words Jesus chose. Other aspects of meaning came from elements of the Judean culture, which his listeners at the Sermon would have understood, but which are unknown to most of us today. We can explain those elements in the story as Judeans would have described their culture to outsiders.
About Greek Translation
This translation of Jesus’s words in We Saw His Sermon on the Mount, from the Greek is different from biblical versions. It is more literal, following the Greek source word for word as much as possible. This is important because his words were spoken. The word order indicates how his listeners heard his ideas unfold. His pauses were between the Greek words, not the words we use in English translation. A lot of the suspense he creates and most of his humor is lost when we rearrange his words.
In this section, I explain only one verse. In the book, I explain three different verses and this requires over fifteen pages, but this should give you a sense of the process. To explain each of the 109 verses in the book in similar detail would take over five hundred pages.
A Continuing Theme
This verse comes from before the Sermon on the Mount. The King James Version (KJV) shows them in Matthew 4:17: “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” My translation is, “Change your minds! Because it has neared: this realm of the skies.” Though not technically part of the Sermon on the Mount, we know that Jesus, his apostles, and John the Baptist used this same phrase.
The original Greek is “Μετανοεῖτε, ἤγγικεν γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.” Greek is a lot more compact than English. This is especially true of verbs, but many other words, including nouns, need to be expanded as well to convey the same information.
Translating Greek Verbs
The Greek verb is packed with information. In English, verbs get much of their information from the addition of “helper” verbs. We also use pronouns to communicate the gender and number of their subjects. All of this information is captured in the Greek verb’s word ending. This means that all verbs in Greek turn into a whole series of words in English.
Let’s look at the first word of this first verse.
The Greek word Μετανοεῖτε is from a base word we render into our alphabet as metanoeo. It means “to perceive afterward,” “to change one’s mind,” and “to change one’s purpose.” Its root word means “perceive with the mind.” There is no similar verb in English. The phrase “have second thoughts” captures some of it, but not much.
The word’s ending tells us that it is a second-person command in the plural. In English, we cannot know the difference between the plural and singular second person. In Greek, we can always see the difference, both in verbs and pronouns. The “your minds” in my translation is used to express this plural.
The next word is another verb, ἤγγικεν (eggizo). It is an example of an adverb that is changed into a verb by adding a verb ending. The adverb is ἐγγύς (eggus), which means “nearly.” It refers to coming near in both time and space. This verb is third person, perfect tense, singular, and active. The perfect tense means that it describes an action completed in the past. This “coming near” is not something that is going to happen, or is happening now. It describes an action that has already been completed: “it has gotten close,” or “it has come near.”
Here we see the importance of word order. When they hear this word, Jesus’s listeners know something has come near, but what? By putting this verb before the subject, Jesus is creating suspense. In Greek, either the verb or subject or even objects can go first in a sentence. Jesus used them all depending on how he wanted to present his ideas. This is especially important in humor, which we will discuss in the context of the next verse.
Difficulties in Word Order
Sometimes, copying the word order of Greek is difficult. We see this with the next word in this verse, γὰρ (gar). This is an adverb that indicates that its clause offers a reason or explanation. It works like our “for,” “because,” “since,” and “as.” The problem is that this word always appears second in the clause. All our English words with this meaning introduce the clause. No English adverb works like this in the middle of a phrase.
So, in the end, we must occasionally abandon the original word order. Here, we use “because” at the beginning of this phrase. Copying the original word order may always be desirable, but it doesn’t always work.
The Greek Article
Now we have what should be an easy word, “the,” except the Greek word is not that easy. The Greek definite article is, in this case, ἡ (hē). Its use is similar to our “the” in English but closer in meaning to our demonstrative pronouns “this,” “that,” “these,” and so on. Unlike our “the,” the Greek word has different forms—ὁ (ho), ἡ (hē), τό (to), etc. These forms tell us the case, number, and gender of the word. The article usually precedes a noun, but it can change other words, especially adjectives and some verb forms, into nouns. By itself, it can act like a third-person pronoun, something we discuss later.
This article prepares the listener for what is coming next more than English articles do. This is why it often acts like an English preposition. We see some examples of this later in this verse.
Picking a Meaning
Most words in Greek and English have a range of meanings. The next word, βασιλεία (basileia), is a feminine noun that doesn’t only mean a leader’s physical territory. It means his power to reign, his kingship, and even his palace. The word is in the feminine form because the masculine form refers to the authority figure personally. The KJV usually translates this word as “kingdom.” However, we think of kingdoms as countries. In Greek, this word could mean many other types of control not related specifically to a large region.
I use “realm” to get away from our idea of “kingdom.” The concept is a little broader and less commonly used, so it allows us to hear this word with fresh ears.
To capture the sense of many Greek word forms and preserve the word order, we must add prepositions. The next phrase, “of the skies” or, in the KJV, “of heaven,” is a good and very common example.
The “of” comes from the genitive form of the Greek words. We add this “of” to capture the idea that the “realm” somehow belongs to “the skies.” We might describe the “genitive” as the “possessive” because that is how it is most commonly used.
However, Greek genitives can be used for other things as well as the possessive. There are nine or so different such uses. They are expressed by using different English prepositions: “belonging to,” “which is,” “than,” “for,” “about,” “during,” and so on. To decide how to translate the genitive, we must rely upon the context.
The Missing Article
In the Greek, a definite article appears before the word translated as “heaven” or “skies.” It lets listeners know the role of the coming word like English prepositions do. “Prepare” is the source of the word “preposition.” Though there is no “the” appearing before “heaven” in the KJV, this missing article is reflected in the “of” before “heaven.”
However, there are many missing articles in most biblical translations. Perhaps as many as seventy percent of the Greek articles are not translated. There are many reasons why. A few of them are good, such as not using an article with a “my.” However, many of these exclusions obscure what Jesus is saying. If we want to hear what Jesus sounded like to his listeners, it is best to translate as many articles as possible.
Here, the article is left out because the translators were thinking in their own terms, not those of Jesus’s era. We don’t notice this because their viewpoint was very like ours today. In our minds, there is only one “heaven.” The article is unnecessary.
However, this was not the viewpoint of those listening in Jesus’s era. Our concept of “heaven” is nothing like what Jesus’s listeners heard. The article used here is plural. This fact alone doesn’t fit with our concept of a single “heaven.”
The Greek word Jesus used that is translated as “heaven” didn’t have much in common with our idea of “heaven.” The word is οὐρανῶν, a form of ouranos. This word means “the sky,” “the universe,” and “the climate.” “The sky” was generally seen as everything in the universe, not on the earth. Here it is plural, “the skies.” One reason for this is that the Hebrew word for “sky,” shamayim, is always plural. This, in turn, is because the word on which it is based, mayim, meaning “waters,” is always plural. However, the Greek translation of the Old Testament that Jesus used usually renders this word as the singular ouranos. Jesus changed that to plural for a reason.
Our idea of “heaven,” as a place of the afterlife, didn’t exist in Christ’s culture. Judeans saw all of creation as separate from the Creator. Among Greeks, however, the sky was divine. Uranus, our spelling of ouranos, was the sky father and Gea, the earth mother, who gave birth to the Titans. The Titans gave birth to the Greek gods. Among Judeans, on the other hand, all of creation is described by the earth, where we live, plus the sky, a place accessible only to spirits. This idea goes back to Genesis.
Why does Jesus use “skies” in the plural? Though the Hebrew word is always plural, it is usually translated into the singular in Greek. Perhaps he wanted to separate his idea of “the Father in the skies” from the Greek sky father, Uranus. He may have also wanted to make it clear that his Father was not only the God of our sky but all skies.
Many of our words have evolved in their meaning since the time of Christ. “Heaven” isn’t the only one or even the most extreme example. The words translated as “hell,” “Satan,” “sin,” “hypocrite,” “Pharisee,” and many others all have meanings today that they simply didn’t have in Jesus’s time. A surprising number of these words take their meaning primarily from their use in the Bible. For example, in Jesus’s era, the Greek word “hypocrite” meant an “actor.” English Bibles do not translate it at all. Instead, they use the Greek word, which has come to mean a two-faced person. This is true of many words today. To hear Jesus as his listeners did, we have to use different words whose meanings are closer to what they heard.
This should give you some idea of the care taken and the depth of knowing used in creating this new translation.