The Differences between "The" in Ancient Greek vs English Articles

The ancient Greek article is usually translated into the English definite article "the", but there are differences between the two words. Like the English article, it can translate an adjective into a noun, for example, "strong" into "the strong," but it can also transform various verb forms into nouns as well. These are worth noting because if we want to capture what was really meant in the ancient Greek, we should not always translate them the same. In looking at an English translation of the Bible, the article "the" in the translation does not mean "the" is written in the original Greek. And, perhaps even more often, the lack of a definite article doesn't mean that there was no "the" in the Greek. There are important instances where Greek and English usage reverses the roles of the article. For example, with the words "God" and "Lord". 

The Greek Article

The Greek article "the" is more definite than "the" in English. The Greek article is really a weaker form of a demonstrative pronoun, as in "this" or "that" and "these" or "those".

Like demonstrative pronouns, the Greek article is used as a pronoun when it stands alone without a noun. "This" is usually translated as "the one" or, "the ones" but it can also have the sense of referring to a previously mentioned noun, like any pronoun, as in "this" or "this one", referring back to the previous noun.

When preceding an adjective, the adjective acts like a noun, "the strong" or, more precisely, "the strong ones." When preceding a verbal adjective, it also creates an noun, "sowing" becomes "the one sowing." When it precedes an infinitive of the verb, it creates a noun describing the action, "to sow" and becomes "the sower."  In English we use the gerund, not the infinitive for this same purpose. A gerund is a verb form that ends in -ing. A gerund phrase includes the gerund, plus any modifiers and complements. Gerunds and gerund phrases always function as nouns. They can act as subjects, direct objects, indirect objects, predicate nominatives, or objects of a preposition in a sentence.

This demonstrative nature of the article is especially important in some constructions. For example, in a possessive phrase, "the name of his" sounds much more natural in English to say "that name of his" or "this name of mine". In Greek, as in English, there are possessive forms that pre-ceed the noun without an article, such as "my name".  You can also have constructions that have both, such as "the my name", but in this latter case, we can ignore the article and perhaps it is more accurate to translate it as "this, my name."

However, in Biblical translation into English, we commonly see the Greek article left out or translated as an indefinite article. Instead of translated "the man" we get "man" or "a man". We are not going to note here places where such changes are made with the seeming intention of shifting the meaning to a particular point of view because the general assumption is that all translations of the Bible are made in good faith. They may be written from a particular point of view, but no writing is completely objective.

The English Indefinite Article

Greek has no indefinite article like English does. This means that there is no phrase "a man" - just the word "man" standing alone. This may seem odd at first, but there is no indefinite article for plural words in English either. We just say, "men" like the ancient Greeks did.

However, in translating the Greek of the Bible "the's" are frequently added when no definite article is written in the Greek. Is this justified? The thinking is that if the noun refers to a specific person rather than a generic person, a "the" should be added. However, how can we tell? How do we know we aren't changing a generic statement about any man into a specific statement about a given person? The reason given is usually "the context". In looking at the Greek and at changes of this nature, it is usually impossible to see how the context dictated such a change. At least, not when we focus on Christ's words. The focus of the study here is very narrow.

Some Important Special Cases

A couple of good illustrations of the differences between Greek and English use of articles in the NT are provided by the words "God" and "Lord". In English, we do not use the article with the word when referring to the Supreme Being. However, in NT Greek, the article is always used, o Theos, "the God", not theos, which would mean "a god". This means that "God" is treated as a title in Greek but a proper name in English. 

However, the Greek and English word for "Lord" works differently. The Greek word, Kyrios, without an article, is used to refer to God. However, when referring to Jesus as "Lord" or "Master", the word is usually used with an article, "the master". In English, we use the title, "the Lord" in the New Testament to refer to Jesus as the Supreme Being. 

[Regarding the Greek text and English translations about "Holy Spirit", a discussion of the use of articles will follow when completed.]