The Differences between "The" and the Ancient Greek Article

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 form 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, a "the" in the translation does not mean that there was a "the" 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 is more definite than the English "the". The Greek article is really a weaker form of a demonstrative pronoun, "this", "that", "these" and "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, so "this one" or simple "this", referring back to the previous noun.

When preceding an adjective, the adjective acts like a noun, "the strong" or, more precisely, "the ones strong." When preceding a verbal adjective, it also creates an noun, "sowing" becomes "the one sowing." When it precede an infinitive of the verb, it creates a noun describing the action, "to sow" becomes "the sowing."  Notice, in English we use the gerund, not the infinitive for this same purpose.

This demonstrative nature of the article is especially important in some constructions. For example, in a possessive phrase, "the name of his", it 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 proceed the noun without an article, "my name", but you can also have constructions that have both, "the my name". In this latter case, we can ignore the article but perhaps it is more accurate to translate it as "this, my name."

However, in Biblical translation, 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". In the case of the possessive pronoun with an article, this can be justified, but we must be careful not to change the intended meaning.

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 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, no when we focus on Christ's words. The focus of the study here is very narrow. If examples are found where such a change seems justifiable, they will be noted here.

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 a person as a "lord" or "master", the word is usually used with an article, "the master". However, in English, we use the title, "the Lord" to refer to the Supreme Being unless we are directly addressing God with the title.