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Ten Greek Words Every Catholic Should Know

  • STEPHEN BEALE

It's hard to imagine Christianity without Greek. It's the language of the New Testament and our earliest creeds and doctrines.

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The very terms we use to describe God — three persons, one in being — have their roots in ancient Greek words and concepts.  Needless to say, the language of Homer and Plato has profoundly shaped our faith.

Not all of us have the time to learn ancient Greek.  But there are at least ten Greek words every Christian should know:


logos:   In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. So begins the Gospel of John.  In the Greek, word is logos.  What does it mean to call Jesus the Word in the first place?  The context of the verse offers some clues.  In an obvious allusion to the creation account in Genesis, John is suggesting that Christ is the creative word of God.  But we must turn to the original language to really understand the full meaning.  In ancient Greek, logos is a loaded term.  The Liddell-Scott Greek Lexicon includes all of the following in the definition: explanation, statement of theory, argument, rule, law, reason, inward debate of the soul, scientific knowledge.  Whenever you say any word today that ends in ology, this is where it came from.  The Holman Bible Dictionary explains further:

Among the Greek philosophers, especially the Stoics, logos came to mean the rational principle that gave order to the cosmos.  It could therefore be equated with God.  Human reason, in turn, derived from this universal logos.

Now we can appreciate what an extraordinary statement John was making: Jesus is the 'rational principle' behind the universe, the cause of all created things — the word of God Himself indeed.


agape:   We have one word for love.  The Greeks had at least four.  One such wod is eros, which corresponds with our word lust.  (It's also where we get the word erotic.) But when we read in 1 John 4:8, for example, that God is love it is a different Greek word that is being used: agape.  In the context of Scripture, agape refers to a selfless, sacrificial love.  For St. Paul, love "is a relationship of self-giving which results from God's activity in Christ," according to the Holman Bible Dictionary.  But agape and eros may not be as opposed to each other as it might seem.  In his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI offers an innovative take on the relationship between the two words, suggesting that when properly oriented towards God, eros has its place in the faith along with agape.  Indeed, isn't this the fundamental message of the Theology of the Body associated with his predecessor Pope John Paul II?  The unity of eros and agape is biblical as well.  Anyone who doesn't think so should read Song of Songs.


ecclesia:   Anyone who desires to study the Church becomes a student of ecclesiology, a word that looks like it has nothing to do with its subject matter.  But it's lifted right out of the Greek word the New Testament uses for Church: ecclesia.  In ancient Greece, this was the term for the democratic assemblies that governed city-states.  In the New Testament, ecclesia took on a different, far broader meaning, referring to the following: the whole body of Christians, a group of believers, and the faithful gathered together in a particular city, according to Easton's Bible Dictionary.  The etymology of the word is also rich with implications.  It is a combination of the prefix ek, meaning out, from, and to — and kaleo, to call.  Hence, one way of defining the word is: the people called out from the world and to God, according to Strong's Concordance.  By the way, our word church also comes from another Greek word, kyriakos, meaning, belonging to the Lord


evangelion:   The gospel writers are sometimes called evangelists.  We too are called to be evangelists, something Pope Benedict reminded us.  But what exactly is an evangelist?  In the Greek, evangelion, means good message, according to Easton's Bible Dictionary.  You could also translate it as gospel or good tidings.  The word is the product of the combination of eu-, a prefix meaning good, and angelion, message.  That last word should look familiar: it's also the source of our word angel.  As evangelists, we are called to bring the good news of the Incarnation, of the Cross, and the Resurrection to others.  As evangelists we are not so different than the angels: we too are ambassadors from heaven, sent on a mission from God Himself.


martyria:   This is a word that should sound familiar.  In Christianity, martyrs are those who were killed for their faith.  But, in ancient Greek, martyria had a broader meaning, referring simply to testimony.  Over time, the Church came to call those who died for their faith martyrs because they were such extraordinary witnesses to Christ.  This is consistent with how the word is used in Scripture.  For example, in Revelation 6:9, John has the following vision: "I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held."  Knowing the original meaning of this word helps us to see that we all are called to give testimony to those around us.  And, even though it may not entail a physical death, it often does mean that we have to die to ourselves in some way — whether that means cutting ourselves off from the sins of the flesh, or radically serving others.  In this way, martyria complements the word addressed above, evangelion.  As evangelists, we witness with our words.  As martyrs, we witness with our actions.  We are, of course, called to be both.


christos:   Jesus is ultimately a Hebrew name, but Christ is from the Greek word, christos, meaning anointed.  In the Old Testament priests were set apart by being anointed, as was David and his successors.  "Scripture refers to the king as the 'anointed of Yahweh,'" writes Kenneth Baker, S.J., in his book, Fundamentals of Catholicism.  "He was, therefore, a sacred person who, in a way, represented the kingship of Yahweh over his people.  The people also believed that God worked through the king to protect them and to achieve his special plan."


leitourgia:   The liturgy — where we both hear the Word and receive the Word Made Flesh — is the heart of the faith.  We know liturgy refers to the two parts of the Mass, but what does the word actually mean?  Liturgy hails from the Greek, leitourgia, which the Catholic Encyclopedia explains is a combination of leitos, meaning public, and ergo, to do.  In ancient Greece, it referred to "a public duty, a service to the state undertaken by a citizen."  This reminds us that the liturgy is never a private affair — it is a public act, even when we pray the Liturgy of the Hours alone.


eucharistia:   We are taught that the Eucharist is the 'source and summit of the Christian life,' so we would do well to understand where the word came from.  Its origin is the New Testament Greek word, eucharistia, meaning thanksgiving.  In this word, we recognize again the prefix, eu-, meaning good or well, combined with the verb, charizesthai, meaning to show favor — itself derived from charis, the Greek word for grace.  This lends the Eucharist a double meaning, encompassing what it is as well as how we should respond to it.  It goes without saying that in receiving the Eucharistic Lord, we receive grace as well.  How else can we respond except in pure, heartfelt thanksgiving? 


latreia and douleia:   The words we use for worship can be confusing sometimes.  Among contemporary Catholicism, it has been drilled into our minds that adoration is reserved for God alone, while veneration is due to Mary, the saints, and angels.  Usually such clarification is followed by a disclaimer: 'Catholics do not worship Mary.' The problem is technically we do.  Worship is the umbrella term that encompasses both adoration and veneration.  Here's the best way to avoid the confusion, especially if you're reading anything that was writing before the 1960s, or even the 1990s: latria is the Latin term for adoration, or worship, of God.  Dulia is the Latin term for veneration, or worship, of the saints.  These terms, in turn, come directly from the Greek: latreia and douleia.  Both Greek words have the basic meaning of service.  To paraphrase Aquinas, latreia is the 'service' paid to God, while douleia is the 'service' we render to saints.

Notably, in the New Testament, the two words are used in dramatically different contexts.  Latreia is always used to refer to worship of God.  (For example, John 16:12 and Romans 12:1.) Douleia, on the other hand, also has secular contexts of servitude (for example, Romans 8:21).  Such a disparity of contexts certainly reinforces the distance between the activities signified by each word: veneration of saints in no way competes with, or diminishes, the adoration of God.


hyperdulia:   By the way, the Latin term hyperdulia, in no way implies Catholics are 'hyper' about Mary.  Instead, hyper- is the Greek prefix meaning aboveHyperdulia refers to the honor given to Mary which is 'above' the honor given to the other saints.

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Acknowledgement

Stephen Beale. "Ten Greek Words Every Catholic Should Know." Catholic Exchange (June 17, 2013).

Reprinted with permission from the Catholic Exchange.  The original article can be found here.

Catholic Exchange seeks to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ as proclaimed by the Catholic Church to the world. 

The Author

Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter here.

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