Justification. Propitiation. Sanctification. Righteousness.

These are all part of the highly-specialized vocabulary that has developed across the millennia as Christians have sought to describe and systematize what is taught in the Bible. These English words all come to English via Latin (often by way of French; thanks Norman invaders), as is true for a great deal of the specialized technical vocabulary traditionally used in humanities and scientific endeavors. Much of this vocabulary came to Latin from Greek. In a twist of historical irony, now a lot of technical English words are spreading around the world so we get a Modern Greek word like τηλέφωνο which is borrowed from English “telephone” which is related to the slightly earlier French “téléphone” which is transparently a modern coinage based on Ancient Greek words…but I digress. These sorts of specialized words are the kind that we have to intentionally teach ourselves what they mean, because they are so specialized and really only occur in discussions of the Bible, or are used by people steeped in biblical discussions.

A question that arises when learning Greek is what the relationship of meaning is between, for example, δικαιοσύνη and “righteousness.” I’ve never seen a learning tool give a different gloss for this word, nor do I advocate a different one, but the question is fair to ask: what is the actual relationship in meaning between these words? Since “righteousness” is so theologically-freighted, does it do justice to the Greek term (which is also quite specialized) it is the reflexive gloss for?

If you had good Greek teachers, they probably pointed this conundrum out somewhere along the line. However, in my experience it is often discussed without many examples, probably because many examples require a robust understanding of Greek to appreciate. Recently, while reading through Shepherd of Hermas, this question was raised in my mind in a forceful way by encountering a text where the default NT gloss for a word is actually wrong in context. Let’s explore.

μετανοεῖν: “to repent”

When learning to gloss the word μετανοεῖν, you surely learn that it means “to repent.” That is the only gloss my introductory text gave. Though you might find one like “change one’s mind” if the author is being especially careful in the glosses they give (and piling up different glosses for a word, which is not a very good way to learn a word). Now, when reading the NT, operating under the assumption that μετανοεῖν means something like “to repent” is pretty safe, as that is overwhelmingly an appropriate gloss. However, it is important to distinguish between two quite different things: 1) an English word that is (often) an appropriate gloss for a Greek word, and 2) what the Greek word means. This distinction is pretty trivial when you are learning that ξίφος is “sword,” but becomes rather important when a word is theologically freighted, like “repent.” What do I have in mind?

μετανοεῖν: when “repent” doesn’t mean “repent”

The text that kicked off these musings is Shepherd of Hermas 15.3 Here is the relevant portion, along with a translation:

οὗτοί εἰσιν οἱ τὸν λόγον ἀκούσαντες καὶ θέλοντες βαπτισθῆναι εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ κυρίου· εἶτα ὅταν αὐτοῖς ἔλθῃ εἰς μνεῖαν ἡ ἁγνότης τῆς ἀληθείας, μετανοοῦσιν καὶ πορεύονται πάλιν ὀπίσω τῶν ἐπιθυμιῶν αὐτῶν τῶν πονηρῶν.

They are the ones who heard the word and wanted to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then, when they remember the purity of truth, they repent and go again after their evil desires.

Now, I would never publish a translation of this text using the word “repent” like I have here, but would say something like “they change their minds.” This is because the word repent is theologically-freighted in a way that the Greek word μετανοεῖν was not.[1] If you read the above translation from a Christian framework, you probably find it a little jarring. That was the point and it is meant to highlight the problem I introduced this post with: if you learn μετανοεῖν with the English gloss “to repent” and make the association that that is what the Greek word means, you have entered problematic territory.

The jarring-translation I gave highlights that the English word “repent” is theologically-freighted in a way that the Greek word is not. Think of it this way: we only use the word repent to describe a change of life and/or mind in which a person moves from a point of view that is contrary to our own and comes to embrace our own. To put it simply, “to repent” in English always carries the connotation “to change from something wrong to something right.”[2] We don’t ever say in a non-ironic way “I repented from my sobriety and became an alcoholic.” Christians don’t say “He repented from Christianity and became a Muslim” but would certainly say “She repented from Islam and became a Christian.” What is the difference? “To repent” is always a movement from something presented as bad to something presented as good, from the perspective of the speaker.

This is not the case with μετανοεῖν. In the passage above, the speaker is actually presenting the people as turning from Jesus to evil, yet still using the same word that is used to call lost people to turn to Jesus! Fascinating.

Glosses aren’t meanings

Learning theologically-freighted vocabulary is a delicate balance. ματανοεῖν does not inherently mean “to repent,” but often times in context it does mean that. Or, perhaps better put, often times the English translation of “to repent” accurately conveys what μετανοεῖν is conveying in context. It is relevant when learning vocab of any sort, and technical and theological terms especially, that glosses are not what a word means and that properly grasping what words mean requires attention not just to the Greek word in context, but to our own language as well.

[1] This is true for the word broadly speaking. It is, of course, possible that certain speakers/writers only used it in theologically-freighted ways in certain writings, but that is beyond this discussion

[2] I say “always” with full realization that there is probably an exception. I can’t think of ever having heard one, nor do any examples I make up sound right, outside of ironic usages. Of course, people can and do use “to repent” ironically, but the very fact that it sounds ironic is indicative that it always means “turn from bad to good (according to the perspective of the speaker)” in normal usage.