St. John Henry Newman is famous for saying, “To know history is to cease to be Protestant.” Needless to say, many Protestants take offense to it, and many often reply with the retort, “To know the Bible is to cease to be Catholic.” I want to offer a bit of pushback to the Protestant rejoinder by arguing that knowledge of Greek does, in certain cases, favor Catholicism over Protestantism. So, while it might not be true that “to know Greek is to cease to be Protestant,” it is at least true that knowing Greek can help to reaffirm one’s Catholic faith.
I want to focus on three areas where knowledge of Greek lends credence toward Catholic claims. I will focus on a single word in the Lord’s Prayer relating to the Eucharist, a verse in Luke 22 about Peter, and the use of a Greek term in reference to Mary as the new Ark of the Covenant, and I will show that in each of these cases, the Greek brings to light truths that support the Catholic faith but are often veiled in English translations.
I. Super-substantial Bread
The Lord’s Prayer (the “Our Father”) is typically recited in English with the line “give us this day our daily bread.” The word “daily” is a translation of a very rare Greek word ἐπιούσιος (epiousios). The only occurrence of this word in all of extant Greek literature is in the Lord’s Prayer. Thus, it is harder than most Greek words to define since we have no other examples of its use. While “daily” is by far the most common translation nowadays, it was not historically. Many of the fathers—most notably Jerome, the translator of the Latin Vulgate—translated it in accordance with its etymology as “super-substantial.” The preposition ἐπί means “on” or “upon” and the word οὐσία means “substance” or “essence.”
The Eucharistic implications of “super-substantial” bread are clearer than they are for “daily” bread. The bread we pray for is not merely bread for daily sustenance, but it is a far more important and essential kind, the very bread of life. This bread is more than the bread for today, but is the bread for tomorrow and ultimately for an eternal future with God himself. As Jerome says:
We may also interpret the word ‘supersubstantialis’ otherwise, as that which is above all other substances, and more excellent than all creatures, to wit, the body of the Lord. . . . In the Gospel, entitled The Gospel according to the Hebrew, ‘supersubstantialis’ is rendered ‘mohar,’ that is, ‘tomorrow’s; so that the sense would be, Give us today tomorrow’s bread; i.e. for the time to come.
These Eucharistic overtones of “super-substantial” are perhaps some of the reasons Protestant translations have typically shied away from this rendering. However, Catholics need not think that ἐπιούσιος means exclusively either “daily” or “super-substantial.” Jerome, in fact, translated the word both ways, in Luke’s version of the Our Father as “daily” (Latin, quotidianum) and in Matthew as “super-substantial” (Latin, supersubstantialem).
It is important to remember that Scripture is multivalent and a verse or even a word or phrase can have multiple meanings. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains how both of the meanings of ἐπιούσιος can be understood as a Catholic:
“Daily” (epiousios) occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. Taken in a temporal sense, this word is a pedagogical repetition of “this day,” to confirm us in trust “without reservation.” Taken in the qualitative sense, it signifies what is necessary for life, and more broadly every good thing sufficient for subsistence. Taken literally (epi-ousios: “super-essential”), it refers directly to the Bread of Life, the Body of Christ, the “medicine of immortality,” without which we have no life within us. Finally in this connection, its heavenly meaning is evident: “this day” is the Day of the Lord, the day of the feast of the kingdom, anticipated in the Eucharist that is already the foretaste of the kingdom to come. For this reason it is fitting for the Eucharistic liturgy to be celebrated each day.—CCC 2837
As always, Scripture is very deep, and in this case, a little knowledge of Greek can help us more fully appreciate the Eucharistic aspect of what our “daily” bread is, even if we say “daily” and not “super-substantial” or “super-essential.”
II. Peter Singled Out
The next example of Greek favoring specifically Catholic teaching is from Luke 22:31-32. These verses are an example of where a nuance in the Greek does not come out in translation because of the lack of a distinction in English between the second person singular and plural. Consider the ESV translation of this verse:
Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”—Luke 22:31-32 ESV
While this is not technically a mistranslation, it is a poor one because it is misleading. It seems, from this translation, that the only “you” is Simon Peter. However, in the Greek, there are two distinct parties being talked about. The “you” in verse 31 is plural (Gk. ὑμᾶς) and refers to the Apostles, while the “you” in verse 32 is singular (Gk. σοῦ), referring to Peter. Satan demands to sift not just Peter, but all of the Apostles, and Christ prays explicitly, not for all of the Apostles, but for Peter individually. Thus, instead of this merely being a verse about Satan wanting to attack Peter while Jesus prays for his repentance and perseverance, it is a verse where Peter is singled out by Christ among all the Apostles as the one Christ has chosen to strengthen his fellow Apostles. Because of this somewhat subtle detail, the Church has often used this verse in defense of her teachings on the papacy.
Fortunately, there are better translations of Luke 22:31-32 (see the NIV, NAB, and others) that bring the Petrine character of this passage to light. That is why it is often a good idea, even if one does know some Greek, to consult a variety of translations of a specific passage. Sometimes, important things are left out of one translation.
III. Mary Overshadowed
The last example of Greek supporting Catholic teaching has to do not with the definition of a word per se, but the use of a word in both the Old and New Testaments. While the Old Testament was written primarily in Hebrew, a Greek translation of the Old Testament—now known as the Septuagint—played an important role for Jews and Christians in the centuries surrounding Christ’s life. For Jews and Christians outside of Palestine, this translation functioned as the Bible. In fact, the New Testament authors themselves typically quote the Greek Septuagint when quoting from the Old Testament rather than producing their own Greek renderings of Hebrew. Because of the importance of the Septuagint for the New Testament and more broadly, for Christians and Jews, when the New Testament uses words found in the Septuagint, we should pay careful attention and see if they are drawing our attention to something there. A good example of this can be found with Luke’s use of the Greek word ἐπισκιάζω (episkiazo) which means “overshadow.” This word is used in Luke’s account of the Annunciation in Luke 1:35 when Gabriel tells Mary that the Holy Spirit will “overshadow” her.
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow [ἐπισκιάζω] you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.—Luke 1:35 (NIV)
What some biblical scholars have noticed is that this same Greek word is used in reference to the ark of the covenant in Exodus 40:35:
Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled [ἐπισκιάζω] on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.—Exodus 40:35 NIV
By using the exact same Greek term, Luke is subtly drawing a connection between the cloud of God’s glory overshadowing the Ark of the Covenant in Exodus 40 and the Holy Spirit’s overshadowing of Mary. It is reasonable to conclude, as Brant Pitre does, that Luke sees Mary here as a new Ark of the Covenant.
In light of the distinctive use of the word “overshadow” [Greek, episkiazo] in the Greek bible, many scholars . . . have concluded that the imagery of the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary is meant to call to mind the “glory cloud” of the exodus. . . . In other words, just as the Ark of the covenant in the Tabernacle was the special place of God’s presence in the exodus from Egypt, so now, through the annunciation Mary has become the special dwelling place of God’s glory in the new exodus.—Brant Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary, 56.
There are many other textual reasons to see Mary as the New Ark of the Covenant from both Luke’s Gospel and other passages in the New Testament. So while it can be admitted that the use of ἐπισκιάζω does not itself prove the typology, it adds further support to an already well supported typology.
Overall, much more can be said about knowledge of Greek and the disputes between Protestants and Catholics. What I hope to have shown is that being knowledgeable about Greek can be helpful in defending Catholicism. Whether relating to the Eucharist, Peter, or Mary, sometimes knowing a little Greek can help to unveil the basis for Catholic teachings in these areas.