(Updated) Hebrew and early christian “faith” compared with modern world “faith” / H εβραϊκή και πρωτοχριστιανική «πίστη» συγκρινόμενη με τη σύγχρονη «πίστη»

The error, distortion, falsification, or whatever that was perpetrated when musterion (μυστήριον) was translated by “mystery” is very similar to the error that was perpetrated when the Greek pistis (πίστις) was translated by “faith.” We have already taken note of this latter fact, and we shall have occasion to deal with it at greater length when we come to examine the Gospel according to John. Under the New Covenant, the Greek word pistis originally meant having an objective certitude of the truth, a certitude involving one’s mind, or organ of thought. In our modern terminology, faith means not so much having an objective certitude of the truth as having a subjective conviction about it; and so the modern idea of faith is not equivalent to what was conveyed by the Greek pistis.

Moreover, faith has become dissociated from the intellect in the modern understanding through a number of historical influences to which we have already alluded. Our modern irrationalist and fideist prism falsifies the true meaning of the Greek words musterion and pistis. Modern readers see the New Testament, indeed the entire Bible, only as reflected in this irrationalist and fideist prism. The original Hebrew tradition was most decidedly not fideist; nor did it lend itself in any way to what we know today as Lutheranism, Kantianism, or Barthianism.

Claude Tresmontant, The Hebrew Christ, σελ. 93, 94.

We have already encountered and discussed many of the words derived from the Hebrew root verb aman, “to be certain of the truth of”. We shall have to return to this same subject when we come to consider the fourth Gospel. The words emunah or emet which were derived from this root were common and were usually translated in the Septuagint either by pistis (πίστις) or by aletheas (αλήθεια). The translators into Greek of our four Gospels tended to oscillate between the same variant translations. Matthew, Mark, and Luke emphasized the use of pistis, along with the verb derived from it, pisteuein (πιστεύειν), which designated the act of the intelligence in assenting with certitude to the truth which had been disclosed. The fourth Gospel, however, never employed pistis; more than in the Synoptic Gospels, the word aletheia was preferred. We translate aletheia, of course, as truth.

One thing is certain about this matter of truth and our assent to it, and that is that we moderns who speak about “believing” and “faith” are off the mark as far as the original meaning of these concepts is concerned. We have changed the terms of reference. We translate texts from the Gospels, and from the New Testament in general, within a framework that distorts the original meaning of these texts in a fundamental way. For us in the present century, the words “faith” and “belief” have come to be understood within a context established by Luther, Pascal, Descartes, Kant, Kierkegaard, and many others who have followed the same path. The result in the present climate is that faith is not considered to be a form of knowledge, nor does belief entail certitude. To believe is neither “to be certain about” nor “to know”. In Hebrew, emunah, translated into Greek by pistis, means objective certitude regarding the truth. In our modern parlance however, faith is nothing more than a subjective conviction divorced from objective knowledge as well as from certitude about it. When we see how the fourth Gospel employed the terms gnosis and pisteuein, we will understand that faith in God was an act of knowing which included an objective certitude regarding the truth of what was known.

Thus it is nothing less than a catastrophe when we translate pisteuein today by “to believe”, because, for us, “to believe” merely means a weak subjective assent; it does not include the idea of a certitude about one’s knowledge of the truth which the Hebrew aman conveyed. Amen which is derived from the same root word, thus means “truly”.

It is clear from considerations such as these how important it is to reconstruct the original Hebrew behind the Greek of our Gospels; this reconstruction is necessary merely to get at the exact meaning of terms. We will also be obliged to return to this question when we come to examine the fourth Gospel.

Claude Tresmontant, The Hebrew Christ, σελ. 150, 151.


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