Friday Facts: Lectionary A – First Sunday in Lent

Friday Facts is a  weekly feature here on Trout and Cast Iron. Every week, I’ll read through the lectionary texts for the following Sunday in their original Hebrew and Greek. On Friday, I’ll choose one of the texts, provide a new translation, and highlight one point of interest from a linguistic, ancient history, or concordance point of view. The hope is that Friday Facts can provide a spark to preachers who find themselves preparing their Sunday sermon on a short schedule. 

Matthew 4.1

Then Jesus was led out into the desert by the spirit in order to be tempted by the devil.

Today’s reading offers a good opportunity to talk about the difference between a concordance and a synoptic word study.

A concordance word study, as I’ve done several times in Paul’s epistles (see here or here), is a study that takes a particular word and looks at its use over a body of text. That body can be as small as a single book, e.g. studying the use of the word υδωρ [water] in the gospel of John. Or it can be slightly larger, e.g. studying the use of the word πιστις [faith] in the epistles of Paul. Or it can extend to an entire testament, or with a little translational work, it could encompass the entire Bible. The goal of a concordance study is to examine how a word is used over a variety of different circumstances in order to draw out its meaning.

On the other hand, a synoptic study does the opposite. Rather than looking for parallels or contradictions in usage of a particular word, a synoptic study looks at the different ways in which different authors talk about the same story. Because a synoptic study requires authors to report on the same story, the opportunity to conduct them is much more limited than for concordance studies. In the Old Testament, the books of Kings and Chronicles provide one such opportunity. In the New Testament, the first three gospels provide the same opportunity, and because of that have earned the collective title of Synoptics.

But how exactly does a Synoptic study work? Matthew 4.1 provides a good example. The Greek word πειρασθῆναι, often translated “tempted,” can also mean “tested” or “tried.” And in the context of Jesus’ contest with the devil, either seems appropriate. But a synoptic study looking at the parallel passage in Mark helps to weight the translation of Matthew towards “tempted.”

Looking at the parallel passage, we see that Mark describes Jesus as being ἐκβαλλει [thrown out] into the wilderness, a word often associated in Mark with demonic exorcism. Mark’s uses of the word sets up Jesus’ encounter with the devil as a contest like the other exorcisms, and so translators are justified in rendering πειραζόμενος as tested. However, in Matthew, the word is not ἐκβαλλει. It is ἀνήχθη, a much more sedate verb choice. It means to “to lead,” and the thus sets up a less confrontational, but perhaps more tempting encounter between Jesus and the devil. Thus, by comparing the two passages, we can mark that Matthew sees the event in a different light than his fellow evangelist, and we can choose “tempt” as our translation for πειρασθῆναι.