The Transformation of “Hope”

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In my work as an editor at Zondervan, I often come upon some interesting scholarly discoveries. I have been doing some editorial work on a revision of The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, which is being worked on by New Testament scholar Moises Silva. For each Greek word group that he researches, he offers comments on what that word meant in Greek Literature, then in Jewish Literature (LXX, Philo, Josephus, etc.), and then in the New Testament. His comments on the transformation that took place in the meaning of the Greek words ἐλπίζω and ἐλπίς (the verb “to hope” and the noun “hope”) is truly amazing.

In ancient Greek, this word group invariably was followed by what we would view as negative consequences. We today would gloss the classical uses of ἐλπίζω/ἐλπίς as “expect/expectation” rather than “hope.” For example, Electra’s ἐλπίς in Orestia (a play by Euripides) was that she and her brother would be executed. And a typical object for the verb ἐλπίζω is “misfortune” or “destruction.” No one translating such phrases into English would use the word “hope” here.

So what accounts for the dramatic transformation in meaning when we get to the Greek of the NT? It can only be explained by what happened to that word in the Septuagint. The verb ἐλπίζω occurs well over 100 times in the LXX, of which 70 of these occurrences are in the Psalms. The Hebrew verb often translated with a form of ἐλπίζω was the verb בטח, a verb means “to trust, rely on.” Two other Hebrew verbs translate by ἐλπίζω are חסה (“to take refuge in”) and יחל (“to wait [expectantly] for”). Furthermore, the Greek noun ἐλπίς was often used as a translation for Hebrew nouns based on the root בטח. Why the translators of the LXX used ἐλπίζω and ἐλπίς for this Hebrew word we will never know, but it certainly took those two Greek words in a new direction. Perhaps they felt that they had already used πιστεύω and πίστις (Greek words for “trust, faith”) for other Hebrew words, so that they decided to use a different word for בטח.

This OT background comes to play in Romans 5:3-5a. In these verses Paul recites the chain of how suffering produces perseverance, which produces character, which produces hope (ἐλπίς). Then he continues: “And hope does not put us to shame.” That phrase in verse 5 is based on Psalm 22:4-5 (LXX: 21:5-6), which reads (translating the LXX): “In you our fathers hoped [ἤλπισαν], they hoped, and you rescued them. To you they cried out and were rescued; in you they hoped and were not put to shame.” Three times the psalmist uses the Hebrew verb בטח here, and all three times it is translated in the LXX by ἤλπισαν. The NIV translates these three Hebrew occurrences in Psalm 22 as “trust.”

There is a direct correlation in the Scriptures between trust and hope. Because of our faith in God and our trust in his goodness and love, the future is not something that we need to fear or dread, as the ancient Greeks did; rather, we can approach the future with confidence, with “hope.” This is something to reflect on as we begin a new year. With hope/trust in God, we know the Lord will keep us in his hand, and he will watch over us with his protective love and rescue us from all harm.

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