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Paul's "large letters"

(Garth D. Wiebe, excerpt from Encouragement to dig: Koine Greek, originally written March 2015, video included Dec. 2016)

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Most people know the sacred cow doctrine of how the apostle Paul's "thorn in the flesh" was supposedly a God-ordained physical sickness that God refused to take away from him, even though Paul begged him to, and that the sickness was supposedly an eye affliction, such that in Gal 6:11 Paul supposedly had to write with, uh, "large letters" (meaning, alphabetic characters, as defined in English) because of claimed "eye affliction," and that the Galatians would have "torn out their eyes for him" if they could. This belief is nearly ubiquitous; it is widely accepted as the "scholarly" view.

Obviously, we who are neither linguists nor scholars of classical languages have to have a starting point; it is impractical, if not impossible, for a person to just reverse-engineer the language from scratch without any reference at all. But we have to be very careful about depending on the scholarly sources, as well. The scholars are pretty much all religiously-trained people who are mostly affiliated with institutional, often Calvinistic, sometimes cessationist, or often Roman/Anglican Catholic institutional mindsets, even if aligned with the "Protestant Reformation" of the Roman/Anglican Catholic Church institutions.

The following example will certainly hit home to those of us of like-mind, regarding how one might be led astray to draw the wrong conclusions (i.e. the scholar's conclusions). I will expose faulty logic, bad grammar, and blatant presuppositional bias in this example.

It is best to use expository references minimally, and then dig into the scriptures contextually, especially with the computer-based tools we have at our disposal that make this extremely efficient, refining one's own understanding as one goes.

When I say "contextual," I am referring to how you learned your strongest language, your first one, at the age of two or three years old, without having attended any formal schooling. By comparison, the languages that you are taught in "school" are invariably languages with which you are less proficient. Everyone knows that it is more effective to "immerse" yourself into a language, rather than learn it in a classroom.

That brings us to how much we should allow ourselves to rely on the expository definitions of scholars, when they analyze and expound upon them. Although it may be superficially easier to just open up another man's commentary on the Bible or Bible words, it will bring in his doctrinal bias. It is less trouble in the long run to search through the original text for yourself, especially with the computer-based tools we now have available to search quickly and exhaustively (although you can still use a hard copy exhaustive concordance and grammar references; it is just much more slow and tedious.) The computer has no doctrinal bias or prejudice; it is a machine. It is incapable of throwing a religious spin on anything at all.

What follows demonstrates how, even if you are a scholar, but start by accepting and believing sacred cows like this, that it will taint your exposition of the original Greek word definitions. And I will show from the scriptures what I am saying, by giving exhaustive examples.

What I am about to expose is a classic example of "circular reasoning," also called "begging the question." The circular logic is as follows:

In the above "circular reasoning," you will see that I actually went "full circle" twice.

However, the word used for "large" just means "grand," and the word used for "letters" is literally "write-effects" (i.e. anything that is a result of the act of writing or inscribing, literally or by consequence). Paul wrote to "grand" "write-effects."

ιδετε πηλικοις υμιν γραμμασιν εγραψα τη εμη χειρι
idete pēlikois umin grammasin egrapsa tē eme cheiri

behold to-what-grand to-you(plural) write-effects I-write to-the my hand

Now we come to a play on the English language that has nothing to do with the Koine Greek. The problem is in equating the Greek word with the English word "letter," which in English can either mean an alphabetic character (as opposed to a number or special character), or something written, usually correspondence that is mailed. So, it is an English ambiguity, but not one in the Koine Greek. The English word "letter" is derived from a Latin word ("litera/littera"), not a Greek word.

In the New Testament, you can do a computer search and find that there is a base word γραφ__ ("graph__") from which a family of words used in the Bible are derived. I'll list them by the Strong's classifications, as succinctly as I can:

Adding the prefix/preposition επι (Strong's G1909, "epi"), "upon": Adding the prefix/preposition απο (Strong's G575, "apo"), "off/from": Adding the prefix/preposition προ (Strong's G4253, "pro"), "prior": Adding the word χειρ (Strong's G5495, "cheir"), "hand": I have also checked γραμμα in the Perseus online library (Tuft's University) that covers an immense collection of Greek classical literature, as well ( ). The basic concept is anything that is "inscribed" or "written," or any other "effect" of writing. An alphabetic character could be one thing "inscribed" or "written," obviously, as well as a sequence of such characters, but that is beside the point that it is any "effect" of writing.

Contrast this to the English word "letter," which is either a written communication (normally mailed), or an alphabetic character (as distinguished from a numerical digit, punctuation character or other special character).

Regarding the word "large," I have also checked πηλικος in the Perseus online definition ( ). The basic concept is greatness, eminence, or antiquity. It would best be translated as "how grand."

πηλικος (Strong's G4080, "pēlikos") is similar in meaning to ηλικος (Strong's G2245, "[h]ēlikos"), which means "how much" or "amount" or "as big as" or "how great," and τηλικος (See LSJ "τελικός" "tēlikos"), which means "of such age" or "so great." That last word, contracted with ουτος (Strong's G3778, "[h]outos"), "this/that," produces τηλικουτος (Strong's G5082, "tēlikoutos"), which means "of such an [amount of] age" (young or old) or "so/such great." From this, you can get a sense of the common meaning of these words, and can further verify them with a Bible search, given the Strong's number codings that I have just revealed.

A better word for "large" as in "big" would be μεγας (Strong's G3173, "megas"), used well over 200 times in the New Testament, from which the English prefix "mega-" is derived, although this word and prefix is also more often used figuratively (as in "great"), both in Koine Greek and in English.

Some of the things which are "large" (μεγα_, "mega_") in scriptures:

Why didn't the apostle Paul use this word μεγας ("megas")? The answer is that it is because he didn't mean "big/large"!

Next I will show how you can be led astray by blatant bias in Thayer's or Vine's. Let's see what they have to say.

Note: Thayer, for his part, was actually a Unitarian, denied the deity of Jesus Christ, and did not believe in the inerrancy of the scriptures. (See for an account of his own written sentiments to that effect).

First, the word "large" (Gal 6:11 "large letters")

Strong's G4080 πηλικος ("pēlikos")

a quantitative form (the feminine) of the base of G4225; how much (as an indefinite), i.e. in size or (figuratively) dignity
Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament:
πηλικος, -η, -ον, (fr. ηλιξ[?]), interrog., "how great, how large": in a material reference (denoting geometrical magnitude as disting. fr. arithmetical , ποσος) (Plat. Meno p. 82 d.; p. 83 e.; Ptol. 1, 3, 3; Zech ii. 2, [6]), Gal vi. 11, where cf. Winer, Ruckert, Hilgenfeld, [Hackett in B. D. Am. ed. s. v. Epistle; but see Bp. Lghtft. or Meyer]. in an ethical reference, i. q. "how distinquished", Heb. vii. 4.*
Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words:
"how large," is used of letters of the alphabet, characters in writing, Gal. 6:11, "with how large (letters);" it is said of personal greatness in Heb. 7:4. See GREAT, No. 5
Let's look at that Heb 7:4 reference, the only other occurrence in the New Testament:
Heb 7:4 Now consider how great this man was, to whom even the patriarch Abraham gave a tenth of the spoils.
You see that the sense here is "greatness," not necessarily physical "largeness." I.e. it is not saying that Melchizedek was a "large man." And if it means nothing more than that, why does Vine jump right to Gal 6:11 and expound upon it, saying that it "is used of letters of the alphabet..."?

Next, the word "letter" (Gal 6:11 "large letters")

Strong's G1121 γραμμα ("gramma"):

a writing, i.e. a letter, note, epistle, book, etc.; plural learning.
Thayer's Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament:
γραμμα -τος, το (γραφω), "that which has been written"; 1. "a letter" i.e. the character: Lk. xxiii. 38 [R G L br. tr mrg. br.]; Gal vi. 11. 2. "any writing, a document or record"; a. "a note of hand, bill, bond, account, written acknowledgment of debt", (as scriptio in Varr. sat. Men. 8, 1 [cf. Edersheim ii. 268 sqq.]): Lk xvi. 6 sq. ([Joseph. antt. 18, 6, 3], in L txt. T tr WH plur. τα γραμματα; so of one document also in Antiph. p. 114, (30); Dem. p. 1034, 16; Vulg. cautio). b. "a letter, an epistle": Acts xxviii. 21; (Hdt. 5, 14; Thuc. 8, 50; Xen. Cyr. 4, 5, 26, etc.). c. τα ιερα γραμματα "the sacred writings" (of the O.T.; [so Joseph. antt. prooem. § 3; 10, 10, 4 fin.; c. Ap. 1, 10; Philo, de vit. Moys. 3, 39; de praim. et poen. § 14; leg. ad Gai. § 29, etc. -- but always τ α ι. γ.]): 2 Tim. iii. 15 [here T W H om. L Tr br. τα]; γραμμα i. q. the written law of Moses, Ro. ii. 27; Μωυσεως γραμματα, Jn. v. 47. Since the Jews so clave to the letter of the law that it not only became to them a mere letter bu also a hindrance to true religion, Paul calls it γραμμα in a disparaging sense, and contrasts it with το πνευμα i.e. the divine Spirit, whether operative in the Mosaic law, Ro. ii. 29, or in the gospel, by which Christians are governed, Ro. vii. 6; 2 Co. iii. 6 sq. [but in vs. 7 R G T WH read the plur. written "in letters" so L mrg. Tr mrg.]. 3. τα γραμματα, like the Lat. litterae, Eng. "letters", i.q. "learning": Acts xxvi. 24; ειδεναι, μεμαθηκεναι γρ. (c.f Germ "studirt haben"), of sacred learning, Jn. vii. 15, etc.,....
Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words:
primarily denotes "that which is traced or drawn, a picture;" then, "that which is written," (a) "a character, letter of the alphabet," 2 Cor. 3:7; "written," lit., "(in) letters;" Gal. 6:11; here the reference is not to the length of the Epistle (Paul never uses gramma, either in the singular or the plural of his Epistles; of these he uses epistole, No. 2), but to the size of the characters written by his own hand (probably from this verse to the end, as the use of the past tense, "I have written," is, according to Greek idiom, the equivalent of our "I am writing"). Moreover, the word for "letters" is here in the dative case, grammasin, "with (how large) letters;" ( b ) "a writing, a written document, a bond" (AV, "bill") Luke 16:6,7; (c) "a letter, by way of correspondence," Acts 28:21; (d) the Scriptures of the OT, 2 Tim. 3:15; (e) "learning," John 7:15, "letters;" Acts 26:24, "(much) learning" (lit., "many letters"); in the papyri an illiterate person is often spoken of as one who does not know "letters," "which never means anything else than inability to write" (Moulton and Milligan); (f) "the letter," the written commandments of the Word of God, in contrast to the inward operation of the Holy Spirit under the New Covenant, Rom. 2:27,29; 7:6; 2 Cor. 3:6; (g) "the books of Moses," John 5:47.
Note that Thayer's first definition is "a letter i.e. the character." He makes no reference to any classical literature, whereas he does for the other definitions.

Vine's first definition is "(a) 'a character, letter of the alphabet," and he goes on to make an argument saying that in Gal 6:11 Paul refers to the "size of the characters written by his own hand," then goes on about how he wouldn't be referring to his "letter" as a writing. Why the biased exposition? And why is this the primary (i.e. first, i.e. "1. ") definition?

In his arguments are several fallacies. The first, "here the reference is not to the length of the Epistle," is a logical straw man. A "straw man" is where you mischaracterize the opposing position and then shoot down that "straw man." The "straw man" would be that πηλικος refers to simply "length" instead of size. He conveniently omits mention of Heb 7:4, which he himself included in his definition of πηλικος, where Melchizedek was neither "large," nor "long." What about Paul's letters being "grand"?

His next argument is a logical fallacy, an "argument from silence," which is "Paul never uses gramma,...." If he never happened to find occasion to, then does that mean that he would never? Since the scriptures never mention that the apostle Paul wore sandals, does that mean that he never did?

Next, he speculates that the size of the characters would be so "from this verse to the end," without any justification of such a notion, except for his statement of the "past tense, 'I have written.' But this is also nonsensical, since his writing of large, alphabetic characters would have to stop at the word εγραψα and, as we know, there were no "verses" in the Bible until they were first added in the 16th century English translations.

That last point about the "past tense" shows that Vine does not really have a good grasp of Koine Greek verbal grammar, either. "Past tense" in English would be "I wrote," not "I have written." "I have written" would be the English present perfect tense. Koine Greek has no "past tense," so now he is confusing Koine Greek grammar with English grammar. Koine Greek does have a perfect tense, which would have been spelled γεγραφα ("gegrapha," conjugated as indicative mood, perfect tense, active voice, first person, singular number). But that is not the verb conjugation used in Gal 6:11. The verb is spelled εγραψα, ("egrapsa," conjugated as indicative mood, aorist tense, active voice, first person, singular number).

The Koine Greek aorist tense states the fact of the matter, plain and simple, without reference to action in time. In other words, the apostle Paul is saying that this is how he "writes," without specifying when he writes. If I tell you right now that I "play" the piano, then that is the aorist by implication in my English usage, even though English has no such explicit verb conjugation (the form I used is the simple present tense). You will not assume by my statement that I am playing the piano as I am typing this. You will understand that I am a piano player, and that I am stating that as a fact. This is not "Greek idiom," as Vine suggests, but explicit verb conjugation. Nor is it, as Vine says, "the equivalent of our 'I am writing,' which would be the English present continuous/progressive tense. The Koine Greek has a present tense, which would have been spelled γραφω ("graphō," indicative mood, present tense, active voice, first person, singular number). But that is not how the apostle Paul spelled it, either. See this post for more detailed discussion of this.

So, you should be beginning to see at this point that neither Thayer's nor Vine's is as "scholarly" as you might have originally assumed.

Again, it is a play on an English language ambiguity. In the English language, "letter" can mean either an alphabetic character (as opposed to a numeric digit, punctuation, special character, etc.), or it can be something that you write to someone (e.g. "I wrote her a letter.")

Not so in the Greek. In the Greek it just means a "write-effect," a very broad term that refers to anything that comes as a result or consequence of the act of writing or inscribing.

To further demonstrate this, I will cite all 34 occurrences of that Greek word "gramma" in both the New Testament and also the Septuagint (the Septuagint is the Koine Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures in use during New Testament times). I'll quote consistently from the NKJV where possible, except in a few instances where I had to use the Septuagint interlinear. The word γραμμα is the translated word in bold.

Luke 16:6-7 And he said, A hundred measures of oil. So he said to him, Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty. Then he said to another, And how much do you owe? So he said, A hundred measures of wheat. And he said to him, Take your bill, and write eighty.

Luke 23:38 And an inscription also was written over Him in letters of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS

John 5:47 But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?

John 7:15 And the Jews marveled, saying, How does this Man know letters, having never studied?

Acts 26:24 Now as he thus made his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, Paul, you are beside yourself! Much learning is driving you mad!

Acts 28:21 Then they said to him, We neither received letters from Judea concerning you, nor have any of the brethren who came reported or spoken any evil of you.

Rom 2:27-29 And will not the physically uncircumcised, if he fulfills the law, judge you who, even with your written code and circumcision, are a transgressor of the law? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, kin the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.

Rom 7:6 But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter.

2 Cor 3:6-7 who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. But if the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of the glory of his countenance, which glory was passing away,

Gal 6:11 See with what large letters I have written to you with my own hand!

2 Tim 3:15 and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.

Exodus 39:30 Then they made the plate of the holy crown of pure gold, and wrote on it an inscription like the engraving of a signet: HOLINESS TO THE LORD

Lev 19:28 (ABP interlinear) And cuts you shall not make for a soul on your body; and letter marks you shall not make upon you. I am the Lord your God.

Joshua 15:15-16 (ABP interlinear) And ascended from there Caleb upon the ones dwelling in Debir; and the name Dibir was formerly City of Letters. And Caleb said, Who ever should take the City of Letters, and should dominate it, I will give to him Achsah my daughter for a wife.

Joshua 15:49 (ABP interlinear) and Dannah, and the city of Letters, this is Debir;

Joshua 21:29 (ABP interlinear) and Jaarmuth and the parts being separated with it, and Spring of Letters and the parts being separated with it -- cities four

Judges 1:11-12 (ABP interlinear) And they went from there to the ones dwelling in Debir; and the name Debir was formerly Kirjasth-sepher -- City of Letters. And Caleb said, Who ever should strike the City of Letters, and be first to take it, I will give to him Achsah my daughter for a wife.

Esther 4:3 And in every province where the kings command and decree arrived, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ashes.

Esther 6:1-2 That night the king could not sleep. So one was commanded to bring the book of the records of the chronicles; and they were read before the king. And it was found written that Mordecai had told of Bigthana and Teresh, two of the kings eunuchs, the doorkeepers who had sought to lay hands on King Ahasuerus.

Esther 8:5 and said, If it pleases the king, and if I have found favor in his sight and the thing seems right to the king and I am pleasing in his eyes, let it be written to revoke the letters devised by Haman, the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, which he wrote to annihilate the Jews who are in all the kings provinces.

Esther 8:10 And he wrote in the name of King Ahasuerus, sealed it with the kings signet ring, and sent letters by couriers on horseback, riding on royal horses

Esther 9:1 (ABP interlinear) For in the twelfth month, on the thirteenth of the month, which is Adar, were at hand the letters written by the king.

Psalm 71:15 (ABP interlinear) My mouth shall announce your righteousness the entire day; your deliverance, for I did not know writings.

Isaiah 29:11-12 The whole vision has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one who is literate [ABP "having knowledge of letters"], saying, Read this, please. And he says, I cannot, for it is sealed. Then the book is delivered to one who is illiterate [ABP "not having knowledge of letters"], saying, Read this, please. And he says, I am not literate. [ABP "do not have knowledge of letters"]

Daniel 1:4 young men in whom there was no blemish, but good-looking, gifted in all wisdom, possessing knowledge and quick to understand, who had ability to serve in the kings palace, and whom they might teach the language and literature of the Chaldeans.
Adding the Koine Greek Septuagint references is helpful, because the Old Testament is four times the size of the New Testament, and often brings in many more references to words.

Now you see that in 34 instances, none of them refer to a "letter," as in alphabetic character, as defined in English.

The closest thing would be the "inscriptions" posted on the cross of Jesus in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. But again, these are meant to be inscriptions in three different "languages," not three different character fonts. Readers of the sign who were either Roman, Greek, or Jewish would be able to understand the meaning of the inscription. If it were just a matter of character fonts, then they would be three different "transliterations" of one language, as you see me consistently do in my writings, when typing a Greek word in both the actual Greek font (e.g. "γραμμα") and the transliterated Roman/Latin font for the same Greek word spelling (e.g. "gramma"), for convenience.

Luke 23:38 says, actually,

ην δε και επιγραφη γεγραμμενη επ αυτω γραμμασιν ελληνικοις και ρωμαικοις και εβραικοις ουτος εστιν ο βασιλευς των ιουδαιων
transliterated into our Roman/Latin character font,
ēn de kai epipraphē gegrammenē ep autō grammasin [h]ellēnikois kai rōmaikois kai [h]ebraiklois [h]outos estin [h]o basileus tōn ioudaiōn
Translated, word for word,
was-being, yet, and/also, inscription-upon, having-been-written, upon, same, to-write-effects, Greek, and, Roman, and, Hebrew: "This, is, the, king, of-the, Judeans"
Note that the base word occurs three times in that verse: Back to Gal 6:11, again, Paul wrote to very grand (πηλικοις, "pēlikois") write-effects (γραμμασιν, "grammasin"). They are extensive, elaborate, persuasive writings.

He goes on to say in the next verse, "Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you to be circumcised..." Remember what the letter to the Galatians was all about, which was the Judaizers coming in after Paul and telling the Galatians that they had to be circumcised and obey the Law of Moses. Now he is writing this elaborate letter to refute them. In principle, he could have just left it to what he said in Gal 3:2-5 ("Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?...Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?") End of letter. But he did not do that. He expounded upon the problem at great length, and refuted them at great length.

Compare the Gal 6:11 comment with Paul's facetious boasting in 2 Cor 11:22-28, in his long dissertation against the self-proclaimed "super-apostles" in chapters 10 through 13.

Do some of you folks think I write large, eloquent posts, like this one that you are now reading? That's probably what you are thinking by now: "Behold what grand writings Garth writes with his own hand!" Compare them with Paul's letters. Paul's were more grand, for sure.

On the other hand, if Paul had been talking about "large, alphabetic characters" then this would have been an off-topic, off-hand interjection that had nothing to do with the subject at hand about which he was speaking, in context. See how I properly use semicolons as punctuation in composing my posts! It would be out of character for Paul to change the topic of his discussion refuting the teaching of his detractors, the Judaizers, for just one sentence, in the middle of what he was saying, interjecting about the physical size of his print.

Now, did you catch the out of place sentence in that last paragraph? Of what relevance is it to the topic at hand for me to interject a comment about my use of semicolons?

So, in conclusion, this is an example of both Thayer and Vines just trotting out the status quo, traditional doctrinal understanding, that they got from others, who got them from others, etc. If you depend primarily on such "scholarly" sources as the final authority on word meanings, then you will inherit these traditions of men. And by now you have realized that their "scholarship," in this instance, isn't so scholarly at all, but just recycled, regurgitated notions.

Again, Koine Greek is a highly mechanical language, which lends itself to highly mechanical analyses, which lends itself to the utilization of highly mechanized tools. Again, this is providential. We are left with scriptures that are unambiguous and easy to decode and understand, with a minimal dependence on scholarship.

No copyrightI grant this work to the public domain.