τὰ φαῦλα

One thing that my advisor really emphasized to me was that I needed to learn classical Greek and use classical Greek lexicons when reading the New Testament, because often the NT-only material can be misleading. At the same time, obviously language evolves over time, so I can never be sure whether I’m picking up on something real. Case in point: the use of “τὰ φαῦλα” in John. It’s translated as something like “evil” most times I’ve seen it so far, yet the classical lexicon indicates that it means something like “trivial.” As an example, take John 3:20:

πᾶς γὰρ ὁ φαῦλα πράσσων μισεῖ τὸ φῶς καὶ οὐκ ἔρχεται πρὸς τὸ φῶς, ἵνα μὴ ἐλεγχθῇ τὰ ἔργα αὐτοῦ·

For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. (NRSV)

The next verse contrasts doing φαῦλα with doing τὴν ἀλήθειαν (the truth), and it seems at least interesting to think of a contrast “true/trivial” vs. “true/evil” — then the doers of triviality wouldn’t be hiding their deeds out of some motiveless malignancy or even a fear of God’s punishment, but because they’re embarrassed that they’ve essentially wasted their lives on things that don’t matter.

And yet I could be entirely making this up.

14 thoughts on “τὰ φαῦλα

  1. You’re almost right. Τα φαύλα, in plural, is evil or immoral deeds. But το φαύλον, in singular, might mean trivial or insignificant. The two cents from a modern Greek native speaker.

  2. Not to dampen enthusiasm, but sometimes modern Greek speakers who have a sense of connection to their Ancient tongue do mis-read Ancient Greek if they are not studied in it. (I’m not saying that this is necessarily the case here for Moses may know Classical Greek, but mentioning it). The languages are so different it would be like a “modern English” speaker commenting on the probably meanings of Old English in Beowulf, informative, but not defining.

    Adam, in my opinion you are really onto something that is quite neglected in NT translations, and that is the number of ways in which synonyms for “evil” are translated into an abstract duality of evil, when in Greek they often have a strong connotation of meaningless toil, the woe of a exhaustive life, and as you say, a trivialization. Salvation in this manner is a kind of giving of weight to one’s actions, that your toil is not an burdensome and meaningless hardship (and some would make strong economic connections here). These connotations go right back into the Classical meanings, and their use in Greek Tragedy, and even as far back into Homer where conceptual “wasting away” and “destruction” can go hand in hand. Evil by and large (though not exclusively) in the new testament is much more a kind of “wasting away” than an opposing force.

    You might find some of my criticism of Heidegger’s interpretation of Aletheia of relevance:


    It moves away from your fundamental point, but touches on the thirst for substance and being that “truth” can indicate in other Greek sources.

  3. May I ask where I have mis-read ancient Greek? By all means, my intention was not to give any authoritative corroboration to Adam’s rendition. All I wanted to say was that there are words having different meanings in the singular and the plural number and φαύλον/φαύλα is such an example in New Testament or Hellenistic Greek, which, by the way way, is quite different from Classical or Homeric Greek. Nothing more.

  4. Moses, I can see how you would be offended at Kvond’s comment, but your original comment does seem to indicate that you’re citing your native Greek speaking as the main source of your insight. The great thing about blog comments is that you can clarify what you meant, and I hope the conversation can go on, because it looks like you two have a dispute about the meaning of the term in Hellenistic Greek. Here is the LSJ lexicon entry for further reference.

  5. Adam, Ι would like to clarify that what you’re saying was not my intention. As for Kvond’s interpretation, I don’t really have any comment to make. I’m sorry for the inconvenience I might have caused. Thank you.

  6. Moses, I’m very sorry if my comment was taken as disrespect, it was as Adam interpreted, that it seemed that you were referencing your native knowledge as the source of your clarification.

    Adam, my knowledge of Greek is haphazard, in the sense that though I have taken Classical Greek formally I honestly felt that I learned the least in those circumstances, good for the basics, but as for insightful, Lexical interpretations, the wealth is not found there. Instead it has been close exegetical interpretations, as well as experimental translations really has been the most powerful source of my insights. Through these lengthy engagements with texts (sometimes including the NT) I discovered that most English translations of the Greek are, frankly, paultry. Horrific simplifications, and in the case of the NT, highly ideological (is there a better word?).

    So my response really was an enthused response to your own inventive association, looking to the roots etymologies to draw out from whence a meaning comes. In fact, my own investigations of translation of “evil” in the NT yeilded something of your own conclusion.

    As for the difference between tα φαύλα and το φαύλον, and by no means am I a Classical scholar (though I have found that scholars are often suspect as well, their reasoning having needed to be checked thoroughly and not assumed), it is very difficult to assess the relationship between plurals in the neuter, and plurals. Sometimes an abstraction can be meant or implied by using plural neuters (in English it may be the difference between “the trivalities” and “Triviality”, for instance, though certainly these meanings can diverge). I haven’t looked at the use of this particular word in a while, but from this distance in time I would say that it is quite un-establishable exactly what is meant (or even worse, the connotations felt), as definitions tend to be recursively structured on limited examples.

    For this reason I would say be careful of course with Lexical definitions (as well), I discovered (and my professor of Classical Greek actually agreed). These meanings are gleaned from usually a great variety of instances and uses, but from a few examples, and often a canonical translation in one well-known passage will then effect a great series of others. If the canonical translation was not correct then the bent of the entire class of meanings is somewhat distorted.

    By and large, it is only a deep familiarity with texts grants an “aura” to a word in its variety of uses, and in the past this was a familiarity that only a select group of persons had (the usual Greek Scholar from a few institutions). Unfortunately these select few also mostly came from a very narrow band of cultural, philosophical and religious supposition, coloring many of their interpretations. In the cases of the NT, it is not so much “class” as religious dogmatic expectation that colors the decision. In either case there is a strong bias in the translation of terms. Liddell/Scott, as fantastic as it is, is from generations ago, when Greek Society was seen in a very particular light. For instance there is a strong tendency to read Greek words, for instance, into “abstraction” since the importance of the Greeks was their gift of abstraction.

    The best thing is to do EXACTLY as you do, get the scent of a word, cross-read the Lexicon, look up the other related uses of the word, in other contexts. Build the meaning from the ground up, when the word matters to you.

    Anyways this is my advice. As for studying Classical Greek, it is the most complex and rich language imaginable, truly pleasurable to the nth degree. When you look into the Greek of translated texts its like suddenly seeing into a dark and endless pool. I can put it no other way. Very sinuous in syntax, and archaic in force.

  7. Let me encourage everyone who may know ancient Greek but not have a Ph.D. in Classics to take advantage of the enormously useful Perseus database search interface:

    So, a quick search for fau=los (you will see how to transliterate greek for search input on the page) and all related forms tells me that there 172 occurences in the database. One of the most interesting is this one, from Josephus, Ant. Jud. 3.91, describing the third commandment of the decalogue:

    ὁ τρίτος δὲ ἐπὶ μηδενὶ φαύλῳ τὸν θεὸν ὀμνύναι

    If faulos is thought to be a good translation of the Hebrew shav, this supports Adam’s sense that the word should be placed in the semantic field of other Greek words in NT that get translated as “vain”, like kenos and mataios. But also note that swearing by what is shav is understand to be the same as bearing false witness (eg Psalm 144:8), so again Adam seems right to also see faulos as part of the true/false semantic field. Shall we perhaps say that faulos characterizes someone who produces or suffers from delusion?

  8. Presumably then, this could be related to the term “vainglory” that had such an enormous post-NT history. My exhaustive concordance is elsewhere (and I’m not sure if I can trust my initial use of Perseus – thanks for the tip Bruce!), but I don’t think it’s as big in the NT itself. It does seem to appear in some of the literature of the period though.

    If this connection is legitimate, I reckon it’s worth an article. At the very least. Vainglory is an enormous theme and provides a marvellous test case of moral philosophy.

  9. Perseus is a god-send for the decentering of Greek Studies. Its cross-references of material is unparalleled in any form of scholarly source that I’ve encountered. It has tools upon tools upon tools, and loads of texts.

    It had a pretty big problem of crashing in the last years (the same for its mirror sites), something that they have somewhat alleviated. It seems that they are still putting it together, not all of its tools are always available, and it takes some work-arounds which are rule of thumb sometimes. But honestly, there is nothing like it.

  10. I’ve found the U of C mirror of Perseus to be much more reliable than the Tufts site. I’ve only used Perseus for parsing — thanks to Bruce for pointing out the other capabilities (and for reminding me yet again that I need to learn Hebrew…).

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