Tricky Translation: little or few

Have you ever been to a church or maybe known individual Christians who discouraged people from being involved in sports or exercise? Or maybe you grew up in a church that discouraged people from participating in martial arts or joining a gym. Or maybe you haven’t and you find this introduction really weird. Yes, it is a little weird, as most people would never think that there is any conflict at all between sports/exercise and Christianity. However, I have met persons who have experienced this very conflict. The source of conflict is from an interpretation of a particular verse in the KJV Bible that compares “exercise” with “righteousness”. I came across this verse the other day, and decided to look at the original Greek, and found a very interesting translation twist. We have another tricky translation to unravel. Let’s check it out!

Real Life Impact

I once had a conversation with a Christian who had left his childhood church when he was a young man, and he expressed to me that he was involved in lots of sports as a teenager, and used it as an opportunity to invite his friend to his church meetings on account of their interactions. He told me that there was a particular elder in the church, who was against sports and exercise, and on one occasion even preached against being involved in sports, while his friends were visiting the church as result of his invitation. He expressed to me that he felt so embarrassed, especially knowing that he and his friends just came from playing a cricket game that Sunday afternoon.

Some persons may think that this is just very strange, but the reality is that Christians can sometimes interpret verses in the Bible too literally without first trying to understand what the writer is trying to convey from the context. Unfortunately, even preachers, Bible teachers, and pastors are the most guilty of the bunch when it comes to misinterpreting the scriptures. As a result, their presentation of the message can put off persons and can often be quite offensive.

I prefer to take a more measured approach. First, I try to understand what the scripture is saying. Next, I seek the Lord in helping me to interpret it correctly, and then I trust to Spirit to help me share it appropriately. I am motivated from the scripture in 2 Corinthians 3:6, which says:

[God] Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.

Examining the Greek and the Context

The verse that gives some Christians the idea that sports and exercise is bad is the following:

For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come. – 1 Timothy 4: 8

Reading the entire verse alone really can give the impression that “exercise” is basically useless when compared to godliness benefiting you now and in the life to come (after death). The bad thing is that when Christians quote this, they usually only quote the beginning, “For bodily exercise profiteth little“. As a result, we end up with a really poor understanding and impression of what this verse intends to say.

In order to really grasp the intent and meaning of this verse, we have to do two things. We have to look at the original Greek of at least two words, and we also have to place the verse in its proper context. First, let’s look at the Greek to get an idea of what this verse is really saying. I am going to focus on only the Greek for the words, ‘exercise’ and ‘little’, and I also want to mention the Greek for the phrase ‘all things’.

The Greek word translated ‘exercise’ in this verse is the word, γυμνασία (transliterated: gymnasia). It is a noun, and Danker concisely defines it as “exercise, training”. Thayer defines it as “properly, the exercise of the body in the palaestra”. A palaestra was a public area in ancient Greece or Rome where athletes trained in wrestling and other sports. Interestingly, when we look at the verb form of this word in the Greek, gymnazo, Danker defines it as “train naked; exercise”, and Thayer defines it as “exercise naked”. Although this verse does not use the verb form, but the noun, the previous verse 7 uses the verb. From the verb’s definition, persons may become fixated on the ‘naked’ aspect of the exercise or training in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Suffice it to say that no one today plays sports or exercises at the gym in the nude, without any clothes. In addition, nothing in the verse of surrounding passage mentions nudity as point of discussion. So, it would be wise to dismiss any distracting thoughts on considering nudity as an issue. The word simply speaks of physical exercise, or training, or playing sports. Unfortunately, when others see this minor detail, which only really relate to how wrestling was conducted in Greco-Roman culture in the first century, they get all sorts of thoughts that border on a sexual nature with regards to the sports and our bodies. I think that this is an incorrect way to understand this word, as the apostle was not talking about the manner in which the exercise or training was conducted. His emphasis was on training ourselves in godliness.

The second Greek word I want to examine is the word for ‘little’, which is ὀλίγον (transliterated: oligon). Thayer defines it as “little, small, few, of number, multitude, quantity, or size”, and he makes reference to the Greek phrase in 1 Timothy 4: 6, “pros oligon” and defines it as “some, for a little (namely, time)”. Danker defines the phrase “pros oligon” as “for something” and the word “oligon” as “little, a bit”. It would see that Thayer thinks that pros oligon is contrasted with pros panta as a comparison in regards to time; that is, bodily exercise benefits in this life, whereas godliness benefits in this life and the resurrection life (after death). Danker on the other hand seems to think that the comparison is between ‘profits for something’ versus ‘profits for all things’. I think both of them could be right, or rather, have some merit in their interpretation of the text. However, considering the overall context of the passage, I have come to a slightly different conclusion.

Considering the context

Verses in the Bible are not stated in isolation. Many persons, including myself, have quoted verses to prove or highlight a point in a discussion or when preaching, but the context is often assumed. 1 Timothy 4 starts out with the apostle mentoring Timothy and forewarning him about challenges that will happen in the future that will shake people’s faith. He encourages him to build up himself with words of faith and good teaching. At the end of verse 7, he instructs him to “exercise thyself [rather] unto godliness”. This is the backdrop of verse 8. He tells Timothy, in essence, to train himself towards godliness, by nourishing (or educating his mind) in faith and excellent teaching. It was the training of his mind in regards to faith and godliness. Right after this statement, he makes the comparison with bodily exercise, as he basically used exercise, gynmasia, as a metaphor for training in godliness. In the verses that follow, verses 9 to 13, Paul explains and gives examples of how to exercise or train himself, and how to think about himself as well. Here we can see the context by reading verses 6 to 8:

1 Timothy 4: 6 – 8
6 If thou put the brethren in remembrance of these things, thou shalt be a good minister of Jesus Christ, nourished up in the words of faith and of good doctrine, whereunto thou hast attained.

7 But refuse profane and old wives’ fables, and exercise thyself rather unto godliness.

8 For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.

It is clear to me that the apostle Paul is using the metaphor of sports-related training to give Timothy a tangible idea of the discipline that he would need to succeed at the calling that God placed on him. He further contrasts training in godliness with training the body to show that body training benefits a person in a few things, or somethings, but godliness will always benefit you, in everything in this present life, and even in the resurrected life to come.

If we take into consideration that oligon mainly gives the idea of small in quantity, number, or size, it is safe to say that as an adjective it modifies something that is quantifiable. Even if it is in reference to time, it is used in the sense of ‘a little bit of time’. It occurs 43 times in the New Testament, and after reading each of the verses that it is present in, the thought is consistently about a small amount of something, whether that thing is tangible or intangible. In 1 Timothy 4: 8, it is interesting to note that the KJV translators added the word “things” in reference to “godliness is profitable unto all things”, but they did not add the word “things” for “bodily exercise profiteth little”. They translate “pros panta” as “unto all [things]”, whereas they translate “pros oligon” as “little”. Do you see the inconsistency? In “pros panta”, ‘pros’ is translated as “unto”, but in “pros oligon”, ‘pros’ is not translated at all. To me, it would be more consistent to translate “pros panta” as “for all [things]” and to translate “pros oligon” as “for few [things]”. The comparison is about applicability of the two different types of training. Bodily training will benefit you in a few things, but training in godliness will benefit you in all things. As Christians should believe in resurrection of the dead, our existing bodies will die one day, and we will be resurrected in new bodies. The training we did in our original bodies won’t apply, but the godliness we believed in and practice will still apply.

What it is NOT saying

When I read this chapter of 1 Timothy 4, especially verses 6 through 8, I do not get a condemnation or rejection of body training or exercise as a general teaching. This is not expressed anywhere in the passage, or even the Bible as a whole. The apostle Paul was not denouncing nor was he discouraging sports or exercise. His entire focus was to encourage Timothy, and by extension, other believers in Christ, to train ourselves in godliness.

I see so many older and elderly Christians who can barely walk or who are very weak, and who have poor health for many years, yet they proudly attend church meetings weekly, sometimes several times per week, year in and year out. Indeed, we could say that they are doing their best to train in godliness. However, if the doctor tells you have eating healthy is good, but you must drink water, lots of water to be healthy, does this mean that the doctor is telling you to stop eating healthy food and only drink water? Certainly not! Christians need to be more practical in life, and more discerning in the scriptures. Contrasting and comparing things in life or the Bible does not mean they are mutually exclusive. I know of several elderly Christians, who are in their seventies now, and have back and hip problems. In knowing them for many years, I know that they have never really exercised or put much of any effort in being physically fit. I also know of the benefit of exercise to persons who are now in their seventies, who were encouraged (almost forced) to train at the gym since their early sixties, and it has given them good health and a high quality of life, now that they are older.

The truth is that physical exercise is good, and spiritual exercise is also good. Physical exercise keeps you healthy in this present life’s body, and spiritual exercise also keeps you health in this present life, but also in the resurrected life in the future. This is what the apostle is saying. He is not saying that exercise is bad. He never said this. He clearly assumes that you know it is good, so you should also know that training in godliness is also good, and has a wider application (in this life, and in the next).

Concluding thoughts

The writers of the scriptures use lots of figures of speech to compare and contrast the physical with the spiritual. When we read the scriptures we should practice visualizing ourselves being there, hearing what is said, and understanding what the mind of the Spirit is. The apostle is not telling us to neglect the body that God gave, which is referred to as the temple of God (1 Corinthians 6: 19). We have to be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that asceticism is the goal of Christianity. Isolating ourselves and denying the body only appears to be godliness (Colossians 2:20-23), but really is about self and not God. Let us be wise in understanding that God wants us to “prosper and be in health even as [our] soul[s] prospereth” (3 John 1: 2). Don’t let anyone fool you. God didn’t give you a body for you to operate unhealthily. Train your body, mind and spirit. Love and serve God with your body, by your mind, and through your spirit (Romans 12: 1; 1 Thessalonians 5: 23; Matthew 22: 37). God bless you!

References

  1. Lexicon:: Strong’s G1129 – gynmasia – Blue Letter Bible – Site: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G1129&t=KJV
  2. Lexicon:: Strong’s G1128 – gynmazo – Blue Letter Bible – Site: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G1128&t=KJV
  3. The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament – Frederick William Danker
  4. Palaestra Definition and Meaning – Collins English Dictionary – Site: https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/palaestra
  5. Lexicon:: Strong’s G3641 – oligos – Blue Letter Bible – Site: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G3641&t=KJV

Leave a Reply