Words Matter: gk. ζῆλος, zēlos, zeal

John 2.17

Really, Pastor Tim? You don’t use the word “zeal” at least four or five times a day? Wow!

I, like Pastor Tim, can’t remember the last time I used it in a conversation that wasn’t specifically referencing it in a verse. I liked his definition of “what you are passionate about”, but when I did a word study, I also found out something that I thought was interesting. For the most part in English, we believe that “zeal” has a positive connotation, but the same word in Greek has been translated also as “jealousy, fury, envy”

(see frequency charts below for different versions).

English Standard Version

New International Version

Holman Christian Standard Bible

Language is an outgrowth of the culture that uses it. One of the reasons that we have different translations of the Bible is that we are translating not just the language, but the culture as well. In the culture of Jesus’s day, the emotion translated here as “zeal” was thought to be morally neutral, but took on its connotation based on its object. While we have multiple words (e.g. zeal, jealousy, fury, envy), the Greek language only has one word to describe it, and the translators of the various versions chose the English words based on the context of the usage.

So, what passion consumes you? Jesus, His word, His people? Your neighbor’s house, your neighbor’s boat, your neighbor’s spouse? I think I’ll leave it to you to figure out which is good and which is bad.

– Terry Poperszky