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Aug 5, 2013

Integrity, A Study in Greek and in Irony

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word “Integrity” as: 1 firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic value 2 an unimpaired condition 3 the quality or state of being complete or undivided.
The word’s etymology comes from Latin integritatem which means wholeness and in perfect condition. This is the same root from which we get the mathematical term “integer.” For those non-math majors out there, an integer is a number that contains no fraction.
Honor, character and integrity – these similar qualities have been long admired in a person since the dawn of time. I recall reading C.S. Lewis who remarked that morality is much the same across all cultures. He stated there has never been a record where qualities of cowardice, betrayal and cheating are revered as qualities of good citizenship. (Mere Christianity)
This becomes evident reading through a few quotes throughout history:
• “However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do you if you do not act on upon them?” — Buddha
• “The strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home.” — Confucius
• “A half-truth is a whole lie.” — Yiddish Proverb
• “What is left when honor is lost?” — Publilius Syrus
• “There are seven things that will destroy us: Wealth without work; Pleasure without conscience; Knowledge without character; Religion without sacrifice; Politics without principle; Science without humanity; Business without ethics.” — Mahatma Gandhi
• “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
All of this is a very long introduction to give the sense of my thinking as I decided on my latest tattoo. Integrity is quality I consider a very important part of who I am and how I measure my value to my own standard. Thus, I felt it was a valuable word to place as a permanent reminder.
I considered using the word itself. A bordered bar above and below the word to make it stand out and cast in a strong, bold font. Perhaps I could have been satisfied with that, but for some reason I didn’t like that design. I suppose I wanted something a bit more “mysterious” yet with that message.
I considered the Latin origin I mentioned above. However, INTEGRITATEM sort of looked like a misspelled word or the middle of a dirty potato.
I turned to Greek. That was the moment I recalled that most of the New Testament had been written in Greek, arguably Aramaic. But those details are for the scholars to debate. With this new idea, I supposed surely the Bible would have a good reference for the word “integrity.”
Well, to my surprise, the greek word ἁγνότης only appeared once in the New Testament. And it was mixed in with a long list of other characteristics which left it a little ambiguous as a reference for which I hoped. Also, as I researched the word a little more, it had a connotation tending more towards purity and cleanliness. Nothing wrong with that, but that wasn’t really the “feel” of integrity I was wanting. I desired something a little manlier and having more action than being.
This is when I came across the word τέλειος. It had several references through the New Testament. But it was commonly translated as “perfect” which was not exactly what I was meaning either. However, as I continued my research into the word, “perfect” is a very imperfect English translation of the word.
In previous Greek study, which I am only a novice, I have been told that Ancient Greek is wonderful language to convey abstract concepts. Many “feeling words” for which English has only one broad word, Greek has five or six. “Love” is a common example of how English does not fully express the Greek translations properly. In Greek, there is μανία, ἔρος, φίλος, ἀγάπη and στοργή.
The point is “perfect” is a decent word for τέλειος, but we tend to think of it as incapable of error. But a more correct concept for the word is “complete” with the idea of “maturity” mixed in.
In the First epistle to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul uses τέλειος to describe how Christians should think. Most translations phrase this as “mature and grown-up” as opposed to childlike thoughts and actions. In Ephesians, he writes about the building up of the saints and the body of the Church and all of this training leads to a τέλειος state of being like that of Christ. Also, in the Book of James (who has the half-brother of Jesus), this word is used several times to describe overcoming temptation to achieve a complete state and having control over oneself.
This was definitely the closest conceptual word to “integrity” I could find in the New Testament. However, as I said Greek is fantastic at describing imagery and abstract thought. Checking a few other references, when adding the word ἀνὴρ with the first word, the literal translation becomes “a man whose aim strikes the target.” Now that is what I’m taking about!
This is as close to the meaning of “integrity” that I can find which also has Biblical references. My daughter asked me, “Why did you choose that?” ...I had to spend nearly a thousand words and several millennia of history to barely begin to answer her question. I suppose I have the rest of my life to demonstrate it.

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