Tuesday, June 02, 2009

All things were made by it ...

I am going to return to blogging with no more expanation than simply "I'm back." There are too many stimulating posts for me to ignore.

Let me start with a recent post which illustrates exactly what I had been reading in Beyond Belief by Elaine Pagels. Theophrastus has linked to the first chapter of the gospel of John in the Matthew's Bible, which interprets the pronouns referring to the word of God as "it."
    All thinges were made by it
    and wythout it
    was made nothynge that was made.
    In it was lyfe
    and the lyfe was the lyght of men
    and the lyght shyneth in the darcknes
    but the darcknes comprehended it not.
Compare that to the King James,
    All things were made by him;
    and without him
    was not any thing made that was made.
    In him was life;
    and the life was the light of men.
    And the light shineth in darkness;
    and the darkness comprehended it not.
Pagels writes on page 131,
    Iranaeus tells us that Valentinus's disciple Ptolemy, reading these words, envisioned God, word and finally Jesus Christ as, so to speak, waves of divine energy flowing down from above; thus, he suggests, the infinite divine Source above reveals itself, in turn, in the more limited form of the human Jesus.

    But Irenaeus declares that such an interpretation misses what we saw in Chapter 2 as the central conviction John wants to convey - that Jesus embodies the divine word that comes forth from God and so, on earth, is "Lord and God" to those who recognize him. So Iranaeus challenges Ptolemy's interpretation of John's prologue and argues instead that "God the Father" is equivalent to the word, and the word is equivalent to "Jesus Christ."

    And because Iraeneus's bold interpretation came virutally to define orthodoxy, those who read John's gospel today in any language except the Greek original will find that the translations make his conclusion seem obvious - namely, that the man "who dwelt among us" was God incarnate.
This argument is based on the simple fact that the pronouns which are masculine in gender in Greek may be translated into English legitimately as either "he" or "it." The only reason that the pronouns are masculine is because the word logos is masculine. There is nothing that indicates that the pronoun referring back to logos should be translated into English as "he" and "him" rather than "it."

Perhaps this is why Mike has remarked,
    I’m really curious about how pervasive the ability to simply read ancient Greek as Greek is. That is, an English gloss doesn’t come to your mind even unintentionally.
Visit Mike's blog and vote.


mike said...

well, it had slightly more to do with my ongoing discussion about language learning generally, but this is nevertheless interesting.

Welcome back, by the way.

J. K. Gayle said...

To illustrate, we could gloss Matthew's Bible with the Greek pronouns:

The same [Οὗτος] was in the beginnynge wyth God.
All thinges were made by it [αὐτοῦ]
and wythout it [αὐτοῦ]
was made nothynge that was made.
In it [αὐτῷ] was lyfe
and the lyfe was the lyght of men
and the lyght shyneth in the darcknes
but the darcknes comprehended it [αὐτὸ] not.

There was a man sent from God
whose name was John.
The sam [Οὗτος] cam as a witnes
to beare wytnes of the lyght
that all men through him [αὐτοῦ] myght beleve.
He was not that lyght:
but to beare witnes of the lyght.

That was a true lyght
whych lyghteth all me[n]
that come into the worlde.
He was in the worlde
and the worlde was made by hym [αὐτοῦ]:
and yet the worlde knewe hym not [αὐτὸν].

The word [λόγος mas.], the man [ἄνθρωπος mas.], and the lyght [φῶς neut.] all take the same pronoun [αὐτός] - which the translator consistently personalizes (as "him" / "hym" / "his") after the mention of the "man."

So, does the Matthew's Bible translation better reflect Ptolemy's interpretation or Iraneaus's (which the KJV presumably follows more)?

In light of the development of Greek rhetoric (by Plato and Aristotle vs the sophists and poets and other theologs), John's Greek is rhetorical, and radical. "In the beginning was the logos" is not just to take readers back to Genesis 1 (not even just the first verse of LXX). "Logos" is the central concept of Greek philosophy (a concept similar to our "critical thinking") - which Aristotle reworks as "logic." Socrates and Plato, before Aristotle, had been grappling with how Isocrates, Gorgias, Protagoras and the like were peddling "logos" lessons. And there were disturbing texts such as "Dissoi Logoi" ("A Diversity of Words" - a catalog of culturally relative ethics). It's interesting to note that the LXX translators and the NT translator/writers all avoided certain Aristotelian terms. None uses "rhetoric" and only Paul once uses the word "logic." For John to use "logos" is no small thing.

Yes "logos" is an "it." So is "phos" or light. So when John calls Jesus light in the context of these comings into the "kosmos," the world - that's huge. When John later has Jesus saying "I am" "the light of the world" - that is even bigger. Aristotle (or a pseudo Aristotle] had written a theological treatise called "On the Kosmos" - which of course is an early cosmology too. So there's the wordplay, from the Greek LXX, of "I AM" - and that's coupled with the wordplay, against the aristotelian paradigm, of "the universe / cosmos."

The Iranaeus v. Ptolemy issues that Pagels writes of run deep into early Greek language disputes among the sophists and Socrates. Decisions LXX translators made with their Greek certainly helped the issues continue. I think the issues aren't just philological. That John's pronoun is ambiguous is to be celebrated. He seems very interested, by his Greek wordplay, in opening up new meanings out of the old (vs. shutting them down, as by "logic.")

James F. McGrath said...

Welcome back! :) I seem to recall Maurice Wiles having written an article about early debates among Christian theologians about whether the Word was a personification or a person, an 'it' or a 'him' in English terms.

The language and culture within which a discussion occurs certain shapes it, but it doesn't seem that the ambiguity in Greek between "him" and a masculine noun's "it" altogether prevented the issue coming up even in that context.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

I am just putting this together with Scholem's writing about the connection between the Kabbalah and the Valentinian gnostics. I hadn't really thought much about the ambiguity that was present in this text.

Thanks for some good points. I need to think about whether any Jews could read this as meaning that the person called Jesus/Yeshuah was present at creation. I don't see that how that could be.

Jane said...

Welcome back!
this is so interesting - Many French translations have "la Parole" - in Italy at the moment I don't have my French Bible with me but it's quite interesting to see how it works in the prologue to John's gospel. Interesting too to see whether they really do use "elle" which would of course in this case be translated into English as "it"
Others work with le Verbe but then "il" shold also be translated as "it"

J. L. Watts said...

If I may add a fundamentalist viewpoint - if we allow for a view that Scripture interprets Scripture, then shouldn't John's prolgue, when translated, be translated in line with the rest of the Wisdom Literature, wherein Sophia is 'genderized' as female? Or at the very lest, remain in the neuter?