The Misleading Translation of “Wives, Submit,” … and a Tale of Battle-Ready Women

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A few weeks ago, I suggested that the usual translations of Ephesians 5:22 are too glib and misleading in modern English. You may see translations like “Wives, submit to your husbands” (KJV) or “Wives, be subject to your husbands” (NRSV) followed by a brief statement about how “the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church.” And this all sounds very cut and dry in modern English. We read it and hear something rather like: Wives, do what your husband says, much as you would if God were speaking.

But: this ancient letter to a church in Ephesus wasn’t written in modern English, and much of what we assume when we translate it is quite a bit off. And this is sad – not only because we translate this verse in ways that reinforce traditional gender hierarchies in our culture, but also because what we are losing in translation is really a lovely idea about spousal relationships that came with a shock to the Greco-Roman culture and that might potentially come with a bit of a shock to our modern American culture, too.

Specifically, I suggested that rather than submit, “in context, υποτασσομαι (hupotassomai) probably means to deploy yourself in support of your spouse against the enemy.”

In fact, I would suggest that a better translation might be something like one of these:

“Wives, support your husbands.”
“Wives, deploy yourselves in support of your husbands.”
“Wives, arrange yourselves for battle for your husbands.”

Or even, less literally:

“Wives, go to battle for your husbands.”
“Wives, defend your husbands.”

This new post (for those who requested it) is to make the case for why I and some others think this. It will be a long post, but hopefully interesting!

Now, I’m interested in this partly because I nerd out about ancient languages, but also because how we translate passages like this one has an enormous impact on our often very religious culture. (To say the least.) That means that translating verses from the New Testament isn’t just a matter of academic interest or scholarly quibbling; it matters to the lives of real people.

To understand what may have gone amiss in the translation of this often-quoted passage, we need to look at three things:

1. The etymology of the word that we’re translating as “submit” or “be subject to.”

2. The larger context of the letter in which this passage appears. This is not a standalone verse that we can just pluck out of context without altering its meaning; it is embedded inside of an extended metaphor.

And:

3. The meaning of the word that we’re translating as “head.”

Here we go. This is going to be exciting!

PART ONE: ETYMOLOGY

So let’s look first at “submit.”

The word being translated here is the Koine Greek verb υποτασσομαι (hupotassomai). This is a combination of the verb τασσο (tasso) with the prefix υπο (hupo). What we miss right away in English is that this verb was a military term for arranging soldiers in ordered formation to confront an enemy. τασσο could be translated “set,” “arrange,” “order,” or “deploy.” The grammar is important, too. The ending of the word tells us we’re in the passive/middle voice. “Deploy -yourself- under.” What we’re talking about is not an ancient Greek word for abstract obedience but a concrete metaphor of military support.

Now this is about to get more nuanced and interesting, but first, here is a quick link to Strong’s, where you’ll see references to commentators noting that τασσο is “primarily military” and offering an array of possible English synonyms for that root verb:

– “/tasso (place in position, post) was commonly used in ancient military language for designating/appointing/commissioning a specific status…”

– “tasso was primarily a military term meaning ‘to draw up in order, arrange in place, assign, appoint, order…”

See Strong’s concordance #5021 for τάσσω:
http://biblehub.com/greek/5021.htm

Now, you -could- read the verb that appears in Ephesians 5:22 as “place yourselves under your husband” and you might be -technically- correct, and then you might look, as past translators have, for something like “be subject to,” in order to render the verse in better, quicker English.

But … if you do that, you lose the military context of “hupotassomai,” which is about forming up for battle and about deploying or stationing yourself to support. And you also risk losing the context this passage is embedded in and the main thrust of the argument in which this verse appears. For that reason, this translation would be a bit misleading. It would also be too glib, inviting us to read the passage lazily (especially when reading the verse by itself, without the surrounding text). We might be encouraged to read into this passage confirmation of the norms of our own culture, rather than paying close attention to the context the ancient writer is speaking to and what they may be advocating.

So, now let’s look at the context…

PART TWO: CONTEXT

The phrase in which the KJV and some modern translations give “submit” for the verb “hupotassomai” is embedded within a passage that provides an extended military metaphor. It immediately follows sentences about forsaking the “bondage” of the ways in which people in their culture have lived in their past (Ephesians 5: 1-20) to live joyously instead in new ways, “singing and making melody…giving thanks for everything.” Then, following the bit about husband and wives, the passage goes on to build toward this closing argument of the letter, a few lines later: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm…” etc. (Eph 6:10-13ff., NRSV).

The passage goes on from there to describe the armor of God in detail, in which each piece of armor metaphorically represents a particular skill or attribute that the early Christian must “put on.” For example, the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, etc. Whether the early Christian is male, female, or child, or whether master or servant (all are addressed in the preceding lines of the text), all are invited by the author to put on the full armor of God and deploy themselves against a spiritual enemy that is imagined as “the powers over this present darkness, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

This is significant. The relationships being described here (spousal and otherwise) aren’t being described in the abstract or in isolation; the passage is about how to abandon the “darkness” and “bondage” of the past and how to support each other in standing firm against the forces of evil, fully armored and fully ready. That’s why the writer is using military verbs like τάσσω (“deploy” / “arrange in formation”).

Now let’s zoom out and look at a broader context: the larger epistolary literature that the original audience of Ephesians would have been familiar with. There are other passages in the New Testament about marriage, using similar metaphors. 1 Corinthians 7, for instance, in which husbands and wives are described as radically interdependent. In 1 Corinthians 7:4, Paul argues that each spouse yields authority to the other, using a military term for delegating power (ἐξουσιάζει, “exousiazei”); he also notes that he says this “not as a command” – something we often glide past in reading it. A few lines later, in 7:12-16, Paul suggests that when married to someone who is not a believer, the spouse shouldn’t discontinue the relationship for that reason but should do all they can to support their unbelieving spouse – because God has called them to εἰρήνη (“eirene”). We translate that “peace” – but it’s really different from the Roman peace, the “pax” that we’ve inherited in phrases like “rest in peace” or “restfulness.” It comes from the verb eirō – to tie or weave together. The idea is that we are to be woven together (elsewhere, in Romans, Paul asks all people to weave themselves together in love). For more on eirene, see Strong’s #1515: http://biblehub.com/greek/1515.htm

So in these passages about interdependency and support, the epistolary writers of the New Testament are addressing either the plight of Christian women with unChristian husbands and how to face the world together and speak your faith to a Greek or Roman husband who believes you’re property (this is the topic in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16) or the need for husband and wife to put on the armor of God and resist the devil (in Ephesians 5-6). Remember that at the time, these letters were being written to challenge hierarchy, not support it, and to propose a radical egalitarianism in human relationships, and that most Christians in first-century Europe were women. The teaching that we are all one body in Christ was a harder pill to swallow for men in the Roman Empire than it was for women. Their culture tells husbands to own their wives and rule them; the letter to Ephesus says instead to “love them” as they love their own selves (Ephesians 5), and the first letter of Peter says to treat wives as “fellow heirs in the grace of life” (1 Peter 3:7). Fellow heirs! That was a radical idea, especially given inheritance laws and expectations in the Roman empire.

So husbands who become believers in that first-century world are urged to love their wives and treat them as fellow heirs. As for wives – many of whom have husbands who have not converted – they’re being encouraged to deploy themselves in support of those husbands. Unbelieving husbands are pictured as vulnerable, still in bondage to old sins and old ways of thinking, half asleep and like soldiers blundering into enemy fire. In 1 Corinthians 7:16, Paul writes, “Wife, for all you know, you might save your husband.” And he adds, “Husband, for all you know, you might save your wife” (NRSV).

The verb “save” there is σῴζω (sozo), to rescue from destruction and bring the rescued to refuge or safety; we get the Greek word for “savior” from it. See Strong’s #4982: http://biblehub.com/greek/4982.htm

In the first century, there is no need for anyone to tell wives to obey their husbands; obedience is already an expectation in that culture. No, what the epistle-writers are arguing for is a radically interdependent relationship, yielding to and honoring each other. Husbands who have material power over their spouses in the Greco-Roman world are asked to love their wives (Ephesians 5), listen to them “with understanding” (1 Peter 3), and regard them as “fellow heirs.” Wives (many of whom in the early church have unconverted husbands) are encouraged to deploy themselves against “the powers of this present darkness” in support of their husbands who remain in bondage.

In review: I don’t think this passage is about “obedience.” First-century Christian women are being asked to deploy in support of their spouses because many of their spouses were not Christian, and Christian wives of non-Christian men had to figure out how to deal with that situation. 1 Corinthians 7 provides situationally specific advice about not trying to convert the spouse but instead bring love to the table. And Ephesians 5-6 emphasizes: Stand firm against the enemy. Support your spouse in the conflict. Who knows, but through your steadfast love, they might break free?

PART 3: “HEAD OF THE WIFE”

But, someone might ask, doesn’t the next phrase after “hupotasso” talk about the husband being the head of the wife?

Well, yes … and emphatically no.

The word used here in Greek is κεφαλή, “kephale.” It does mean “head.” In English, we understand that to –also– mean “authority” or “leader,” because “head” can mean both things in our language. The same is true in Latin – the word for head also means a commander. But that Latin idiom (which we inherited) doesn’t exist in ancient Greek, as far as we know.

κεφαλή in Koine Greek does have two meanings: “head” and “origin.” Origin, like the head of a spring or the head of a river. A “source.” Marg Mowczko summarizes some fairly extensive research documenting that κεφαλή did not mean “leader” or “ruler” or anything of that kind in Greek until long after these letters were written, and you can find that summary of the research here:

https://margmowczko.com/head-kephale-does-not-mean-leader-1-corinthians-11_3/

In the first-century letter to the Ephesians, when calling the husband “kephale,” the author may be alluding to one (or both) of the following:

1. The Hebrew lore, recorded in Genesis, that the first woman was formed from the side or rib of the first man.

2. The logistics of Greco-Roman society, by which the husband in the house is the provider and source of the house’s income and resources. The breadwinner. But the same word does not, by itself, mean “master.” That’s a different word in Greek.

So Ephesians 5:22-23 may be saying that just as Christ is the source and the provider for the church, husbands in Ephesus are the source of the provisions in the house. I don’t think either of these two statements is a new assertion; both are stated in the text like givens that the hearers or readers already understand. The writer uses these givens as points of support for the recommendations that follow: for husbands to love (not rule) their spouses; for husbands to act sacrificially on behalf of their spouses (even as Christ does for his community), and for wives to arrange themselves, like a battle-regiment, in support of their spouses.

CONCLUSION (OR RATHER, AN INVITATION TO LOOK DEEPER)

I suggest that the thrust of these passages is not that the husband is the boss, but that the husband in a Greco-Roman world is vulnerable. And it’s not that wives are to “obey” and “be subject” to their husbands, as we have it in modern English. Rather, it’s that wives are to go out to battle for their husbands’ souls.

I mean, really think about that for a moment.

These first-century writers are using an explicitly military term to describe the actions of wives. Rather than acting as passive vessels and subjects of male rule, the ideal of the Christian wife is the woman who issues forth in spiritual battle, dressed in “the full armor of God,” an agent by which Christ might “rescue” (from the verb σῴζω) others on the battlefield.

That’s what I believe we lost in translation.

I would propose that better translations of Ephesians 5:22 than “submit” or “be subject to” might be phrases like:

“Wives, support your husbands.”
“Wives, deploy yourselves in support of your husbands.”
“Wives, arrange yourselves for battle for your husbands.”

Or, less literally:

“Wives, go to battle for your husbands.”
“Wives, defend your husbands.”

Stant Litore

POSTSCRIPTS AND POST-POSTSCRIPTS

P.S. For some fascinating textual evidence on the gender dynamics and the roles of women in the first 2-3 centuries of the early church, refer to God’s Self-Confident Daughters by Anne Jensen.

Or, for a shorter, less academic, and perhaps more startling introduction to the lives of women in early Christianity, this article entitled “The Rebel Virgins and Desert Mothers” is a good read: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-rebel-virgins-and-desert-mothers-who-have-been-written-out-of-christianitys-early-history

P.P.S. “Submit” doesn’t mean what we think it does, either, by the way. Centuries ago, we borrowed that word from Latin. It’s “sub” (under) plus the verb “mittere” (to send forth). We get the word “mission” from the same word. It’s a Roman military word — to send someone out, to deploy them in support. “I submit” once meant “I deploy myself” or “I support,” or “I send myself in support.” We’ve seen that word evolve over the centuries to mean “obey,” but it was originally a more nuanced word than that. We still retain faint echoes of that prior meaning in specific, formal circumstances. For example, I could conclude this post by writing this sentence:

[I submit to you that the translation “Wives, arrange yourselves for battle for your husbands” may be closer to the sense of the Greek than “Wives, submit to your husbands.”]

If I were to write that sentence, I would not be offering to obey you. I would just be saying that I am sending this idea out, respectfully and earnestly, for your consideration. I am placing this idea “under” you for your review and pondering.

That’s how slippery words really are. They don’t stay put for long. And in some cases, the slippages and the differences may seem subtle at first glance, but that doesn’t mean they are merely trivial.

P.P.P.S. I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. I offer it in a spirit of fascination. If there is a “message” I would like to convey, that message is twofold:

1. When diving into a sacred text – especially a very old one -take little for granted. (For the religious among us, reading humbly and assuming from the start that we and others have missed important things in the text is not a stance that questions God but a stance that can glorify God and humble man. It is a way of approaching the kingdom of heaven “like little children.” I talk more about this here: https://stantlitore.com/2014/12/12/why-christians-shouldnt-ignore-derrida/) For that matter, in offering a reading of Ephesians 5:22 that is focused on what I think some have left out, I may have left things out. There may be evidence I didn’t consider. The next reading of this text may be far deeper and more useful or more beautiful or more informed than this one. Take little for granted.

2. If you are reading this particular holy text, and what you are reading sounds like it confirms the traditional customs and fears of your culture, then take a second, hard look. We have inherited a lot of very Roman ideas about the Bible thanks to many centuries of filtering it through Latin and through English translations deeply influenced by the Latin. As I wrote in an earlier post, when you translate radical or subversive texts into the language of Empire, you eventually get Imperial texts.

Take that second, hard look … because the New Testament did not originate as an Imperial text. The New Testament isn’t about celebrating the status quo or about settling on a final, comfortable interpretation. It isn’t about affirming or building up a culture. It’s about cracking culture open – every culture, from Israel to Syria to Greece to Rome to Ethiopia – and letting the healing light of God pour through. It’s about turning all expectations upside-down, whipping money-changers out of the Temple, and challenging Pharisees on traditional and literalist interpretations of sacred texts. It’s about learning to live as the hands and feet of God — hands that feed the poor, liberate captives, and touch the faces of lepers; feet that carry good news to the downtrodden and that get pierced with nails by the powerful and the comfortable and the oppressors, as His feet were. It’s about reading everything in the light of the greatest commandments (love God and love your neighbor).

Remember the Bereans of Acts 17, who “received the Word with alertness of mind and searched the Scriptures daily to see whether those things were so.” Any time the Bible starts to sound really comfortable and … expected … it might be a good time to read it more uncomfortably and more awake, with “alertness of mind.” The Bible is packed with stories of God waking people up, uncomfortably, in the middle of the night, and, like a troublesome guest, rearranging all the furniture of their lives. It’s what he does.

P.P.P.P.S. If you have enjoyed this post or found it of use, please consider reading more by getting a copy of Lives of Unstoppable Hope (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00X4UYW2A), which is a study of the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount, … or my fiction, such as The Zombie Bible (http://www.amazon.com/gp/bookseries/B00YX37490), which combines zombies, exegesis, and Bronze Age adventure, or perhaps Ansible (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00U6X8HD8), a series about 25th-century Islamic explorers who transfer their minds across time and space to make first contact and get marooned inside alien bodies on alien worlds.

If you embark on any of these bookish adventures, that will put food on my table and make me and my family very happy.

May you and all your paths, both your going out and your coming in, be blessed.

No, Mr. Sessions, the Apostle Paul Does Not Tell Us to Stand Quietly By While You Put Children in Concentration Camps

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While on their way to a protest, someone wrote me a kind note asking me what I thought of Jeff Sessions’ take on Romans 13 (which Sessions is using to insist on respect for authorities, specifically in regard to letting our elected officials do as they please with the children of immigrants seeking asylum). Man, I could give you an earful. Interpretations of the opening verses of Romans 13 are controversial and there is a LOT written on them.

But look. The United States is not and I hope to God will never be a theocracy. Many of our founders fought and bled and died for the right to live in a country that would NOT be governed according to one faction’s particular interpretation of any religious text. I mean that: our predecessors fled Europe, fought wars, and died for this. So when our federal government starts quoting Scripture to dispel dissent, I get quite angry. This is still the United States of America, not the Republic of Gilead, and a good many of our ancestors died to keep that so. I wish more of our citizens would remember it.

As for what I think, as a Christian, of Jeff Sessions’ use of Romans 13, I’ll answer, since I was asked. Maybe these notes will help someone pull the wool from off a neighbor’s eyes and will be useful for that reason. But I urge you to call and write to your congresspeople before bothering with this post or any other like it, because Sessions is quoting Scripture at us specifically to delay some of our people in arguments and hesitation. I do not want to add to that hesitation.

If it is useful, you can read my notes. If it isn’t, skip it. But regardless, go call your congresspeople. Do that first!

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FOUR POINTS

…on Sessions’ use of Romans 13:1-5 as a bulwark against protest or civil disobedience:

1. First, the context in which Romans 13:1-5 was written matters. Romans 13:1-5 is not a standalone passage!

What Jeff Sessions has done, as many have done and as many always do, is pluck a short quote out of its context so that it can be used to say the exact opposite of the overall message of the text it came from.

Remember that chapter and verse numbers are arbitrary, and where punctuation appears in a translation of a Greek sentence is itself often an interpretive choice. If you want to read the opening verses of Romans 13 seriously, you need to read the section before it and the section after it, rather than just pluck part of a Greek text out and treat it like a standalone manifesto. It’s in the middle of an argument about how the first-century Roman church might conduct itself while beset with internal division and oppression from external authorities (the word is “exousia,” which is “powers,” those who have ability and force). Many scholars believe that the passage is a response to a dispute in the early church over how to handle taxation under Nero. (You can read a quick paraphrase of some of the different takes on the historical and rhetorical context here. This article is not at all comprehensive but it will give a starting point and it comes with a list of references.)

In brief, some in the early underground church were calling for the radical act of refusing to pay taxes – an issue that Paul addressed directly in Romans 13:6-7. Paul is cautioning the church to pay its taxes and not provoke an oppressive government. Such provocation will lead to punishment on the church from that government, he warns in 13:2 (“those who resist will incur judgment”). People who are reading the KJV here may get the wrong idea and think that God will punish those who resist governing authorities, because the KJV translates “krima” as “damnation.” Seriously!!! “Krima” means a verdict or a judgment in court. Paul is counseling the Roman church to avoid a situation where their members (some of whom probably lacked the protections of Roman citizenship) are hauled into the courts for refusing to pay taxes and are then fined, imprisoned, or sentenced to execution.

This is important.

There is no evidence that the first five verses of Romans 13 were intended by their author to be read as a universal creed for submission to state authorities. Paul is responding in a personal letter to a specific and local issue about taxation in Rome. He is advocating not stirring things up by withholding taxes – an act of rebellion that he judges to be without purpose. In this he echoes Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees: render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, etc.

2. Second, who is speaking also matters!

“Be respectful to the Empire” means something very different when the authority is saying it (Sessions) than it does when the rebel is saying it (Paul)! Context matters!

And by the way, can we please stop translating “hupotasso” as “submit”? Hupotasso = “deploy under,” a military term for deploying oneself, like a regiment, in support. (Latin sub + missio also means to “send under,” and I think it once had a similar connotation of battle support, but in modern English “submit” has specific and different connotations than it did in classical Latin.) A better translation in this context may be “Maintain your support for the authorities.” Paul is building the argument that the Roman church should continue to pay taxes. Context.

3. The larger message of the speaker also matters!

These five verses are so often taken by themselves as if they’re a standalone manifesto and used to silence dissent – as if Paul is advocating against civil disobedience rather than advocating for caution. But if you read the rest of the letter – and, for that matter, the account of Paul’s life in Acts – you will realize quickly that the idea of Paul preaching against civil disobedience is ridiculous. Paul is literally under house arrest for civil disobedience while writing some of his letters. Again and again in Acts, Paul ends up punished or imprisoned by the authorities for choosing civil disobedience when disobedience is necessary.

Just because Paul is saying in Romans 13 that refusing to pay taxes to Caesar is not a battle worth picking does not mean that Paul is saying that no battles are worth picking.

Consider the verses that follow later in that chapter – the ones Sessions didn’t bother to quote even though they are the summation of Paul’s argument on the subject.

Romans 13:8: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”

Romans 13:10 — “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Paul is making the argument for obeying taxation law within the larger context of making sure nothing is obstructing the church from its principal work: loving one’s neighbor. Getting in a financial dispute with the Emperor and getting your members killed would definitely get in the way of that. In fact, in Romans 13: 6-7, Paul contends that the only actual impact that refusing to pay taxes is likely to have is that the tax collectors won’t get paid and won’t have food on the table. Whatever the good intent of those Christians who want to refuse to pay taxes as a form of resistance, the impact will be that they’ll get tried and convicted (krima) and their neighbors who are tasked with the collection of taxes will go hungry. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor,” Paul urges. Paul appears to suggest that refusing to pay taxes to Nero is a fruitless resistance that is also not the most effective way to love one’s neighbor.

The obvious corollary to this is that there may be other cases where loving one’s neighbor requires civil disobedience. When loving one’s neighbor and doing no wrong requires that you disobey or protest unjust laws, Paul is very much in support of doing so. Loving each other comes first. In that, the law of God is fulfilled, Paul insists.

The letters in the New Testament are frequently unequivocal in telling the church to shelter the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant. It is that which James tells us is “true religion.” So for us to take a line out of context to mean “shut up and let your government put children in concentration camps” when the early church was specifically tasked with providing sanctuary for the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant – is patently absurd. That’s not Paul. That’s not Peter either (he told the exousia that “we must obey God rather than man” – Acts 5:29). And that’s definitely not Jesus.

For a Christian, the first directive is always to love one another as selflessly as God loves us, and THAT is what will either drive obedience or disobedience to authority. That is why Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted Paul in support of civil disobedience in his Letter from Birmingham Jail!

And that’s an apt reference because this warping of a few lines of text to mean the exact opposite of what the text as a whole is advocating is not just something Sessions does to Paul. It’s the same move when Sessions or others quote the “I Have a Dream Speech” to suggest that Martin Luther King, Jr. — of all people!!! — would have urged today’s citizens not to protest in the street or march on the capital. That, of course, is absurd, since Martin Luther King, Jr. marched on the capital himself. Just as it is absurd to suggest that Paul would advocate against civil disobedience against a government committing atrocities — as, again, Paul was under arrest for civil disobedience!

This kind of rhetorical gymnastics to justify blind obedience to a federal government that is carrying out atrocities is worthier of the Third Reich than of the nation we’ve been insisting that the United States is or could become, and it is insulting to our intelligence, our conscience, and our shared humanity.

4. Finally, the type of ‘authority’ matters! The “exousia” (“powers,” those with ability and force) in Romans 13 refers to the oppressive leaders of Rome: Nero and those Nero appoints. Now, Paul may believe that Nero was “deployed” (tasso) in that position by an act of God, but that is manifestly not the case with the elected officials of the United States of America. Trump and Sessions are not Nero (though I concede that Mr. Trump at times acts like Nero). Mr. Trump and Mr. Sessions were not “deployed” (tasso) to their position by an act of God. Our officials are either elected by us or appointed by those we elected, and are therefore answerable to us in a way that Nero was not answerable to the underground Christians in Rome.

When Jeff Sessions quotes Romans 13, he is saying that we should obey our elected officials in the same way and for the same reasons that we would obey an emperor or dictator, those who rule by force. And that is an appalling thought.

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IN RECAP:

– Elected officials are not the same as dictators deployed by an “act of God.” Our officials are our laborers (whom we hired), and by definition are not the “exousia” to which Paul refers. In the U.S., Mr. Trump and Mr. Sessions are not “exousia” (“powers” ruling by force), and we the people are literally the government. I have the sense that many of us keep forgetting this. We need to unforget it.

– Taking Romans 13 out of context to say “never protest the government” is not compatible with a larger read of the New Testament, which is packed with countless stories of people protesting the government in cases of atrocity or racial/religious oppression.

– Paul insists that our first duty is to love each other. The writers of Hebrews and James remind us that this means sheltering the orphan, the widow, the immigrant – the vulnerable among us. When children are put in concentration camps, our Christian duty, our American duty, and our human duty to put a stop to this trumps any duty we might have to Trump.

Finally, Sessions’ Bible-quoting is purely a distraction and silencing tactic. It is meant to get citizens who are practicing Christians to be complacent or slow in acting. It is an abuser’s tactic. This is not a time to be slow in acting. This is a time when children are being concentrated in camps within our borders, and it is our duty as the people of the United States, to whom our elected representatives answer, to stop it. Those of us who are Christians, it is our duty as imitators of Christ and lovers of our neighbors to stop it. It is our duty as human beings to stop it. There are a lot of gray areas in religion, politics, and human action. This isn’t one.

So, for the love of God and your neighbor and your country, be LOUD until our federal authorities cease this inhumane, cruel, and ungodly practice of kidnapping children from asylum-seeking parents.

Stant Litore

A Camel Through the Eye of a Needle, and Other Wild Tales of Translation

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Someone mentioned the squeezing of a rich man through the eye of a needle yesterday, and of course I started reflecting on mistranslation and the evocative power of language. The camel and the needle is one of my favorite examples of translation shenanigans, and is all the more delightful because no matter which way you translate or mistranslate it, the message of the metaphor remains roughly the same. For those not in the know, here’s what happened. Very probably, the rabbi Yeshua told his followers two thousand years ago that it is easier to thread a rope (like the big ropes used on fishing boats on the Sea of Galilee) through the eye of a sewing needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. But, in Aramaic – the language he was speaking and the language in which the source text for the synoptic gospels was probably written – “camel” and “rope” are spelled the same: “gml.” They do -sound- different, but written Aramaic doesn’t often represent vowels. So someone dutifully recorded, “gml.” Now this gets even funnier when the synoptic gospels come along and people are translating the words of Christ into Koine Greek. Because in Koine Greek “camel” and “rope” are ALSO the same word, distinguished in text by a single vowel but pronounced almost identically. Camel is “kamelon” and rope is “kamilon.” In Latin and English, of course, “camel” and “rope” are really easy to tell apart. But, in both Aramaic and Greek, they are not. So while it is frustrating enough to try jamming a knotted fishing rope through the eye of a sewing needle, now we are left with the image of a massive dromedary squeezing through a needle, hump and all, and the rich are not only in a proper mess, but comically so. For want of a vowel!

It’s an amusing case because the meaning comes out somewhat similar in either case. And “camel” fits Jesus’s teaching style, which often made humorous use of hyperbole.

Other mistranslations are more sinister, like the popular translation of “arsenokoites” as “homosexuals,” which is a bit absurd, as there is a separate Greek word for that. “Arsenokoite” is a cognate of “man” and “bed” and no one knows what the word means because its usage is so rare. It’s been suggested that it was a reference to gigolos, but that’s an equally unsupported guess. Because the word occurs next to “malakos” (luxurious) it is more likely a colorful reference to the soft-living and pleasure-loving rich (who have a harder time in the New Testament than camels do). Malakos (soft) also gets mistranslated “effeminate,” mostly in order to support the reading of “arsenokoites” as “homosexuals.” But “malakos” doesn’t mean effeminate; there’s a different word for that, too. Malakos means luxury-loving, softened by easy life and too many soft cushions. In Greek, that concept doesn’t carry gendered connotations. Romans associated that with being “like a woman,” and because Romans had issues with effeminacy/masculinity*, we inherited both their commentary and their misreading. But the Greeks didn’t have these issues. (They had other issues.) There’s no evidence that “malakoi arsenokoites” had anything to do with sexual orientation, gender identity, or manliness or lack thereof. Greece is not Rome. Malakoi arsenokoites are most likely pleasure-loving rich men who loll about on bed eating grapes all day and ignore the suffering of their impoverished neighbors. That’s a type of vice that the New Testament lectures on frequently and at length, and to which the letters in which these words appear devote considerable attention. Rich, luxurious, gaudy living was also a vice that Greeks tended to scorn and treat with mockery. They would have found Trump Tower hilarious.

Other problematic cases include “ezer kenegdo” (which the West translated as “a helpmeet” or servant-companion, to describe the status of women toward men, but which in Hebrew simply means a helper partner and doesn’t imply hierarchy and is the same word used to describe God’s status toward humanity); or the mistranslation of “kephale” (head) to mean authority (authority is a different word), because of a Latin idiom we inherited that doesn’t exist in Greek (the Latin word for head also means leader, but in Greek “kephale” simply suggests origin, like the head of a spring or a river, and not authority) — someone asked for a link, so here you go, Marg Mowczko covers the research on “kephale” here.

— Or the mistranslation of “hupotassomai” as “submit,” as in, wives submit to your husbands, when “hupotassomai” doesn’t mean submit in Greek (there’s a different word for that). Hupotossomai is really hard to translate in English. It means “come under,” which may or may not imply what the Romans think it did. It is a military word for deployment in arranged, battle-ready formation, so the Romans jumped all over the possibility of hierarchy. Romans love hierarchy. But in context, in several places it is used in passages where Paul is talking either about the plight of Christian women with unChristian husbands and how to face the world together and speak your faith to a Greek or Roman husband who believes you’re property (this is the topic in the letters to Corinth), or following passages about putting on the armor of God and resisting the devil (in the letter to Ephesus). Remember that at the time, these letters were being written to challenge hierarchy, not support it, and to propose a radical egalitarianism in human relationships, and that most Christians in first-century Europe were women. The teaching that we are all one body in Christ was a harder pill to swallow for men in the Roman Empire than it was for women. The letters to Corinth speak of non-Christian husbands as vulnerable, still in bondage to old ways of thinking, half asleep and like soldiers blundering into enemy fire. In context, hupotossomai probably means to deploy yourself in support of your spouse against the enemy.

“Hupakoe,” which we keep translating obey, and which is used for children, never for spouses, in the New Testament, doesn’t mean “obey,” either. It means “hear under.” Children are being advised to listen and learn, not blindly obey. Again, context. These are letters urging people not to return to the ways of their parents, to abandon oppressive systems and live in a radically new way that is different from how their parents live. What’s being urged will create a world of strife within multigenerational Greek families. Hence the urging in that letter for parents not to provoke their children to anger and for children to listen deeply in the midst of the strife.

And so on.

The text is beautiful and often more nuanced than it appears in translation, and we consistently mangle it because we treat it like a Latin/Roman text instead of a collection of Hebrew and Greek texts. (When you translate radical or subversive texts into the language of Empire, you eventually get Imperial texts).

And also because we insist on reading it as if the people writing it were writing it today, with our connotations, figures of speech, and cultural fears, when in fact their cultural fears and figures of speech were completely different ones, and things that we get hung up on wouldn’t even have occurred to them.

And this leads me to reflect on the power of writing. As a writer, I’m a bit biased in thinking about how powerful written language is. But, when we look at a holy book that has been translated and mistranslated and construed and misconstrued over the course of 2000-2,500 years (or, if you want to look at something more recent, of less than 250 years of age, and within our own language without the added complexities of translation, consider the U.S. Constitution), it’s hard not to conclude that sometimes the treatment of a single word can shape entire cultures and political systems. That’s a humbling thought.

Stant Litore

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ADDENDUM: This post, which began as informal amusement about camels and ropes, has turned out to wildly popular, which I didn’t expect. So I have edited it to provide a little more context on a couple of the words (mostly hupotassomai and hupakoe), in hope that the post will be more useful. And if you would like to read more free posts on this and closely related topics, you can here:

  • What We’ve Forgotten.” There is a lot of evidence to suggest that first-century Christianity in Europe was largely a women’s movement. But how we’ve told and translated that history not only deletes much of what happened and why — it has significant impact today.
  • Aletheia, or What Is Truth?In Latin, truth is a blunt object you can use to bludgeon people into submission. But in Greek, truth is an activity.
  • In a Time of Refugee Crisis, We’ve Forgotten Who We Are.” American Christianity is forgetting that in the New Testament, the most core fact of our identity is that we are those granted refuge (literally by a “Soter,” a Refuge-Giver) and that our first calling is to give refuge, both spiritually and physically, to other exiles.
  • Do You Need Religion to Be a Good Person (Or: Levinas for Everyone)?” Come cartwheel into the topic of ethics with me. This also will give you a peek behind the curtain at the thinking that underlies the lurching but exuberant experiment that is The Zombie Bible.
  • Why Christians Shouldn’t Ignore Derrida.” In the U.S., Derrida is treated largely as a bogeyman. But that means we’re missing out on a really exciting way to read. We’re missing out on how to read with humility and with all of a child’s curiosity and openness.
  • Stant Litore on the Bible: How and Why I Read It.” I wrote this because my readers asked. It was my first post on the subject. So here is a storyteller’s approach to an ancient library of sacred texts.
  • And not free but affordable, here is a heartfelt study of the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount, called Lives of Unstoppable HopeIt’s also the story of my time with my infant daughter in the hospital, when I learned that hope, which I had thought small and delicate and frail as a moth in the night, might actually be sharp and strong as a blade.

P.S. On threads sharing this post, several people have brought up the old hypothesis that first-century Jerusalem had a “needle gate” that was very narrow, where a merchant had to unload their camel in order to get through. It’s an elegant and fitting idea, but it’s not historical. It’s a folk etymology proposed by fifteenth century clergy to explain the “camel through the eye of a needle” verse. (In other words, it was made up to explain the verse.) There’s no evidence of narrow gates (either a specific one or generally) being called needle gates or eyes of the needle in the ancient Middle East.

P.P.S. After this post went viral on Facebook, it led to some vigorous conversation, mostly around “arsenokos,” which appears to fire up the most controversy. I have copied some of my responses with further insight into “arsenokos” into the comments below this post, in case they should prove useful.

Stant Litore writes about tyrannosaurs, zombies, aliens, and ancient languages. He does not own a time machine or a starship, but would rather like to. His books include:

Nonfiction:
Lives of Unstoppable Hope
Write Worlds Your Readers Won’t Forget
Write Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget

Fiction:
The Zombie Bible
Ansible
The Running of the Tyrannosaurs
Dante’s Heart

A Reality Check on American Christianity

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Just a quick plea for humility and a reality check among my brethren, sisteren, and otheren of the faith. Here in the U.S. a lot of us tend to act as though we (a) are the whole body of Christ on earth (or, blasphemously, as though we are the head of the body of Christ on earth) and (b) as if we are the only or best interpreters and arbiters of what the Word means and calls us to do. Neither of these is the case. We are a teeny tiny minority of Christians in the world. Only 11% of Christians are in the U.S. (and only 55% of practicing Christians in the United States vote conservative), and only 33% (one third) of Christians in the world are white. There are more Christians in Brazil than there are in the Bible Belt. There are the same number of Christians in the Philippines as there are in the Bible Belt. What this means is … we should be listening to our siblings around the world, because all of us who follow Christ within the entire U.S. are just eleven seats at a round table of a hundred.

The oldest continuously operating churches on earth are in Ethiopia, and 27% of Christians on the planet are Latin American (and most live south of the U.S.). Roughly 25% are black.

So… we really ought to be in conversation with our family, not only one-way conversation and not only on service missions, but we ought also to be listening and seeking advice and perspective, because some of our siblings in Christ don’t look like us, have been here longer than us, and could give us insights that might surprise us.

I know it’s fashionable in some parties to define one tiny little denomination as the One True Way to follow the founder and author of our faith, but this pie chart hopefully sheds light on just how prideful and hubristic that perspective is.

(Note: There is a tiny “Other” sliver of 0.6% that I couldn’t get to show on this chart. “Other” includes North Africa, the Middle East, and Canada. The numbers shown on the chart are rounded to the nearest whole number.)

So, a small plea for humility.

Stant Litore

What We’ve Forgotten

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In reference to the article “4 Facts That Show That ‘Head’ Does Not Mean ‘Leader’ in 1 Corinthians 11:3″:

Research of this kind fascinates me. So much of how we translate and interpret the Bible is driven entirely by Roman ideologies and Roman cultural obsessions that we have inherited, and by the fact that Greek and Hebrew have been filtered to us through Latin. (Even our modern Greek dictionaries and lexicons tend to offer Latinate English vocabulary for translations.) Thus we almost completely misunderstand what the New Testament means by ‘truth,’ as I get into here in my post on aletheia.

Thus: we completely miss that the diatribe against homosexuality in Romans 1 is a paraphrase of Paul’s opponents in the Roman church and a parody of their over-the-top judgmental rhetoric (the whole point of Romans 1-2 is to dismantle the idea that Christianity and judgmental rhetoric are at all compatible). You can read a bit more on that here. And, bizarrely, we never think to question why this issue only comes up when Paul is speaking to Rome, the ancient world’s most homophobic culture, and never once when he is speaking to various Greek cities in which homosexual and bisexual relations, and an array of gender performances are both normal and expected.

Thus: we mis-translate passages on gender in the Pauline letters in a way that’s completely ahistorical (but that serves the status quo in our own society), as the early church was spread, organized, and facilitated by women. The connection of “head” to “leader” or “authority” is a specifically Roman idiom that we’ve inherited. That idiom didn’t exist in Koine Greek.

Thus: we mis-translate passages as instructing women to ‘submit’ to their husbands, when ‘hupotassomai’ doesn’t mean to submit; it means to deploy yourself in support of; it is a military metaphor. ‘Obey’ is a completely different word in Greek (hupakoe — and even ‘hupakoe’ doesn’t mean ‘obey’; it means to listen attentively to; it is a word used always for children, never for spouses, in the New Testament). And we miss the context (because we’re fond of reading communal letters in isolated little chapters and verses and chunks), so we forget that first-century Christian women are being asked to deploy in support of their spouses because most of their spouses were not Christian, most early Christians were women, and Christian wives of non-Christian men had to figure out how the heck to deal with that situation. It is situationally specific advice about not trying to convert the spouse but instead bring love to the table. It has nothing to do with obedience at all, and the verses that follow roll out an idea borrowed from Judaism that was profoundly subversive in Rome’s ultra-patriarchy: the idea that women “are fellow heirs in the grace of life.” Rome takes the idea of heirs very seriously. In Roman law and custom, women were not heirs; women were property. This idea of “fellow heirs” was radical and threatening to the Roman patriarchy.

Thus: we misread Genesis 2 as describing women as a “helper” sex. But “helper” (ezer genegdo) in Hebrew does not mean maid or servant; it means something a bit more similar to the modern phrase “partner in crime.” It is also the only case in the Old Testament where the word is used to describe women. In every other case, the word is used for God. Chavah (Eve) is a helper in the same sense that God is a helper. It is our post-Roman anachronism that translates ezer genegdo as “the help,” the servant class.

A fascinating look into the first and second centuries, if you’re ever curious, is the book God’s Self-Confident Daughters. Or, if you’d like something short to read, try “Rebel Virgins and Desert Mothers,” which you can find here.

You will be awed (and horrified) at how thoroughly the history of agrarian Europe’s first feminist movement was excised, erased, and finally hijacked and replaced by the Roman patriarchy.

There is a wealth of scholarship on this and has been for years, and there is more all the time, but … for reasons that are probably self-evident … this research rarely trickles into mainstream religious culture.

The reason that Rome was so fervently opposed to Christianity in the first and second century was that Christianity was seen as a profound threat to family values. “Family values,” in the sense that we usually mean it, was originally a Roman idea.) Roman law required women to have children and to do so by a certain age; Christianity created large sisterhoods of unmarried women (the “holy widows,” who were not secluded at that time but socially active, running nonprofits and neighborhood schools).

Rome placed the man in ownership of the household and gave him – at one time – the legal right to execute family members who shamed the family; Christianity undercut that structure. Rome relied on a strict caste system; Christianity insisted on the essential equality of all people regardless of ethnicity, gender, or social class (while exhorting its members at times to obey the law of the land to the greatest extent possible, because Roman torture-death penalties were no joke, and though there were things they were willing to die for, these people wanted to survive – so Christians found loopholes, lots of them, like the legal loopholes that allowed for women to enter holy sisterhoods and gain a marriage exemption if they were priestesses. And since in early Christian doctrine, every Christian woman was a priestess of Christ, this provided a very large loophole, one the government usually couldn’t close because doing so would disrupt other Roman religious institutions that were seen as supportive of the state).

Pliny whines to Emperor Trajan in the early years of the second century about his work torturing ‘two slave women, who in their church are officials.’ The underlying tone of his letter is a frustrated “What the hell, Governor, they have slave girls leading their religion.” Christians were called “the atheists,” because they worshipped at no shrines or temples. And most of all, they were hated because 1) the religion had its origin in foreign immigrants, especially groups of first-century emigrating Jews (Rome was very anti-Semitic), and 2) Roman women converted in massive numbers, and then taught Roman children their superstitious, unmanly new faith. Christianity, to the Romans, was a woman’s religion and “the eunuch’s faith,” prizing compassion over honor, and love over duty, and relationships over hierarchy; there were popular superstitions and prejudices that men who converted out of love for their wives would lose their virility.

We miss out on an exciting episode in history that has tremendous relevance to our own time — a moment when a radically egalitarian ideology and way of life threatened to upend hierarchical and oppressive structures — because men a few centuries later found it useful and convenient to erase that history while appropriating some aspects of the early faith in service to power. (This may sound far-fetched…that in three and a half short centuries, a religious institution might come to stand for many things that were the exact opposite of the teachings three centuries before, but it actually happens all the time and in much briefer spans of history … just look at the way Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words today are appropriated and twisted to sound like they support the status quo, in fact to support statements that are the very opposite of MLK’s arguments and convictions. Ditto, the American founding fathers.) Mistranslate or misconstrue a few abstract concepts in ways that support the status quo, or rip a few passages out of their context, and you can turn a radical faith movement or a new ideology into a nice, tidy, stagnant institution pretty quickly.

We miss out on an exciting episode in our history because certain men a few centuries later chose to erase it and rewrite and replace it (in some cases literally chiseling the faces of female bishops off of monuments), and we still believe their version. Their version still drives our politics, our prejudices, and our cultural norms. But their version was a hijacking of something that looked very different, something worth remembering, something inspiring and provocative, something that calls into question who we think we are.

This is part of what I write about. (Some of it, you can find in my novels, like What Our Eyes Have Witnessed; some of it, you can find here on this blog: https://stantlitore.com/category/radical-reading/)

Stant Litore

Stant Litore writes about tyrannosaurs, zombies, aliens, and ancient languages. He does not own a time machine or a starship, but would rather like to. His books include:

Nonfiction:
Lives of Unstoppable Hope
Write Worlds Your Readers Won’t Forget
Write Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget

Fiction:
The Zombie Bible
Ansible
The Running of the Tyrannosaurs
Dante’s Heart

In a Time of Refugee Crisis, We Have Forgotten Who We Are

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(This is the fifth in my Radical Reading series. It is also the one of my five essays that can be read as overtly political. I am sorry; the times require it. The topic, however, is not politics, and no political leaders are mentioned in this essay. The essay is a call to fellow people of the Christian faith, and the topic is remembering who we are – and what that means in a time of refugee crisis.)

THE SOS

Sos (Greek: “rescued,” “safe” – see Strong’s #4982) nothing is more core to Christian identity than this concept: that we, who were in danger, in peril, without refuge, have been made sos by a Soter (Savior). Each of us is soterion (saved), delivered by a Soter from slavery and from flight, made sos. The early Christians wrote and taught and believed that they were each a soterion, literally a refugee granted refuge. While on earth, they were paroikoi and parepidemoi, strangers in a strange land, sojourners without citizenship, who “hoped against hope” (Romans 4:18) in God’s promise that they would find and arrive in a “better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb 11:16), in which they would have citizenship at last. In which they would be not slaves or exiles but huioi, sons and daughters (Galatians 4:4-6), adopted heirs and “citizens of heaven” (Philippians 3:20).

To my mind, nothing makes it more clear that a large swath of evangelical Christianity in America has sold its soul and lost its heart than the vocal support and encouragement from many quarters for bans on refugees and for walling out the xenoi: the “others,” the “aliens,” the “immigrants.”

THE XENOI

The radical statement of first-century Christianity, recorded in the Gospels and in the Epistles (both Pauline and otherwise)—a statement radical to a Greco-Roman world but traditional in the Hebraic world it was inherited from—was that we are all xenoi. We are all outsiders. The Christ himself was an outsider while on earth, and being one, he was able to welcome all outsiders to break bread with him. The kingdom of heaven, he taught, is like a banquet to which all outsiders are brought in, dressed, fed, and made at home (Matthew 22).

From this core identity as xenoi, as refugees on earth seeking citizenship in a heavenly country, derived the attitudes toward society, community, and alterity that characterized the earliest Christian writings and that often upset Rome’s heavily stratified and deeply xenophobic social order.

Thus, when Peter urges the early Christians to avoid slavery to earthly desires, he abjures them by their identity as refugees:

“Beloved, I urge you as sojourners [paroikoi] and exiles [parepidemoi] to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against the soul.” (1 Peter 2:11)

It is our active remembering of our identity as sojourners that permits us to live differently, Peter insists. A paroikos is literally a “dweller-near,” one who lives outside the house (oikos) and is without citizenship, yet is dwelling near the house: a resident alien. Implicit in the Koine Greek is the idea that these non-citizens live closely in community with citizens; the word emphasizes their nearness to the house, not their distance or their origin in a faraway place. That’s why we often find the word translated “sojourner” rather than “exile.” The other word, parepidemos, means a “passer-through,” one who is here for a time but was not born here and may not die here.

Earth is not our country, Peter reminds us. We are passers-through, we are dwellers-near-but-not-of, and this identity must drive our choices, our beliefs, our commitments to ourselves and others, and our actions.

For the early Christians, the lovers of truth (that is, lovers of aletheia, literally “unforgetting”), the promise you were supposed to actively unforget, from hour to hour, from day to day, was the promise of soteria, of salvation and refuge, of heavenly citizenship. In the Epistle to the Hebrews, early Christians of Jewish descent are urged to remember their Hebrew forefathers who held faithfully to a strong hope of soteria:

“These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers [xenoi] and exiles [parepidemoi] on the earth.  For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” (Hebrews 11:13-16)

The archetype for the life of faith in Hebrews 11 is the journey of Abraham across Mesopotamia. Abraham, as a xenos, traveled across a wilderness in search of a new home, “hoping against hope” (as Paul writes in the letter to the Romans) for a better country, a country promised but as yet unknown. In the same way, the Hebrew prophets and the first-century Christians, the writer of Hebrews suggests, are xenoi—others, strangers, aliens in the countries they pass through [parepidemoi]. They are willing to endure any hardship on their journey because of the strength of their yearning for “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” Of such faithful refugees, God is not ashamed; he has prepared for them citizenship in a heavenly polis (city).

The writers of the New Testament are informed here by the Jewish Torah and Nevi’im, by the Old Testament, by the recurring insistence of Moses and the Prophets that we are all strangers in the land, that God may grant us a residence in a promised land, but that we remain sojourners on an earth we do not own. “Shelter the strangers in the land,” Moses says also, “for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Hebraic law urges that immigrants be treated with justice—“one law, for the homeborn and for the immigrant”—in memory of the time the Hebrews themselves wandered in the wilderness. And, lest they forget that they remain sojourners even today, the festival of Sukkot remains a time when an increasingly settled people are urged to leave their homesteads and their towns and dwell in temporary booths and shelters in the countryside for a brief time.

This is what Deuteronomy instructed its readers to “unforget,” when they would lie down and when they would wake up and when they would walk down the road—this is what they were told to bind on their foreheads and write on their doorposts (Deuteronomy 6): their core identity as refugees and delivered slaves, brought across a wilderness and granted refuge. And it was as their Deliverer, their Rock and their Refuge, that they were to know their God: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt” – an authoritative line that repeatedly punctuates passages in the Torah.

By recalling in their daily lives that identity as refugees granted Refuge, they would be less likely to live lives of pride—the ostentatious lives of “self-made” people who, secure in their houses, would not see the children starving outside their walls. It is this forgetting that the author of Jeremiah finds so abhorrent in pre-exilic Jerusalem. Idolatry is abhorrent to Jeremiah largely because of what he sees as the consequences of forgetting the covenant; he describes women who bake cakes for Astarte and have houses full of bread while others’ children sit famished in the street outside. These are not the lives, Jeremiah insists, of people of the covenant—of people who live in daily awareness that their homes are temporary, of people who know their history as refugees and sojourners granted safety at last.

Terence (who, according to the writers of antiquity, was himself a freed slave of foreign birth who became one of the great playwrights in the Roman world) famously wrote, Homo sum; humani nil a me alienum puto: “I am human; therefore I consider nothing human to be alien to me.” There are no xenoi or paroikoi in Terence’s thinking; all humans are in the oikos, in the house. There are no dwellers-near who lack citizenship in humanity.

The early Christians, commenting on the Torah, arrive at a similar sentiment, but from an opposite point of origin: We are all outside the house. We are all strangers in the land; knowing this, no human can be a stranger to me. We are all xenoi, and we are all refugees. Because we are all shivering in the cold outside the house, and because we are all passing through a strange land hoping for refuge, it is no longer either desirable or rational ethically to wall anyone out. This was more than a metaphor for Paul, for Peter, for the author of the letter to the Hebrews: it was a way of describing the lived experience of a disinherited and diasporic people granted a new hope, a hope of citizenship in a city they had never seen, a city they had not built, a city to which they were being delivered by a Soter, a city they believed they were called to live their lives worthy of.

If evangelical Christians today forget their identity as xenoi and paroikoi—as refugees on the earth—then they will forget both their Soter (Savior) and what it means to be sos (saved, given refuge). If men and women of faith permit themselves to “harden their heart” (Jesus’s phrase) against refugees and deceive themselves into thinking themselves owners of homes (oikoi) and “homelanders” whose country must be defended against all comers, then they will have forgotten who they are. The entire story of the New Testament is that of refugees granted a heavenly city, brought there out of violence and sin and pain by a heavenly Soter, and then urged to imitate that Soter and to live as “citizens of heaven.”

How do citizens of heaven live? How did the Savior live? By giving refuge. By rescuing others. That is what it means to be a citizen of heaven. That is what it means to live as a community of what the Romans (who were obsessed with security, with law and order, with property, “their minds set on earthly things,”) called “the little Christs,” the Christians.

To see refugees as “others” is to forget yourself.

It is to forget your core identity as xenoi, as others.

It is to forget your core identity as the sos, the refugees saved.

THE PTOCHOI EN PNEUMATI

How did we get here?

How did we forget, as people of faith, that we are the outsiders, not the insiders—that we are the sojourners “dwelling near” (paroikoi) the house, not the dwellers in the house. We have forgotten that earth is the wilderness and heaven is our home. We let go of the truth: the aletheia, the ongoing act of “unforgetting.” We forgot that we are exiles and that we are poor.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)

“Blessed are the poor in spirit.” With these words, Jesus opens the Sermon on the Mount. In Koine Greek, the word chosen here for “the poor” is the most extreme word possible: hoi ptochoi. This is not hoi penoi (the day-laborers without savings accounts, working for their daily bread) or hoi penichroi (those needing daily bread), but hoi ptochoi, the utterly without-refuge.

To be poor in this way—to be ptochos—is to be unclothed, to be utterly destitute and without resources and to know it. To be ptochos is to be stripped of everything, your skin bare to wind and weather. The man who is ptochos lies naked in the dirt, his face pressed to the ground, utterly at the mercy of the one he is pleading to. To be ptochos en pneumati—poor in spiritis to know that you are made of ashes, that you will go back to ashes, that belief in your own sufficiency is a delusion.

It is that delusion—that faith in our bank account, or in our personal virtue, or in the solidity of our house, or in our cunning, or in our family heritage, or in our religious standing—that keeps us from living big, blessed lives. (Makarioi, “the blessed,” as I discuss in Lives of Unstoppable Hope, are literally those whose lives are made big in the sense of their impact on others; like Abraham, others’ lives are blessed—made bigger—through them. The root of makarios, “blessed,” is mak, “big”; in English, we get macro and mega from that same root).

The Emperor cannot be big and blessed in his new clothes, because those new clothes in which he is so confident are nothing more than an illusion. They might blow away at the wind of a child’s words. Even so, might our house or our religious standing or our bank account or our cunning fail us. Like the Emperor in the story, we all of us stand naked in the cold world, but some of us, experts in denial, choose to believe we are clothed.

The ptochoi en pneumati—the poor in spirit—are not blessed because they are poor, because they are naked, or because they are without resources.

They are blessed and able to live big lives because they know they are poor, naked, and without resources.

And, recognizing their own nakedness, the “poor in spirit” are no longer able to lord their possessions over others, or to look upon the unclothed with contempt. Yearning themselves for refuge, it would be nonsensical of them to deny refuge to others. (And, recognizing themselves as xenoi, the “poor in spirit” cannot afford xenophobia.)

They are the Emperors who have stopped believing in their invisible clothing. Naked, nothing more can be stripped from them. Poor, nothing more can be stolen from them. These are the people who can live day to day, as Mother Teresa did. These are the people who can lie on their side in the dirt without pride or self-imposed stigma, as Ezekiel did, if by doing so they might move the hearts of others, or who can sit night after night beside a loved one who suffers, if by doing so they might offer one sliver of comfort. These are the people that can march in defense of civil rights, no matter what slurs or fists or bullets are hurled at their faces. They have given the day to a higher cause or a higher God than themselves: “. . . having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland . . . They desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.”

These vagrants, these exiles, these poor in spirit, seek a better country, that is, a heavenly one. They yearn for our world to be more like that. They may march, they may weep, they may doubt, they may die, but they will never give up. The call home—the allure and vision of a world where no man is oppressed, no woman is beaten, and no child suffers needless illness, hunger, or violence—is too insistent to ignore.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, Jesus says, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” That is the first beatitude and the first description in the Gospels of living the saved life, the blessed life, of living life as a citizen of heaven.

THE CALL TO UNFORGET

If Christianity is to be not only “relevant” but critical and active in the years ahead, people of faith must remember who they are. We must remember—in fact, we must unforget, from hour to hour—that we are sos (saved). We must find ourselves again—as refugees on earth, as strangers in the land, as strangers to whom no other human being can be strange. As others (xenoi) who “other” no one. As citizens of heaven, hoping for a new city and yearning for home.

Our Soter requires that we hold to this truth (this aletheia, this “unforgetting”) and thus hold to Him.

Our fellow human beings require that we unforget that we are xenoi together—because, having forgotten, we are hurting them.

And we must do this unforgetting for ourselves, too. Because what will it profit us if we gain “the world” but forfeit our soul?

Stant Litore

Stant Litore writes about tyrannosaurs, zombies, aliens, and ancient languages. He does not own a time machine or a starship, but would rather like to. His books include:

Nonfiction:
Lives of Unstoppable Hope
Write Worlds Your Readers Won’t Forget
Write Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget

Fiction:
The Zombie Bible
Ansible
The Running of the Tyrannosaurs
Dante’s Heart

Aletheia, or, What is truth?

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Abstract: “In languages descended from or heavily influenced by Latin, it is possible to bludgeon people with truths, because in Latin, ‘truth’ is a noun. But this is not possible in Koine Greek. In the Koine Greek of the New Testament, truth is an activity, not a blunt object.”

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After a conversation earlier today, I’m going to share this longer post with you because a few of you might find it useful or beautiful, or may want to refer to it in conversations later. The topic is what some key words from the New Testament mean in the original text, because they get thoroughly sucked dry and mangled in English. If the post is useful, it may provoke some readers to read certain things in a very different light than how they are typically read in our culture, or may help them challenge others to do so.

This is written in response to a reader who asked me about the meanings of the words ‘truth’ and ‘belief,’ and how they are connected.

Truth (in English)

A truth (from the word “troth,” the same word we use in “betrothed”) is something you trust deeply, perhaps with all your heart. As I wrote in a post earlier today, a truth is not a fact, and a fact is not a truth. These are very different concepts. It is a truth that I will stay with my wife until she or I die. That is not a demonstrable fact, and will not be for many years, I hope; it is a truth. It is a truth that my wife loves me; this is not a demonstrable fact in any scientific sense, but I trust it deeply. These are truths. And when we got engaged, we pledged our truth (troth) to each other. In religion, one might speak of the Truth of divine promises — something deeply and profoundly trusted by the worshipper, promises judged by the worshipper to be worthy of their trust.

In English, a truth is a promise. In English, you believe in a truth (a promise) likely because you trust (have faith in) the subject who gave you that truth. So, for example, if in religious belief God gives you a promise about salvation or about comforting you with the Holy Spirit, the salvation or the comfort is a ‘truth’ or a promise, and God (and/or, potentially, writers of sacred texts and ancestors) is the subject who has relayed that promise to you. So in English, you believe the truth (the promise) and you trust (have faith in) the subject (God). The object, if there is one, is you yourself, the one trusting.

Belief (in English and Greek)

In Greek there is no word used in the New Testament that corresponds to the modern English “believe.” The word in Greek is much closer to “trust.” It is the verb for the Greek noun that we translate “faith,” but we don’t have a verb for faith in our language (which is a rather enormous oversight, if you think about it), so for four centuries we’ve been forced to substitute the word ‘believe’ as a placeholder for the missing word that doesn’t exist in English and that no one thought to invent. Often with unfortunate consequences, because the modern sense of ‘belief’ is very far from the words actually used in the text. To be fair, the original meaning of ‘believe,’ centuries ago, WAS closer to the intent, so the substitution may have made more sense at the time; the word “believe” has changed a lot over time. It originally didn’t have anything to do with your mind at all. In its Old English and Old Germanic roots, the word meant to hold something dear, to love it. Ten centuries ago, you would ‘believe’ a spouse, meaning you’d embrace and love them and hold them dear. (Compare ‘lieve’ root with modern German ‘liebe’ for love.) That’s what ‘believe’ originally meant.

Truth (in Greek and Latin)

“Truth” is actually a substitution, too, in the case of the New Testament, because again, we don’t have a word in English that means the same thing as Greek “aletheia,” or even close. Truth (a promise) was selected as nearest to the spirit of what translators felt the New Testament was looking to convey. “Aletheia” actually means “unforgetting.” Not just remembering, but un-forgetting (“a – lethe”), the daily act of holding a promise present in your mind and heart, of letting that promise drive all that you do. Literally un-forgetting it. Implied in the word is the idea that we are naturally in lethe (forgetting). Lethe is the river in Greek myth that the dead drink from to forget their lives and pasts and all that mattered to them, so that they can cross the river and dwell as somnolent shades in the underworld. The New Testament writers are telling Greek-speaking readers that, figuratively speaking, they have drunk from Lethe and are at risk of forgetting their relationships and their past and what’s been done for them, and the promises made for their present and future. Hence the word “aletheia,” unforgetting, un-Lethe’ing your heart. In a sense, resurrecting your heart, day by day, hour by hour, from the underworld of forgetfulness where life is expressed in hues of gray, without the constant awareness of joy.

In modern Western culture, when someone young and in love slips a love letter inside their clothing to keep it near their heart and to feel the paper against their skin, that is an unforgetting: an ongoing, constant unforgetting of the new love and joy, and of the promise for the future that the letter embodies.

(Paul’s “aletheia,” and the gospel writers’ subsequent adoption of the word, is an attempt to translate a similar concept from Hebrew, one that you can get the substance of if you read Deuteronomy 6, about keeping your history and the promise before your mind and your eyes constantly, wearing it on your forehead, writing it on your doorpost, telling your children the story when you wake and when you lie down, when you go about your day, when you come home from work, etc. Paul coins the word “aletheia” to transfer that concept into a Greek context. Topic to discuss more fully in some other post, but I mention it because this is also one reason why Judaism does not share Western Christianity’s ways of belaboring “biblical truth”; the Jewish concept of witness is much closer akin to Paul’s ‘unforgetting’ than to English ‘truth.’)

So, for example, when in the book of John Jesus says “I am the Aletheia,” he is saying “I am the Unforgetting.” He is describing himself as an embodied unforgetting of God’s promises, a daily living-out of the promise of union and reunion between God and humanity, and between humanity and humanity, and a daily and ongoing incarnation of God’s promise of ‘ki eyeh immakh’ (I will be with you). It’s a very nuanced and breathtaking passage, which unfortunately we don’t have the vocabulary to render well in English.

Also, notice that in Greek, ‘truth’ (unforgetting) isn’t really a noun or a thing. It isn’t a statement. It’s an ongoing action, a verb wearing noun’s clothing. In Greek, it’s easier to verb nouns than in English. “Believe in the Truth” is a weird Englishism that would have been incomprehensible and fairly circular to writers in Koine Greek, much as if you were to say to someone today, “Trust in Trust.” (Say what?) In the Greek New Testament, rather than ‘believe in the Truth,’ you strive all the time to unforget promises, and you hold dear and trust the one who gave you the promise. Where most of our culture’s conversation about belief is transactional in nature (accept this premise and sign on the dotted line), the original text is entirely relational (trust someone and hold their promise constantly before you).

One reason our translation gets so tilted on its side is that we’ve filtered our religion through the lens of Rome, and our translations (and in fact, the European languages we’re translating into) are profoundly influenced by Latin. The Latin Vulgate translates ‘aletheia,’ rather horribly, as ‘veritas’ (“something verified or confirmed”). This kind of substitution is common in the Vulgate. In the book of Mark, for example, the Vulgate routinely replaces a Greek word conveying a concept similar to ‘authority’ with the Latin word for ‘power’ or ‘force.’ But a moment’s reflection might persuade us that authority and power are not the same thing.

In similar fashion, the empire-builder Romans replaced the Greek idea of aletheia with the idea of verifiable fact. (‘Fact’ itself is a Latin word: factum est, “it happened’). That is why in our culture, we still confuse “truth” with “fact.” That’s a typically Roman thing to do. Our modern translations follow suit. (This is also why, in the story of the trial, Pontius Pilate had no idea what Jesus was talking about. “What is truth?” he asks, because his cultural and linguistic vocabulary leaves him ill-equipped — much as our own leaves us ill-equipped — to “get” it.)

In languages descended from or heavily influenced by Latin, it is possible to bludgeon people with truths, because in Latin, ‘truth’ is a noun. But this is not possible in Koine Greek. In Koine Greek, truth is an activity, not a blunt object.

When Paul says, “Hold fast to the truth,” in Greek he is not saying hold fast to a mental opinion you have in your head; in Greek he is saying, Keep unforgetting the promise. If I might paraphrase, it means: ‘Keep unforgetting who loves you, and how much he loves you.’ And in Greek grammar, that isn’t a one-time activity but something that is ongoing, every hour, something to be actively doing all the time.

Stant Litore

Addendum: Exhibit B -“Charity”

It’s easy to remain unaware of the extent to which language shapes our thinking. Here’s another example. The word “charity” has only meant what it means now for roughly 150 years. The word was originally coined as a translation of “caritas” in the Vulgate New Testament, and many older Bible translations have this word “charity” everywhere. But “caritas” doesn’t mean giving at the office; the word means a caring love that holds the other to be of high value. In turn, Latin “caritas” is an attempt to translate Greek “agape,” which means a reckless, spendthrift love that holds no accounts and no ledgers, the love where you sacrifice everything you own, even if you are as rich as king, to save one endangered child. That’s the word that we translated ‘charity.’

In the Old Testament, “charity” translates the Hebrew word for “justice.” In ancient Hebrew, there IS no separate word for charity; our often derisive concept of charity does not exist in that language. The people who wrote the Old and New Testaments regarded responding to the needs of the poor and the marginalized (“the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow”) not as acts of charity but as, depending on the text, acts of justice or acts of reckless love.

Stant Litore

Stant Litore writes about tyrannosaurs, zombies, aliens, and ancient languages. He does not own a time machine or a starship, but would rather like to. His books include:

Nonfiction:
Lives of Unstoppable Hope
Write Worlds Your Readers Won’t Forget
Write Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget

Fiction:
The Zombie Bible
Ansible
The Running of the Tyrannosaurs
Dante’s Heart