More Greek Treasures

Today is, for some of us, the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. Not the Republican. A publican is a tax collector, one who makes sure all the fees are collected for the government. The story is short: the Pharisee stands in the front of the temple bragging about how good he is. He probably is pretty good, actually, but the bragging seems to be the part that is frowned upon.

The publican stands in the back, eyes down, and says: ” Ὁ θεός, ἱλάσθητί μοι τῷ ἁμαρτωλῷ”, usually translated as “O God, have mercy on me a sinner!” This is fine, as far as it goes, but the verb ἱλάσθητί is not in the present tense. It’s an aorist/past tense imperative. Something like “O God, may you have had mercy on me already, a sinner!” It’s very hard to do in English. “O God, already have mercy on me a sinner?”

How does this change the meaning? I don’t know. Perhaps the publican is giving thanks for mercies already received?

(It’s also not the verb for “have mercy”, but rather the verb for “appease”. “O God, already be appeased on my sake, a sinner?”

Pretty neat, huh?

UPDATE: I looked into the aorist imperative, and found some help on the wonderful website textkit. Greek verb tenses express both tense (the time it happened) and aspect (how it happened–was it completed or not?). An aorist imperative tells the person “Do it once!”, while a present imperative would mean “do it and keep doing it!” In this text, the publican is telling God to be appeased once, not to keep being appeased. Make of this what you will. Perhaps it’s a sign of repentance that he doesn’t expect to need continual mercy.

Original Languages: Why Bother?

This post isn’t about biblical theology, but about language.

Do you read texts in their original langauges? Most people don’t. I understand why—it takes a long time to get reading competency in a language. Not as long as you think, but longer than you’re probably prepared to study. But, if you do, treasures are revealed to you.

Today in some churches is the Sunday of Zacchaeus, the short tax collector who climbs a tree to see Jesus as he passes by. Jesus has dinner with him, and everybody complains because he is a sinner, etc.

But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.”

This is the translation approved by the US Catholic bishops. After this, Jesus says that salvation has come to his house. Seems straightforward, right? Bad guy repents and gets saved.

But let’s look at the Greek for verse 8:

Ἰδοὺ τὰ ἡμίσειά μου τῶν ὑπαρχόντων, κύριε, τοῖς πτωχοῖς δίδωμι, καὶ εἴ τινός τι ἐσυκοφάντησα ἀποδίδωμι τετραπλοῦν.

The verbs are bolded for you convenience. The first one (pronounced something like “didomi”) means “I give”. It’s present active indicative, not future or subjunctive as the New American Bible has it. “Behold I give half my possessions to the poor. . .” It’s the same with the second verb, “apodidomi”, “I restore” or “I repay”. Zacchaeus is literally saying that right now, this very moment, that’s what he does, not that he will do it in the future.

So, it could be interpreted differently, not that he was a bad man who repented, but that he was a good man. What to make of “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham?” It could be his eagerness to climb the tree that is the key, couldn’t it?

I don’t know the answer. As I said, this post isn’t about the Bible as theology. But because I can read a little Greek, I can see that the text itself is not the same as the translations. The translation is an interpretation. At Online Great Books, we encourage people to read the original texts (in translation) rather than commentaries on the text, because we want you to interpret it for yourself. Translations often contain hidden interpretations, and if you can read something in the original langauge, you probably should.

I know it takes time and effort, but imagine how many languages you could learn if you quit Netflix.

Briefly on the gods

Everyone’s first instinct when reading the ancient Greeks is to think that the gods are merely personifications of natural forces. The story is that the ancients would see things happen, and then, being dumb primitives, would say: “That thing there, that was done by a god!” Pretty silly, right?

But I don’t think that’s it. I don’t even think modern people think this way. When we are hit by natural forces, we feel like we percieve something personal in the attack. Stand outside in the storm, and you will know that Zeus exists, and just might hit you with a thunderbolt. Yes, I know that as a Christian I am not to believe literally in the Greek gods, except perhaps as demons. My point is that your experience of the powers of the world is every bit as personal as the ancients.

Consider the god Apollo, the god of light and music, but also the destroyer. He is called, in the beginning of the Iliad, “Farshooter Apollo”. ἑκηβόλου Ἀπόλλωνος. It might be better translated as “crack-shot Apollo.” Deadeye Apollo? Sniper of snipers, Apollo. Whatever he aims at, he hits. But what does he shoot? In the beginning of the Iliad, it’s plague. He sends disease, unerringly to you. When you get sick and die, it’s because the gods have targeted you.

The modern equivalent: consider the way people think about cancer. It’s not a merely natural misfortune that happens, but rather a malevolent force that steals away life and loved ones. People even say “Cancer is a bitch,” personifying the disease as a goddess.

One of my rules of reading is that the ancients were not morons. If they believed something, they had good reason to believe it. Your job as a reader is to figure out what they believed and why. Victor Hugo says somewhere the job of history is to understand, not to judge. Now, beware of Eagle-eye Apollo!

The will of Zeus is being accomlished

The imperfect tense. If you think of verb tenses as determining just the time of an action (future, past, presesnt) you are missing something important. Tense tells also the way in which the action happens. The most common distinction is between a perfect tense and an imperfect tense. The perfect tense tells you that the action has been completed. Imperfect means that the action has not been completed, generally in the past. Let me give you an example.
Iliad line 5:

Διὸς δ’ ἐτελείετο βουλή

“And the will of God was being accomplished.”

Look at the word τελέω: it is pronounced “teleo” and means “fulfill, accomplish, execute, perform.” If you read Aristotle, you see him talk of the telos, which is the good toward which actions are directed. Here it is the verb whose subject is the word “will.” But it’s not present or simple past. It is the imperfect tense. So, it means that while everything else happens, the rage of Achilles, the heroes being thrust into Hades, the will of Zeus is not yet accomplished, but is in process of being accomplished.

So, when you read the Iliad, the whole thing is the working out of Zeus’ will. He wants it all to happen. Troy must fall, but so must the Acheans who die in front of the city. Zeus wants it all, and is continuing to want it.