Friday, August 7, 2009

Translating Paul (part one: euggelizein, euaggelion)

I remember the first time I heard that the word "church" did not refer to the church building in which we met, but to the church body that we formed when the congregation gathered together. I was young, but I still recall the sense of my mind being opened to a deeper truth about my place in the body of Christ.

I remember hearing it a second time, perhaps a few years later, and being glad for the reminder. And then I heard it a third time, and a fourth, and by then I started to wonder: Why don't we just come up with a different name for the building and for the people? Why do we have to suffer under a misapprehension most of the time and then correct ourselves every so often? Don't words go a long way toward determining our ability conceptualize possibilities? Why, if key words to our faith are inaccurate, do we still cling to them?

And "church" isn't the only word that gets swallowed up in our modern concept of things, obscuring the original intent and meaning of the Scriptures. When reading the works of Paul, for instance — who had no concept of what "Christianity" was, and was making no attempt to create a splinter version of Judaism, but was simply trying to reveal the fulfillment of the Jewish covenant that Yahweh had made with Abraham — one could easily misinterpret when he meant by the words translated as "Christian," or "preaching," or "gospel," or "faith," or "church."

What Paul MeantIn Garry Wills' book "What Paul Meant" (which is not about translating Paul for the most part — it is rather a follow-up to his book "What Jesus Meant," and the point is that Paul was proclaiming the same thing that Jesus was proclaiming, love God and love one another, rebutting recent scholarly claims that Paul invented his own twisted form of religion on the words of Jesus of Nazareth), Wills ends the book with an appendix titled "Translating Paul," in which he offers a few more accurate translations of the original Greek words that would have the same resonance in our world today that they might have in Paul's time.

I'm going to quote a few of his entries on my blog over the next few weeks and offer a few thoughts on them. This week's word is "Euggelizein," usually translated as "Preach" but which Wills translates as "Bring the Revelation."
Other New Testament authors use kerysso ("proclaim") for preaching, but Paul uses that verb only six times, and two of them are for dubious proclamations (Gal 5:11, Rom 2:21). Overwhelmingly the word usually translated as "preach" is the verb from euggelizo. This has the meaning of God's still actively revealing his plans. ... The revelation in Paul has its own divine power, so he speaks of "when the revelation first began to work" (Phil 4:15). ... Paul even "does priestly service" (hierourgon) to this revelation (Rom 15:16).
In our culture, "preaching" is almost exclusively a teaching role, and teachers in our culture are usually assumed to have mastered a subject. Wills' suggestion makes preaching seem more of a mediator role, someone presenting but then almost getting out of the way of living, breathing, continually unveiling, dynamic revelation of God.

But more importantly, I think, it makes the job of "preaching" that of any Christian, not just those with a microphone. We are to bring the revelation, to live the revelation, to get out of the way of God's unveiling revelation. The high bar we should be striving for in living up to our spiritual leaders is not mastery of a subject or eloquence before a crowd, but living in testament to the revelation.

For more clarity, I should probably also add in Wills' translation of "Euaggelion," usually rendered as "Gospel," but for which he uses "Revelation":
[G]iving the etymology ("favorable announcement") is not translating, either. ... For Paul, as an emissary carrying a message, the gospel is the revelation that Jesus died for our sins and rose again, and this is the entire meaning of history; it is what God wants to reveal about himself. ... The revelation is not only something that Paul and his coworkers carry to others, but what they "serve" (Phlm 13). It has its own power: "The revelation was not brought to you in words only but in miracle and the Holy Spirit" (1 Thess 1:5).
Perhaps this is what St. Francis had in mind in his famous proclamation to "preach the gospel at all times, and, if necessary, use words." Certainly Paul was getting up in front of crowds and speaking. Certainly Paul was extending pastoral care through his letters and visits. But everything he did spoke of perseverance, grit, passion, love, joy, compassion, and assurance, whether than meant facing stoning or singing songs in jail. The gospel revelation of Jesus Christ as Savior was not just an idea or proposition to him that he figured was probably true. Paul lived in full subservience to the revelation, as should we have the courage to do.

Perhaps conceptualizing the revelation/gospel as a living, breathing, unfolding thing is a first step toward embracing that life.

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