Saturday, August 15, 2009

Translating Paul (part two: adelphoi, hagioi, kletoi, oikeioi)

What Paul MeantContinuing my series on refreshing our understanding of key Christian concepts through re-translation of Paul's words, as found in the book "What Paul Meant" by Garry Wills, I now move on to one of the core words, if not the core word of the faith, which I just used in this sentence: Christian.

The word "Christian," of course, was never used by Paul, because his emphasis was on announcing the good news that the promise of Judaism had been fulfilled. He was a Jew, he wanted to awaken other Jews to a new understanding, and to graft on Gentiles to the promise that God had given the world through Abraham. (Today, as the majority of us who call ourselves Christians are non-Jewish believers in Jesus as the Messiah, I wonder if it wouldn't do us good to refer to ourselves, not exclusively perhaps, but occasionally, by a name that reflects this status: Rescued Goyim, perhaps — something that emphasizes a humility of spirit before God and his story of working in history. This is not Wills' point, I should mention, but my random thought.)

Wills' point is that the many words Paul uses that are often translated as Christian are all words that stress the affectionate bond between fellow members. They emphasize relationship, interconnectedness. (Sometimes I wonder if the word "Christianity" hasn't diminished the word "Christian," because one might think that subscribing to the philosophy or theology or cultural construct known as Christianity means that one is therefore a Christian, which is not the case.) These other words that Wills mentions are more directly reflective of the deep relationships between people and between God.

  • "Brothers" (Adelphoi): This is the normal term, both in Paul and Luke, for the followers of Jesus. ... Though the masculine noun was used generically for the whole Brotherhood, Paul addresses specific women followers of Jesus as Sister (Adelphe)...
  • "The Holy" (Hagioi, or Hegiasmenoi): Paul also refers to "the Holy" in such-or-such a place, or to "the needs of the Holy" (Rom 12:13). They were the Holy because they had been incorporated into Jesus by baptism.... (1 Cor 12:12-13)
  • "Those in Messiah" (Hoi en Christo[i]): Because they are baptized into Jesus, the Holy can be said to be "in Jesus"—or in Messiah-Jesus or Jesus-Messiah. ... "Anyone in Messiah is a new order of being" (ktisis, 2 Cor 5:17)
  • "The Called" (Kletoi): Paul thinks of the Brothers as summoned to holiness (Rom 1:6, 8:28, 1 Cor 1:24)
  • "Housefellows" (Oikeioi): Since the followers met mainly in each other's homes (oikoi), Paul calls them, in general, housefellows of our trust (Gal 6:10, Eph 2:19)
  • "Those of the Path" (Hoi tes Hodou): This term has become common by the time of the Acts of the Apostles. Luke therefore can speak of detractors or persecutors of the Path (Ac 22:4), of debating or understanding the Path (19:23 24:22).
It is fairly common within the church to use a multitude of names for God (Lord Almighty, Deliverer, Savior, Messiah, King of Kings, Rock, Shepherd, Redeemer, Immanuel, etc.), so why not make room for more synonyms for us as Christians? Why not give us a new way of thinking about ourselves? If we regularly referred to ourselves as "The Called," wouldn't that spur thoughts in our mind that we must have been called toward something, that we have a mission, and need to be active? If we used "Those of the Path," doesn't that emphasize, as we talked about last week, our subservience to the active revelation of God? If we spoke of each other as "Housefellows," would we be more inclined to visit one another's homes for meals and discussion outside of official church functions?

"The Holy" is probably one that we don't need at this moment, as part of the image problem Christians have is that of being holier-than-thou. "Those in Messiah" could go either way: Perhaps it draws a line in the sand: we're in Messiah and you're not — or maybe it would help out Christians with humility in remembering our rescue, our need for the Messiah, in referencing ourselves.

"Brothers" and "Sisters," of course, are still being used in a great number of Christian contexts, depending on your denomination and heritage. Yet somehow I can't see starting it up in my own. I guess it wouldn't be out of place to refer to the church as "the brothers and sisters," but to start calling individuals at church "Brother John" or "Sister Mary" would just seem to smack of a cult — even though I do have affective bonds with these people that make them feel as close to me as brother and sister. (It seems our culture in general lacks words of affection for relationships that fall outside of the realm of romantic closeness.)

* * *

The final thing that bugs me about the word "Christian" (and again, these are my own thoughts now), is how prevalently it is used as an adjective for objects: "Christian music," "Christian business," "Christian T-shirt," etc. A Christian is a person who has been redeemed by the blood of Jesus. A thing cannot believe, or be saved. To label certain items as "Christian" is just a temptation to fill one's life with such things as a way of proving or convincing oneself of one's status as a Christian.

Furthermore, what is usually meant by the use of these adjectives is that the object complies with a certain set of standards. It complies with an external law of non-offensiveness, non-corruption, and non-timidity. Which is fine in and of itself — but the Christian faith is not about complying to an external law. To think of oneself as "a Christian person" and think that means that one should be ethical, amiable, and mention Jesus a lot, is to miss the point. (I'm not saying that a vast swath of Christians actually don't know there is a deeper component of Christianity that involves owning up to one's own sin rather than hiding it; I'm just saying that there is pressure within the church to live a life outwardly perfect and unassailable, and never admitting imperfection.)

To put this idea more in a concrete context: Fifteen years ago I set out to become a movie critic who would examine the themes and stories of film in terms of their value to a person who was trying to understand the human condition and grow spiritually as a follower of Christ. This quickly got condensed to "Christian movie critic." Which quickly meant that people expected my job to be telling people which side of the line a movie fell on as far as its acceptability to sensitive audiences. (Several of my colleagues rebelled against this label by insisting that they were movie critics first and foremost, who brought their Christian faith to bear in their evaluations — but for me, the art was never so much important for its own sake, rather it was the spiritual journey as a growing Christian that I was most interested in, and my focus was on using art to assist in that journey.) The question we all wondered about was: why doesn't "Christian movie critic" communicate either of our definitions, and is instead bound up in a ethic of praising safe and unchallenging art?

In short, I worry that the more "Christian" is unthinkingly applied as an adjective, the more I think it skews our understanding of the noun form — of who we are as people of God. I am drawn to these original translations Wills that uses because one could never say "I'm wearing a Those of the Path T-shirt" or "going to a Those in Messiah concert" or "working for a Housefellows company." Our bond, our community, our interrelationship, as saved people under the lordship of Jesus, could again regain its uniqueness in our lexicon.


1 comment:

  1. Another great post! I am firstly drawn to this idea that the words Paul used to refer to other believers emphasized relationship and connection to one another--something that is so often lacking in the community of Christians as a whole. We often talk about how Christianity is "not about rules but about relationship." But I think we are mostly referring to the relationship with God rather than the relationship with each other. If we are all part of this family together, then shouldn't we be emphasizing relationship both vertically and horizontally?

    I love your thoughts on how we have so many names for God but not for ourselves. I think you are right, "Christian" has become too passive and un-meaningful. We no longer think of it as meaning "little Christ's" and the implications that has on our purpose as Christians. It would be great to build up a vocabulary that speaks more specifically to the variety of things and roles we are called to as followers of Christ. Personally (and I'm sure you won't be surprised by this) I love the word "redeemed." It has become so important in my own spiritual story but I hadn't thought until now about referring to all of my fellow believers in that light.

    Lastly, I think I am guilty of using "Christian" as an adjective just because it is easier. But you're right. I'm contributing to the idea that Christianity is about a certain standard or way of life, more about rules than relationship. I will have to think on this more and figure out how I can better speak about and write about these things in a way that reflects the heart of who we are as God's people.