Thursday, March 17, 2011

Seeing Double

Our scripture readings this week are Genesis 12:1-4, Psalm 121, and John 3:1-17 (though I think reading all the way through verse 21 is worthwhile). You may read them here.

An ironic fact to begin this beautiful spring day: a passage that contains what many call the most simple core of Christian faith--John 3:16, one of the first verese we learn as children and one displayed on countless posters and player eye black at football games as a basic four-syllable evangelism tool--is actually full of incredible complexity.

The complexity of our Gospel reading may, to a large extent, be lost on we who read and consider the passage in English (though, if any of us take time to carefully read the entire passage and not just skip to what we see as the punchline in its sixteenth verse, its maze of images and ideas would be complex to anyone!). But if we look back to its original written language of Greek and, in some cases, back to Jesus' spoken language of Hebrew/Aramaic, there are some interesting double (and triple!) word plays happening here that I think John wanted us to pay attention to. Several sets of words throughout this passage give the text its nuance and remind us that it cannot be distilled quickly to one thing, no matter how well known part of it is to us:

Verse 3: You must be born anothen. The confusion that takes place in the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus can, at least in part, be traced to the confusing meanings of this Greek word that is translated "from above" by the NRSV, "again" by the NIV, and "anew" by other accounts. All of these translations are equally valid because this squirrely Greek adverb means all of these things: it could be taken to be a chronological reference (again) or a spatial one (from above); it could represent being born a second time, being remade completely, or deriving one's identity and origins from a new place entirely. The language here seems intentionally mysterious, invoking the possibility that this birth of which Jesus speaks of is not always that straightforward, to say the least.

Verse 8: "The wind (pnuema/ruach) blows whereever it it is with the Spirit (pneuma/ruach)." This word play doesn't show up in English but works in Greek or Hebrew: the term used to express "wind", "breath", and "spirit" is the same word. So you could just as easily say "The Spirit blows whereever it pleases", or "the breath (of God) blows wherever it pleases"...and this is exactly Jesus' (and John's) point. God's Spirit is just as unruly as that wind...making the birth that this wind effects, once again, complex and mysterious.

Finally, here's a crazy one: Verse 16: Placement of "in"--Some people who study Greek intensively have argued that the placement of the phrase "in him" in John 3:16 is up for debate--according to sentence structure, the sentence could not only read "whoever believes in him...shall have eternal life" but as legitimately could read "whoever believes...shall have eternal life in him." Whoa...have we been memorizing this verse one way all these years when it could have equally been memorized another way? My Greek is nowhere near strong enough to make such interpretive decisions...but I'm going to sit with this nuance and think about how it could change the meaning to think about the difference between "believe in him" and "eternal life in him" would such a shift change the meaning of this verse for you, if at all?

After all these complex questions, if we can say one thing about this passage that is simultaneously so well known and unknown, it's this: this is a complicated birth Jesus is describing, one that has a great deal of ambiguity and mystery to it. Join us Sunday as we wade into these issues and questions together.

1 comment:

Stephen said...

Thank you Abby. One of the things I'm pondering right now is the whole issue of this kind of complexity in Jesus and His understanding of His identity and mission.
Some of the folks I'm reading make the point that this kind of nuance was intentional on Jesus' part and that He expected His listeners to struggle with it....much like any good teacher.
That we might be invited into this kind of dialogue with Jesus is an amazing thing to me.