Shaped by language

I belong to a book study group that meets over Zoom. We just finished our discussion of the book, “Entering the Passion of Jesus” by Amy-Jill Levine. Because our format is Zoom, we have the opportunity next week to have the author join our group. Without the cost of travel, we were able to arrange a time for a conversation with the author, which demonstrates one of the advantages of this format for a book group. As we met this week, we spent some time planning our conversation with the author. We wanted to discuss our questions and the format of our meeting before the actual meeting so that we could make the best use of our time. Since the topic of the book is the last week of Jesus’ life, one of the questions that arose in the group had to do with the influence of Biblical languages on the text. We read the Bible in English, but the Gospels originally circulated in Greek. Then, in Roman times, the Bible was translated into Latin. For more than a thousand years the primary way that people could access the Bible was in Latin translation. Jesus, however, lived in a multi-lingual society. He would have been familiar with Hebrew, the language of the scriptures we sometimes refer to as the Old Testament. The gospels report that he quoted Isaiah and other Biblical prophets in his sermons and teaching. He was crucified under Roman law and his trial was likely conducted in Latin. Aramaic, the language that originated in the same region of ancient Syria from which Abraham and Sarah came, was one of the most prominent languages of the Ancient Near East. It is likely that Jesus spoke Aramaic.

Whether or not we know ancient languages, they influence the way we think about the world. Our group was trying to format a single question that might address the role of language in the stories we have been studying.

Since that meeting, I have been thinking about how we are influenced by ancient languages and culture. When I was a seminarian studying Biblical Hebrew, I struggled with the differences in tense between Hebrew and English. We tend to think and speak of time in three primary tenses: past, present and future. Biblical Hebrew, however, focuses primarily on two tenses: that which has finished and that which is ongoing. When translating from Hebrew to English one makes judgments about which words best express the meaning of the original language. When you add to those translation problems the simple fact that languages evolve and our language is much different from the way people spoke English hundreds of years ago, there is a challenge to know exactly what the words of the Bible mean.

Jesus spoke of love. Greek, however, has multiple words that are all translated as love. Eros refers to sexual passion. Philia is deep friendship. Agape is love for everyone. Those three words are commonly understood at least in part because preachers have addressed them when interpreting scriptures. Ancient Greek, however, didn’t stop with three words. Ludus is playful love. Pragma is longstanding love. Philautia is love of self. Storge is family love. Mania is obsessive love. So when we encounter the word “love” in translation, there are multiple possibilities of its meaning.

We are shaped by these ancient Greek concepts even when we are not aware of them. A person who knows nothing of the Greek language can understand that love is a complex emotion. We know that affection and love can take place in many different relationships and be expressed in many different ways.

When it comes to time, it is even more complex. The structure of our language is such that there are different words for time. Once again, Greek has multiple words that are translated in to the single word, “time” in English. Chronos refers to the type of time that can be measured with a clock. Chronological time is an important concept in the understanding of modern physics. Ancient Greek, however, also uses the word kairos to refer to time. In a sense kairos refers to a moment that stands outside of the flow of time. In Luke’s narrative of the birth of Jesus, for example, it says that while Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem “the time came for her to be delivered.” The word is kairos. Its purpose in the story is not to record the exact moment and time of day in which the birth took place, but rather the incredible powerful moment of birth that transcends time. For those of use privileged to witness birth it is a moment that is different from all other moments.

We know that time spent holding a newborn infant has a different quality than time spent filling out tax returns. We know that time sitting with a person who is dying passes in a different way than time reading a novel. We know that time seems to pass more quickly when we are playing with a child than when we are waiting for an appointment with a doctor. We know that not all time has the same quality. Our experience teaches us concepts that go beyond the power of our language to express.

As I thought about the complexity of our questions about ancient languages and their translation to modern languages I was struck by the ways in which the digital meeting format is shaping our understanding of time and space. Next week when our book group meets, most of us will be in Washington where we are currently operating on Pacific Daylight time. Our author will be in Central Daylight time. Our meeting begins at 6:30 pm for us, but 8:30 pm for our author. Yet we will experience ourselves as meeting at the same time. With any luck the chronos will work so that we begin together and the kairos will allow us to connect to share a common experience while living in different time zones.

It is, it seems to me, just another example of how living through this pandemic is shaping our lives and culture. I suspect our language also will be shaped by our experiences. Already the word “zoom” means more than moving quickly. It has become a word to express a particular kind of digital meeting space. We are shaped by the words we use and sometimes we are shaped by words we don’t use.