The New Testament in Greek

An advantage of having had a classical education is that I have the chance to read my New Testament in the original Greek. At times, I must admit, I find it useful to have a good English version at my side to help with the more difficult words and passages. On the other hand, I find that there are many times when the use of particular Greek words or phrases sheds new light, or suggests a new translation, that gives new illumination to the message.

In John’s Gospel Chapter 21, for instance, most translations (J.B.Phillips being an honorable exception) give Jesus asking Peter three times “Do you love me?”, and Peter replying “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” The catch is that for the first two times, Jesus uses the verb ‘agapao’, (“Do you care about me?”), and Peter replies with the verb ‘phileo’ (“You know that I am your friend”). No wonder that Peter becomes distressed, when Jesus’s third question is “Am I your friend?”

Another instance is the use of the little word ‘the’. That’s a word that does not appear at all in Latin, but is used in Greek much as it is in English. In English, ‘the’ is the definite article. It is related to the word for the second person singular ‘Thee’, in familiar use by Quakers and by the Authorized Version of the Bible. It points out an object that if necessary can be addressed on an I-Thou basis. If we say “The cat sat on the mat”, we mean that there is a definite cat sitting on a definite mat that we can address. If we said “A cat sat on a mat”, that gives us only a vague and not particularly interesting piece of information.

One instance of this is in our usual translation of the Lord’s Prayer, the words “Deliver us from evil”. St. Matthew’s Gospel quite definitely sets out “Deliver us from the Evil One”—reminder that “we wrestle not with flesh and blood, but with principalities and powers, and spiritual wickedness in high places.” We miss this in the accepted translation. But things also can work the other way. The angel, speaking to Mary, said “Holy Spirit will come upon you”, without any ‘the’. Going back to John’s Gospel, in Chapter 20 we read how Jesus breathed on his disciples, and said “Receive the Holy Spirit”. Only, he didn’t say that. He said “Receive Holy Spirit”—generic, not particular. Similarly, in the account of Pentecost in Acts, the Greek says that “holy spirit”, rather than “The Holy Spirit” fell on the apostles, even though both ‘holy spirit’ and ‘the Holy Spirit’ had been promised to the disciples at the time of Jesus’s ascension. Paul’s question to some disciples of John that he found in Ephesus (Acts 19) was “Did you receive Holy Spirit when you became believers?”, not “the Holy Spirit” as it is generally translated.

Perhaps all of this is nit picking, but I rather think not so. When it comes to the spiritual world, I like Swedenborg’s concept that spirits are unlimited by time and space, but have no consciousness of whom they are affecting, until the affected person makes contact with them in some way. Rather as a writer or broadcaster has no way of knowing who is receiving his or her message, until someone writes or phones in to establish communication. But when such communication has been established, we can be ‘possessed’ by one or more spirits, good or evil—in fact, the Gospel story is full of occasions when Jesus cast out specified evil spirits, and in one parable he insisted that after such spirits had been thrown out, a new spirit must be installed, or the old ones will return in sevenfold force.

Following this idea up, it would seem that Holy Spirit is flowing at all times throughout the whole universe, bringing a message to those who will receive it. But it is when we hear, respond, and dialogue with this voice, when we say:

“Come down, O love divine
Seek thou this soul of mine
And visit it with thine own ardour glowing”

That ‘holy spirit’ becomes for us The Holy Spirit—our friend and guide, that can indeed possess us if we are willing, and can overcome the power of the other evil spirits that beset us.

At any rate, I would like it if translators would make this distinction in their work. It might just be significant.

– Anglican Messenger, 2006*
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Halloween

It’s true that the origins of Halloween come from a dark, Celtic pagan festival called Samhain. The Celts believed there was a night every fall where the veil between the living and the dead became very thin and indeed, the souls of the dead could cross over to the land of the living. This was frightening as it meant that besides the souls of departed loved ones, the souls of one’s enemies might also come by with evil intent. To ward off the malevolent ones, the Celts would cut up gourds into frightening faces, and themselves would dress in costumes so as to be unrecognizable to the restless, roaming spirits. It was a long and frightening night to be endured.

According to legend, things changed when St. Patrick came to Ireland. He was aware of and saddened by the annual terror the Celts had to endure and so started to teach that as Christians, not only are we not afraid of the dead, but we celebrate the saints who have gone before; those who, still alive in Christ, are always near and dear to us. Patrick started the practice of going out on Samhain with a bag full of sweet cakes and knocking on doors, cheerfully giving them to his cowering friends and neighbors.

Somewhere in there, and I’m not sure of the dates, the practice of cheerfully going out in generous neighborliness, instead of cowering in caged fear, became attached to the church’s celebration of All Saint’s Day. And Halloween, All Hallowed Evening, came to be celebrated on the night before the Church celebrates all the saints who, though invisible to us, continue to pray for and root for those of us who have not yet completed our journey.

Personally, it makes me sad that the Church (in part) seems to have retreated into the very fear-based isolation St. Patrick’s lively faith contradicted. So sadly ironic. And we have done this in so many areas of common life. It seems to me that we could be out participating in the wider culture; joyfully, cheerfully, confidently handing out ‘sweets’ in the various cultural arenas: politics, arts, education, science, festivals etc. We need not do this in the defensive, combative spirit we’ve become famous for, but with a caring neighborliness befitting the character of the Christ whom we worship. And we need not be concerned that we will be tainted in our efforts. For we do not draw from a shallow well, but the inexhaustible Christ who gave himself entirely so that all would know that the organizing and redeeming principle of the cosmos is not self-securing fear, but self-donating love.

– Publication Info Unknown

The Supernatural

My studies at Thorneloe College have now taken me to an eerie but fascinating area, that of the supernatural or ‘Paranormal’.

From one point of view all Bible history is a chronicle of paranormal experiences. They can be interpreted as the intervention of God in human history since the beginning of time, in establishing “the kingdom of heaven upon earth:. Over and over again, the process has been interrupted by humans abusing the freewill given them, with consequences of war, injustice and suffering for innocent and guilty alike, but it has always continued.

Paranormal phenomena, however, have not been confined to the Jewish nation or to the Christian church. Viewed from one angle, the whole of the animal creation, with the remarkable sophistication of instincts and abilities of even very primitive creatures, appears supernatural. Aboriginals have a highly developed sense of the sacredness of the earth and of sacred spaces. Shamans exhibit remarkable powers of communication and of healing. Yogis, Tibetan Lamas, Indian Fakirs and Chinese Acupuncturists, even English Kings and Roman Emperors, have records of unusual healings, often connected with ecstasy, hypnosis and faith. And so on.

Within the Christian tradition, the Gospel writers give us a picture of Jesus attracting immense crowds wherever he went because of his powers of healing. He promised that his own followers would be able to perform even “greater works”, “because I go to the Father”. Saint Peter, who briefly walked on water at Jesus’s invitation during Gospel times, had healing power and twice escaped from jail under most mysterious conditions after Pentecost. St. Paul is recorded as being an instrument of miraculous healing. Shrines such as that at Lourdes or the tomb of the Jansenist Abbe Paris became centres of healing and remarkable and well authenticated spiritual phenomena. In modern times, Edgar Cayce conducted a remarkable ministry of healing with the help of a spirit guide. Gary Craig’s Emotional Freedom procedure has proved an effective treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, curing within days conditions that had defied conventional treatment for years.

This being the case, it seems a great pity that, ever since the Reformation and the Enlightenment of the seventeenth century, mainline churches have become shy in displaying the powers that the Gospels promised would be theirs. Such a religion so easily degenerates into a cosy social organization of rituals and rules, without the spiritual powers, particularly those of healing, exhibited in other times and places. St. Paul calls this “Having the form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.”

William Tiller, a professor of engineering at Stanford University in California, has spent many years outside his regular academic duties researching the ability of humans to influence physical processes through the deliberate exercise of intention—in religious terms, exploring the power of prayer. More than that, he has made ‘Intention imprinted electric devices’ through which this intention can be stored for continued use. With these he has been able either to increase or to decrease the alkalinity of water, to increase the speed of development of enzymes and fruit flies, to communicate from one experimental device to another, and over time, to develop increasing sensitivity in particular persons and places to the power of intention, thus paralleling the Christian experience of sacred spaces of unusual power, and the secular world’s experience of locations said to be haunted by ghosts.

His theory behind these phenomena is that our physical universe of time and three dimensions of space is limited by a ‘speed of light’ barrier, rather similar to the sound barrier that once limited the speed at which aircraft could fly. However, beyond the speed of light, a second universe exists that is indirectly connected with the physical universe we know, and is accessible and moldable by human consciousness.

Tiller’s books—“Science and Human Transformation”, and “Conscious Acts of Creation” outline his approach and findings in extreme detail. One hopes that in his writings, the groundwork has been laid for a study acceptable to the scientific community of phenomena that religious people have experienced over many, many years—and that the religious community will be itself reinforced in its faith that indeed there is a world that lies beyond the material one in which we are currently imprisoned, and we all have a power and a place to enter it through intentional prayer.

– Anglican Messenger, December 2010

Swedenborg

I always find it a bit of a surprise that Christians, who one presumes are persons anxious to get into the Kingdom of Heaven, are so often very vague about what it’s going to be like when they get there.

It’s for this reason that I have been happy that, fairly early on in my life, I ran into the writings of Emmanuel Swedenborg.

Swedenborg was born in Sweden in 1688, the son of a Lutheran bishop. After graduating from the University of Uppsala, he spent further years in Europe and England, including study under Sir Isaac Newton, and the astronomer Halley, of Halley’s Comet fame. He returned to Sweden to take a senior position as a civil servant, engaged in the development of that country’s mineral resources.

From early years, he appears to have had psychic gifts, but it was in the last fourteen years before his death in 1772 that he found himself admitted as a privileged visitor into the spiritual world. This resulted in a flow of volumes, originally written in Latin, that form a comprehensive and incredibly detailed account of the World Beyond, written with a precision and objectivity that only a civil servant could muster.

His “Heaven and its Wonders and Hell” gives a picture of what the soul may expect after leaving this body. It is a world where appearances are not so different from the earth we live in, but the laws under which life goes on are not the same. Time does not exist. Space and distance are determined by degrees of love rather than kilometers. Souls become angels, and live rather like individual cells in different organs of one great body, their place being fixed according to their degrees of spiritual maturity and interests.

Settling one’s place to live in the spiritual world depends largely on the loves we have developed in this universe below. Those whose love has been of God and of one’s neighbour find for themselves a compatible spot and companionship in the heavenly realm, where God’s love and wisdom pour out on them like the heat and light of this world’s sun. Those whose love has been of self and material things turn their backs on the intense love of God, which is perceived as intolerable heat, and live in a Hellish world of distorted values and perceptions, gnashing of teeth and wailing.

No, I can’t tell you if any of this bears any relationship to reality—the best I can say is that in the victims group I attend, I have been surprised how many have been the cases of parents or relatives who have lost children to violent death, including myself, at some point receiving some kind of dream or symbolic message from the deceased, indicating that they are all right.

What does strike me, however, is the way in which our much vaunted capitalist system, making as it does a virtue of selfishness, greed, materialism and often false advertising, as well as war and the exploitation of the physically or economically powerless, let alone the ecology of Mother Earth, seems destined to fill the Kingdom of Hell with plenty of its devotees.

Perhaps those fundamentalist Muslims who are striving to repel the forces of “the Great Satan” by sacrificing their lives with explosives in the hope of Paradise, are really on to something.

Who knows?

– Gemini, 2007*