A friend sent me a kind note concerning my exploration of the word “hosanna” and asked if I’d maybe do something like that for the days of Holy Week.
That is a good suggestion. Here’s a try.
ἐντολὴν καινὴν δίδωμι ὑμῖν, ἵνα ἀγαπᾶτε ἀλλήλους: καθὼς ἠγάπησα ὑμᾶς ἵνα καὶ ὑμεῖς ἀγαπᾶτε ἀλλήλους.
Of course, anyone who has read the bible at all, or even once consulted the rabbis, knows that this commandment is not at all new. Read Micah 6:8. Read the scene in which a Torah scholar asks Jesus to specify the greatest commandment, and, in his reply, Jesus never once imagines that his answer is new. It is as old as Torah itself, and the Torah scholar knows that and says as much.
So I picked the word, ἀγαπᾶτε.
The word, of course, means “love.” It has been the focus of all sorts of sermonic reflection by Christians, most of which hears the word as revealing a powerfully one-sided love, the kind a perfect God can have for a deeply imperfect world. I might have preached a sermon (or five) on a theme something like that.
And then a few years ago I was working with a highly gifted Classics major, and she decided to do a thorough study of how the word ἀγαπη was actually used in the ancient world. Did I mention that she was gifted? And thorough? And HIGHLY diligent?
Turns out, the word is only one-sided in Christian sermons, and most of those are fairly recent.
In ancient usage in the mouths of people who learned Greek from their moms the word is decidedly reciprocal. Speaking of moms, it is a good word to use when you are imagining a mother breastfeeding her baby, the two of them lost in each other’s eyes.
The word ἀγαπη expresses the reciprocal delight of that powerful and tender moment.
But that means that theology that spends its energy imagining that we are “loathsome insects” in God’s eyes (and hands) are simply wrong. Sorry, Jonathan Edwards.
God takes delight in us, warts and all. Any mother who holds a baby who has had an explosive diaper incident understands this. Fecal surprises do NOT make our children less delightful. Not in the least. When my wife and I tell such stories on our children (generally not in their presence), we tell them with great joy.
I wonder why we seem not to imagine God the same way?
καὶ ἀπ’ ἐκείνης τῆς ὥρας ἔλαβεν ὁ μαθητὴς αὐτὴν εἰς τὰ ἴδια.
This scene also turns on the word ἀγαπη, only this time it is Jesus who is the subject of the verb, and he loves a disciple. This is the famous “disciple whom he loved” scene, and it is generally read to refer to John. Of course the reason for this reading is that John is mentioned elsewhere in the gospel as being a disciple whom Jesus loved, so it has seemed natural to interpreters (and translators) to locate him in this scene.
It is worth noting, however, that when the storyteller gives us the cast list for this scene, John is not mentioned.
The characters in the scene (along with Jesus, the others being crucified, and the soldiers doing the lynching) are:
ἡ μήτηρ αὐτοῦ καὶ ἡ ἀδελφὴ τῆς μητρὸς αὐτοῦ, Μαρία ἡ τοῦ Κλωπᾶ καὶ Μαρία ἡ Μαγδαληνή.
By the way, even with this list we do not know how many actors to put onstage. There is Jesus’ mother, to be sure, and her sister. Mary the Magdalene is also there. The uncertainty comes with the mention of yet another Mary, who is translated as Clopas’s wife, though there is no “wife-word” in the Greek, which identifies her only as “Mary, the one of Clopas.” Is this Mary to be identified as the sister of Jesus’ mother? The Infancy Gospel of Matthew appears to read her that way, which would give us three women standing by the cross.
But it is also possible to read the Greek as naming her as the fourth character onstage: there is Mary the mother of Jesus and there is her sister, there is “Mary, the one of Clopas” and there is Mary the Magdalene. This reading might suggest that this mysterious Mary is the sister of Clopas, not the wife, since the unattached definite article (in the phrase ἡ τοῦ Κλωπᾶ) might tie back to the previous definite article in ἡ ἀδελφὴ τῆς μητρὸς αὐτοῦ. Read this way, the scene includes the mother, the sister of the mother, the sister of Clopas, and the Magdalene, at least three of whom are named Mary.
But I wonder why the storyteller doesn’t mention John as standing at the foot of the cross, especially when he plays such a significant role in the climax of the scene.
It all hangs on the phrase τὸν μαθητὴν παρεστῶτα ὃν ἠγάπα: the one standing there was a disciple, and that disciple was one whom Jesus loved. At the end of the scene, this disciple (who is loved) takes the mother into his own home.
At least in English.
In Greek the disciple takes the mother into τὰ ἴδια. There is no “his home” in the Greek, there is only the neuter τὰ ἴδια, which means that the disciple makes the mother part of the matters idiosyncratically tied to that particular disciple. Which may well imply that the mother relocated to the disciple’s home.
But what we do not have is a masculine pronoun.
There is no “his.” The “his” comes from translators who imagine that disciples are, naturally, men. And John, after all is identified as a disciple “whom Jesus loved.”
But so is Mary the Magdalene. Or at least she could be. If there are three women standing by the cross, one is the mother, one is the sister of the mother, and the third is Mary Magdalene. If there are only three people there, then one of them is the disciple whom Jesus loved. The storyteller would not have needed to say that about Jesus’ mother. And Jesus would not have told his aunt to treat her sister as her mother. That leaves only Mary Magdalene.
But what about when Jesus says, Γύναι, ἴδε ὁ υἱός σου? I think the son in question is nailed to the cross. Jesus says to his mother, “Woman who gave birth to me, woman who taught me to walk and to keep kosher, look at your son now.” In the unspoken aftermath of this powerful moment, Jesus gives Mary Magdalene the responsibilities of a daughter, creating her as his sister. He loved her, after all.
The little oddities in John’s story of Jesus’ death may not make an enormous interpretive difference. Three women or four? Most of the women Jesus knows are named Mary? Mary Magdalene is the disciple who is loved? It may not matter much.
But what does matter is that interpreters and translators can only imagine one disciple who is loved. What matters even more is that interpreters and translators can’t imagine that a beloved disciple could be a woman.
Maybe our imaginations need to rise from the dead. There may be other things we can’t yet imagine.
For this scene, only one word.
In English, “so.” In Greek, καὶ.
The women come to the tomb. They are performing the responsibilities they learned from their mothers and grandmothers. They are doing what women in many cultures do. They are preparing to bury the body of someone they love, someone who is family to them: washing away the struggle of death and wrapping the corpse in aromatic spices. They do this so that family members who come to the tomb to mourn will not be assaulted by the sweet and putrid smell of death. They see a young man, coded as an angel. He notes that Jesus is not in the tomb, and that he has been raised. He tells them that Jesus is going ahead into Galilee, instructing them in particular to inform the disciples and Peter, all of whom were last seen running out of the story, terrified. He tells them that they will see Jesus.
And then comes the key word, καὶ.
When students in my classes perform this scene, they know that silence follows the command to speak, and they say “but.” The women are told to tell the disciples, BUT they do not. The story seems to demand that. The narrative structure sets you up for an adversative conjunction, a word that renders the way the scene is knocked out of joint. That’s how the storyteller structures the story of the healed leper in chapter 1: Jesus commands him to silence, BUT (δὲ) he proclaims his healing to everyone.
But καὶ is not an adversative conjunction. It is a correlative conjunction. It correlates what just now happened with what happens next, linking the events in a smooth progressive flow. Event A happened, and (of course) it was followed quite naturally by Event B. They are commanded to speak, and so (quite naturally) they are silent.
Interpreters can’t resist solving this problem. Often we invent ways to make the silence temporary: they were commanded to speak, and they were silent…until they spoke. The Greek doesn’t support this, but the problem irritates us, so we (quite naturally) solve it.
I am a fan of our need to solve problems. I just worry about that need when we are trying to celebrate Easter.
We want Easter to solve everything. If death is the problem, we’ve got a resurrection ready to go. If hard hopelessness is the problem, we’ve got Easter hope. If a messiah who suffers Roman lynching is the problem, we’ve got a messiah who is vindicated by being raised from death. And if that doesn’t do it, we can bring in Gustav Aulen who will say the magic words, Christus Victor, three times and maybe we’ll throw in a quick Hoc Est Corpus for good measure.
If you have good friends who are Jewish, ask them if this does the trick. Ask them if Easter magic clears the way for Jesus to be acclaimed messiah. They will ask you about all the things messiah is meant to do, none of which have been accomplished. They will ask you if the world looks right-side-up to you.
Easter isn’t a circus trick, and everyone around us who is living with a relentless disease knows that. They have felt the pressure to be hopeful and healed, or at least heroic. Some of them dread Easter. Some have just learned to think of themselves as the exception that proves the rule: Easter hope makes everything good (at least for everyone else).
I find myself thinking of these things differently. I have come to read miracle stories as irritants. Properly read, they point out what God has NOT done in the majority of cases. And that provokes protest. Miracle stories spark protest to God for healing people in stories, but not in regular life, and we are provoked to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome those marked as strange, and sit with prisoners while we wait pointedly for God to do what God has promised to do.
Stories of resurrection are the most provocative of all. Death and decay we see all too easily. Stories of life even out of death recreate us as people who refuse to settle for the play of power and privilege that passes for reality.
And the word καὶ is where the provocation begins.