ἀφίημι ὑμῖν — I forgive you?

Yesterday in church, a friend leaned over and pointed to the verb ἄφετε in Luke 18:16 with a puzzled look on his face. (Yes. He and I both read the Greek text in church while the English translation is being read. We’re incurable geeks.) In introductory Greek classes, students often learn to associate ἀφίημι with the act of forgiving someone for something, but that’s clearly not its meaning in this text. Any decent Hellenistic Greek dictionary will present a range of different options for translating this verb into English, including, forgive, release, permit/allow, etc, but they do little to help you understand the implications of the verb in Greek.

This brief interchange in church began a thought process that did not interfere too much with the sermon, which was an awesome excursion through the Jacob cycle of stories in Genesis, but led me to want to write something about ἀφίημι. It’s a great example of how shifting worldviews can make ancient texts seem strange to us. How is it that a single verb can be used with such divergent senses in the biblical texts?

In today’s world we think of forgiving as something that has to do with emotions. “You did something thoughtless (hurtful, etc.),” we might think, “but I’m going to forgive you.” That is, “I’m going to overlook what you did and feel okay about you in spite of it.” This way of thinking about forgiveness is a very long way from the ancient Greek notion of ἄφεσις (the noun associated with the verb ἀφίημι).

In the ancient world these words were associated with release (release from obligation, release from imprisonment, release from ownership, release from impeded movement, release from limits imposed by someone else). Emotion might be associated with these things—and almost certainly was—but it’s not part of the meaning of these words. Both the verb ἀφίημι and the noun ἄφεσις had much more practical import.

In John 14:27 we are told that Jesus said to his disciples, Εἰρήνην ἀφίημι ὑμῖν. In this scene Jesus is not forgiving his disciples for anything they have done. He is handing over peace to them. Peace (εἰρήνη) is his to give, and he is releasing it to them. In Luke 18:16, Jesus is not asking his disciples to forgive the children for anything, he is demanding that they release them to come to him (ἄφετε τὰ παιδία ἔρχεσθαι πρός με).

In Hebrews 10:18 we find the aphorism, ὅπου δὲ ἄφεσις τούτων, οὐκέτι προσφορὰ περὶ ἁμαρτίας. The pronoun τούτων refers to sins and “lawless deeds” mentioned in the previous verse. Where there is ἄφεσις of these, the offenders are released from their obligation to bring offerings.

None of this implied anything about God’s feelings or the feelings of the disciples toward the children in Luke, or the feelings between Jesus and his disciples. But in our modern world this is precisely what we associate with forgiveness. I think we miss something fundamentally important when we make this mistake. Forgiveness (ἄφεσις) is not about present emotions. It’s about the advent of freedom.

Today, may you be released from whatever is holding you down!

Euphorion and "a boar"

While reading fragments of Hellenistic poetry today, I ran across this bit from Εὐφόριον:

καὶ ταύτην τὴν Κορινθίαν Σαρωνίδα καλοῦσιν,
ὡς μὲν Εὐφορίον φησὴν,

ἐπειδὴ Σάρων τις κυνηγὸς ἐπιδιώκων <σῦν> ἐκεῖθεν κατεκρημνίσθη εἰς θάλασσαν, καὶ δία τοῦτο Σαρωνικὸν κληθῆναι τὸ πέλαγος.

Which I translate as:

And this Corinthian [sea] they call Saronic, as Euphorion says,

Since Saron, a certain hunter, chasing [something]
was flung down the cliff into the sea,
and therefore the sea came to be called Saronic.

Lightfoot (Hellenistic Collection) fills in the “something” with “a boar.” Do any of you know why? What about this texts could have suggested a boar?

μακαριοῦσίν με πᾶσαι αἱ γενεαί

I had the privilege this Sunday of hearing a spectacular sermon by Rev. Stephanie Ford on the Magnificat. When the text was read before the sermon I noticed something that raised for me a question about translation and cultural assumptions.

The translation being read rendered Luke 1:48 as

God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.

It is the second of these lines that concerns me. The Greek text reads:

ἰδοὺ γὰρ ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν μακαριοῦσίν με πᾶσαι αἱ γενεαί

Does the verb μακαρίζω really mean “call blessed” here? In the ancient world one did not “call” someone blessed, but simply bless that person. It was a speech act. That act of making a positive statement about someone’s future was to bless that person (μακαρίζω).

The interpretive difference this raises has to do with who is doing the blessing. To translate μακαρίζω as “call [someone] blessed” suggests that it is not the speaker who is doing the blessing. The speaker is simply reporting the fact of “blessedness.” In both Classical and Hellenistic Greek, though, it appears to me that the subject of μακαρίζω is the person doing the blessing, not someone else reporting about the blessing.

This issue did not come up in the sermon, which addressed more pressing matters and related the Magnificat fabulously to issues of justice that still should concern us in the 21st century.

A Little More on the LMPG, the Lexicon of Magic and Religion in the Greek Magical Papyri

While the DGE (Diccionario Griego-Español) announced a few days ago is still quite limited, its counterpart, the Lexicon of Magic and Religion in the Greek Magical Papyri (LMGP for its initials in Spanish) is well worth visiting. It is a fully functioning model of what the full DGE will be when completed.

LexicoDeMagiaYReligionBookCoverThe LMGP offers electronic access not only to lexical entries, but to a wide range of Greek texts that were previously unavailable online. The image below shows the interface. Notice that the column on the left has four tabs at the top. By selecting “Textos” you get a list of the texts that contain the word you are working with. By clicking on a word in the list, the column on the right updates to show that word, a Spanish gloss, a line of text from the papyrus identified beside the word you clicked on the left, and a Spanish translation of that line of Greek text.

ἐχολεθρεύω

Even if you are unable to read the Spanish translation and gloss, you can see the Greek text! It’s pretty cool.

For those of us who can read Spanish, it’s a real boon!