Friday, November 13, 2009

Exactly What Paul Meant by "Sarx"

Blogger, linguist, and translator Wayne Leman gets it exactly right when he says (and I can't find now where he said this):

"I don't know exactly what Paul meant by 'sarx.'"

And  the gospel writer and Jesus translator named John doesn't understand exactly what is meant (in John 6.53) when he has Jesus saying:

"Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ἐὰν μὴ φάγητε τὴν σάρκα τοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου καὶ πίητε αὐτοῦ τὸ αἷμα, οὐκ ἔχετε ζωὴν ἐν ἑαυτοῖς."

My point is that good translators like Leman and John want language that "natural" readers (whether English or Greek readers) can read.  But they don't insist on overexplanation or on exact understanding.

I think Leman and John understand Paul and Jesus better than most.  They're not different from George Steiner and C.S. Lewis in that way.  They're not unlike Peter, who hung out with Jesus and who engaged with Paul.

So let me repeat some things I've said some before .  Do we have a clue why polyglot George Steiner defines polysemy in his book After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation?  How can he define that word, that babel concept, this way? (page 35):
Polysemy, the capacity of the same word to mean different things, such difference ranging from nuance to antithesis, characterizes the language of ideology.
I imagine it's something personal, something to do with the fact that Steiner's mother tongues are not only English but also German and French and that he learned to read Homer's Illiad in Homer's Greek at six years of age.  Steiner knows, from experience, what overhearing is all about.  This starts to get even more personal when Steiner says, "even direct quotation is set alight by context (eg, when St.Paul cites Euripides)" (Grammars of Creation, page 96).

Steiner hears this too, subjectively eavesdropping as an etic outsider so personally albeit himself a Jew, like Jesus, like Paul:
Jesus' discourse in parables, his statements of withdrawal from statement--of which the episode in which he writes in the dust and effaces his writing is the emblematic instance--give to linguistic verticality, to the containment of silence in language, a particular impetus. As do the constantly polysemic, stratified techniques of semantic motions in the Pauline Epistles. It is these parables and indirect communications, at once more internalized and open-ended than are the codes of classical rhetoric, which beget the seeming contradiction of enigmatic clarity, the "comprehendit imcomprehensible esse" celebrated in Anselm's Proslogion. In turn, from these dramatizations of manifold sense, evolve the instruments of allegory, of analogy, of simile, of tropes and concealments in Western literature (though here also there are obvious and indispensible classical sources). (page 75)
Did Steiner overhear what he writes from the polysemic "second meanings" of Englishman, C. S. Lewis?  Lewis, as an outsider reflecting on the Jewish Psalms, makes this comment about the Jewish Jesus and then about the Jewish Paul:
He uses paradox, proverb, exaggeration, parable, irony; even (I mean no irreverence) the "wisecrack". He utters maxims which, like popular proverbs, if rigorously taken, may seem to contradict one another. His teaching therefore cannot be grasped by the intellect alone, cannot be ‘got up’ as if it were a ‘subject’. If we try to do that with it, we shall find Him the most elusive of teachers. He hardly ever gave a straight answer to a straight question. He will not be, in the way we want, ‘pinned down’. The attempt is (again I mean no irreverence) like trying to bottle a sunbeam.

Descending lower, we find a somewhat similar difficulty with St. Paul. I cannot be the only reader who has wondered why God, having given him so many gifts, withheld from him (what would to us seem so necessary for the first Christian theologian [albeit a formidable Jew]) that of lucidity and orderly exposition. (Reflections on the Psalms, page 113)
Maybe Lewis had been reading another Jew, a Peter, who writes of reading his dear and loved brother's writings:
ὁ ἀγαπητὸς ἡμῶν ἀδελφὸς Παῦλος κατὰ τὴν δοθεῖσαν αὐτῷ σοφίαν ἔγραψεν ὑμῖν ὡς καὶ ἐν πάσαις ἐπιστολαῖς [Παῦλου] λαλῶν ἐν αὐταῖς περὶ τούτων ἐν αἷς ἐστιν δυσνόητά τινα ἃ οἱ ἀμαθεῖς καὶ ἀστήρικτοι στρεβλοῦσιν ὡς καὶ τὰς λοιπὰς γραφὰς πρὸς τὴν ἰδίαν αὐτῶν ἀπώλειαν

Our dearly loved brother Paul, in the wisdom that has been granted to him, has also written to you all even as he speaks of these matters in all his letters; but places in them are hard to understand, which the unlearned and unstable distort, as they do the other writings, to their own personal destruction.-- 2 Peter 3:15-16
So when men continue to argue over what Paul must singularly mean by writing πίστεως (Ἰησοῦ) (Χριστοῦ) in each singular context, then there's avarice in their logic. They're afraid to misunderstand, afraid to confess that Paul here and there might be too "hard to understand" for them. They don't want to appear unlearned or to seem unstable. They equate distortion with subjectivity, with ambiguity, with polysemic phrasing that might knock them off their high places.

And Steiner adds:
[V]erbal discourse. . . is handcuffed to the avarice of logic, with its ordinance of causality, with its (probably crass) segmentation of time and perception into past, present, and future. Identity principles, the end-stopping of sentences (mathematical proofs can be of infinite length), axioms of continuity, render speech and writing, however polysemic our words, however subtle and animate with fantastication our phrasing of the imaginary, despotic. We speak in (rich) monotones. Our poetry is haunted by the music it has left behind. Orpheus shrinks to a poet when he looks back, with the impatience of reason, on a music stronger than death. (Errata, page 73)

5 comments:

Unknown said...

Lewis's criticism of about Paul'supposed lack of lucidity and orderly exposition had a strong effect on me. I think this says more about Lewis and his intellectual climate that it does about Paul now. You may agree or disagree with NT Wright, but at least he treats Paul as having some rhetorical skills; e.g., a reason he writes things down in a certain order (in Romans, e.g.)

Bob MacDonald said...

there's avarice in their logic - sounds like a poetic parallel for the work of the flesh. Nice.

J. K. Gayle said...

Will, you "think this says more about Lewis and his intellectual climate that it does about Paul now." And I think you could be absolutely right. What do you think it says? Lewis was anti-modern and looked to myth in a sort of platonic way, didn't he? But Paul, as I was trying to suggest in the post before this one, was not stable in his use of language. Some might say that he even "grew" in it.

Bob, thanks for catching that phrase, which I caught from Steiner. Motives for logic and in it go largely unexplored. And to overhear us saying something as a poetic parallel for the work of flesh, now that's nice.

Unknown said...

J.K.,

Good question, and I'm not sure I know the answer. But I think it would be fair to say that Lewis was modernist in his views on Scriptural criticism with strong a Aristotelian or pseudo-Aristotelian bent, especially as it fit 'medieval' (as Lewis understood it) and modernist thinking. But you would know the latter better than I. And his Platonism, yes. But I don't really know, frankly.

J. K. Gayle said...

Will, Lewis's greatest statements about "scripture" and "criticism," I think, are in his Reflections on the Psalms. There he's hardly "modern" (and is against a modern view of the text that, say, Francis Bacon would hold in "Essay"). He pays Aristotle his due, with respect to logic, but finds meanings underneath the text (like Plato's shadows in the Republic)--Bacon would balk and Aristotle would cry "anathema" (and Aristotle would cry "anathema" in Paul's sense). I do think it's fascinating how so many claim Lewis for their own. Modernists, postmosdernists, antimodernists all seem to like him. (Aristotle wouldn't have, if I haven't said that already). Here's Art Lindsley's compelling thoughts on "C.S. Lewis on Postmodernism," but there are many such articles written to explore how Lewis worked against "modern" methods of criticism.