“Greek” Culture

Posted on January 17, 2010

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I spotted an old friend while on a stroll through a Princeton bookshop. It was Herbert Weir Smyth! Not the man, he died in 1937. It was his “Greek Grammar”. My blood, sweat and tear-stained copy still has pride of place on my shelf. His appendix of the principle parts of irregular verbs still deserves a look from time to time.

I spent a bit of time during my 2009 sabbatical sharpening my Greek, the language in which the New Testament was spoken and written. I have always kept a Greek New Testament in my prayer desk so I can follow the New Testament lesson in the original language, but it was time to raise the bar.

One point of syntax got hold of my imagination. It is the emphatic use of pronouns. Now before you just click “close” on this, just come along with me.

Coming to a clear and accurate understanding of the emphatic use of pronouns can be a little tricky. It is a matter of nuance and often difficult (if not impossible) to translate.

Here’s the little Greek lesson. Just remember that αυτος is the third person pronoun. Since a Greek verb contains the reference to its object, αυτος ακουει (with the pronoun) and ακουει (without the pronoun) have the same basic meaning, “he hears.” And so the reasoning goes, αυτος is unnecessary and its presence is making a point.

That point is most often seen in contrasts. John the Baptist says, “I (εγω) baptize you with water… He (αυτος) will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matt 3:11).

But one of the most theological powerful and provocative uses of the emphatic third person pronoun is in the Beatitudes. All have the same construction. “Blessed are the … for they (αυτοι) will ….” The nuance of αυτος is that they they alone will receive the blessing.

1. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

2. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

3. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus is not saying that the poor in spirit, among others, are blessed. He is saying that they and they alone will inherit the kingdom. The merciful, and they alone, will receive mercy. Only those who are persecuted with inherit the kingdom. The meaning of the αυτος is nuanced, but it is there, and its force is devastating to much of modern theology and its easy believism and fundamentalist theology and its easy grace on the other.

An emphatic use of pronouns points to a Third Way.