Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Inexhaustible bread

The root elements of a Greek word are no more likely to be a complete guide to the meaning of the word than the root elements of English words are.

One case where it does work well is the word ‘epi-skope’.   ‘Epi’ is often ‘over’.  ‘Skope’ is often ‘sight’ (hence the English ‘scope’).  So you get ‘over-sight’.  This can be directly translated into Latin as supra-vision.  So the words ‘Bishop’ (which is simply the English version of ‘piskop’), ‘overseer’ and ‘supervisor’ all relate to each other. 

It looks very neat – although it in fact looked very controversial to the Protestant translators whose choice between ‘Bishop’ and ‘supervisor’ was a dangerously loaded one in passages such as the one about replacing a disciple (Acts 1.20 – ‘his bisshopryke let another take’ in Tyndale’s translation).

A study day on Saturday prompted me to look again at another possible ’epi’ word where things are much less simple, always keeping in mind that ‘epi’ as ‘over’ can have a twist – for example, ‘stasis’ is somewhere between a disagreement and a riot while ‘epi-stasis’ is to stir up the trouble.

The word in question is epi-ousios (although it is possible that it is ep-iousios).  The ‘ousios’ bit is most often ‘substance’ or perhaps ‘essence’.  So one might expect the word to mean some intensification of substance - say, ‘abundance’ or ‘continuous supply’ or ‘in a very real sense’.

The problem is that the word appears nowhere in Greek literature other than its use in one context in Matthew 6.11 and Luke 11.3.  This means we have no way of seeing how it is used in other contexts.  We don’t  know what it means.

And the reason this is a particular problem is that we say the word regularly ourselves: the context is the Lord’s Prayer, and the word is the one which tells us about the sort of bread we are praying for – traditionally, ‘daily bread’.

Could ‘epi-ousios’ mean ‘daily’?  It could – although the New Testament uses another common word for ‘day’ as ‘daily’ with some regularity.  The striking thing is that we really do not know – which is rather inconvenient since I say it literally daily.

It is quite likely that the word is trying to express in Greek something subtle which Jesus would have said in Aramaic, so we were already at one remove before we got stuck with a Greek word the meaning of which we do not know.

Kenneth E Bailey (who we trust) puts his trust in the Old Syriac translation of the Greek (a second century effort to put the Greek back into a language akin to Aramaic) and suggests something like ‘never ending’.  This would make a prayer that we should never fear famine: ‘give us bread which will never run out’.

Perhaps this is a hint that the kingdom and will of God we want clearly revealed around us now is one where there is no fear at all – of famine (if this is what Jesus meant here) or of crippling and enslaving obligation (the debt, rather than ‘trespass’, of which the next clause of the prayer speaks), of any internal danger (temptation) or of any external danger (evil).

Meanwhile, the cliche picture of the snopdrops was taken in St Nicolas' churchyard arriving for matins this monring.


Joy Davis said...


Peter Mullins said...

That is too enigmatic for me. have I missed something or am I being slow?!

Joy Davis said...

Just following on your 'epi..' theme.

Peter Mullins said...

I follow. I'm not much good at New Testament Greek but I have no knowledge at all of wider Greek. If στάζω (stazo) is a drip (which is what Wikipedia tells me!) then I can see that epistaxis would be a modern medical term for excessive dripping - that is, nosebleeding. Many modern medical terms were invented in the eighteenth century by those with a classical education who constructed new words, so this is a possible background.

Joy Davis said...

Correct! Indeed ,many of the medical terms I learnt in training were Greek, Latin and with very ancient origins. Sadly, many have been given more modern nomenclature.