Wednesday, 16 December 2015

One word for it

I thought I’d read the very short set Epistle for last Sunday (Philippians 4.4-7) with attention.  I noticed the opening words because we sing them: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say Rejoice...’.  I looked at the Greek of the last words which we pray ‘The peace of God which surpasses all understanding keep...’; it turns out that ‘surpasses’ is close to ‘outranks’ and ‘keep’ is ‘guard’, so we may have something closer to ‘God’s peace has more authority than your anxiety’ (which sits with the ‘do not worry’ in the text) than ‘God’s peace is beyond your understanding’.  I noticed the Advent theme (‘The Lord is near’) and the pedagogical theme (pray and give thanks).

Then, at the new Bishop of Grantham’s welcome service in the Cathedral on the Sunday evening, I heard him use almost the only other words in the passage as his text: ‘Let your gentleness be known to everyone’ (4.5a).  He championed gentleness as an underrated virtue and said Jesus had also taught it saying ‘Blessed are the gentle for they shall inherit the earth’ (at least the last bit of which turns out to be an exegetical sleight of hand – there is a quite different Greek word at Philippians 4.5a than at Matthew 5.5).

But, as you see, he had sent me back to the Greek text again to find that Paul was using another of the epi- words which it turns out are difficult to capture in English, in this case epi-eikes,  Epi- is sometimes ‘over’ and eikos is sometimes‘fair’, so the word inhabits territory such as ‘beyond reasonable’.  Neither ‘lenient’ nor ‘conciliatory’ does the job, but they are in the right area.  Aristotle, it turns out, names the territory as ‘better than justice’.  There is almost an element of 'positive discrimination' about it.  I'm reminded of the original sense of buxom with the right amount of both strength and flexibility ‘like an archer’s bow’.

Modern English doesn’t have a single word for this.  I worked through fourteen translations of the New Testament from Tyndale’s ‘softenes’ to the New Living Translation’s ‘considerate’ (which seem to work if the opposites are hard and inflexible, thoughtless and unsympathetic).  ‘Gentleness’ does appear in three, but it is ‘forbearance’ which wins by appearing in four.  Moderation (King James), magnanimity (New English) and tolerance (Jerusalem) also appear, which covers quite a range.  None seem to capture the essential sense of not allowing the letter of the law to deny real justice – although The Message tries hard with ‘Make it as clear as you can that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them’.

So perhaps not so much ‘let people be impressed by how sensitive you are’ as ‘let people find it very odd how sympathetic your judgement is’.  Touches of ‘the woman taken in adultery’ and ‘the prodigal son’ – of course.  ‘The Lord is near’ are the words which follow next in the text so they provide the important context rather than just the next thought – my natural tendency to be judgemental or insist on my entitlements is less easy to sustain when aware of that.  It strikes me that the whole themes of forgiveness and release from debt may all actually flow from epieikes, which makes it all the more astonishing that I haven’t noticed it before, even when studying the relevant verses.

We noticed the carving above the door of the French Protestant Church in Soho Square when we were in London last week and it does seem to link with all this as well.

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