Saint Paul the Docetist

As I mentioned last week, one of my Lenten activities each year is to read through the New Testament in Greek from cover to cover, beginning on Ash Wednesday and finishing up on Holy Saturday. That amounts to roughly 15 pages per day, which doesn't sound like all that much until you actually sit down and try to do it every day. Now, New Testament Greek is famously very easy to read - - much easier than most of the classical Greek that I have to work with (Plato and Aristotle). Indeed, there is a story about Oscar Wilde taking a scholarship examination viva voce at Oxford and being asked to translate the Passion of St. John's Gospel before a committee of examiners that underscores just how easy it is. After reading several paragraphs quite fluently, his examiners told him "That will be enough Mr. Wilde, thank you," but Wilde kept reading. The examiners repeated that he could stop, but he said "No no! I'm quite keen to see how it ends!"

After reading a text day in and day out for several days one begins to notice the little things. Like how many times Jesus says idou (behold) or how tenderly some scenes are rendered in their very simplicity. Today I noticed something that reminded me of an essay I read over at In the first chapter of Luke's Gospel, when the angel Gabriel is telling Our Lady that her son will be great he says: houtos estai megas kai huios hupsistou klêthêsetai. Literally, that says: "This one will be great and he will be called the son of the most high." What jumped out at me was the verb klêthêsetai, "he will be called." He won't just be called that, I thought to myself as I read it, he'll be that. This reminded me of an essay at Adoremus by Ralph Wright, who criticizes (rightly, in many instances) the "Infelicities in the New Lectionary for Mass." One such infelicity is the translation of Philippians 2.7, which the Lectionary renders as:
Rather He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance.
Wright worries that this smacks of Docetism:
The Word, after all, did not take on the "appearance" or the "likeness" of human nature; He took our very manhood into His divine nature in the mystery of the hypostatic union, and we believe that He will continue to have that nature for ever.
True enough. What does Fr. Wright prefer? The alternative that he gives is from the old Jerusalem Bible:
but emptied Himself to assume the condition of a slave, and became as men are; and being as all men are
Now that's great literature for you. But I digress. The interesting thing here is that the Greek text is actually much closer to the Lectionary version than to the Jerusalem Bible version:
alla heauton ekenôsen morphên doulou labôn, en homoiômati anthrôpôn genomenos, kai skhêmati heuretheis hôs anthrôpos
Here the words morphên, homoiômati, and skhêmati all smack of the very sort of Docetism that Wright is worried about (to say nothing of that rascally word heuretheis - - sounds like something Gabriel might say). I notice that Wright does not give the Greek here, as he does in most of the other cases of passages he finds fault with - - possibly because he knows he's on shaky ground. What he's really after in his essay are those cases where the new Lectionary uses inclusive language and comes off sounding stilted, and in most cases I think he's right to point out the genuine infelicities of style that result from trying to pander to political interests.

On the theological front, I should add that Saint Paul is not really a Docetist (though I'm sure I'll manage to boost my hits with my title). Some of the words in this passage are fascinating. The word morphê, for example, cannot help but remind one of Plato's doctrine of Forms; homoiôma is straight out of Aristotle (Plato uses it too) as the word designating the precursor of the conceptual entity that arises in the soul when we grasp the universal in the particular by means of our intellect; and skhêma has a long and fascinating history in Neoplatonism. Saint Paul wasn't a Docetist; he was a Platonist! Christ is the image of the Father, literally a likeness (homoiôma) of him, but his humanity is as real as - - indeed it is the very same as - - ours, according to the Church, so perhaps it is not good to push these connections too hard. It is preferable, however, to say that Christ's humanity is in accordance with the same Platonic Form as ours is, rather than to say that Christ is somehow just an image of a human the way he is an image of the Father.

Tomorrow I begin my discourse on the word kai.


John Farrell said…
You make me regret taking Latin in high school over Greek.

Speaking of which, can you recommend a good primer for Biblical Greek?

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