“It’s all Greek to me!”
This is a fairly popular saying in the English-speaking world. We hear it when we’re in school and even out of it–but it is actually a bit of a joke when you study to become a minister. Why? Well, usually, we future preachers of the world are required to take Greek. I have found one or two people who can fudge out of taking Hebrew, but Greek is almost always a must.
So when I was looking at today’s passage, I couldn’t help but think, “This can’t really be what it says.”
And guess what, it’s not. For all of the fidelity translators attempt, for the poetical words they choose to employ or ignore entirely, when it comes down to it, I’d much rather have the Greek.
Now, we cannot say with any sense of complete certainty what languages Jesus did or did not know. Unfortunately, an entire generation of the American movie-watching public believe that Jesus spoke Church Latin (a language that did not come into being until the Middle Ages, long after Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection) all because of a popular cinema representation of the historical character. We can, however, make an educated guess.
Jesus was a man from Galilee, an occupied territory in the Hellenized Roman Empire. We also know that he was a teacher or rabbi. So, from that: Jesus spoke Aramaic (the language of Galilee) and knew Hebrew enough to be considered a scholar. Given the occupation of Israel, he would most likely have known Koine Greek or some derivative.
This was the language of currency in the outreaches of the Empire, that had long known Greek culture before it knew Roman rule. A fourth option, which is less likely but not improbable, might have been Classical Latin, the direct ancestor of the not yet formed Church Latin.
The reason why I bring this up is just to point out that Jesus wasn’t really speaking in English. We can translate, we can be literal, we can go for the intent, but it’s never going to be quite right. To get as close as we can get, we have to go back to the gospels, which were written in Koine Greek.
Sadly, we were not there. We did not hear Jesus speak in person and, frankly, we wouldn’t be able to understand him even if we had. But this is as good as it’s going to get–and frankly, it’s not half bad, in my opinion.
New Revised Standard Version V Koine Greek
What really gets lost is the nuances in the language. If we’re looking at the words specifically, the NRSV seems to get the message across.
(Please note that I am substituting Latin characters for letters in the Greek alphabet, based off of phonetics, or what they sound like)
mathetes — student/disciple
didathkalon – teacher
doulos — servant, slave
kurion — lord, master
Just looking at the vocab, the translation from the NRSV seems decently if not 95% accurate (give or take): “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above a master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master.” (Matthew 10:24)
Not quite accurate, unfortunately.
In English these are potentially disinterested relationships. In the Greek, a mathetes and didathkalon often live/eat/breathe with each other. They take their meals with each other. They argue with each other. Dare I say it, but these words are used in Athenian philosophical relationships where boy-students (mathetes) and aged men-teachers (didathkalon) were much closer than we’re comfortable admitting thousands of years later.
In first century Palestine, these words suggested a close friendship, a teacher-pupil relationship forged by respect, affection, possible devotion, with an added monetary element thrown in (a student pays a teacher for his time, for instance). While not quite sacred, this relationship is revered.
To move on, master/slave is much more difficult to wrap our modern minds around. First, the words can refer to a free-person and his liege lord.
If it helps, think of a feudal system almost (although that too is a bit inaccurate). You’re a knight, have your own lands, you have your trusty steed, decent armor, but when the guy in the much bigger castle calls, you go and fight for him. You fight his battles, he offers you protection and sends some extra lads along when you realize you’re not going to get the harvest in on time. (Of course, this guy in the bigger castle takes part of your harvest, but such is the way of things.)
In business terms, you own company X with 100 employees. You sell out to the big conglomerate (100 thousand employees and counting), your company gets consumed, but on paper you retain your name and titles and get to make decisions on a day-to-day basis while not worrying about fighting off the competition or the “vision of your company” 20 years down the line. The conglomerate also control your patents, which means you don’t have a say in them… so, there’s the good with the bad, as there is with everything. You’re a free agent–except when you’re not.
In both scenarios you are a ‘slave’ with a ‘lord’ or ‘master.’ The language holds out.
Now, of course there was slavery at in first-century Palestine, but it was rarely racially motivated. A slave would be something between a servant in modern times and a slave in the worst of American history. Ideally, slaves were members of your household. They weren’t quite like family, but you couldn’t cut them loose because you ran out of funds, and they were often educated and learned. You had to be respectful of their religion, even if you did not share it.
Slaves were often honored. Generals brought their personal slaves into war with them, and they could command troops in certain situations, were trusted to write and read dispatches, and slept in much nicer accommodations than the foot soldiers who were getting paid a denarius for their service. These slaves also had much nicer clothes and food.
So, these nearly symbiotic relationships are what the Gospel of Matthew is going for. The slave or student is dependent upon the lord/master or teacher. Likewise, the lord/master or teacher would be lost without the slave or student.
You do not have to agree with the language used here in the Gospel of Matthew, only try to understand what the author is trying to tell us–what Jesus was trying to tell us.
A Warning in Just a Verse
So why do we have these word-images? Point: Jesus liked his parables, his word-images, and his metaphors. They’re all over the New Testament. Point: The disciples (whom he was addressing) can’t remotely understand what he’s saying, so he is trying to relate to them–and, by extension, us.
And what is he trying to say?
He’s trying to tell us that what will happen to him is going to happen to us, his followers.
Jesus often looked toward the future. He looked toward his Father’s plan (that Jesus would die for the sins of the world or, more locally, Jesus’s crucifixion) and what lay beyond it.
He referenced it. He teased at it. He did everything but put up a big neon sign to tell his followers what was going to happen because if he did, they would have thought him possessed with evil spirits.
Now, Jesus is not saying that the disciples are all going to be tried by the Romans and then punished by Roman Law. But he is saying that to truly believe, to truly know what God is about (or, that God is Love, a message so simple and revolutionary it got Jesus killed) … means that others who cannot see, who do not want to see, will make them suffer for their faith.
After all, the writer of the Gospel of Matthew has seen the very Temple in Jerusalem fall (70 AD/CE), a mere generation after Jesus’s crucifixion. The readers of this gospel saw it happen, too, they have the proof, they have seen… even if the disciples forty years earlier had not.
Just a Final Note
This is a warning. We, the students, the slaves, are not greater than our Lord and master, Jesus Christ. We will not escape suffering, we will not escape the fears and misunderstandings of others.
But we are Christians. We are “little Christs.” Whatever horrors life throws at us, we can and will stand up again, we will rise as if from the dead.
Hasn’t history proved that again and again?
Perhaps history (or what one day will be called “history”) is proving it now…