Paul’s New Vocabulary

One of my favorite words to teach my students when I taught high school English was “neologism.” Its a word that means something like “newly made up word.” I would tell my students that the purpose of new vocabulary was to annoy and confuse your friends. After all, if your vocabulary was sufficiently erudite, you could insult someone and they wouldn’t even know it. Neologisms are everywhere. Four times a year, that bastion of all that is correct in the English language, The Oxford English Dictionary or the OED, adds a few precious words to the canon of English vocabulary. This year? For the Military minded, we have “field-strip.” For the techno-geek, the OED added “auto-complete” and the snarky are now able to add “wienie” officially to their repertoire of insults.

In theology, a neologism has a slightly nuanced meaning. According to that bastion of accuracy, Wikipedia a neologist is one who proposes either a new doctrine or a new interpretation of source material such as religious texts. Many people would claim that the apostle Paul a was neologist extraordinaire since. according to them, he virtually created his homo-phobic, misogynist, slavery appeasing Christianity whole-cloth out of the thin and innocuous threads of the Jesus movement. Those critics are right. Not about homophobia, misogynist and the rest, gimme a break. They are right in the sense that Paul did make up some new words. In fact, according to classicist Sarah Ruden in her new book Paul Among the People, 1 Corinthians 13, that favorite recitation of weddings, is just full of neologisms. In her exegesis of this passage, Ruden discovers that there is no precedent for what Paul is doing with his neologisms and that’s the point:

The break in style in the Greek at the beginning of this section is startling. I made a long search for parallels to this new style, and I ended up feeling like a pedantic moron for missing the point: these words are not supposed to be like anything else.

The passage Ruden refers to is 1 Corinthians 13:4-7:

4 Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, 5 does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, 6 does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; 7[b]bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Ruden explains that it is only the conventions of OED English that we put adjectives like “kind” and “arrogant” in this passage. The Greek is a rather a staccato barrage of neologistic (is that a word?) verbs:

So manically verb-centered is the passage that Paul takes two adjectives and creates a one-word verb from each (neither verb being attested previously in Greek); and he creates yet another verb, in Greek a one word metaphor.

In other words, “is kind” becomes “kinds.” “boastful” becomes “boastfuls.” “Is arrogant” becomes the verb “inflates-like-a-bellows.” The effect is to energize the language into oratory. Read in the original, the passage sounds to Ruden like an ole-time preacher in a rhythm of excited rhetoric. And the point of his soaring arsenal of neologisms? Love is a verb. It is not something you feel but something you do.

And that “love” may be the biggest neologism of all. Agape as a term of Christianese may be familiar to the point of boredom but Ruden sees in it, something quite new. Agape was rarely used in the ancient world. Eros took care of all the lustful feelings of sexual attraction that she assures us dominated the Greco-Roman world. (aside: anyone who thinks our society is more lascivious than the past, should read Ruden’s description of the Roman idea of adultery and “passive” homosexuality in a tour. You will seriously reconsider your view of the modern world.) Phileo covered our more family oriented love. Agape was rarely used because it was reserved for the consideration one had even towards ones enemies. And as Ruden makes abundantly clear, that sentiment wasn’t just considered a rare virtue but something close to insanity to the polytheists:

To love everyone selflessly is a lot harder than to sober up, stop fighting, and behave decently, or to bring justice to the weak, or to accommodate a spouse, or to deeply respect authority, or even to be open to whatever status in life God’s purpose and providence may grant. How could anyone manage to follow 1 Corinthians 13 and not go insane?

In a society where prostitution, slavery, pederasty , and rape are daily life and marriage is either a political or economic transaction, how can Paul communicate this new idea of God’s unfailing, extravagant, and relentless love? He needs a word and so he reaches into the Greek language woven from the conquests of Alexander and the culture of the Caesars, and plucks a hardly used word for deference or consideration and fills it full of new meaning. Unlike the outside kosmos of daily Roman life full of power, patricide, and one-upsmanship where adultery is worse than pedophilia only because sleeping with another man’s wife is the ultimately disrespectful because of all the the free sex available, the Christian community is to be classless, “neither male nor female, Jew or Greek, slave or free.” (Ruden has interesting and convincing interpretation of Paul’s command about women having their head covered as a way of sparing those lower class women particularly slave-girls considered only fit for service “i.e. sex” the whispers of the upper class. If everyone is veiled, then no one knows who’s a slave and who isn’t.) As Ruden puts it: “Christianity offered anyone, no matter how poor and powerless, an alternative inheritance–another kind of home, a new way to belong . . . No wonder Christianity grew like mad.”

It may be surprising, that until I read Ruden’s take on Paul, I didn’t realize how radical, how counter-culture, how insane Christianity really was to the Roman world. I was surprised too. I thought after 6 years of seminary and 10 years of ministry, I had settled into a lull of complacency stained by not a small bit of cynicism. I was jolted out of that as a I read Ruden’s description of what this new vocabulary must have been like to those reading it for the first time surrounded by a world that had lulled them into complacency and cynicism:

A Paul fed up with Greco-Roman culture is not at all hard to posit. Many Greeks and Romans were fed up too. What they lacked was a grasp of how things could be better. But Paul had one, though he almost needed to reinvent Greek to express it.

In subsequent posts I would like to let you in on a little of what Ruden says about Paul’s supposed homophobia, misogyny, and support of slavery. They are eye-opening and will give you new answers for those objections to Christianity, but in the mean time, I highly recommend her book.



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