Friday, July 13, 2007

Treasure in Earthen Vessels

How exciting to grasp something in the original language! I hear that some scholars learn Greek better while others are more apt to Hebrew. Regardless of the language, I always understand the Bible better, grasp a richer meaning, when I study the original language. If I were to study the actual English words I may have a more nuanced comprehension as well, but there is something casual about reading one’s own language that leaves you with a flat sense of meaning. I assume I know what a word means, and I proceed.

J.R.R. Tolkien had so studied language and etymology that when he wrote, the words he wrote flooded his head with all their varied associations. Words to him conjured entire landscapes of meaning. He then wove his paragraphs into a country of overlapping and corresponding landscapes, leaving us with a richness in his books that we feel but cannot grasp.

Today, while studying 2 Corinthians 4 in the Greek, I discovered a fascinating old word. We see it in our English words phantom and phenomenon. The Greek word phaneroo is translated "manifest" in my Bible. It means "to make manifest or visible or known what has been hidden or unknown, to make actual and visible, realized."

Usually when we think of phantoms, we think of things that aren’t there. A ghost. A flash of light. Even in our lazy English usage it is used to mean imagined sounds or thoughts or ideas. The word refers to something like a ghost, but not the concept of ghosts. It refers to what you see: a specter, a vision.

The word phantasm, though often a close synonym for phantom, in Platonic philosophy meant "objective reality as perceived and distorted by the five senses." It comes through the Greek phantazein “to make visible, display.” This word is very old, since it is guessed as part of the Proto-Indo-European base *bha- “to shine” (see Sanskrit – we’re talking really old here! – bhati “shines, glitters” and Old Irish ban “white, light, ray of light.”)

Get this. The word pant even comes from this root, in an interesting tradition. (This is the panting a dog does.) Apparently it was originally French pantaisier, which came from the Latin for a nightmare that wakes you breathless. Literally it meant "to have visions, to be subject to hallucinations."

Deep breath. Phase, as in phase of the moon, is also from this root. I’m sure by now you’re guessing why. It means “to show or make appear.” The moon is of course showing part of itself from behind the earth’s shadow in its different phases. That was the original use of the word. Now we have transferred the application of “short but inevitable time,” for each of the moon’s phases are relatively short, but also inevitable, to other things like, “Your teenager is just going through a phase.”

In the context of 2 Corinthians 4, phaneroo means the before-your-very-eyes visible, witnessable sacrifice of Jesus, since our bodies through suffering bear fellowship with Jesus’ dying. The purpose is, as always, to bring glory to God. (The word glory, doxa, comes from the idea of others judging you favorably, esteeming you. It requires witnesses.) What proves that the glory goes to God is that this incredible treasure, of experiencing Jesus’ death, in a way, also allows us to experience Jesus’ life: the power of God who raised Him will raise us. It does raise us, even though we are but weak, sinful, mortal earthen vessels.

To God be all glory.


C.A.R. said...

Lisa, I know this wasn't your main point but I am struck by what you wrote about glory (doxa)" comes from the idea of others judging you favorably, esteeming you. It requires witnesses."
It made me think about what grand purpose we have to give God glory.
Do you really remember all this word meaning/derivation information?

Lisa of Longbourn said...

I was preparing a Sunday school lesson, so I was in learning mode. And I love etymology. The word phaneroo is very vivid, and the definitions of its derivatives are story-based. I told several people out loud about my new word. They weren't as excited as I was.

The point about glory, and doxology was in my Sunday school lesson this morning, and I am happy to report that God inspired the pianist to play The Doxology: "Praise God from whom all blessings flow..." for the offeratory.
To God be all glory,
Lisa of Longbourn