This Neat Thing – 4th January 2015

I was watching the UFC fight between Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier with the roommates last night and, among a variety of other things, I noticed the tattoo that Jones has across the right part of his chest: Philippians 4.13.

Being the uneducated heathen that I am, I went straight for my copy of the New Testament as well as that endless source of information – questionable or otherwise: the internets. Here’s what I found:

Translated as I can do all this through him who gave me strength (biblegateway.com) or as I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me (King James version, biblegateway.com), in Greek it reads as follows: πάντα  ἰσχύω ἐν  τῷ  ἐνδυναμοῦντί  με. (biblehub.com).

I usually head to a Bible in Greek whenever questions about translation come up, since I feel that the Greek is much more dynamic in its ability to suggest subtlety in the ideas presented therein than English or Latin can be (indicative, subjunctive, and optative moods make for brain-bending delights). Also, the Greek translation of the Bible is much more accurate than the Vulgate (St Jerome didn’t particularly excel at the Greek language when he translated the Vulgate from Greek into Latin). Finally, the Greek version is older; closer to the time of Christ himself, and that gives me added reason to revere this kinda-not-exactly-almost primary source.

In the Greek, Philippians 4:13 is written in such a way as to, first, emphasize the individual. Greek is an inflected language and so you don’t need to include a word for ‘me’; the verb ending will identify the subject and the declension of the nouns as well as the structure of the sentence itself will identify the object. Adding the Greek for ‘me’ at the end of the sentence also emphasizes it, since most often in Greek and Latin the last word of the sentence is the most important or the most emphatic. Orators and rhetoricians would save the main verb of the sentence to the very end to keep their audience on tenterhooks as to the meaning of everything that came before, adding suspense and style and drawing attention to the man’s unique approach to an idea.

Second, because the main verb of this sentence ‘[I] can (do)’ is absent, the focus comes onto the verb in the dependent clause that refers to the strength that has been given or bestowed upon the ‘me’ of the sentence. Therefore the verbal focus of this sentence is the gift of ‘strength’ received from the unnamed ‘him’.

Third, whoever the ‘him’ is, he is either famous enough of the context of previous sentences in this passage is enough to give us the context of who he is. Another delight of Ancient Greek and Latin is that they both afford the opportunity for a speaker to ensure that his audience constantly keeps the details of the speech or text in mind; they refer to a subject and object as infrequently as possible (unless other literary or rhetorical devices are in play) and instead rely on the inflections of the language itself to keep his audience with him.

Finally, the very first word of the sentence – oftentimes equally as intentionally placed as the last word – is ‘all’. All? All what? What does ‘all’ encompass? This rather innocuous word at the beginning manages to draw the listener’s/reader’s attention on what’s coming next, but suggests to him/her the extent to which God or Christ (if indeed this is the ‘him’ referred to later on) is a god of all things.

And this is why I love Ancient Greek as a language. Indirectly, the speaker/writer has managed to focus the listener’s/reader’s mind on ideas of ‘all’, ‘strength’, and self bestowed by a mysterious figure. It gives the whole thing an air of the ephemeral, anchored by ‘me’, the corporeal, the real, the temporal, the earthly. This single sentence in Greek suggests many of the great questions that Christian scholars still grapple with, and all with six simple words. Of course, Jon Jones’ reasons for getting it tattooed on his chest likely extend to his own religious background and education and understanding of the available English translations which, as you’re probably already getting the hint, make a subtly different statement than the Greek does. I have absolutely no doubt that the original Hebrew and/or Aramaic further intensifies the complexity of this statement in Philippians. And I have equally little cause to wonder why this book made its way into the New Testament. It is a series of letters between the people of Philippi in Greece and that father of church declarative dogma, St Paul.

The letters themselves, written by Paul in prison in Rome, regularly refer to a ‘gift’ – generally understood to be the gift of the Messiah to humankind as well as the gift brought to Paul from Philippi – which instantly calls the reader’s attention back to the focus of 4:13 – the gift of strength by ‘him’, thus adding yet another layer to the description and brevity of Paul’s reverence for God and Christ. Philippians 4:13 also comes at the end of the series of letters as Paul describes his contentment as he awaits his punishment. Concepts of martyrdom and ecstatic experiences of God or Christ are well known among Roman observations of Christians being sent to their deaths. They are content, calm, happy in the belief that their god will save them from the ravages of this world by taking them to the kingdom (yet to) come, Heaven, where they may be close to the divine at last.

Whether Jon Jones is content when he enters the octagon or whether his belief that his fighting prowess has been bestowed on him by God is not the issue here. What is important to understand is that there are always a variety of ways to read a quote, both in translation, in context, and out of it, that can change one’s entire understanding of the meaning, the content, and the action of the text. It also demonstrates that it’s important to do your research before getting a tattoo, just in case what you think you’re getting is not what others will understand. There is a permanence to language – both modern and ancient, vibrant and extinct – that makes looking into its details an endlessly fascinating and very neat way to pass the time.

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