Monday, February 16, 2009

The Great Commission

Matthew 28:18 -20 says:

And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.(KJV)

The first interesting thing about this saying is the reference to "all power." The Greek word used here is exousia, which Thayer translates (primarily) as "liberty," or "power of choice." But, the word literally means "to be out." The word translates (according to the Peshitta) the Aramaic word Sholtana (authority). But, in the trilingual world of first-century Galillee, the word actually translates the Hebrew word koach, which means "to chastise," or "to prove."

Idiomatically however, the word was a shortcut to the thought "koach ha'toladah" "strength of the bearing." In other words--the vigor (of either mother or child) to endure childbirth. The primitive Hebrew and Greek cultures believed that the labor pains experienced by women while giving birth were the struggles of the child to exit the womb--literally fighting its way out. They further believed that only those children with the strength to get out, and those mothers with the strength to bear would survive. But, to the Hebrew sages, the word had much more significance. Koach represented the capacity (a grant of God) to procreate ad infinitum--to produce a "house" or lineage of adherents.

2Ki 19:3 says:
And they said unto him, Thus saith Hezekiah, This day is a day of trouble, and of rebuke, and blasphemy: for the children are come to the birth, and there is not strength (koach) to give birth.
Also, Hebrews 11:11 says:
Also by faith Sarah herself received strength (koach) for conceiving seed even beyond the time of age, and gave birth; since she deemed the One having promised to be faithful.
It is evident from these verses that the word (koach) translated as "strength" actually means "vigor." The writer of the Gospel according to John intended the same thought at 1:12:

Joh 1:12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave strength to become children of God, to the ones being faithful to His name.

It is in this context that Yeshua is referring. He believed that his father had given him infinite vigor or vitality to bear (or sire) "children of God." This being so, in Matthew 28, he was telling his disciples how to do so.

Now, the second sentence of this reading--the so-called "great commission"-- is strangely written, even for Greek. It's unusual use of participles ("going," baptizing, teaching) has made precise meaning difficult to grasp. The Greek participle poreuthentes is used by Matthew most commonly to describe action to be taken up after (or as) "going" somewhere. For example, in Matthew 2:8 Yeshua instructs his followers to search after they arrive at the place where he had sent them--namely Bethlehem:

And sending them to Bethlehem, he said, Having gone, exactly inquire about the child. And when you find him, bring me word again so that coming (elthon), I may also worship him

But, a better Greek match would be Matthew 9:13, in which Yeshua instructs a gathered crowd to poreuthentes de mathete, which is often translated as "go learn." In this context Yeshua is not commanding them to physically "go" anywhere; He is commanding them to learn the meaning of the quote from Hosea 6:6. Effectively, he is saying, "go your way and learn this," or "take yourself and learn this..." The best translation of this idiom might be to leave the term "go" off entirely.

In other words, while the word should not be translated as the emphatic imperitive "go," it does attach itself idiomatically to the following verb (mathete in 9:13; matheteusate in 28:19). Thus, a proper translation would be "go teach." This use of "go" is similar to, and probably should be taken as equal to the English idioms, "go on," or "go ahead." In other words, "proceed to teach."

But, it is important to remember that the original thought expressed here was brought to the Greek by way of the Aramaic oral tradition. This is perhaps the reason that it seems oddly-written. The word for "go" in Aramaic is zlw ("go you") and it was used figuratively to mean "do this." In the Peshitta, the Aramaic understanding of the term mathete, in Matthew 9:13 is YLPW, "learn you", while the word used in Matthew 28:19 for matheteusate is TLMDW. "indoctrinate them" (literally "you will goad them.").

But, who are the disciples to indoctrinate? The Greek term used here is panta ta ethne (literally, "all the peoples"), and this term (which appears 16 times in the New Testament, is almost exclusively used quite literally to mean "everyone," and means all people (i.e., regardless of their tribe). This phrase has single-handedly driven, for centuries, a call to the faithful to engage in foreign missions. But, it really was intended to mean all people without discrimination.

A better translation:

And Yeshua came and spoke to them, saying, "Infinite vigor, was given to me. Therefore go do this--indoctrinate everyone, (baptizing them in the name of the father, and of the son, and of the spirit of holiness, teaching them to keep all I have commanded.) And, look, I'll be with you every day, even until the completion of the age."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I recently heard someone argue that the aramaic idiom used here for 'poreuthentes' would more than likely have had the sort of "come on!" meaning - a strengthening exhortation. Can you point me to any journal articles which explore this a little deeper, I'm struggling to find anything.