Monday, September 22, 2008

Happy Birthday, Bagginses!

Aur Onnad Meren, elendili o periannath! (Happy Birthday, Elf-friends among Hobbits!). Bilbo and his cousin Frodo (or, as Hobbits are fond of pointing out, "his first and second cousin, once removed either way, as the saying is, if you follow me") share a birthday on September 22. Bilbo was born in 2890 of the Third Age of Middle-earth (Shire-reckoning, 1290). His better-known cousin, Frodo, was born in 2968 TA (1368 SR).

The epic Lord of the Rings begins with the preparations for Bilbo and Frodo's birthday: "When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton." Frodo was also turning thirty-three, the coming of age for Hobbits. Fans of LOTR will remember that Frodo's involvement in the Tale of the Ring begin with Bilbo's astonishing disappearance at the end of his birthday speech, one of my favorite scenes in LOTR. "I don't know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like half of you half as well as you deserve" - just one of many memorable lines from the slightly tipsy Bilbo.

If you have only watched the movies, you don't know that after the great birthday party, Frodo settled down as the master of Bag End for the next seventeen years before the events of the War of the Rings began to unfold. Frodo continued to hold dual birthday parties, although Bilbo was long gone, and there were several rowdy parties where it "rained drink and snowed food", as Hobbits say.

Frodo left Hobbiton on his fiftieth birthday (TA 3018), and handed Bag End over to his grasping relations, the Sackville-Bagginses. Although he knew that Sauron was now looking for the Ring, he did not know that the Nazgul were already inside the Shire, and that Gandalf was busy escaping from Saruman and trying to get a horse to come to the Hobbits' aid.

By Frodo's next birthday, Sauron was defeated. Frodo and the other hobbits were on their return trip. They arrived in Rivendell in time to celebrate Frodo's 51st and Bilbo's 129th birthday. They did not know that this was the day that Saruman had entered the Shire, intending to wreak his vengeance on the homeland of the Hobbits.

The last birthday recorded is in 3021, the last year of the Third Age. Frodo and Bilbo, 54 and 132, are granted permission to sail with the Elves over the Sea as a reward for their great sacrifice and to give them a place to heal.

One of the great bitter ironies of the Lord of the Rings shows up in this account of the birthdays. The first birthday shows us what is worth saving from Sauron - the beautiful, pastoral, and defenseless Shire, and the absurd but innocent Hobbits and their customs. On his thirty-third birthday, Frodo has great hopes of becoming the heir of Bilbo and living out life as one of the Shire's landed gentry. But on each noted birthday, he must give up something of great value - perhaps related to the Hobbit custom of giving gifts to others on one's birthday? His beloved uncle Bilbo leaves on his 33rdbirthday. Frodo gives up his lovely hobbit-hole on his 50th. Saruman despoils the Shire on his 51st. And Frodo must leave his beloved Shire forever on his 54th. Frodo's great sacrifice, the burden of the Ring and his wounds are ultimately unhealable on this side of the Great Sea.

By the way, yesterday was another important Tolkien day. The Hobbit was published on Sept 21, 1937, with the subtitle There and Back Again. The picture: Alan Lee's portrait of Gandalf and Frodo in Bag End, as Gandalf reveals the history of the Ring.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Do You Love Me (Now that I can Dance) (John 21:15-17)

In my last post, I explained that, contrary to popular Christian belief, the Bible does not use the Greek words agape and phileo in significantly different ways. Agape (and its verb form, agapao; I use agape throughout since most Christians are more familiar with it) is a fairly generic word for love, and does not necessarily imply divine, unconditional, or higher love. Phileo, although used less often in the Bible, is not a lower type of love, as revealed by the times it is used to describe love between Father, Son and disciples (see, for example, John 5:20, 16:27, 20:2).

So what is happening in John 21:15-17? Here's the conversation between Jesus and Peter after the Resurrection:

Jesus: Simon, son of John, do you love (agape) me more than these?
Peter: Yes, Lord, you know (oida) that I love (phileo) you.
Jesus: Feed my lambs... Simon, son of John, do you love (agape) me?
Peter: Yes, Lord, you know (oida) that I love (phileo) you.
Jesus: Shepherd my sheep... Simon, son of John, do you love (phileo) me?
Peter (grieved because Jesus had said "Do you love (phileo) me?" three times): Lord, you know (oida) all things, you know (ginosko) that I love (phileo) you.
Jesus: Feed my sheep.

After reading it carefully, you can see that the usual pulpit interpretation doesn't work. Peter isn't grieved because Jesus switched verbs; he is grieved because Jesus keeps asking him. In fact, Peter is "grieved because Jesus had said 'Do you love (phileo) me?' three times." But Jesus, in fact, had used agape twice and phileo once - another piece of evidence that the two words mean basically the same thing. Note also that Peter did not answer, "No, I don't love (agape) you, but I do love (phileo) you." Instead, he said "Yes, I love you," indicating agreement with Jesus. Finally, if the standard pulpit interpretation is correct, Jesus caves in at the end and says that a lesser form of love towards him is just fine - not the sort of thing you are likely to find anywhere in the New Testament, and especially not in John.

So what is going on? In one of the most poetic passages in his gospel, John varies words for style. Within John 21, notice the amount of synonyms or near-synonyms used: Know: oida, ginosko. Sheep: arnion, probaton. Tend: bosko, poimaino. Fish: ichthus, opsarion, prosphagion. Boat: ploion, ploiarion. Shore: aigialos, ge. Some of these words can have slightly differently meanings in other contexts, but don't have different meanings in this passage. The same fish are called all three words, and the same boat is called two different words. The variation in words, including the words for love, adds to the beauty of the description.

By the way, the view presented here, that the alternation between agape and phileo in John 21:15-17 is only for stylistic variation, is not some strange view that can only be found in this corner of the blogosphere. It is the standard view held by most ancient and modern commentaries on John. (The exceptions are primarily some nineteenth-century commentaries and, strangely, the NIV).

I don't intend to only take away your favorite (mis)interpretation! Next post: once we get over the agape/phileo bit, what can we learn from this passage?

The picture: Follow Me, from Das Plenarium oder Ewangely Buoch, 1516, courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University. The picture is composite, containing elements from the tomb in John 20 and the beach appearance in John 21.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Make Me a Higher Love? (agape/phileo)

Here's a question posted last week: "In John 21:15-17 Jesus asks three times if Simon Peter loves him. The first two times Jesus uses agapao for love and in both Simon Peter's replies phileo is used. Then the third time Jesus asks he uses phileo as well and so does Simon Peter. Is there any significance to this?"

A few weeks ago, my son's soccer coach advised the boys to put on jackets so that they wouldn't catch cold after practice. He believed that you could catch a cold if you got chilly after exercise. This belief was once so widespread that people just knew it to be true, even though doctors and scientists agree that colds are caused by viruses, not chill. OK, I know that rhinoviruses thrive better in cold, dry air, but you get my point - sometimes something that everyone knows is untrue.

I mention this story because many Christians in America just know that agape is a Greek word that refers to divine, unconditional love, a higher love than any other. But as a matter of fact, agape does not have this special meaning in Greek, and is only slightly different in meaning from phileo. Agape means "love," and it has about the same range of meaning as the English word "love." It can refer to loving people, food, God, money, or anything else. It can refer to selfless love or selfish love, depending on the context. Surprisingly, Greek scholars and New Testament scholars widely agree on this conclusion, but most other Christians, including many pastors, are unaware of it. I am not aware of any living Greek scholar who accepts the view of agape that is widely proclaimed from the pulpit. (By the way, agapao is the verb form of agape, and phileo is the verb form of philia; I use them interchangeably in this post).

Here's some of the evidence:

1) Philosophers in ancient Greece could not agree on the precise difference between agape and philia, and could not agree on which one was higher. Most philosophers actually asserted that philia was a higher love, because of the high value that philosophers placed on friendship.

2) The translators of the LXX (an ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament) regularly used agapao to translate the Hebrew word ahav, which is also a very generic word for love in Hebrew.

3) While agape is often used to describe positive forms of love, it is also used to describe defective forms of love (Luke 6:32, John 3:19, Deut 21:15 LXX), the love of money (2 Pet 2:15, Isa 1:23 LXX), the love of sin (Rev 22:15, Jer 14:10, Hos 12:7 LXX), the love for honor (Luke 11:43, John 12:43), legitimate sexual desire (Song of Solomon 1:3, 4, 7, 3:1-4 LXX) and even lust (Gen 34:2-3, Jdg 16:4, 2 Sam 13:3-15 LXX). In other words, agape is like the English word love - it can have a positive or negative meaning depending on its context.

4) Although there are some slight differences in usage between agapao and phileo, they are used interchangeably at times in the Bible. Take a look at Luke 11:43/20:46; John 3:35/5:20; John 11:3/11:5/11:36; John 14:21/14:23/16:27; and Heb 12:6/Rev 3:19. In each of these cases, almost identical sentences use phileo or agapao with no apparent difference in meaning. In some cases, phileo is used for very high forms of love, such as the love between the Father and the Son.

For some people, this information is bad news. They like the idea that the Bible has a special word that means divine, unconditional love, and it disturbs them that the evidence does not support this view. But here's the good news: although Greek and Hebrew words for love do not have this special nuance, God's love is divine, giving and unconditional, no matter which word we use to communicate it. It's not the word for love that matters, but the many sentences, paragraphs, and stories about God's love that matter. Ideas don't have to be found in single words to be valid - in fact, most ideas require multiple words to be communicated.

Next post: if agapao and phileo mean almost the same thing, what was John trying to say at the breakfast scene in John 21:15-17?

The picture: The Miraculous Draught of Fish, by Konrad Witz, 1443.