The history of the Christian Church has been marked by centuries-
Until recently, that is, when a smouldering disagreement burst on to the ecclesiastical stage threatening the conviviality which the Church has for so long enjoyed. And what, you might reasonably ask, does this have to do with a linguistic journal? Well, we equally reasonably reply, the source of this unfortunate disagreement is linguistic in essence and indeed doubly so for it pertains both to translation and polysemy! Shall we continue?
On the assumption that yes, here are the juicy details. It’s all about John 3:16 which, as we all know, comes right after John 3:15. Here’s the Greek text in full with a standard English translation:
Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ Θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν Υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ’ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
So far, so regular Sunday morning. However, semantically alert readers will have spotted that there’s an ambiguity in one of the English words. So, which one is it? At the risk of seeming cryptic, there was a clue in the previous sentence! So can you see it? No worries if not; the clue was fairly so-so. So, did you get it this time? Yes, it’s ‘so’! Let’s take another English translation of John 3:16 and see if that helps us:
For God loved the world so much that he gave his only begotten Son ...
Aha! So ‘so’ can mean quantity or amount as this second translation has it. However, it can only refer to manner as in ‘Do it so!’ a meaning retained by sadly disappearing ‘thus’, and selected in the first translation. And that, dear reader, was the source of the Churchly trouble.
Before we journey on down this translation path, let’s expound a touch more on the unfortunate falling out this led to in the Church. Once this polysemous problem emerged, sides were taken and positions entrenched sooner than you can say filioque. On the one hand the Quantitivists (as they called themselves) stressed the theological importance of the sheer infinitude of God’s love; on the other, the Mannerists took a more utilitarian stance, arguing for ‘an efficient and sufficient’ theology in which God’s love is appropriate in manner for the sinful condition of the world. Conferences were organised, memoranda of understandings drafted, ecumenical summits convened but the Quantitivists and the Mannerists could find no common ground. It was so awkward! And with so many words flying around, no-one thought to look at the Greek!
So, with such robust dissent and of such an unwelcome tone, there was only one thing to do: call in the linguists! But not just any old linguists for this particular issue: there’s little that a conversation analyst or a second language pedagogue can bring to the οὕτως table. The οὕτως schism needed that rarest breed of linguist: the Koine morphologist. Now, these guys are few and far between these days; careers in IT, finance and management being somewhat more appealing to those who have the cognitive capacity and stickability to get to grips with New Testament Greek than hanging around in 1960s breeze block offices writing papers about the authorship of Colossians. Thankfully, there are still a few of us who’ve rejected the big bucks and have kept beavering away at the lexical composition of long dead languages
Let’s start with the Greek for ‘this’ which like English is the same form for a demonstrative adjective (‘this word’) and for a demonstrative pronoun (‘this is the way’). The lexeme is οὗτος; at least, that’s the masculine nominative singular. Let’s see it in action in John 1:2:
Οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν Θεόν.
This [Word] was in [the] beginning with (the) God
Now then, adverbs can be formed in Greek by replacing the inflectional termination with omega + sigma, like so : -ως (there it is again, ‘thusly’ this time!). Does this help us decide what Οὕτως might mean in John 3:16? Sure it does! On the basis of the morphological semantics, οὕτως means ‘this-
And so it came to pass that at a grave, grand and grandiose Ecumenical Council, a ruling was made on οὕτως-
The moral of the story? Other than the fact that pax Christiana had been shown to contain a linguistic element, we suggest it’s this: learn your Koine Greek. And that should be that. However, just before we finish, we should note that, as we were writing up the report on this for the Church, it struck us that, as so often, there was another way round this schismatic difficulty: Esperanto. Widely recognised to be the solution to at least 76% of all unsolved questions in linguistics, a quick peek at Zamenhof’s internacia lingvo shows that Esperanto is once again a valuable shortcut to deciding linguistic-
Ĉar Dio tiel amis la mondon, ke Li donis Sian solenaskitan Filon, por ke ĉiu, kiu fidas al li, ne pereu, sed havu eternan vivon.
Had the text read tiom instead of tiel, the Quantitivists would have had their theological cake and eaten it. What does this show? Well, not only that Esperanto is, at least in this case, a less ambiguous language than English, but also that if you can’t be bothered with Koine Greek, and you’re facing a lingua-
In summary, and indeed in conclusion, whatever else is true, and whether people need religion or not, religion sure as heaven needs linguistics