Tuesday, March 17, 2009

"Who is the Lord?": An Amateur Exploration of Kyrios Iesous

I am currently in my seventh semester of Koine Greek, so it might be an overstatement to call myself an amateur, but I would prefer to err on the side of humility than any claim to knowledge in such matters. So I proffer the following thoughts more as a theological meditation on potential translation issues rather than as any kind of exegetical study proper.

A friend recently shared about a class where the professor asked each person to name the center of his or her theology. Some said "love," others said "grace," my friend said "relationship." My answer would be: "Jesus is Lord." I would want to retain the pithiness of the statement ... although I would also want to make abundantly clear which Jesus we're talking about. Not Rich Jesus, not White Jesus, not Happy Jesus, not Deist Jesus, not Homeboy Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth, the Jew, the crucified, the nonresistant, the healer, the risen. That Jesus, he of Mary's Jewish flesh, he of scar-tissued flesh, he of first century Palestine. He who forgave his murderers. The member of the people of Yahweh, Israel. That Jesus is Lord.

The phrase itself, "Jesus is Lord," comes from the language of the New Testament. While Jesus is named or identified as Lord in a number of various ways, the three direct statements of that simple confessional phrase are all found in Paul's letters: Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians 12:3; and Philippians 2:11.

The first is in the context of Romans 9-11, in which Paul is delving the depths of God's faithfulness to his promises to corporeal Israel (as Harink would phrase it), specifically the word of the gospel: "If you declare with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."

The second is in the context of Paul's discussion of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12-14, the very beginning of the discourse and directly preceding a trinitarian formula: "Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, 'Jesus be cursed,' and no one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit."

The third is in the context of what is called the "Christ Hymn" in Philippians 2:5-11, in which Paul is likely appropriating for his own purposes (and with some editing) a hymn the Philippian church already knew, detailing the "descent" and "ascent" of Christ, climaxing in his exaltation in verses 9-11: "Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

In both cases the phrase is the same: kyrion Iesoun (Rom 10:9), kyrios Iesous (1 Cor 12:3), kyrios Iesous Christos (Phil 2:11); literally, simply "Lord Jesus (Christ)." But because in Greek the "be" verb is often implied rather than written explicitly, and because often the direct object comes first and the subject afterward in Greek grammatical construction, "Lord Jesus" correctly translates to "Jesus [is] Lord." And it makes sense that the confession would simply be "Lord Jesus," because some version of that phrase as a title for Christ appears (by my count) 104 times in the New Testament. So, nothing odd here, right?

Well, upon reflection, it did seem odd that the central Christian confession would simply be to repeat the title, "Lord Jesus." And what sparked further thought was randomly reading in a commentary that literally, the translation for these two passages ought to be, "The Lord is Jesus." And that got me thinking.

What if the central confession is not "Jesus is Lord" but "The Lord is Jesus"? Does that make any kind of theological difference?

Don't worry: nothing game-changing here. I haven't discovered anything profound, and certainly nothing a thousand exegetes over haven't known for centuries. Just a minor nuance that I have found enriching.

And that nuance is: "Jesus is Lord" sounds like a basic confessional claim; "The Lord is Jesus" sounds like an answer to a question. And that hypothetical question might be imaginatively phrased, "Who is the Lord?" And that, my friends, is a fascinating question to ask, and quite a different claim to make.

- - - - - - -

To begin with, the question itself is found in two places in the Old Testament. The first is in Exodus 5:2: "Pharaoh said, 'Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go." Okay, that's potent Israelite history right there.

As for the second, it is found in that famous passage from Proverbs 30:7-9: "Two things I ask of you, Lord; do not refuse me before I die: Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, 'Who is the Lord?' Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God."

(By the time of the Roman Empire in the first century (that is, in Paul's day), the Hebrew/Aramaic Old Testament had been translated into Greek, and that translation, called the Septuagint, became the near-universally used version across the Empire. Thus, while in Hebrew what we read as "the Lord" is actually "Yahweh," in the Septuagint "Yahweh" similarly was translated into kyrios, or "Lord." Thus, at least in these two instances, in the original Hebrew "Who is the Lord?" is a rhetorical way of discrediting who Yahweh is precisely as "God" or "Lord." Paul, as a Pharisaically-trained Jew, along with his contemporaries, would have known this even when quoting in Greek from the Septuagint.)

The point here is simply that from a Jewish perspective, there is precedent for the type of question that we imaginatively find here behind the confession of Jesus as Lord. To those who might discredit Yahweh by derisively dismissing him with the simple question, "Who is the Lord?" Christians answer directly: "The Lord is Jesus!" What, then, about the Greco-Roman context?

The central claim of the emperor cult in the Roman Empire was kyrios Kaisar -- "Caesar is Lord." This connected in the minds of the people (both citizens and the conquered) that the ruler of the Empire, the one above and behind the Pax Romana and all the glories of Rome, was both political and divine: kyrios kosmou, Lord of the cosmos. So imagine the social, political, and religious implications of the central confession of this new minority movement across the Empire, gathering in the mere dozens in their own homes -- sans priest, temple, or sacrifice -- that the crucified Jew of Palestine was Lord: not kyrios Kaisar, but kyrios Iesous.

Persecution makes a bit more sense seen in this light. Christians were a threat to the Empire! Sedition and blasphemy and unpatriotism all at once! If Jesus the Messiah is Lord, Caesar the Emperor is most certainly not.

So here, we might imagine the confession not as a statement "that Jesus is Lord," but rather, in response to the question, "Who is the Lord?" the answer "The Lord is Jesus!" That is, the early Christian communities are articulating, in the midst of a hostile Empire which names its own ruler as Lord, precisely who is Lord, exactly which Lord is true, whom they serve and worship.

We sometimes imagine today that we live in a far more developed, far more Enlightened time, where we have moved "past" having to choose one Lord among many options. That was "then," in the archaic, dark times of polytheism and idol worship.

Nevertheless we do live in a world populated by various gods vying for our attention, for our allegiance, and, indeed, for our worship. We know not Caesar or Zeus or Temple or Empire; rather, we know President, Economy, Safety, Country. We know TV and Work, Flag and Family, Advancement and Health. These are the powers and principalities of death seeking, snatching, stealing our life and our praise and our time, the unspoken yet implicitly realized exaltation of their lordship.

But in this dangerous world of delirious gods offering to purchase our allegiance, learning from and in continuity with the earliest churches, as followers of Jesus we continue to ask ourselves in faithful reminder the one question: Who is the Lord?

And we answer: The Lord is Jesus.

[Photos courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.]

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