Jared Witt l May 17, 2018
This is based on a real conversation that I had a while back, though I've frequently inserted what I would've said if not for kindness. If I were this condescending in real life, everybody would lose, no matter how right a side. Nonetheless, there is something strangely cathartic about reviewing such exchanges in safe anonymity. The name of my conversation partner has been changed. Btw, avoid conversations like these if at all possible.
Smitty (S): All of scripture was intended to be read literally. Anything else is a cop out that people use to avoid any commands that they just don’t feel like following.
Me (J): Sucks for your eyeballs.
J: Sucks for your eyeballs. Maybe you can donate them to science?
S: What are you talking about?
J: “All of scripture was intended to be read literally.” Have your eyeballs ever caused you to slip up? Ever thought to yourself, “Dang, that’s one helluva donkey my neighbor's got there. A man could pack some serious produce on a donkey like that.” I’m sure. It's ok though. There is probably some blind orphan somewhere who might like those eyeballs. Actually, Jesus was constantly healing blind people. Perhaps that is the most Christian thing you could possibly…
S: Ok. Ok. I follow. But when Jesus said that about plucking out your eye if it causes you to stumble, he was making a hypothetical statement.
J: (Massaging my temples) Hypothetical…hypothetical…does that mean like…not real?
S: Yeah, more or less.
J: So, figurative?
J: So like (tilting my head exaggeratedly and giving my best impression of a Cheshire cat)…not literal?
S: Ok. Yeah. I get what you’re doing. All of scripture was intended to be read literally. But…
S: No. No “but.” All scripture was intended to be read literally, AAANND the literal intention of someone who is speaking figuratively is to...
J: Oh. A literal figurative. Why didn’t you just say so?
S: Alright, a contingent statement.
J: The grammatical term is “conditional statement.” Technically, a “third class conditional.”
S: Whatever. But you understand what I’m trying to say.
J: I’m sure I don’t.
S: Ok. I’m just a simple Christian. So I don’t know what a “third class conditional” is but it sounds like you’re about to try and confuse the matter.
J: I promise not to say anything more confusing than “literal figurative.”
J: First century Greek was a more precise language than modern English. Kind of like how people say modern day German is very precise. Germans can say exactly what they’re trying to say. Or at least get closer to it than we sometimes can in other languages.
S: Ok. That sounds like the made up brainwashing of some ivory tower professor with too much time on his hands. I’m sure “dog” and “cat” still just mean “dog” and “cat” in German. Admittedly, I don’t know German.
J: I don’t either. But that’s what they say. Incidentally, did you know that the Hawaiians have a word, which refers precisely to "a whole day that you spend in nervous anticipation that at some point later you’ll have a coughing fit"? One word! Phonetically, Ooh-low-koh-koh-koh-koh or something like that. I wonder what the word for that is in German? I’m sure they have one. Anyway, neither here nor there.
S: (Starting to get a bit huffy, but in a mild Christian way) Just say what you’re going to say.
J: Well, in English, we require a lot of guess work from each other to figure out how hypothetical we’re being. I wonder if that’s why we do sarcasm better than the Germans? Sorry. Back on task. So if I say to you “If we go out for dinner tonight, I want to try that new Italian place,” it’s on you to figure out how likely the first part of the sentence, the “if,” is to occur. If we have nothing in the fridge, and going out tonight seems pretty likely, then I hope you like Italian.
S: Yeah. Common sense.
J: However, were I to say “If we travel to Pluto, I want to try that new Italian place,” you know the “if” is pretty impossible, so the “then” must be purely for discussion’s sake (even if it’s certain that everyone, Plutonians included, likes Italian).
S: Still, common sense, so far.
J: But what if I say, “If we travel to mars, I want to try that new Italian place”? Well then there is a bunch more background info you might have to know: One, is SpaceX burning through their assets too quickly to get there in this lifetime? Two, will we have the money to pay for the flight if they do? Three, if we don’t have the money, will they ever come down in price like the Tesla? Four, has that new Goth rocker girlfriend of Elon Musk’s caused him to lose focus somewhat? Five…
S: Ok, please make your point already.
J: Well, you can imagine the confusion that ensues when I say, "If we go to Italy, I want to try that..."
S: Your point, please.
J: Well, Greek takes most of the guesswork out of it. They have certain trigger words and verb moods, which let you know exactly what kind of a conditional the speaker intends. Is the “if” definitely going to happen? maybe going to happen? unlikely but if it does the “then” is definite? purely a fictional thought experiment? When Jesus says, “If your eye should cause you to stumble, pluck it out” he uses the Greek word ean for “if” as opposed to ei, and the verb for “should cause you to stumble” (skandalizo) is in the subjunctive mood. So the listener knows he is speaking in either the third or fifth class conditional.
S: Third OR fifth? You said this takes all the guesswork out of it.
J: I said it takes most of the guesswork out of it.
S: So Andrew and Bartholomew were hearing this thinking to themselves, “Ah, yes, clearly this is a third class conditional.”
J: Of course not. They hadn’t published their dissertations yet. Native speakers just develop these habits and everyone sort of comes to a common understanding about them. Otherwise language wouldn’t work. But language habits are also totally arbitrary. There is nothing inherently doglike about the letters, d, o, or g. The Grammarians come in later to try to figure out what the heck is going on. And in the case of a dead language, we would have no other way of knowing.
S: Yes. Fine. Fine.
J: And actually the third and fifth class conditionals are so similar that Greek Grammarians spill each other’s blood or something over whether there even is a fifth one. And actually, Jesus probably didn’t say any of these Greek words. He probably spoke Aramaic, if you want to get into guesswork. But assume this is a third class conditional. That would be theologically intriguing. Then Jesus might actually be saying, “If your eye should cause you to stumble (which is unlikely to happen in reality)…” Could he then be implying that it’s unlikely your eye is to blame if you’ve stumbled? Or even better, is he hinting that people are more complex and sin a far deeper issue than what religious folk think they can solve with their little “if…thens,” so quit doing violent stuff to yourself and others over this nonsense?
S: You think you could just give me the Cliffnotes version of all this?
J: Basically, what we can know almost for sure, is that these Greek sentences about eyeball plucking, where they stand in your most venerated scriptures, are less literal than my prom date with Natalie Portman was. Well, roughly the same. The same amount of literal. But to your original point about jamming literal paint can openers behind literal eyes, if (ean) you’re still worried (subjunctive) that you’ve stumbled, I suggest you just say a few Hail Marys or do an altar call to take the edge off before jumping to extremes. Or, become Lutheran, like me, and we’ll just go have a beer together, instead.
S: Well, I didn’t go to seminary. But I think Jesus meant what he said and I don’t think the Holy Spirit would require me to have a doctorate in Greek grammar to know what he meant.
J: Likely not. Grammarians. Blecckk. Godless bunch of wretches, the whole lot of ‘em. Actually, at the end of the day, it’s not for grammatical reasons that I still have both my eyes.
S: Right, it’s because, at the end of the day, you read the Bible however you want anyway.
J: That’s a hell of a hypocritical thing to say to me, two-eyed boy! No. It’s because requiring everyone (literally everyone, I suspect!) to brutally de-oculate themselves just because they noticed their neighbor’s strong wife or beautiful donkey flies in the face—or, I suppose, in this case, flies out of the face—of everything the gospel of John must surely have meant by “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
S: Wait, then, it sounds like you’re just hopping to one part of the Bible to get out of following another. You know. It sounds like you’re just picking and choosing.
J: Likewise, my friend. Impossible not to pick and choose in a book where one part says, “an eye for an eye,” and another says, “you’ve heard ‘an eye for an eye,’ but I say to you…love your enemies.”
S: Ok, so let me guess. You always come down on the side of the namby pamby, lovey dovey stuff.
J: Which side does your “holy spirit” have you come down on?
S: I’m just saying that there are literal, actual things that the Bible says about what we are supposed to do. And some of them may not be pleasant to our modern sensibilities.
J: For sure. Like "feed the poor," for example. Very literal stuff, that. And beyond the literal, we also have at least one third class conditional.
S: And yet, after all that technical mumbo jumbo, you eventually circled around to what any honest, common sense person knows, which is that Jesus was obviously being hypothetical.
J: True. And you’re right. A hypothetical can be understood literally or figuratively. So you should just use common sense to figure whether something should be read literally or figuratively?
J: Sounds like a lot of picking and choosing to me.
S: No, it’s still literal. In this case, the author’s literal intention was for us to understand this as something we’re not actually supposed to do.
(At this point, I started looking around for that paint can opener, and the conversation petered out.)
O Lord, you gave me this tongue. Please help me to restrain it.
Cheers and Peace,
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