07 March 2007

The word "power" in the Gospels

As I have observed before, I always found ‘All power is given to me in heaven and in earth’ slightly difficult to identify as a description of the higher level state of affairs. ‘Power’ did not seem the word one would think of using, probably because of its associations with power over people. In fact it is a translation of the Greek exousia, which means power or authority, and has strong overtones with social authority.

The relevant saying occurs at the end of the last chapter of Matthew, which is evidently designed to provide the Christian church with authority and support for its ways of going on. Nevertheless it is probable that that particular saying is based on a reminiscence of things said by a higher level person, although the same cannot be said for the rest of the instructions supposedly given by Christ.

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 alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen. (Matthew, Ch. 18, verses 18-20.)

In the Gospel of Thomas ‘power’ is a translation of the Greek word dunamis (source of words dynamite, dynamic). Elsewhere in Thomas dunamis is translated as ‘strength’, and whenever it occurs it is possible to read it as meaning ‘psychological strength or energy’. The following passage contains both of the words dunamis and cosmos, another Greek word which is translated as ‘world’ (both in Thomas and in the synoptic Gospels) but might be better translated as ‘society’.

Therefore I say: If the lord of the house knows that the thief is coming, he will stay awake before he comes and will not let him dig through into the house of his kingdom to carry away his goods. You then must watch for the world (cosmos), gird up your loins with great strength (dunamis) lest the brigands find a way to come to you, because they will find the advantage which you expect. (saying 21)

Since the house is described as ‘the house of his kingdom’ we may suppose it refers to an actually or potentially higher level psychology.

The word cosmos had a wide range of applications in classical Greek, and the Greeks did not make a clearcut distinction between the objective physical world and the world of social or political experience. So cosmos could well be taken to mean something like, ‘the social consensus, the right ordering of things, the right set of beliefs about society’. This is regarded in Thomas as intrusive and inimical, to be guarded against, likely to rob the individual of what is rightfully his own.

Jesus said: Whoever has found the world (cosmos) and become rich, let him deny (arneisthai) the world. (saying 110)

The word arneisthai (translated as ‘deny’, ‘renounce’) occurs again in the following passage.

Jesus said: Whoever has known the world (cosmos) has found the body, and whoever has found the body, of him the world (cosmos) is not worthy. (saying 80)
Jesus said: Let him who has become rich become king, and let him who has power (dunamis) renounce (arneisthai) [it]. (saying 81)

What is to be renounced in the second of these sayings is not clear, and appears in the translation as [it]. But as the cosmos has just been mentioned, it could well be that.

The sense that has become associated with ‘deny, renounce’ may not be quite the original meaning. In English, with the traditional associations of Christianity, the words suggest ascetically foregoing some source of gratification, but the Greek word has associations of refusing to give a benefit, or refusal to make some positive assertion in favour of somebody or something.

Arneomai is the opposite of didomi, which has meanings associated with putting oneself in someone’s power, devoting or sacrificing to gods, sanctioning or permitting something. In fact the underlying meaning of didomi is dedicating, devoting or giving oneself. So ‘renouncing the world’ is close to meaning a refusal to give oneself to society.

Although it is possible to see what may have been meant by ‘renouncing the world (society)’, the injunction to do so is as pointless as the other psychological injunctions which can be found in various Gospels. Mostly they consist of something that amounts to saying ‘Do get a higher level’, or ‘do be on a higher level’. Telling people to watchfully guard against the bandits of social belief entering the house of their kingdom is very nearly as useless, because by the time they are adults nearly everyone is profoundly committed to a social world view. Perhaps the commitment is preventing various psychological developments from taking place, but psychology is very difficult to change, even if one wants to.

The social bandits well and truly invaded the house when the child was too young to understand any instructions about guarding against them.

(Extracts from The Gospel According to Thomas, translated by Guillaumont, Puech, Quispel, Till and Yassah ‘Abd Al Masih, published by Brill, Leiden, 2001.)