For much of my life I would read Tolstoy’s War and Peace every year. It is such a beautifully written novel, a wonderful story. But every year, somewhere in the book I would stop and realize that something was missing. Because I cannot read Russian, the novel’s original language, I must rely on someone else’s translation. Nuance is often lost in translation. I would stop mid book and wonder, “what am I missing?”
We are tracking the Christmas Story in the Book of Luke and this week I learned something interesting about this Gospel in its original language. In her book “Light of the World”, Amy-Jill Levin explains the dramatic shift of the language in Luke. The first five verses of Luke are an introduction, and explanation for what and why he is writing.
“Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.
Look at these verses carefully; it is very interesting, even in English. (note…the shout out for Theophilus. This has confused theologians throughout history. No one knows just who Theophilus is. He could have been a patron of Luke, or because the word translates “of God”… it might have been a general term for the early church.) Here’s the kicker…. These first five verses were written in immaculate, formal and beautiful Greek, showing education and writing skill not seen in the other Gospels.
Then in verse five, Luke begins the Christmas story… “In the days of Herod of Judea…” There is a dramatic shift in the language. Luke shifts into what scholars call the Septuagint, the language of the Hebrews, the language of the Old Testament. “The shift in the Greek is palpable, like going from modern English to Shakespearean language. With the shift, Luke takes us to the past world of early Jewish history. Luke thus insists: to understand Jesus requires understanding Jewish history and Jewish texts.” (Amy Jill Levine “Light of the World”)
From perfect Greek to ancient Greek… who knew? Levine continues: “Luke is telling gentile converts (early Christians): the history of Israel is now a part of your history as well. It is a part of your story. Read, remember and rejoice.”
So what does all of this mean for us, here, on the third day of Advent 2019? It means that the story we are entering is sacred. It is not the two dimensional Christmas card manger scene. It is a story with deep roots. It is a story steeped in tradition. Levine is right. It is OUR story.
Grace and Peace at Advent.