Whenever I learn another language, I begin with a grammar, and proceed to the Bible. I know what I’m reading, so I can “hear” the words in the new language without stopping to translate each one. I still proceed very slowly, and that, I’ve learned, helps me to read the Bible.
I can’t simply scan the sentences for general meaning without stopping to notice peculiarities of words. The kind of reading I give to an ancient poem, Beowulf or the Aeneid, I never do reading the Scriptures in modern English. But I am almost compelled to do it, when in a strange language. And the strangest language for me lately is Welsh.
Let me clear away one objection. It’s assumed that because Matthew, Mark, and John wrote in what for them was a foreign tongue, that poetic effects were beyond them. But Hebrew poetry worked by repetition, of words and phrases, balanced one against another; a great deal of that survives in translation.
Jesus the poet said, “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured unto you again,” He was using classic Hebraic poetic form, that we hear in English too.
Moreover, a limited vocabulary is no bar against meditating upon a few important words and ideas, turning them over and over. John was no native Greek speaker, yet his gospel is theological poetry of the highest sublimity. Charles Péguy’s poetry works in the same way, in highly repetitive free verse – and Péguy wrote in his native French.
So let’s examine a well-known passage in Matthew. Jesus asks His disciples, Pwy y mae dynion yn dywedyd fy mod i, Mab y dyn? Who is it that men say that I am, Son of Man? Or, in our idiom: Who do men say that I the Son of Man am?
It’s ironic balancing: men on one side, the Son of Man on the other. Jesus attributes to Himself the mysterious and divine title Son of Man, from the apocalyptic vision of Daniel. Not common parlance among the Jews, but “man”is. If anyone knows who the Son of Man is, it should be – man. Recall John: “He came unto his own, and his own received him not.” The Son of Man has come to redeem man, and men should know Him; they belong to Him. He is one of them.
This device is ruined if we translate “men” as “people,” lest some feminist hyperventilate. But let’s proceed. The Pharisees just asked Jesus for a sign from heaven. Jesus rebukes them: they are good at reading signs from heaven, that is, the sky – the words are the same in Greek. They see the heavens red in the morning and say, “There’s going to be a storm.” How strange that they, men on earth, can read signs in heaven, but not read the heaven-sent signs of the times.
No sign will be given to them, says Jesus, but the sign of Jonah.
He leaves, and gives His disciples another riddle: “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees.” The disciples, forgetting the loaves and fishes, wonder whether Jesus wants them to go buy bread. Jesus rebukes them also – for their little faith and sluggish understanding.
Get Thee Behind Me, Satan by James J. Tissot, c. 1890
This is the context for Peter’s confession. Jesus asks men about the Son of Man. The disciples, all men, though chosen by God, reply: “Some say John the Baptist, some Elias, and others Jeremias, or one of the prophets.” Common answers. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.
“But who do you say that I am?” The men fall silent. Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, proclaims: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Not a son, but the Son: the Son of God is the mysterious Son of Man.
“Blessed art thou, Simon mab Jona,” Simon, son of Jonah!
Jonah was Peter’s father’s name, and Jesus recalls it with purpose. The Welsh brings it out: mab Jona parallels mab Duw and Mab y dyn, son of God and Son of Man. The only sign we will be given from heaven is a sign, so to speak, of the world beneath us: the sign of Jonah, swallowed by the whale, preserved by God three nights in that dark tomb.
The risen Jesus is the true Jonah. Simon, son of Jonah, enters into an intimate relation with Jesus, “for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.” Jesus-Jonah, in the role of father, then gives Simon his new name: Peter, rock.
But it doesn’t end there. Jesus reveals that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer and die at the hands of those same blind leaders. Peter, taking Jesus aside, rebukes Him, begging Him to have mercy upon Himself. Whereupon Jesus almost gives Peter another name, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” Peter is minding not y pethau sydd o Dduw, ond y pethau sydd o dynion: not the things that are of God, but the things that are of men.
Men again – and note, again, the powerful contrast. We must follow the Son of Man, and not other men; for men are blind and foolish, like the first Jonah. Jesus explains to man who man is.
“For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?
“For the Son of Man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels, and then he shall reward each according to his works.”
Never take these scriptures lightly, O man.