We have seen that Christianity is a religion of paradox, and paradox might be taken as an indicator of truth. Christ died and rose again. That is a kind of paradox. He went through death, death was not an end in itself, he descended into Hades (Hades, the place a shade inhabits, a word closely connected with death and earth) and later appeared to his disciples before ascending into heaven. He ascended into heaven in order that we might receive the Holy Spirit, in order that the Holy Spirit might fill our lives, something that occurred ten days later, at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles and enabled them to speak in many languages. This is not an act altogether removed from translation, by the way.
Christ often speaks in a way that seems paradoxical. I have already cited the example of losing our life in order to find it. We lose our life – that is, we sacrifice our own will and turn away from the demands of the ego in order to serve God’s will and our neighbour’s needs, we delete the ego (†) – in order to find it (+), because as Christ says, ‘there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age – houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life’ (Mk 10:29-30). I think we can conclude that a hundredfold followed by eternal life is a plus. The same symbol, the ego with a line drawn through it, can have both negative and positive connotations.
We have also seen how the Holy Trinity can literally be said to be three in ONE, something that also sounds paradoxical. It is paradoxical in the same way that a mother and father coming together to give birth to a child, which can be represented in mathematical terms as 1 + 1 = 1, is also paradoxical (three in ONE). There are some beautiful connections here, because birth is connected with child (a step in the alphabet, b-c, phonetic pairs d-t and l-r) and also with third (pair of letters that look alike, b-d).
Straight after elucidating what those who follow him will receive, Christ says, ‘But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first’ (Mk 10:31). Now this is surely paradoxical, and I wonder how it can be explained. The first will be last, and the last will be first. This sentence also comes at the end of the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Mt 20:1-16), in which those who have been working in the vineyard since morning and have endured the scorching heat receive the same daily wage that those who turned up at five o’clock received. They are a little miffed, understandably, but they have received what they were owed. It’s just that other people who didn’t do the same amount of work have received the same. The landowner, who I think we can take to be a representation of God, explains that that’s his business, whether he decides to give the same reward to one as to the other. And I suppose we can understand working in the vineyard to refer to the amount of time we have been active in the faith, receiving a hundredfold, but with that slightly worrying addendum, ‘with persecutions’, which I take to refer to the endurance of troubles that are an accompaniment to faith and repentance.
Here is how I understand this apparent paradox. The desire to be first leads to conflict (we cannot all be first). First, as a word, is clearly linked to fist and to strife, so the outcome of wishing to be first is pretty clear to see, though that doesn’t stop us extolling the virtues of competition (a strange concept, and one that I never understood fully – shouldn’t we be helping the other, rather than trying to push them down into the mud?).
What is first has a thirst – a thirst to come out on top, but also what is newborn, like a baby, always has a thirst, initially a thirst for its mother’s milk, later that thirst may manifest itself in other ways. We have made a quarter of a revolution.
What makes us thirst, in particular, is salt (half a revolution). If you eat salt, you will have a raging thirst. So there is a connection between thirst and salt. But salt also makes us last (three quarters of a revolution). We use salt, for example, in the preservation of meat. So now we have made a connection between first and last, but what is to stop us continually going round in circles, like poor Sisyphus, up and down the hill?
We break the cycle. And we do this by removing the letter a, so that last gives lst (a full revolution). The same result, but the connection with thirst is broken. That is, we no longer indulge the passions, we cultivate the virtues and become lst, the opposite of last, fit for the kingdom. So, ‘the first will be last [those who put themselves at the front are not fit for the kingdom], and the last [those who put others before themselves] will be lst.’
The paradox is explained by word connections – it is explained by language itself. But since Christ is the Word, this shouldn’t surprise us. He knows what he is saying.
I would like to give another example of Christ knowing what he is saying. I think Christ has a great sense of humour, but this is largely missed. I imagine you would have to have a great sense of humour when you are the one by whom all things were made, and yet when you come into the world, you are rejected left, right and centre. It is either that, or cry.
And so, in John 7, as the Jewish festival of Booths is approaching, Jesus is in Galilee. His brothers suggest he might like to show some of the wonders he has been doing a little further afield, after all, that’s what he’s here for, isn’t it? And the festival of Booths in Jerusalem would be a wonderful opportunity to do so. Jesus replies, ‘No, I don’t think so,’ but then (something I do very often) he changes his mind and actually goes and does exactly what he has said he is not going to. He hangs around at the festival, getting waylaid by the Jews, who seem to object to anything good being done on the Sabbath, there’s a constant threat to his life, or at least that’s what the crowd thinks, and when he says he will be with them only a little longer, because he is going to be crucified (!!!), the crowd wonders whether that means he is going to go on a trip to visit the Greeks in the diaspora.
You can imagine the frustration. The message doesn’t seem to be getting through. It comes to the last day of the festival. Jesus is standing there (I can just picture this) and, in his frustration, he cries out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water”’ (Jn 7:37-8). There is a clear link here to the wonderful story of the meeting of Christ and the Samaritan woman in John 4, another example of deadpan humour. At this point, Jesus is on his way to Galilee (a prophet is not without honour except in his own country) and, to go from Judea to Galilee, he has to pass through Samaria. He stops in Sychar at Jacob’s well (in modern-day Nablus) and asks a Samaritan woman to give him some water to drink. The Samaritan woman is surprised, Jews don’t normally associate with her kind. Jesus explains (and again, one can imagine the sigh that precedes this), ‘If you knew who it is you are talking to [read: the one by whom the world was created!], you would ask him and he would give you living water.’ I am quoting freely here. Note the connection with the other passage in the words ‘living water’.
The Samaritan woman then comes out with what must be one of the most incredible observations ever made: how are you going to do that, if you don’t even have a bucket? I can see Jesus smiling inwardly. She has a bucket, but Jesus doesn’t. Jesus explains that the water he gives, which we might associate with the water of baptism – the combination of Christ (O2) and the Holy Spirit (H) – becomes in those who receive it ‘a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’.
This is literally true. When we activate our baptism through belief and right practice, then I think the water becomes in us a spring gushing up to eternal life, which is our stopping place. And note how close the words believe and receive are (a step in the alphabet, b-c, phonetic pair l-r).
All Jesus asks of us is that we believe. This is all he asks. He doesn’t want us to stand on our heads. He doesn’t want us to turn somersaults in the air. He doesn’t want us to run a marathon, though we can do that if we like. He just asks that we believe, and he will do the rest.
Believe is a very rich word. It contains be and live. If we remember the correlation between b-v-w, it also contains Bible, where believers go in order to drink. In reverse, believe spells veiled. These are mysteries, sacraments, they are not obvious to all and sundry, but only to those who approach them with fear and humility.
And there is one further connection in that earth-shattering cry from scripture, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’ The word in Greek is not ‘heart’, it is ‘belly’, which presumably is taken to mean the seat of the emotions (though I don’t quite see why it is not translated as ‘belly’). And if we rewind to chapter 3 of the Book of Genesis, we will see that Adam names his wife Eve ‘because she was the mother of all who live’ (Gen 3:20). There is a footnote in the NRSV edition of the Bible that I use: ‘In Heb Eve resembles the word for living.’
So there we have it: believe is a combination of belly and Eve. When Christ says, ‘Out of the believer’s heart [belly] shall flow rivers of living water,’ this is literally true, because that is what the word means on a spiritual level. If we limit ourselves to the meaning we give words, and to how they have evolved over time (the science of etymology), we are affording ourselves only a very limited view, just as if we treat the world as a source of pleasure and profit, there for the taking (which seems to be the basis of a lot of human activity), we are again limiting our viewpoint. The world was there before us. It was put there for our good. We pass through it for a limited period of time. Without basic tools and ingredients, there is nothing we can do. But just as God brings Adam the creatures to name in Genesis 2:19, so he puts the world’s resources at our disposal to see what we will do with them, what meaning we will give them. We are translators. We take something written in one language and transform it into another. How we do this depends on us, whether we do it with care and love, or with disregard (I have yet to meet a translator who works with disregard). And the act of translation, the one we look down on so much, the one we consider second-rate and hardly worth paying for, may just be crucial when it comes to inheriting eternal life.
This excerpt is taken from my book Seven Brief Lessons on Language, published on 07 January 2023 (on sale from 02 March 2022). More information on the publisher’s website: https://www.smallstations.com/book/lessons.
For the background to this book, please see the series of articles ‘Word in Language (0)-(24)’ on this website.
Seven Brief Lessons on Language is Jonathan Dunne’s fourth book on language. He has previously published The DNA of the English Language (2007), an introduction to word connections; The Life of a Translator (2013), which looks at coincidence in translation; and Stones Of Ithaca (2019), a study of the relationship between language and the environment, which uses the example of stones from the beaches of the Greek island of Ithaca.
Jonathan is a graduate in Classics from Oxford University. He has translated more than seventy books from the Bulgarian, Catalan, Galician and Spanish languages for publishing houses such as Penguin Random House, New Directions and Shearsman Books. He lives with his family in Sofia and serves as a subdeacon in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.