Saturday, May 2, 2015



DID YOU SAY "Pi" OR "Phi"?

Some of you know that a few years ago I wrote a book of meditations based on some of my favorite New Testament Greek words. In the Introduction I explained that I enjoy spending time with the original Greek text of the New Testament, and often enough am rewarded with some helpful insight. I shared such an experience in the last post, in fact.

Thursday morning I was reading Paul’s sermon to the Jews in Antioch of Pisidia in which he is retelling to them the familiar Old Testament story of God’s saving deeds. In speaking of the Exodus from Egypt he says ”with an outstretched arm [the Lord] led them out of Egypt. For forty years he put up with them in the desert.”  (Acts 13:17-18)

I was tickled by the idea of God’s “putting up with” the Israelites for all those years, so I naturally went to see what the Greek says. Forgive me for spelling out the word here, but you’ll see in a minute why I have to. The Greek word for “put up with” is tropophoreo, a plain old verb that occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. Even its roots are not very interesting. As I was about to close my Greek bible in disappointment I noticed that at the beginning of verse 18 there was a tiny symbol indicating that there was a variant reading (i.e. an alternative version) of this sentence at the bottom of the page. Hmm! So there may be something interesting here after all….

The footnote, it turned out, indicated that several ancient manuscripts do not have the verb tropophoreo but rather trophophoreo (the the fourth letter had been changed from p to ph). That one letter changes the whole meaning of the sentence because the latter verb doesn't mean “to put up with” but rather “to bear up in ones arms like a nurse, to care for someone tenderly.”

In searching around I found that some translations of the bible actually prefer this second reading and translate Acts 13:18 to mean that God "sustained" his people in the wilderness for forty years. Here we have a beautiful and familiar image from the Old Testament of God’s caring lovingly for his people, even carrying them in his arms.


Well, there’s an interesting principle that scholars use when trying to decide between two
variant readings of the same text such as we have here; it’s called the lectio difficilior principle. It says that when two ancient manuscripts disagree you should choose the less likely, the “harder” reading as being more likely. I can easily picture some copyist accidentally miscopying the actual Greek (“God put up with the Israelites”) by unconsciously substituting what he was expecting to see (“God sustained the Israelites.”).

So, given the Old Testament background of the image of God’s carrying and caring for his people for those forty years, we should probably prefer the more unusual reading, the one that says “The Lord put up with them for forty years.”

Either reading provides a beautiful meditation however, and neither one is opposed to the other.


I love the comforting image of God carrying me “in his arms like a nurse” during my own desert times. Many a time I have experienced the Lord coming to help me to get through some wilderness period just as he did his Chosen People in the desert.

I know that my every breath depends on God, and I have been trying hard over the years to trust in God the Waymaker who made a way for the Israelites through the desert. I like this reading and the familiar comforting image of the Lord carrying or “sustaining me” through the wildernesses of my life.


This is the “harder” reading because it’s not as common an image of God as the other; it’s certainly not as comforting to think of God having to put up with the Israelites -- or with me. But I have to admit that the picture of God “putting up with” someone applies only too well in my case -- the Lord has been putting up with me for well over forty years!

God is very good at putting up with people, after all. Not only did he put up with the Israelites in the desert as they kept turning their backs on him, not only does he put up with me, but the Lord also puts up with my brother monks, with my coworkers, my students, with the Church, with the bishops. He he has to put up with each of us constantly every day.


I don’t study New Testament Greek words just for fun, but rather in hopes of finding something that will help me on my Christian journey. I always look for the “So what?” when I’m studying a text.

So my discovery of the p that got changed centuries ago to a ph left me with this lesson: If God puts up with me all the time, then I need to imitate that kind of love in my own life. I have plenty of opportunities for putting up with people. (I’m not complaining; just sayin’.) My brother monks, my sophomore students, my abbot, Church authorities at times, and on and on. But then my brothers and my abbot and my students also have to put up with me.

Why do we put up with one another? Ultimately, I guess, it's because God puts up with us.

Finally, it’s also a gift to be able to gracefully put up with myself: my own failures and shortcomings. If I can put up with myself and forgive myself, and if I can remember how God is constantly putting up with me, then it will be a lot easier to put up wth all those people the Lord has put in my life.


The monks of Newark Abbey are having an open house on Saturday, May 16, 2015. We have mass at 8:45 a.m. if you'd like to come for that, and then little tours and exhibits and books and coffee, and visiting with the monks all morning until the the open house ends with Midday Prayer (11:50 to 12:00). You can find driving directions on our web site,
Please come! We'd love to meet you!

No comments:

Post a Comment