Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

The Greek letter π (p) pops up twenty-four times in these verses. In eighteen instances, p is the first letter of a word.

Mark 5:42
And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about ... at this they were overcome with amazement. (Public domain image; licensed under CC0)

July 1, 2018

Second Reading
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Commentary on 2 Corinthians 8:7-15

The Greek letter π (p) pops up twenty-four times in these verses. In eighteen instances, p is the first letter of a word.

In six cases, p follows a vowel or a diphthong (two vowels pronounced as a single sound). Since, however, one of the habits of ancient Greek texts, unlike the custom of English and other modern languages, was to run words together without breaks (scriptio continua), the distinction between beginning p and the p following a vowel or diphthong falls away. What we are left with is the fact that 2 Corinthians 6:7-15, because of the frequency of p, ought not be read out loud by one person in close proximity to another, at least not within spitting distance, unless caution is exercised. The poor listener to all the p’s streaming from the pronunciation of this Greek text would soon need a towel.

Spit. Not a topic for polite society. Replacing spit with spittle might make this discussion slightly more decorous, and whatever word is used for the excess saliva coating the inside of one’s mouth, refusing to go away each time a swallow is taken, and without permission catching a ride on consonants with explosive potential such as p, to the consternation of both speaker and nearby listener, this much must be said: 2 Corinthians 6:9 can’t be understood without thinking spit. And not just thinking about spit but actually thinking spit in the same moment you take into your imagination the word poverty from the text. Why? Because ptocheia — the Greek word standing behind poverty — was a spit word.

Even more, the t following the p in ptocheia is equally explosive. This further underlines the disgust attaching to poverty, which in fact makes poverty an inadequate translation of ptocheia. (I, however, do not have a better one). If saying p out loud with vigor sends out droplets of spit, can you imagine the countless droplets words beginning with pt might produce?

The letter t is every bit as explosive as p. Think of the tongue saying p and then quite distinctly t too throws itself away from the hard palate in a fit of rage over the thought of being like that beggar sitting there in his own filth asking me for money. Me, ho plousios. Words starting with pt indicate alarm and terror (as in the case of birds beating their wings or in Plato’s description of the female fluttering soul). But more, words starting with pt are pronounced to ward off envy, that is, spitting averts the evil eye, the eye of the poor man that stares at me wanting my fullness for himself. Ptooey on you!

To say poor in Greek, then, you had to spit, or more accurately, the letter combination gave you, if you were not poor, the opportunity to degrade the poor by spitting and saying their name in the same breath. That opportunity — how many times it was seized upon we will never know — says a great deal about the disgust the poor person was held in by the rich (oi ploutoi). The rich of course have (a) different p. Go soft on the initial p of ploutos and linger a bit on at the lou and you arrive at a sensation of fullness, and self-satisfaction and forward movement as when wind fills (pleroun) a sail and you begin a voyage (ho plous).

Here is 2 Corinthians 6:9 in transliteration: di’ humas eptocheusen plousios on, hina humeis te ekeinou ptocheia ploutesete. A wooden but thought-provoking translation goes like this (key words left untranslated to protect them from Western habits of thought that only allows the rich to give gifts):

on account of you he, though being plousios, ptocheia-ed in order that you might plouteo by the ptocheia of that one.

A bit of a mess to be sure. I have retained the Greek plousios not only because it starts with pl but also because it does not align completely with rich in the New Revised Standard Version. I have also made up a word by substituting the Greek noun ptocheia (which occurs in the second half of the verse) and added the English morpheme ed to it with the idea of making a verb that catches what is going on with eptocheusen.

So why not just translate ptocheia as poverty and plousios as rich and be done with it? Because, as I said above, the root ptoch communicated to ancient readers so much more than the idea of a lack of possessions or money: words with ptoch in them embody disgust. And words starting with plou have the sense of fullness, flowing, and satisfaction about them.

Now here is the exegetical payoff for these linguistic acrobatics. In Paul’s view, Christ made others rich not in the way the rich normally help the poor, by giving out of their fullness. He enriched others (but what kind of wealth is this?) by giving out of the nothing he had to give. He pulled of a real miracle, one that makes walking on water look like child’s play. He made others rich by making himself a beggar, by being one of the disgusting have-nots, and by giving out of his nothingness like the poor widow of Mark 12. And this gift Paul calls grace (charis), the lovely sound of ch softly scratching against the soft palate, way back in the mouth, spitting on no one.