Monday, April 2, 2012

Shells of Gospel Logia

Lately I've been wondering about a couple of dicta from gospel logia from Quelle (Q) embedded in the canonical material as well as the most Q-like (in raw form) apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, and thought about hermeneutical issues with respect to such items. I want to present a couple of examples from the former, viz., "If someone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other," and "Love your neighbor as you love yourself" (paraphrase) to make a point.  

Q is a couple millennia old, and there is no way at all to infer the contemporaneous cultural nuances that might have gotten lost over the course of time, which most likely is the case. Structuralist hermeneutics and so on are projections and retrojections of contemporary understanding based on the literal words as translated into European languages; even the original New Testament Greek, even if read for face value, does not necessarily have the original cultural import per se, which is to say, who knows about idiomatic elements and contemporaneous nuances which might have had completely different meanings at that time?  

To take the first one about striking the cheek, what if it meant something quite different than how it literally sounds?  It sounds like sanctimonious bad advice today, but back then, perhaps it had a more aggressive, in-your-face connotation to it.  Only the people of that time could have known it, because maybe it was riding the coattails of an already-known situation, folklore, public knowledge, and so on, and perhaps it was somewhat idiomatic.  It might have meant something like: "If you're affronted, stick it to 'em by wearing it like a badge of honor, show them it doesn't phase you in the least, and as a result, you'll disempower them and diffuse the situation to your advantage."  Somewhat like what so-called minority groups have done with slurs, for example.  It might not have had anything to do with literally being slapped and asking for more.  That's not a good maxim at all, because you'd be condoning "sinful" violent behavior, and making your so-called neighbor or enemy to compound their "sins."  You'd be promoting violence and self-injury (how could you do that to yourself if you "love yourself"? Would you do that to your neighbor?).  If your child were bullied at school, would you tell h/er to "turn the other cheek"?  If you knew a man/father/husband was physically abusing women and children, would you tell those women to just "turn the other cheek"? That can't be good or wise. Or smart.  A better advice in such a case would be to "run away as soon and fast as possible," and so on. Maybe the entire maxim was idiomatic, and the nuance has been long lost.  Because at its literal face-value, it is morally spurious.

And for the latter, "Love your neighbor as you love yourself," perhaps it meant something like: "Actively treat others in such a way that you make no distinction between yourself and others" (because 'agape' is an active principle of moral actions).  Which is not to say that it's a relevant maxim, because there are people who have self-loathing, or they are self-destructive, have low self-esteem, and so on.  Self-love can be a problematic thing too, i.e., if it's narcissism, egocentricity, megalomania, and so on, so the contemporary, European-Occidental interpretation of the dictum is rife with implicit quirks.  At its worst, say, in fundamentalist evangelicalism, it's come to mean something like "Have mushy feelings of brotherly love for your fellow christian brother."  But of course it's supposed to be an ethical maxim, so it must have an actively moral connotation.  

Sayings as these of old that once packed a punch might have become watered down, filtered, and stripped of their original robustness, because the contemporaneous elements have been long, long, lost. Because contemporaneously relevant maxims had to speak to their contemporaries, and they weren't platonic-mathematical formulae, necessarily, of invariant universality (as many are wont to believe). It's a possibility, a very reasonable one, to consider.     


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