When students come to me for Greek I in their 10th Grade year, I like to share a little analogy with them to help them understand why we would study a “dead language” that is as challenging as classical Greek. Imagine that you meet someone from a foreign country who doesn’t speak any English. Through a translator, you discover that this stranger is a very interesting person that you’d like to know better. At this stage of the friendship, the translator is helpful because he or she is the only means for you to get to know this intriguing foreigner better. As the relationship progresses, however, the translator begins to become a bit of third wheel. If you want to get to know your new foreign friend better, one of you needs to learn the other’s language.
St. John is a bit like that foreign friend. We encounter him through the written record that he left to us (his Gospel; 1, 2, and 3 John; and Revelation), but that written record is translated into our own language from the Greek in which he originally wrote. As we read those writings, we find that St. John is indeed a fascinating person. He was probably in his mid-teens when he followed Christ during Christ’s earthly ministry, wrote nearly 1/5 of the books of the New Testament, cared for the Virgin Mary as a surrogate son until her death, and was the only one of the apostles to die a natural death. If we appreciate him as we should, we want to dispense with the translator and hear him in his own words.
One of the most important themes in St. John’s writings is his consistent reminders to us to love one another. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) all present Jesus reminding us that the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as you love your own self, but St. John casts this commandment in somewhat different terms in John 13:34. There, St. John presents Jesus not as summarizing the Law, but as giving a new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you. Each year, when we get to this verse in Greek III, we pause to reflect on the significance of that slight change. Part of the significance of the incarnation is that I am no longer the standard by which I measure my love for others. Christ in his coming has shown us a new standard. He has revealed to us the self-giving and self-sacrificing love of God for us, and it is this love that becomes the standard for how I love others.
That change in standard is daunting when we stop and consider it, but St. John makes it seem easy. He himself is easy to love. He is persistent, but gentle. He repeatedly reminds us of how much Christ loves us and how we should love others in light of Christ’s love for us. It’s easy to love someone like St. John, and that makes it seem a little easier for us to love others.
Socrates, on the other hand, reminds us that loving others is not always easy. Along with the second half of St. John’s Gospel, we translate Plato’s Apology of Socrates in Greek III. In ancient Greek, an “apology” is a defense speech. Socrates finds himself on trial for his life, accused of corrupting the youth and failing to pay proper regard to the gods of Athens. While his speech is called an apology, it really doesn’t seem like he’s trying to avoid conviction. Instead, he spends most of his time arguing (rather abrasively, I might add) that God sent him to the Athenians to help them understand that they are not wise. The Athenians have demonstrated their lack of wisdom by desiring wealth, power, and status to the neglect of the care of their own souls and the cultivation of virtue. He even goes so far as to assert that his divine mission makes him the best thing that ever happened to Athens. It shouldn’t come as a shock to us that the Athenians convicted him and sentenced him to death. In fact, my students are usually ready to kill him before we get to Spring Break!
I’ve long been fascinated by Socrates’ approach to his defense. It’s fairly clear that saving his own skin is not his primary concern. It very much seems that Socrates knows his fate before he even opens his mouth, so he turns to a different goal: taking one last shot at trying to get the Athenians to recognize their misplaced priorities, their disordered loves. In somewhat different terms, Socrates is asking the same question Christ posed in Mark 8:36: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul?”
At this point in Greek history, Athens had ruined itself through a disastrous war with Sparta that was followed by an intensely bloody civil war to restore democracy. The Athenians had squandered a rich heritage in pursuit of empire, and in the end they were left with a hollow shell of the great civilization they once had been. Socrates had spent much of his career pointing out the folly of all this, but to no avail. At his defense, he makes one last attempt at helping the Athenians see their error, even if it means that he will die at the end. Persuasion and argumentation having failed in the past, he resorts to blunt and severe critique to get their attention, to rouse them from their stupor. It’s not the gentle, incarnational theology of St. John, but it is still clearly a form of love, a love that is willing to lay down its own life for the betterment of the other. It presents itself in a different style than Christ did, but it is still a Christ-like love.
So, in learning to read the language of these two great thinkers of western history, my students get two excellent case studies in the variety of ways we are reminded to love and the variety of ways we can love others. Sometimes it is gentle, and sometimes it is abrasive, but either way love is always ready to lay down its life for others, be they friends or enemies.
by Dr. Jason Merritt, Upper School Greek Teacher and Senior Thesis Director