ἰδοὺ: abiding knowledge and infinite vision

One of the most intriguing words in the Gospels is the aorist imperative ἰδοὺ (idou, Latin ecce, “behold” or “remember”). ἰδοὺ offers the possibility of a teleological suspension, but not in a manner similar to Soren Kierekegaard’s telelogical suspension of the ethical exemplified in Abraham’s sacrifice of Issac. Rather, ἰδοὺ is a teleological suspension of human time intrinsic to salvation and the Eucharist. This suspension is coded directly into the syntax of ἰδοὺ. The imperative emphasizes the eternity of the Son of God and his position outside of our frame of mortal time.

ἰδοὺ derives from the third principal part of ὁράω, εἶδον. Perhaps the common translation of ἰδοὺ as “behold” in English is clearer when εἶδον is compared with the Latin video. The Greek character digamma (ϝ), obsolete by the time of hellenistic Greek, corresponds with the Latin character “v”. Hence, at a time earlier than the composition of the New Testament, the Greek root -ἶδ- was ϝ-ἶδ- and thus very similar to the pronounciation of vid- in classical Latin. It’s clear that both Latin and Greek share the -id- root for words pertaining to sight, even if the relationship is not immediately apparent.

The Greek aorist tense has an unmarked aspect. Put another way, this tense does not necessarily impart a present, past, or future meaning (Latin lacks aspectless verbs. Jerome often substitutes a Latin perfect tense in place of the Greek aorist). The inclusion of ἰδοὺ in a Gospel verse imparts a valence of timelessness, so far as Christ is the ex-nihilo creator of the world who has humbled himself to live within the time of creation and offers himself perpetually for and in creation through his sacramental presence. I contend that ἰδοὺ signifies “abiding knowledge” and “infinite vision”, a past, present, and future divine sight and cognition beyond the ability of human beings to comprehensively see and understand. However, this infinite knowledge and vision is revealed through kaleidoscopic brief glimpses found through liturgy. Jerome’s decision to tranlate ἰδοὺ as ecce obscures the a-temporality of ἰδοὺ to no small degree. ecce is an adverbial particle and not an unmarked and aspectless verb. For these reasons the ἰδοὺ of Greek New Testament redactions and not the Vulgate best capture the infinite knowledge and infinite visual horizon of Christ.

Consider the last verse of the Great Commission [Mt. 28:16-20]. Here the author of Matthew predicates an entire sentence on the a-temporal nature of ἰδοὺ.

καὶ ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ μεθ’ ὑμῶν εἰμι πάσας τὰς ἡμέρας ἕως τῆς συντελείας τοῦ αἰῶνος. (Mt. 28:20b NA 28)

et ecce ego vobiscum sum omnibus diebus usque ad consummationem saeculi. (Mt. 28:20b Nova Vulgata)

“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mt. 28:20b NRSV)

The postpositive (second word) placement of ἰδοὺ in the closing sentence of Matthew is not at all coincidental. The author or redactor of Matthew’s placement of καὶ, “and”, at the beginning of the sentence is unremarkable. The verbal punctuation καὶ merely takes precedence to indicate the start of a new sentence. I would argue that ἰδοὺ instead de facto begins the sentence and sets the semantic and syntactic meaning for all that follows.

At first glance, the NRSV’s “remember” suggests that the infinite sight of ἰδοὺ is primarily retrospective. Perhaps the translators and editors of the NRSV drew upon the relationship of ὁράω with its fourth principal part οἶδα in their decision to translate ἰδοὺ as “remember”. οἶδα in turn often takes the present tense meaning of “know”. “Remember” in this case, given that this word is a translation of an aspectless imperative, might retain aspectlessness while drawing semantic meaning from a derivative principle part. If ἰδοὺ is read through the prism of the NRSV, Christ’s perpetual and abiding presence in creation through the Eucharist assumes a cognitive valence. The NRSV translation, then, is more difficult and challenging but not without lingusitic merit or contextual reward.

Were he alive to make his case, Jerome might have defended his decision to translate ἰδοὺ as ecce not only because ecce is a rather commonplace way in Latin to convey a meaning similar to “behold”, but also because he wished to retain a flavor of immediacy. Jerome’s ecce suggests a simpler reading of ἰδοὺ based directly on the aorist εἶδον, “I have seen”. Jerome certainly could have chosen a Latin present imperative to approximate the meaning of οἶδα, but instead chose an easier particle. ecce as a translation of ἰδοὺ signifies the infinite vision of Christ inherent in his ex nihilo reality as God the Son.

Crucially then, the concept of sight and knowlege are intimately intertwined in Greek. Even so, Matthew 28:20b offers a checksum. ἐγὼ μεθ’ ὑμῶν εἰμι (ego vobiscum sum, “I am with you”), poses an interesting linguistic turn which underscores the timelessness of ἰδοὺ and its relationship to discipleship. More often, the Gospels present ἐγὼ and εἰμι together, so that the words for “I” and “am” are directly connected. The placement of the prepositional phrase μεθ’ ὑμῶν (“with you”) between ἐγὼ and εἰμι suggests an emphasis on “with you”. Hence the infinite knowledge and infinite visual horizon of God the Son, as a person of the eternal Holy Trinity and consubstantial with God the Father Yahweh, necessarily includes “you”, the disciples. An aspectless and eternal divine knowledge and vision are not closed circuits reserved for God only, but emphatically shared with his disciples so far as we can glimpse and intuit.

ἰδοὺ, ecce, “remember”, “behold”: all of these interpretations inadequately describe the abiding knowledge and infinite vision of God. Human fallibility, however, does not preclude a foretaste of this infinite plane. Mass offers us not only sight or knowledge, but a fully sensory experience of the divine which dwells in our midst. The Eucharist contains ἰδοὺ but at the same time is unbound by any expectations of Christian believers.

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8 comments

  1. You’re welcome Jeff. Hopefully over time I’ll develop a clearer and less jargony writing style which can bring some of the more interesting aspects of New Testament Greek to a wider audience.

  2. Thank you very much. I am one of that wider audience. Much of what you wrote is over my head but what I got was inspiring. Such insights into the scriptures or liturgy are balm for my soul.

    1. @Ed Stoops – comment #3:
      I, too am one of that wider audience. While most of what you wrote is over my head in terms of specific points, what is most helpful is to get a sense of the way in which you approach issues regarding etymology and translation. I’ll never be a translation specialist, but it’s good to at least have an idea of the thought process.

  3. My College and Seminary Greek is over fifty years behind me now and more is forgotten than remembered. But, is not the imperative a command from the greater to the lesser? Is not the Lord Jesus speaking to his disciples as they move into the future making disciples, baptizing, and teaching telling them: “Don’t forget — Remember, Behold _- I am with you all the way. Yes there is a timelessness to these words. As they pertained to the first disciples, they still pertain and must be remembered that He is with us in the making of disciples today, in our baptizing in His Name today, and in our teaching today of all he has taught us. I’m not sure I understand all your grammatical jargon, but this is the way I have conducted my ministry: Remembering Him and His promise to be at my side as I care for others in His Name and in His Presence, in the classroom, in the Hospital Room, beside the shut-in, and at His Table. I must rememberd His Presence or else I an not His representative, nor will I last long in His service. My ordination into the Ministry of Word and Sacrament took place back in 1962.

    Thanks for stretching my mind with all the jargon.

    1. @Raymond Orth – comment #5:

      Thank you very much Pastor Orth. You have summarized the meaning of “behold” and “remember” much better than I have (and with much greater brevity).

      I appreciate what you have written about sacrament and service. You are completely right that remembrance is central to being a Christian representative. This is true for the clergy and laypeople like myself.

  4. Many thanks for this illuminating discourse. Do write more… and don’t tamper with your style and substance. We wouldn’t have much in the way of music if Beethoven had been less ‘jargony’. The beautiful thing (in addition to the actual content) about what you wrote is that it desires, needs, to be re-read several times.

    (I am reminded that there are a number of places in the KJV [I’m too lazy to look them up just now] in which ‘behold’ and ‘see’ are used together in a rather co-dependent sense.)

  5. Jordan I have been away and as I catch up I have to decide what to read or not read in the interest of time. I am so deeply grateful for having the inspiration to read this piece. It is very beautiful and I am going to save this one. Thank you.

    And please know that I prayed for you at Brompton Oratory when in London.

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