Sunday, November 29, 2009

Are We God's Poems? - A Rant on Ποιημα (poiēma)

Are we a bunch of God's poems?

We are, if you're a preacher who passed Greek 101 by the skin of your teeth in seminary or the singer Michael Card.* And what would your biblical proof text be? Of course, Ephesians 2:10. What else can you possibly use? It's the only place where the use of the word gives you any semantic freedom at all for sentimentalization.

The logic behind this interpretation goes like this: the English word, "poem" is derived from the Greek ποιημα (poiēma), therefore, wherever the word occurs in ancient Greek writings, "poem" is the intended meaning. The problem with that non-logic is that, etymologically speaking, the English word "poem" may have come from the Greek poiēma, but poiēma in antiquity did not refer to something we now call a poem. This is one of the classic lexical fallacies which have circulated over the years.

Internal information is scarce as poiēma is used in only two places in the Greek canon of the Christian sacred writings: Ephesians 2:10 ("workmanship") and Romans 1:20 ("what has been made"). However, the fact that both occurrences are found within the Pauline corpus means that the lack of internal data in the New Testament does not pose so big a problem, after all. At least, the traditionally-proposed author of both statements is the same person, Paul of Tarsus. If you want to have Paul say, "we are his (God's) poems," instead of what I think he meant which is, "we are his workmanship, i.e. the stuff he makes," then you're semantically obligated to consider the same possibility for Romans 1:20 as well.

But even a rice paddy-dwelling water buffalo can see how odd it would be if the declaration of impending judgment found in Romans 1:20 was made to say, "... for since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through the poems (τοις ποιημασιν), so that they are without excuse ..." Apparently, rendering poiēma, "poems" in this context won't cause swooning in the congregation like it would in the case of Ephesians 2:10. Actually, think about it, Romans 1:20 should make you shake in your boots, not swoon on the floor.

It's also interesting that all of the 30+ occurrences of the Greek poiēma in the Septuagint, translated approximately three centuries prior to the composition and canonization of the New Testament, as well as the writings of Aquila, Theodotion, and the fifth column of Origen's Hexapla, are used to render the Hebrew derivatives of עשה (make, do) and פעל (make, do). Neither one of these two roots points anywhere near the vicinity of anything that could bear any faint resemblance to poetry as we know it.

What's wrong with the author of Ephesians saying we're the stuff that God has made and leaving it at that? For those who believe so, isn't that in and of itself so great that no sentimentalization is needed?

*Rendering ποιημα with the plural "poems" is already a syntactical mistake on Mr. Card's part. The plural of ποιημα would have been ποιηματα. This further supports the translation "workmanship" which is a singular collective noun in English -- a faithful rendering of the singular Greek word. Boring, but correct.