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Odd Gospel Greek: Didn’t Jesus Snort?

March 21, 2012

On the morning of my father’s memorial service, my eldest brother confessed to me that he was afraid he might cry. He’d been up into the earlier hours of the morning, planning what he would say, and didn’t have much emotional reserve. Our mother had asked him, and the rest of us her children, to speak; but she’d also asked us to control our tears because, as we all knew, there would be people at the memorial service from various cultural backgrounds who would be made extremely uncomfortable by public weeping.

I tried to reassure my brother. I was to follow him in speaking at the memorial, after all. So here’s what I said (and thought):

“Just be yourself.” (I said this knowing I myself might cry.)

“Only Herakles and the gods wouldn’t cry; they couldn’t.” (I’d been reading Anne Carson’s Grief Lessons when our father’s death was imminent.)

“‘Jesus wept,’ you know.” (I quoted the gospel of John, chapter 11, which I had also read that very morning, hoping to give us each permission to weep if we had to.)

“The gospel of John even says, twice, that ‘Jesus groaned’ and the Greek verb the writer uses is ‘snorted,’ like horses snort.” (I couldn’t really be sure of that meaning but I said it anyway.)

“Just be a real human, a creature, be an animal.”  And then I made this sound. (Go ahead, click and listen).

Later, here’s what I learned. The odd gospel Greek is odd indeed, but there’s no consensus that Jesus snorted and lots of conjecture about what he must have meant by whatever he did.

Here’s the KJV, suggesting some sort of sound [with the Greek inserted]

33 When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her, he groaned in the spirit [ἐνεβριμήσατο τῷ πνεύματι], and was troubled.

34 And said, Where have ye laid him? They said unto him, Lord, come and see.

35 Jesus wept.

36 Then said the Jews, Behold how he loved him!

37 And some of them said, Could not this man, which opened the eyes of the blind, have caused that even this man should not have died?

38 Jesus therefore again groaning in himself [ἐμβριμώμενος ἐν ἑαυτῷ] cometh to the grave. It was a cave, and a stone lay upon it.

Something just as odd is in Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament, which I found in my father’s study. There’s this entry to interpret the “groan” as something against others:

He groaned in the spirit (ἐνεβριμήσατο τῷ πνεύματι)

ἐμβριμάομαι The word for groaned occurs three times elsewhere: Matthew 9:30; Mark 1:43; 14:5. In every case it expresses a charge, or remonstrance, accompanied with a feeling of displeasure. On this passage there are two lines of interpretation, both of them assuming the meaning just stated. (1) Τῷ πνευ.ματι, the spirit, is regarded as the object of Jesus’ inward charge or remonstrance. This is explained variously: as that Jesus sternly rebuked the natural shrinking of His human spirit, and summoned it to the decisive conflict with death; or that He checked its impulse to put forth His divine energy at once. (2) Takes in the spirit, as representing the sphere of feeling, as [John] 13:21; Mark 8:12; Luke 10:21. Some explain the feeling as indignation at the hypocritical mourning of the Jews, or at their unbelief and the sisters’ misapprehension; others as indignation at the temporary triumph of Satan, who had the power of death.

The interpretation which explains τῷ πνεύματι as the sphere of feeling is to be preferred. Comp. [John] v. 38, in himself. The nature of the particular emotion of Jesus must remain largely a matter of conjecture. Rev. renders, in margin, was moved with indignation in the spirit.

I hope you’ll see with me the oddities.  On the one hand, there’s the imagination that Jesus is “rebuking” his own humanness or is “checking” it by his Divinity.  On the other hand, there’s the attribution to Jesus certain of feelings of horror against another:  the feelings of a racist (i.e., “indignation at the hypocritical mourning of the Jews … or at their unbelief”) or of a sexist (i.e., “indignation … at … the sisters’ misapprehension”) and these as the same horrible feelings a messiah might have against the chief devil (i.e., “indignation at the temporary triumph of Satan”), which puts “the Jews” and the women next to Satan as candidates for Jesus’s ill will and anger for the Other, the arch enemy, so unlike Himself.

We should notice that John’s gospel only uses this Greek word, so oddly, in this context. Mark’s gospel uses the word twice, Matthew’s once, and Luke’s never. “In every case it expresses a charge, or remonstrance, accompanied with a feeling of displeasure,” so says Marvin R. Vincent. And so we look elsewhere. Once in the Septuagint, in one of the versions of Daniel (the “Old Greek” not the “Theodotion” text), in verse 11 of chapter 30, there’s this as NETS translator R. Timothy McLay renders it [with the Greek inserted]:  “And the Romans will come and will expel him and rebuke [ἐμβριμήσονται] him….”  Now, the odd gospel Greek of John does go on after talking about Jesus weeping to say that “some of the Jews” go to the Pharisees, who gather a council with the chief priests and say: “If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation.” So maybe Mark, and Matthew, and the Old Greek translator of Daniel, and John are all in agreement, when we consider “the Romans” as threats. Maybe Vincent and maybe McLay have it exactly right. Maybe Jesus is expressing a charge or remonstrance, a rebuke.

Or maybe we can look beyond the Bible at this very rare and somewhat odd Greek verb to find something else.

Indeed, in Aeschylus‘s, Seven Against Thebes, here’s what we find as translated by Herbert Weir Smyth [with Aeschylus’s rare, odd Greek inserted]:

Now I will tell you about the man who next drew station at the gates. The third lot leaped out of the upturned bronze helmet for Eteoclus, [460] to hurl his band against the Neistan gates. He whirls his horses as they snort [ἐμβριμωμένας] through their bridles [ἐν ἀμπυκτῆρσιν], eager to fall against the gate. Their muzzles whistle in a barbarian way, filled with the breath of their haughty nostrils. [465] His shield is decorated in great style: an armored man climbs a ladder’s rungs to mount an enemy tower that he wants to destroy. This one, too, shouts in syllables of written letters that even Ares could not hurl him from the battlements. [470] Send a dependable opponent against this man, too, to keep the yoke of slavery from our city.

I would send this man here, and with good fortune.Exit Megareus. Indeed, he has already been sent, his only boast in his hands, Megareus, Creon’s seed, of the race of the sown- men. [475] He will not withdraw from the gate in fear of the thunder of the horses’ furious snorting [φρυαγμάτων βρόμον]; but either he will die and pay the earth the full price of his nurture, or will capture two men and the city on the shield, and then adorn his father’s house with the spoils. [480] Tell me about another’s boasts and do not begrudge me the full tale!

And in Aristophanes‘s, Knights, here’s what we find as translated by William James Hickie [with Aristophanes’s rare, odd Greek inserted]:

Stop at your bucklers, for you have given me a handle. For you ought not, if indeed you love the people, purposely to have let them be dedicated together with the handles. [850] But this, Demus, is a device, that, if you wish to punish this fellow here, it may not be in your power ; for you see what a troop of young tanners are with him ; and around these dwell sellers of honey and sellers of cheese. Now this body is leagued together ; [855] so that if you were to snort with anger [βριμήσαιο], and look [καὶ βλέψειας] ostracism [ὀστρακίνδα], they would pull down the bucklers by night, and run and seize the entrances for importing your barley.

So was the odd gospel Greek of John just from the odd Greek of Mark and of Matthew and of the Old Greek of the Daniel translation? Or did they all perhaps read the tragedy by Aeschylus and the comedy by Aristophanes? Did they hear the sounds, the snorts? People cried, and twice, both before and after Jesus wept, he maybe like a creature snorted. Isn’t that what the odd gospel Greek is saying? In any case, odd stuff.

As it turns out, I think I heard my brother choke back his tears as he spoke. I’m sure I cried some. And I afterwards remembered and said these things to my brother, some other wise words: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” And “There’s a time to cry and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” So he snorted, and then we laughed. Some comfort.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. tony in san diego permalink
    April 1, 2012 9:25 am

    The gospel writers wrote, except for Luke, in unsophisticated language. Your analysis is analogous to suggesting that modern popular prose writers intended their vocabulary and word choices to be understood as if used by Shakespeare, rather than contemporary usage.

  2. tony in san diego permalink
    April 1, 2012 9:25 am


  3. April 2, 2012 4:42 pm

    tony in san diego,

    Thanks for commenting but I’m not sure you understand my intention with the post. You say my “analysis is analogous to suggesting that modern popular prose writers intended” something. However, I’m absolutely sure I cannot know the intentions of either the writer of the gospel of John or of any other writers whether modern popular prose writers or some other kind.

    I do think that, even from its beginning, the gospel of John uses some sophistication with Greek. Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος seems to me a rather blatant nod toward the beginning of the Septuagint and perhaps to the Theogony of Hesiod; and “logos” is quite a loaded term in the Greek reader’s mind. What all the author intends, I just can’t say for sure, but it’s pretty smart stuff.


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