Translators are confronted with numerous choices when rendering ancient Greek words into English, and one of these is how to bridge the distance between the world of the text and the world of the reader. This historical distance can be notoriously difficult to see when one engages with a text that has already been translated, and which arrives in the world of the innocent reader as pre-chewed food. (A recent post on the shift in words we translate as “happy” reminded me of the need to write something on this more specifically.) This highlights a central feature of the secularity of our modern world: historical distance, the autonomy of historical epochs and local worlds, and the seeming worldliness of every bridge or road we might build to traverse them.
The problem is compounded when the Greek text is the New Testament, and the translator is him- or herself pious. There are many difficulties in looking at history from within confessional commitments. There are also difficulties that historical distance creates for marshalling historical texts and details for the cause of contemporary religious commitments. When texts are treated as authoritative, especially for religious purposes, this treatment often flattens historical distance and differences, casually (or militantly) projects one’s own life-world onto that of the text, and filters out the social-pyramidal relations that are built into the foreign language of a text from another time period. (The text, after all, is expected to speak contemporarily by such souls. I am not at all denying that the text can facilitate a religious experience –I think it clearly can, and it is clear that such experiences very often have much value, both in themselves and for their effects; I myself regularly read the text with the expectation of spiritual benefit– I am only noting that the significance of any spiritual locutions experienced through a text are, often enough, not identical with the historical sense that said text has when looked at within its own world, rather than ours.)
Words are not atoms that translate with one-to-one correspondence across languages: they expresses a whole world, and that world is bounded in time. If these problems erroneously appear to be restricted to religious concerns and practices, ask any history teacher about how his or her students react, with indignation, to numerous social and moral issues in former epochs, and how they project themselves and the norms of their world (or of their ideology, or their emotional calibration) onto all others.
Now, let us look at the Greek word translated into English as “grace”, and the attending word-cluster. (I should caution the reader: I propose this forcefully and confidently, but some of these details I propose only tentatively: I am not a high authority on the Greek language, though I love it and have studied it for several years now, and welcome feedback. )
“Χάρις” or “grace” really means “kindness” or “bestowal” as in “you graced me with your presence.” It’s concrete, usually quite specific –like the example just used: “graced me with your presence” (the use of the verb form makes this typical use clear — in Philippians 2, God “gives” –“ἐχαρίσατο”– Jesus the name above all names)– rather than being the abstract rendering of “favorably disposed” that “χάρις” often gets freighted with by those who are engaged in, or are heirs of, or are the unwitting victims of, Protestant-Catholic religious polemics.
“Χάρις” is often translated by such ones as “free and unmerited favor”, reflecting the polemics surrounding merit in the period of the early Reformations. Now, the one who graces with his or her presence is, in a sense, superior. There is a sense of height to the one who graces — if they are free to grace (or not to grace), they are likely free because there is no obligation to do so, and, if this is the case, there is no obligation because they are higher on the totem pole of social gradations than those graced, which height is where the sense of freedom in the gracing comes from (most Protestant-influenced definitions use the word “free gift” or “free favor” to translate the word “χάρις”, but this anachronistically imports Protestant-Catholic polemics about merit into a scene where they don’t belong, and in which something else is happening). The sense I’ve always seen is that the bestowal comes down the social pyramid.
The verb form is “χαρίζομαι” (alternatively, “χαριτόω”, though this is rarer, and there are only two instances in the New Testament — once in Ephesians 1, and another time in Luke 1, which we shall look at, below). “Χαρίζομαι” is really only used in Paul and Luke. It usually just means “kindly bestow”. (See p.778 of the smaller Liddell & Scott, also known as the Little Scott.) Given its meaning of “kindly bestow”, it’s closely related to “δῶρον” –“gift”– in Ephesians, &c. , though the “gifts” of the Holy Spirit are not “δῶρα” (not anywhere that I can remember) but “χαρίσματα” (note the word “χάρις”, again). “Χάρις” shares a root (“χαρ”) with “χαρά” (joy) and “χαίρω” (gladness), which look like they are connected with reception of this bestowal. (So the Eucharistic prayer of John Chrysostom: “Let this Eucharist be my health, joy and gladness.”) Our “Eucharist” comes from “εὐχαριστέω”, which gets translated as “thanksgiving” sometimes, but which, etymologically, clearly looks like “well-bestowed”: again, the pyramid of the social order expects gratitude from inferiors for what is bestowed out of the generosity of superiors, so that “thanksgiving” or “gratitude” is what is expected of inferiors who have been “well-bestowed”, and the inferiors are, in fact, bettered by the unnecessary overflow from superiors. (This is the clear sense in Acts 24:27, even if there is a power angle being pressed in that civic act of graciousness, and, should one attempt to mute the significance of this verse by positing two different senses of the word “grace” –one theological, and one secular– the attempt would look rather strained.)
In many ways, one of the most confessionally-charged verses of the New Testament helps to highlight some of this: Luke 1:28. Gabriel greets Mary and says “Χαῖρε, κεχαριτωμένη!” Note the two “χαρ”-root verbs. The former, “χαῖρε”, is simply the imperative form of “χαίρω” (gladness), and is a customary way to open a greeting (i.e., “be glad!”). The second word is where confessional bias usually begins to appear. “Κεχαριτωμένη” gets translated in some very abstract ways, designed to reinforce religious commitments to divine sovereignty and God’s sole initiative in salvation, and so to see grace as “divine favor”. It is, however, simply the perfect passive participle of “χαριτόω”. It is impossible to translate “κεχαριτωμένη” into a single English word. It is unique. It almost looks like Mary is being given a title, or a name. If one were to try, it would mean something like “you upon whom the bestowal has been completed”, but that fails. It falls into the social pecking order because, even though she is “blessed among women”, she still replies that she is “the slave of the Lord” (Luke 1:38) — usually “slave” (here, “δούλας”) is translated as “handmaiden”. The angel nearly sings a hymn to her, but the words used reflect patronage. It is difficult for us to see master-slave relationships in any kind of positive light, so we render the words as “servant” or “handmaid”, because that’s so much more Victorian, and if it can show up on Downton Abbey, it must be at least tolerable. Her son is promised to inherit a —the— throne, and to have a kingdom without end, so no party in the dialogue seems to think that she’s being lowered by being called a “slave” in this sense, as she is uniquely “blessed among women”, but she is not being addressed apart from the social framework of the day.
Of course, the Parable of the Prodigal Son is also in Luke (ch.15), and there we have the returning Prodigal Son being elevated far above the day laborers (μίσθιοι) whom he was seeking to join; though this still operates within the social structures of the day, it promises a kind of elevation, even exaltation — though within the contrasts of the social framework. In John 15 we get the clearest promise of elevation:no longer are the disciples called “δούλους” (slaves), but rather “φίλους” (friends). The tradition running from the Cappadocians to Maximus the Confessor taught that we ought to ascend, spiritually, from slavery to God to divine sonship (the language being masculine, in the end, apart from the influence of the then-contemporary social structures, likely because of Jesus). These metaphors still occur within a framework where these kinds of social relations are normal. That there are analogs to this framework in our experience is not in question; that there is no identity between our situation and that of first-century Roman Judea is nearly irrefutable. Of course, it is a live question as to whether the basic social outlines of this first-century social framework can be entirely transcended.
The word choice in the New Testament reflects the ubiquity of patronage relationships. The language from the ancient world is shot through with this kind of social-pecking-order stuff. It is no wonder that Nietzsche wrote that the New Testament is the language of the village (he also said that Christianity was a slave morality, and, taking up a poisoned eye, one can see why). Look at the word count in any New Testament book, or any book from the Apostolic Fathers, and then run a word count for any ten contemporary news articles or ten essays in a particular subject area that are designed for the general public (that is, documents that reflect their habits, events, and furniture of our world, and which are not beholden to repeating traditional language).
Of course, for many people who have certain ideas about grace that look like a long-degraded bumper-sticker armchair form of what Luther and Calvin actually wrote, and who are not familiar with their mediaeval sources and debates about condign and congruous merit — for these, the word “χάρις” is often taken to mean this abstract disposition of “favor”, as though it merely indicated the general comportment of the giver, rather than an act of bestowal. By such ones, pagan Greco-Roman religion gets mapped onto Catholicism, or a caricature of Catholicism, and then this idea of grace becomes contrasted with that. In The Iliad, however, the gifts of the gods are simply “laid on” human beings, who do not and could not have asked for them. Saying that grace is free (in Christianity) or that it’s asked for as part of an exchange (in paganism) is a false dichotomy that maps Protestant-Catholic polemics onto the ancient world. The gods found things, set things in motion, lay gifts on humanity without humanity asking for them: the Genius of Rome lays a destiny on Rome that she does not ask for. There are things the Greeks asked for from the gods, blessings sought through sacrifice and prayer; likewise, there are things that the early Christians asked for in prayer, namely, grace: in 2 Corinthians 1, “χάρισμα” is hoped for in response to prayer. The gods take initiative in Greco-Roman paganism, and respond to the requests of their votaries; the Christian God takes initiative in the sending of the Son and the Spirit, and responds to the requests of his votaries.
Evaluating all of this via the historical work in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament and several other historical sources would be a worthwhile project sometime.
It is worth noting that while I find this political language ethically problematic, it is clear that the tradition generally does not take it too literally.
These perils and promises aside: the historical world of patronage relationships is difficult for us to grasp, because it is not our own.
 The author of 2 Timothy seems to have known something like this when he wrote that “the holy writings” were able to make one wise “through trust in Christ”: the author seems to suggest a disposition to Christ as a kind of key or lens, but this only reinforces that the ‘plain reading’ or historical sense of a biblical book is other than the spiritual utility of the text for live religious practice.