The pathways of meaning

Not long ago, during a conversation about young adults working from home, my wife surprised me by saying, “The trouble is today, the chaps aren’t keen.” What surprised me was not the literal meaning, but the fact that she’d tapped into a catch-phrase I have (very occasionally) used, which I sourced from my late father.

Dad, in turn, occasionally recounted how the phrase was used disparagingly by one of his grammar school teachers, nearly a century ago. Bearing in mind how much his generation achieved in the world, when used by me it has a semi-proverbial application to the dangers of underestimating the young. It does so whilst simultaneously reminding me of the wisdom of the (in this case very personal) ancients, and hence gives me almost subliminally a general sense of being placed in an inter-generational family unit, and in continuity with a whole culture, by touching on memories that I went to the same school, and that it has a charter for free education going back to Edward VI.

Now, not all those thoughts are front and centre if I use the phrase about the neighbour’s kids, but they are part of its meaning. In fact, the literal meaning of the phrase, such as might be translated into French by Google Translate, is merely the tip of a conceptual iceberg, because the words provide a pathway of meaning to all kinds of related ideas, at least for me and my brother. And my wife’s use of it confirms that over nearly fifty years of marriage, her mind too has become part of my personal complex “structure of meaning.”

The same is true for me, in fact. If either of us uses the simple expression, “How much?” in a shocked tone, occasionally adding the optional phrase, “…that’s four shillings!”, we know it harks back to her father in his later years, bemoaning the drop in the currency’s value. It’s in fact her private proverb, in this case for the ubiquity of inflation, but it also harks back to my father-in-law’s careful attitude to money that served him well as a small business owner, and hence leads to consideration of how he was able to benefit us financially, and perhaps how we might gain wisdom from his example regarding our children. All these things are the meaning of that short phrase, in the family context.

In fact my family has a whole series of such entirely personalised sayings, some passed down through several generations. “I’ve read all about you in Comic Cuts” has been used as an affectionate comment on offsprings’ whimsical behaviour since my great-grandmother coined it for my mother in the early 1920s. No long car journey with me at the wheel begins without the saying, “Launch the Galasphere!” in tribute to a long-past kids’ TV series (answers on a postcard!) and the grandchildren may, for all I know, pass it on to their children when the allusion will be as long-gone as Comic Cuts is today.

Perhaps other families don’t do this – I certainly get strange looks when I inadvertently drop these one-liners outside the family. Of course, outsiders understand the semantic meaning, and in most cases glimpse vaguely what I’m meaning in a proverbial sense. But they can’t follow the “pathway of meaning” that is peculiar to our family culture.

As I said, I don’t know if other families make the same cryptic allusions to lost cultural items, or to the casual sayings of long-deceased relatives. But Jesus did, as I was exploring in the last post. Wherever it was that Jesus gained his deep knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, he used it in his teaching to construct pathways of meaning that his disciples would follow, and subsequently would absorb into their own mindset. In this way he was constructing the same kind of “cognitive culture” that binds our family together linguistically, as I have described. Only this was the culture of the Kingdom of God, not Garvey Towers.

Here’s another example which Peter Williams discusses in the video I linked to last time. Williams points out the brief parable about the woman who hid leaven in three sata of flour in Luke 13:21. It is easily understood, like that of the mustard seed two verses before, as signifying how the Kingdom of God will spread through the world. Yet why “three sata (which would have been “three seah” in Jesus’s Aramaic)? Williams points out that this quantity is only mentioned once in the whole of the tanach, when three visitors arrive on Abraham’s doorstep in Genesis 15, and he quickly tells Sarah to prepare “three seahs of flour” to make cakes for the guests.

To those who knew Scripture, Jesus was inviting them to think about the context of that passage, and the outcome of the meal: Abraham’s visitors turn out to be the angels of Yahweh, announcing the coming of the son of promise, Isaac, through whom Israel would become a great nation. The woman’s menial kneading of flour quite literally led to the growth of God’s kingdom. Lots for the Christian to reflect on there, not least if relegated to doing the catering.

I found a similar example myself only this week. Reading the story of Hannah in 1 Samuel, I was already reminded of the similarities with Luke’s account of the Annunciation, in which a woman favoured by the gift of a miraculous conception likewise goes on to sing a prophetic hymn foretelling an eschatological king of Israel. But the parallel is reinforced in 1 Samuel 2:26, which tells us that “the boy Samuel was growing in stature and in favour both with the Lord and with men.”

Now compare Luke 2:52, after the childhood visit of Jesus to the temple, which says that “Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men.”

Was Luke simply trying to make his account look biblical by using this unique phraseology? No, he (or his source in Mary or perhaps an apostle relaying Jesus’s own teaching) wants us to think of Samuel, and ask in what significant ways he resembles Jesus. Well, Samuel is chosen by God from conception, it is true, and he leads Israel as the last of its Judges, and performs priestly functions. But his greatest significance, in the overarching narrative, is that his last major act is to anoint, as king of Israel, David – to whom God will later give a sworn covenant in accordance with which Jesus himself is born. In this way, we are reminded once again that Jesus is no flash in the pan, but is the culmination of millennia of God’s promises and purposes recorded in Israel’s Scripture.

I once wrote a book (unpublished) seeking to list, and explain, all the Old Testament references used in the New Testament, usually quoted as around 400. But in fact it was deeply flawed because of the kind of examples given here, which show that the New Testament is almost woven together from the words, phrases and concepts found in the Old. Many instances are commonplace and obvious, not to diminish their importance, but some have even now yet to be fully brought to our attention.

Some seem humanly inexplicable. Was the Gentile Luke really such a biblical scholar that he deliberately noted how, at the first Pentecost after the Exodus, at Sinai, the Law was given and 3,000 Israelites died, whereas at the first Pentecost after Easter, the Spirit was given and 3,000 Israelites were saved? I’ve only ever heard one Bible teacher mention that, so it’s scarcely on the surface of the text of Acts 2, but is surely leading down one of those pathways of meaning that tie the whole Bible together.

However, it’s a little more explicable if we cease to think of the Bible as a series of books written down by men trying to find their way to God, and instead think of it as being, finally, the work of the Holy Spirit. In that case, all these threads of meaning might turn out to be, like the mishmash of experience that constitutes our own thought-life as a repository of meaning, the work of one mind – the mind of Christ.

Not a bad mindset to tap into.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to The pathways of meaning

  1. Ben says:

    I note that your theological missives seem to get less feedback than the (mildly) political ones. So just popped in to say I’m reading, and appreciate, them. Even if it is weeks late!

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