Re: Small words, big problem

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Thu Apr 10 1997 - 08:51:46 EDT

At 9:26 PM -0500 4/9/97, Tony Prete wrote:
>In Rev 2:14-15, there are two simple words that are causing me considerable
>trouble. The words are hOUTWS and KAI; I'm trying to determine whether
>they continue the previous idea or introduce a new one.
>The text reads:
>(So you also have some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. NRSV)
>The context is that the church of Pergamum is being faulted for having some
>members who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a
>stumbling block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food
>sacrificed to idols and practice fornication (v. 14). Most scholars seem
>to assume that the next verse (v. 15), cited above in Greek and English,
>connects the teaching of Balaam with the teaching of the Nicolaitans (about
>whom we know practically nothing). But could hOUTWS. . .KAI mean that
>just as there are those who follow Balaam/Balak, there are others who
>follow the Nicolaitans? In other words, the Nicolaitans donít necessarily
>advocate eating food sacrificed to idols and practicing fornication.
>The English seems to be open to this interpretation, as does my own
>baby-Greek translation of the words. But with no one even suggesting such
>an interpretation, I wondering if I'm missing some nuance in the Greek.

I don't really think so, although it must be admitted that the diction and
syntax of this particular NT document are, shall we say, "unique." I'd read
it, "So you fall into that category also--namely of 'tolerating observers
of the teaching of the Nicolaitans.'" Inasmuch as it is "unique,"
Revelation may not follow the more normal practice, but I'd still be
inclined to read it in the normal way: hOUTWS, like the pronominal forms of
hOUTOS, hAUTH, TOUTO, ought to refer backwards to what has been said in
what preceded (as hWDE and pronominal forms of hODE, hHDE, TODE ought to
point ahead to what follows). I would think then that hOUTWS must mean that
by doing as they do--tolerating observers of "Balakism," they ALSO are
tolerating people who observe "Nicolaitanism." I realize that sounds
strange, and it would sound less strange, I agree, Tony, if the language
seemed to support a MEN ... DE reading of the two offenses of the Pergamene
church, but to read it in the latter way seems to me to violate normal
usage of hOUTWS.

As a matter of broader interpretation--and I don't think this gets into
theological questions at all, or I wouldn't be dealing with it--I will add
that these seven letters to seven churches, which (superficially at least)
appear to be the most concrete NON-symbolic elements in the whole
document--real letters to real churches--, have often made me wonder
whether they really are concrete after all, whether perhaps they aren't
symbolic, or representative of KINDS of church communities, and whether
that isn't the reason why these specific offenses with which each of the
seven is charged or the good behavior for which they are praised are
perhaps meant to represent the spectrum of behaviors that might be found in
different church communities. IF that's the case, then the document as a
whole may not be so deeply rooted in a particular time and place of
composition and addressed to churches suffering persecution in one specific
time but addressed rather open-endedly to churches of generations yet to
come. Perhaps that is naive, but I have a sense that the current critical
tendency is to see this work rooted not in a supposed persecution of
Domitian at the end of the first century but in the time of Nero. I'm now
wondering whether it really needs to be so specifically rooted in time and
place. And although I see the gospels as more closely rooted in time and
place than Revelation, there are some parts that have seemed to me much
like these letters. For instance, the gospel accounts of the last supper
have a clearly liturgical character for all their historical type of
narration; the fact that the betrayer is in some of the gospels not
specifically named has made me wonder whether this isn't a deliberate
feature of the liturgy imbedded in the narrative texts: to exhort those who
participate in the ritual of the Lord's Supper to reflect individually on
their fidelity to the Lord, to examine themselves as to whether they too
might be "traitors." Just a thought, and I don't think it's very original,

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, USA 63130
(314) 935-4018 OR

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