Verily, I say unto you. . .


The Initial Amen


So many people have been reading the English King James translation of the Bible for three hundred years now, that it is easy to miss the fact that our language has gone through serious mutation in that time period, and that a great mass of serious bible scholarship has changed some of the ways we think of the words of the text. When we read any text, we want first of all to deal with its meanings very clearly, that is the first duty owed to literacy. But if we come to respect tradition more than meaning, we slowly lose the sense of what we are studying. Language and thought are both in a continuous process of infinitesimally slow change.

I maintain that it is important once in a while to take a fresh look at certain passages in our religious texts, and see if there are details in the original versions which have escaped the critical eye. Looking in at a text considered inviolable and sacred, especially in a translation done fifteen hundred years later, means peering in from the outside of the tradition, at times possibly missing critical judgment based on the original words in the earliest texts. How would a newly arrived intelligent alien read our books? Would he see things in a clearer light than our lifetime of iterated reading?

I have been concerned for many years with the KJ translation's phrase "Verily, I say unto you. " Going back to the Greek text, we find the word is "Amen", a term well known to us in Christian usage but used at the termination of some segment of the service as a way of signifying agreement, approbation and a terminal point. The word is Hebrew and must have seemed to the KJ a little too foreign for English tastes, so they employed their excellent knowledge of Hebrew to try to find out what it meant in this location.

A sensible etymology takes Amen back to the tri-consonantal Hebrew root " 'mn " with the general meaning of 'be strong, be firm, be faithful. . .' with the noun form "emuna' as 'faith'. But the term Amen is used so frequently in the Old Testament that it was finally taken as what the grammarians call "an indeclinable particle", with a special use and meaning of its own, as a term of agreement and confirmation of what was said before. It occurs only at the end of a prayer or a passage in text, so it marks a terminal point.

This is the regular use in the Hebrew Bible, but there are three rare examples of use in an unusual initial position. Let me review these briefly:

First is the passage in I Kings 1.36, following a statement about the coronation of Solomon, with a response to Benaiah: "Amen, Yahwe the god of my lord the king, say so too."

Second is Jeremiah xxxvii.6: Jeremiah says to Hananiah: "Amen! Yahwe do so!". Further Jeremiah replies to the "Word" that came from Yahwe saying: "Amen, Yahwe!"

In these unusual passages the Amen is the first word of a statement, but it is related to something that had been said before, so it is more conversational than final and terminal. But these passage are different from the regular OT use of Amen which is always final. This initial use seems to mean something like "Yes . . . so be it!". It refers back to something said before, to an antecedent.

This is very different from the use in the Gospels, where we see it in a different class of meaning, as an 'Initial Amen'. Now the KJ translators, having decided not to use the Hebrew term Amen in their English translation, went back to the Hebrew root and decided that Faith and Truth were etymologically at the core of the Hebrew " 'mn . . . . emuna". And having transposed the Amen into the Latin word for Truth, which is "verum. . . veritas", they inserted it in the new translation as "Verily", although the 4th c. AD Latin translation they always knew had simply "amen dico vobis". Translation always faces the problem of acceding to interpretation.

The use of an etymology, however real and accurate it may be, runs the risk of overriding context and usage, and must be taken with caution. In this case the regal sounding "Verily I say unto you. . ." as well as the confidential New Revised Standard "Truly I tell you. . ." are both leaning heavily on the philological etymology behind the Hebrew Amen, while ignoring the fact that the Greek text uses an inconveniently Hebrew word without making any effort at Hellenizing it. Whatever the lost Aramaic that Jesus actually spoke, the Greek represents a version which would be readable to Greeks throughout the Near East as well as to Jews who used the LXX Greek as their normal reading bible. So if the word "Amen" was retained in the Greek, that must mean that it had a special turn of meaning which the Greek writers could not convert with a normal Greek word or phrase. There are various Greek words which could have been used like 'ortho:s . . . ale:tho:s', but apparently the Hebrew Amen had a special meaning and could not be etymologically translated and Hellenized. I believe our translations have had too much confidence in the etymologizing route.

Now we must ask, precisely what does this initial Amen used so regularly in the Gospels, actually mean? What was rare in the OT has become standard here as preface to a statement from Jesus. Some might feel that Jesus was making a tacit allusion to the initial usage of the Hebrew passages I have cited, but there is no cogent reason for allusion in these cases, and the idea of allusion is always suspect as a device of over-conscientious scholars and critics.

Of the twenty five places in Matthew when Amen is used, three have one additional Greek word "gar" which the other passages omit. This Greek particle "gar" means something like "indeed" but it refers back to something just previous. It seems curious that these threebcases all connect with some minor detail about the Prophets of the OT texts. But the other Gospels do not have this term, and it may be that the highly traditional Matthew who was always searching for an OT parallel, was using this grammatical term to signal another possible detail of prophetic connectivity. I mention this only in passing because it does not seem relevant to my further discussion here.

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There was always a crowd around his when Jesus spoke. It might be a few dozen argumentative reactionaries, or it might be an assembly of thousands eager to hear the words of this medical and spiritual healer. The noise of a crowd even when intent on a performance, is always loud and disconcerting. When Jesus was ready to speak, he could call out the term AMEN as a warning to the thorubitic crowd to be silent and listen, and then after a pause, add "I am speaking to you. . . ." . And only then could he proceed with what he had planned to say. In other words, Amen would have the meaning to the crowd as a call for SILENCE, followed by then a few leading words "I have something to tell you. . ." . And then he could continue with what he had in mind to say to the rapt audience.

Every modern speaker, from comedy entertainer to politician, knows that a special entree is required before delivering a prepared speech. First is the waving of the hands for silence, often two or three times. Then it is saying a few preparatory words of no importance, and when the audience is ready to hear, the message can continue. There is no reason to think that things were far different two thousand years ago. The people of the Eastern Mediterranean Basic were always verbally active and energetically involved in public life, and there may have been more noise from an ancient crowd than from a modern Western auditorium audience.

There are also continuous passages in which Jesus proceeds from one point to another, e.g. Matthew 11,11 and others passim, marked by the Amen which does not introduce a new statement. In such cases there is no call for silence, but a call for raised attention presumably accompanied by a break in the flow of word and thought. Could this be a point where a shift in emphasis is indicated in the written text, signified along with a hand gesture as if in impatience before launching into a further part of a concatenated statement? If the Initial Amen is in a sense rhetorical and needed for drawing attention, an Internal Amen would be a matter of raising the level of emphasis at a critical point in a continuous discourse. The formal confirmatory Amen of the OT has been adapted in the Gospels and changed into a new form of emphasis, whether used initially or for a lesser emphasis internally.

Note than the text in John always doubles the warning for silence with an impatient "Amen Amen" before leading to "I want to say something. . .". This double warning shows the reason for a call for attention, which may have been more needed in the situation of a public reading of John's increasingly complicated wording and theology.

To recapitulate for clarity. I believe that the KJ "Verily. . ." however familiar and fair sounding to our ears, is a translation for a reader's silent use, and fails to elicit the vision of a noisy crowd of hundreds waiting to hear the new prophet speak. He must call out for silence, cleverly using the same traditional Amen which terminated a blessing or a psalm in the Hebrew tradition. With this word he asks for a moment of quiet, he places the Amen for silence before his message rather than after it as a term of agreement. He is not standing in the synagogue iterating a prayer for the audience, he is standing out in a field where a thousand have come from all over to hear his words. But they cannot hear him until they are quiet. With a few words, carefully uttered with a hand gesture and then a few more to indicate that he is ready to talk, Jesus is about to make a formal statement to his newly forming congregation.

This is not a question about the use of the KJ wording for Amen as "Verily", but a suggestion that there are always new layers to unfurl in each word inherited from an important and ancient document. In this case, Amen by itself will not make better sense that the traditional Verily. But behind the three thousand years use of Amen in the Hebrew biblical world, we find an important shift in the Gospels as that same Amen is moved to an initial position in Jesus' every speech, and that shift calls to view the crowded setting in which he proclaimed his view of a newly oriented world.

It is not important whether we read our Bible with "Verily" or go back to the traditional "Amen", because these are just words which cannot evoke a full view of the scene in which Jesus lived. He was speaking in a field to an audience of thousands who had to be silenced from the usual rumble of an audience. He requires the concentrated quiet of people awaiting a perception of a new world in which all would have their daily bread, in which financial indebtedness would be forgiven in an act of public seisachtheia, in which taxes would be paid to God not to Caesar, and greed would be washed away by love. All this is said not in a synagogue or a church or an auditorium, but in a mowed wheatfield by a prophet who will be gone to another city in the morning, again holding up his impatient hand and crying 'Amen Amen', and pausing until he can say the next words, to usher in the new vision and the new vista.

I have discussed this paper with Pastor Darrell Sutton who is an independent researcher and writer in Red Cloud NE. He offered a number of very pertinent comments and amplifications, which in the interest of clarity I have placed in a separate article which you can find through this link . He pursues the matter of what is virtually a Linguistic Archaeology of ancient texts with great scholarship and seems to me to open new scholarly avenues of investigation. You will find his comments interesting.



William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris