The Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare apart, what one book would you choose to take with you, if you were about to be stranded on a desert island? Since 1942, Desert Island Discs, the BBC Radio 4 programme, has been asking hypothetical castaways this question – this is in addition to their choice of eight pieces of music to take with them. Of the many books which have been chosen over the years, the most frequently mentioned have been The Divine Comedy by Dante; Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen; A History of the English-Speaking Peoples by Winston Churchill; Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe; The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon; The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame; and the Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer. I am told that the country rock singer Emmylou Harris found it so difficult to choose, that along with her book choice of an empty notebook she asked for an “entire library” as her luxury item!
What book would you choose, I wonder? If I were ever to be invited as a guest on Desert Island Discs, I know what book I would choose, assuming that my Bible would include a Greek New Testament. It would be my ‘Arndt & Gingrich’, i.e. A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature: a translation and adaptation of Walter Bauer’s famous Greek-German Lexicon, produced by the American scholars William Arndt and Wilbur Gingrich. I bought my copy when I was a student at Cambridge. I gather that following the deaths of Arndt & Gingrich, it has been superseded by a revised edition produced by another American scholar, Frederick W. Danker. I can’t remember how much I paid for my ‘Arndt & Gingrich’, but I see that the Danker revision retails at £140, although on Amazon it is priced at £110.43. Hardback and 1188p in length, it is expensive but still good value for money.
Scarcely a week goes by when I do not consult my ‘Arndt & Gingrich’. Just this week, for instance, I was reading the NRSV text of Romans 14, which begins with the words “Welcome those who are weak in faith”. I wondered what Greek word Paul employed – and on opening my Greek New Testament I saw that the verb in question was proslambano. I then decided to check out the Greek verb in ‘Arndt & Gingrich’, and there found that it didn’t denote a handshake or a smile or a few words of greeting, but rather meant to “receive or accept in one’s society, into one’s home, or circle of acquaintances”. The next day I was looking at the Christ-hymn in Col 1.15-20, and noted in particular how in the NRSV’s version of the final verse Paul says that through Christ “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things”, which implies that all will be saved, a form of universalism which Paul would never have accepted. I then checked the Greek text, and discovered that Paul was not using the normal Greek verb for reconciliation (katallasso) but rather he adds a prefix (apo) which is equivalent to the Latin ‘re’ . As my Arndt & Gingrich makes clear this could well imply ‘restoration’ rather than ‘reconciliation’. In others words the hymn is speaking about a return to cosmic harmony – of ‘law and order’ being re-established in the universe. The GNB, which so often ‘hits the nail on the head’, rightly translates: “Through the Son, then, God decided to bring the whole universe back to himself”.
I appreciate that not everybody knows Greek. Sadly, in the UK even most people training for the ministry no longer learn Greek. This is one of the drawbacks of the ‘church-based’ training which has become so popular, and which entails students doing only one or two days a week at college. By contrast I did classical Greek at school. Then at Cambridge, after switching from Modern Languages to Theology, I focused on New Testament Greek: indeed, in my final year, when I was doing Part III of the Theological Tripos, I spent a whole year reading and studying my Greek New Testament in order to be able to translate and comment on any verse in the New Testament. Then after three more years of studying the Greek New Testament as part of my PhD, I spent the next two years in the Protestant Theological Faculty of National University of Congo teaching New Testament Greek to ministerial students in the medium of French (!). As a result, while Hebrew remains a challenge to me, I always felt at home with Greek. With the additional blessing of my Greek-English Lexicon, my personal life as also my ministry has been immeasurably enriched. On my desert island, nothing would give me more pleasure than to continue to delve into God’s word with the help of my ‘Arndt & Gingrich’.